E-text prepared by Al Haines
Author of "The Night Riders," "The Way of The Strong," "The Trail of The Axe," Etc.
A. L. Burt Company Publishers ——— New York Published by arrangement with George W. Jacobs & Company Copyright, 1917, by George W. Jacobs & Company All rights reserved
I. AT RAINBOW HILL VALLEY II. CONFLICTING CURRENTS III. TRAILING THE "BLACK TAIL" IV. THE WEAKER VESSEL V. THE HANGING BEE VI. THE RAIDERS RAIDED VII. OUTLAND JUSTICE VIII. JEFF CLOSES THE BOOK IX. FOUR YEARS LATER X. THE POLO CLUB RACES XI. ELVINE VAN BLOOREN XII. THE TEMPERING XIII. THE NEWS XIV. THE KNOCKING ON THE DOOR XV. THE HOME-COMING XVI. THE RANCHMAN XVII. THE CALL TO ORRVILLE XVIII. DUG MCFARLANE XIX. THE RETURN HOME XX. AT BUD'S XXI. THE BARRIER XXII. THREATENINGS XXIII. THE HEARTS OF TWO WOMEN XXIV. TO SPRUCE CROSSING XXV. AN EPIC BATTLE XXVI. UNDER THE VEIL XXVII. THE ROUND-UP
AT RAINBOW HILL VALLEY
A companionable silence prevailed in the room. At intervals it was broken, but only by the rustle of paper or the striking of a match. The heavy breathing, almost amounting to a snore, of one of the two men, and the inarticulate protests of a laboring "rocker" chair—these things were only a part of it.
The man at the table was deeply immersed in a miniature sea of calculations. His fair brows were drawn in deep concentration. Frequently he was at great pains to relight a pipe which contained nothing but charred remnants of tobacco and a moist, unsmokable mixture which afforded only a somewhat offensive taste and aroma.
The partner in this companionship overflowed an undersized "rocker," which withstood, with supreme heroism, the overwhelming forces of its invader. But its sufferings, under the rhythmic rise and fall imposed upon it, found expression at intervals, although they failed to inspire the least sympathy. The heedless giant's whole attention seemed to be absorbed in the personality and effort of his friend.
Finally the latter raised a pair of deep blue eyes. Following upon a sigh, he thrust his papers aside with a brusque movement of relief. Then he raised a hand to his broad forehead and smoothed his disheveled fair hair, which seemed to have undergone some upheaval as a result of the mental disturbance his efforts had inspired in the brain beneath. The handsome eyes smiled a reassuring smile into the rugged face of his friend.
"Well?" he enquired, without seeming to desire a reply.
"Wal?" echoed the gruff voice of the man in the rocker.
The patient amusement in the twinkling eyes of the man in the rocker was good to see. There was confidence, too, in his regard of the younger man.
"Can we do it—sure?" he enquired, as the other remained silent.
"Without a worry."
"Then dope it out, boy. The easiest thing in the world is handin' out dollars on a right enterprise. I don't know nothin' better—except it is takin' 'em in on the same sort o' play."
Jeffrey Masters smiled more broadly into his friend's good-humored face.
"Five years back, handing out twenty thousand dollars would have given us a nightmare, even on a right proposition," he said. "It isn't that way now. Guess we'll sleep on this thing like new-born babes with our tanks filled right. Nat Williams is out to sell quick, and if we're bright, it's up to us to buy quick. For twenty thousand dollars," he proceeded, referring to his figures, "we get his house, barns, corrals, and all his rolling stock. His growing crops and machinery. The bunch of old cows and calves he's pleased to call his 'herds.' Also three teams of Shire-bred heavy draft horses, and six hundred and forty acres of first-class wheat land and grazing that only needs capital and hustle to set right on top. I don't guess it'll worry us any to hand it all it needs that way. This buy will join up my 'O——' territory with your 'T.T.' grazing, and will turn the combination into one of the finest ranching propositions west of Calthorpe, and one which even Montana needs to be proud of."
He leaned back in his chair with a certain air of satisfaction. But there was just a shade of anxiety, too, in the glance with which he favored his friend. However, he need have felt no misgivings. Bud Tristram had none. He understood the keen business brain underlying his friend's tumbled fair hair. Moreover, Jeff, who was only half the older man's age, was regarded with something like parental affection.
They had fought their way up together from obscure beginnings to their present affluence, as the owners of the "T.T." ranch and the "O——" ranch respectively. They had been partners in all but name. Now they contemplated a definite deed of that nature. It was a consummation which the older man had looked forward to ever since he first lent a hand to his new and youthful neighbor. It was a consummation which Jeffrey, with acute foresight and honest purpose, had set himself to achieve. If the older man regarded him with almost parental affection, that regard was fully reciprocated. The business conference between them had for its purpose their mutual advantage, and both men were perfectly aware of the fact.
But the thought that slightly worried the younger man was the ease, the unconcern of his future partner's attitude. It disquieted him because it increased his responsibility. But long ago he had learned the generous nature of the Great Bud. Long ago he had realized his trusting simplicity. Now he would have preferred a keen cross-examination of his statement. But none was forthcoming, and he was forced to continue in face of the silent acceptance.
"Bud, old friend, I wish I could get you interested in—figures. And I guess they surely are interesting, when you apply them to our own concerns."
But Bud remained unmoved. He stretched himself in an ecstasy of ease, raising his great arms above his grizzled head in profound enjoyment of his bodily comfort.
He shook his head.
"Guess I know a steer. Guess I know grass when I see it. I wouldn't say there's a brand in Montana I ain't familiar with. But figgers—sums—they're hell. An' I don't guess I'm yearning for hell anyway. Figgers is a sort o' paradise to you. You're built that way. Say, I don't calc'late to rob you of a thing—not even paradise. We'll take your figgers as they stand."
Jeffrey Masters shook his head.
"They're right, sure. But it's no sort of way to talk business."
"Business talk always makes me sweat."
It was quite impossible. Jeffrey was growing impatient. A frown settled upon his broad brow, and the man in the rocker watched it with amused eyes.
Quite suddenly the younger man's impatience broke forth into verbal protest.
"Say, you make me mad. Was there ever such a feller looking for sharps to play him? How do you know I'm not out to beat you? Why, I could roll you for every dollar you possess without lying awake five minutes at night. It's not fair, Bud. It's not fair to me—to you—to your little Nan——"
"What's not fair to Nan?"
Bud's twinkling eyes shot round upon the open French window with an alertness scarcely to be expected in a man of such apparent mental indolence. Jeffrey's eyes cleared of their hot impatience as they sought a similar direction. The gaze of both men encountered the picture of a brown-eyed, brown-haired girl of exquisite proportions, standing framed in the open window. She was clad in a riding suit of light material, with a long-skirted coat which obviously concealed the divided skirt beneath. Her long, brown top boots were white with dust of the trail, and her vicious-looking Mexican spurs hung loosely upon her heels. Her eyes were bright with intelligence and good humor, and her pretty oval face smiled out from under the wide brim of an ample prairie hat.
Jeff began to laugh.
"It's your crazy old father, Nan," he cried. "Say, just look at him. Feast your eyes on him. Can you beat it? Here we are right up to our necks in an epoch-making business proposition and he don't concern himself two whoops. Was there ever such a bunch of simple trusting folly as is rolled up in that six feet three of good-hearted honesty? That's what's not fair to—Nan."
The girl came and laid a protecting hand upon the flannel-clad shoulders of her father. Just for a moment her laughing eyes gazed affectionately down upon the recumbent form of the only parent she possessed, and whom she idolized. He was stretched out luxuriously, his great be-chapped legs reaching to the table leg as a support to hold the rocker at a comfortable poise. His shirt sleeves were rolled up displaying a pair of arms like legs of mutton. The beadwork wristlets were held fixed in their position by the distended muscles beneath them. She was proud of him, this father who went through the world trusting human nature, and handling cattle as only an artist in his profession can handle them.
Then her dancing eyes sought the face of Jeffrey Masters. Her smile remained, but a subtle something crept into their depths as she surveyed it. It was the handsome, clean-cut face of a purposeful man. There was a straight-forward directness in the gaze of his blue eyes. It was the face of a man who has no fear, physical or moral. It was almost too uncompromising in its fearlessness.
Nan knew its every line by heart. She had thought of it, dreamed of it, since the time when she had first realized that a woman's life is wholly incomplete without the care of a man upon her hands. Sometimes she had felt that Jeffrey Masters possessed depths which could never be fathomed. Depths of strength, of resource, and all those qualities which make for success. Sometimes she even went further, when her analytical faculties—which she possessed in an unusual degree—were most active. She felt that the possession of all these firm qualities had rather smothered, to an extent, the gentler emotions of the human nature in him. He was strong, passionate, with a conscience of an almost puritanical order, and somehow she felt that a little softening, a little leavening of human weakness would have been all to the good. But this understanding made no difference to her woman's regard, unless it were to strengthen it to a sort of gentle worship such as woman is always ready to yield to strength. It required no effort upon her part to picture this man in the heroic mould of a Spartan warrior.
