THE RUSTLER OF WIND RIVER
By G. W. OGDEN
By FRANK E. SCHOONOVER
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Published by Arrangement with A. C. McClurg & Company
A. C. McClurg & Co.
Published March, 1917
CHAPTER PAGE I Strange Bargainings 1 II Beef Day 11 III The Ranchhouse by the River 28 IV The Man in the Plaid 41 V If He was a Gentleman 55 VI A Bold Civilian 66 VII Throwing the Scare 81 VIII Afoot and Alone 89 IX Business, not Company 102 X "Hell's a-goin' to Pop" 119 XI The Senor Boss Comes Riding 131 XII "The Rustlers!" 147 XIII The Trail at Dawn 160 XIV When Friends Part 182 XV One Road 196 XVI Danger and Dignity 215 XVII Boots and Saddles 227 XVIII The Trail of the Coffee 240 XIX "I Beat Him to It" 252 XX Love and Death 268 XXI The Man in the Door 280 XXII Paid 298 XXIII Tears in the Night 303 XXIV Banjo Faces Into the West 312 XXV "Hasta Luego" 322
THE RUSTLER OF WIND RIVER
When a man came down out of the mountains looking dusty and gaunt as the stranger did, there was no marvel in the matter of his eating five cans of cove oysters. The one unaccountable thing about it was that Saul Chadron, president of the Drovers' Association, should sit there at the table and urge the lank, lean starveling to go his limit.
Usually Saul Chadron was a man who picked his companions, and was a particular hand at the choosing. He could afford to do that, being of the earth's exalted in the Northwest, where people came to him and put down their tribute at his feet.
This stranger, whom Chadron treated like a long-wandering friend, had come down the mountain trail that morning, and had been hanging about the hotel all day. Buck Snellin, the proprietor—duly licensed for a matter of thirty years past by the United States government to conduct his hostelry in the corner of the Indian reservation, up against the door of the army post—did not know him. That threw him among strangers in that land, indeed, for Buck knew everybody within a hundred miles on every side.
The stranger was a tall, smoky man, hollow-faced, grim; adorned with a large brown mustache which drooped over his thin mouth; a bony man with sharp shoulders, and a stoop which began in the region of the stomach, as if induced by drawing in upon himself in times of poignant hunger, which he must have felt frequently in his day to wear him down to that state of bones; with the under lid of his left eye caught at a point and drawn down until it showed red, as if held by a fishhook to drain it of unimaginable tears.
There was a furtive look in his restless, wild-animal eyes, smoky like the rest of him, and a surliness about his long, high-ridged nose which came down over his mustache like a beak. He wore a cloth cap with ear flaps, and they were down, although the heat of summer still made the September air lively enough for one with blood beneath his skin. He regaled himself with fierce defiance, like a captive eagle, and had no word in return for the generous importunities of the man who was host to him in what evidently was a long-deferred meal.
Chadron paid the bill when the man at last finished packing his internal cavities, and they went together into the hotel office which adjoined the dining-room.
The office of this log hotel was a large, gaunt room, containing a few chairs along the walls, a small, round table under the window with the register upon it, a pen in a potato, and a bottle of ink with trickled and encrusted sides. The broad fireplace was bleak and black, blank-staring as a blind eye, and the sun reached through the window in a white streak across the mottled floor.
There was the smell of old pipes, old furs, old guns, in the place, and all of them were present to account for themselves and dispel any shadow of mystery whatever—the guns on their pegs set in auger-holes in the logs of the walls, the furs of wild beasts dangling from like supports in profusion everywhere, and the pipes lying on the mantel with stems hospitably extended to all unprovided guests. Some of them had been smoked by the guests who had come and gone for a generation of men.
The stranger stood at the manteltree and tried the pipes' capacity with his thick-ended thumb, finding one at last to his requirements. Tall as Saul Chadron stood on his own proper legs, the stranger at his shoulder was a head above him. Seven feet he must have towered, his crown within a few inches of the smoked beams across the ceiling, and marvelously thin in the running up. It seemed that the wind must break him some blustering day at that place in his long body where hunger, or pain, or mischance had doubled him over in the past, and left him creased. The strong light of the room found pepperings of gray in his thick and long black hair.
Chadron himself was a gray man, with a mustache and beard like a cavalier. His shrewd eyes were sharp and bright under heavy brows, his brown face was toughened by days in the saddle through all seasons of weather and wind. His shoulders were broad and heavy, and even now, although not dressed for the saddle, there was an up-creeping in the legs of his trousers, and a gathering at the knees of them, for they were drawn down over his tall boots.
That was Chadron's way of doing the nice thing when he went abroad in his buckboard. He had saddle manners and buckboard manners, and even office manners when he met the cattle barons in Cheyenne. No matter what manners he chanced to be wearing, one remembered Saul Chadron after meeting him, and carried the recollection of him to the sundown of his day.
"We can talk here," said Chadron, giving the other a cigar.
The tall man broke the cigar and ground part of it in his palm, looking with frowning thoughtfulness into the empty fireplace as the tobacco crushed in his hard hand. He filled the pipe that he had chosen, and sat with his long legs stretched out toward the chimney-mouth.
"Well, go on and talk," said he.
His voice came smothered and hoarse, as if it lay beneath all the oysters which he had rammed into his unseen hollow. It was a voice in strange harmony with the man, such a sound as one would have expected to come out of that surly, dark-lipped, thin mouth. There was nothing committal about it, nothing exactly identifying; an impersonal voice, rather, and cold; a voice with no conscience behind it, scarcely a soul.
"You're a business man, Mark—"
"Huh!" said Mark, grunting a little cloud of smoke from the bowl of his pipe in his sarcastic vehemence.
"And so am I," continued Chadron, unmoved. "Words between us would be a waste of time."
"You're right; money talks," said Mark.
"It's a man's job, or I wouldn't have called you out of your hole to do it," said Chadron, watching the man slyly for the effect.
