A Romance of Arizona
Novelized from Edmund Day's Melodrama
John Murray and Marion Mills Miller
I. The Cactus Cross II. The Heart of a Girl III. A Woman's Loyalty IV. The Hold-up V. Hoover Bows to Hymen VI. A Tangled Web VII. Josephine Opens the Sluices VIII. The Sky Pilot IX. What God Hath Joined Together X. The Piano XI. Accusation and Confession XII. The Land of Dead Things XIII. The Atonement XIV. The Round-up XV. Peruna Pulls His Freight XVI. Death of McKee, Disappointed Desperado XVII. A New Deal XVIII. Jack!
The Cactus Cross
Down an old trail in the Ghost Range in northwestern Mexico, just across the Arizona border, a mounted prospector wound his way, his horse carefully picking its steps among the broken granite blocks which had tumbled upon the ancient path from the mountain wall above. A burro followed, laden heavily with pack, bed-roll, pick, frying-pan, and battered coffee-pot, yet stepping along sure-footedly as the mountain-sheep that first formed the trail ages ago, and whose petrified hoof-prints still remain to afford footing for the scarcely larger hoofs of the pack-animal.
An awful stillness hung over the scene, that was broken only by the click of hoofs of horse and burro upon the rocks, and the clatter of the loose stones they dislodged that rolled and skipped down the side. Not a breath of air was stirring, and the sun blazed down from the zenith with such fierce and direct radiation that the wayfarer needed not to observe the shadows to note its exact position in the heavens. Singly among the broken blocks, and in banks along the ledges, the cactus had burst under the heat, as it were, into the spontaneous combustion of flowery flame. To the traveler passing beside them their red blooms blazed with the irritating superfluity of a torch-light procession at noonday.
The trail leads down to a flat ledge which overlooks the desert, and which is the observatory whither countless generations of mountain-sheep have been wont to resort to survey the strange world beneath them—with what purpose and what feelings, it remains for some imaginative writer of animal-stories to inform us. From the ledge to the valley below the trail is free from obstructions, and broader, more beaten, and less devious than above, indicating that it has been formed by the generations of men toiling up from the valley to the natural watch-tower on the heights. Reaching the ledge, the prospector found that what seemed from the angle above to be an irregular pile of large boulders was an artificial fortification, the highest wall being toward the mountains. Entering the enclosure the prospector dismounted, relieved his horse of its saddle and his burro of its pack, and proceeded to prepare his midday meal. Looking for the best place where he might light a fire, he observed, in the most protected corner, a flat stone, marked by fire, and near it, in the rocky ground, a pot-hole, evidently formed for grinding maize. The ashes of ancient fires were scattered about, and in cleaning them off his new-found hearth the man discovered a potsherd, apparently of a native olla or water-jar, and a chipped fragment of flint, too small to indicate whether it had formed part of an Indian arrowhead or had dropped from an old flintlock musket.
"Lucky strike!" observed the prospector. "I was down to my last match." And, gathering some mesquit brush for fuel, and rubbing a dead branch into tinder, he drew out a knife and, rapidly and repeatedly striking the back of its blade with the flint, produced a stream of sparks, which fell on the tinder. Blowing the while, he started a flame. When the fire was ready the man shook his canteen. "Precious little drink left," he said. "I wish that potsherd carried water as the flint-chip does fire. However, there's lots of cactus around here, and they're natural water-jars. My knife may get me a drink out of the desert's thorns, as well as kindle a fire from its stones. And right here's my watermelon, the bisnaga, the first one I've found in months," he exclaimed, going over to the edge of the cliff, above the level of which peered the fat head of a cactus covered with spines that were barbed like a fish-hook. Its short tap-root was fixed in a crevice a few feet below the parapet. Lying on the edge of the cliff, the man sliced off the top of the cactus, and began jabbing into its interior, breaking down the fibrous walls of the water-cells, of which the top-heavy plant is almost entirely composed. In a few moments he arose.
"Now I can empty my canteen in the coffee-pot, sure of a fresh supply of water by the time I am ready to mosey along."
He filled the pot, set it on the fire, and then pressed the uncorked and empty canteen down into the macerated interior of the bisnaga.
While his coffee was boiling, the prospector continued his examination of the fortification, beginning, in the manner of his kind, with the more minute "signs," and ending with what, to a tourist, would have been the first and only subject of observation—the view. On the inner side of the large boulder in the wall he discerned, the faint outline of a cross, painted with red ochre.
Scraping with his pick beneath the rock, to see if the emblem was the sign of hidden treasure or relic, he unearthed a rattlesnake.
Before it could strike, with a quick fling of his tool he sent the reptile whirling high in the air toward the precipice. But from the clump of cactus growth along the parapet arose a sahuaro, with branching arms, and against this the snake was flung. Wrapped around the thorny top by the momentum of the cast, it hung, hissing and rattling with pain and hatred.
The prospector looked up at the impaled rattlesnake with a smile.
Reminiscences of Sunday-school flashed across his mind.
"Gee, I'm a regular Moses," he ejaculated. "First I bring water from the face of the rock, and then I lift up the serpent in the wilderness. The year I've spent in the mountains and desert seem like forty to me, and now, at last, I have a sight of the Promised Land. God, what a magnificent view!"
Dropping his pick, he stretched out his arms with instinctive symbolization of the wide prospect, and expression of an exile's yearning for his native land.
"Over there is God's country, sure enough," he continued, giving the trite phrase a reverential tone, which he had not used in his first expression of the name of Deity. "Thank Him, the parallel with old Moses stops right here. Many a time I thought I would never get out of the mountains alive, and that my grave would be unmarked by so much as a boulder with a red cross upon it. But now, before night, I'll be back in the States, and in three more days at home on the ranch. I promised to return in a year, and I'll make good to the hour. I sure did hate to leave that strike, though, after all the hard luck I had been having. Sixty dollars a day, and growing richer. But the last horn was blowing. No tobacco, six matches, and nothing left of the bacon but rinds. Well, the gold is there and the claim'll bring whatever I choose to ask for it. And Echo shall have a home as good as Allen Hacienda, and a ranch as fine as Bar One—yes, by God, it'll be Bar None, my ranch!"
Out of the sea of molten air that stretched before him, that nebulous chaos of quivering bars and belts of heated atmosphere which remains above the desert as a memorial of the first stage of the entire planet's existence, the imagination of the prospector created a paradise of his own. There took shape before his eyes a Mexican hacienda, larger and more beautiful even than that of Echo's father, the beau-ideal of a home to his limited fancy. And on the piazza in front, covered with flowering vines, there stood awaiting him the slender figure of a woman, with outstretched arms and dark eyes, tender with yearning love.
"Echo—Echo Allen!" he murmured, fondly repeating the name. "No, not Echo Allen, but Echo Lane, for Dick Lane has redeemed his promise, and returns to claim you as his own."
As he gazed upon the shimmering heat waves which distorted and displaced the objects within and beneath them, a group of horsemen suddenly appeared to him in the distance, and as suddenly vanished in thin air.
"Rurales!" ejaculated Lane. "I wonder if they are chasing Apaches? That infernal mirage gives you no idea of distance or direction. If the red devils have got away from Crook and slipped by these Greaser rangers over the border, they'll sure be making straight for the Ghost Range, and by this very trail. If so, I'm at the best place on it to meet them, and here I stay till the coast is clear." Turning to the red cross on the rock, he reflected: "Perhaps, after all, it's a case of 'Nebo's lonely mountain.'"
Lane had hardly reached this conclusion before he found it justified by the sight of a mounted Apache in the regalia of war emerging from a hidden dip in the trail below the fortification. Lane dropped behind the parapet, evidently before he was observed, as the steadily increasing number and loudness of the hoof-beats on the rocky trail indicated to the listener.
Crawling back to his horse and burro, he made them lie down against the upper wall, and picketed them with short lengths of rope to the ground, for he foresaw that danger could come only from the mountainside. Taking his Winchester, he returned to the parapet, and, half-seated, half-reclining behind it, opened fire on the unsuspecting Apaches. The leader, shot through the head, fell from his horse, which reared and backed wildly down the trail. Other bullets must have found their billets also, but, because of the confusion which ensued among the Indians, the prospector was unable to tell how many of them he had put out of action. In a flash every rider had leaped off his horse, and, protecting himself by its body, was scrambling with his mount to the protecting declivity in the rear. The prospector was sorely tempted to pump his cartridges into the group as it poured back over the rim of the hollow, but he desisted from the useless slaughter of horses alone, knowing that he could be attacked only on foot, and that every one of his slender store of cartridges must find a human mark if he would return to the States alive. "They've got to put me out of business before they can go on," he ruminated. "An Apache is a good deal of a coward when he's fighting for pleasure, but just corner him, and, great snakes and spittin' wildcats, what a game he does put up! I must save my cartridges; for one thing's sure, they won't waste any of theirs. They're not as good shots as white men, for ammunition is too scarce with them for use in gun practise; so they won't fire till they've got me dead to rights. Let me see; there's about a dozen left in the party, and I have fifteen cartridges—that's three in reserve for my own outfit, if some of the others fail to get their men. Those red devils enjoy skinning an animal alive as much as torturing a man, and you can bet they won't save me any bullets by shooting Nance and Jinny."
Reasoning that the Indians would not dare to attack by way of the open trail in front, and that it would take some time for them to make the detour necessary to approach him from above, since they would have to leave their ponies below and climb on hands and knees over jutting ledges and around broken granite blocks, Lane coolly proceeded to drink his coffee, and eat his lunch of hard bread and cold bacon-rind. After he had finished, he gave a lump of sugar to each of his animals, and pressed his cheek with an affectionate hug against the side of his horse's head.
"Old girl," he said. "I'm sorry we can't take a parting drink, for I'm afraid neither of us will reach our next water-hole. But you can count on me that the red devils won't get you."