"'That,'" she replied, with a whimsical smile, "is a man, who most generally seems to fancy his own way of doing things." Then she shook her head as her arm slipped protectingly around the big man's bronzed neck. "I don't guess a woman's argument ever made a man see things different yet. What's he done, Jeff?"
Jeff laughed without humor.
"Done?" he exclaimed. Then, with a shake of the head: "It's not what he's done. Guess it's what he hasn't done, and what he don't seem to figure to do. I'd kind of raised a hope when I saw you in the window. But—well, it was only her father's daughter that came in, I guess."
Then he drew his papers toward him again, and glanced seriously at the figures.
"It's Nat's farm," he explained. "And it's the thing we've been waiting on years. We're getting it fixed right, and your Bud's just about as much help as a deaf mute at a talking bee. I hand him figgers, and—and he smiles, just smiles. I hand him facts, and—he keeps on smiling. It's the kind of smile you most generally see on a dog-tired feller's face when you hand him a funny story. He don't care a cuss anyway. He's figuring to hand Nat ten thousand dollars with no more kick than a government spending public money. He don't kick reasonably or unreasonably, and I'd gamble you a new hat he hasn't a notion what he's getting for it. It makes me feel like a 'hold-up,' and I say it's not fair to me—nor to himself—nor to—you."
Jeff was serious enough. In such affairs it would have been difficult to find him otherwise. Nan understood. These two men had long been her profound study. Her smiling regard remained unchanging while the man was talking. When he ceased she bent over her father in a caressing fashion.
"He'd lose his bet. He surely would, daddy dear, wouldn't he? But we really need to answer, don't we? He'd think we were both fools, else. He wouldn't like it either. Say, daddy, shall—shall I talk?"
Bud chuckled comfortably.
"I'd hate to stop you, Nan."
Nan smiled contentedly, and raised a pair of challenging eyes in the direction of the table.
"My daddy thinks I talk too much," she said. "But I s'pose that's my way—most girls talk when they get the chance—just the same as it's his way talking too little. But neither ways suggest a fool, Jeff. And anyway the only sort of fool you need to worry with is the fool who don't see and act in a way of his own. My daddy's acting in his own way, and I guess it isn't his way, working overtime with the band playing. If you're dead fixed on having a gamble, it's a new hat to a new and less smelly pipe than you're smoking now, that he knows the inside of this deal to the last cent's worth. But what's more, Jeff, he knows you, and knows you couldn't 'hold-up' a Sunday-school kiddie without going and telling its teacher first. And now the mail."
She left her father's side and moved to the table, a very picture of gentle decision and practice.
"Three for you, my daddy," she cried, dropping three letters on his chest, where his shirt gaped just below his neck. Then she turned about. "Only one for you, honest Jeff. Just one, and I've guessed at the writing till I'm sick."
Jeff was smiling up with frank amusement.
"Say, that's great. It's got you beat. Well," he added, as he picked up the letter, "I'll just keep you right on guessing. Where's yours?"
The girl laughed merrily.
"Had mine. I don't guess any right-acting girl would sit easy in the saddle twelve miles without reading her mail. Say——" she paused. The smile had died out of her eyes. Jeff's expression had abruptly changed. He was regarding the address on his envelope with startled seriousness. Then she went on quickly: "Guess I'll wait till you're both through. I'll get right out an' off-saddle. Then for supper."
In the parlor the silence remained unbroken. It became unduly prolonged. Bud finished his mail. Jeff was still reading his. It was not a long letter. He had already read it twice through. Now he again turned back to its beginning.
Bud observed him closely. He saw the knitted brows. The curious set of the man's lips. His absorbed interest. Nor did he interrupt. He contented himself with that patient waiting which betrayed much of the solid strength of his character.
Presently Jeff looked up. But his eyes did not seek his friend. They were turned upon the open window, his gaze wandering out toward the distant hills, which marked the confines of Rainbow Hill Valley.
Still the other refrained from speech. Finally it was Jeff, himself, who broke the silence.
"Bud," he began, without withdrawing his gaze from the scene beyond the window, "it's a letter from Ronald. It's the second word I've had of him in—five years."
Jeff's gaze came slowly, thoughtfully back to Bud's face.
"Sure. We're twins."
An unusual softness crept into the eyes of the man at the table.
"I'm kind of wondering, Bud," he went on presently, "wondering if you get all that means—means to me. I don't know." He passed a hand slowly across his brow, as though to brush aside growing perplexities. "I don't seem to get all it means myself. No, I don't. The whole thing's so queer," he went on, with a nervous, restless movement in his chair. "It sort of seems crazy, too." He laughed meaninglessly. Then he suddenly leaned forward with flushed cheeks and hot eyes. "Bud, don't think me crazy, but—well, say, I'm only part of me without Ronny near. Oh, I don't guess that explains. But it's what I feel—and I can't just talk it right. You don't get it? No, of course you don't. I can see it in your eyes. You think I'm right for the foolish-house. Listen. Is it possible—is it ordinary reason that when twins are born, the nature of one normal child can be divided between the two, one having what the other feller lacks? There, that's how I feel about it. It's the way it is with Ronny and me. All that he is not, I am. I haven't one of his better features. Say, Bud, I'm a pretty cold sort of man. I'd have made a fair sort of Puritan if I'd been on earth a century or so ago. I've little enough humor. I don't care for play. I don't care for half the fun most folks see in life. I'd sooner work than eat. And Ronny—well, Ronny isn't just any of those things. He's just a boy, full of every sort of human notion that's opposite to mine. And I'm crazy for him. Say, Bud, I love him better than anything in life. If anything happened to that boy, why, I guess all that's worth while in me would die plumb out."
He paused. Bud's shrewd eyes remained studying the emotion-lit features of this usually unemotional man. He felt he was being admitted to a peep at a soul that was rarely, if ever, bared, and he wondered at the reason. Was it a calculated display, or was it the outlet for an emotion altogether too strong for the man's restraint? He inclined to the former belief.
"Nothin' has happened?" he enquired presently, in his direct fashion.
Jeff laughed without any visible sign of lightness.
"No," he said. Then with a deep sigh. "Thank God nothing has happened. But——"
"Then the trouble——?"
"The trouble? Say, Bud, try to get it all as I see it. It's difficult. The boy's away up trapping and shooting—for a living—somewhere in the Cathills. He's away there living on hard pan, while I'm here steadily traipsing on with you to a big pile. Remember he's my other—half. Do you know how I feel? No, you can't. Say, he's as merry as I am—dour. He's as fond of life, and play, and the good things of the world as I'm indifferent to 'em. He's reckless—he's weak." Suddenly Jeff's eyes lit. A great passion seemed to surge through his whole body. "Bud, I want him here. I want to be always around to help him when he gets bumping into potholes. It's that weakness that sets me crazy when I think. He ain't made for the dreary grind of the life we live. That's why he cut it out when I came here. Well there's no grind for him now, and I want to have him come along and share in with me. That's why I'm talking now. From this moment on we're a great proposition in the ranching world, and I want Ronny to share in with me."
"I get it," he said. Then he added: "You're a great feller."
"Great! Cut it out, Bud," Jeff cried sharply. "It's my love for that other half of me that's talking. That merry bit of a—twin."
"An' you're sendin' for him?"
Jeff shrugged, and depression seemed suddenly to descend upon him.
"If I could fix it that way I don't guess I'd have opened my face to hand you all this. But I can't. He's in the Cathills, away a hundred and more miles northwest of us. That's all he says. He don't give a mail address. No, Bud, I'm going to hunt him out. I'm going to find him, and bring him back. I'll find him sure. We're just one mind an' one body, an'," he added thoughtfully, "I don't guess I'll need a detective bureau to locate him. If he was chasin' around the other end of the world I'd find him—sure. You see, he's the other half of me."
Bud nodded in sympathy, but made no verbal reply.
"See, Bud," Jeff went on, a moment later. "The spring round-up's through. We're going to fix this deed right away. When the attorneys have robbed us all they need, and Nat's handed over, there'll be a good month to haying. That month I'm going to spend in the Cathills. I'll be back for the hay."
The other eased himself in his rocker. Then for some moments no sound broke the silence of the room.
"It's been a heavy spring," Bud said at last.
Jeff nodded. His thoughts were away in the Cathills.
"Seems to me," Bud went on. "Work kind o' worries me some these times." He smiled. "Guess the wheels need the dope of leisure. Mebbe I ain't as young as you."
Jeff's attention was still wandering.
"Guess the Cathills is an a'mighty big piece o' country gropin' around in," Bud went on.