"Pay me in money," suggested Mark, unwarmed by the compliment. "Is it nesters ag'in?"
"Nesters," nodded the cattleman, drawing his great brows in a frown. "They're crowdin' in so thick right around me that I can't breathe comfortable any more; the smell of 'em's in the wind. They're runnin' over three of the biggest ranches up here besides the Alamito, and the Drovers' Association wants a little of your old-time holy scare throwed into the cussed coyotes."
Mark nodded in the pause which seemed to have been made for him to nod, and Chadron went on.
"We figger that if a dozen or two of 'em's cleaned out, quick and mysterious, the rest'll tuck tail and sneak. It's happened that way in other places more than once, as you and I know. Well, you're the man that don't have to take lessons."
"Money talks," repeated Mark, still looking into the chimney.
"There's about twenty of them that counts, the rest's the kind you can drive over a cliff with a whip. These fellers has strung their cussed bob-wire fences crisscross and checkerboard all around there up the river, and they're gittin' to be right troublesome. Of course they're only a speck up there yet, but they'll multiply like fleas on a hot dog if we let 'em go ahead. You know how it is."
There was a conclusiveness in Chadron's tone as he said that. It spoke of a large understanding between men of a kind.
"Sure," grunted the man Mark, nodding his head at the chimney. "You want a man to work from the willers, without no muss or gun-flashin', or rough houses or loud talk."
"Twenty of them, their names are here, and some scattered in between that I haven't put down, to be picked up as they fall in handy, see?"
"And you're aimin' to keep clear, and stand back in the shadder, like you always have done," growled Mark. "Well, I ain't goin' to ram my neck into no sheriff's loop for nobody's business but my own from now on. I'm through with resks, just to be obligin'."
"Who'll put a hand on you in this country unless we give the word?" Chadron asked, severely.
"How do I know who's runnin' the law in this dang country now? Maybe you fellers is, maybe you ain't."
"There's no law in this part of the country bigger than the Drovers' Association," Chadron told him, frowning in rebuke of Mark's doubt of security. "Well, maybe there's a little sheriff here and there, and a few judges that we didn't put in, but they're down in the farmin' country, and they don't cut no figger at all. If you was fool enough to let one of them fellers git a hold on you we wouldn't leave you in jail over night. You know how it was up there in the north."
"But I don't know how it is down here." Mark scowled in surly unbelief, or surly simulation.
"There's not a judge, federal or state, that could carry a bale of hay anywhere in the cattle country, I tell you, Mark, that we don't draw the chalk line for."
"Then why don't you do the job yourselves, 'stead of callin' a peaceable man away from his ranchin'?"
"You're one kind of a gentleman, Mark, and I'm another, and there's different jobs for different men. That ain't my line."
"Oh hell!" said Mark, laying upon the words an eloquent stress.
"All you've got to do is keep clear of the reservation; don't turn a card here, no matter how easy it looks. We can't jerk you out of the hands of the army if you git mixed up with it; that's one place where we stop. The reservation's a middle ground where we meet the nesters—rustlers, every muddy-bellied wolf of 'em, and we can prove it—and pass 'em by. They come and go here like white men, and nothing said. Keep clear of the reservation; that's all you've got to do to be as safe as if you was layin' in bed on your ranch up in Jackson's Hole."
Chadron winked as he named that refuge of the hunted in the Northwest. Mark appeared to be considering something weightily.
"Oh, well, if they're rustlers—nobody ain't got no use for a rustler," he said.
"There's men in that bunch of twenty"—tapping the slip of paper with his finger—"that started with two cows a couple of years ago that's got fifty and sixty head of two-year-olds now," Chadron feelingly declared.
"How much're you willin' to go?" Mark put the question with a suddenness which seemed to betray that he had been saving it to shoot off that way, as a disagreeable point over which he expected a quarrel. He squinted his draggled left eye at Chadron, as if he was taking aim, while he waited for a reply.
"Well, you have done it for fifty a head," Chadron said.
"Things is higher now, and I'm older, and the resk's bigger," Mark complained. "How fur apart do they lay?"
"You ought to get around in a week or two."
"But that ain't figgerin' the time a feller has to lay out in the bresh waitin' and takin' rheumatiz in his j'ints. I couldn't touch the job for the old figger; things is higher."
"Look here, Mark"—Chadron opened the slip which he had wound round his finger—"this one is worth ten, yes, all, the others. Make your own price on him. But I want it done; no bungled job."
Mark took the paper and laid his pipe aside while he studied it.
"Alan Macdonald," nodded Chadron. "That feller's opened a ditch from the river up there on my land and begun to irrigate!"
"Irrigatin', huh?" said Mark, abstractedly, moving his finger down the column of names.
"He makes a blind of buyin' up cattle and fattenin' 'em on the hay and alfalfer he's raisin' up there on my good land, but he's the king-pin of the rustlers in this corner of the state. He'll be in here tomorrow with cattle for the Indian agent—it's beef day—and you can size him up. But you've got to keep your belly to the ground like a snake when you start anything on that feller, and you've got to make sure you've got him dead to rights. He's quick with a gun, and he's sure."
"Five hundred?" suggested Mark, with a crafty sidelong look.
"You've named it."
"And something down for expenses; a feller's got to live, and livin's high."
Chadron drew out his wallet. Money passed into Mark's hand, and he put it away in his pocket along with the list of names.
"I'll see you in the old place in Cheyenne for the settlement, if you make good," Chadron told him.
Mark waved his hand in lofty depreciation of the hint that failure for him was a possible contingency. He said no more. For a little while Chadron stood looking down on him as he leaned with his pipe over the dead ashes in the fireplace, his hand in the breast of his coat, where he had stored his purse. Mark treated the mighty cattleman as if he had become a stranger to him, along with the rest of the world in that place, and Chadron turned and went his way.
Fort Shakie was on its downhill way in those days, and almost at the bottom of the decline. It was considered a post of penance by enlisted men and officers alike, nested up there in the high plateau against the mountains in its place of wild beauty and picturesque charm.