Then, going to his pack, he undid it, and took out a double handful of yellow nuggets and a number of canvas bags. These he deposited in the pot-hole, and, prying up the flat stone of the fireplace, laid it over them, and covered the stone with embers.
"It's a ten to one shot that they finish me," he reflected; "but the wages I've paid for by a year of hard work and absence from her side, stay just as near Echo Allen as I can bring them alive, and, if there's any truth in what they say about spirits disclosing in dreams the place of buried treasure, with the chance of my getting them to her after I am dead."
Taking the useless boulders from the edge of the cliff, but carefully, so as not to expose himself to the fire of the Apaches, he piled them on top of the upper wall in such a fashion as to form little turrets. He left an opening in each, through which he could observe, in turn, each point of the compass whence danger might be expected, and could fire his Winchester without exposing himself. Then he began going from post to post on a continuous round of self-imposed sentinel duty. "If I could only climb the sahuaro," he thought, "and fly my red shirt as a flag, to let the Rurales know I've flanked the enemy, it might hurry them along in time to put a crimp in these devils before they get me. But it'll have to be 'Hold the Fort' without any 'Oh, Say Can You See?' business. Anyhow, I'm flying the rattlesnake flag of Bunker Hill, 'Don't Tread on Me!' Whether the Rurales see it or not, I've saved their hides. If the Apaches had got to this fort first, gee, how they would have crumpled up the Greasers as they came along the trail!"
Rendered thirsty by his exertions, Lane remembered the canteen in the bisnaga, which he had forgotten among his other preparations for defense. He cautiously reached his hand over the ledge, and secured the precious vessel, but, as he was withdrawing it, PING! came a bullet through the canteen, knocking it out of his hand. As it fell clattering down the side of the ledge, he groaned: "Damned good shooting! They've probably left their best marksman below with the ponies. No hope for escape on that side. Well, there's some consolation in the thought that they'll undoubtedly finish me before I get too damned thirsty. Glad it wasn't my hand."
Although the period he spent waiting for the attack was less than an hour by his watch, it seemed to last so long that he had hopes that the Rurales would appear in time to rescue him. His spirits rose with the prospect. Looking about him at the walls, the fireplace, and the red cross, he reflected: "I am not the first man, or even the first white man, that has withstood an attack in this place." In imagination he constructed the history of the fort. Here, in ages remote, a tribe of Indians, defeated and driven to the mountains had constructed an outpost against their enemies of the plain, but these had captured the stronghold, and fortified it against its former occupants. Later, a band of Spanish gold-seekers had made a stand here against natives whom they had roused against them by oppression. Or, perhaps, as indicated by the cross, it had afforded refuge to the Mission Fathers, those heroic souls who had faced the horrors of the infernolike desert in their saintly efforts to convert its fiendish inhabitants.
With the symbol of Christianity in his mind, Lane turned toward the giant cactus, which he had heretofore regarded chiefly in the aspect of a flagpole, and saw in its columnar trunk and opposing branches a distinct resemblance to a cross. The plant was dead, and dry as punk. Suddenly there flashed into his mind a hideous suggestion. More cruel than even the Romans, the inventors of crucifixion, the Apaches are wont to bind their captives to these dead cacti, which supply at once scourging thorns, binding stake, and consuming fuel, and, kindling a fire at the top, leave it to burn slowly down to the victim, and, long before it despatches him, to twist his body and limbs into what appear to the Apache sense of humor to be exquisitely ludicrous contortions.
With his mind occupied by these horrible apprehensions, Lane looked at the rattlesnake upon the sahuaro whose struggles by this time had diminished to a movement of the tail.
"Poor old rattler," he thought. "I wish I could spare a cartridge to put you out of your misery."
At length, as Lane peered up the mountainside, he saw a bush on a ledge a little to the left of the trail quiver, as if stirred by a passing breath of wind. He aimed his Winchester through a crack in the wall at the spot, and when a moment later an Apache rose up from the ground and leaped toward the shelter of a rock below, Lane fired, and the savage fell crumpling. Like an echo of the explosion a rifle on the right spoke, and a bullet struck the rock by Lane's head. He marked the spot whence the shot came, and quickly ran to another part of the wall. From here he saw the edge of an Indian's thigh exposed by the side of the boulder he had noted. CRACK! went Lane's Winchester; the leg was suddenly withdrawn, and at the same moment a head appeared on the other side of the rock, as if the Indian had stretched himself involuntarily. CRACK! again, and Lane had got his man.
"Two shots to an Indian is expensive," thought the prospector, "otherwise this game of tip-jack would be very interesting."
There was a cry in the Apache tongue, and suddenly nine half-naked bodies arose from behind rocks and bushes extending in an irregular crescent above the fort, and rushed forward ten, fifteen, and even twenty, yards to the next cover. Lane did not count number or distance at the time, but he figured these out in his next period of waiting from the photograph flashed on his subconscious mind. At the time of the rush he was otherwise occupied. CRACK! CRACK! and two of the Indians fell dead in mid-career. CRACK! and a third crawled, wounded, to the cover he had almost safely attained. CRACK! and an eagle-feather in the head of the fourth Indian shot at was cut off at the stem, and fell forward on the rock behind which its wearer had dropped just in time to save his life. There was an answering volley from the rifles of the remaining Apaches, which was directed against the lookout of loose stones from which the prospector's fire had come. One of the bullets penetrated the opening and plowed a furrow through Lane's scalp, toppling him to his knees. He scrambled quickly to his feet, and, hastily pressing his long hair back from his forehead, to stanch the bleeding wound, sought the protection the middle lookout. He congratulated himself.
"Lucky for me they didn't follow the first rush immediately with a second. Now I know to wait for their signal. Six, and possibly seven of them, are left, and they will storm my works in two more attempts. Here they come!"
The call again sounded. Six Apaches leaped forward, and from the rock that concealed the wounded warrior, a shot rang out in advance of the first discharge from Lane's Winchester. The Indian's bullet scored the top of the turret, and filled the eyes of the man behind it with powdered stone. The prospector, already dazed by his wound, fired wildly, and missed his mark. Quickly recovering himself, he fired again and again, severely wounding two Apaches. These lay clawing the ground within twenty yards of the wall. The four remaining Indians were safely concealed at the same distance, protected no less by the fortification than by the loose boulders behind which they crouched for the final spring. Lane realized the fact that his next shots, to be effective, must be at a downward angle, and to fire them he must expose himself.
"This is my finish," he thought to himself. "Better be killed instantly than tortured. I hope all four will hit me. Good-by, Jinny"—CRACK! went his rifle. "Good-by, Nance"—CRACK! again.
At the two shots, surmising that the prospector had shot himself and his horse, the Apaches did not wait for the signal, but sprang forward and climbed upon the wall before Lane had had time to mount it. Two of them he shot as they leaped down within the enclosure. As he reversed his Winchester to kill himself with the last cartridge, he noted that the two remaining Apaches had dropped their rifles and were leaping upon him to take him alive.
He brought his clubbed weapon down upon the head of one of them, crushing his skull. At the same instant Lane was borne to the ground by the other Apache, who, seizing him by the throat, began throttling him into insensibility. In desperation, Lane bethought himself of the cliff, and, by a mighty effort, whirled over upon his captor toward the precipice. The ground sloped slightly in that direction, and the combatants rolled over and over to the very edge of the cliff, where the Indian, for the first time realizing that the prospector's purpose was to hurl both of them to destruction, loosened his hold upon the prospector's throat that he might use his hands to brace himself against the otherwise inevitable plunge into the valley below. In an instant Lane's hands were at the Indian's throat, and in another turn he was uppermost, and kneeling upon his foe at the very verge of the precipice.
Both combatants were now thoroughly exhausted. Lane concentrated all his remaining strength in throttling the savage. But, just as the tense form beneath him grew lax with evident unconsciousness, and head fell limply back, extending over the edge of cliff, his own head was jerked violently backward by a noose cast around his lacerated neck.
When Lane recovered consciousness he found himself lying on his back, bound hand and foot by a lariat, and looking up into a grinning face that he recognized.
"Buck McKee!" he gasped. "This is certainly white of you considering the circumstances of our last meeting. Did you come with the Rurales?"
"Hell, no! I come ahead of 'em. In fact, Dick Lane, you air jist a leetle bit off in your idees about which party I belong to. When you damned me fer a thievin' half-breed, and run me off the range, an' tole me to go to the Injun's, whar I belonged, I tuk yer advice. I'm what you might call the rear-guard of the outfit you've jist been havin' your shootin'-match with. Or I was the rear-guard, for you've wiped out the whole dam' battalion, so fur as I can see. Served 'em right fur detailin' me, the only decent shooter in the bunch, to watch the horses. I got one shot in as it wuz. Well, as the last of the outfit, I own a string of ten ponies. All I need now to set up in business is to have some prospector who hain't long to live, leave me his little pile uv dust an' nuggets, an' the claims he's located back in the mountains. You look a leetle mite like the man. It'll save vallible time if you make yer dear friend, Buck McKee, administrater uv yer estate without too much persuadin'. You had some objection oncet to my slittin' a calf's tongue. Well, you needn't be scared just yet. That's the last thing I'll do to you. Come, where's your cache? I know you've got one hereabouts, fer I foun' signs of the dust in your pack."
Lane set his teeth in a firm resolutions not to say a word. The taunts of his captor were harder to bear in silence than the prospects of torture.
"Stubborn, hey? Well, we'll try a little 'Pache persuadin'." And the renegade dragged his helpless captive up to the thorny sahuaro, and bound his back against it with the dead horse's bridle. McKee searched through Lane's pockets until he found a match.