"Sure. A hell of a piece. But—it don't signify."
"No-o," Bud meditated. Then he added: "I was kind o' thinkin'."
"Why, mebbe two folks chasin' up a pin in a bunch o' grass is li'ble to halve most o' the chances agin either of 'em jabbin' their hands on the business end of it."
"Two? You mean you're goin' to come along an' help find—Ronny?"
Jeff's eyes were expressing the thanks his lips withheld.
Bud excused himself.
"Them Cathills is plumb full of fur an' things. Say, I ain't handled a gun in weeks."
The door of the room was abruptly flung open and Jeff's words remained unspoken.
Nan's smiling eyes glanced from one to the other. She stood in the doorway compelling them. Besides, the memory of Jeff's letter was still with her, and she was anxious to observe its later effect. That which she now beheld was obviously satisfactory, and her smile deepened contentedly.
They were busy days in Orrville. But business rarely yielded outward display in its citizens. Men talked more. They perhaps moved about more—in their customary leisurely fashion. But any approach to bustle was as foreign to the rule of the township as it would be to a colony of aged snails in a cyclone.
It was the custom of Orrville to rise early and go to bed late. But this by no means implies any excessive activity. On the contrary. These spells of activity lasted just as long as their accomplishment required. In the interim its citizens returned to a slumber little less profound than that which supervened at night after the last roysterer had been ejected, by force, or persuasion, from the salubrious precincts of Ju Penrose's saloon.
Orrville was a ranching township in the northwestern corner of Montana lying roughly some twenty miles west of the foothills of the Cathill Mountains, which, in turn, formed a projecting spur of the main range of the Rockies.
Orrville was the township and Ju Penrose was the pioneer of its commerce. He was a man of keen instincts for commerce of his own especial brand, and rejoiced in a disreputable past. He possessed a thin, hooked nose of some dimensions, which never failed to cut a way for its owner into the shady secrets of his neighbors. He possessed a temper as amiable and mild as a spring lamb when the stream of prosperity and profit flowed his way, and as vitriolic as a she-wolf in winter, when that stream chanced to become diverted into a neighbor's direction.
He was considered a man of some importance in the place. But this was probably the result of the nature of his trade, which, in the eyes of the denizens of the neighborhood, certainly possessed an advantage over such stodgy callings as "dry goods." But besides the all-important thirst-quenching purpose of his establishment, it had become a sort of bureau for large and small transactions of a ranching nature, and a resort where every sort of card game could be freely indulged in, without regard for the limit of the stakes, and had thus gained for itself the subsidiary title amongst its clientele of "Ju's Poker Joint."
At the moment Ju's usually busy tongue was taking a well-earned rest, and his hawk-like visage was shrouded in a deep, contemplative repose. His always bloodshot eyes were speculative as he surveyed the smoke-laden scene from behind his shabby bar. The place was full of drinkers and gamblers. The hour was past midnight. And he was estimating silently the further spending possibilities of his customers, and consequently considering the advisability of closing down.
A group of three ranch hands leaned against the centre of the bar. Their glasses were empty and none of them seemed anxious to command their refilling. They were talking earnestly. And their voices were unusually modulated. Just beyond these a slight, good-looking man in chapps, with a face of particularly refined but somewhat debauched appearance, was obviously interested in their talk, although he took no part in it. On the other side of them, away at the far end of the bar, leaned a solitary, tough-looking drinker, who seemed to take no interest whatever in his surroundings. Every man in the place, the dozen or so occupying the card tables included, was fully armed in the customary fashion prevailing in this distant corner of the ranching world, and it would have needed no second thought to realize that these heavy, loaded weapons were not by any means intended for decorative purposes.
"Wal, anyways they're a long time fixin' things," observed one of the three at the centre of the bar, with a yawn that displayed a double row of gleaming white teeth. "The boss guessed I'd best wait around, so it ain't a heap o' use kickin'. I'll hev to wait till the durned committee's through, if it takes 'em sittin' as long us a hide-bound hen."
"It's allus that-a-way when folks gets on a committee racket, Curly," replied one of his friends with a sympathetic grin.
"That's just how, Dan," agreed the third. "Hot air. That's what it is. This tarnation Vigilance stunt sets folk whisperin' among 'emselves 'bout the hell goin' to be ladled out to all cattle thieves in general. Gives 'em visions of hangin'-bees, an' a sort o' firework display with guns an' things, an' when they hatched out, what's the result? Why, a waste o' hot air, an'—no checkens."
"'T'so, Dan," agreed Curly, with easy decision. "The boss is too near relative of a fancy gentleman for to hand out the sort o' dope rustlers need. If us boys had the job we'd fix things quick. You'd see this bum gang kicking air at the end of a rope 'fore Ju, here, had time to dope out four fingers of rotgut at the expense of the house."
He leered across at the unsmiling face of the saloon-keeper. Ju permitted himself to be drawn.
"Nothin' doin', Curly." A solemn shake of the head set his walrus moustache flapping. Then he drew a cigar from a top vest pocket and bit the end through, brushing his moustache aside to discover a place in which to deposit it in his mouth. "I'd sure hate to dope out any rotgut on you boys. Y'see, I sure got your health at heart. I kind o' love you fellers to death. I'd hate to see you sufferin' at my hands. Guess I was raised Christian."
Curly's sarcasm achieved the laugh intended, and, as a result of his satisfaction, he flung his last half-dollar on the dingy bar.
"Make that into three drops of liver souse, an' hand us a smile, Ju. Your face is sure killin' trade."
Ju rolled his cigar across his mouth under the curtain of moustache, lit it, and proceeded to push an uncorked bottle across to his customers.
"Guess it ain't a bad proposition handin' you boys a smile. Smiles allus happen easy on foolish faces. Seein' I ain't deaf I been listenin' to your talk, an' I ain't made up my mind if you're as bright as you're guessin', or if you're the suckers your talk makes you out. Seein' I don't usual take chances, I'll put my dollars on the sucker business. I've stood behind this darned old bar fer ten years, an' I guess for five of 'em I've listened to talk like yours—from fellers like you." He removed the bottle from which the three men had helped themselves to liberal "four fingers," and eyed their glasses askance. "Now, you're worritin' over this lousy Lightfoot gang. So was the others. So's everybody bin fer five years. An' fer five years this same lousy Lightfoot gang has just been helpin' 'emselves to the cattle on the ranches around here—liberal. Same as youse fellers have helped yourselves out o' this bottle. An', durin' that time, I ain't heard tell of one o' them boys who's been spoilin' to hang 'em all doin' a thing. Not a thing, 'cep' it's lap up whisky to keep up a supply o' hot air.
"Wal," he proceeded, in his biting fashion, as he thrust the bottle on the shelf and began wiping glasses with a towel that looked to be decomposing for want of soap, "them lousy rustlers is still running their play in the district jest wher', when, an' how they darn please. See? You, Curly, are kickin' because your boss Dug McFarlane is too much of a gentleman. Wal, if I know a man from a seam-squirrel, I'd sure say Dug's got more savee in his whiskers than you got dirt—which is some. If I got things right, this night's sittin's goin' to put paid to the Lightfoot gang's account. I'd be glad to say the same of one or two scores three bums have lately run up right here."
The offensiveness of his manner left the men quite undisturbed. The place would have been strange to them without it. They accepted it as part of the evening's entertainment. But the allusion to the Vigilance Committee's efforts brought them into attitudes of close attention. It drew the attention, too, of the cattleman with the refined features, and, equally, that of the tough-looking individual at the far end of the bar.
"What are they goin' to do?" demanded Dan urgently.
Ju puffed aggravatingly at his cigar.
"Do?" he echoed at last, gazing distantly at the card players across the room. "Why, what any bunch of savee should ha' done five years ago. Put out a great reward."
Curly snorted in disdain.
"See, I tho't it was to be a big play."
"You allus was bright," sneered Dan. "How's that goin' to fix the Lightfoot crowd?"
"How?" Ju's contempt always found an outlet in the echo of an opponent's interrogation. "Say, Dan, how old are you? Twenty?"
"That ain't nuthin' to you," the cowpuncher retorted, with a gesture of hot impatience.
"Ain't it? Wal, mebbe it ain't," Ju agreed imperturbably. "But y'see it takes years an' years gettin' the value o' dollars right. I allow ther's folks guesses dollars talks. Wal, I'm guessin' they just holler. Make the wad big enough and ther' ain't nuthin' you can't buy from a wheat binder to a royal princess with a crown o' jools. The only thing you're li'ble to have trouble over is the things Natur' fancies handin' you fer—nix. That an' hoss sense. That's pretty well the world to-day, no matter what the sky-pilots an' Sunday-school ma'ams dope out in their fancy literature. I know. You offer ten thousand dollars for the hangin' of Lightfoot's gang, an', I say right here, there ain't a feller in it from Lightfoot—if there is sech a feller—down, who wouldn't make a grab at that wad by givin' the rest of the crowd away. Makes you think, don't it? Sort o' worries them empty think tanks o' yours."