But natural beauty and Indian picturesqueness do not fill the place in the soldierly breast of fair civilian lady faces, nor torrential streams of cold mountain water supply the music of the locomotive's toot. Fort Shakie was being crept upon by civilization, true, but it was coming all too slow for the booted troopers and belted officers who must wear away the months in its lonely silences.
Within the memory of officers not yet gray the post had been a hundred and fifty miles from a railroad. Now it was but twenty; but even that short leap drowned the voice of the locomotive, and the dot at the rails' end held few of the endearments which make soldiering sweet.
Soon the post must go, indeed, for the need of it had passed. The Shoshones, Arapahoes, and Crows had forgotten their old animosities, and were traveling with Buffalo Bill, going to college, and raising alfalfa under the direction of a government farmer. The Indian police were in training to do the soldiers' work there. Soon the post must stand abandoned, a lonely monument to the days of hard riding, long watches, and bleak years. Not a soldier in the service but prayed for the hastening of the day.
No, there was not much over at Meander, at the railroad's end, to cheer a soldier's heart. It was an inspiring ride, in these autumn days, to come to Meander, past the little brimming lakes, which seemed to lie without banks in the green meadows where wild elk fed with the shy Indian cattle; over the white hills where the earth gave under the hoofs like new-fallen snow. But when one came to it through the expanding, dusty miles, the reward of his long ride was not in keeping with his effort.
Certainly, privates and subalterns could get drunk there, as speedily as in the centers of refinement, but there were no gentlemanly diversions at which an officer could dispel the gloom of his sour days in garrison.
The rough-cheeked girls of that high-wind country were well enough for cowboys to swing in their wild dances; just a rung above the squaws on the reservation in the matter of loquacity and of gum. Hardly the sort for a man who had the memory of white gloves and gleaming shoulders, and the traditions of the service to maintain.
Of course there was the exception of Nola Chadron, but she was not of Meander and the railroad's end, and she came only in flashes of summer brightness, like a swift, gay bird. But when Nola was at the ranchhouse on the river the gloom lifted over the post, and the sour leaven in the hearts of unmarried officers became as sweet as manna in the cheer of the unusual social outlet thus provided.
Nola kept the big house in a blaze of joy while she nested there through the summer days. The sixteen miles which stretched between it and the post ran out like a silver band before those who rode into the smile of her welcome, and when she flitted away to Cheyenne, champagne, and silk hats in the autumn, a grayness hovered again over the military post in the corner of the reservation.
Later than usual Nola had lingered on this fall, and the social outlet had remained open, like a navigable river over which the threat of ice hung but had not yet fallen. There were not lacking those who held that the lodestone which kept her there at the ranchhouse, when the gaieties of the season beckoned elsewhere, was in the breast of Major Cuvier King. Fatal infatuation, said the married ladies at the post, knowing, as everybody knew in the service, that Major King was betrothed to Frances Landcraft, the colonel's daughter.
No matter for any complications which might come of it, Nola had remained on, and the major had smiled on her, and ridden with her, and cut high capers in the dance, all pending the return of Frances and her mother from their summering at Bar Harbor in compliance with the family traditions. Now Frances was back again, and fortune had thrown a sunburst of beauty into the post by centering her and Nola here at once. Nola was the guest of the colonel's daughter, and there were flutterings in uniformed breasts.
Beef day was an event at the agency which never grew old to the people at the post. Without beef day they must have dwindled off to acidulous shadows, as the Indians who depended upon it for more solid sustenance would have done in the event of its discontinuation by a paternal government.
There were phases of Indian life and character which one never saw save on beef day, which fell on Wednesday of each week. Guests at the post watched the bright picture with the keen interest of a pageant on the stage; tourists came over by stage from Meander in the summer months by the score to be present; the resident officers, and their wives and families—such as had them—found in it an ever-recurring source of interest and relief from the tedium of days all alike.
This beef day, the morning following the meeting between Saul Chadron and his mysterious guest, a chattering group stood on the veranda of Colonel Landcraft's house in the bright friendly sun. They were waiting for horses to make the short journey to the agency—for one's honesty was questioned, his sanity doubted, if he went afoot in that country even a quarter of a mile—and gayest among them was Nola Chadron, the sun in her fair, springing hair.
Nola's crown reached little higher than a proper soldier's heart, but what she lacked in stature she supplied in plastic perfection of body and vivacity of face. There was a bounding joyousness of life in her; her eager eyes reflecting only the anticipated pleasures of today. There was no shadow of yesterday's regret in them, no cloud of tomorrow's doubt.
On the other balance there was Frances Landcraft, taller by half a head, soldierly, too, as became her lineage, in the manner of lifting her chin in what seemed a patrician scorn of small things such as a lady should walk the world unconscious of. The brown in her hair was richer than the clear agate of her eyes; it rippled across her ear like the scroll of water upon the sand.
There was a womanly dignity about her, although the threshold of girlhood must not have been far behind her that bright autumnal morning. Her nod was equal to a stave of Nola's chatter, her smile worth a league of the light laughter from that bounding little lady's lips. Not that she was always so silent as on that morning, there among the young wives of the post, at her own guest's side. She had her hours of overflowing spirits like any girl, but in some company she was always grave.
When Major King was in attendance, especially, the seeing ones made note. And there were others, too, who said that she was by nature a colonel among women, haughty, cold and aloof. These wondered how the major ever had made headway with her up to the point of gaining her hand. Knowing ones smiled at that, and said it had been arranged.
There were ambitions on both sides of that match, it was known—ambition on the colonel's part to secure his only child a station of dignity, and what he held to be of consequence above all achievements in the world. Major King was a rising man, with two friends in the cabinet. It was said that he would be a brigadier-general before he reached forty.
On the major's side, was the ambition to strengthen his political affiliations by alliance with a family of patrician strain, together with the money that his bride would bring, for Colonel Landcraft was a weighty man in this world's valued accumulations. So the match had been arranged.
