Transcriber's Note: As originally printed, there are two cattle brands represented by pictographs. A pictograph of two stars side by side is represented in this text by "[double star]" and a pictograph of a diamond is represented by "[diamond]."
THE ONE-WAY TRAIL
A Story of the Cattle Country
By Ridgwell Cullum
Author of "The Watchers of the Plains," "The Sheriff of Dyke Hole," "The Trail of the Axe," etc.
"... And the One-Way Trail is just the trail of Life. It's chock full of pitfalls and stumbling blocks that make us cuss like mad. But it's good for us to walk over it. There are no turnings or bye-paths, and no turning back. And maybe when we get to the end something will have been achieved in His scheme of things that our silly brains can't grasp...."
GEORGE W. JACOBS & COMPANY
Copyright, 1911, by George W. Jacobs and Company
I. A GENTLEMAN RANKER 7 II. A SHOOTING MATCH 18 III. IN BARNRIFF 28 IV. JIM PROPOSES 36 V. TO THE RED, DANCING DEVIL 53 VI. EVE AND WILL 71 VII. THE CHICKEN-KILLING 78 VIII. THE "BOYS" OF THE VILLAGE 86 IX. A WOMAN'S CARE 101 X. AN EVIL NIGHT 113 XI. A WEDDING-DAY IN BARNRIFF 119 XII. THE QUEST OF PETER BLUNT 135 XIII. AFTER ONE YEAR 146 XIV. THE BREAKING POINT 153 XV. A "PARTY CALL" 161 XVI. DEVIL DRIVEN 173 XVII. THE WORKING OF THE PUBLIC MIND 187 XVIII. A WOMAN'S INSTINCT 195 XIX. BRANDED 206 XX. APPROACHING THE TRIBUNAL 221 XXI. INSPIRATION 226 XXII. THE VIGILANCE COMMITTEE 238 XXIII. TERROR 252 XXIV. FOR A WOMAN 265 XXV. THE TRAIL OF THE RUSTLERS 275 XXVI. ON THE LITTLE BLUFF RIVER 286 XXVII. ANNIE 303 XXVIII. WILL 312 XXIX. JIM 324 XXX. WILL HENDERSON REACHES THE END 333 XXXI. THE DISCOMFITURE OF SMALLBONES 345 XXXII. THE TRIUMPH OF SMALLBONES 355 XXXIII. AFTER THE VERDICT 364 XXXIV. THE TRUTH 369 XXXV. IN THE SHADOW OF THE GALLOWS TREE 383 XXXVI. THE PASSING OF ELIA 393 XXXVII. GOLD 401 XXXVIII. ON, OVER THE ONE-WAY TRAIL 406
"There's a great big God—just such a God as you and I have knelt to when we were bits of kiddies." Frontispiece He sat glaring at the table, the smoke of his pipe clouding the still air of the neat kitchen. 156 Also he was gripping a heavy revolver in his hand. 288 "We've just come over to say that we, too, are going to hit the trail." 410
THE ONE-WAY TRAIL
A GENTLEMAN RANKER
Dan McLagan shifted his cigar, and his face lit with a grin of satisfaction.
"Seventy-five per cent. of calves," he murmured, glancing out at the sunlit yards. "Say, it's been an elegant round-up." Then his enthusiasm rose and found expression. "It's the finest, luckiest ranch in Montana—in the country. Guess I'd be within my rights if I said 'in the world.' I can't say more."
The quiet monosyllable brought the rancher down to earth. He looked round at his companion with an inquiring glance.
But Jim Thorpe had no further comment to offer.
The two were sitting in the foreman's cabin, a small but roughly comfortable split-log hut, where elegance and tidiness had place only in the more delicate moments of its occupant's retrospective imagination. Its furnishing belonged to the fashion of the prevailing industry, and had in its manufacture the utilitarian methods of the Western plains, rather than the more skilled workmanship of the furniture used in civilization. Thus, the bed was a stretcher supported on two packing-cases, the table had four solid legs that had once formed the sides of a third packing-case, while the cupboard, full of cattle medicines, was the reconstructed portions of a fourth packing-case.
The collected art on the walls consisted of two rareties. One was a torn print of a woman's figure, classically indecent with regard to apparel; and the other was a fly-disfigured portrait of a sweet-faced old lady, whose refinement and dignity of expression suggested surroundings of a far more delicate nature than those in which she now found herself. Besides these, a brace of ivory-butted revolvers served to ornament the wall at the head of the bed. And a stack of five or six repeating rifles littered an adjacent corner.
It was a man's abode, and the very simplicity of it, the lack of cheap ornamentation, the carelessness of self in it, suggested a great deal of the occupant's character. Jim Thorpe cared as little for creature comforts as only a healthy-minded, healthy-bodied man, who has tasted of the best and passed the dish—or has had it snatched from him—will sometimes care. His thoughts were of the moment. He dared not look behind him; and ahead?—well, as yet, he had no desire to think too far ahead.
The ranch owner was sitting on the side of the stretcher, and Jim Thorpe, his foreman, stood leaning against the table. McLagan's Irish face, his squat figure and powerful head were a combination suggesting tremendous energy and determination, rather than any great mental power, and in this he strongly contrasted with the refined, thoughtful face of his foreman.
But then, in almost every characteristic the Irishman differed from his employee. While Jim's word was never questioned even by the veriest sceptic of the plains, McLagan was notoriously the greatest, most optimistic liar in the state of Montana. A reputation that required some niceness of proficiency to retain.
McLagan's ranch was known as the "AZ's." It was a brand selected to illuminate his opinion of his own undertakings. He said that his ranch must be the beginning and end of all things in the cattle world, and he was proud of the ingenuity in his selection of a brand. The less cultured folk, who, perhaps, had more humor than respect for the Irishman, found his brand tripped much more easily off the tongue by replacing the Z with an S, and invariably using the plural.
"Say, Jim," the rancher went on, buoyed with his own enthusiasm, "it's been a great round-up. Seventy-five per cent. Bully! I'll open out my scheme. Listen. Ther's Donagh's land buttin' on us. Thirty sections. They got stations for 10,000 head of stock. We'll buy 'em right out of business. See? I'm goin' to turn those stations into double. That slice of land will carry me backing right up into the foot-hills, which means shelter for my stock in winter. See? Then I'll rent off a dozen or more homesteads for a supply of grain and hay. You know I hate to blow hot air around, but I say right here I'm going to help myself to a mighty big cinch on Montana, and then—why, I'll lay right on the heels of Congress."
He looked for approval into the bronzed face of his companion. But Thorpe hesitated, while a shadowy smile lurked in his clear, dark eyes.
"That's so," he observed, with a suspicious quietness.
"Sure," added the other, to clinch what he believed to be his companion's approval.
The rancher stirred uneasily. The tone of Thorpe's inquiry suggested doubt.
"And then?" McLagan repeated uncertainly.
"Why, when you've got all this, and you're the biggest producer in the country, the beef folk in Chicago 'll beat you down to their price, and the automobile folk will cut the ground clear from under your horses' feet. You won't hit Congress, because you won't have the dollars to buy your graft with. Then, when you're left with nothing to round-up but a bunch of gophers, the government will come along and have you seen to."
The Irishman's face grew scarlet, and he began to splutter, but Jim Thorpe went on mercilessly.
"Cut it out, boss. We're cattlemen, both of us. You've grown up to cattle, and I—well, I've acquired the habit, I guess. But cut it out, and put your change into automobiles. They aren't things to breed with, I guess. But I'd say they'd raise a dust there's more dollars in than there's beans in our supper hash."
The rancher's swift anger had gone. He shook his head, and his hard, blue eyes stared out through the doorway at the busy life beyond. He could see the lines of buildings packed close together, as though huddling up for companionship in that wide, lonesome world of grass. He could see the acres and acres of corrals, outlying, a rampart to the ranch buildings. Then, beyond that, the barbed wire fencing, miles and miles of it. He could see horsemen moving about, engaged upon their day's work. He could hear the lowing of the cattle in the corrals. As Thorpe had said, he had grown up to cattle. Cattle and horses were his life.
He was rich now. This was all his. He was growing richer every year, and—Thorpe was prophesying the slump, the end. He couldn't believe it, or rather he wouldn't believe it. And he turned with a fierce expression of blind loyalty to his calling.
"To h—— with automobiles! It's cattle for me. Cattle or bust!"
Thorpe shook his head.
"There's no alternative, boss. I can see it all coming. Everybody can—if they look. There's nothing between grain farming and—automobiles. The land here is too rich to waste on cattle. There's plenty other land elsewhere that'll feed stock, but wouldn't raise a carrot. Psha! There won't be need for horses to plough, or even haul grain; and you've got 15,000 head. It'll be all automobiles!"
"I'd 'scrap' the lot!" added the Irishman, briefly and feelingly. Then he glanced at his companion out of the tail of his eye. "I s'pose it's your education, boy. That's what's wrong with you. Your head's running wheels. You come into cattle too late. You've got city doings down your backbone, and I guess you need weeding bad. Say, you're a West Point man, ain't you?"
