THE FIGHTING SHEPHERDESS
With Frontispiece by M. Leone Bracker
A. L. Burt Company Publishers New York Published by arrangement with Small, Maynard & Company
Copyright, 1919, By Small, Maynard & Company (Incorporated)
Second Printing, February, 1919 Third Printing, March, 1919 Fourth Printing, March, 1919 Fifth Printing, May, 1919 Sixth Printing, June, 1919
CHAPTER PAGE I The Sand Coulee Roadhouse 1 II An Historic Occasion 13 III Prouty 28 IV Disillusionment 40 V For Always 52 VI The Wolf Scratches 58 VII The Blood of Jezebel 75 VIII The Man of Mystery 85 IX The Summons 98 X The Bank Puts on the Screws 109 XI Kate Keeps Her Promise 120 XII The Dude Wrangler 131 XIII Mrs. Toomey's Friendship Is Tested 139 XIV Like Any Other Herder 156 XV One More Whirl 165 XVI Straws 175 XVII Extremes Meet 189 XVIII A Warning 207 XIX An Old, Old Friend 212 XX The Fork of the Road 228 XXI "Heart and Hand" 253 XXII Mullendore Wins 263 XXIII When the Black Spot Hit 274 XXIV Toomey Goes into Something 283 XXV The Chinook 298 XXVI Taking Her Medicine 309 XXVII The Sheep Queen 322 XXVIII The Surprise of Mr. Wentz's Life 333 XXIX Toomey Distinguishes Himself 344 XXX Her Day 353
THE FIGHTING SHEPHERDESS
THE SAND COULEE ROADHOUSE
A heavily laden freight wagon, piled high with ranch supplies, stood in the dooryard before a long loghouse. The yard was fenced with crooked cottonwood poles so that it served also as a corral, around which the leaders of the freight team wandered, stripped of their harness, looking for a place to roll.
A woman stood on tip-toe gritting her teeth in exasperation as she tugged at the check-rein on the big wheelhorse, which stuck obstinately in the ring. When she loosened it finally, she stooped and looked under the horse's neck at the girl of fourteen or thereabouts, who was unharnessing the horse on the other side. "Good God, Kate," exclaimed the woman irritably; "how many times must I tell you to unhook the traces before you do up the lines? One of these days you'll have the damnedest runaway in seven states."
The girl, whose thoughts obviously were not on what she was doing, obeyed immediately, and without replying looped up the heavy traces, throwing and tying the lines over the hames with experienced hands.
The resemblance between mother and daughter was so slight that it might be said not to exist at all. It was clear that Kate's wide, thoughtful eyes, generous mouth and softly curving but firm chin came from the other side, as did her height. Already she was half a head taller than the short, wiry, tough-fibered woman with the small hard features who was known throughout the southern half of Wyoming as "Jezebel of the Sand Coulee."
A long flat braid of fair hair swung below the girl's waist and on her cheeks a warm red showed through the golden tan. Her slim straight figure was eloquent of suppleness and strength and her movements, quick, purposeful, showed decision and activity of mind. They were as characteristic as her directness of speech.
The Sand Coulee Roadhouse was a notorious place. The woman who kept it called herself Isabel Bain—Bain having been the name of one of the numerous husbands from whom she had separated to remarry in another state, without the formality of a divorce. She was noted not only for her remarkable horsemanship, but for her exceptional handiness with a rope and branding iron, and her inability to distinguish her neighbors' livestock from her own.
"Pete Mullendore's gettin' in." There was a frown on Kate's face as she spoke and uneasiness in the glance she sent toward the string of pack-horses filing along the fence.
The woman said warningly, "Don't you pull off any of your tantrums—you treat him right."
"I'll treat him right," hotly, "as long as he behaves himself. Mother," with entreaty in her voice, "won't you settle him if he gets fresh?"
Jezebel only laughed and as the gate of the corral scraped when Mullendore pulled it open to herd a saddle horse and pack ponies through, she called out in her harsh croak:
"Hello yourself," he answered, but he looked at her daughter.
As soon as they were through the gate the pack ponies stopped and stood with spreading legs and drooping heads while Mullendore sauntered over to Kate and laid a hand familiarly on her shoulder.
"Ain't you got a howdy for me, kid?"
She moved aside and began stripping the harness from the horse for the quite evident purpose of avoiding his touch.
"You'd better get them packs off," she replied, curtly. "Looks like you'd got on three hundred pounds."
"Wouldn't be surprised. Them bear traps weigh twenty poun' each, and green hides don't feel like feathers, come to pack 'em over the trail I've come."
Kate looked at him for the first time.
"I wisht I was a man! I bet I'd work you over for the way you abuse your stock!"
"Glad you ain't, Katie—but not because I'd be afraid of gettin' beat up."
He looked her up and down with mocking significance, "Say, but you'll make a great squaw for some feller. Been thinkin' I'd make a deal with your mother to take you back to the mountings with me when I go. I'll learn you how to tan hides, and a lot of things you don't know."
The girl's lip curled.
"Yes, I'd like to tan hides for you, Pete Mullendore! When I get frost bit in August I'll go, but not before."
He replied easily:
"You ain't of age yet, Katie, and you have to mind your maw. I've got an idee that she'll tell you to go if I say so."
"A whole lot my mother would mind what you say!" Yet in spite of her defiance a look of fear crossed the girl's face.
She slipped her arm through the harness and started towards the shed, Mullendore following with his slouching walk, an unprepossessing figure in his faded overalls, black and white mackinaw coat and woolen cap.
The trapper was tall and lank, with a pair of curious, unforgettable eyes looking out from a swarthy face that told of Indian blood. They were round rather than the oblong shape to be expected in his type, and the iris a muddy blue-gray. The effect was indescribably queer, and was accentuated by the coal-black lashes and straight black brows which met above a rather thick nose. He had a low forehead, and when he grinned his teeth gleamed like ivory in his dark face. He boasted of Apache-Mexican blood "with a streak of white."
While Kate hung the harness on its peg, Mullendore, waited for her outside. "My! My! Katie," he leered at her as she came back, "but you're gettin' to be a big girl! Them legs looked like a couple of pitchfork handles when I went away, and now the shape they've got!"
He laughed in malicious enjoyment as he saw the color rise to the roots of her hair; and when she would have passed, reached out and grasped her arm.
"Let me be, Pete Mullendore!" She tried to pull loose.
"When you've give me a kiss." There was a flame in the muddy eyes.
With a twist she freed herself and cried with fury vibrating in her voice, "I hate you—I hate you! You—" she sought for a sufficiently opprobrious word—"nigger!"
Mullendore's face took on a peculiar ashiness. Then with an oath and a choking snarl of rage he jumped for her. Kate's long braid just escaped his finger tips.
"Mother! Mother! Make him quit!" There was terror in the shrill cry as the girl ran towards the freight wagon. The response to the appeal came in a hard voice:
"You needn't expect me to take up your fights. You finish what you start."
Kate gave her mother a despairing look and ran towards the pack ponies, with Mullendore now close at her heels. Spurred by fear, she dodged in and out, doubling and redoubling, endeavoring to keep a pony between herself and her pursuer. Once or twice a fold of her skirt slipped through his grasp, but she was young and fleet of foot, and after the game of hare and hounds had kept up for a few minutes her pursuer's breath was coming short and labored. Finally, he stopped:
"You little——!" He panted the epithet. "I'll get you yet!"
She glared at him across a pony's neck and ran out her tongue. Then, defiantly:
"I ain't scart of you!"
A drawling voice made them both turn quickly. "As an entirely impartial and unbiased spectator, friend, I should say that you are outclassed." The man addressed himself to Mullendore. The stranger unobserved had entered by the corral gate. He was a typical sheepherder in looks if not in speech, even to the collie that stood by his side. He wore a dusty, high-crowned black hat, overalls, mackinaw coat, with a small woolen scarf twisted about his neck, and in his hand he carried a gnarled staff. His eyes had a humorously cynical light lurking in their brown depths.
Mullendore did not reply, but with another oath began to untie the lash rope from the nearest pack.
"Wonder if I could get a drink of water?" The stranger turned to Kate as he spoke, lifting his hat to disclose a high white forehead—a forehead as fine as it was unexpected in a man trailing a bunch of sheep. The men who raised their hats to the women of the Sand Coulee were not numerous, and Kate's eyes widened perceptibly before she replied heartily, "Sure you can."
Jezebel, who had come up leading the big wheel horse, said significantly, "Somethin' stronger, if you like."
The fierce eagerness which leaped into the stranger's eyes screamed his weakness, yet he did not jump at the offer she held out. The struggle in his mind was obvious as he stood looking uncertainly into the face that was stamped with the impress of wide and sordid experiences. Kate's voice broke the short silence, "He said 'water,' Mother." She spoke sharply, and with a curt inclination of her head to the sheepherder added, "The water barrel's at the back door, Mister. Come with me." Apparently this made his decision for him, for he followed the girl at once, while Jezebel with a shrug walked on with the horse.
Kate handed the stranger the long-handled tin dipper and watched him gravely while he drank the water in gulps, draining it to the last drop.
"Guess you're a booze-fighter, Mister," she observed, casually, much as she might have commented that his unkempt beard was brown. Amusement twinkled in his eyes at the personal remark and her utter unconsciousness of having said anything at which by any chance he could take offense, but he replied noncommittally:
"I've put away my share, Miss."
"I can always pick 'em out. Nearly all the freighters and cow punchers that stop here get drunk."
He looked at her quizzically.