But Ju's satisfaction received an unexpected shaking.
"Some wind," observed the slim, lonely drinker, in the blandest fashion.
Ju was round on him in a flash, his walrus moustache bristling.
"I'm listening," he said, with a calmness which belied his attitude.
The other set his glass down on the counter with a bump.
"If you're listening," he said, "you have probably understood what I said. You're talking through a fog of cynicism which seems to obscure an otherwise fairly competent intellect. You've plundered so many innocents in your time by purveying an excessive quantity of bluestone disguised under the name of alcohol that your overweening conceit has entirely distorted your perspective till you fancy that your own dregs of human nature constitute the human nature of all the rest of the world, who would entirely resent being classed as your fellows. In a word you need physic, Ju."
The speaker laughed amiably, and his smile revealed the weakness which was pointed by the signs of debauchery in his good-looking face. Ju eyed him steadily. The offense of his words was mitigated by his manner, but Ju resented the laugh which went round the entire room at his expense.
"See here, Bob Whitstone," he began, abandoning his glass wiping and supporting himself on his counter, with his face offensively thrust in his opponent's direction, "I ain't got the langwidge you seem to have lapped up with your mother's milk. I don't guess any sucker paid a thousand dollars a year for my college eddication so I could come out here and grow a couple of old beeves and spend my leisure picklin' my food depot in a low down prairie saloon. Therefor' I'll ask you to excuse me if I talk in a kind o' langwidge the folks about here most gener'ly understan'. Guess you think you know some. Maybe you figger to know it all. Wal, get this. When you get back home jest stand in front of a fi' cent mirror, if you got one in your bum shanty, an' get a peek at your map, an' ask yourself—when you studied it well—if I couldn't buy you, body an' soul, fer two thousand dollars—cash. I'd sure hate slingin' mud at any feller's features, much less yours, who're a good customer to me, but you're comin' the highbrow, an' you got notions of honor still floatin' around in your flabby thinkin' department sech as was handed you by the guys who ran that thousand dollar college. Wal, ef you'll look at yourself honest, an' argue with yourself honest, you'll find them things is sure a shadder of the past which happened somew'eres before you tasted that first dose o' prairie poison which has since become a kind o' habit. It ain't no use in getting riled, Bob, it ain't no use in workin' overtime on that college dictionary o' yours to set me crawlin' around among the spit boxes. Fac's is fac's. Ken you hand me a list o' the things you—you who ain't got two spare cents to push into the mission box, an' who'd willingly sleep in a hog pen if it weren't for a dandy wife who'd got no more sense than to marry you—wouldn't do if I was to hand you out a roll of ten thousand dollars right now—cash? Tcha! You think. I know."
He turned away in a wave of contemptuous disgust. And as he did so a harsh voice from the other end of the bar held him up.
"What about me, Ju?"
The tough-looking prairie man made his demand with a laugh only a shade less harsh than his speaking voice.
Ju stood. His desperate, keen face was coldly still as he regarded the powerful frame of his challenger. Then his retort came swift and poignant.
"You, Sikkem? You'd allus give yourself away. Get me?"
The frigidity of the saloon-keeper's manner was over-powering. The man called Sikkem was unequal in words to such a challenge. A flush slowly dyed his lean cheeks, and an angry depression of the brows suggested something passionate and forceful. Just for a moment many eyes glanced in his direction. The saloon-keeper was steadily regarding him. There was no suggestion of anger in his attitude, merely cat-like watchfulness. Their eyes met. Then the cloud abruptly lifted from Sikkem's brow, and he laughed with unsmiling, black eyes. The saloon-keeper rinsed a glass and unconcernedly began to wipe it.
The incident was allowed to pass. But it was the termination of the discussion, a termination which left Ju victor, not because of the rightness of his views, but because there was no man in Orrville capable of joining issue with him in debate with any hope of success. Action rather than words was the prevailing feature with these people, and, in his way, Ju Penrose was equal, if not superior, not only in debate, but in the very method these people best understood.
A moment later Sikkem took his departure.
* * * * * *
It was well past midnight when the last man turned out of Ju's bar. But the crowd had not yet scattered to their various homes. They were gathered in a small, excited cluster gaping up at a big notice pasted on the weather-boarding of the saloon-keeper's shack. Ju himself was standing in their midst, right in front of the notice, which had been indited in ink, evidently executed with a piece of flat wood. He was holding up a lantern, and every eye was carefully, and in many instances laboriously, studying the text inscribed.
It was a notice of reward. A reward of ten thousand dollars for information leading to the capture of the gang of cattle thieves known as the "Lightfoot gang." And it was signed by Dug McFarlane on behalf of the Orrville Rancher's Vigilance Committee.
"Guess Ju knowed after all," somebody observed, in a confidential tone to his neighbor.
But Ju's ears were as long and sharp as his tongue. He flashed round on the instant, his lantern lowered from the level of the notice board. There was a sort of cold triumph in his manner as his eyes fell upon the speaker.
"Know'd?" he cried sharply. "Ain't 'knowin'' my business? Psha!" His contempt was withering. Then his manner changed back to the triumph which the notice had inspired. "Say, it's a great piece of money. It surely is some bunch. Ten thousand dollars! Gee! His game's up. Lightfoot's as good as kickin' his heels agin the breezes. He's played his hand, an'—lost."
And somehow no one seemed inclined to add to his statement. Nor, which was much more remarkable, contradict it. Now that these men had seen the notice with their own eyes the force of all Ju had so recently contended came home to them. There was not one amongst that little gathering who did not realize the extent of the odds militating against the rustlers. Ten thousand dollars! There was not a man present who did not feel the tremendous power of such a reward.
The gathering melted away slowly, and finally Bob Whitstone was left alone before the gleaming sheet of paper, with Ju standing in his doorway. The lantern was at his feet upon the sill. His hands were thrust in the tops of his shabby trousers. He was regarding the "gentleman" rancher meditatively, and his half burnt cigar glowed under the deep intake of his powerful lungs.
"It's a dandy bunch, Bob, eh?" he demanded presently, in an ironical tone. "Guess I'd come nigh sellin' my own father fer—ten thousand dollars. An' I don't calc'late I'd get nightmare neither." Then he drew a deep breath which suggested regret. "But—it ain't comin' my way. No. Not by a sight." Then, after a watchful pause, he continued: "I'm kind o' figgerin' whose way. Not mine, or—yours. Eh, Bob? We could do with it. Pity, ain't it?"
Bob turned. His eyes sought the face in the shadow of the doorway.
"I'm no descendant of Judas," he said coldly.
"No. But—Judas didn't sell a gang of murdering cattle rustlers. That ain't Judas money."
"Maybe. But it's blood money all the same."
"Mighty bad blood that oughter be spilt."
Bob turned away. His gaze wandered out westward. Then his eyes came slowly back to the man in the door-way.
"You thought I was talking hot air just now—about a man's price. You didn't like it. Well, when I find myself with a price I hope I shan't live to be paid it. That's all."
The man in the doorway shook his head. Then he spoke slowly, deliberately. And somehow much of the sharpness had gone out of his tone, and the hard glitter of his steely eyes had somehow become less pronounced.
"Oh, I guess I got your meanin' right, fer all yer thousand dollar langwidge. Sure, I took you right away. But—it don't signify a cuss anyways. Guess you was born a gentleman, Bob, which I wa'an't. An' because you was born an' raised that-a-way you'd surely like to kep right hold o' the notion that folks ken still act as though they'd been weaned on talk of honor an' sichlike. I sez kep a holt on that notion. Grip it tight, an' don't never let go on it. Grab it same as you would the feller that's yearnin' fer your scalp. If you lose your grip that tow-colored scalp of yours'll be raised sure, an' every penicious breeze that blows 'll get into your think depot and hand you every sort of mental disease ther' ain't physic enough in the world to cure. Guess that's plumb right. It don't cut no ice what I think. A feller like me jest thinks the way life happens to boost him. Y'see, I ain't had no thousand dollar eddication to make me see things any other ways. Life's a mighty tough proposition an' it can't be run on no schedule, an' each feller's got to travel the way he sees with his own two eyes. If he's got the spectacles of a thousand dollar eddication he's an a'mighty lucky feller, an' I'm guessin' they'll help him dodge a whole heap o' muck holes he'd otherwise bury his silly head in. So hang on, boy. Grip them darn fool notions so they ain't got a chance. If you let go—wal, you'll get a full-sized peek into a pretty fancy sort o' hell wher' ther' ain't any sort o' chance o' dopin' your visions out o' sight with Ju Penrose's belly wash. So long."