The veranda of the colonel's house gave a view of the parade grounds and the long avenue that came down between the officers' houses, cottonwoods lacing their limbs above the road. There was green in the lawns, the flash of flowers between the leaves and shrubs, white-gleaming walls, trim walks, shorn hedges. It seemed a pleasant place of quiet beauty that bright September morning, and a pity to give it up by and by to dust and desolation; a place where men and women might be happy, but for the gnawing fire of ambition in their hearts.
Mrs. Colonel Landcraft was not going. Indians made her sick, she said, especially Indians sitting around in the tall grass waiting for the carcasses to be cut up and apportioned out to them in bloody chunks. But there seemed to be another source of her sickness that morning, measuring by the grave glances with which she searched her daughter's face. She wondered whether the major and Frances had quarreled; and if so, whether Nola Chadron had been the cause.
They were off, with the colonel and a lately-assigned captain in the lead. There was a keener pleasure in this beef day than usual for the colonel, for he had new ground to sow with its wonders, which were beginning to pale in his old eyes which had seen so much of the world.
"Very likely we'll see the minister's wife there," said he, as they rode forward, "and if so, it will be worth your while to take special note of her. St. John Mathews, the Episcopalian minister over there at the mission—those white buildings there among the trees—is a full-blooded Crow. One of the pioneer missionaries took him up and sent him back East to school, where in time he entered the ministry and married this white girl. She was a college girl, I've been told, glamoured by the romance of Mathews' life. Well, it was soon over."
The colonel sighed, and fell silent. The captain, feeling that it was intended that he should, made polite inquiry.
"The trouble is that Mathews is an Indian out of his place," the colonel resumed. "He returned here twenty years or so ago, and took up his work among his people. But as he advanced toward civilization, his wife began to slip back. Little by little she adopted the Indian ways and dress, until now you couldn't tell her from a squaw if you were to meet her for the first time. She presents a curious psychological study—or perhaps biological example of atavism, for I believe there's more body than soul in the poor creature now. It's nature maintaining the balance, you see. He goes up; she slips back.
"If she's there, she'll be squatting among the squaws, waiting to carry home her husband's allotment of warm, bloody beef. She doesn't have to do it, and it shames and humiliates Mathews, too, even though they say she cuts it up and divides it among the poorer Indians. She's a savage; her eyes sparkle at the sight of red meat."
They rounded the agency buildings and came upon an open meadow in which the slaughterhouses stood at a distance from the road. Here, in the grassy expanse, the Indians were gathered, waiting the distribution of the meat. The scene was barbarically animated. Groups of women in their bright dresses sat here and there on the grass, and apart from them in gravity waited old men in moccasins and blankets and with feathers in their hair. Spry young men smoked cigarettes and talked volubly, garbed in the worst of civilization and the most useless of savagery.
One and all they turned their backs upon the visitors, the nearest groups and individuals moving away from them with the impassive dignity of their race. There is more scorn in an Indian squaw's back, turned to an impertinent stranger, than in the faces of six matrons of society's finest-sifted under similar conditions.
Colonel Landcraft led his party across the meadow, entirely unconscious of the cold disdain of the people whom he looked down upon from his superior heights. He could not have understood if any there had felt the trespass from the Indians' side—and there was one, very near and dear to the colonel who felt it so—and attempted to explain. The colonel very likely would have puffed up with military consequence almost to the bursting-point.
Feeling, delicacy, in those smeared, smelling creatures! Surliness in excess they might have, but dignity, not at all. Were they not there as beggars to receive bounty from the government's hand?
"Oh, there's Mrs. Mathews!" said Nola, with the eagerness of a child who has found a quail's nest in the grass. She was off at an angle, like a hunter on the scent. Colonel Landcraft and his guest followed with equal rude eagerness, and the others swept after them, Frances alone hanging back. Major King was at Nola's side. If he noted the lagging of his fiancee he did not heed.
The minister's wife, a shawl over her head, her braided hair in front of her shoulders like an Indian woman, rose from her place in startled confusion. She looked as if she would have fled if an avenue had been open, or a refuge presented. The embarrassed creature was obliged to stand in their curious eyes, and stammer in a tongue which seemed to be growing strange to her from its uncommon use.
She was a short woman, growing heavy and shapeless now, and there was gray in her black hair. Her skin was browned by sun, wind, and smoke to the hue of her poor neighbors and friends. When she spoke in reply to the questions which poured upon her, she bent her head like a timid girl.
Frances checked her horse and remained behind, out of range of hearing. She was cut to the heart with shame for her companions, and her cheek burned with the indignation that she suffered with the harried woman in their midst. A little Indian girl came flying past, ducking and dashing under the neck of Frances' horse, in pursuit of a piece of paper which the wind whirled ahead of her. At Frances' stirrup she caught it, and held it up with a smile.
"Did you lose this, lady?" she asked, in the very best of mission English.
"No," said Frances, bending over to see what it might be. The little girl placed it in her hand and scurried away again to a beckoning woman, who stood on her knees and scowled over her offspring's dash into the ways of civilized little girls.
It was a narrow strip of paper that she had rescued from the wind, with the names of several men written on it in pencil, and at the head of the list the name of Alan Macdonald. Opposite that name some crude hand had entered, with pen that had flowed heavily under his pressure, the figures "$500."
Frances turned it round her finger and sat waiting for the others to leave off their persecution of the minister's wife and come back to her, wondering in abstracted wandering of mind who Alan Macdonald might be, and for what purpose he had subscribed the sum of five hundred dollars.
"I think she's the most romantic little thing in the world!" Nola was declaring, in her extravagant surface way as they returned to where Frances sat her horse, her wandering eyes on the blue foothills, the strip of paper prominent about her finger. "Oh, honey! what's the matter? Did you cut your finger?"
"No," said Frances, her serious young face lighting with a smile, "it's a little subscription list, or something, that somebody lost. Alan Macdonald heads it for five hundred dollars. Do you know Alan Macdonald, and what his charitable purpose may be?"