"The trapper you were playing tag with when I came looks as if he might be ugly when he'd had too much."
He was startled by the intensity of the expression which came over her face as she said, between her clenched teeth:
"I hate that 'breed'!"
"He isn't just the pardner," dryly, "that I'd select for a long camping trip."
Her pupils dilated and she lowered her voice:
"He's ornery—Pete Mullendore."
As though in response to his name, that person came around the corner with his bent-kneed slouch, giving to the girl as he passed a look so malignant, and holding so unmistakable a threat, that it chilled and sobered the stranger who stood leaning against the water barrel. The girl returned it with a stare of brave defiance, but her hand trembled as she returned the dipper to its nail. She looked at him wistfully, and with a note of entreaty in her voice asked:
"Why don't you camp here to-night, Mister?"
The sheepherder shook his head.
"I've got to get on to the next water hole. I have five hundred head of ewes in the road and they haven't had a drink for two days. They're getting hard to hold."
"You've about a mile and a half to go."
"Yes, I know. Well—s'long, and good luck!" He reached for his sheepherder's staff and once more raised his hat with a manner which spoke of another environment. Before he turned the corner of the house an impulse prompted him to look back. Involuntarily he all but stopped. Her eyes had in them a despairing look that seemed a direct appeal for help. But he smiled at her, touched his hat brim and went on. The girl's look haunted him as he trudged along the road in the thick white dust kicked up by the tiny hoofs of the moving sheep.
"She's afraid of that 'breed,'" he thought, and tried to find comfort in telling himself that there was no occasion for alarm, with her mother, hard-visaged as she was, within call. Yet as unconsciously he kept glancing back at the lonely roadhouse, sprawling squat and ugly on the desolate sweep of sand and sagebrush, the only sign of human habitation within the circle of the wide horizon, he had the same sinking feeling at the heart which came to him when he had to stand helpless watching a coyote pull down a lamb. It was in vain he argued that there was nothing to do but what he had done—go on and mind his own business—for the child's despairing, reproachful eyes followed him and his uneasiness remained with him after he had reached the water hole. While the sheep grazed after drinking he pulled the pack from the burro that carried his belongings. From among the folds of a little tepee tent he took out a marred violin case and laid it carefully on the ground, apart. A couple of cowhide paniers contained his meager food supply and blackened cooking utensils. These, with two army blankets, some extra clothing and a bell for the burro, completed his outfit.
The sheep dog lay with his head on his paws, following every movement with loving eyes.
The sheepherder scraped a smooth place with the side of his foot, set up his tepee and spread the blankets inside. Then he built a tiny sagebrush fire, filled his battered coffee pot at the spring in the "draw," threw in a small handful of coffee, and, when the sagebrush was burned to coals, set it to boil. He warmed over a few cooked beans in a lard can, sliced bacon and laid it with great exactness in a long-handled frying pan and placed it on the coals. Then unwrapping a half dozen cold baking-powder biscuits from a dish towel he put them on a tin cover on the ground near a tin cup and plate and a knife and fork.
The man moved lightly, with the deftness of experience, stopping every now and then to cast a look at the sheep that were slowly feeding back preparatory to bedding down. And each time he did so, his eyes unconsciously sought the road in the direction from which he had come, and as often his face clouded with a troubled frown.
When the bacon was brown and the coffee bubbled in the pot, he sat down crosslegged with his plate in his lap and the tin cup beside him on the ground. He ate hungrily, yet with an abstracted expression, which showed that his thoughts were not on his food.
After he had finished he broke open the biscuits which remained, soaked them in the bacon grease and tossed them to the dog, which caught them in the air and swallowed them at a gulp. Then he got to his feet and filled his pipe. He looked contemplatively at a few sheep feeding away from the main band and said as he waved his arm in an encircling gesture:
"Way 'round 'em, Shep! Better bring 'em in."
The dog responded instantly, his handsome tail waving like a plume as he bounded over the sagebrush and gathered in the stragglers.
By the time the herder had washed his dishes and finished his pipe the sun was well below the horizon and the sky in the west a riot of pink and amber and red. The well-trained sheep fed back and dropped down in twos and threes on a spot not far from the tepee where it pleased their fancy to bed. Save for the distant tinkle of the bell on the burro, and the stirring of the sheep, the herder might have been alone in the universe. When he had set his dishes and food back in the paniers and covered them with a piece of "tarp," in housewifely orderliness, he opened the black case and took out the violin with a care that amounted to tenderness. The first stroke of the bow bespoke the trained hand. He did not sit, but knelt in the sand with his face to the west as he played like some pagan sun-worshiper, his expression rapt, intent. Strains from the world's best music rose and fell in throbbing sweetness on the desert stillness, music which told beyond peradventure that some cataclysm in the player's life had shaken him from his rightful niche. It proclaimed this travel-stained sheepherder in his faded overalls and peak-crowned limp-brimmed hat another of the incongruities of the far west. The sagebrush plains and mountains have held the secrets of many Mysteries locked in their silent breasts, for, since the coming of the White Man, they have been a haven for civilization's Mistakes, Failures and Misfits.
While he poured out his soul with only the sheep and the tired collie sleeping on its paws for audience, the gorgeous sunset died and a chill wind came up, scattering the gray ashes of the camp fire and swaying the tepee tent. Suddenly he stopped and shivered a little in spite of his woolen shirt. "Dog-gone!" he said abruptly, aloud, as he put the violin away, "I can't get that kid out of my thoughts!" Though he could not have told why he did so, or what he might, even remotely, expect to hear, he stood and listened intently before he stooped and disappeared for the night between the flaps of the tent.
He turned often between the blankets of his hard bed, disturbed by uneasy dreams quite unlike the deep oblivion of his usual sleep.
"Oh, Mister, where are you?"
The sheepherder stirred uneasily.
"Please—please, Mister, won't you speak?"
The plaintive pleading cry was tremulous and faint like the voice of a disembodied spirit floating somewhere in the air. This time he sat up with a start.
"It's only me—Katie Prentice, from the Roadhouse. Don't be scart."
The wail was closer. There was no mistake. Then the dog barked. The man threw back the blanket and sprang to his feet. It took only a moment to get into his clothes and step out into a night that had turned pitch dark.
"Where are you?" he called.
"Oh, Mister!?" The shrill cry held gladness and relief.
Then she came out of the blackness, the ends of a white nubia and a little shoulder cape snapping in the wind, her breath coming short in a sound that was a mixture of exhaustion and sobs.
"I was afraid I couldn't find you till daylight. I heard a bell, but I didn't know where to go, it's such a dark night. I ran all the way, nearly, till I played out."
"What's the row?" he asked gently.
She slipped both arms through one of his and hugged it convulsively, while in a kind of hysteria she begged:
"Don't send me back, Mister! I won't go! I'll kill myself first. Take me with you—please, please let me go with you!"
"Tell me what it's all about."
She did not answer, and he urged:
"Go on. Don't be afraid. You can tell me anything."
She replied in a strained voice:
"Pete Mullendore, he—"
A gust of wind blew the shoulder cape back and he saw her bare arm with the sleeve of her dress hanging by a shred.
"—he did this?"
"I scratched him and bit him. I fought him all over the place. He was chokin' me. I got to a quirt and struck him on the head—with the handle. It was loaded. He dropped like he was dead. I ran to my room and clum out the window—"
"God!" He stooped and picked up the little bundle she had dropped at her feet. "Come along, Partner. You are going into the sheep business with 'Mormon Joe.'"
AN HISTORIC OCCASION
The experienced ear of Major Stephen Douglas Prouty told him that he was getting a hot axle. The hard dry squeak from the rear wheel of the "democrat" had but one meaning—he had forgotten to grease it. This would seem an inexcusable oversight in a man who expected to make forty miles before sunset, but in this instance there was an extenuating circumstance. Immediately after breakfast there had been a certain look in his hostess's eye which had warned him that if he lingered he would be asked to assist with the churning. Upon observing it he had started for the barn to harness with a celerity that approached a trot.
Long years of riding the grub-line had developed in the Major a gift for recognizing the exact psychological moment when he had worn out his welcome as company and was about to be treated as one of the family and sicced on the woodpile, that was like a sixth sense. It seldom failed him, but in the rare instances when it had, he had bought his freedom with a couple of boxes of White Badger Salve—unfailing for cuts, burns, scalds and all irritations of the skin—good also, as it proved, for dry axles, since he had neglected to replenish his box of axle grease from that of his host at the last stopping place.
He leaned from under the edge of the large cotton umbrella which shaded him amply, and squinted at the sun. He judged that it was noon exactly. His intention seemed to be communicated to his horses by telepathy, for they both stopped with a suddenness which made him lurch forward.
"It's time to eat, anyhow," he said aloud as he recovered his balance with the aid of the dashboard, disentangled his feet from the long skirts of his linen duster and sprang over the wheel with the alacrity of a man who took a keen interest in food.
Unhooking the traces, he led the team to one side of the road, slipped off the bridles and replaced them with nose bags containing each horse's allotment of oats—extracted from the bin of his most recent host. Then he searched in the bottom of the wagon until he found a monkey-wrench which he applied to the nut and twirled dextrously. Canting the wheel, he moistened his finger tip and touched the exposed axle.