Thorpe seemed to shrink at the question. He turned aside, and his eyes rested for a moment on the portrait nailed upon his wall. It was only for a moment his dark eyes encountered the tender old eyes that looked out at him from the faded picture. Then he looked again at the owner of the "AZ's," and gave him a smiling nod.
"Sure, boss. I intended to go into the engineers."
"You see, we've all been soldiers, since way back when my folks came over with the first lot from England. Guess I'm the first—backslider."
"Nope. You ain't a backslider, Jim Thorpe. I sure wouldn't say that. Not on my life. Guess you're the victim of a cow-headed government that reckons to make soldiers by arithmetic, an' wastin' ink makin' fool answers to a sight more fool questions. Gee, when I hit Congress, I'll make some one holler 'help.'"
The foreman's smile broadened.
"'Twasn't exams, boss," he said quietly. "I'd got a cinch on them, and they were mostly past cutting any ice with me. It was—well, it don't matter now." He paused, and his eyes settled again on the portrait. The Irishman waited, and presently Jim turned from the picture, and his quizzical smile encountered the hard blue eyes of the other.
"You said just now my head was full of wheels," he began, with a humorous light in his eyes that was yet not without sadness. "Maybe it is—maybe it has reason to be. You see, it was an automobile that finished my career at West Point. My mother came by her death in one. An accident. Automobiles were immature then—and—well, her income died with her, and I had to quit and hustle in a new direction. Curiously enough I went into the works of an automobile enterprise. I—I hated the things, but they fascinated me. I made good there, and got together a fat wad of bills, which was useful seeing I had my young cousin's—you know, young Will Henderson, of Barnriff; he's a trapper now—education on my hands. Just as things were good and dollars were coming plenty the enterprise bust. I was out—plumb out. I hunched up for another kick. I had a dandy patent that was to do big things. I got together a syndicate to run it. I'd got a big car built to demonstrate my patent, and it represented all I had in the world. It was to be on the race-track. Say, she didn't demonstrate worth a cent. My syndicate jibbed, and I—well, here I am, a cattleman—you see cattle haven't the speed of automobiles, but they mostly do what's expected. That's my yarn, boss. You didn't know much of me. It's not a great yarn as life goes. Mostly ordinary. But there's a deal of life in it, in its way. There's a pile of hope busted, and hope busted isn't a pleasant thing. Makes you think a deal. However, Will Henderson and I—we can't kick a lot when you look around. I'm earning a good wage, and I've got a tidy job—that don't look like quitting. And Will—he's netting eighty a month out of his pelts. After all things don't much count, do they? Fifty or sixty years hence our doings won't cut any ice. We're down, out, and nature shuts out memory. That's the best of it. We shan't know anything. We'll have forgotten everything we ever did know. We shan't be haunted by the 'might-have-beens'. We shall have no regrets. It'll just be sleep, a long, long sleep—and forgetfulness. And then—ah, well, boss, I'm yarning a heap, and the boys are out on the fences with no one to see they're not shooting 'craps.'"
The rancher turned to the door.
"I'm going out to the fences meself," he said, shortly. Then he went on: "There's a dozen an' more three-year-olds in the corrals needs bustin'. You best set two o' the boys on 'em. Ther's a black mare among 'em. I'll get you to handle her yourself. I'm goin' to ride her, an' don't want no fool broncho-buster tearing her mouth out."
"Right-ho, boss." Jim was smiling happily at the man's broad back as he stood facing out of the door. "But, if you've half a minute, I've got something else to get through me."
"Eh?" McLagan turned. His Irish face was alight with sudden interest. "Guess I ain't busy fer ten minutes."
"That's more than enough," said Jim, readily. "It's about that land I was speaking to you of the other day. I told you those things about myself—because of that. As I said, you didn't know much of me, except my work for you."
McLagan nodded, and chewed the end of his cigar. His keen eyes were studying the other's face. At last he removed his cigar, and spat out a bit of tobacco leaf.
"I know all I need to," he said cordially. "The proposition was one hundred and sixty acres for a homestead, with grazin' rights. You want a lease. Gettin' married?"
"It might happen that way," grinned the foreman somewhat sheepishly.
"Found the leddy?"
"Marryin's a fool game anyway."
"That's as maybe."
"Guess I don't want wimmin-folk in mine. You're goin' to hold your job?"
"Sure. You see, boss——" Jim began to explain.
But McLagan broke in.
"You can have it for rent, boy," he said. "It suits me, if you don't mean quittin'."
"I don't mean quitting," said Jim. "I'm going to run it with a hired man. Y'see I've got one hundred and fifty stock and a bit saved for building. When I get married my wife'll see to things some. See the work is done while I'm here."
McLagan grinned and nodded.
"Guess you didn't seem like gettin' married jest now, talkin' of those things. You kind o' seemed 'down' some."
Jim's eyes became thoughtful.
"Makes you feel 'down' when you get remembering some things," he said. "Y'see it makes you wonder what the future feels like doing in the way of kicks. Things are going good about now, and—and I want 'em to keep on going good."
McLagan laughed boisterously.
"You've sure jest got to play hard to-day, let the future worry fer itself. Well, so long. I'll hand you the papers when you've selected the ground, boy. An' don't forget the black mare."
He left the hut and Jim watched him stumping busily away across to the big barn where the saddle horses were kept. His eyes were smiling as he looked after him. He liked Dan McLagan. His volcanic temper; his immoderate manner of expression suggested an open enough disposition, and he liked men to be like that.
But his smile was at the thought that somehow he had managed to make his "boss" think that extreme caution was one of his characteristics. Yes, it made him smile. If such had been the case many things in the past, many disasters might have been averted.
As a matter of fact he had been thinking of the woman he hoped to make his wife. He was wondering if he had a reasonable prospect of helping her to all the comfort in life she deserved. He took an ultra serious view of matrimonial responsibilities. Eve must have a good, ample home. She must have nothing to worry, none of little petty economies to study which make life so burdensome. Yes, they must start with that, and then, with luck, their stock would grow, he would buy more land, and finally she would be able to hold her place with the wives of all the richest ranchers in the district. That was what he wanted for her when they were married.
When they were married. Suddenly he laughed. He had not asked her yet. Still—— His eyes grew gloomy. His thoughts turned to another man, his cousin, Will Henderson. He knew that Will liked Eve Marsham. It was the one cloud upon his horizon. Will was younger than he by a good deal. He was handsome, too. Eve liked him. Yes, she liked him, he was sure. But somehow he did not associate marriage with Will. Well,—it was no good seeking trouble.
He pushed his thoughts aside and stood up. But the cloud upon his dark face was not so easily got rid of. How could it be? for Eve Marsham meant the whole world to him.
He moved toward the door, and as he looked out at the sunlit yards he started. A horseman had just come into view round the corner of one of the barns. But though his smile was lacking when the man came up and drew rein at his door, there was no mistaking the kindly cordiality of his greeting as he held out his hand.
"Why, Will," he cried, "I'm real glad you've come along."
A SHOOTING MATCH
In silence the two men sat smoking. Will Henderson, half sitting, half lying on the stretcher-bed, gazed out through the doorway at the distant mountain peaks. His hands were clasped behind his head, and a sullen, preoccupied look was in his eyes. Jim Thorpe was sitting, frog-fashion, on an upturned soap-box, watching him. His eyes were a shade anxious, but full of good feeling.
Jim was nine years his cousin's senior, and Will was twenty-four. They were really almost foster-brothers, for from the younger man's earliest days he had lived with Jim, in the care of the latter's widowed mother. He was an orphan, both his parents having died before he was two years old, and so it was that he had been adopted by Jim's mother, the child's only living relative. For years Jim had lavished on him an elder brother's affection and care. And when his own mother died, and he was left to his own resources, it still made no difference. Will must share in everything. Will's education must be completed adequately, for that was Jim's nature. His duty and inclination lay straight ahead of him, and he carried both out to the end. Perhaps he did more. Perhaps he overindulged and spoiled the youngster of whom he was so fond. Anyway, as in many similar cases, Will accepted all as his right, and gave very little in return. He was selfish, passionate, and his temper was not always a nice one.
In appearance there was a striking resemblance between these two. Not in face, but in figure, in coloring, in general style. A back view of them was identical. In face they differed enormously. They were both extremely handsome, but of utterly different types. Jim was classically regular of feature, while Will possessed all the irregularity and brightness of his Hibernian ancestry. Both were dark; dark hair, dark eyes, dark eyebrows. In fact, so alike were they in general appearance that, in their New York days, they had been known by their intimates as the "twins."
Just now there was something troubling. And that something seemed to be worrying Will Henderson even more than his cousin. At least, to judge by outward appearances. He showed it in his expression, which was somewhat savage. He showed it in his nervous, impatient movements, in the manner in which he smoked. Jim had seen it at once, and understood. And he, too, was troubled.
They had been silent some time, and eventually it was Jim who spoke.
"Come on, lad. Let's have it out," he said, decidedly.
His voice was full and strong, and kindly.
The other stirred, but did not reply.