"Last one, hey? Kinder 'propriate. Las' drink from the old canteen, las' ca'tridge, last look at the scenery, and las' will an' testyment. Oh, time's precious, but I'll spare you enough to map out in yer mind jes' where them claims is located. The Rurales won't be along fer an hour yet, if they hain't turned back after our other party."
McKee pulled off Lane's boots. "It 'ain't decent fer a man to die with 'em on," he said. He then kindled a fire on the stone, beneath which, if he but knew it, lay the treasure he sought. He returned with a burning brand to the captive. For the first time he observed the snake impaled on the sahuaro, writhing but feebly. "Hullo, ole rattler," he exclaimed; "here's somethin' to stir you up;" and he tossed the brand upon the top of the cactus.
Taking another burning stick from the fire, he applied it to the soles of his victim's feet. Lane writhed and groaned under the excruciating torture, but uttered no word or cry. McKee brought other brands, and began piling them about his captive's feet.
In the meantime the sahuaro had caught fire at the top, and was burning down through the interior. A thin column of smoke rose straight above it in the still air. The Rurales in the valley below, who had reached the beginning of the ascending trail, and were on the point of giving up the pursuit, saw the smoke, and, inferred that the Apaches, either through overconfidence or because of their superstitious fear of the mountains, which they supposed inhabited by spirits, had camped on the edge of the valley, and were signaling to their other party. Accordingly the Mexicans renewed the chase with increased vigor.
As McKee bent over his captive's feet, piling against them the burning ends of the sticks, the rattlesnake on the sahuaro, incited by the fire above, struggled free from the impaling thorns by a desperate effort, and dropped on the back of the half-breed. It struck its fangs into his neck. McKee, springing up with an energy that scattered the sticks he was piling, tore the reptile loose, hurled it upon the ground, and stamped it into the earth. Then he picked up one of the brands and with it cauterized the wound. All the while he was cursing volubly—the snake, himself, and even Dick Lane, who was now lying in a dead faint caused by the torture.
"Damn such a prospector! Not a drop of whisky in his outfit! I'd slit his tongue fer him if he wasn't already done fer. I must keep movin'—movin', or I'm a dead man. I must hustle along to the mountains, leadin' my horse. Up there I'll find yarbs to cure snake-bite that my Cherokee grandmother showed me. The Rurales will have to get the other ponies but some day I'll come back after Lane's cache."
A half-hour later the Mexican guards appeared upon the scene, and unbound Lane's unconscious form from the sahuaro, which the fire had consumed to a foot of his bowed head. They deluged his face and back, and bathed his tortured feet with the contents of their canteens, and brought him back to life, but, alas! not to reason.
Six months later there limped out of Chihuahua hospital a discharged patient, wry-necked, crook-backed, with drawn features, and hair and beard streaked with gray. It was Dick Lane, restored to old physical strength, so far as the distortion of his spine, caused by his torture, permitted, and to the full possession of his mental faculties. He mounted one of the captured ponies, and rode off with the proceeds of the sales of the others in his pocket, to purchase provisions for a return to his prospecting.
Before plunging into the wilderness he wrote a letter:
"Mr. John Payson, "Sweetwater Ranch, "Florence, Arizona Territory, U.S.A.
"Dear Jack: I have been sick and out of my head in the hospital here for the last six months. Just about the time you all were expecting me home, I had a run in with the Apaches. And who do you think was with them? Buck McKee, the half-breed that I ran off the range two years ago for tongue-slitting. After I had done for all the rest, he got me, and—well, the story's too long to write. I rather think McKee has made off with the gold I had cached just before the fight. I'm going back to see, and if he did, I'll hustle around to find a buyer for one of my claims. I don't want to sell my big mine, Jack. I tell you I struck it rich!—but that story can wait till I get back. Your loan can't, though, so expect to receive $3,000 by express some time before I put in an appearance. I hope you got the mortgage renewed at the end of the year. If my failure to show up then has caused you trouble, you'll forgive me, old fellow, I know, under the circumstances. I'll make it up to you. I owe you everything. You're the best friend a man ever had. That's why I'm writing to you instead of to Uncle Jim, for I want you to do me another friendly service. Just break it gently to Echo Allen that I'm alive and well though pretty badly damaged by that renegade McKee and tell her that it wasn't my fault I wasn't home the day I promised. She'll forgive me, I know, and be patient a while longer. It's all for her sake I'm staying away. Give her the letter I enclose.
"Your old bunkie, Dick Lane"
The Heart of a Girl
Jim Allen was the sole owner and proprietor of Allen Hacienda. His ranch, the Bar One, stretched for miles up and down the Sweetwater Valley. Bounded on the east and west by the foot-hills, the tract was one of the garden spots of Arizona. Southward lay the Sweetwater Ranch, owned by Jack Payson. Northward was the home ranch of the Lazy K, an Ishmaelitish outfit, ever at petty war with the other settlers in the district. It was a miscellaneous and constantly changing crowd, recruited from rustlers from Wyoming, gamblers from California, half-breed outlaws from the Indian Territory; in short, "bad men" from every section of the Western country. They had a special grudge against Allen and Payson, whom they held to be accountable for the sudden disappearance, about a year before, of their leader, Buck McKee, a half-breed from the Cherokee Strip. However, no other leader had arisen equal to that masterful spirit, and their enmity expressed itself only in such petty depredations as changing brands on stray cattle from the Bar One and Sweetwater Ranches, and the slitting of the tongues of young calves, so that they would be unable to feed properly, and, as a result, be disowned by their mothers, whereupon the Lazy K outfit would slap its brand on them as mavericks.
Allen was a Kentuckian who had served in the Confederate Army as one of Morgan's raiders, and so had received, by popular brevet, the title of colonel. At the close of the war he had come to Arizona with his young wife, Josephine, and had founded a home on the Sweetwater. He was now one of the cattle barons of the great Southwest. Prosperity had not spoiled him. Careless in his attire, cordial in his manner, he was a man who was loved and respected by his men, from the newest tenderfoot to the veteran of the bunkhouse. His wife, however, was not so highly regarded, for she had never been able to recognize changes in time or location and so was in perpetual conflict with her environment. She attempted to make the free and independent cowboys of the Arizona plains "stand around" like the house servants of the Kentucky Bluegrass; and she persisted in the effort to manage her husband by the feminine artifice of weeping. In days of her youth and beauty this had been very effective, but now that these had passed, it was productive only of good-humored raillery from him, and mirth from the bystanders.
"No wonder Jim has the finest ranch in Arizony," the cowboys were wont to say, "with Josephine a irrigatin' it all the time."
Allen Hacienda was certainly a garden spot in that desert country. The building was of the old Mexican style, an architecture found, by centuries of experience, to be suited best to the climate and the materials of the land. The house was only one story in height. The rooms and outbuildings sprawled over a wide expanse of ground. The walls were of native stone and adobe clay; over them clambered grape-vines. In front of the home Mrs. Allen had planted a garden. A 'dobe wall cut off the house from the corral and the bunk-house. A heavy girder spanned the distance from the low roof to the top of the barrier. Latticework, supporting a grape-vine, formed, with a girder, a gateway through which one could catch from the piazza a view of a second cultivated plot. Palms and flowering cacti added color and life to the near prospect. Through the arbor a glimpse of the Tortilla Mountains, forty miles away, held the eye. The Sweetwater, its path across the plains outlined by the trees fringing its banks, flowed past the ranch. Yucca palms and sahuaroes threw a scanty shade over the garden.
Shortly after the arrival of the Allens in Arizona they were blessed with a daughter, the first white child born in that region. They waited for a Protestant clergyman to come along before christening her, and, as such visits were few and far between, the child was beginning to talk before she received a name. From a "cunning" habit she had of repeating last words of questions put to her, her father provisionally dubbed her Echo, which name, when the preacher came, he insisted upon her retaining.
As Echo grew older, in order that she might have a companion, Colonel Allen went to Kentucky and brought back with him a little orphan girl, who was a distant relative of his wife. Polly Hope her name was, and Polly Hope she insisted on remaining, though the Allens would gladly have adopted her.
Colonel Allen trained the girls in all the craft of the plains, just as if they were boys. He taught them to ride astride, to shoot, to rope cattle. They accompanied him everywhere he went, cantering on broncos by the side of his Kentucky thoroughbred. Merry, dark-eyed, black-haired Echo always rode upon the off side, and saucy Polly, with golden curls, blue eyes, and tip-tilted nose, upon the near. The ex-Confederate soldier dubbed them, in military style, his "right and left wings." As the three would "make a raid" upon Florence, the county town, the inhabitants did not need to look out of doors to ascertain who were coming, for the merriment of the little girls gave sufficient indication. "Here comes Jim Allen ridin' like the destroyin' angel," said young Sheriff Hoover, on one of these occasions, "I know him by the rustlin' of his 'wings.'"
The household was again increased a few years later by the generous response of the Allens to an appeal from a Children's Aid Society in an Eastern city to give a home to two orphaned brothers, Richard and Henry Lane. "Dick" and "Buddy" (shortened in time to Bud), as they were called, being taken young, quickly adapted themselves to their new environment, and by the time they arrived at manhood had proved themselves the equals of any cowboy on the range in horsemanship and kindred accomplishments. Dick, the elder brother, was a steady, reliable fellow, modest as he was brave, and remarkably quick-witted and resourceful in emergencies. He gave his confidence over readily to his fellows, but if he ever found himself deceived, withdrew it absolutely. It was probably this last characteristic that attracted to him Echo Allen's especial regard, for it was also her distinguishing trait. "You have got to act square with Echo," her father was wont to say, "for if you don't you'll never make it square with her afterward."