Nola tossed her head with a contemptuous sniff.
"They call him the 'king of the rustlers' up the river," said she.
"Oh, he is a man of consequence, then?" said Frances, a quickening of humor in her brown eyes, seeing that Nola was up on her high horse about it.
"We'd better be going down to the slaughter-house if we want to see the fun," bustled the colonel, wheeling his horse. "I see a movement setting in that way."
"He's just a common thief!" declared Nola, with flushed cheek and resentful eye, as Frances fell in beside her for the march against the abattoir.
Frances still carried the paper twisted about her finger, reserving her judgment upon Alan Macdonald, for she knew something of the feuds of that hard-speaking land.
"Anyway, I suppose he'd like to have his paper back," she suggested. "Will you hand it to him the next time you meet him?"
Frances was entirely grave about it, although it was only a piece of banter which she felt that Nola would appreciate. But Nola was not in an appreciative mood, for she was a full-blooded daughter of the baronial rule. She jerked her head like a vicious bronco and reined hurriedly away from Frances as she extended the paper.
"I'll not touch the thing!" said Nola, fire in her eyes.
Major King was enjoying the passage between the girls, riding at Nola's side with his cavalry hands held precisely.
"If I'm not mistaken, the gentleman in question is there talking to Miller, the agent," said he, nodding toward two horsemen a little distance ahead. "But I wouldn't excite him, Miss Landcraft, if I were you. He's said to be the quickest and deadliest man with a weapon on this range."
Major King smiled over his own pleasantry. Frances looked at Nola with brows lifted inquiringly, as if waiting her verification. Then the grave young lady settled back in her saddle and laughed merrily, reaching across and touching her friend's arm in conciliating caress.
"Oh, you delightful little savage!" she said. "I believe you'd like to take a shot at poor Mr. Macdonald yourself."
"We never start anything on the reservation," Nola rejoined, quite seriously.
Miller, the Indian agent, rode away and left Macdonald sitting there on his horse as the military party approached. He spurred up to meet the colonel, and to present his respects to the ladies—a hard matter for a little round man with a tight paunch, sitting in a Mexican saddle. The party halted, and Frances looked across at Macdonald, who seemed to be waiting for Miller to rejoin him.
Macdonald was a supple, sinewy man, as he appeared across the few rods intervening. His coat was tied with his slicker at the cantle of his saddle, his blue flannel shirt was powdered with the white dust of the plain. Instead of the flaring neckerchief which the cowboys commonly favored, Macdonald wore a cravat, the ends of it tucked into the bosom of his shirt, and in place of the leather chaps of men who ride breakneck through brush and bramble, his legs were clad in tough brown corduroys, and fended by boots to his knees. There were revolvers in the holsters at his belt.
Not an unusual figure for that time and place, but something uncommon in the air of unbending severity that sat on him, which Frances felt even at that distance. He looked like a man who had a purpose in his life, and who was living it in his own brave way. If he was a cattle thief, as charged, thought she, then she would put her faith against the world that he was indeed a master of his trade.
They were talking around Miller, who was going to give them places of vantage for the coming show. Only Frances and Major King were left behind, where she had stopped her horse to look curiously across at Alan Macdonald, king of the rustlers, as he was called.
"It may not be anything at all to him, and it may be something important," said Frances, reaching out the slip to Major King. "Would you mind handing it to him, and explaining how it came into my hands?"
"I'll not have anything to do with the fellow!" said the major, flushing hotly. "How can you ask such a thing of me? Throw it away, it's no concern of yours—the memorandum of a cattle thief!"
Frances drew herself straight. Her imperious chin was as high as Major King ever had carried his own in the most self-conscious moment of his military career.
"Will you take it to him?" she demanded.
"Certainly not!" returned the major, haughtily emphatic. Then, softening a little, "Don't be silly, Frances; what a row you make over a scrap of blowing paper!"
"Then I'll take it myself!"
It was the steel of conventionality against the flint of womanly defiance. Major King started in his saddle, as if to reach out and restrain her. It was one of those defiantly foolish little things which women and men—especially women—do in moments of pique, and Frances knew it at the time. But she rode away from the major with a hot flush of insubordination in her cheeks, and Alan Macdonald quickened from his pensive pose when he saw her coming.
His hand went to his hat when her intention became unmistakable to him. She held the little paper out toward him while still a rod away.
"A little Indian girl gave me this; she found it blowing along—they tell me you are Mr. Macdonald," she said, her face as serious as his own. "I thought it might be a subscription list for a church, or something, and that you might want it."
"Thank you, Miss Landcraft," said he, his voice low-modulated, his manner easy.
Her face colored at the unexpected way of this man without a coat, who spoke her name with the accent of refinement, just as if he had known her, and had met her casually upon the way.
"I have seen you a hundred times at the post and the agency," he explained, to smooth away her confusion. "I have seen you from afar."
"Oh," said she, as lame as the word was short.
He was scanning the written paper. Now he looked at her, a smile waking in his eyes. It moved in slow illumination over his face, but did not break his lips, pressed in their stern, strong line. She saw that his long hair was light, and that his eyes were gray, with sandy brows over them which stood on end at the points nearest his nose, from a habit of bending them in concentration, she supposed, as he had been doing but a moment before he smiled.
"No, it isn't a church subscription, Miss Landcraft, it's for a cemetery," said he.
"Oh," said she again, wondering why she did not go back to Major King, whose horse appeared restive, and in need of the spur, which the major gave him unfeelingly.
At the same time she noted that Alan Macdonald's forehead was broad and deep, for his leather-weighted hat was pushed back from it where his fair, straight hair lay thick, and that his bony chin had a little croft in it, and that his face was long, and hollowed like a student's, and that youth was in his eyes in spite of the experience which hardships of unknown kind had written across his face. Not a handsome man, but a strong one in his way, whatever that way might be.
"I am indebted to you for this," said he, drawing forth his watch with a quick movement as he spoke, opening the back cover, folding the little paper carefully away in it, "and grateful beyond words."