"This is your busy time, Will," Jim went on. "You didn't come away from those hills yonder to pass the time of day with me. You came because something wouldn't let you rest. I know you, boy; I know you. Something's troubling that mind of yours in a way that makes it hard for you to speak, even now you're here. Shall I try and begin it for you?"
There was infinite kindness in the man's tone. There was a smile in his eyes that might well have drawn a responsive smile from even an angry child.
Will removed his pipe, but the responsive smile was not forthcoming.
"I'll open out, Jim," he said coldly.
The other waited. The smoke of their pipes rolled up on the still, warm air of the room, upsetting the calculations of a few mischievously busy mosquitoes. The sun shone in through the doorway. The ranch was quiet now. All the "hands" had departed to their work, and only the occasional lowing of a solitary milch cow in one of the corrals, and the trampling feet of the horses waiting to be "broken," and the "yeps" of a few mouching dogs, afforded any sign of life outside in the ranch yards.
Jim began to grow restive.
"Well, boy: I've some 'breaking' to do. Maybe you'll come along. You can talk as we go."
He half rose, but Will sat up in a moment.
"Not yet, Jim," he said, almost roughly. Then his tone changed in a way through which his mercurial disposition spoke. "Look here," he went on, "whatever happens in the future, I'd like you to understand that all you've done for me in the past counts for something."
"Then it's real serious, lad?" Jim smiled back at him. But he failed to catch his eye. Then he, too, changed his manner, and there was a sudden coolness in it. "You needn't recite," he said. "Anything I've done has been a—a pleasure to me. Our ways have lain a bit apart for some months, but it makes no difference to my feelings, except to make me regret it. The fortunes of war, eh? And a fair bit of grist is rolling into our separate mills. Honest grist. We're good friends, lad—so let's have it. It's—it's a woman?"
At the mention of the word, "woman," Will seemed to utterly freeze up.
"Yes, it's—a woman," he said frigidly.
Jim sighed. He knew there were breakers ahead. Breakers which must be faced, and faced sternly.
"You love her?" There was a dryness in his throat.
"Yes. I—I can't live without her. She is my whole world. She is more than that. God! How I love her!"
"I love her, too."
Jim's darkly brilliant eyes were on the younger man's face. They compelled his gaze, and the two men looked long at each other, vainly trying to penetrate to that which lay behind. It was Will who turned away at last.
"I knew it," he said, and there was no longer any pretense of cordiality in his tone.
It was a tense moment for both men; and tremendous in its possibilities. There was no shrinking in either now; no yielding. But, as it ever was, Jim took the lead after a few moments' silence.
"And—does she love you?" he asked slowly.
His words were little above a whisper, but so tense was his feeling that his voice seemed to cut through the still air of the room. Will hesitated before replying. Perhaps he was reckoning up Jim's chances as compared with his own. Finally, he was reluctantly compelled to make an admission.
"I don't know—yet."
The other sighed audibly. Then he mechanically began to refill his pipe. He wanted to speak, but there seemed to be nothing adequate to say. Two men, virile, thrilling with the ripe, red blood of perfect manhood, friends, and—a woman stood between them.
"It's no good," Jim said, preparing to light his pipe. "The position is—impossible."
Now both pipes were smoking as under a forced draught.
"I'd give my life for her," the elder muttered, almost unconsciously.
Will caught at his words.
"My life is hers," he cried, almost defiantly.
They were no further on.
Will shook his head. The snow on the distant peaks glistened like diamonds in the gorgeous sunlight, and his attention seemed riveted upon it.
"What pay are you making, Will?" Jim inquired presently.
"Eighty dollars a month—why?"
"Ten more than me." Jim laughed harshly. "You're the better match. You're younger, too."
"She's got a wad of her own. A thousand dollars," added Will.
His remark was unpleasing, and Jim's eyes grew colder.
"That don't cut any figure. That's hers," he said sharply.
The flow of their talk dried up again. They could make no headway in clearing up their dilemma. To Jim each passing moment was making things harder; with each passing moment their friendship was straining under the pressure. Suddenly a thought flashed through his brain. It was a light of hope, where, before, all had been darkness.
"I haven't asked her yet," he said. "And you—you haven't?"
"Say, we're sailing an uncharted sea, and—there's a fog."
It was a reluctant nod Jim received in reply.
"We'll have to ask her," he went on. "She can't marry us both. Maybe she'll marry neither."
"That's so." Jim failed to observe Will's smile of confidence. "Yes, we'll both ask her. I've got to go through Barnriff on my way to the hills. I'll call and see her. You can ride in this evening."
Jim shook his head.
"Guess that's an elegant plan—for you."
Quick as a flash Will turned on him. His volcanic anger rose swiftly.
"What d'you mean?"
"Just what I say." Jim's response seemed to have less friendliness in it. Then he knocked his pipe out, and rose from his seat. "No, boy," he said. "We'll just play the game right here. We'll take a chance for who goes to her first. If she wants neither of us—well, we'll have played the game by each other, anyway. And if she chooses either of us then the other must take his medicine like a man. Let's—be sportsmen."
"What's your game?" There was no yielding in Will's sharp question.
Jim leaned forward, holding his empty pipe to point his words. There was a glow of excited interest in his eyes as he propounded his idea. With Will it was different. He sat frigidly listening. If through any generosity he lost Eve, he would never forgive himself—he would never forgive Jim. He must have her for his own. His love for her was a far greater thing, he told himself, than the colder Jim's could ever be. He could not understand that Jim, in offering his plan, merely wanted to be fair, merely wanted to arrange things so that Eve should not come between them, that neither should be able to reproach the other for any advantage taken. He suspected trickery. Nor had he any right to such base suspicion. Jim's idea was one to make their way easier. Eve would choose whom she pleased—if either of them. He could not, did not want to alter that. Whatever the result of her choice he was ready to accept it.
He pointed at the revolvers hanging on the wall.
"They shall decide who has first speak with her," he said. "We'll empty six at a mark, and the one who does the best shooting has—first go in."
"I don't like it."
"It's the best way. We're a fair match. You're reckoned the boss shot in the hills, and I don't guess there's any one on this ranch handier than I am. We've both played with those two guns a heap. It'll save bad blood between us. What say?"
Will shook his head.
"It's bad. Still——" He looked at the guns. He was thinking swiftly. He knew that he was a wonderful shot with a revolver. He was in constant practice, too. Jim was a good shot, but then his practice was very limited. Yes, the chances were all in his favor.
"Get busy then," he said presently, with apparent reluctance.
He rose and moved toward the guns.
"Whose choice?" he demanded.
Nor did he observe the other's smile as he received his reply.
While Will chose his weapon with studied care, Jim picked up the soap box and fumbled through his pockets till he found a piece of chalk. With this he drew a bull's-eye on the bottom of the box, and sketched two rough circles around it. Will had made his choice of weapons by the time the target was completed.
"Will it do?" Jim inquired, holding up the box for his inspection.
"It's got to," was the churlish reply.
Jim gave him a quick glance as he moved across the room and possessed himself of the remaining pistol. Then he examined its chambers and silently led the way out of the hut.
They left the ranch buildings and moved out upon the prairie. A spot was selected, and the box set down. Then Jim paced off sixty yards.
"Sixty," he said, as he came to a halt.
"Sixty," agreed Will, who had paced beside him.
"It's your choice. Will you—get busy?"
Will stepped on to the mark confidently, raising his gun with the surety of a man who does not know what it means to miss. Yet, before dropping the hammer, he braced himself with unusual care.
"Plonk!" The bullet struck the box. He had found his mark, and in rapid succession the remaining five chambers of his gun were emptied. Each shot found its mark with deadly accuracy, for Will meant to win the contest.
Then they set out to inspect the target. Will led now. He was eager to ascertain the actual result. An exclamation of joy broke from him as he snatched up the box. The bull's-eye was about two inches in diameter; one of his shots had passed through it, three had broken its outer line, while the other two were within a quarter of an inch of the little white patch. All six shots could have been covered by a three-inch circle.
"Good," cried Thorpe. And he turned the box round and drew another target on its side.
The new bull's-eye was a shade smaller. It may have been accident. It may have been that Jim preferred to make his own task more difficult than err on the side of his own advantage. Will said nothing, and they walked back to the firing point.
Jim lifted his gun and fired. His shots rang out like the rattle of a maxim gun, so swiftly did he empty the six chambers. In a few moments they were once more on their way to inspect the target.
Five bullets had passed through the bull's-eye, the sixth had broken its line.
"I shall see Eve to-morrow morning," said Jim quietly. "You can see her later."
Without a word Will turned away, and moved off toward the ranch. Jim followed him. Nor was a word exchanged between them till the hut was reached, and Will had unhitched his horse from the tying-post.
"Going?" inquired Jim, for something to say.
There was no mistaking the younger man's tone, and his friend looked away while he leaped into the saddle.
Jim seemed to have drawn none of the satisfaction which the winning of the match should have afforded him, for he flung the box which he had been carrying aside as though it had offended him. He wanted to speak, he wanted to say something pleasant. He wanted to banish that surly look from Will's eyes; but somehow he could find nothing to say, nothing to do. He looked on while the other lifted his reins to ride off. Then, in desperation, he came up to the horse's shoulder.