Bud was a generous-hearted, impetuous boy, who responded warmly to affection. He repaid his elder brother's protecting care with a loyalty that knew no bounds. The Colonel, who was a strict disciplinarian, frequently punished him in his boyhood for wayward acts, and the little fellow made no resistance—only sobbed in deep penitence. Once, however, when Uncle Jim, as the boys and Polly called him, felt compelled to apply to rod to Dick—unjustly, as it afterward appeared—Bud burst into a tempest of passionate tears, and, leaping upon the Colonel's back, clung there clawing and striking like a wildcat until Allen was forced to let Dick go. It is shrewdly indicative of the Colonel's character that not only did he refrain from punishing Bud on that occasion, but, when floggings were subsequently due the little fellow, laid on the rod less heavily out of regard for the loyalty to his brother he had then displayed.
This attack also won the admiration of Polly Hope, who was something of a spitfire herself. A little jealous of Dick for the chief place he held in Bud's affection, she openly claimed the younger brother as her sweetheart, and attempted to constitute him her knight—though with repeated discouragements, for Bud was a bashful lad, and, though he had a true affection for the girl, boylike concealed it by a show of indifference.
The tender relations of these boys and girls persisted naturally into young manhood and womanhood. No word of love passed between Dick and Echo until that time when the "nesting impulse," the desire to have a home of his own, prompted the young man to go out into the world and win his fortune. For a year he had acted as foreman of the Allen ranch, working in neighborly cooperation with Jack Payson, of Sweetwater Ranch, a man of about his own age. The two young men became the closest of comrades. When the fever of adventure seized upon Lane, and he became dissatisfied with the plodding career of a wage-earner, Payson insisted on mortgaging Sweetwater Ranch for three thousand dollars and in lending Dick the money for a year's prospecting in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico, in search of a fabulous rich "Lost Mine of the Aztecs."
Traditions of lost mines are plentiful in Arizona and northern Mexico. First taken up by the Spanish invaders of three hundred years ago from the native Indians, they have been passed down to each subsequent influx of white men. The directions are always vague. The inquirer cannot pin his informant down to any definite data. Over the mountains always lies the road. Hundreds of lives have been sacrificed, and cruelty unparalleled practised upon innocent men women, and children, by gold-seekers in their lust for conquest. Prosperous Indian villages have been laid waste, and whole bands of adventurers have gone into the desert in the search of these mines, never to return.
When the time for Lane's departure came Echo wept at the thought of losing for so long a time the close companion of her childhood and the sympathetic confidant of her youthful thoughts and aspirations. Dick, in whom friendship for Echo had long before ripened into conscious love, took her tears as evidence that she was similarly affected toward him, and he allowed all the suppressed passion of his nature full vent in a declaration of love. The girl was deeply moved by this revelation of the heart of a strong man made tender as a woman's by a power centering in her own humble self, and, being utterly without experience of the emotion even in its protective form of calf-love, which is the varioloid of the genuine infection, she imagined through sheer sympathy that she shared his passion. So she assented with maidenly reserve to his plea that she promise to marry him when he should return and provide a home for her. Her more cautious mother secured a modification of this pledge by limiting the time that Echo should wait for him to one year. If at the expiration of that period Lane did not return to claim her promise, or did not write making satisfactory arrangements for continuance of the engagement, Echo was to be considered free to marry whom she chose.
Soon after Lane's departure Mrs. Allen persuaded the Colonel to send Echo east to a New England finishing-school for girls, where her mother hoped that her budding love for Lane might be nipped in the frigid atmosphere of intellectual culture, if not, indeed, supplanted by a saving interest in young men in general, and, perhaps, in some particular scion of a blue-blooded Boston family.
The plan succeeded in part only. The companionship of her schoolfellows, her music and art-lessons, her books (during the limited periods allotted to serious study and reading), and, above all, her attrition at receptions with another order of men than that she had known in the rough, uncultured West, occupied her mind so fully that poor Dick Lane, who was putting a thought of Echo Allen in every blow of his pick, received only the scraps of her attention.
Dick had few opportunities to mail a letter, and none of them for receiving one. Unpractised in writing, his epistolary compositions were crude in the extreme, being wholly confined to bald statements of fact. Had he been as tender on paper as he was in his words and accents when he kissed away her tears at parting, her regard for him would have had fuel to feed on and might have kindled into genuine love. As it was, she was forced to admit that, in comparison, with the brilliant university men with whom she conversed, Dick Lane, intellectually, was as quartz to diamond.
On the other band, she contrasted Dick in the essential point of manliness most favorably with the male butterflies of society that hovered around her. What one of them was so essentially chivalrous as the Western man; so modest, so self-sacrificing, so brave and resolute and resourceful? Dick Lane, or Jack Payson, for that matter, in all save the adventitious points of education and culture was the higher type of manhood, and Jack, at least, if not poor Dick, could hold his own in mental and artistic perception with the brightest, most cultured of Harvard graduates.
At the end of the year she came back home to await Dick's return from the wilds of Mexico. There was great anxiety about his safety, for Geronimo, attacked by Crook in the Apache stronghold of the Tonto Basin, had escaped to the mountains of northwestern Mexico with his band of fierce Chiricahuas.
Now Dick Lane had not been heard from in this region. When he neither made appearance nor sent a message upon the day appointed for his return, his brother, Bud, was for setting out instantly to find him and rescue him if he were in difficulties.
Then it was that Echo Allen discovered the true nature of her affection for her lover, that it was sisterly regard, differing only in degree, but not in kind, from that which she felt for his brother. She joined with Polly in opposing Bud's going, urging his recklessness as a reason. "You are certain to be killed," she said, "and I cannot lose you both." Jack Payson, for whom Bud was working, then came forward and offered to accompany him, and keep him with bounds. Again there was a revelation of her heart Echo, and one that terrified her with a sense of disloyalty. It was Jack she really loved, noble, chivalric, wonderful Jack Payson, whom, with a Southern intensity of feeling, she had unconsciously come to regard as her standard of all that makes for manhood. Plausible objections could not be urged against his sacrificing himself for his friend. With an irresistible impulse she cast herself upon his breast and said: "I cannot BEAR to see you go."
Payson gently disengaged her arms.
"I must, Echo. It is what Dick would do for me if I were in his place."
However, while Payson and Bud were preparing for their departure, Buck McKee appeared in the region and reported that Dick Lane had been killed by the Apaches. He told with convincing details of how he had met Lane as each was returning from a successful prospecting trip in the Ghost Range, and how they had sunk their differences in standing together against an attack of the Indians. He extolled Dick's bravery, relating how, severely wounded, he had stood off the savages to enable himself to escape.
When he handed over Dick's watch to Echo—for he had learned on his return that she was betrothed to Lane—as a last token from her lover, no doubt remained in the minds of his hearers of the truth of his story, and Payson and Bud Lane gave up their purposed expedition.
The owner of Sweetwater Ranch, while accepting McKee's account, could not wholly forget the half-breed's former evil reputation, and was reserved in his reception of the advances of the ex-rustler who was anxious to curry favor. Warm-hearted, impulsive Bud, however, whose fraternal loyalty had increased under his bereavement to the supreme passion of life, took the insinuating half-breed into the aching vacancy made by his brother's death. The two became boon companions, to the great detriment of the younger man's morals. McKee had plenty of money which he spent liberally, gambling and carousing in company with Bud. Polly was wild with indignation at her sweetheart's desertion, and savagely upbraided him for his conduct whenever they met, which may be inferred, grew less and less frequently. It was in revenge she made advances to another man who long "loved her from afar."
This was William Henry Harrison Hoover, sheriff of the county, known as "Slim" Hoover by the humorous propensity of men on the range to give nicknames on the principle of contraries, for he was fattest man in Pinal County. Slim was one of those fleshy men who have nerves of steel and muscles of iron. A round, boyish face, twinkling blue eyes, flaming red hair gave him an appearance entirely at variance with his personality. A vein of sentiment made him all the more lovable. His associates—ranchers, men of the plains, soldiers, and the owners and frequenters of the frontier barroom—respected him greatly.
"He's square as Slim" was the best recommendation ever given of a man in that region.
Pinal County settlers had made Slim sheriff term after term because he was the one citizen supremely fitted for the place. He had ridden the range and "busted" broncos before election. After it he hunted wrong-doers. Right was right and wrong was wrong to him. There was no shading in the meaning. All he asked of men was to ride fast, shoot straight, and deal squarely in any game. He admitted that murder, horse-stealing, and branding another man's calves were subjects for the unwritten law. But in his code this law meant death only after a fair trial, with neighbors for a jury. He was not scrupulous that a judge should be present. His duties were ended when he brought in his prisoner.
Hoover's rule had been marked by the taming of bad men in Florence, and a truce declared in the guerrilla warfare between the cattlemen and the sheepmen on the range.
Slim's seemingly superfluous flesh was really of great advantage to him: it served as a mask for his remarkable athletic abilities, and so lulled the outlaws with whom he had to deal into a false sense of superiority and security.
Slow and lethargic in his ordinary movements, in an emergency he was quick as a panther, never failing to get the drop on his man.
Furthermore, his fat exerted a beneficial influence on his character in keeping him humble-minded. Being the most popular man in the county, he would probably have been swollen with vanity had there been any space left vacant for it in his huge frame. He was especially admired by the women, but was at ease only in the company of those who were married. It was his fate to see the few girls of the region, with every one of whom, by turns, he was in love, grow up to marry each some less diffident wooer.
"Dangnation take it!" he used to say, "I don't git up enough spunk to cut a heifer out o' the herd until somebody else has roped her and slapped his brand onto her. Talk about too many irons in the fire, why, I've only got one, and it's het up red all the time waitin' fer the right chanct to use it; but some how I never git it out o' the coals. Hell! what's the use, anyhow? Nobody loves a fat man."