Ju picked up his lantern and turned back into his bar, closing and securing his door behind him. Then, with keen anticipation and enjoyment, he approached his till and proceeded to count his day's takings.
* * * * * *
Bob Whitstone unhitched his horse from Ju's tying post. He swung himself into the saddle and rode away,—away toward his outland home under the starlit roof of the plains. It was an almost nightly journey with him now, for the saloon habit had caught him in its toils, and was already holding him firmly.
His mood was not easy. He resented Ju Penrose. He resented all men of his type. He knew him for a crook. He believed he possessed no more conscience than any other habitual criminal. But his resentment was the weak echo of an upbringing which had never intended him for such association, and, in spite of it, the man's personality held him, and its strength dominated him.
His way took him out across an almost trackless waste of rich grass-land. Somewhere out there, hidden away at the foot of the Cathills, lay his homestead, and the wife for whom he had abandoned all that his birth had entitled him to. During the past two years he had learned truly all that he had sacrificed for the greatest of all dreams of youth.
But these things, for the moment, were not in his mind. Only Penrose. Ju Penrose, whom he had learned to detest and despise out of the educated mind that was his. The man's final homily was entirely lost upon Bob. Such was his temper that only the gross outrages against the precepts of his youth remained. He only heard the hateful, detestable cynicism, brutally expressed. It was something curious how he only took note of these things, and missed the rough solicitude of Ju's final admonishment. But he was young and weak, and a shadow of bitterness had entered his life, which, at his age, should have found no place in it.
The miles swept away under his horse's hoofs. Already the township, that sparse little oasis of shelter in a desert of grass-land, lay lost behind him in the depths of some hidden trough in the waves of the prairie ocean, The great yellow disc of the moon had cut the horizon and lit his tracks, but its light was still unrevealing and only added charm to the blaze of summer jewels which adorned the soft velvet of the heavens.
He glanced back. But almost instantly his eyes were turned again ahead. The night scene of these plains was too familiar to him to excite interest. To him there were simply miles intervening between him and the slumbers he was seeking. The prairie, for all its beauties, spelt toilful days and bitter disappointment for him. Wherein then should be discovered its charms?
Again his mind settled itself upon the events of the evening. Price? Price? Every man, he had been told, had his price. Every man and woman. He uttered a sound. It might have been a laugh, but it lacked mirth. It startled his alert horse. It almost seemed to startle the quiet night itself. What was his price? All he knew about price was its payment. He had only been called upon to pay. And he had paid! My God, he had paid! All that had been his. All the wealth, the comfort, the luxury and prospects which had been his in his wealthy father's home, had been the price he had paid for the right, which was the right of every man, to choose for himself, and to take to himself and to wife, the woman who seemed to him to be the one creature in the world who could yield him the happiness which alone was worth while.
This talk of a man's price only enraged him the more. He viciously detested Ju Penrose, and all such creatures who walked the world.
Well, the reward was out. Time would show. If it failed to find the Judas he would remind Ju. Oh, yes, he would remind him. He would wait his time for the reminder. He would wait till the saloon was full, and then—then he would open out his batteries. Men were of——
What was that?
He had pulled his horse up with a swift tightening of his hand. Now the beast stood with head erect, and pricked ears firmly thrust forward. Its head was turned southward, and the gush of its distended nostrils warned its rider that his question was shared by a creature whose instincts were even more acute, here, on the prairie, than those of its human master.
Bob bent down in the saddle the better to obtain the silhouette of the sky-line. The sound which had held him came up on the southern night breeze. It was a low murmur, or rumble, and, to his accustomed ears, it suggested the speeding of hoofs over the green clad earth. He waited for many moments, but the sound only increased. There was no doubt left in his mind now. None at all.
He sat up again and glanced swiftly about him. The moonlight had increased, and a silver sheen threw up the surrounding scene into indistinct relief. Beyond, to his right, he detected a small patch of scrub and spruce, and, without a second thought, he made for it.
A minute later he was out of the saddle beside his horse, screened from view of the plains by a belt of bush. He secured his horse and moved to the fringe of his shelter. Here he took up a position facing south, and his view of the plains beyond became uninterrupted.
He knew what was coming. Instinct warned him. Perhaps even it was the wish fathering his belief. He felt it was a certainty that the rustlers were out pursuing their depredations with their customary unchallenged daring. Who, he wondered, was the present victim, and what was the extent of the raid?
He had not long to wait. The sound grew. It lost its distant continuity and became broken into the distinct hoof beats of large numbers. Furthermore, by the sound of it, they would pass right across his front. He had been wise in seeking cover. Had he remained——
But speculation gave way before the interest of movement. Now the silhouette of the sky-line was dancing before his eyes. In the moonlight he could clearly make out the passing of a driven herd. It came on, losing itself in the shadows of a distant trough. Again it appeared. More distinct now. He whistled under his breath. They were coming from the direction of Dug McFarlane's and it was a large herd. They were traveling northwest, which would cut into the hills away to the north of his homestead. They——
But they were almost abreast of him now, and he heard the voices of men urging and cursing. Lower he dropped toward the earth the better to ascertain the numbers. But his estimate was uncertain. There were moments when the herd looked very large. There were moments when it looked less. He felt that a conservative estimate would be one hundred perhaps, and some eight or ten men driving them.
They were gone as they had come, lumbering rapidly, and as they passed northward the southern breeze carried the sound away. It died out quickly, and for minutes longer than was needed he stood listening, listening. Then, at last, he turned back to his horse.
In the two years of his sojourn on the land it was the first time he had witnessed the operation of the Lightfoot gang, and it left a deep impression upon his mind. A great resentment rose up in him. It was the natural temper of a man who is concerned, in however small a degree, in the cattle industry. And his anger urged him to a greater speed for home, and a greater sympathy for the man who was prepared to accept the Judas money offered for the lives of this gang of criminals.
TRAILING THE "BLACK TAIL"
The woman started. She threw up her head. Her wide eyes, wonderful and dark, searched the deep aisles of the shaded pine woods about her. Her hair hung loosely in a knot at the nape of her neck, and its intensely dark masses made an exquisite framing for the oval of the handsome face beneath the loose brim of wide prairie hat.
The stillness of these wooded slopes of the Cathills was profound. They possessed something of the solemnity belonging to the parent range of the Rockies beyond. For they were almost primeval. The woman might have belonged to them, her dark beauty so harmonized with its surroundings. Yet for all her coloring, for all the buckskin she wore for upper garment, there was nothing in her nature of the outlands which now claimed her. She was of the cities. She was bred and nurtured in the civilized places. The life about her was another life. It was crude and foreign to her. It claimed her by force of circumstance against every instinct and emotion.
Her searching ceased, and her eyes fixed their steady regard upon a gray-brown object moving amongst the myriad of black stanchions which supported the tousled roof of melancholy green foliage above her. With an almost imperceptible movement one buckskin clad arm reached slowly out toward the small sporting rifle which leaned against an adjacent tree-trunk. Her whole poise was tense and steady. There was in her attitude that hard decision which one associates only with the experienced hunter. There was almost too much decision in a woman so obviously young.
The weapon was drawn toward her. For one brief moment it was laid across her lap upon the paper-covered book she had been reading. Then its butt found its way to a resting place against her soft shoulder. Not for an instant had her gaze been diverted from the moving object. Now, however, her head inclined forward, and her warm cheek was laid against the cool butt. The sights of the weapon were brought up into line. The pressure of her forefinger was increased upon the trigger. There was a sharp report followed by a swift rush of scampering hoofs amongst the brittle pine cones and needles which carpeted the twilit woods. Then, in a flash, all the tense poise gave way to considered but rapid activity.
The woman sprang to her feet. She was tall and straight as a willow. Her rough canvas skirt was divided. Her buckskin shirt was fringed and beaded. She made a picture of active purpose that belied her femininity. In a moment she was in the saddle of the pony which had been dozing a few yards away. Her rifle was slung upon one shoulder, and her paper-covered book was thrust within the fastenings of her shirt. She was hot in pursuit of the small black-tailed deer which her shot had wounded.
Effie bent low in the saddle which she rode astride. Her well-accustomed pony twisted and turned, threading its way almost miraculously through the labyrinth of bald tree-trunks. These pot-hunts, which were of such frequent occurrence, were the recreation which alone made life tolerable to its mistress.
The woman saw only her quarry. For the rest she left the road to her pony. With slack reins she leaned forward, carrying her featherweight over the horn of the saddle. The woods meant nothing to her. The maze of tree-trunks as they sped by conveyed no threat of danger. She was concerned only with the obviously limping beast which was to provide venison for the pot for the next two weeks to come.
Her pony gained nothing upon the wounded deer. But it lost no distance either. The scene changed and changed again. The woods yielded to open grass, and again they merged into scattered scrub, through which it was difficult to track their quarry. Up hill, down dale, over hummock, through hollow. Once more through the dark aisles of aged pine woods. And always northward.