"Shake, Will," he said.
It was the effort of a big heart striving to retain a precious friendship which he felt was slipping away from him.
But Will did not see the outstretched hand. He hustled his horse, and, in moving off, his own right foot struck the waiting man violently. It was almost as though he had kicked him.
Jim watched him go with regretful eyes. Then, as the man disappeared among the ranch buildings, he turned and slowly made his way to the bunk house of the horse-breakers.
It has been said that the pretentiousness of a newly carpentered Western American settlement can only be compared to the "side" of a nigger wench, weighted down under the gaudy burden of her Emancipation Day holiday gown. Although, in many cases, the analogy is not without aptness, yet, in frequent instances, it would be a distinct libel. At any rate, Barnriff boasted nothing of pretentiousness. Certainly Barnriff was not newly carpentered. Probably it never had been.
It was one of those places that just grow from a tiny seedling; and, to judge by the anemic result of its effort, that original seedling could have been little better than a "scratching" post on an ill-cared-for farm, or perhaps a storm shelter. Certainly it could not have risen above an implement shed in the ranks of structural art. The general impression was in favor of the "scratching" post, for one expects to grow something better than weeds on a rich loam soil.
The architect of Barnriff—if he ever existed—was probably a drunkard, not an uncommon complaint in that settlement, or a person qualified for the state asylum. The inference is drawn from strong circumstantial evidence, and not from prejudice. As witness, the saloon seemed to have claimed his most serious effort as a piece of finished construction. Here his weakness peeps through in no uncertain manner. The bar occupies at least half of the building, and the fittings of it are large enough to accommodate sufficient alcohol for an average man to swim in. His imagination must have been fully extended in this design, for the result suggested its having been something in the nature of a labor of affection. The other half of the building was divided up into three rooms: a tiny dining-room (obviously the pleasures of the table had no great appeal for him), a small bedroom for the proprietor (who seemed to have been considered least of all), and one vast dormitory, to accommodate those whose misfortunes of the evening made them physically incapable of negotiating the intricacies of the village on their way home.
Of course, this evidence might easily have been nullified, or even have been turned to the architect's favor, had the rest of the village borne testimony for him. A clever counsel defending would probably have declared that the architect knew the people of the village, and was merely supplying their wants. Of course he knew them, and their wants—he was probably one of them.
However, the rest of the village was all against him. Had he been an abstemious man, there is no doubt but the village market-place would have been a square, or a triangle, an oval, a circle, or—well, some definite shape. As it was, it had no definite shape. It was not even irregular. It was nothing—just a space, with no apparent defining line.
Then there were no definite roads—at least, the roads seemed to have happened, and ran just where the houses permitted them. It was a reversal of ordinary civilized methods, which possibly had its advantages. There were certainly no straight lines for the men-folk to walk after leaving the saloon at night for their homes.
As for the houses which composed the village, they were too uncertain to be described in any but a general view of their design, and their grouping. In the latter, of course, the evidence was all against the designer of the place. Who but a madman or a drunkard would set up a laundry next to the coal yard?
Then another thing. Two churches—they called them "churches" in Barnriff—of different denomination, side by side. On Sundays the discord that went on was painful. The voices of the preachers were in endless conflict through the thin weather-boarding sides, and when the rival harmoniums "got busy" there was nothing left for the confused congregations but to chant their rival hymns to some popular national tune upon which they were mutually agreed beforehand. The incongruities of this sort were so many that even the most optimistic could not pass them unheeded.
As regards the style of the buildings themselves, the less said about them the better. They were buildings, no one could deny that; but even an impressionist painter could claim no beauty for them. Windows and doors, weather-boarding, and shingle roof. One need say no more, except that they were, in the main, weatherproof. But wait. There was one little house that had a verandah and creepers growing around it. It was well painted, too, and stood out amongst its frowzy neighbors a thing approaching beauty.
But Barnriff, as a residential hamlet, was hardly worth considering seriously. It was a topsyturvy sort of place, and its methods were in keeping with its design. It was full of unique combinations of trade. Some of them were hardly justifiable. The doctor of the place was also a horse-dealer, with a side line in the veterinary business. Any tooth extraction needed was forcibly performed by John Rust, the blacksmith. The baker, Jake Wilkes, shod the human foot whenever he was tired of punching his dough. The Methodist lay-preacher, Abe C. Horsley, sold everything to cover up the body, whenever he wasn't concerned with the soul. Then there was Angel Gay, an estimable butcher and a good enough fellow; but it hardly seemed right that he should be in combination with Zac Restless, the carpenter, for the disposal of Barnriff's corpses. However, these things were, and had been accepted by the village folk for so long that it seemed almost a pity to disturb them.
Barnriff, viewed from a distance, was not without a certain picturesqueness; but the distance had to be great enough to lose sight of the uncouthness which a close inspection revealed. Besides, its squalor did not much matter. It did not affect the temper of the folk living within its boundaries. To them the place was a little temporary "homelet," to coin a word. For frontier people are, for the most part, transient. They only pause at such place on their fighting journey through the wilder life. They pass on in time to other spheres, some on an upward grade, others down the long decline, which is the road of the ne'er-do-well. And with each inhabitant that comes and goes, some detail of evolution is achieved by the little hamlet through which they pass, until, in the course of long years, it, too, has fought its way upward to the mathematical precision and bold glory of a modern commercial city, or has joined in the downward march of the ne'er-do-well.
The blazing summer sun burned down upon the unsheltered village. There was no shade anywhere—that is, outside the houses. For the place had grown up on the crests of the bald, green rollers of the Western plains as though its original seedling had been tossed there by the wanton summer breezes, and for no better reason.
Anthony Smallbones, familiarly known to his intimates as "fussy-breeches," because he lived in a dream-fever of commercial enterprise, and believed himself to be a Napoleon of finance—he ran a store, at which he sold a collection of hardware, books, candy, stationery, notions and "delicatessen"—was on his way to the boarding-house for breakfast—there was only one boarding-house in Barnriff, and all the bachelors had their meals there.
He was never leisurely. He believed himself to be too busy for leisure. Just now he was concentrated upon the side issues of a great irrigation scheme that had occupied his small head for at least twenty-four hours, and thus it happened that he ran full tilt into Peter Blunt before he was aware of the giant's presence. He rebounded and came to, and hurled a savage greeting at him.
"Wher' you goin'?" he demanded.
"Don't seem to be your way," the large man vouchsafed, with quiet good-nature.
"No," was the surly response.
"Kind of slack, aren't you?" inquired Peter, his deep-set blue eyes twinkling with humor. "I've eaten two hours back. This lying a-bed is mighty bad for your business schemes."
"Schemes? Gee! I was around at half after five, man! Lying a-bed? Say, you don't know what business means." The little man sniffed scornfully.
"Maybe you're right," Peter responded. He hunched his great loose shoulders to shift the position of a small sack of stuff he was carrying.
He was a man of very large physique and uncertain age. He possessed a burned up face of great strength, and good-nature, but it was so weather-stained, so grizzled, that at first sight it appeared almost harsh. He was an Englishman who had spent years and years of hardy life wandering over the remotenesses of the Western plains of America. Little was known of him, that is to say, little of that life that must once have been his. He was well educated, traveled, and possessed an inexhaustible fund of information on any subject. But beyond the fact that he had once been a soldier, and that a large slice of his life had been lived in such places as Barnriff, no one knew aught of him. And yet it was probable that nobody on the Western prairies was better known than Peter Blunt. East and west, north and south, he was known for a kindly nature, and kindly actions. These things, and for a devotion to prospecting for gold in what were generally considered to be the most unlikely places.
"Right? Why o' course I'm right. Ef you'se folk jest got busy around here, we'd make Barnriff hum an elegant toon. Say, now I got a dandy scheme fer irrigatin' that land back there——"
"Yep. You gave me that yesterday. It's a good scheme." The giant's eyes twinkled. "A great scheme. You're a wonder. But say, all you told me that day has set my slow head busy. I've been thinking a heap since on what you said about 'trusts.' That's it, 'trusts,' 'trusts' and 'combines.' That's the way to get on to millions of dollars. Better than scratching around, eh? Now here's an idea. I thought I'd like to put it to you, finance and such things being your specialty. There's Angel Gay. Now he's running a fine partnership with Restless. Now you take those two as a nucleus. You yourself open a side-line in drugs, and work in with Doc Crombie, and pool the result of the four. The Doc would draw his fees for making folks sick, you'd clear a handsome profit for poisoning them, Gay 'ud rake in his dollars for burying 'em, and Restless?—why Restless 'ud put in white pine for oak, and retire on the profits in five years. Say——"
"What you got in that sack?" inquired Smallbones, blandly ignoring the other's jest at his expense.
"Well, nothing that's a heap of interest. I've been scratching around at the head waters of the river, back there in the foot-hills."