Slim was inordinately puffed up by Polly's preference of him, which she showed by all sorts of feminine tyrannies, and he was forced continually to slap his huge paunch to remind himself of what he considered his disabling deformity. "Miss Polly," he would apostrophize the absent lady, "you don't know what a volcano of seethin' fiery love this here mountain of flesh is that your walkin' over. Some day I'll erupt, and jest eternally calcify you, if you don't look out!"
The sheriff took no stock in Buck McKee's professed reformation, and was greatly worried over the influence he had acquired over Bud Lane, who had before this been Slim's protege. Accordingly, he readily conspired with her to break off the relations between the former outlaw and the young horse-wrangler, but thus far had met with no success.
Payson, feeling himself absolved by the death of Dick Lane from all obligations to his friend, began openly to woo Echo Allen, but without presuming upon the revelation of her love for him which she had made at his proposition to go into the desert to Lane's rescue. She responded to his courteous advances as frankly and naturally as a bud opens to the gentle wooing of the April sun. Softened by her grief for Dick as for a departed brother, as the flower is by the morning dew, the petals of her affection opened and laid bare her heart of purest gold. The gentle, diffident girl expanded into a glorious woman, conscious of her powers, and proud and happy that she was fulfilling the highest function of womanhood, that of loving and aiding with her love a noble man.
Jack Payson, however, failed to get the proper credit for this sudden flowering of Echo's beauty and charm. These were ascribed to her year's schooling in the East, and her proud mother was offended by the way in which she accepted the young ranchman's advances. "You hold yourself too cheap," she said. "It is at least due to the memory of poor Dick Lane" (whom, now that he was safely dead, she idealized as a type of perfect manhood) "that you make Jack wait as long as you did him." When Payson reasonably objected to this delay by pointing out he was fully able to support a wife, as Lane had not been, and proposed, with Echo's assent, six months as the limit of waiting, Mrs. Allen resorted to her expedient—tears.
"BOO-HOO! you are going to take away my only daughter!"
The Colonel, however, though he had loved Dick as if he were his own son, was delighted to the bottom of his hospitable soul that it was a man not already in the family circle who was to marry Echo, especially when he was a royal fellow like Jack Payson; so he arranged a compromise between the time proposed by Mrs. Allen and that desired by the lovers, and the date of the wedding was fixed nine months ahead.
"It will fall in June," said the old fellow, who knew exactly how to handle his fractious wife; "the month when swell folks back in the East do all their hitchin' up. Why, come to think of it, it was the very month I ran off with you in, though I didn't know, then that we was elopin' so strictly accordin' to the Book of Etikwet."
A Woman's Loyalty
The first instinctive thought of a man reveals innate character; those that follow, the moral that he has acquired through environment and circumstances. That Jack Payson was at bottom good man is shown by his first emotion, which was joy, and his first impulse, which was to impart the glad news to everybody, upon receiving the letter from Dick Lane telling that he was alive and soon to come home. He was in his house at the time. Bud Lane had just brought in the packet of mail from Florence, and was riding away. Jack uttered a cry of joy which brought the young man back to the door. "What is it?" asked Bud. But Jack had already had time for his damning second thought. He was stunned by the consideration that the promulgation of the news in the letter meant his loss of Echo Allen. He dissembled, though as yet he was not able to tell an outright falsehood:
"It's a letter telling me that I may expect to receive enough money in a month or so to pay off the mortgage. Now your brother's debt needn't trouble you any longer, Bud."
"Whew-w!" whistled Bud. "That's great! Where does it come from?"
"Oh, from an old friend that I lent the money to some time ago. But, say, Bud, there's another matter I want to talk with you about. You've got to shake Buck McKee. I've got it straight that he is the worst man in Arizona Territory, yes, worse than an Apache. Why, he has been with Geronimo, torturing and massacring lone prospectors, and robbing them of their gold."
"That's a damned lie, Jack Payson, and you know it!" cried the hot-headed young man. "It was Buck McKee who stood by Dick's side and fought the Apaches. And I'll stand by Buck against all the world. Everybody is in a conspiracy against him, Polly and Slim Hoover and you. Why are you so ready now to take a slanderer's word against his? You were keen enough to accept his story, when it let you out of going to Dick's rescue, and gave you free swing to court his girl. Let me see the name of the damned snake-in-the-grass that's at the bottom of all this!" And he snatched for the letter in Payson's hand.
The ranchman quickly thrust the missive into pocket. The injustice of Bud's reflections on former actions gave to his uneasy conscience just the pretext he desired for justifying his present course. His cause being weak and unworthy, he whipped up his indignation by adopting a high tone and overbearing manner, even demeaning himself by using his position as Bud's employer to crush the younger man. Indeed, at the end of the scene which ensued he well-nigh convinced himself that he had been most ungratefully treated by Bud while sincerely attempting to save the boy from the companionship of a fiend in human guise.
"No matter who told me, young man," he exclaimed; "I got it straight, and you can take it straight from me. You either give up Buck McKee or the Sweetwater Ranch. Snake-in-the-grass!" he was working himself up into false passion; "it is you, ungrateful boy, who are sinking the serpent's tooth in the hand that would have helped you. I tell you that I intended to make you foreman, though Sage-brush Charley is an older and better man. It was for Dick's sake I would have done it."
"No!" Bud burst forth; "for your guilty conscience's sake. It would have been to pay for stepping into Dick's place in the heart of a faithless girl. To hell with your job; I'm through with you!"
And, leaping on his horse, Bud rode furiously back to rejoin Buck McKee in Florence.
Jack Payson's purpose was now cinched to suppress Dick Lane's letter until Echo Allen was irrevocably joined to him in marriage. He argued with himself that she loved him, Jack Payson, yet so loyal was she by nature that if Dick Lane returned before the wedding and claimed her, she would sacrifice her love to her sense of duty. This would ruin her life, he reasoned, and he could not permit it. There was honesty in this argument, but he vitiated it by deferring to act upon the suggestion that naturally arose with it: Why, then, not take Jim Allen, Echo's father, to whom her happiness was the chief purpose in life, into confidence in regard to the matter? There will be time enough to tell the Colonel before the wedding, he thought. In the meantime something might happen to Dick,, and he may never return. He is certain not to get back ahead of his money.
After the time that the note secured by the mortgage fell due, the young ranchman had already secured two extensions of it for three months each. He arranged a third, and began negotiating for the sale of some of his cattle to take up the note at the time of payment. "I can't take the money from Dick," he thought, "even if he does owe it to me. And yet if I refuse it, it will be like buying Echo—'paying for stepping into Dick's place,' as Bud expressed it. What to do I don't know. Well, events will decide." And by this favorite reflection of the moral coward, Jack Payson marked the lowest depths of his degradation.
That afternoon Payson rode to Allen Hacienda to see Echo, and to sound her upon her feelings to Dick Lane. He wished thoroughly to convince himself that he, Jack Payson, held complete sway over her heart. Perhaps he might dare to put her love to the test, and fulfil the trust his friend had imposed on him, by giving her Dick's letter.
Payson overtook Polly riding slowly on her way home from Florence. She barely greeted him. "Has she met Bud, and has he been slurring me?" he thought. He checked his pacing horse to the half-trot, half-walk, of Polly's mount, and, ignoring her incivility, began talking to her.
"'D'yeh see Bud in Florence?"
"Yep. Couldn't help it. Him an' Buck McKee are about the whole of Florence these days."
"Too bad about Bud consorting with that rustler. I've had to fire him for it."
"Fire him? Well you ARE a good friend. Talk about men's loyalty! If women threw men down that easy you all would go to the bowwows too fast for us to bake dog-biscuit. Now, I've settled Buck McKee's hash by putting Slim Hoover wise to that tongue-slittin'. Oh, I'll bring Bud around, all right, all right, even if men that ought to be his friends go back on him."
"Don't you girlie me, Jack Payson. I'm a woman, and I'm goin' to be a married one, too, in spite of all you do to Bud. Yes, sirree, bob. I've set out to make a man of him, and I'll marry him to do it if he ain't a dollar to his name. But money'd make it lots quicker an' easier. He was savin' up till he run in with Buck McKee."
A sudden thought struck Payson. Here was a way to dispose of Dick Lane's money when it came.
"All right, Mrs. Bud Lane to be. Promise not tell Bud, and through you I'll soon make good to him many times over for the foreman's wages he's lost. It's money that's coming from an enterprise that his brother and I were partners in, and Bud shall Dick's share. He's sore on me now, and I can't tell him. Besides, he'd gamble it away before he got it to Buck McKee. Bud isn't strictly ethical in regard to money matters, Polly, and you must manage the exchequer."
"Gee, what funny big words you use, Jack! But I know what you mean; he's too free-handed. Well, he'll be savin' as a trade rat until we get our home paid for. And I'll manage the checker business when we're married. No more poker and keno for Bud. Thank you, Jack. I always knew you was square."
Polly's sincere praise of his "squareness" was the sharpest thrust possible at Payson's guilty conscience. Well, he resolved to come as near being square and level as he could. He had told half-truths to Bud and Polly; he would present the situation to Echo as a possible, though not actual, one. If Polly were wrong, and Echo loved him so much that she would break the word she had pledged to Dick Lane, then he would confess all, and they would do what could be done to make it right with the discarded lover.
Echo, observing from the window who was Polly's companion, ran out to Jack with a cry of joy. He looked meaningly at Polly. She said: "Oh, give me your bridle; I know how many's a crowd." Jack leaped to the ground and took Echo in his arms while Polly rode off with the horses to the corral, singing significantly:
"Spoon, spoon, spoon, While the dish ran away with the spoon."
Jack and Echo embraced clingingly and kissed lingeringly. "It takes a crazy old song like that to express how foolish we lovers are," said Jack. "Why, I feel that I could outfiddle the cat, outjump the cow, outlaugh the dog, and start an elopement that would knock the performance of the tableware as silly as—well, as I am talking now. I'm living in a dream—a Midsummer Night's Dream, such as you were reading to me."