Time had no place in the woman's mind. Excitement, hope, doubt. These occupied her to the full. And above all purpose reigned.
Twice she drew up to within shot. But she refrained. She was herself as breathless as her quarry, and the shot would probably have been wasted. Besides, those pauses of the poor hunted beast carried their own significance to her practised mind. Its limping was sore, and now its stumblings were becoming more and more frequent.
They had passed an open stretch, a mere cup surrounded by sharp-rising, pine-clad hills. They entered woods on the northernmost slope, and began a climb so severe that pursuer and pursued were brought to a sheer scramble. The toil was terrific, but Effie's pony, bred of the tough prairie fibre, clawed up with indomitable courage and endurance. The deer kept its lead by desperate, agonizing effort, and the woman knew that the summit would have exhausted its resources.
On they went, on and up, the pace of both ever slackening. One hundred yards only separated them now, and, with almost every stride, the distance was lessening. The summit was in sight. The pony was blowing hard. Effie urged him, and the vicious Mexican spurs found his flanks. There was no thought of sparing in the girl's mind. If the broncho failed her, then she must finish the chase on foot.
Another fifty yards or so and the deer would have reached the summit. Could she permit it? Dared she risk what lay beyond? If the open pine woods continued she might, but—what lay beyond?
Without further speculation she suddenly flung out of the saddle. Her decision was taken. She dared not risk that summit with her pony now rapidly failing. She must chance her own unsteadiness. The pursuit had been hard and breathless. Well, she must trust to her nerve.
She left her steaming pony and dropped on one knee. With all her mind and will concentrated she drew a deep breath as the rifle was raised to her shoulder. With a stern deliberation she leveled her sights and fired. The spent deer stood, and shook, and then gazed round. There was something dreadful in the appeal of its wistful attitude. For one second the woman closed her eyes. Then they opened, and their beauty was full of resolve. Again the rifle was at her shoulder. Again the sights were leveled. Again the weapon spat out its vicious pellet. This time the weapon was lowered for good, and the movement was inspired by the sight of the deer. It quietly dropped upon its knees and rolled over on its side.
Ten minutes later the body of the deer was securely lashed to the back of the saddle. There was no regret in the heart of the woman as her practised fingers secured the warm body. It was game. Fair game, brought down in open chase, and it would provide welcome change in the monotonous diet of her home. Besides, the spirit of the hunter gripped her soul. It was the only thing which made life endurable in these drab outlands.
At the summit of the hill she breathed a sigh of relief. Her judgment and decision were amply proved. Nor in any uncertain fashion. The woods ceased in a clean cut, such as is so frequently the case where the pine world reigns. And rearing blankly before her gaze stood a dense barrier of low and heavy green bush. It needed small enough imagination to realize the security which lay in its depths for so small a creature as a wounded deer.
For some thoughtful moments Effie gazed upon the barrier. Then she turned and surveyed her dejected pony. Again her decision was taken without hesitation. She stooped and set a pair of hobbles about the tired creature's pasterns, and, leaving him to his own devices, set off to ascertain her whereabouts.
* * * * * *
But her movements were not without feminine curiosity, added to which was the businesslike desire to familiarize herself with every foot of the country within reach of her home. This was a break into new territory. Time was small enough object to her, and, besides, her pony needed time to recuperate from its leg weariness.
It required less than ten minutes, however, to banish every other thought from her mind and absorb it in amazement at her discovery. A brief battle with a dense and obstinate scrub found her standing in the centre of a wide sort of bridle path, scored with a dozen or so cattle tracks crowded with the spurs of driven cattle.
She stood gazing down at the signs everywhere about her in the loose sand, dumbfounded at the sight. She knew there was no homestead or ranch within miles of this region. Was she not bitterly aware that her own home marked the fringe of the cattle world in this direction?
Slowly there grew in the depths of her heart a feeling of apprehension. The stillness, the remoteness, the tremendous solitude, and yet—those tracks.
She stood intent and listening. Her ears were straining for a sound. But only there came to her the whispering breezes rustling the mournful foliage of the pine woods behind her. Her eyes were raised to the walls of scrub lining the roadway. They searched vainly for a sign. There was none. Simply the riot of nature about her, and, at her feet, those tracks.
She moved. Then swiftly she passed across to the western side of the roadway where the westering sun threw ample shadow. All unconsciously it seemed her movements became almost furtive, furtive and rapid. She passed down the bush-lined way, hugging the grassy edges to avoid leaving trace of her footsteps in the sand. Understanding was with her, and that understanding warned her of the jeopardy in which she stood should her presence be advertised.
Thought, speculation and imagination were a-riot in her now. She was proceeding in the direction the broad cloven hoof marks indicated. What—lay beyond?
Many minutes passed. Breathless minutes of pulsing excitement for the woman who knew only monotony and the drudgery of an outland life. No womanish fears could deter her. She believed and hoped she was on the eve of a great discovery, and such was her reckless desire that nothing could deter her.
The aspect of the scrub changed. It became dotted with taller trees. The paler foliage of spruce reared itself, and, here and there, isolated clumps of towering pines threw shadows across her path. Then gaps broke up the continuity, but, even so, the view beyond to her left was cut off by remoter growths. Once or twice she hazarded her way into them in her search for information, but always she returned to the broad track of the footprints of driven cattle.
The pathway rose at a steep incline. It bent away to the right, and, in the distance, it seemed that it must converge upon the sharp cut edge of the great pine woods she had so recently left. With this conclusion came another. The track must terminate abruptly or it must pass back into the great pine bluff.
The end, however, was neither of these things. And it was far nearer than she had suspected. The path twisted back into the huge reverse of an S, and finished abruptly at the sharp edge of a wide deep valley.
It came upon her almost with a shock. The tracks had abruptly swung westward. She rounded the bend, and, in a moment, found herself gazing out over a wide valley from a dizzy height.
Her first feeling was that the drop was sheer, precipitate. Then realization superseded, and she flung herself full length upon the ground and pressed her way into the shelter of an adjacent bush. The path had not ended. It passed over the brink and continued its way zigzagging down the terrific slope to the valley below. It was this, and the sight of a distant spiral of smoke rising from below, which had flung her into the shelter of the friendly bush. Her risk had only been momentary, but even in that moment she had been silhouetted in full view of any chance gaze below.
She drew herself toward the edge of the drop. Just where she had flung herself it was clean and sheer, and the bush overhung. Thus she was left with a full view of the depths below. Her dark eyes dwelt upon the zigzagging path. She followed its downward course to the green plain. She tracked it across to the far side of the valley. Then she drew a sharp breath, and her eyes widened.
The telltale smoke rose from the heart of a woodland bluff, and near by a large herd of cattle was grazing, watched over by three mounted men whose horses were moving slowly over the bright green carpet of grass.
She lay quite still, regardless of all but those moving figures, and the dark green bluff. She was watching and waiting for she knew not what. Her heart was thumping in her bosom, and her breath came rapidly. There was no question in her mind. In a moment her whole life seemed to have changed. The day had dawned to a contemplation of the monotonous round of drudging routine, only to close with a thrill such as she had never dreamed could be hers.
The moments passed; rapid, poignant moments. The sun dipped lower toward the alabaster crests of distant mountain peaks. The peace of the scene suggested nothing of the turbulent thought a-riot behind her wide, dark eyes. What must be done? What could she do—a woman? She felt helpless—so helpless. And yet——
She raised herself upon her elbow and propped her soft cheek upon the palm of her hand. She must think—think. The chance of it all. It was so strange. There lay the secret revealed—the secret which every rancher in the district for years had sought to discover. There was the camp of the Lightfoot gang. She had discovered it, had discovered its approach. Everything—she, a woman.
What could she do with the secret? How could she—— She thought of her husband. But somehow her enthusiasm lessened with the thought. But she needed him. Yes. There was no room for any doubt on that score. He must be roused, and convinced. He most be made to see the importance and significance of her discovery, and they must turn it to——
The crack of a rifle startled her. Almost on the instant the whistling, tearing of a bullet sounded in the bush to the left of her. Her glance was terrified as it turned in the direction. Then, in a moment, she was crouching lower as she searched the valley away over by the bluff.
In an instant her nerves strung tight. A group of men were standing just within its shadow, and the three horsemen, who had been riding round the cattle, were racing directly toward the foot of the pathway leading out of the valley. She must have been seen when she had stood at the opening. And now——
But there was not a second to lose. She sprang to a crouching position under the bush. Another shot rang viciously upon the still air. The bullet tore its way through the bush. This time it was still wider of her hiding place. But already she had begun her retreat—swiftly, and crouching low.
She reached the shelter of the barrier just as another bullet whistled overhead. Then she set off at a run.