"Ah, 'prospects,'" observed the other, with a malicious shake of the head. "Guess you're allus prospectin' around. I see you diggin' Eve Marsham's tater patch yesterday. Don't guess you made much of a 'strike' in that layout?"
"No." Peter shook his head genially. The little man's drift was obvious. He turned toward the one attractive cottage in the settlement, and saw a woman's figure standing at the doorway talking to a diminutive boy.
"Guess though you'll likely strike more profit diggin' spuds fer folk than you do scratching up loam and loose rocks the way you do," Smallbones went on sourly.
"Sure. You're a far-seeing little man. There's a heap of gold about Eve's home. A big heap; and I tell you, if that was my place, I'd never need to get outside her fences to find all I needed. I'd be a millionaire."
Smallbones looked up into his face curiously. He was thinking hard. But his imagination was limited. Finally he decided that Peter was laughing at him.
"Guess your humor's 'bout as elegant as a fun'ral. An' it ain't good on an empty stummick. I pass."
"So long," cried the giant amiably. "I'll turn that 'trust' racket over in my mind. So long."
He strode away with great lumbering strides heading straight for his humble, two-roomed shack. Smallbones, as he went on to the boarding-house, was full of angry contempt for the prospector. He was a mean man, and like most mean men he hated to be laughed at. But when his anger smoothed down he found himself pitying any one who spent his life looking for profit, by wasting a glorious energy, delving for gold in places where gold was known to be non-existent.
He ruminated on the matter as he went. And wondered. Then there came to him the memory of vague stories of gold in the vicinity of the Barnriff. Indian stories it is true. But then Indian stories often had a knack of having remarkably truthful foundations. Immediately his busy brain began to construct a syndicate of townspeople to hunt up the legends, with a small capital to carry on operations. He would have the lion's share in the concern, of course, and—yes—they might make Peter Blunt chief operator. And by the time he reached the boarding-house all his irrigation scheme was forgotten in this new toy.
Eve Marsham was in two minds of hailing Peter Blunt as she saw him pass on his way to his hut. She wanted him. She wanted to ask his advice about something. Like many others who needed a sympathetic adviser she preferred to appeal to Peter Blunt rather than to any of her sex in Barnriff. However, she allowed the opportunity to slip by, and saw him disappear within his doorway. Then she turned again to the boy sitting on the rough bench beside her, and a look of alarm leaped to her soft brown eyes. He was holding out a tiny pup at arm's length, grasping it by one of its little fore paws.
"Elia, how can you?" she cried. "Put him down, instantly."
The boy turned a bland, beautiful face to her. There was seemingly no expression beyond surprise in his pale blue eyes.
"He likes it," he said, while the whimpering pup still wriggled in his grasp.
Eve made a move to take the wretched animal away, but the boy promptly hugged it to his misshapen breast.
"He's mine," he cried. "I can do what I like with him."
There was no anger in his voice, not even protest. It was a simple statement of denial that at the same time had no resistance in it.
"Well, don't you be cruel," Eve exclaimed shortly, and her eyes turned once more in the direction of Peter Blunt's hut.
Her pretty face was very thoughtful. Her sun-tanned cheeks, her tall, rounded body were the picture of health. She looked as fresh and wholesome as any wild prairie flower with her rich coloring of almost tropical splendor. She was neatly dressed, more after town fashion than in the method of such places as Barnriff, and her expressed reason for thus differentiating from her fellow villagers was a matter of mild advertisement. She made her living as a dressmaker. She was Barnriff's leading and only modiste.
The boy at her side continued his amusement at the puppy's expense. He held it in his two hands and squeezed its little body until the poor creature gasped and retched. Then he swung it to and fro by its diminutive tail. Then he threw it up in the air, making it turn a somersault, and catching it again clumsily.
All this he did in a mild, emotionless manner. There was no boyish interest or amusement in it. Just a calm, serious immobility that gave one the impression of a painting by one of the old European masters.
Elia was Eve Marsham's crippled brother. He was seven years younger than she, and was just about to turn sixteen. In reality he was more than a cripple. He was a general deformity, a deformity that somehow even reached his brain. By this it must not be imagined that he was an idiot, or lacking in intelligence in any way, but he had some curious mental twists that marked him as something out of the normal. His chief peculiarity lay in his dread of pain to himself. An ache, a trifling bruise, a mere scratch upon himself, would hurl him into a paroxysm of terror which frequently terminated in a fit, or, at least, convulsions of a serious nature. This drove the girl, who was his only living relative, to great pains in her care of him, which, combined with an almost maternal love for him, kept her on a rack of apprehension for his well-being.
He had another strange side to his character, and one of which everybody but Eve was aware. He possessed a morbid love for horror, for the sufferings of others. He had been known to sit for hours with a sick man in the village who was suffering agonies of rheumatism, for the mere delight of drawing from him details of the pains he was enduring, and reveling in the horror of the description with ghoulish delight.
When Restless, the carpenter, broke his leg the boy was always around. And when the wretched man groaned while they set it, his face was a picture of rapt fascination. To Eve his visits on such occasions were a sign of his sympathetic nature, and she encouraged him because she did not know the real meaning of them. But there were other things she did not know. He used to pay weekly visits to Gay's slaughter yard on killing day, and reveled in the cruel task of skinning and cutting up the carcase of the slaughtered beast. If a fight between two men occurred in the village Elia's instinct led him unerringly to it. It was a curious psychological fact that the pains and sufferings which, for himself, he dreaded with an almost insane abhorrence, he loved and desired in others.
He was a quaint figure, a figure to draw sympathy and pity from the hardiest. He was precisely four feet high. One leg was shorter than the other, and the hip was drawn up in a corresponding manner. His chest was sunken, and his back was hunched, and he carried his head bent sideways on his shoulders, in the inquiring attitude one associates with a bird.
He was his sister's sole charge, left to her, when much younger, by their dying mother. And the girl lavished on him all the wealth of a good woman's sympathy and love. She saw nothing of his faults. She saw only his deplorable physical condition, and his perfect angel-face. His skin and complexion were so transparent that one could almost have counted the veins beneath the surface; the sun had no power to burn that face to the russet which was the general complexion among prairie folk. His mouth had the innocence of a babe's, and formed a perfect Cupid's bow, such as a girl might well be proud of. His eyes were large, inquiring and full of intelligence. His nose might have been chiseled by an old Greek sculptor, while his hair, long and wavy, was of the texture and color of raw silk.
He was certainly the idol of Eve's heart. In him she could see no wrong, no vice. She cherished him, and served him, and worked for him. He was her life. And, as is only natural, he had learned to claim as his right all that which out of her boundless affection it was her joy to bestow.
Suddenly the yelping of the pup brought Eve round on him again. He was once more holding it aloft by its tail. The girl darted to its rescue, and, instantly, Elia released his hold, and the poor creature fell with a squelching sound upon the ground. She gave a little scream, but the boy only looked on in silent fascination. Fortunately the poor pup was only badly shaken and hastily crawled away to safety. Elia was for recovering it, but Eve promptly vetoed his design.
"Certainly not, you cruel boy," she said sharply. "You remain where you are. You can tell me about the chicken killing down at Restless's."
In the interest of the subject on which Eve desired information Elia forgot all about the pup. He offered no protest nor made the least demur, but forthwith began his story.
"Sure I will," he said, with a curious, uncanny laugh. "Old Ma Restless is just raving her fat head off. I was around this morning and heard her. Gee! She was sayin' things. She was cussin' and cussin' like mad. So I jest turned in the yard to see. It was just as funny as a circus. She stood there, her fat sides all of a wabble, an' a reg'lar waterfall pourin' out of her eyes. He! He! But what made me laff most was to see those checkens around her on the ground. There was ten of 'em lying around, and somebody had choppened off all their heads. Say, the blood was tricklin', an'—well, there, you never did see such a mess. It was real comic, an' I—well, to see her wringin' her fat hands, and cussin'. Gee! I wonder she wasn't struck for it, an' her a woman an' all."
He laughed silently, while his sister stared at him in amazement.
Finally she checked his amusement sharply.
"Well, then she see me, an' she turned on me like a wildcat, an' I was 'most scairt to death. She said, 'What you doin' here, you imp o' Satan? Who's done this? Tell me! Tell me an' I'll lay for 'em! I'll shoot 'em down like vermin.' I knew she wasn't really talkin' to me, so then I wasn't scairt. She was jest blowin' off steam. Then I got around an' looked close at 'em—the checkens, I mean—and I see just where the knife had cut their necks off. It was an elegant way of killing 'em, and say, how they must have flapped around after they'd got clear of their silly heads." He laughed gleefully again. "I looked up after that and see her watchin' me. Guess her eyes was kind of funny lookin', so I said, 'You don't need to take on, mam,' I said. 'They'll make elegant roasts, an' you can get busy and hatch out some more.' And somehow she got quiet then, and I watched her gather them checkens up, an' take 'em into the house. Then when she came out an' see me again, she says, 'Light you right out o' here, you imp o' Satan! I fair hates the sight o' you.' So I lit out. Say, Eve," he added, after a reflective pause, "why does folks all hate me so much?"