He left it to cool and reached under the seat for a pasteboard shoe-box and bore it to the side of the road, where he saw a convenient rock. Both the eagerness of hunger and curiosity was depicted on his face as he untied the twine which secured it. He was wondering if she had put in any cheese. The Major especially liked cheese and had not failed to mention the fact when his hostess had let drop the information that a whole one had come in with the last freight wagon from town. He removed the cover and his smile of anticipation gave place to a look of astonishment and incredulity. It was difficult to believe his eyes! Not only was there no cheese, but that chicken wing and back which had been left on the platter last night, and which he had been as sure of as though he had put them in himself, were not in the box. He felt under the paper as though hoping against hope that the box contained a false bottom where the chicken might be concealed. There was no deception. He saw all there was.
"Sinkers!" His voice expressed infinite disappointment and disgust. He prodded one of the cold soda biscuits with his finger, took it out and set the box on the ground beside him. He was hungry, therefore, insulted as he felt, he had to eat, but he looked over his shoulder in the direction from which he had come, and said aloud, "Them Scissor-bills'll know it when I stop there again!" The declaration was in the nature of a threat. While he munched the dry biscuit, which contained but a trace of butter between the two halves, he gazed off at the vista of nothing in particular that stretched out before him.
On his left the sand and sagebrush, cacti and sparse bunch-grass was bounded by the horizon; behind him, in front of him, it was the same; only on the right was the monotony broken by foothills and beyond, a range of purple snow-covered peaks. From the slight elevation or "bench" upon which he sat he looked down upon a greasewood flat where patches of alkali gleamed dazzling white under the noon-day sun. The flat was quarter-circled by a waterless creek upon whose banks grew a few misshapen and splintered cottonwoods.
The countless millions of nearly invisible gnats that breed in alkali bogs sighted the Major and promptly rose in swarms to settle upon his ears and in the edges of his hair. He fanned them away automatically and without audible comment. Perhaps they served as a counter-irritant; at any rate, the sting of the indignity put upon him by what he termed a "hobo lunch" was finally forgotten in more agreeable thoughts.
In the distance there was an interesting cloud of dust. Was it cattle, loose horses, or some one coming that way? The Major's eyesight was not all it had been and he could not make out. Since they were coming from the opposite direction he was sure to have his curiosity gratified. His roving eyes came back to the greasewood flat and rested there speculatively. Suddenly his jaw dropped and a crumb rolled out. He looked as though an apparition had risen before his bulging eyes. Involuntarily he sprang to his feet and cried, "My Gawd—what a great place to start a town!"
The idea came with such startling force that it seemed to the Major as if something broke in his brain. Other ideas followed. They came tumbling over each other in their struggle to get out all at once. A panorama of pictures passed so swiftly before his eyes that it made him dizzy. His eyes gleamed, the color rose in his weather-beaten cheeks, the hand with which he pointed to the greasewood flat below trembled as he exclaimed in an excitement that made his breath come short:
"The main street'll run up the creek and about there I'll put the Op'ry House. The hotel'll stand on the corner and we'll git a Carnegie Libery for the other end of town. The High School can be over yonder and we'll keep the saloons to one side of the street. There'll be a park where folks can set, and if I ain't got pull enough to git a fifty thousand dollar Federal Buildin'—"
Then came the inspiration which made the Major stagger back:
"I'll git the post office, and name it Prouty!"
He felt so tremulous that he had to sit down.
It seemed incredible that he had not thought of this before, for deep within him was a longing to have his name figure in the pages of the history of the big new state. Tombstones blew over, dust storms obliterated graves, photographs faded, but with a town named after him and safely on the map, nobody could forget him if he wanted to.
The Major's assertion concerning his "pull" was no idle boast. There were few men in the state with a wider acquaintance, and he was a conspicuous figure around election time. The experience he had acquired in his younger days selling Indian Herb Cough Syrup from the tailboard of a wagon, between two sputtering flambeaux, served him in good stead when, later, he was called upon to make a few patriotic remarks at a Fourth of July Celebration. His rise was rapid from that time, until now his services as an orator were so greatly in demand for cornerstone layings and barbecues that, owing to distance between towns, it kept him almost constantly on the road.
The Major sold an occasional box of salve, and in an emergency pulled teeth, in addition to the compensation which he received for what was designated privately as his "gift of gab." But the Major, nevertheless, had his dark moments, in which he contemplated the day when age should force him to retire to private life. Since the wagon containing his patent leather valise was his home, the Major had no private life to retire to, and his anxiety concerning the future would seem not without cause. Now in a flash all his worries smoothed out. He would capitalize his wide acquaintance and his influence, gain independence and perpetuate his name in the same stroke. At the moment he actually suffered because there was no one present to whom he could communicate his thoughts.
The cloud of dust was closer, but not near enough yet to distinguish the moving objects that caused it, so he set himself energetically to applying White Badger Salve to the axle, replacing the wheel and tightening the nut. When he straightened a horseman who had ridden out of the creek bed was scrambling up the side of the "bench." He was dressed like a top cowpuncher—silver-mounted saddle, split-ear bridle and hand-forged bit. The Major was familiar with the type, though this particular individual was unknown to him.
"Howdy!" The cowboy let the reins slip through his fingers so his horse could feed, and sagged sidewise in the saddle.
"How are you, sir?" There was nothing in the dignified restraint of the Major's response to indicate that his vocal cords ached for exercise and he was fairly quivering in his eagerness for an ear to talk into. There was a silence in which he removed a nose bag, bridled and shoved a horse against the tongue.
"Back, can't ye!"
"Nooned here, I reckon?"
The Major thought of his chickenless handout and his face clouded.
"I et a bite."
"Thought maybe you was in trouble when I first see you."
"Had a hot box, but I don't call that trouble." He added humorously:
"I can chop my wagon to pieces and be on the road again in twenty minutes, if I got plenty of balin' wire."
The cowboy laughed so appreciatively that the Major inquired ingratiatingly:
"I bleeve your face is a stranger to me, ain't it?"
"I don't mind meetin' up with you before. I've just come to the country, as you might say."
The Major waited for further information, but since it was not forthcoming he ventured:
"What might I call your name, sir?"
The cowboy shifted his weight uneasily and hesitated. He said finally while the red of his shiny sun-blistered face deepened perceptibly: "My name is supposed to be Teeters—Clarence Teeters."
As a matter of fact he knew that his name was Teeters, but injecting an element of doubt into it in this fashion seemed somehow to make the telling easier. Teeters was bad enough, but combined with Clarence! Only Mr. Teeters knew the effort it cost him to tell his name to strangers. He added with the air of a man determined to make a clean breast of it:
"I'm from Missoury."
The Major's hand shot out unexpectedly.
"Shake!" he cried warmly. "I was drug up myself at the foot of the Ozarks."
"I pulled out when I was a kid and wrangled 'round considerible." Teeters made the statement as an extenuating circumstance.
"I took out naturalization papers myself," replied the Major good-humoredly. "My name is Prouty—Stephen Douglas Prouty. You'll prob'ly hear of me if you stay in the country. The fact is, I'm thinkin' of startin' a town and namin' it Prouty."
"Shoo—you don't say so!" In polite inquiry, "Whur?"
Mr. Teeters looked a little blank as he stared at the town site indicated.
"It seems turrible fur from water," he commented finally.
"Sink—drill—artesian well—maybe we'll strike a regular subterranean river. Anyway, 'twould be no trick at all to run a ditch from Dead Horse Canyon and get all the water we want." He waved his arm at the distant mountains and settled that objection.
"Wouldn't them alkali bogs breedin' a billion 'no-see-'ems' a second be kind of a drawback?" inquired Teeters tentatively.
"That'll all be drained, covered with sile and seeded down in lawns," replied the Major quickly. "In two year that spot'll be bloomin' like the Garden of Eden.
"I've got to be movin'," the Major continued. "I'm on my way from a cornerstone layin' at Buffalo Waller to a barbecue at No Wood Crick. I'm kind of an orator," he added modestly.
"And I got about three hundred head of calves to drag to the fire, if I kin git my rope on 'em," said Teeters, straightening in the saddle.
The Major asked in instant interest:
"Oh, you're workin' for that wealthy eastern outfit?"
"Don't know how wealthy they be, but they're plenty eastern," Teeters replied dryly.
"I was thinkin' I might stop over night with 'em and git acquainted. The Scissors Outfit can't be more'n fifteen mile out of my way, and it'll be a kind of a change from the Widder Taylor's, whur I stop generally."
The cowboy combed the horse's mane with his fingers in silence. After waiting a reasonable time for the invitation which should have been forthcoming, the Major inquired:
"They're—sociable, ain't they?"
"They ain't never yit run out in the road and drug anybody off his horse," replied Teeters grimly. "They charge four bits a meal to strangers."
"What?" Surely his ears had deceived him.
Inspired by the Major's dumbfounded expression, the cowboy continued:
"They have their big meal at night and call it dinner, and they wash their hands at the table when they git done eatin', and Big Liz has to lope in from the kitchen when she hears the bell tinkle and pass 'em somethin' either one of 'em could git by reachin'." He lowered his voice confidentially, "Most any meal I look fur her to hit one of 'em between the horns."
The Major stared round-eyed, breathless, like a child listening to a fairy tale which he feared would end if he interrupted.
"In the evenin' the boss puts on a kind of eatin' jacket, a sawed-off coat that makes a growed man look plumb foolish, and she comes out in silk and satin that shows considerable hide. Have you met this here Toomey?"
"Not yet; that's a pleasure still in store for me."
"Pleasure!" exclaimed Teeters, who took the polite phrase literally. "More like you'll want to knock his head off. Old Timer," he leaned over the saddle horn, "seein' as you're from Missoury, I'll tell you private that you'd better keep on travelin'. Company ain't wanted at the Scissor Outfit, and they'd high-tone it over you so 'twouldn't be noways enjoyable."