"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet," quoted Echo suggestively.
Dusk was falling. From the bunk-house rose the tinkling notes of a mandolin; after a few preliminary chords, the player, a Mexican, began a love-song in Spanish. The distant chimes of Mission bells sounded softly on the evening air.
Jack and Echo sat down upon the steps of the piazza. Jack continued the strain of his thought, but in a more serious vein:
"Echo, I'm so happy that I am frightened."
"Frightened?" she asked wonderingly.
"Yes, scared—downright scared," he answered. "I reckon I'm like an Indian. An Indian doesn't believe it's good medicine to let the gods know he's big happy. For there's the Thunder Bird—"
"The Thunder Bird?"
"The evil spirit of the storm," continued Jack. "When the Thunder Bird hears a fellow saying he's big happy, he sends him bad luck—"
Echo laid her hand softly on the mouth of her sweetheart. "We won't spoil our happiness, then, by talking about it. We will just feel it—just be it."
She laid her head upon Jack's knee. He placed his arm lightly but protectingly over her shoulder. They sat in silence listening to the Mexican's song. Finally Jack bent over and whispered gently in her ear:
"Softly, so the Thunder Bird won't hear, Echo; tell me you love me; that you love only me; that you will always love me, no matter what shall happen; that you never loved, until you loved me."
Echo sat upright, with a start. "What do you mean?" she exclaimed. "Of course I love you, and you only, but the future and the past are beyond our control. Unless you know of something that is going to happen which may mar our love, your question is silly, not at all like your Mother Goose nonsense—that was dear. And as for the past, you mean Dick Lane."
"Yes, I mean Dick Lane," confessed Payson, in a subdued tone. "I am jealous of him—that is—even of his memory."
"That is not like Jack Payson. What has come over you? It is the shadow of your Thunder Bird. You know what my feeling was for Dick Lane, and what it is, for it remains the same, the only difference being that now I know it never was love. Even if it were, he is dead, and I love you, Jack, you alone. Oh, how you shame me by forcing me to speak of such things! I have tried to put poor Dick out of my mind, for every time I think of him it is with a wicked joy that he is dead, that he cannot come home to claim me as his wife. Oh, Jack, Jack, I didn't think it of you!"
And the girl laid her face within her hands on her lover's knee and burst into a fit of sobbing.
Jack Payson shut his teeth.
"Well, since I have lowered myself so far in your esteem, and since your mind is already sinning against Dick Lane, we might as well go on and settle this matter. I promise I will not mention it again. I, too, have troubles of the mind. I am as I am, and you ought to know it. I said I was jealous of Dick Lane's memory. It is more. I am jealous of Dick Lane himself. If he should return, would you leave me and go with him—as his wife?"
Again she sat upright. By a strong effort she controlled her sobbing.
"The man I admired does not deserve an answer, but the child he has proved himself to be and whom I cannot help loving, shall have it. Yes, if Dick Lane returns true to his promise I shall be true to mine."
She arose and went into the house. Payson rode homeward through the starlight resolved of tormenting doubt only to be consumed by torturing jealousy. He now had no thought of confiding in Jim Allen. He regretted that he had touched so dangerously near the subject of Dick Lane's return in talking to Bud and Polly. His burning desire was to be safely married to Echo Allen before the inevitable return of her former lover.
"Fool that I was not to ask her one more question: Would she forgive her husband where she would not forgive her lover? What will she think of me when all is discovered, as it surely will be? Well, I must take my chances. Events will decide."
On his return to Sweetwater Ranch he put the place in charge of his new foreman, Sage-brush Charlie, and went out to a hunting-cabin he had built in the Tortilla Mountains. Here he fought the problem over with his conscience—and his selfishness won. He returned, fixed in his decision to suppress Dick Lane's letter, and to go ahead with the marriage.
Riding hard into Florence from Sweetwater Ranch Bud Lane hunted up Buck McKee at his favorite gambling-joint, and, in a white heat of indignation informed him in detail of everything that had passed between Payson and himself. At once McKee inferred that the writer of the letter was none other than Dick Lane. Realizing that Payson was already informed of his villainy, and that in a very short time Dick Lane himself would make his appearance on the Sweetwater, the half-breed concluded to make a bold move while he yet retained the confidence of Bud.
"Bud," he said, "I know the man who is sendin' the money to Payson. It's Dick, your brother."
"But," stammered Bud, his brain whirling, "if that's so, you lied about the Apaches killing him you—why you—must have been the renegade, the devil who tortured prospectors."
"Why, Bud, Dick never wrote all that dime-novel nonsense about the man who stood by him to—well, not the very last, for Dick has managed somehow to pull through—probably he was saved by the Rurales that were chasin' the band that rounded us up. No, it's Payson, Jack Payson, that made up that pack of lies, just to keep you away from me, the man that was last with Dick and so may get on to Jack's game and block it."
"Game! what game?" asked Bud, bewildered.
"Why, you told me it yourself—to marry Dick's girl, and live on Dick's hard-earned money."
"But Dick borrowed the three thousand of Jack," objected Bud.
"Well, the dollars he borrowed have all gone, ain't they? And the money he's sendin' back Dick dug out of the ground by hard work, didn't he? Leastways, Payson hadn't ort 'o use the money to rope in Dick's girl. It ort 'o be kep' from him, anyhow, till Dick comes on the ground his own self. That 'u'd hold up the weddin', all right, if I know Josephine. It 'u'd be easy to steer her into refusin' to let Echo go into a mortgiged home."
Simple-minded Bud readily accepted the wily half-breed's explanations and surmises, and fell into the trap he was preparing. This was to hold up the express-agent and rob him of the money Payson was expecting, on securing which it was McKee's intention to flee the country before Dick Lane returned to denounce him. To ascertain just when the money came into the agent's hands, and to act as a cover in the robbery itself, an accomplice was needed. For this purpose no man in all the Sweetwater region was better adapted than Bud Lane. Frank and friendly with every one, he would be trusted by the most suspicious and cautious official in Pinal County. The fact that he had chosen Buck McKee as an associate had already gone far to rehabilitate this former "bad man" in the good graces of the community. Under cover of this friendship, McKee hoped to escape suspicion of any part in the homicide he contemplated. For it was murder, foul, unprovoked murder that was in the black soul of the half-breed. He intended to incriminate Bud so deeply as to put it beyond all thought that he would confess.
Young Lane, passionately loyal to his brother, was ready for anything that would delay Payson's marriage to Echo Allen. Together with the wild joy that sprang up in his heart at the thought that his brother was alive, was entwined a violent hatred against his former employer. In the fierce turbulence within his soul, generated by the meeting of these great emotions, he was impelled to enter upon a mad debauch, in which McKee abetted and joined him. Filling up on bad whisky, they rode through the streets of Florence, yelling and shooting their "guns" like crazy men. It was while they were engaged in this spectacular exhibition of horsemanship, gun-play, and vocalization that Bud's sweetheart rode into town to execute some commissions in preparation for Echo Allen's wedding. Already "blue" over the thought that her own wedding was far in the dim future, poor Polly was cast into the depths of despair and disgust by the drunken riot in which her prospective husband was indulging with her particular aversion, the cruel, calf-torturing half-breed, McKee. Thoroughly mortified, she slipped out of town by a side street, and moodily rode back to Allen Hacienda, meeting on the way, as we have seen, Jack Payson.
After the debauch was over, and the merry, mad devil of nervous excitement was succeeded by the brooding demon of nervous depression, McKee broached to Bud the idea of robbing the express-agent of the money coming to Payson. This fell in readily with the young man's revengeful mood. He unreservedly placed himself under the half-breed's orders.
In accordance with these, Bud hung about the road-station a great deal, cultivating the friends of Terrill, the agent. 'Ole Man' Terrill, as he was called, although he was a vigorous specimen of manhood on the under side of sixty, was ticket and freight agent, express-messenger, and telegraph-operator, in fact, the entire Bureau of Transportation and communication at Florence station. Bud frankly told him he was out of a job, and had, indeed, decided in view of his coming marriage, to give up horse-wrangling for some vocation of a more elevating character. So Terrill let him help about the station, chiefly in the clerical work. While so engaged, Bud learned that a package valued at three thousand dollars was expected upon a certain train. Although no consignee was mentioned, the fact that the amount tallied exactly with the sum Payson was expecting caused him to conclude it was Dick's repayment of his loan. Accordingly he informed McKee that the time they were awaiting had arrived.
Florence had grown up as a settlement about a spring of water some time before the advent of the railroad. Builders of the line got into trouble with the inhabitants, and in revenge located the station half a mile away from the spring, thinking new settlers would come to them. In this they were disappointed.
The point was an isolated one, and the station a deserted spot between trains.
Eastward and westward the single track of railroad drifted to shimmering points on the horizon. To the south dreary wastes of sand, glistening white under the burnished sun and crowned with clumps of grayish green sage-brush, stretched to an encircling rim of hills. Cacti and yucca palms broke the monotony of the roll of the plains to the uplands.
Sahuaroes towered over the low station, which was built in the style of the old Spanish missions. Its red roof flared above the purple shadows cast by its walls. In the fathomless blue above a buzzard sailed majestically down an air current, and hovered motionless over the lonely outpost of civilization.
Within the station a telegraph-sounder chattered and chirruped. 'Ole Man' Terrill was at the instrument. His duties were over for the forenoon, the east-bound express, which, with the west-bound, composed the only trains that traversed that section of the road each day, having arrived and departed a half-hour before, and he had cut in on the line to regale himself with the news of the world. But there was a dearth of thrilling events, such as his rude soul delighted in. The Apache uprising, that was feared, had not taken place. Colonel Hardie, of Fort Grant, had the situation well in hand. The Nihilists were giving their latest czar a breathing-spell. No new prize-fighter had arisen to wrest the championship of the world from John Sullivan, who had put all his old rivals 'to sleep.' 'Ole Man' Terrill proceeded to follow their example. He had been up late the night before at a poker game. His head fell forward with a jerk. Aroused by the shock, he glanced drowsily about him. Heat-waves danced before the open window. Deep silence hung over his little world. Again his eyelids closed; his head dropped, and slowly he slipped into sleep.