The girl sighed and shook her head. Then she came over to him, and, bending down, kissed his fair waving hair.
"Never mind, dear. I don't hate you," she said. "Perhaps it is you offend folks somehow. You know you do manage to upset folks at times. You seem to say—say queer things to them, and get them mad." She smiled down upon the boy a little wistfully. She knew her brother was disliked by most in the village, and it pained her terribly that it should be so. They tried to be outwardly kind to him, but she always felt that it was solely for her sake and never for his. As Elia had never spoken of it before, she had lived in the hope that he did not understand their dislike. However, it was as well that he should know. If he realized it now, as he grew older he might endeavor to earn their good-will in spite of present prejudice.
"Guess it must be, sis. You see I don't kind of mean to say things," he said almost regretfully. "Only when they're in my head they must come out, or—or I think my head would jest bust," he finished up naively.
The girl was still smiling, and one arm stole round the boy's hunched shoulders.
"Of course you can't help saying those things you know to be true——"
"But they most generally ain't true."
The innocent, inquiring eyes looked straight up into hers.
"No," he went on positively, "they generally ain't. I don't think my head would bust keepin' in the truth. Now, yesterday, Will Henderson was down at the saloon before he came up to see you. He came and sort of spoke nice to me. I know he hates me, and—and I hate him worse'n poison. Well, he spoke nice to me, as I said, an' I wanted to spit at him for it. And I jest set to and tho't and tho't how I could hurt him. And so I said, right out before all the boys, 'Wot for do you allus come hangin' around our shack? Eve's most sick to death with you,' I said; 'it isn't as if she ast you to get around, it's just you buttin' in. If you was Jim Thorpe now——'"
"You never said all that, Elia," cried Eve, sternly. All her woman's pride was outraged, and she felt her fingers itching to box the boy's ears.
"I did sure," Elia went on, in that sober tone of decided self-satisfaction. "And I said a heap more. And didn't the boys jest laff. Will went red as a beet, and the boys laffed more. And I was real glad. I hate Will! Say, he was up here last night. Wot for? He was up here from six to nigh nine. Say, sis, I wish you wouldn't have him around."
Eve did not respond. She was staring out at the rampart of hills beyond, where Will worked. She was thinking of Will, thinking of—but the boy was insistent.
"Say, I'd have been real glad if it had been Jim Thorpe. Only he don't come so often, does he? I like him. Say, Jim's allus good to me. I don't never seem to want to hurt him. No, sure. Jim's good. But Will—— Say, sis, Will's a bad lot; he is certain. I know. He's never done nuthing bad, I know, but I can see it in his face, his eyes. It's in his head, too. Do you know I can allus tell when bad's in folks' heads. Now, there's Smallbones. He's a devil. You'll see it, too, some day. Then there's Peter Blunt. Now Peter's that good he'd break his neck if he thought it 'ud help folks. But Will——"
"Elia," Eve was bending over the boy's crooked form. Her cheek was resting on his silky hair. She could not face those bland inquiring eyes. "You mustn't say anything against Will. I like him. He's not a bad man—really he isn't, and you mustn't say he is. Will is just a dear, foolish Irish boy, and when once he has settled down will be—you wait——"
The boy abruptly wriggled out of his sister's embrace. His eyes sought hers so that she could no longer avoid them.
"I won't wait for anything to do with Will Henderson—if that's what you mean. I tell you he's no good. I hate him! I hate him! And—and I hope some one'll kill all the checkens he's left in your care down at that old shack of his." He scrambled to his feet and hobbled away, vanishing round the corner of the house in a fury of fierce resentment.
He had been roused to one of his dreaded fits of passion, and Eve was alarmed. In a fever of apprehension she was about to follow him up and soothe him, when she saw a horseman galloping toward the house. The figure was unmistakable, besides she knew the horse's gait and color. It was Jim Thorpe, riding in from the AZ ranch.
In a few moments he drew rein at the gate of her vegetable patch. He flung the reins over his horse's head and removed the bit from its mouth. Then he let it wander grazing on the tawny grass of the market-place.
Eve waited for him to come up the garden path, and for the moment the boy was forgotten. She welcomed him with the cordiality of old friendship. There was genuine pleasure in her smile, there was hearty welcome in her eyes, and in the soft, warm grip of her strong young hand, but that was all. There was no shyness, no avoiding the honest devotion in his look. The radiant hope shining in his clear, dark eyes was not for her understanding. The unusual care in his dress, the neatly polished boots under his leather chaps, the creamy whiteness of his cotton shirt, the store creases of the new silk handkerchief about his neck, none of these things struck her as being anything out of the ordinary.
And he, blind soul, took courage from the warmth of her welcome. His heart beat high with a hope which no ordinary mundane affairs could have inspired. All the ill-fate behind him was wiped off the slate. The world shone radiant before eyes, which, at such times, are mercifully blinded to realities. An Almighty Providence sees that every man shall live to the full such moments as were his just then. It is in the great balance of things. The greater the joy, the harder—— But what matters the other side of the picture!
"Eve," he exclaimed, "I was hoping to find you—not busy. I've ridden right in to yarn with you—'bout things. Say, maybe you've got five minutes?"
"I've always got five minutes for you, Jim," the girl responded warmly. "Sit right down here on this seat, and get—going. How's things with the 'AZ's'?"
"Bully! Dan McLagan's getting big notions of doing things; he's heaping up the dollars in plenty. And I'm glad, because with him doing well I'm doing well. I've already got an elegant bunch of cows and calves up in the foot-hills. You see I make trade with him for my wages. I've done more. Yesterday I got him to promise me a lease of grazing, and a big patch for a homestead way up there in the foot-hills. In another two years I mean to be ranching on my own, eh? How's that?"
The girl's eyes were bright with responsive enthusiasm. She was smiling with delight at this dear friend's evident success.
"It's great, Jim. But how quiet you've been over it. You never even hinted before——"
The man shook his head, and for a moment a shadow of regret passed across his handsome face.
"Well, you see I waited until I was sure of that lease. I've come so many falls I didn't guess I wanted to try another by anticipating too much. So I just waited. It's straight going now," he went on, with a return to his enthusiasm, "and I'm going to start building."
"Yes, yes. You'll get everything ready for leaving the 'AZ's' in——"
"Two years, yes. I'll put up a three-roomed shack of split logs, a small barn, and branding corrals. That'll be the first start. You see"—he paused—"I'd like to know about that shack. Now what about the size of the rooms and things? I—I thought I'd ask you——"
The girl turned inquiring eyes upon him. She was searching his face for something, and that something came to her as an unwelcome discovery, for she abruptly turned away again, and her attention was held by those distant hills, where Will Henderson worked.
"I don't know," she said seriously. The light of enthusiasm had died out of her eyes, leaving them somehow sad and regretful. "You see, I don't know a man's requirements in such things. A woman has ideas, but that is chiefly for herself. You see, she has the care of the house generally."
"Yes, yes; that's it," Jim broke in eagerly. Then he checked himself. Something in Eve's manner gave him pause. "You see I—I wanted a woman's ideas. I don't want the house for a man. I——"
He did not finish what he had to say. Somehow words failed him. It was not that he found it difficult to put what he wanted to say into words. Something in the girl's manner checked his eagerness and drove him to silence. He, too, suddenly found himself staring out at the hills, where—Will worked.
For one fleeting instant Eve turned her gentle eyes upon the face beside her. She saw the strong features, the steady look of the dark eyes, the clean-cut profile and determined jaw. She saw, too, that he was thinking hard, and her woman's instinct came to her aid. She felt that she must be the first to speak. And on what she said depended what would follow.
"Why not leave the house until toward the end of the two years? By that time you will have been able to talk it over with—the right person."
"That's what I want to do now."
Jim's eagerness leaped again. He thought he saw an opening. His eyes had in them the question he wanted to ask. All his soul was behind his words, all his great depth of feeling and love looked out at the rounded oval of her sweet face. He hungrily took in the beauty of her hair, her eyes, her cheeks; the sweet richness of her ripe lips, the chiseled roundness of her beautiful neck. He longed to crush her to his heart where they sat. He longed to tell her that she and she only of all women could ever occupy the hut he intended to build; he longed to pour into her ears his version of the old, old story, and so full was his great, strong heart, so overwhelming was his lover's madness, that he believed he could tell that story as it had never been told before. But the question never reached his lips. The old story was not for his telling. Nor did he ask himself why. It was as though a power which was all-mastering forbade him to speak further.
"Have you seen Will to-day?" Eve suddenly inquired, with apparent irrelevance. "I half expected to——" And she broke off purposely.
The look in Jim's eyes hardened to one of acute apprehension.
"You were—expecting him?"
"Well, not exactly, Jim." She withdrew her gaze from the distant hills, and, gently smiling, turned her eyes upon him. They were full of sympathy and profound kindness. "You see, he came here last night. And, well, I thought he said something about——"
Jim started. A shiver passed through his body. He suddenly felt cold in that blazing sun. His eyes painfully sought the girl's face. His look was an appeal, an appeal for a denial of what in his heart he feared. For some seconds he did not speak. There was no sound between them, but of his breathing, which had become suddenly heavy.