And as she ran she calculated the chances. She had a big start, and the horsemen had to face the zigzag climb. If she made no mistakes there was little chance of their discovering her. They could never make that climb before she reached her pony.
She increased her pace. Her nerves were steadying. Strangely her control was wonderful. There was no real fear in her—only tension. Now as she ran down the open way her eyes were alert for every landmark, and her woodcraft was sufficiently practised to stand her in good stead. She recognized each feature in the path until she came to the point where she had first entered it In a moment she was battling her way through the thick bush, and the tension she was laboring under took her through it in a fraction of the time her first traversing had been made. Her pony was standing within ten yards of the spot at which she had left him.
She breathed a great relief. In a moment she had unbuckled the hobbles on his forelegs. Then, with the habit of her life on the plains, she tightened the cinchas of the saddle. Then she replaced the bit in its mouth.
As she swung herself into the saddle the distant plod of hoofs pounding the cattle tracks reached her. For one instant she sat in doubt. Then, with a half-thought fear lest her hard pursuit of the wounded deer had left her tough broncho spent, she swung him about and vanished like a ghost into the gloomy depths of the woods.
THE WEAKER VESSEL
The homestead rested upon the southern slope of a wood-crowned hill, which was merely one of a swarm of hills of lesser or greater magnitude. Westward, away in the distance, the silver sheen of the main mountain range still continued to reflect the rainbow tints of a radiant sunset.
It was a homestead to associate with hands less than 'prentice. There was neither imagination nor very definite purpose in its planning. It rather gave the impression of the driving of sheer necessity than the enthusiasm of effort toward the achievement of a heartily conceived purpose. Furthermore, it bore evident signs of a desire to escape as far as possible the burdens of the life it represented.
The squalid two-roomed house was sunk into the backing to the sloping hill. Its front and sides were of green logs and a mud plaster. Its roof was of a primitive thatch, held secure from winter storms by sapling logs lashed fast across it. The central doorway was filled by a rough-boarded door, and the apertures left for added light were covered with thin cotton material. They were left wide open in summer, and in winter only served to shut out the worst of the driven snows and most of the daylight.
The adjacent barn was of far greater extent, but of considerably less degree. Still, it was sufficiently weather-proof, which was all that could be reasonably hoped for by the toughened creatures, who found shelter beneath its crazy roof. Higher up the slope stood a couple of corrals of sorts. Their position was at the southern extremity of the woodland crown, their placing probably inspired by the adjacency of the material required for their construction.
Below the house stretched a sloping patch of growing wheat, perhaps about thirty acres in extent. This was the real business of the homestead, and, in spite of the crazy fencing of barbed wire about it, it looked to be richly flourishing.
For all the general ineffectiveness of the place, however, it was not without significance. For it gave that human touch which at once breaks up the overpowering sensation which never fails to depress in the silent heart of Nature's immensity. It spoke of courage, too. The reckless courage of early youth, plunging for the first time into independence. Furthermore, it suggested something of the first great sacrifice which the hot tide of love, surging through youthful veins, is prepared to make for the object of its passionate regard. In any case it symbolized the irresistible progress of man's effort when pitted against the passive resistance of Nature's most fiercely rugged frontiers.
A wonderful harmonious peace reigned over the scene which was bathed in the light of a drooping sun. It was the chastened pastoral peace, than which there is no more perfect in the world. Cattle were grazing their way homeward; the cows bearing their burden of laden udders to yield it for the benefit and prosperity of the community; the steers lingering at the banks of the murmuring mountain stream, or standing knee-deep in its waters, their sleek sides sheathed in rolls of fat, only waiting to yield up their humble lives as their contribution to the insatiable demands of the dominant race.
Two or three horses stood adjacent to the doorway of the humble barn, patiently flickering their long, unkempt tails in a vain effort to ward off the attacks of swarming flies. A few chickens moved about drowsily, just outside the hutch which had been contrived for their nightly shelter. While stretched upon the dusty earth, side by side, lay two great rough-coated dogs slumbering their hours of watch and ward away in the shade, with the indifference of creatures whose vain hopes of battle have been all too long deferred.
All of a sudden there came a partial awakening.
Out of the west, down the slope of a neighboring hill came a figure on horseback. It was moving at a rapid gallop. The horses at the barn turned about and raised their heads watchfully. They whinnied at the approach. The two dogs were on their feet startled into alertness, vain hope rising once more in their fierce hearts. The hens cackled fussily at the prospect of their deferred evening meal. The last of the cattle ambled heavily from the water's edge. It was rather like the obscure movement of a mainspring, setting into motion even the remotest wheel of a mechanism.
Effie galloped up to the house. Nothing of the gentle waking her coming had inspired attracted her observation. Her handsome eyes were preoccupied, and their gaze wandered back over the way she had come, searching the distance with the minutest care. Finally she dismounted and off-saddled, turning her pony loose to follow the promptings of its own particular requirements. Then she set about releasing the carcase of the deer upon her saddle, and bore it away to a lean-to shed at the side of the house. Emerging therefrom she picked up her saddle and bridle and took them into the house. Then she took up her stand within the doorway and, once more, narrowly searched the surrounding hills with eyes as eager and doubtful as they were beautiful.
The calm of evening had settled once more upon the place. The peace of it all was superlative. It was peace to which Effie was something more than averse. She dreaded it. For all her two years of life in the meagre home her husband had provided her with, it required all her courage and fortitude to endure it. The hills haunted and oppressed her, and her only hope lay in the active prosecution of her work.
She breathed a profound sigh. There was relief in the expression of her face. The drooping corners of her mouth and the tight compression of her well-formed lips told their own story of her emotions. She had passed through an anxious time, and only now was she beginning to feel reassured.
Yes. All was well, she believed. She had lost her pursuers, thanks to the staunchness of her pony, and her knowledge of the country about her. With another sigh, but this time one of weariness, she left her doorway and moved over to the barn. There was still the dreary round of "chores" to which her life seemed dedicated.
* * * * * *
A solitary horseman sat gazing out through a leafy barrier across the narrow valley of the little mountain stream. His eyes were fixed upon the dejected homestead on the slope of the hill beyond. He was be-chapped, and carried the usual complement of weapons at his waist. His horse was an unusually fine creature, and well up to the burden it was called upon to bear. Nor was that burden a light one, for the man was both massive and muscular.
The watchful eyes were deep set in a mahogany-hued setting. It was a hard face, brutal, and the eyes were narrow and cruel.
For a long time he sat there regarding the homestead. He beheld the graceful form of the woman as she moved swiftly about her work. Judging from his expression, which was by no means pleasant, two emotions were struggling for dominance. For some time doubt held chief place, but slowly it yielded to some more animal emotion. Furthermore temptation was urging him, and more than once he lifted his reins, which became a sign of yielding.
But all these emotions finally passed. It was evident that some even stronger force was really governing him. For, with a sharp ejaculation that conveyed every feeling suggested by disappointment, he swung his horse about and galloped off in a southeasterly direction—toward Orrville.
* * * * * *
It was past midnight. Effie, flushed with an unusual excitement, was gazing up into her husband's face. She was listening almost breathlessly to the story he was telling her. The little living-room, more than half kitchen, was bathed in the yellow light of a small tin kerosene lamp. For the time at least her surroundings, the poverty and drudgery of her life, were forgotten in the absorbing feelings consuming her.
"I tell you, Effie, I was scared—plumb scared when I saw what it was," Bob Whitstone ended up. "Guess we've known long enough the whole blamed countryside is haunted by cattle rustlers, but—that's the first time I've seen 'em, and I guess it's the first time any one's seen 'em at work. Say, I'm not yearning for the experience again."
But Effie had no interest beyond his story. His feelings on the matter of his experience were of no concern whatever at the moment. There were other things in her mind, things of far greater import. She returned to the rocker chair, which was the luxury of their home, and sat down. There was one thing only in Bob's story which mattered to her just now.
"Ten thousand dollars," she murmured. "Ten thousand! It's a—fortune."
Bob moved across to a rough shelf nailed upon the wall and picked up a pipe.
"A bit limited," he observed contemptuously, as poured some tobacco dust into the bowl.
"I was thinking of—ourselves."
The man ceased his operation to gaze swiftly down upon the gently swaying figure in the chair.
"What d'you mean, Effie?" he demanded sharply.
The girl's steady eyes were slowly raised in answer to the challenging tone. They met her husband's without a shadow of hesitation.
"It sounds like a fortune to me, who have not handled a dollar that I could spend without careful thought—for two years," she declared with warmth.
Bob completed the filling of his pipe. He did not answer for a few moments, but occupied himself by lighting it with a reeking sulphur match.
"That's a pretty hard remark," he said at last, emitting heavy clouds of smoke between his words.
"Is it? But—it's just plain facts."