"There is plenty of ranches where I am welcome," replied the Major with dignity. "I kin make the Widder Taylor's by sundown."
"Miss Maggie plays good on the pianner," Teeters commented, expectorating violently to conceal a certain embarrassment.
"And the doughnuts the old lady keeps in that crock on the kitchen table is worth a day's ride to git to." The Major closed an eye and with the other looked quizzically at Teeters, adding, "If it wa'nt for Starlight—"
"Starlight is shore some Injun," replied the cowboy, grinning understandingly.
"Now what for an outfit's that?"
The moving cloud of dust which the Major had forgotten in his keen interest in the conversation was almost upon them. "A band of woolies, a pack burro, one feller walkin', and another ridin'."
The cowboy's eyes were unfriendly, though he made no comment as they waited.
"Howdy!" called the Major genially as, with a nod, the herder would have passed without speaking.
The stranger responded briefly, but stopped.
"Come fur?" inquired the Major sociably.
"Until I find a location. I rather like the looks of this section."
"Sheep spells 'trouble' in this country," said the cowboy, significantly.
"Think so?" indifferently.
Seeing Teeters was about to say something further, the Major interrupted:
"What might I call your name, sir?"
"Just say 'Joe,' and I'll answer."
The Major looked a trifle disconcerted, but in his role of Master of Ceremonies continued:
"I'll make you acquainted with Mr. Teeters."
The two men nodded coldly.
To break the strained silence the Major observed:
"Got a boy helpin' you, I notice."
"Girl," replied the sheepherder briefly.
"Girl? Oh, I see! Them overalls deceived me. Daughter, I presume."
The Major looked incredulous but said nothing, and while he sought for something further to say in order to prolong the conversation they all turned abruptly at the rattle of rocks.
"The boss," said Teeters sardonically from the corner of his mouth, and added, "That's a young dude that's visitin'."
Toomey was perfectly equipped for a ride in Central Park. He looked an incongruous and alien figure in the setting in his English riding clothes and boots. The lad who accompanied him was dressed in exaggerated cowboy regalia.
Toomey used a double bit and now brought his foaming horse to a short stop with the curb. He vouchsafed the unimportant "natives" in the road only a brief glance, but addressed himself to Teeters.
"Where have you been?" he demanded in a sharp tone.
"I ain't been lost," replied Teeters calmly. "Where would I be 'cept huntin' stock?"
"Why didn't you follow me?"
"I think too much of my horse to jam him over rocks when there ain't no special call for it. I kin ride on a run 'thout fallin' off, when they's need to."
Toomey's brilliant black eyes flashed. Swallowing the impudence of these western hirelings was one of the hardest things he had to endure in his present life. But even he could see that Teeters thoroughly understood cattle, else he would have long since discharged him.
"I've ridden about ten extra miles trying to keep you in sight."
"If you'd let them sturrups out like I told you and quit tryin' to set down standin' up, ridin' wouldn't tire you so much." Teeters looked at the English pigskin saddle in frank disgust.
Toomey ignored the criticism and said arrogantly:
"I want you to follow me from now on."
An ominous glint came in the cowboy's eye, but he still grinned.
"I wa'nt broke to foller. Never was handled right when I was a colt. Don't you wait fer me, feller, you jest sift along in and I'll come when I git done."
Judging from the expression on Toomey's face, it seemed to the Major an opportune time to interrupt.
"Since nobody aims to introduce us—" he began good-naturedly, extending a hand. "My name is Prouty—Stephen Douglas Prouty. You've heard of me, like as not."
"Can't say I have," replied Toomey in a tone that made the Major flush as he shook the extended hand without warmth.
To cover his confusion, the Major turned to the sheepherder whose soft brown eyes held an amused look.
"Er—Joe—I'll make you acquainted with Mr. Jasper Toomey, one of our leadin' stockmen in these parts."
The introduction received from Toomey the barest acknowledgment as he directed his gaze to the grazing sheep.
"Where you taking them?" he asked in a curt tone.
"I really couldn't tell you yet."
Toomey glanced at him sharply, attracted by the cultivated tone.
"I wouldn't advise you to locate here; this is my range."
"Own it?" inquired the herder mildly.
"No good reason then is there to keep me out?"
"Except," darkly, "this climate isn't healthy for sheep."
"Perhaps," gently, "I'm the best judge of that."
"You'll keep on going, if you follow my advice." The tone was a threat.
"I hardly ever take advice that's given unasked."
"Well—you'd better take this."
The sheepherder looked at him speculatively, with no trace of resentment in his mild eyes.
"Let me see," reflectively. "It generally takes an easterner who comes west to show us how to raise stock from three to five years to go broke. I believe I'll stick around a while; I may be able to pick up something cheap a little later."
A burst of ringing laughter interrupted this unexpected clash between the strangers. It was clear that the lack of harmony did not extend to their young companions, for the lad and the girl seemed deeply interested in each other as their ponies grazed with heads together. The immediate cause of their laughter was the boy's declaration that when he came to see the girl he intended to wear petticoats.
When their merriment had subsided, she demanded:
"Don't you like my overalls?"
He looked her over critically—at her face with the frank gray eyes and the vivid red of health glowing through the tan; at the long flat braid of fair hair, which hung below the cantle of the saddle; at her slender bare feet thrust through the stirrups.
"You'd look pretty in anything," he responded gallantly.
She detected the evasion and persisted:
"But you think I'd look nicer in dresses, don't you?"
Embarrassed, he responded hesitatingly:
"You see—down South where I come from the girls all wear white and lace and ribbon sashes and carry parasols and think a lot about their complexions. You're just—different."
The herder waved his arm. "Way 'round 'em, Shep," and the sheep began moving.
"Good-bye," the girl gathered up the reins reluctantly.
"You didn't tell me your name."
"Mine's Hughie Disston," he added, his black eyes shining with friendliness. "Maybe I'll see you again sometime."
She answered shyly:
Toomey started away at a gallop, calling sharply:
"Come on, Hughie!"
The boy followed with obvious reluctance, sending a smile over his shoulder when he found that the girl was looking after him.
"Hope you make out all right with your town," said Teeters politely as, ignoring his employer's instructions, he turned his horse's head in a direction of his own choosing.
"No doubt about it," replied the Major, briskly, gathering up the lines and bringing the stub of a whip down with a thwack upon each back impartially. "S'long!" He waved it at the girl and sheepherder. "I trust you'll find a location to suit you."
"Pardner," said Mormon Joe suddenly, when the Major was a blur in a cloud of dust and the horsemen were specks in the distance, "this looks like home to me somehow. There ought to be great sheep feed over there in the foothills and summer range in the mountains. What do you think of it?"
"Oh—goody!" the girl cried eagerly. "Isn't it funny, I was hoping you'd say that."
He looked at her quizzically.
"Tired of trailing sheep, Katie, or do you think you might have company?"
She flushed in confusion, but admitted honestly:
Major Prouty hung over the hitching post in front of the post office listening with a beatific smile to the sound of the saw and the hammer that came from the Opera House going up at the corner of Prouty Avenue and Wildwood Street. The Major's eyes held the brooding tenderness of a patron saint, as he looked the length of the wide street of the town which bore his name.
"Sunnin' yourself, Major?" inquired Hiram Butefish jocularly as he passed; then paused to add, "I'm lookin' for a big turn-out at the Boosters Club to-night."
"I trust so, Hiram."
Aside from himself, no one person had contributed more to Prouty's growth than the editor of the Grit.
Mr. Butefish had arrived among the first with the intention of opening a plumbing shop, but since the water supply was furnished by a windmill the demand for his services was not apt to be pressing for some time to come.
Therefore, with true western resourcefulness he bought the handpress of a defunct sheet and turned to journalism instead. Though less lucrative, moulding public opinion and editing a paper that was to be a recognized power in the state seemed to Mr. Butefish a step ahead.
The Middle West had responded nobly to his editorial appeals to come out and help found an Empire. The majority of the optimistic citizens who walked with their heads in the clouds and their eyes on the roseate future were there through his efforts. Appreciative of this fact, the Major's eyes were kindly as they gazed upon the editor's retreating back.
His expression was benignity itself as his glance turned lovingly to the Prouty House and the White Hand Laundry—the latter in particular being a milestone on the road of Progress since it heralded the fact that the day was not far distant when a man could wear a boiled shirt without embarrassing comment. Three saloons, the General Merchandise Emporium, and "Doc" Fussel's drug store completed the list of business enterprises as yet, but others were in contemplation and a bottling works was underway. Oh, yes, Prouty was indelibly on the map.
The Major's complacent smile changed to a slight frown as a man in a black tall crowned hat stopped to rest his back against the post of the Laundry sign.
It had reached the Major's ears that Mormon Joe had said that Prouty had no more future than a prairie dog town. He had been in his cups at the time but that did not palliate the offense.
Now, there—there was the kind of a man that helped a town! The Major's brow cleared as Jasper Toomey swung round the corner by the Prouty House and clattered down the main street sitting high-headed and arrogant in a Brewster cart. Spent money like a prince—he did. A few more people like the Toomeys and the future of the country was assured.
In the meantime Toomey had brought the velvet-mouthed horse to its haunches in front of the laundry where he tossed a bundle into the sheepman's arms, saying casually;
"Take that inside, my man."
Without a change of expression, Mormon Joe caught it, rolled it compactly and kicked it over the horse's back into the street.