"Good-bye, Mr. Macdonald," said she, wheeling her horse suddenly, smiling back at him as she rode away to Major King.
Alan Macdonald sat with his hat off until she was again at the major's side, when he replaced it over his fair hair with slow hand, as if he had come from some holy presence. As for Frances, her turn of defiance had driven her clouds away. She met the major smiling and radiant, a twinkling of mischief in her lively eyes.
The major was a diplomat, as all good soldiers, and some very indifferent ones, are. Whatever his dignity and gentler feelings had suffered while she was away, he covered the hurt now with a smile.
"And how fares the bandit king this morning?" he inquired.
"He seems to be in spirits," she replied.
The others were out of sight around the buildings where the carcasses of beef had been prepared. Nobody but the major knew of Frances' little dash out of the conventional, and the knowledge that it was so was comfortable in his breast.
"And the pe-apers," said he, in melodramatic whisper, "were they the thieves' muster roll?"
"He isn't a thief," said she, with quiet dignity, "he's a gentleman. Yes, the paper was important."
"Ha! the plot deepens!" said Major King.
"It was a matter of life and death," said she, with solemn rebuke for his levity, speaking a truer word than she was aware.
THE RANCHHOUSE BY THE RIVER
Saul Chadron had built himself into that house. It was a solid and assertive thing of rude importance where it stood in the great plain, the river lying flat before it in its low banks like a gray thread through the summer green. There was a bold front to the house, and a turret with windows, standing like a lighthouse above the sea of meadows in which his thousand-numbered cattle fed.
As white as a dove it sat there among the cottonwoods at the riverside. A stream of water led into its gardens to gladden them and give them life. Years ago, when Chadron's importance was beginning to feel itself strong upon its legs, and when Nola was a little thing with light curls blowing about her blue eyes, the house had grown up under the wand of riches in that barren place.
The post at Fort Shakie had been the nearest neighbor in those days, and it remained the nearest neighbor still, with the exception of one usurper and outcast homesteader, Alan Macdonald by name, who had invaded the land over which Chadron laid his extensive claim. Fifteen miles up the river from the grand white house Macdonald had strung his barbed wire and carried in the irrigation ditch to his alfalfa field. He had chosen the most fertile spot in the vast plain through which the river swept, and it was in the heart of Saul Chadron's domain.
After the lordly manner of the cattle "barons," as they were called in the Northwest, Chadron set his bounds by mountains and rivers. Twenty-five hundred square miles, roughly measured, lay within his lines, the Alamito Ranch he called it—the Little Cottonwood. He had no more title to that great sweep of land than the next man who might come along, and he paid no rental fee to nation nor state for grazing his herds upon it. But the cattle barons had so apportioned the land between themselves, and Saul Chadron, and each member of the Drovers' Association, had the power of their mighty organization to uphold his hand. That power was incontestable in the Northwest in its day; there was no higher law.
This Alan Macdonald was an unaccountable man, a man of education, it was said, which made him doubly dangerous in Saul Chadron's eyes. Saul himself had come up from the saddle, and he was not strong on letters, but he had seen the power of learning in lawyers' offices, and he respected it, and handled it warily, like a loaded gun.
Chadron had sent his cowboys up the river when Macdonald first came, and tried to "throw a holy scare into him," as he put it. The old formula did not work in the case of the lean, long-jawed, bony-chinned man. He was polite, but obdurate, and his quick gray eyes seemed to read to their inner process of bluff and bluster as through tissue paper before a lamp. When they had tried to flash their guns on him, the climax of their play, he had beaten them to it. Two of them were carried back to the big ranchhouse in blankets, with bullets through their fleshy parts—not fatal wounds, but effective.
The problem of a fighting "nester" was a new one to the cattlemen of that country. For twenty years they had kept that state under the dominion of the steer, and held its rich agricultural and mineral lands undeveloped. The herbage there, curing in the dry suns of summer as it stood on the upland plains, provided winter forage for their herds. There was no need for man to put his hand to the soil and debase himself to a peasant's level when he might live in a king's estate by roaming his herds over the untamed land.
Homesteaders who did not know the conditions drifted there on the westward-mounting wave, only to be hustled rudely away, or to pay the penalty of refusal with their lives. Reasons were not given, rights were not pleaded by the lords of many herds. They had the might to work their will; that was enough.
So it could be understood what indignation mounted in the breast of tough old Saul Chadron when a pigmy homesteader put his firm feet down on the ground and refused to move along at his command, and even fought back to maintain what he claimed to be his rights. It was an unprecedented stand, a dangerous example. But this nester had held out for more than two years against his forces, armed by some invisible strength, it seemed, guarded against ambuscades and surprises by some cunning sense which led him whole and secure about his nefarious ways.
Not alone that, but other homesteaders had come and settled near him across the river on two other big ranches which cornered there against Chadron's own. These nesters drew courage from Macdonald's example, and cunning from his counsel, and stood against the warnings, persecutions, and attempts at forceful dislodgment. The law of might did not seem to apply to them, and there was no other source equal to the dignity of the Drovers' Association—at least none to which it cared to carry its grievances and air them.
So they cut Alan Macdonald's fences, and other homesteaders' fences, in the night and drove a thousand or two cattle across his fields, trampling the growing grain and forage into the earth; they persecuted him in a score of harassing, quick, and hidden blows. But this homesteader was not to be driven away by ordinary means. Nature seemed to lend a hand to him, he made crops in spite of the cattlemen, and was prospering. He had taken root and appeared determined to remain, and the others were taking deep root with him, and the free, wide range was coming under the menace of the fence and the lowly plow.
That was the condition of things in those fair autumn days when Prances Landcraft returned to the post. The Drovers' Association, and especially the president of it, was being defied in that section, where probably a hundred homesteaders had settled with their families of long-backed sons and daughters. They were but a speck on the land yet, as Chadron had told the smoky stranger when he had engaged him to try his hand at throwing the "holy scare." But they spread far over the upland plain, having sought the most favored spots, and they were a blight and a pest in the eyes of the cattlemen.