"I s'pose it is."
The girl had permitted her gaze to wander. It passed from her husband's face to the deplorable surroundings which she had almost grown accustomed to, but which now stood out in her mind with an added sense of hopelessness. The lime-wash over the cracked and broken plaster which filled the gaps between the logs of the walls. The miserable furnishing, much of it of purely home manufacture, thrown up into hideous relief by the few tasteful knickknacks which had been wedding presents from her intimate friends and relatives in the east. The earthen floor, beaten hard and kept scrupulously swept by her own hands. The cook-stove in the corner, with its ill-set stovepipe passing out of a hole in the wall which had been crudely covered with tin to keep out the draughts in winter. The drooping ceiling of cotton material, which sagged in great billows under the thatch of the roof. It was all deplorable to a woman who had known the comfort of an almost luxurious girlhood. Into her eyes crept a curious light. It was half resentful, half triumphant. It was wholly absorbed.
"Suppose? There's no supposition," she cried bitterly. "I have had the experience of it all, the grind. Maybe you don't know what it is to a woman, a girl, to find herself cut off suddenly from all the little luxuries she has always been used to. I don't mean extravagances. Just the trifling refinements which count for so much in a young woman's life. The position is possible, so long as the hope remains of their return later, perhaps fourfold. But when that hope no longer exists—I guess there's nothing much else that's worth while."
The man continued to smoke on for some silent moments. Then, as the girl, too, remained silent, he glanced at her out of the corners of his eyes.
"You gave up a good deal for me—for this," he said in gentle protest. "But you did it with your eyes open—I mean, to the true facts of my position. Say, Effie, I didn't hold you up for this thing. I laid every card on the table. My father threatened us both, to our faces, if we persisted in marrying. Well, I guess we persisted, and he—why, he just handed us what he promised—the dollars that bought us this—farm. That was all. It was the last cent he figured to pass our way. You know all that, and you never squealed—then. You knew what was in store. I mean—this." He flung out one arm in a comprehensive gesture. "You guessed you'd grit enough to face it—with me. We hoped to win out." Then he smiled. "Say, I guess I haven't given up a thing—for you, eh? I haven't quit the home of millionaire father where my year's pocket money was more than the income of seventy per cent. of other folks! I, too, did it for this—and you. Won't you stick it for me?"
The man's appeal was spoken in low earnest tones His eyes were gentle. But the girl kept hers studiously turned from his direction, and it was impossible for him to read that which lay behind them.
Again some silent moments passed. The girl was gently rocking herself. At last, however, she drew in her feet in a nervous, purposeful movement, and sat forward.
"Bob," she exclaimed, and now there were earnestness and kindness in the eyes that gazed up at the man, "it's no use for us to talk this way," she cried. "I began it, and I ought to be sorry—real sorry. But I'm not. I wouldn't have acted that way under ordinary circumstances. But it's different now, and it was your own talk made me. You sneered at that ten thousand dollars, which seems to be a fortune to me. Ten thousand dollars!" she breathed. "And we haven't ten dollars between us in this—house. Bob, it makes me mad when I think of it. You don't care. You don't worry. All yon care for is to get away from it all—from me—and spend your time among the boys in Orrville. You've been away ever since dinner to-day, and now it's past midnight. Why? Why, when there's a hundred and one things to do around this wretched shanty? No—you undertake this thing, and then—spend every moment you can steal—yes, that's the word—steal, hanging around Ju Penrose's saloon. I'm left to fix things right here—to do the work which you have undertaken. Then you sneer when I see a fortune in that ten thousand dollars reward."
The girl's swift heat was not without effect. She had not intended to accuse in so straight a fashion. It was the result of long pent-up bitterness, which never needs more than a careless word to hurl into active expression. Bob's mild expression of contempt looked to be about to cost him dear.
A moody look not untouched with some sort of fear had crept into the man's eyes. Now he tried to smooth the threat of storm he saw looming. Furthermore, an uncomfortable feeling of his own guilt was possessing him.
"But what if it can be called a fortune, Effie?" he demanded swiftly. "It don't concern us. I don't guess it's liable to come our way."
The girl's challenge came short and sharp, and her beautiful eyes were turned upon him full of cold regard.
The man was startled. He was even shocked.
"How?" he demanded. "I don't get you."
The girl sprang from her chair in a movement of sup-pressed excitement. She came toward him, her eyes shining. A glorious ruddy tint shone through the tanning of her fair cheeks. She was good to look at, and Bob felt the influence of her beauty at that moment just as he had felt it when, for her, he had first flung every worldly consideration to the four winds.
"Will you listen, Bob? Will you listen to me while I tell you all that's been churning around in my head ever since you told me of that reward? You must. You shall. I have lived through a sort of purgatory in these hills for too long not to make my voice heard now—now when there's a chance of making our lives more tolerable. Oh, I've had a day while you've been away. It's been a day such as in my craziest moments I've never even dreamed of. Bob, I've discovered what they've all been trying to discover for years. I've found Lightfoot's camp!"
The girl's enthusiasm left her husband caught in a wave of apprehension. He saw with a growing sense of horror the meaning of that sudden revolt. This was displayed in his manner. Nor was Effie unobservant of it. Nor unresentful.
She shrugged her perfect shoulders with assumed unconcern.
"That reward—those ten thousand dollars are mine—ours—if I choose. And—I do choose."
There was no mistaking the firmness, the decision in her final words. They came deliberate and hard, and they roused the man to prompt and sharp denial.
He was no longer propped against the table. He was no longer gentle. He stood erect and angry, and their regard was eye to eye. But even so there was no disputing the woman's dominance of personality. The man's eyes, for all their anger, conveyed not a tithe of the other's decision. His whole attitude was subjective to the poise of the woman's beautiful head, her erect, sculptured shoulders. Her measuring eyes were full of a fine revolt. There was nothing comparable between them—except their anger.
"Who can stop me? You?"
The scornful challenge rang sharply through the little room. Then a silence fraught with intense moment followed upon its heels.
The man nodded. His movement was followed by Effie's mocking laugh.
Perhaps Bob realized the uselessness, the danger of retaining such an attitude. Perhaps his peculiar nature was unequal to the continuous effort the position called for. In a moment he seemed to shrink before those straight gazing eyes, and the light of purpose behind them. When he finally spoke a curious, almost pleading tone blended with the genuine horror in his words.
"No, no, Effie, you can't—you daren't!" he cried passionately. "Do you know what you're doing? Do you know what that reward means to you—to us? Look at your hands. They're clean, and soft, and white. Say, girl, that's blood money, blood money that'll surely stain them with a crimson you'll never wash off 'em all your life. It's blood money. Man's blood. Human blood. Just the same as runs through our veins. Oh, say, girl, I've no sort of use for rustlers. They're crooks, and maybe murderers. Guess they're everything you can think of, and a sight more. But they're men, and their blood's hot, warm blood the same as yours and mine. And you reckon to chaffer that blood for a price. You're going to sell it—for a price. You're going to do more. Yes. You're going to wreck a woman's conscience for life for those filthy, blood-soaked dollars. The price? Effie, things are mighty hard with us. Maybe they're harder with you than me. But I just can't believe we've dropped so low we can sell the life blood of even a—murderer. I can't believe it. I just can't. That's all. Tell 'em, Effie. Tell 'em all you know and have discovered if you will. Tell 'em in the cause of justice. But barter your soul and conscience for filthy blood money—I—bah! It makes me turn sick to think that way."
But Effie was in no mood to listen to the dictates of squeamish principles from a man who lacked the spirit and power—the will to raise her out of the mire of penury into which he had helped to plunge her. The hours of dreary, hopeless labor; the weeks and months of dismal and grinding poverty had sunk deeply into her soul. No price was too high to pay to escape these things. In a moment her reply was pouring forth in a passionate torrent.
"Blood money?" she cried. "Bob, you're crazier than I'd have thought. Where's the difference? I mean between handin' these folks over to justice for justice sake, and taking the reward the folks who're most to benefit by it are ready to hand out to me? Say, you can't talk that way, Bob. You can't just do it. Aren't the folks who carry out the justice in the land paid for it—from the biggest judge to the fellow who handles the levers of the electric chair? Doesn't the country hand out thousands of dollars every year for the punishment of offenders, whether it's for the shedding of their life blood, or merely their heart's blood in the cruel horrors of a penitentiary? Do you think I'm going to hand out my secret to a bunch of cattlemen for their benefit and profit, and reap no comfort from it for myself in the miserable life I'm condemned to endure? Your scruples are just crazy. They're worse. They're selfish. You'd rather see me drudging all the best moments of my life away, so you can lounge around Ju Penrose's saloon spending dollars you've no right to, than risk your peace of mind on an honest—yes, honest—transaction that's going to give me a little of the comfort that you haven't the grit to help me to yourself."