"There's no brass buttons sewed on my coat—take it yourself!" Mormon Joe shrugged a shoulder as he walked off.
Walter Scales of the Emporium dashed into the street and recovered the laundry with an apologetic air as though he were somehow responsible for the act.
"You have to make allowances for the rough characters that swarm into a new country," he said, as he delivered the bundle himself.
"I'll break that pauper sheepherder before I quit!" A vein under Toomey's right eye and another on his temple stood out swollen and purple.
"People like him that send away for their grub and never spend a cent they can help in their home town don't benefit a country none." Mr. Scales did not attempt to conceal his pleasure at the foot-long list Toomey handed him. He added urgently, "Wisht you'd try and stay in for the Boosters Club to-night, Mr. Toomey. We'd like your advice."
Toomey refused curtly.
"Get that order out at once," he said peremptorily, as he drove off.
* * * * *
No invitation cordial or otherwise was extended to Mormon Joe, so it was upon his own initiative that he stumbled into the room where the Boosters Club was in session that evening. Unmistakably drunk, Joe sat down noisily beside Clarence Teeters who was the only one who made room for him.
The purpose of the meeting was to consider ways and means to build a ditch that should bring water from the mountains in sufficient quantity not only to supply the town but to irrigate the agricultural land surrounding it.
Mr. Abram Pantin, a man of affairs from Keokuk, Iowa, in the vicinity with a view to locating, had been called upon for a few remarks and was just closing with the safe and conservative statement that an ample water supply was an asset to any community.
He was followed by the chairman, Mr. Butefish, who pleaded eloquently for the construction of the ditch by local capital, and having aroused the meeting to a high pitch of enthusiasm ended with a peroration that brought forth a loud demonstration of approbation.
"Gentlemen," declared Mr. Butefish, "back there in the mountains is a noble stream waitin' to irrigate a thirsty land. For the trifling sum of twenty thousand dollars we can turn this hull country into a garden spot! The time is comin' when we'll see nothin' but alfalfa field in purple bloom as fur as the eye can reach! We're as rich in natural resources as any section on God's green earth. We're lousy with 'em, gentlemen, and all we gotta do is to put our shoulders to the wheel and scratch!"
Mr. Butefish sat down and dried the inside of his collar with his handkerchief midst tumultuous applause.
The evening had been a veritable love-feast without a jarring note and everybody glowed with a feeling of neighborliness and confidence in a future that was to bring them affluence.
"Mr. Chairman, may I have a word?"
There was a general turning of heads as Mormon Joe, thick of tongue, lurched over the back of the seat in front.
"Kindly make it brief," replied Mr. Butefish reluctantly. "We still have important business to transact."
"I only want to say that this country hasn't any more natural resources than a tin roof and when Prouty got any bigger than a saloon and a blacksmith shop it overreached itself." There was a tightening of lips as the members exchanged looks, but Mormon Joe went on, "One third of the work that you dry farmers put in trying to make ranches out of arid land," he addressed a row of tousled gentlemen on the front seat, "would bring you independence in a state where climatic conditions are favorable to raising crops.
"As for your ditch, there never was an irrigation project yet that did not cost double and treble the original estimate. If you try to put it through without outside help, you'll all go broke. In other words," he jeered, "you haven't one damned asset but your climate, and you're wasting your time and energy until you figure out a way to realize on that."
Shabby, undersized, distinctly drunk, Mormon Joe made an unheroic figure as he stood swaying on his feet looking mockingly into the frowning faces of the Boosters Club, and yet, somehow, his words cast a momentary depression over the room.
He stood an instant, then staggered out, indifferent to the fact that he had committed the supreme offense in a western town—he had "knocked"—and that henceforth and forever he was a marked man—a detriment to the community—to be discredited, shunned, and, if possible, driven out.
The invitation composed and printed by Mr. Butefish after much mental travail, requesting the pleasure of the Toomeys' company at a reception and dance in the Prouty House to celebrate the third year of the town's prosperity and progress was one of the results of this meeting of the Boosters Club.
Toomey's thin lips curled superciliously as he glanced at it and tossed it across the breakfast table:
"Here, Hughie, why don't you take this in?"
"You'll go, won't you?" the lad asked eagerly after reading it.
"We never mingle socially with the natives." As Mrs. Toomey shook her head her smile and tone expressed ineffable exclusiveness. Seeing that the boy's face fell in disappointment she urged, "But you go, Hughie."
"If I knew some one to ask—"
"There's Maggie Taylor," Mrs. Toomey suggested.
"And Mormon Joe's Kate," Toomey added, laughing.
"Who's she?" the boy asked curiously.
"Do you remember the day when you were here before that we met those people driving a band of sheep—a man and a barefooted girl in overalls?"
Hughie's eyes sparkled:
"They stopped here, then?"
"Yes, confound 'em! I've had more than one 'run in' with 'em since over range and water. But," he urged, "don't let that hinder you. They live with their sheep back there in the foothills like a couple of white savages, and she's some greener than alfalfa. Go and ask her. You'll get some fun out of it. I dare you! I'll bet you a saddle blanket against anything you like that you haven't got the sand to take her."
"Done!" Hughie Disston's eyes were dancing. "If my nerve fails me when I see her, you are in a new Navajo."
It was a great lark to Disston, now a tall boy of nineteen, handsome, attractive, with the soft drawl of his southern speech and the easy manners of those who have associated much with women-folk. He was in high spirits as, one morning early, he and Teeters turned off from the main road and took the faint trail which led up Bitter Creek.
They rode until they saw two tepees showing white through the willows.
"We're in luck to catch them home at this hour," said Teeters, as they heard a faint tinkle from the corrals on the other side of the creek. "They've got the sheep inside—must be cuttin' out. Yes," as they forded and drew closer, "there's Kate at the dodge gate."
The corral was a crude affair, built at the minimum of expense, of crooked cottonwood poles, willow sticks and brush interlaced. It was divided into three sections, with a chute running from the larger division into two smaller ones.
Kate was standing at the "dodge gate" at the end of the chute separating the sheep as they came through by throwing the gate to and fro, thus sending each into the division in which it belonged. It was work which required intense concentration, a trained eye and quick brain, and even Disston and Teeters, who knew nothing of sheep, could appreciate the remarkable skill with which the girl performed the task.
"Let 'em come, Uncle Joe!" she called in her clear confident voice.
Mormon Joe flapped a grain sack over the backs of the sheep and having started a leader the rest went through the chute on the run.
When the last one was through Kate's aching arm dropped limply to her side and she called in a tired but jubilant voice:
"I don't believe I've made a single mistake this time."
Mormon Joe's expression was not too friendly when he saw strangers but it changed upon recognizing Teeters.
"Maybe you don't remember this here gent," said that person, indicating Disston with his thumb after he and Mormon Joe had shaken hands. "He's growed about four feet since you saw him."
"I remember him very well." Mormon Joe's tone and manner had the suavity and polish which was so at variance with his general appearance.
Hughie, leaving Teeters and Mormon Joe to a conversation which did not interest him, rode up to see Kate at closer range.
Busy in one of the pens, the girl was still unaware of visitors, so he had had ample opportunity to observe her before she saw him.
She, too, had grown since their meeting, being now as tall and straight and slim as an Olympian runner. Her hair swung in a thick fair braid far below her waist as she darted hither and thither in pursuit of a lamb. The man's blue flannel shirt she wore was faded and the ragged sleeves had been cut off at the elbow for convenience. Her short skirt was of stiff blue denim and a pair of coarse brown and white cotton stockings showed between the hem and the tops of boys' shoes which disguised the slenderness of her feet. Yet, withal, she was graceful as she ran and somehow managed to look picturesque.
The boy's face was an odd mixture of expressions as he watched her—amusement, astonishment, disapproval, and grudging admiration all in one.
Finally, catching the lamb by the hind leg she threw it by a twist acquired through much practice and buckled a bell around its neck.
As she turned it loose and straightened up, she saw Disston. When he smiled she knew him instantly and the color rose in her face as she walked towards him, suddenly conscious of her clothes and grimy hands. She was soon at her ease, however, and when he told her his errand the radiance that leaped into her face startled him.
"Would I like to go?" she cried joyously. "There's nothing I can think of that I would like better. I've never been to a dance in all my life. I've never been anywhere. It's so good of you to ask me!"
"It's good of you to go with me," he said awkwardly, shamed by her gratitude, remembering the wager.
"But I don't know how to dance," she said almost tearfully.
"You don't?" incredulously. He had thought every girl in the world knew how to dance. "Never mind," he assured her, "I can teach you in a few lessons."
So it was settled, and they talked of other things, laughing merrily, frequently, while Mormon Joe and Teeters discussed with some gravity the fact that it had been several months since the latter had been able to get his wages from Toomey.
"I think he's workin' on borried capital and they're shuttin' down on him," Teeters conjectured. "His 'Old Man,'" he nodded toward Hughie, "has got consider'ble tied up in the Outfit, I've an idea. Anyhow, if I git beat out of my money after the way Toomey's high-toned it over me—" He cast a significant look at a fist with particularly prominent knuckles.
"You hang on a while," Mormon Joe cautioned. "You may be boss of the Scissor Outfit yet—stranger things have been waiting around the corner."
Teeters shifted his weight in the saddle.
"Say," he confessed in some embarrassment, "a sperrit told me somethin' like that only day 'fore yisterday. I was settin' in a circle over to Mis' Taylor's and an Injun chief named 'Starlight' spelled out on the table that all kinds of honor and worldly power was comin' to me. It makes me feel cur'ous, hearin' you say it—like they was somethin' in it."