"Will—Will was here last night?" he said at last.
His voice was husky and unusual. But he dropped his eyes before the innocent look of inquiry in the girl's.
"Why, yes; he spent the evening with me."
In lowering his eyes Jim found them staring at the girl's hands, resting in her lap. On one of them he noticed, for the first time, a gold band. It was the inside of a ring. It was on the third finger of the left hand. He had never seen Eve wearing rings before. Suddenly he reached out and caught her hands in his. He turned them over with almost brutal roughness. Eve tried to withdraw them, but he held them fast.
"That ring!" he exclaimed, hoarsely. It was in full view now. "It is Will's. It was my father's signet ring. I gave it to him. Where?—How——? But no, you needn't tell me, I guess." He almost flung her hands from him. And a wave of sickness swept over him as he thought.
Then in a moment all the passion of his heart rose uppermost in him, and its scorching tide swept through his body, maddening him, driving him. A torrent of words surged to his lips, words of bitterness, cruel words that would hurt the girl, hurt himself, words of hateful intensity, words that might ease his tortured soul at the expense of those who had always occupied foremost place in his heart.
But they were not uttered. He choked them back with a gasp, and seized himself in an iron grip of will. And, for some moments, he held on as a drowning man may cling to the saving hand. He must not hurt the girl, he must not wound her love by betraying his cousin. If Will had not played the game, at any rate he would. Suddenly, he spoke again, and no one would have suspected the storm raging under his calm exterior. Only his voice was hoarse, and his lips were dry, and the usually clear whites of his eyes were bloodshot.
"The boy has asked you, then?" he said slowly. And he waited for the death-knell of all his hopes, his love.
"Yes." Eve's voice was very low. Her gentle woman's heart ached, for her instinct told her of the pain she was causing. "Last night he asked me to be his wife, and I—I love him, Jim, and so I consented."
"Yes, yes." There was weariness in the man's voice now. It sounded almost as though he were physically weary. "I hope you will be happy, dear. Will's—a good boy——"
"Yes, and I asked him if you knew anything about it. And he said, 'No.' He said it would be a little surprise for you—— You are not going?" Jim had suddenly started to his feet. "Won't you wait for Will? He's staying in the village. He said he'd be up to see me this morning—before he went out to the hills."
Jim could stand no more.
"I'm glad you told me, Eve," he said, almost harshly. "Will's not good at surprises. No, I won't stay. I'll get right back, after I've done some business in the village." He stood, glancing thoughtfully down at the village for some moments. Then he turned again, and a shadowy smile lit his sombre eyes.
"I've given out a contract for that homestead," he went on. "Well, I'm going to cancel it. Good-bye, little girl."
"Oh, Jim, I——"
But the man shook his head.
"Don't you be sorry. Get all the happiness you can. Maybe Will will be a real good husband to you."
He moved away and strode after his horse. The beast was well out on the market-place, and Eve watched him catch it and clamber into the saddle. Then she turned away with a sigh, and found herself looking into the beautiful face of her brother. He had silently crept up to her side.
"You've hurt him, sis; you've hurt him real bad. Did you see? It was all inside. Inside here;" the boy folded his delicate hands over his hollow breast. "I know it because I feel it here, too. It's as though you'd taken right hold of a bunch of cords here, and were pulling 'em, tearing 'em, an' someway they're fixed right on to your heart. That's the way you've hurt him, an' it hurts me, because I like him—he's good. You don't know what it feels when a man's hurt. I do. It's elegant pain. Gee!" His calm face was quite unlit by the emotion he described. "It don't stop at your heart. It gets right through to your muscles, and they tingle and itch to do something, and they mostly want to hurt, same as you've been hurt. Then it gets to the head, through the blood. That's it; the blood gets hot, and it makes the brain hot, an' when the brain's hot it thinks hot thoughts, an' they scorch an' make you feel violent. You think hurt for some one, see? It's all over the body alike. It's when men get hurt like that that they want to kill. Gee! You've hurt him."
The boy paused a little breathlessly. His tense nerves were quivering with some sort of mental strain. It was as though he were watching something that was going on inside himself, and the effort was tremendous, physically and mentally. But, used as Eve was to his vagaries, she saw none of this. She was thinking only of Jim. Thinking of the suffering which her brother had said she had caused him. Woman-like, she felt she must excuse herself. Yet she knew she had nothing to blame herself with.
"I only told him I had promised to marry Will."
The boy uttered a little cry. It was a strange sound, unlike anything human. He rushed at her, and his thin hands seized upon her wrists, and clutched them violently.
"You're goin' to marry Will? You! You! And you've hurt him—to marry Will?" Then, with the force of his clutch upon her wrists, he drew her down toward him till her face was near to his, and his placid eyes looked coldly into hers. "You've—hurt—me—too," he hissed into her face, "and I almost—hate you. No, it's not you—but I hate Will worse'n I ever hated anything in my life."
TO THE RED, DANCING DEVIL
Jim Thorpe dashed the vicious rowels of his Mexican spurs into the flanks of his horse. Such unaccustomed treatment sent the willing beast racing headlong across the market-place, while the guiding hand mechanically directed toward the saloon.
A storm of bitterness wrung the man's heart. A murky pall of depression hung over his brain, deadening his sense of proportion for all those things that matter. For the time, at least, it crushed down in his heart that spirit of striving, which was one of his best characteristics, and utterly quenched the warm fires of his better nature. All thought was buried in a fog of wrath, which left him a prey to instincts utterly foreign to his normal condition. He had left Eve Marsham's presence in a furious state from which no effort seemed able to clear him. Nothing gripped his understanding—nothing save the knowledge of what he had lost, and the conviction of the low-down trick that had been played upon him by one whom he regarded as a dear, younger brother.
He drew rein at the saloon and flung out of the saddle. He mechanically hitched his horse to the tie-post. Then, with unconscious aggressiveness, he strode up to the building and pushed his way through the swing doors.
The bar was empty, an unusual enough circumstance at that time of the day to draw comment from any one who knew the habits of the men of Barnriff; but Thorpe did not notice it. His eyes were on the man behind the counter standing ready to serve him. He strode over to him and flung down a ten-dollar bill, ordering a drink of whiskey, and a bottle of the spirit to take away with him. He was promptly served, and Silas Rocket, the proprietor, civilly passed the time of day. It elicited no responsive greeting, for Jim gulped down his drink, and helped himself to another. The second glass of the fiery spirit he swallowed greedily, while Rocket looked on in amazement. As he proceeded to pour out another the man's astonishment found vent.
"A third?" he said stupidly.
Jim deigned no answer, but drank the liquor down, and set the glass forcefully upon the counter.
The saloon-keeper quickly recovered himself. Nor was he slow to comment.
"Feelin' mean, some?" he observed, with a sympathetic wink. He cared little how his visitor took his remark. He was used to the vagaries of his customers, and cared not a snap of the fingers for them.
Jim's reply came swiftly.
"Yes, mean enough to need your hogwash," he said shortly.
Silas Rocket's eyes snapped. He was never a man to take things sitting down.
"Hogwash it is when a feller o' your manners swills it. Mebbe it'll clear some o' the filth off'n your measly chest. Have one on me; I'd be real glad to help in the cleanin' process."
There was a subtle threat underlying his last words. But Jim cared nothing for what he said.
"I'll pay for all I need," he retorted, turning from the counter, and bearing his bottle away over to the window.
Rocket shrugged and turned to his work of setting some sort of order among his bottles. But, as Jim stood at the window with his back turned, his narrow eyes frequently regarded him and his busy brain speculated as to his humor. The ranchman was well liked in Barnriff, but his present attitude puzzled the worthy host.
However, the object of all this attention was wholly unaware of it. Even if it had been otherwise, it is doubtful if Thorpe would have cared in the least. He was lost in a rushing train of thought. His brain had cleared under the stimulating potions of raw whiskey, and, just as before his chaotic state had made him unable to grasp things fully, now it was equally chaotic in an opposite direction. His brain was running riot with a clearness and rapidity that showed only too plainly the nervous tension under which he was laboring. He was piecing this latest trick of fortune with the ill-luck which seemed to be ever pursuing him. Under the influence of the burning spirit he seemed to have lost the sting of the actual wrong to himself, and in its place a morbid train of thought had been set working.
It was a persecution that was steadily dogging him. When his early misfortunes had come he had accepted them stoically, believing them to be part of the balance of things, beginning on the wrong side, no doubt, but which would be leveled up later on. Time and again he had received these buffets, and he had merely smiled, a little grimly perhaps, and started to "buck the game" afresh.
Then, when things eventually turned slightly in his favor, very slightly, out here on the prairie amongst the derelicts, the flotsam of the grassy ocean, he had found a brief breathing space. He had begun to think the balance had really turned. Hope dawned, and life offered fresh possibilities. And now—now he had been let down afresh. Before, the attack had been directed against the worldly hopes of a man, such as all see crushed at some time in life, but now it was his spirit that was aimed at. It was that strong, living soul which was the mainspring of his moral existence.