Nola had flitted back to the ranchhouse, carrying Frances with her to bring down the curtain on her summer's festivities there in one last burst of joy. The event was to be a masquerade, and everybody from the post was coming, together with the few from Meander who had polish enough to float them, like new needles in a glass of water, through frontier society's depths. Some were coming from Cheyenne, also, and the big house was dressed for them, even to the bank of palms to conceal the musicians, in the polite way that society has of standing something in front of what it cannot well dispense with, yet of which it appears to be ashamed.
It was the afternoon of the festal day, and Nola sighed happily as she stood with Frances in the ballroom, surveying the perfection of every detail. Money could do things away off there in that corner of the world as well as it could do them in Omaha or elsewhere. Saul Chadron had hothouses in which even oranges and pineapples grew.
Mrs. Chadron was in the living-room, with its big fireplace and homely things, when they came chattering out of the enchanted place. She was sitting by the window which gave her a view of the dim gray road where it came over the grassy swells from Meander and the world, knitting a large blue sock.
Mrs. Chadron was a cow-woman of the unimproved school. She was a heavy feeder on solids, and she liked plenty of chili peppers in them, which combination gave her a waist and a ruddiness of face like a brewer. But she was a good woman in her fashion, which was narrow, and intolerant of all things which did not wear hoofs and horns, or live and grow mighty from the proceeds of them. She never had expanded mentally to fit the large place that Saul had made for her in the world of cattle, although her struggle had been both painful and sincere.
Now she had given it up, and dismissed the troubles of high life from her fat little head, leaving Nola to stand in the door and do the honors with credit to the entire family. She had settled down to her roasts and hot condiments, her knitting and her afternoon naps, as contentedly as an old cat with a singed back under a kitchen stove. She had no desire to go back to the winter home in Cheyenne, with its grandeur, its Chinese cook, and furniture that she was afraid to use. There was no satisfaction in that place for Mrs. Chadron, beyond the swelling pride of ownership. For comfort, peace, and a mind at ease, give her the ranchhouse by the river, where she could set her hand to a dish if she wanted to, no one thinking it amiss.
"Well, I declare! if here don't come Banjo Gibson," said she, her hand on the curtain, her red face near the pane like a beacon to welcome the coming guest. There was pleasure in her voice, and anticipation. The blue sock slid from her lap to the floor, forgotten.
"Yes, it's Banjo," said Nola. "I wonder where he's been all summer? I haven't seen him in an age."
"Who is he?" Frances inquired, looking out at the approaching figure,
"The troubadour of the North Platte, I call him," laughed Nola; "the queerest little traveling musician in a thousand miles. He belongs back in the days of romance, when men like him went playing from castle to court—the last one of his kind."
Frances watched him with new interest as he drew up to the big gate, which was arranged with weights and levers so that a horseman could open and close it without leaving the saddle. The troubadour rode a mustang the color of a dry chili pepper, but with none of its spirit. It came in with drooping head, the reins lying untouched on its neck, its mane and forelock platted and adorned fantastically with vari-colored ribbons. Rosettes were on the bridle, a fringe of leather thongs along the reins.
The musician himself was scarcely less remarkably than the horse. He looked at that distance—now being at the gate—to be a dry little man of middle age, with a thirsty look about his throat, which was long, with a lump in it like an elbow. He was a slender man and short, with gloves on his hands, a slight sandy mustache on his lip, and wearing a dun-colored hat tilted a little to one side, showing a waviness almost curly in his glistening black hair. He carried a violin case behind his saddle, and a banjo in a green covering slung like a carbine over his shoulder.
"He'll know where to put his horse," said Mrs. Chadron, getting up with a new interest in life, "and I'll just go and have Maggie stir him up a bite to eat and warm the coffee. He's always hungry when he comes anywhere, poor little man!"
"Can he play that battery of instruments?" Prances asked.
"Wait till you hear him," nodded Nola, a laugh in her merry eyes.
Then they fell to talking of the coming night, and of the trivial things which are so much to youth, and to watching along the road toward Meander for the expected guests from Cheyenne, who were to come up on the afternoon train.
Regaled at length, Banjo Gibson, in the wake of Mrs. Chadron, who presented him with pride, came into the room where the young ladies waited with impatience the waning of the daylight hours. Banjo acknowledged the honor of meeting Miss Landcraft with extravagant words, which had the flavor of a manual of politeness and a ready letter-writer in them. He was on more natural terms with Nola, having known her since childhood, and he called her "Miss Nola," and held her hand with a tender lingering.
His voice was full and rich, a deep, soft note in it like a rare instrument in tune. His small feet were shod in the shiningest of shoes, which he had given a furbishing in the barn, and a flowing cravat tied in a large bow adorned his low collar. There were stripes in the musician's shirt like a Persian tent, but it was as clean and unwrinkled as if he had that moment put it on.
Banjo Gibson—if he had any other christened name, it was unknown to men—was an original. As Nola had said, he belonged back a few hundred years, when musical proficiency was not so common as now. The profession was not crowded in that country, happily, and Banjo traveled from ranch to ranch carrying cheer and entertainment with him as he passed.
He had been doing that for years, having worked his way westward from Nebraska with the big cattle ranches, and his art was his living. Banjo's arrival at a ranch usually resulted in a dance, for which he supplied the music, and received such compensation as the generosity of the host might fix. Banjo never quarreled over such matters. All he needed was enough to buy cigarettes and shirts.
Banjo seldom played in company with any other musician, owing to certain limitations, which he raised to distinguishing virtues. He played by "air," as he said, despising the unproficiency of all such as had need of looking on a book while they fiddled. Knowing nothing of transposition, he was obliged to tune his banjo—on those rare occasions when he stooped to play "second" at a dance—in the key of each fresh tune. This was hard on the strings, as well as on the patience of the player, and Banjo liked best to go it single-handed and alone.