Mormon Joe smiled quizzically but made no comment; perhaps he suspected that the privilege of touching fingers with Miss Maggie Taylor while waiting for the spirits to "take holt" had as much to do with Teeters' interest in the unseen world as the messages he received from it. He asked:
"You remember what I said at the Boosters' Club the other night?"
"I ain't apt to fergit it anyways soon," replied Teeters, dryly, "seein' as 'Tinhorn' riz and put it to a vote as to whether they should tar and feather you or jest naturally freeze you out."
"The truth is acid," he laughed. "It's a fact though, Teeters, that this country's chief asset is its climate, and," with his quizzical smile, "this Scissor Outfit would make a fine dude-ranch."
Kate did not tell Mormon Joe of her invitation until the sheep were bedded for the night, the supper dishes out of the way and they were sitting, as was their custom, on two boxes watching the stars and talking while Mormon Joe smoked his pipe.
"Our company this morning made me forget to tell you how well you handled the gate; it was a clean cut." Mormon Joe added in obvious pride, "You're the best sheepman in the country, Katie, bar none."
"Then I wish you'd listen to me and buy some of those Rambouillets and grade up our herd."
"We're doing all right," he returned, indifferently.
"Anybody would know you didn't like sheep."
"They're a means to an end; they keep me in the hills out of mischief and furnish a living for us both."
"I wonder that you haven't more ambition, Uncle Joe."
"That died and was buried long ago. The little that I have left is for you. I want you to have the benefit of what I have learned from books and life; I want you to be happy—I can't say that I'm interested in anything beyond that."
She threw him a kiss.
"You're too good to be true almost." Then, with a quite inexplicable diffidence she faltered, "Uncle Joe, that—that boy asked me to go to a dance."
He turned his head quickly and asked with a sharp note in his voice:
"Do you want to go?"
"I can't tell you how much!" she cried eagerly. "I can hardly believe it is me—I—invited to a dance. I've never been out in the evening in all my life. I don't know a single woman and may be I'll never have such a chance again to get acquainted and make friends."
"I didn't know that you had been lonely, Katie," he said after a silence.
"Just sometimes," she admitted.
"You said you didn't want to go to Prouty again because the children bleated at you the last time you were in."
"But that was long ago—a year—they wouldn't do that now—they're older, and, besides, there are others who have sheep. We're not the only ones any more. But," with a quaver in her voice, "don't you want me to go, Uncle Joe?"
"I don't want you to put yourself in a position to get hurt."
"What—what would anybody hurt me for?" she asked, wide-eyed.
His answer to the question was a shrug. Then, as though to himself, "They may be bigger than I give them credit for."
He had not refused to let her go, but he had chilled her enthusiasm somewhat so they were silent for a time, each occupied with his own thoughts.
As Mormon Joe, with his hands clasped about his knee, his pipe dead in his mouth, sat motionless in the starlight, he ceased to be conscious of the beauty of the night, of the air that touched his face, soft and cool as the caress of a gentle woman, of the moist sweet odors of bursting buds and tender shoots—he was thinking only that the child who had run into his arms for safety had come to be the center of the universe to him. He could not imagine life without her. He had mended her manners, corrected her speech, bought her books of study to which she had diligently applied herself in the long hours while she herded sheep, and nothing else in life had given him so much pleasure as to watch her mind develop and her taste improve.
Anybody that would hurt her! Instinctively his hands clenched. Aloud he said:
"Go to your party, Katie, and I hope with all my heart it will be everything you anticipate."
It was the most ambitious affair that had been attempted in Prouty—this function at the Prouty House. The printed invitations had made a deep impression; besides, wild rumors were flying about as to the elaborate costumes that were to be worn by the socially prominent.
It was whispered that Mrs. Abram Pantin, wife of the wealthy capitalist from Keokuk, now "settled in their midst," was to be seen in electric blue silk with real lace collar and cuffs; while Mrs. Sudds, wife of a near-governor, who had moved to Prouty from another part of the state, was to appear in her lansdowne wedding dress. Mrs. Myron Neifkins, too, if report could be believed, was to be gowned in peach-blow satin worked in French knots.
He was a dull clod indeed who could not feel the tremors in the air that momentous Saturday and by night there was not tying space at any hitching rack.
If the ball loomed so large to the townfolks, it may be assumed that Kate's anticipation was no less. As a matter of fact, she could scarcely sleep for thinking of it. She did not know much about God—Mormon Joe was not religious—but she felt vaguely that she must have Him to thank for this wonderful happiness. It was the most important happening since she had run, terrified, from home that black night three years ago.
There had not been a night since Hughie had given her the invitation that she had not lain awake for hours staring at the stars with a smile on her lips as she visualized situations. She saw herself dividing dances as belles did in books, taking her part in lively conversations, the center of merry groups. Oh, no, life would never be the same again; she was certain of it.
Hughie had kept his word and ridden over several times to teach her the steps, and they had practised them on the hard-trodden ground in front of the cook tent, where the dust could be kept down by frequent sprinkling. If the waltz and the polka and schottische sent her blood racing under such adverse conditions, what must it be like on a real floor with real music, she asked herself ecstatically. These dancing lessons were provocative of much merriment and teasing from the Toomeys. While Hugh did not resent it or defend Kate, he did not join in their ridicule of her. She was "green," he could not deny that, yet not in the sense the Toomeys meant. Naive, ingenuous, he felt were better words. She knew nothing of social usages, and she was without a suspicion of the coquetry that he looked for in girls before they had begun to do up their hair. She spoke with startling frankness upon subjects which he had been taught were taboo. He admired and was accustomed to soft, helpless, clinging femininity, and it grated upon him to see Kate at the woodpile swinging an axe in a matter-of-fact way.
"It's because there's no one else around," he told himself, to explain the eagerness with which he rode over while he was teaching Kate to dance.
The boy was intelligent enough to recognize the fact that, however unschooled Kate might be in the things that counted in the outside world, she was not ignorant when it came to those within her ken. She knew the habits and peculiarities of wild animals and insects, every characteristic of sheep, and she was a nearly unfailing weather prophet through her interpretation of the meaning of wind and sky and clouds. Her knowledge of botany was a constant surprise to him, for she seemed to know the name and use of the tiniest plant that grew upon the range.
But, after all, he demanded of himself, what did a girl want to know such things for? He would have liked better to see her in the shade with an embroidery hoop.
* * * * *
Restraining their trembling haste, yet fearing that they might miss something, the initiated townfolks managed to stay away from the Prouty House until the fashionably late hour of eight, but the simpler rural guests having eaten at six were ready and holding down the chairs in the office before "the music" had arrived. There was a flutter of puzzled inquiry among the Early Birds when Mrs. Abram Pantin, Mrs. Sudds and Mrs. Myron Neifkins with an air of conscious importance stationed themselves in a row at the door opening into the dining room, which was now being noisily cleared of tables and chairs.
Mrs. Pantin, as gossip had surmised, wore electric blue with collar and cuffs of lace that presumably was real, while angular Mrs. Sudds looked chaste, if somewhat like a windmill in repose, in her bridal gown. Mrs. Neifkins, too, came up to expectations in her peach-blow satin.
For a while the ladies of the receiving line found their position somewhat of a sinecure, for nobody knew what they were standing there for until Mrs. Rufus Webb, the wife of Prouty's new haberdasher, arrived. Mrs. Webb had been called home to her dying mother's bedside, but fortunately had been able to return from her sad errand in time for the function at the Prouty House. When she laid aside her wrap it was observed that she had gone into red.
Kate was an unconscionable time in dressing, Hugh thought, as he waited in the office, considering that the flour sack tied behind her saddle had seemed to contain her wardrobe easily enough.
His attention was focused upon Mrs. Neifkins, whom he had last seen in a wrapper and slat sunbonnet, when a lull in the hubbub that became a hush caused him to look up. His eyes followed the gaze of every other pair of eyes to the head of the stairs that came down from the floor above into the office. He saw Kate—dreadful as to clothes as a caricature or a comic valentine! She had a wreath of red paper roses in her hair and a chain of them reached from one shoulder nearly to the hem of her skirt on the other side. The dress itself was made without regard to the prevailing mode and of the three-cent-a-yard bunting bought by sheepmen by the bolt to be used for flags to scare off coyotes in lambing time. The body of the dress was blue, trimmed with the same material in red. The sleeves were elbow length, and she wore black mitts. But the crowning horror, unless it was the wreath, was the string of red wild-rose seed pods around her neck.
Kate had cut out her gown without a pattern and with no mirror to guide her, the skirt was several inches shorter behind than in front, and a miscalculation put the gathers chiefly in one spot.
She was not recognized at first, for her visits to Prouty had been made at too long intervals for her to be known save by a few. Then, quickly—"Mormon Joe's Kate!" was whispered behind hands and passed from mouth to mouth.
The girl's eager glowing face was the one redeeming thing of her appearance. Half way down the stairs she stopped involuntarily and looked with an expression of wondering inquiry into the many staring eyes focused upon herself. Then a titter, nearly inaudible at first, grew into a general snicker throughout the room.
They were laughing at her! There was no mistake about that. Kate shrank back as though she had been struck; while the radiance faded from her face, and it turned as white as the wall at her back.