Tragedy was approaching him now, but not along the wire. Down an arroyo, or "draw" (the dry bed of a watercourse), that wound in a detour around the town of Florence, and debauched into the open plain near the station, crept two men in single file, each leading a horse. They were Buck McKee and Bud Lane, who had ridden north from the town that morning with the declared purpose of going to Buck's old ranch, the Lazy K. They had circled about the town, timing their arrival at the station a little after the departure of the train which was expected to bring Dick Lane's money.
McKee emerged first from the mouth of the draw. He wore a coarse flannel shirt, loosened at the throat. About his neck was a handkerchief. His riding-overalls were tucked into high boots with Spanish heels and long spurs. A Mexican hat with a bead band topped a head covered with coarse black hair, which he inherited from his Cherokee mother.
Save for the vulture floating high in air not a living thing was in sight. With the caution of a coyote, McKee crept to the station door and peered blinkingly through the open door into the room. The change from the dazzling light without to the shaded interior blinded him for a moment. He heard the heavy breathing of the sleeper before he saw him.
Returning to the mouth of the arroyo, McKee motioned to his companion to bring out the horses. When this was done, the two men cinched the saddles and made every preparation for sudden flight. Lane and the horses remained outside the station behind a freight-car on a siding, while McKee stole softly through the open door to 'Ole Man' Terrill's side.
Now, the agent used as a safe-deposit vault his inside waistcoat pocket, the lock upon which was a huge safety-pin. For further defense he carried a revolver loosely hung at his hip, and easily reached. His quickness on the draw in the hour of need, and his accuracy of aim made him a formidable antagonist.
Some men are born into the world to become its watch-dogs; others to become its wolves. The presence of a human wolf is, as it were, scented by the human watch-dog, even when the dog is asleep. McKee was known instinctively as a man-wolf to the born guardians of society; Slim Hoover, himself a high type of the man-mastiff, used to say of the half-breed: "I can smell that b'ar-grease he slicks his hair with agin' the wind. He may be out o' sight an' out of mind, when somethin' tells me 'McKee's around'; then I smell b'ar-grease, and the next thing, Bucky shows up, with his ingrasheatin' grin. It's alluz 'grease before meet, as the Sky Pilot would say."
'Ole Man' Terrill was of the watch-dog breed. Whether warned by the instinct of his kind or wakened by the scent of McKee's bear-grease, he suddenly opened his eyes. Like all men accustomed to emergencies, he was instantly in full possession of his wits, yet he pretended to be slightly confused in order to get a grasp upon the situation before greeting his visitor.
"Howdy, Buck," he said, adjusting his revolver as he swung half-round in his chair, that he might reach his weapon more readily in an emergency. "Bustin' or busted?"
"Well, I'm about even with the game," replied McKee, pulling from his pocket a bag of tobacco and papers, and deftly rolling a butterfly cigarette. "Goin' to shake it before I lose my pile. It's me for the Lazy K. Dropped in to say good-by."
Terrill, who had recently had an expensive seance with McKee at poker, remonstrated:
"Yuh ought 'o give me another chanct at yuh, Buck. Yo're goin' away with too much of my money."
"Well, 'Ole Man,' I'm likely to rob yuh of a lot more ef you ain't keerful," answered McKee.
"Yuh can't jet yeta while," said Terrill. "Dead broke."
"Aw, come off! everybody knows ye're a walkin' bank. Bet yuh got three thousan' in that inside pocket o' your'n this minute."
Terrill started at McKee's naming the exact amount he was carrying. He forgot his customary caution in his surprise. "Well, you did just hit it, shore enough. I believe ye're half-gipsy instid o' half-Injun. Jus' like yer knowin' I stood pat on four uv a kind when you had aces full, and throwin' down yer cyards 'fore I c'u'd git even with yuh. How do yuh do it, Buck?"
McKee gave a smile of cunning, inscrutable superiority. "Oh, it's jes' a power I has. 'Keen sabby,' as the Greasers say—I'm keen on the know-how. Why, I kin tell yuh more about the money. It's fer Jack Payson—"
"Now, there's whur ye're way off as a cleervoyant, Buck," said Terrill triumphantly. "Yuh guessed oncet too often, as yer old pard on the Lazy K said to the druggist. 'Peruna?' ast the druggist. 'Yep,' said yer pard. 'Beginnin' mild on a new jag?' ast the druggist a second time. 'Hell, no!' said yer pard they calls Peruna now from the in-sih-dent, 'ending up strong on an old one.' Nope, the three thousan' is county money, consigned to Sheriff Hoover. Jack Payson has jes' lef' with a package from K. C., but it wasn't money. It was a purty, gilt chair—a weddin'-present fer the gal he's go'n' to marry."
At that moment the sounder of the telegraph began clicking the call of the station. Terrill whirled about in his swivel-chair and faced the table.
McKee stood close behind him. His lips twitched nervously. His eyes narrowed as he watched every movement of the agent's big shoulders as he operated the key. At the same time the half-breed drew his revolver and covered the back of Terrill's head.
The agent completed his message and turned to continue his interrupted conversation. He found himself gazing into the muzzle of a .44, big, it seemed, as a thirteen-inch gun. "Why—what?" he stammered.
"I'm actin' jes' now as Slim's deppity," said McKee. "Unbutton an' han' that money over."
Once having his victim in his power, all the innate cruelty of the Indian blood of his maternal ancestors flashed to the surface. Terrill was at his mercy. For one desperate moment he would play with him; even torture him as his forefathers had once made miserable the last moments of a captive. He knew that unless he silenced Terrill his life must pay the forfeit. Death was the penalty of detection. The arm of the express company was long. Ultimate capture was certain. Pursued out of Arizona by the sheriff, he would be trailed through every camp and town in the far West.
With an oath, Terrill tried to rise and face his antagonist, reaching for his revolver as he did so. The butt of his weapon had caught in the arm of the chair hampering his movements.
McKee threw him roughly back into the chair.
"Throw up your han's," he cried. "Don't try that."
Up went Terrill's hands high over his head. He faced the open window. Not a sign of help was in sight.
Quickly the agent turned over in his mind various schemes to foil McKee, who now stood behind him with the muzzle of his revolver pressing into the middle of his back. Each was rejected before half-conceived.
McKee laughed sneeringly, saying: "You oughtn't to be so keerless to show where you cache your roll. Worse than a senorita with a stocking. She never keeps a whole pair when Manuel is playing faro."
Terrill made no reply. His hope of escape was slowly fading.
McKee had reached his left hand over his prisoner's shoulder to disarm Terrill, who moved slightly away from him, drawing in his feet as he did so.
One chance had come to him. He knew that, if he failed, death was certain, yet he determined to take the risk in order to retrieve the slip he had made in admitting that he had money in his possession to a gambling crony; and so to keep clean his record for trustiness, of which he was so proud. This last desperate resource was an old wrestler's trick; one with which he had conquered others in the rough games of the corral.
Again Terrill moved to the right and farther under McKee, who had to extend his arm and body far beyond an upright position. Holding his revolver against Terrill handicapped the half-breed in his movements.
With a quick turn, Terrill grasped McKee's left arm, jerking it down sharply on his shoulder. With his right hand he grasped the back of his antagonist's neck, pulling his head downward and inward. Using his shoulder for a fulcrum, with a mighty heave of his legs and back he sought to toss McKee over his head.
So surprised for an instant was the cowboy by suddenness of the attack that he made no effort escape the clutches of the desperate express-agent.
His feet had left the floor, and he was swinging in the air before his finger pressed the trigger.
There was a muffled report.
The two men fell in a heap on the floor, McKee on top. Dazed and shaken, McKee scrambled to his feet. The air was pungent with odor of powder smoke. Terrill rolled over on his side, trembled convulsively, and died. He had paid the penalty for a moment's indiscretion with his life.
McKee quickly unfastened the pin and seized the roll of bills. Skimming through the package, he smiled with satisfaction to see that the most of it was in small bills, and none of them stained.
Carefully avoiding the fast-forming pool of blood which was oozing from the hole in the dead man's head, he hurried to the door.
A glance showed him the coast was clear. Running across the tracks, he joined Lane, who was waiting for him behind the freight-car with impatience. In silence they mounted their horses. For a short distance McKee led the way upon the railroad-track, in order to leave no hoof-prints, and then struck across the desert toward the hills in the south.
"Why did you shoot?" gasped Lane.
"He drew on me," snarled McKee. "It wasn't Dick's money, but you'll get half. Shut up."
The burning sun rose higher and higher. The buzzard dropped lower in the sky. The silence of death brooded over the railroad-station.
Hoover Bows to Hymen
Unknown to Bud Lane and Buck McKee, who were rioting in Florence, Jack Payson had hurried up the wedding. Colonel Jim had wheedled Josephine into consenting that it should take place two months ahead of the time that had been fixed. "April is the month fer showers, Josie, an' we'll let you weep all you please."
Two weeks' notice, however, gave scant time for preparation for the important ceremony that Mrs. Allen deemed necessary. During this period the busiest spot in Arizona was the kitchen of Allen hacienda. An immense cake, big as a cheese, was the crowning effort of Josephine, who wept copiously at the thought of losing her daughter as she measured and mixed the ingredients. A layer of frosting an inch in thickness encrusted this masterpiece of the art of pastry-making. Topping the creation were manikins of a bride and bridegroom.