He had lost the woman he loved; that was something he could face, something he could live down. But it was the manner of it. It was the fact of Will's treachery that had opened the vital wound.
The thought chilled his heart, it crushed him. Yet his anger was not all for the man who had so rankly betrayed his trust, his bitterness was not all for the fact itself. It was the evidence it afforded of the merciless hand of an invisible foe at work against him, and with which he was powerless to contend. The subtlety of it—to his exaggerated thought—was stupendous.
Slowly his bitterness resolved itself to an unutterable pessimism; the acuteness of the stimulant was wearing off. There was an unhealthy streak in his mind somewhere, a streak that was growing under these blows which had been so liberally dealt him. Where was the use in struggling? he began to ask himself. And the poison of the thought acted like a sedative. He grew strangely calm; he almost experienced pleasure and comfort under its influence. Why struggle? Nothing could go right with him. Nothing. He was cursed—cursed with an ill-starred fortune. This sort of thing was his fate. Fate. That was it. Why struggle against it?
He had but this one short life to live. He would live it. He would live it in the way he chose, without regard to the ethics of civilization. What mattered if he shortened it by years, or if he lived to what might be looked upon as an honored old age? And what was there afterward? He even began to doubt if there was anything before—if there was any just—— He paused and shivered as the thought came to him. And he was glad he paused. To question the Deity was to rank himself at once with a sect he had always despised as self-centred fools, and pitied them as purblind creatures who were in some degree mentally deficient.
He pulled himself together and returned to the bar.
"Give me another whiskey," he demanded.
But Silas Rocket had not forgotten; he rarely ever did forget things in the nature of rudeness.
"I'd hate to," he said quickly; "but I guess I'll sell you 'most anything."
Jim accepted the snub silently, drank his whiskey, paid for it, and went out.
Rocket looked after him. His eyes were unfriendly, but then they were generally unfriendly. As the doors swung to behind his customer he turned and looked in through the doorway behind him.
"Ma!" he cried, "Jim Thorpe's been in. He's had four drinks o' whiskey, and took a bottle with him. He's been thinkin' a whole heap, too. Guess he's goin' on a sky-high drunk."
And a shrewish voice called back to him in a tone of feminine spleen.
"Guess it's that Marsham gal," it said conclusively.
A woman's instinct is a wonderful thing.
Meanwhile Jim was riding across the market-place. Half-way across he saw Smallbones. He hailed him, and the little man promptly hurried up to his horse's side.
Jim knew that Smallbones disliked him. But just now he was only seeking ordinary information.
"Where'll I find Restless?" he inquired. "Where's he working?"
"Guess I see him over by Peter Blunt's shack. Him an' Peter wus gassin' together, while you wus up ther' seein' Eve Marsham," Smallbones replied meaningly. "I 'lows Peter's mostly nosin' around when——"
"Thanks, I'll ride over."
Jim made as though to ride off. He understood the spiteful nature of this little busybody, and was in no mood to listen to him now. But Smallbones was something of a leech when he chose. He had seen the whiskey bottle sticking out of Jim's coat pocket, and his Barnriff thirst and curiosity were agog, for Jim was at no time a man to waste money in drink.
"Say, givin' a party?" he sneered, pointing at the bottle.
"Yes, a party to a dead friend," replied Jim, with a wintry smile. "It's inexpensive, less trouble, and there's more for myself. So long."
A minute or two later Smallbones was serving Angel Gay in his store. He had just sold him a butcher's knife of inferior quality at double New York prices.
"Say," he observed, in the intimate manner of fellow villagers. "Who's dead? I ain't heard nuthin'. Mebbe you'll know, your bizness kind o' runnin' in that line."
"Ain't heerd tell," the butcher replied, with a solemn shake of his large head. "An' most o' them come my way, too," he added, with thoughtful pride. "Here, wait." He drew out a greasy note-book. "Y'see I kind o' keep re-cords o' likely folks. Mebbe some o' the names'll prompt you. Now ther's M. Wilkes, she's got a swellin', I don't rightly know wher'—ther's folk talks of it bein' toomer—deadly toomer. You ain't heerd if she's gone?" he inquired hopefully, while he thumbed the pages of his book over.
"Nope. I ain't heerd," said Smallbones. "But I don't guess it's a woman. Friend o' Jim Thorpe's."
"Ah," murmured the happy butcher, lifting his eyes to the ceiling for inspiration. "That kind o' simplifies things. Jim Thorpe," he pondered. "He ain't got a heap o' friends, as you might say. Ther's Will Henderson," he turned over the pages of his book. "Um, healthy, drinks a bit. Hasty temper, but good for fifty year 'less he gits into a shootin' racket. 'Tain't him now?" he inquired looking up.
"No, 'tain't him. I see him this mornin'. He was soused some. Kind o' had a heavy night. Wot about McLagan of the 'AZ's'?"
Again the butcher turned over the pages of his note-book. But finished by shaking his head mournfully.
"No luck," he said. "McLagan's 'bout forty, never sick. Only chance 'accident on ranch.'"
The two men looked blankly at each other.
"Wot set you thinkin'?" inquired the butcher at last.
"Jest nuthin' o' consequence. Thorpe sed as he was givin' a party to a dead friend. He'd got a bottle o' whiskey."
"Ah!" murmured Gay, with an air of relief, returning his note-book to his pocket. "That clears things. He's speakin' metaphoric. I'll git goin', kind o' busy. I ain't sent out the day's meat yet, an' I got to design a grave fixin' fer Restless's last kid. Y'see it's a gratis job, I guess, Restless bein' my pardner, as you might say. So long."
Jim reached Peter Blunt's hut as the carpenter was leaving it. Peter was at the door, and smiled a genial welcome. He and Jim were excellent friends. They were both men who thought. They both possessed a wide knowledge of things which were beyond the focus of the Barnriff people, and consequently they interested each other.
"Howdy, Jim," the giant called to him, as he drew up beside the carpenter.
Jim returned his greeting.
"I'll come along, Peter," he said. "Guess I need a word with Restless first."
Jim turned to the man at his side.
"I won't need those buildings," he said briefly.
"But I ordered——"
Jim cut him short.
"I'll pay you anything I owe you. You can let me know how much."
He passed on to the hut without waiting for a reply. He had no intention of arguing anything concerning his future plans with Restless. If the carpenter stood to lose he would see him right—well, there was nothing more about it that concerned him.
Peter was inside his hut examining a litter of auriferous soil on his table when Jim entered. This man's home possessed an unique interior. It was such as one would hardly have expected in a bachelor in Barnriff. There were none of the usual impedimenta of a prairie man's abode, there was no untidiness, no dirt, no makeshift. Yet like the man himself the place was simple and unpretentious.
There were other signs of the man in it, too. There was a large plain wooden bookcase filled to overflowing with a choice collection of reading matter. There were rows of classics in several languages, there was modern fiction of the better kind, there were many volumes of classical verse. In short it was the collection of a student, and might well have been a worthy addition to many a more elaborate library.
There were, besides this, several excellent pictures in water-color on the walls, and the absence of all tawdry decoration was conspicuous. Even the bed, the chair, and the table, plain enough, goodness knows, had an air of belonging to a man of unusual personality.
It would be impossible to describe adequately the manner in which the character of Peter Blunt peeped out at one from every corner of his home, nevertheless it did impress itself upon his every visitor. And its peculiar quality affected all alike. There was a strangely gentle strength about the man that had a way of silencing the most boisterously inclined. He had a quiet humor, too, that was often far too subtle for the cruder minds of Barnriff. But most of all his sympathy was a thing that left no room for self in his thoughts. No one attempted undue familiarity with him; not that he would have been likely to actively resent it, but simply, in his presence nobody had any inclination that way. Nobody could have been more a part of the Barnriff community than Peter Blunt, and yet nobody could have been more apart from it.
Peter did not even look up from his labors when his visitor flung himself into the vacant chair. He silently went on with his examination of first one fragment of quartz and then another. And the man in the chair watched him with moody, introspective eyes. It was a long time before either spoke, and when, at last, the silence was broken, it was by Peter's deep mellow voice.
"I'm looking for gold in a heap of dirt, Jim," he said, without lifting his eyes. "It's hard to find, there's such a pile of the—dirt."
"Why don't you wash it?"
"Yes, I s'pose I ought to," Peter allowed.
Then he glanced over, and his mild eyes focused themselves on the bottle protruding from Jim's pocket. For some moments he contemplated it, and then he looked up into his friend's face.
"How's the 'AZ's'?" he inquired casually.
"Oh, all right."
"In for a—vacation?"
Jim stirred uneasily. There was a directness about the other's manner that was disconcerting. He laughed mirthlessly, and shifted his position so that his bottle of whiskey was concealed.
"No," he said. "I'm getting back—sometime to-night."
"Ah." Then Peter went on after a pause: "I'm glad things are going well for you. Restless told me he'd got an order from you for some buildings on your own land."
Jim turned his eyes in the direction of the doorway and found them gazing upon Eve Marsham's little home beyond it. As Peter offered no further comment he was finally forced to reply.