What was the matter? What had she done? Wasn't she all right? she asked herself, while her heart gave a great throb of fear. She gripped the bannister while her panic-stricken eyes sought Hughie in the crowded office. Where was he? Did he mean to leave her alone? It seemed minutes that she stood there, though it was only one at most.
In spite of his worldly air and social ease, Disston was only a boy after all, with a boy's keen sensitiveness to ridicule, and this ordeal was something outside the experience of his nineteen years. The worst he had expected was that she would be frumpish, or old-fashioned, or commonplace like these other women standing about, but it had not occurred to him that she might be conspicuously grotesque.
There was a moment of uncertainty which seemed as long to the boy as it did to Kate, and then the chivalry of his good southern blood responded gallantly to the appeal in her eyes. His dark face was dyed with the blood that rushed to the roots of his hair, and his forehead was damp with the moisture of embarrassment, but he rose from his seat and went to meet her with a welcoming smile.
"Oh, Hughie!" she gasped tremulously in gratitude and relief as she ran rather than walked down the remaining stairs.
The grinning crowd parted to let them pass as, self-conscious and stiffly erect, they walked the length of the office towards the dining room. Figuratively speaking, Prouty stood on tip-toe to see what sort of reception they would meet from the receiving line. It was tacitly understood that lesser social lights would take their cue from them.
Of its kind, it was as thrilling a moment as Prouty had experienced. Mrs. Myron Neifkins had recognized Kate immediately and passed the word along to Mrs. Pantin who, although a comparative stranger, had been properly supplied with information as to the community's undesirables. "Mormon Joe's Kate," the daughter of the notorious Jezebel of the Sand Coulee Roadhouse, naturally was included in the list.
Hugh, who had met these ladies previously and found them as amiable as any one could wish—particularly Mrs. Pantin, who had regarded him as somebody to cultivate because of his connection with the exclusive Toomeys of the Scissor Ranch—now had something of the sensation of a person who had stepped into the frigid atmosphere of a cold storage plant.
Mrs. Pantin's eyes had all the warm friendliness of two blue china knobs and her thin lips were closed until her mouth looked merely a vivid scratch. Yet, somehow, the boy managed to say with his manner of deferential courtesy:
"Mrs. Pantin, do you know Miss Prentice?"
Ordinarily, a part of Mrs. Pantin's society manner was a vivacious chirp, but now she said coldly between her teeth:
"I haven't that pleasure." She gave Kate her extreme finger tips with such obvious reluctance that the action was an affront.
Disston glanced at Mrs. Sudds in the hope of finding friendliness. That lady had drawn herself up like an outraged tragedy queen. No one would have dreamed, seeing Mrs. Sudds at the moment with her air of royal hauteur, that in bygone days she had had her own troubles making twelve dollars a week as a stenographer.
His glance passed on to Mrs. Neifkins, who was picking at a French knot in a spasm of nervousness lest Kate betray the fact that they had met.
Disston was aware that Mrs. Neifkins knew Kate and his lip curled at her cowardice. He raised his head haughtily; he would not subject his partner to further rebuffs.
"Come on, Katie," he said, curtly, and they passed into the dining room.
The girl's cheeks were flaming as they sat down on the chairs ranged against the wall.
"Hughie," her fingers were like ice as she clasped them together in her lap. "What's the matter? Do I look—queer?"
He answered shortly:
"You're all right."
They sat watching the crowd file in. Suddenly Hughie exclaimed in obvious relief:
"There's Teeters, and Maggie Taylor and her mother! Wait here—I'll bring them over."
He went up to them with assurance, for their friendliness and hospitality had been marked upon the several occasions that he had accompanied Teeters, who always had some transparent excuse for stopping at their ranch.
Mrs. Taylor, with her backwoods' conceit and large patronizing manner, had been especially amusing to Hughie, but now in this uncomfortable situation she looked like a haven in a storm as he saw her towering by nearly half a head above the tallest in the crowd.
It was Mrs. Taylor's proud boast that she came of a race of giants. Even upon ordinary occasions she bore a rather remarkable resemblance to a mountain sheep, but to-night the likeness was further increased by a grizzled bunch of frizzled hair that stood out on either temple like embryo horns. Mrs. Taylor looked, as it were, "in the velvet." She wore a brown sateen basque secured at the throat by a brooch consisting of a lock of hair under glass. It was observed, also, that for the evening she had removed the string which she commonly wore around her two large and widely separated front teeth, and which were being drawn together by this means at about the rate the earth is cooling off.
Mrs. Taylor dated events from the time "Mr. Taylor was taken," though there was always room for doubt as to whether Mr. Taylor was "taken" or quite deliberately went.
Miss Maggie was tall and sallow and was anticipating matrimony with an ardor that had made the maiden one of the country's stock jokes, since the sharer of it seemed to be of secondary importance to the fact. All her spare change and waking hours were spent buying and embroidering linen for the "hope chest" that spoke of her determined confidence in the realization of her ambition.
The three greeted Hughie warmly. Miss Maggie flashed her dazzling teeth; Teeters reached out and smote him with his fist between the shoulder blades; Mrs. Taylor laid her hand upon his arm with her large smug air of patronizing friendliness, and, stooping, beamed into his face.
"We were not looking for you here. Did Mr. and Mrs. Toomey come? Are you alone?"
"I brought Katie Prentice—she's sitting over there."
"Oh!" Mrs. Taylor's expression changed.
The boy looked at her pleadingly as he added:
"She has so few pleasures, and she would so like to have acquaintances—to make friends."
"I dare say," dryly.
"She—she doesn't know any one. Won't you—all come and join us?" There was entreaty in the boy's voice.
Mrs. Taylor rose out of her hips until she looked all of seven feet tall to Hughie.
"You must excuse me, Mr. Disston." She hesitated, then added in explanation: "When we came West I told myself that I must not allow myself to deteriorate in rough surroundings, and I have made it a rule never to mingle with any but the best, Mr. Disston. My father," impressively, "was a prominent undertaker in Philadelphia, and as organist in a large Methodist church in that city I came in contact with the best people, so you understand," blandly, "don't you, why I cannot—"
The boy was red to the rim of his ears as he bowed formally to mother and daughter.
"I don't in the least," he replied, coldly.
The pain in Kate's eyes hurt him when he returned to his seat and she asked.
"They wouldn't come?"
He hesitated, then answered bluntly:
"H-had we better stay?"
"Yes," he replied, doggedly, "we'll stay."
Their efforts at conversation were not a success, and it was a relief to them both when Hiram Butefish, as Floor Manager, commanded everybody to take partners for a waltz.
Hughie arose and held out his hands to Kate.
"Hughie, I can't," she protested, shrinking back. "I'm—afraid."
"Yes, you can," determinedly. "Don't let these people think they can frighten you."
"I'll try because you want me to," she answered, "but it's all gone out of my head, and I know I can't."
"You'll get it directly," as he took her hand. "Just remember and count. One, two, three—now!"
The bystanders tittered as she stumbled. The sound stung the boy like a whip, his black eyes flashed, but he said calmly enough:
"You make too much of it, Katie. Put your mind on the time and count."
She tried once more with no better result. She merely hopped, regardless of the music.
"I tell you I can't, Hughie," she said, despairingly. "Let's sit down."
"Never mind," soothingly as he acquiesced, "we'll try it again after a while. The next will very likely be a square dance and I can pilot you through that."
"You're so good!"
He looked away to avoid her grateful eyes. What would she say if she knew the reason he had brought her there? On a bet! He had seen only what appeared to be the humorous side. Hughie's own pride enabled him to realize how deep were the hurts she was trying so pluckily to hide. But why did they treat her so? Even her dreadful get-up seemed scarcely to account for it.
The next number, as he surmised, was a square dance.
"Take your pardners fer a quadrille!"
There was a scrambling and a sliding over the floor, accompanied by much laughter, to the quickly formed "sets."
"There's a place, Kate—on the side, too, so you have only to watch what the others do."
She hesitated, but he could see the longing in her eyes.
He taunted boyishly, "Don't be a 'fraidy cat,'" at which for the first time they both laughed with something of naturalness.
Mr. Scales of the Emporium and his plump bookkeeper were there, and the willowy barber with the stylish operator of the new telephone exchange, while Mr. and Mrs. Neifkins made the third couple, and Hugh and Kate completed the set.
There was an exchange of looks as the pair came up. The stylish operator lifted an eyebrow and drew down the corners of her mouth. The bookkeeper said, "Well!" with much significance,—but it remained for Mrs. Neifkins to give the real offense. The expression on her vapid face implied that she was aghast at their impudence. Gathering the fullness of her skirt as though to withdraw it from contamination she laid the other hand on her husband's arm:
"There's a place over there, Myron, where we can get in."
"It's nearer the music," said Neifkins with an apologetic grin to the others.
Those who stayed had something of the air of brazening it out. In vain Mr. Butefish called sternly for, "One more couple this way!"
It was Scales of the Emporium who said, finally:
"Looks like we don't dance—might as well sit down."
Every one acted on the suggestion with alacrity save Kate and Hughie. When he turned to her, he saw that she was swallowing hard at the lump that was choking her.
"It's on account of me that they act so, Hughie! You stay if you want to; I'm going."
"Stay here?" he cried in boyish passion. "You're the only lady in the room so far as I can see! What would I stay for?"
The citizens of Prouty were still deeply impressed by each other's pretensions, as the reputations the majority had left in their "home towns" had not yet caught up with them. Therefore, being greatly concerned about what his neighbor thought of him, no one would have dared be friendly to the ostracized couple even if he had the disposition.