This climax of the bridal cake had been brought up by wagon from Tucson with more caution than if it were a month's clean-up of a paying mine. Mrs. Allen allowed no one to go near the artistic achievement. Others might look at it from afar, but at the slightest movement to get close to it, she would push the observer back, with the warning: "Keep yer dirty fingers off'n it.
"'Tain't common icin'; that's confectionary."
Enough chickens to feed a darky camp-meeting were killed for the feast. Fried, roasted, cold or minced as tamales, the dishes filled ovens and tables, and overflowed into the spring-house. Favorite recipes carried across the plains by the wives of the Argonauts met in rivalry with the dishes of the cooks of old Mexico.
Colonel Allen wandered aimlessly about the ranch, while the preparations for the feast were in progress. The women folk drove him from one favorite loafing-place to another. His advice was scorned and his wishes made a subject for jests.
Defiantly he had taken full charge of the liquid refreshments. A friendly barkeeper in Tucson, acting under his orders, had shipped him cases of champagne, a barrel of beer, and a siphon of seltzer. Why the seltzer he never could explain. Later the unlucky bottle marred the supper and nearly caused a tragedy. A guest picked it up and peered into the metal tube to see "how the durned thing worked."
As he gazed and pondered, shaking the bottle in effort to solve the mystery, he pressed the handle. The stream struck him fairly between the eyes. Shocked, surprised, and half-blinded, he pulled his gun and declared immediate war on the "sheep-herder who had put up the job on him." Allen's other supplies were of the kind taken straight in the Southwest, and were downed with a hasty gulp.
Driven from the house on the day of the wedding he took refuge on the piazza. From behind the hacienda floated dreamily on the sun-drenched air the music of guitars and mandolins played by Mexicans, practising for the dance which would follow the ceremony.
The Colonel dozed and dreamed.
Suddenly the peace of the afternoon was shattered by the wild "yip-yips" of a band of cowboys, riding up the trail. Revolver-shots punctuated their shrill cries.
Allen bounded from his chair, shaking himself like a terrier. This riotous sound was the music he longed to hear.
When the staccato beats of the ponies' hoofs ceased, he shouted: "Come on, boys, make this your home. Everything goes, and the Sweetwater outfit is always welcome."
The foreman was the first to pull up in front of the house. "Hullo, Uncle Jim!" he cried.
"Hello, Sage-brush," answered the Colonel, a broad smile illuminating his face. Holding his pipe in one hand, he licked his lips at the thought of "lickering up" without the invention of an excuse for his wife.
Then he joined in a hearty laugh with the men about the corral as he heard the grunts and stamping of a plunging mustang. A cow-pony had entered into the spirit of the occasion and was trying to toss his rider over his head.
Fresno was the victim of the horse's deviltry.
His predicament aroused wild shouts of mirth and sallies of the wit of the corral.
"Hunt leather, Fresno, or he'll buck you clean over the wall," shouted Sage-brush.
"Grab his tail," yelled Show Low, with a whoop.
"All over," was the chorus, as Fresno, with a vicious jab of his spurs and a jerk of the head, brought the animal into subjection.
"Come right in, boys!" called Allen. "Let the Greasers take the hosses."
With shrill shouts, whoops, and much laughter the guests crowded about the ranchman.
Each wore his holiday clothes; new handkerchiefs were knotted about their necks. Fresno had stuck little American flags in the band of his hat, the crown of which he had removed. "I want head-room for the morning after," he had said.
Show Low's chaps were conspicuously new, and his movements were heralded by the creaking of unsoftened leather.
Last of the band was Parenthesis, short, bow-legged, with a face tanned and seamed by exposure.
The cowboys ran stiffly, toeing slightly inward. Long hours in the saddle made them apparently awkward and really ungraceful when on the ground.
They greeted Allen with hearty enthusiasm, slapping him on the back, poking him in the ribs, and swinging him from one to the other, with cries of: "Howdy, Uncle Jim!"
"Howdy, Sage-brush? Hello, Fresno! Waltz right in, Show Low. Glad to see you all!" cried Allen, as he, in turn, brought his hand down with ringing slaps upon shoulder and back. Meantime Parenthesis hopped about the outer edge of the ring, seeking an entrance. Failing to reach his host, he crowed: "How de doddle do," to attract his attention.
Allen broke from the ring. Grasping Parenthesis by the hand, he said: "I'm tolerable, thankee, Parenthesis. Where's Jack?—didn't he come over with you?"
"What! the boss? Ain't he got here yet?" asked the foreman. Tall and lean, with hardened muscles, Sage-brush Charley was as lithe as a panther on horseback. His first toy had been a rope with which, as a toddler, he had practised on the dogs and chickens about the ranch-yard. He could not remember when he could not ride. Days on the round-up, hours of watching the sleeping herd in the night-watch, had made him quiet and self-contained in his dealings with men. His eyes looked out fearlessly on the world. All of his life he had handled cattle. Daily facing dangers on the long drives or in the corral, he schooled himself to face emergencies. Acquiring self-control, he was trusted and admired. When Lyman, the old foreman of the Sweetwater resigned, Jack Payson promoted Sage-brush, although next to Bud Lane he was at the time the youngest man in the outfit. He made his employer's interests his own. At the mention of Payson's name he always became attentive. With a shade of anxiety he awaited Allen's answer.
"No," replied the ranchman, looking from one of his guests to the other.
"Why, he started three hours ahead of us!" explained Parenthesis.
With a challenging note in his tones, as if his word was disputed, the host answered: "Well, he ain't showed up."
The little group had become silent. Arizona was in a period of unrest. Rumors of another Apache uprising were growing stronger each day. Then Payson was successful, and, therefore, despised by less fortunate men ever eager for a quarrel.
After a moment's thought Sage-brush brushed aside his fears and brightened up his comrades with the remark: "Mebbe he rid over to Florence station to get a present for Miss Echo. He said somethin' about gettin' an artickle from Kansas City."
"Mebbe so," agreed Allen, eager to cast out any forebodings. "It's time," he continued, "he wuz turnin' up, if this weddin's to be pulled off by the clock."
"Has the Sky Pilot got here yet?" asked Sage-brush.
"No," replied Allen. "He's started, though. There's one thing sartin, we can't tighten up the cinches till the bridegroom gits here."
The absence of Jack Payson and the failure of the minister to arrive aroused the suspicions of Sage-brush. Coming closer to Allen, he smiled knowingly, and, speaking in a confidential tone, asked:
"Say, Jim, they ain't figgerin' on gittin' away on the sly-like, are they?"
Show Low interrupted with the explanation: "You see, we're goin' to decorate the wagon some."
The suggestion that any one connected with Allen Hacienda would ride in anything on wheels, except the driver of the chuck-wagon out on round-up, aroused the indignation of the old cattleman. For him the only use to which a wheeled vehicle drawn by a horse should be put was to haul materials that could not be packed on a horse.
"They ain't using any wagon!" he fairly shouted; "they're goin' away in the leather."
The idea of carrying out the traditions of the horse in Pinal County even to a wedding-journey tickled the boys immensely.
Slapping one another on the back and nodding their heads in approbation, they shouted: "That's the ticket. Hooray!"
"This ain't no New York idea, where the bride and groom hits the life-trail in a hired hack," cried Fresno.
Allen's feelings apparently were not yet fully soothed. Turning to Sage-brush, he said: "Wheels don't go in my family. Why, her ma and me were married on hossback. The preacher had to make a hurry job of it, but it took."
"Hush, now," was Parenthesis' awed comment.
"For her pop was a-chasin' us, and kept it up for twenty miles after the parson said 'Amen.'"
"Did he ketch you?" asked Fresno, with great seriousness.
"He sure did," answered Allen, with a twinkle in his eye, "an' thanked me for takin' Josephine off his hands."
The boys laughed. The joke was upon themselves, as they had expected to hear a romantic story of earlier days.
When the laughter had subsided, Show Low suggested: "If we can't decorate the wagon, let's put some fixin's on the ponies."
The proposal was received with more whoops, shouting, and yipping. They waltzed about the smiling rancher.
"That's what!" cried Sage-brush enthusiastically.
Allen grew sarcastic, remarking: "I reckon you-all must have stopped some time at the water-tank."
Renewed laughter greeted this sally.
"This is my first wedding," explained Sage-brush, rather apologetically.
"I want to know!" exclaimed Allen, in surprise.
"I'm tellin' you. I never seed a weddin' in all my life," replied Sage-brush, as seriously as if he was denying a false accusation of a serious crime. "Mother used to tell me about her'n, an' I often wisht I had been there."
Fresno shouted with amusement. He had Sage-brush rattled. The coolest man on the ranch was flustered by the mere thought of attending a wedding-ceremony.
"He's plum locoed over this one. Ain't you, Sage-brush?" he drawled tauntingly.
Sage-brush took his jibing in the best of humor. It was a holiday, and they were with people of their own kind. Had a stranger been present the remarks would have been resented bitterly. On this point cowboys are particularly sensitive. In the presence of outsiders they are silent, answering only in monosyllables, never leading in any conversation, and if any comment is necessary they make it indirectly.
"Well, I ain't no society-bud like you are," laughed Sage-brush. The others joined with him in his merriment over Fresno's discomfiture. "Weddin's ain't so frequent where I come from as they is in Californy."
"It's the climate," answered Fresno, with a broad grin.
"So you ain't never been at a weddin'?" asked Allen, who was looking for another opening to have more fun with Sage-brush.
Again the cowboy became serious and confessed: "Nope; I've officiated at several plain killin's, an' been chief usher at a lynchin', but this yere's my first weddin', an' I'm goin' to turn loose some and enjoy it."
Sage-brush grinned in anticipation of the good times that he knew lay in store for him at the dance.
"You're fixed up as if you was the main attraction at this event," said Allen, looking Sage-brush over carefully and spinning him around on his heel.