Kate and Hughie walked out, very erect and looking straight ahead, followed by a feeling of satisfaction that this opportunity had presented itself for the new order to show where it stood in the matter of accepting doubtful characters on an equal social footing. It had properly vindicated itself of the charge that western society was lax in such matters. That they had hurt—terribly hurt—another, was of small importance.
In the little room upstairs, where less than an hour before she had dressed in happy excitement, Kate tore off the paper flowers and wild rose pods. She threw them in a heap on the floor—the cherished mitts, the bunting dress—while she sobbed in a child's abandonment, with the tears running unchecked down her cheeks. The music floating up the stairway and through the transom, the scuffling sound of sliding feet, added to her grief. She had wanted, oh, how she had wanted to dance!
The thought that Hughie had suffered humiliation because of her was little short of torture. But he had not deserted her—he had stuck—even in her misery she gloried in that—and how handsome he had looked! Why, there was not a man in the room that could compare with him! His clothes, the way he had borne himself, the something different about him which she could not analyze. It was a woman's pride that shone in her swollen red-lidded eyes as she told herself this, while she pinned on her shabby Stetson in trembling haste, buckled the spurs on her boots and snatched up her ugly mackinaw.
Hugh was waiting for her in the office below.
The horses were tied to the hitching rack. Kate gulped down the lump that rose in her throat as she swung into the saddle. The orchestra was playing the "Blue Danube," and she especially loved that waltz. The strains followed them up the street, and tears she could not keep back fell on the horse's mane as she drooped a little over the saddlehorn.
She looked down through dimmed eyes upon the lights streaming from the windows of the Prouty House, as they climbed the steep pitch to the bench above town, and the alluring brightness increased the aching heaviness of her heart, for she felt that she was leaving all they represented behind her forever. She knew she never could find the courage to risk going through such an ordeal again.
A childhood without playmates had created a longing for companionship that was pathetic in its eagerness, and the yearning had not been modified by the isolation and monotony of her present life. To dance, to be merry, to have the opportunity to please, seemed the most important thing in the world to the girl and now she seemed to realize, in mutinous despair, that through no fault of her own she was going to be cheated of that which was her right—of that which was every girl's right—to have the pleasures which belonged to her years.
Kate's standards were the standards of the old west and of the mountains and plains, which take only personal worth into account, so she did not yet comprehend clearly what it was all about. She herself had done nothing to merit such treatment from people whose names she did not even know. She rode for a long time without speaking, trying, in her tragic bewilderment, to puzzle it out.
The silence was in painful contrast to the high spirits in which they had ridden into town. Then, they had found so much to talk about, so much to anticipate—and it had all turned out to be so different, so far removed from anything they had dreamed. Each shrank from being the first to broach the subject of their humiliating retreat.
The moon came up after a while, full and mellow, and the night air cooled Kate's flaming cheeks. The familiar stars, too, soothed her like the presence of old friends, but, more than anything, the accustomed motion of her horse, as it took its running walk, helped to restore her mental poise.
At the top of a hill both drew rein automatically. Walking down steep descents to save their horses and themselves was an understood thing between them. At the bottom they still trudged on, leading their horses and exchanging only an occasional word upon some subject far removed from their real thoughts. It was Kate who finally said with seeming irrelevance:
"Uncle Joe brought home two collie puppies once—fat, roly-poly little things that didn't do anything but play and eat, and they were—oh, so innocent! They were into everything, and always under foot, afraid of nothing or nobody, because they never had been hurt.
"One night a storm came up—a cold rain that was almost snow. They ran into my tent and settled themselves on my pillow all shivering and wet. In squirming around to make a nest for themselves they pulled my hair. It made me cross. I was half asleep and I slapped them.
"They paid no attention to it at first—they couldn't believe I meant it, so they kept on trying to cuddle up to me to get warm. I slapped them harder. They whimpered, but still they couldn't realize that I meant to hurt them. Finally, I struck them—hard—again and again—until they howled with pain. They understood finally that they were not wanted—and they went crying and whimpering out into the rain.
"It awakened me, thinking what I had done, how they had come to me so innocent—taking kindness as a matter of course because they never had known anything else, and I had been the first to hurt them. I was the first to spoil their confidence in others—and themselves. I couldn't sleep for thinking of it, and finally I got up, and, to punish myself, went out barefooted into the storm and brought them back. They forgave me and soon settled down, but they never were quite the same, for they had learned what pain was and what it meant to be afraid.
"When I went there to-night I was like those puppies, just as green and confident—just as sure of everybody's kindness."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Katie," he replied in a low tone.
"I don't mean to whine," she went on, "but you see I wasn't expecting it, and, like the puppies, it took me a long time to understand. I thought at first it was my dress—that I looked—funny, somehow; but you said it wasn't that, so I thought maybe it was because we were 'in sheep,' but so is Neifkins, and nobody treated them as they did me."
"The upstarts!" savagely. "I'll never forgive myself for taking you there!"
She protested quickly:
"You're not to blame. How could you know? You meant to do something nice for me, Hughie."
He winced at that. It would have required more courage than he had to have told her at the moment the exact truth.
He held the horses back and stopped suddenly.
"Katie," turning to her, "I'd do anything in the world to make amends for what happened to-night. Isn't there some way—something I can do for you? Anything at all," he pleaded. "Just tell me—no matter what it is—you've only to let me know."
She looked at him with grateful eyes, but shook her head.
"No, Hughie, there's nothing you can do for me." She caught her breath sharply and added, "Ex—except to go on liking me. It would break my heart if you went back on me, too."
"If you didn't like me any more—" She choked and the swift tears filled her eyes.
"Like you!" impetuously. "I'd do more than like you if I never had seen you before to-night!" He dropped the bridle reins and laid a hand on either shoulder, holding her at arms' length. "Your eyes are like stars! And your mouth looks so—sweet! And your hair is so soft and pretty when the wind blows it across your forehead and face like that! I wish you could see yourself. You're beautiful in the moonlight, Kate!"
"Beautiful?" incredulously. Then she laughed happily, "Why, I'm not even pretty, Hughie."
"And what's more," he declared, "you're a wonderful girl—different—a fellow never gets tired of being with you."
"You are making up to me for what happened to-night! I nearly forget it when you tell me things like that."
"I didn't know how much I did care until they hurt you. I could have killed somebody if it wouldn't have made things worse for you."
"As much as that?" She looked at him wistfully. "You care as much as that? You see," she added slowly, "nobody's ever taken my part except Uncle Joe—not even my mother; and it seems—queer to think that anybody else likes me well enough to fight for me."
The unconscious pathos went straight to the boy's chivalrous heart.
"Oh, Honey!" he cried impulsively, and taking her hand in both of his he held it tight against his breast.
Her eyes grew luminous at the word and the caress.
"Honey!" she repeated in a wondering whisper. "I like that."
Her lids lowered before the new and strange expression in his face.
"You've always seemed so independent and self-reliant, like another fellow, somehow. I didn't know you were so sweet. I'm just finding you out."
She looked at him before replying, but he trembled before the soft light shining in her eyes.
He stood for a moment uncertainly, fighting for his self-control, then, casting off restraint, he threw his arms about her, crying passionately:
"I love you! I love you, Katie! There's nobody like you in the whole world. Kiss me—Sweet!"
She drew back startled, looking into his eyes. Her own seemed to melt under what she saw there, and she slowly lifted her lips. When she could speak—
"You'll love me for always, Hughie?"
"For always," huskily. "For ever and ever, Katie."
THE WOLF SCRATCHES
Mormon Joe had underestimated Jasper Toomey's capacity for extravagance and mismanagement when he had given him five years to "go broke" in, as he had accomplished it in four most effectively—so completely, in fact, that they had moved into town with only enough furniture to furnish a small house, which they spoke of as having "rented," though as yet the owner had had nothing but promises to compensate him for their occupancy.
It was close to a year after their advent in Prouty that Mrs. Toomey awakened in the small hours, listened a moment, then prodded her husband sharply:
"The wind's coming up, Jap, and I left out my washing."
"Never mind—I'll borrow a saddle horse in the morning and go after it."
"Everything will be whipped to ribbons," she declared plaintively.
"I'm not going out this time of night to collect laundry; besides, the exercise would make me hungrier."
"Are you hungry, Jap?"
"Hungry! I've been lying here thinking of everything I ever left on my plate since I was a baby!"
Mrs. Toomey sighed deeply.
"Wouldn't a fat club sandwich with chicken, lettuce, thin bacon and mayonnaise dressing—"
"Hush!" Toomey exploded savagely. "If you say that again I'll dress and go out and rob a hen roost!"
Mrs. Toomey suggested hopefully:
"Perhaps if you light the lamp, and smoke, it will take your mind off your stomach."
"I surmise that's all there is on it." Toomey lighted the lamp on the table beside the bed and looked at the clock on the bureau.
"Hours yet, my love, before I can gorge myself on a shredded wheat biscuit."
Mrs. Toomey braided a wisp of hair to an infinitesimal end and said firmly:
"Jap, we've simply got to do something! Can't you borrow?"
"Borrow! I couldn't throw a rock inside the city limits without hitting some one to whom I owe money. Come again, Old Dear," mockingly.
"Wouldn't Mormon Joe—"
"I'd starve before I'd ask that sheepherder!" His face darkened to ugliness. "I'm surprised at you—that you haven't more pride. You know he broke me, shutting me off from water with his leases. I've explained all that to you."
She was silent; she didn't have the heart to hit him when he was down, though she had her own opinion as to the cause of his failure.