When he heard that musicians were coming from Cheyenne—a day's journey by train—to play for Nola's ball, his face told that he was hurt, but his respect of hospitality curbed his words. He knew that there was one appreciative ear in the mansion by the river that no amount of "dago fiddlin'" ever would charm and satisfy like his own voice with the banjo, or his little brown fiddle when it gave out the old foot-warming tunes. Mrs. Chadron was his champion in all company, and his friend in all places.
"Well, sakes alive! Banjo, I'm as tickled to see you as if you was one of my own folks," she declared, her face as warm as if she had just gorged on the hottest of hot dishes which her Mexican cook, Maggie, could devise.
"I'm glad to be able to make it around ag'in, thank you, mom," Banjo assured her, sentiment and soul behind the simple words. "I always carry a warm place in my heart for Alamito wherever I may stray."
Nola frisked around and took the banjo from its green cover, talking all the time, pushing and placing chairs, and settling Banjo in a comfortable place. Then she armed him with the instrument, making quite a ceremony of it, and asked him to play.
Banjo twanged the instrument into tune, hooked the toe of his left foot behind the forward leg of his chair, and struck up a song which he judged would please the young ladies. Of Mrs. Chadron he was sure; she had laughed over it a hundred times. It was about an adventure which the bard had shared with his gal in a place designated in Banjo's uncertain vocabulary as "the big cook-quari-um." It began:
Oh-h-h, I stopped at a big cook-quari-um Not very long ago, To see the bass and suckers And hear the white whale blow.
The chorus of it ran:
Oh-h-h-h, the big sea-line he howled and he growled, The seal beat time on a drum; The whale he swallered a den-vereel In the big cook-quari-um.
From that one Banjo passed to "The Cowboy's Lament," and from tragedy to love. There could be nothing more moving—if not in one direction, then in another—than the sentimental expression of Banjo's little sandy face as he sang:
I know you were once my true-lov-o-o-o, But such a thing it has an aind; My love and my transpo'ts are ov-o-o-o, But you may still be my fraind-d-d.
Sundown was rosy behind the distant mountains, a sea of purple shadows laved their nearer feet, when Banjo got out his fiddle at Mrs. Chadron's request and sang her "favorite" along with the moving tones of that instrument.
Dau-ling I am growing-a o-o-eld, Seel-vo threads a-mong tho go-o-ld—
As he sang, Nola slipped from the room. He was finishing when she sped by the window and came sparkling into the room with the announcement that the guests from far Cheyenne were coming. Frances was up in excitement; Mrs. Chadron searched the floor for her unfinished sock.
"What was that flashed a-past the winder like a streak a minute ago?" Banjo inquired.
"Flashed by the window?" Nola repeated, puzzled.
Frances laughed, the two girls stopping in the door, merriment gleaming from their young faces like rays from iridescent gems.
"Why, that was Nola," Frances told him, curious to learn what the sentimental eyes of the little musician foretold.
"I thought it was a star from the sky," said Banjo, sighing softly, like a falling leaf.
As they waited at the gate to welcome the guests, who were cantering up with a curtain of dust behind them, they laughed over Banjo's compliment.
"I knew there was something behind those eyes," said Frances.
"No telling how long he's been saving it for a chance to work it off on somebody," Nola said. "He got it out of a book—the Mexicans all have them, full of brindies, what we call toasts, and silly soft compliments like that."
"I've seen them, little red books that they give for premiums with the Mexican papers down in Texas," Frances nodded, "but Banjo didn't get that out of a book—it was spontaneous."
"I must write it down, and compare it with the next time he gets it off."
"Give him credit for the way he delivered it, no matter where he got it," Frances laughed. "Many a more sophisticated man than your desert troubadour would have broken his neck over that. He's in love with you, Nola—didn't you hear him sigh?"
"Oh, he has been ever since I was old enough to take notice of it," returned Nola, lightly.
"Oh, my luv's like a falling star," paraphrased Frances.
"Not much!" Nola denied, more than half serious. "Venus is ascendant; you keep your eye on her and see."
THE MAN IN THE PLAID
There was no mistaking the assiduity with which Major King waited upon Nola Chadron that night at the ball, any more than there was a chance for doubt of that lively little lady's identity. He sought her at the first, and hung by her side through many dances, and promenaded her in the garden walks where Japanese lanterns glimmered dimly in the soft September night, with all the close attention of a farrier cooling a valuable horse.
Perhaps it was punishment—or meant to be—for the insubordination of Frances Landcraft in speaking to the outlawed Alan Macdonald on last beef day. If so, it was systematically and faithfully administered.
Nola was dressed like a cowgirl. Not that there were any cowgirls in that part of the country, or anywhere else, who dressed that way, except at the Pioneer Week celebration at Cheyenne, and in the romantic dramas of the West. But she was so attired, perhaps for the advantage the short skirt gave her handsome ankles—and something in silk stockings which approached them in tapering grace.
She was improving her hour, whether out of exuberant mischief or in deadly earnest the ladies from the post were puzzled to understand, and if headway toward the already pledged heart of Major King was any indication of it, her star was indeed ascendant.
Frances Landcraft appeared at the ball as an Arabian lady, meaning in her own interpretation of the masking to stand as a representation of the "Thou," who is endearingly and importantly capitalized in the verses of the ancient singer made famous by Irish-English Fitzgerald. Her disguise was sufficient, only that her hair was so richly assertive. There was not any like it in the cattle country; very little like it anywhere. It was a telltale, precious possession, and Major King never could have made good a plea of hidden identity against it in this world.
Frances had consolation enough for his alienation and absence from her side if numbers could compensate for the withdrawal of the fealty of one. She distributed her favors with such judicial fairness that the tongue of gossip could not find a breach. At least until the tall Scotsman appeared, with his defiant red hair and a feather in his bonnet, his plaid fastened across his shoulder with a golden clasp.
Nobody knew when he arrived, or whence. He spoke to none as he walked in grave stateliness among the merry groups, acknowledging bold challenges and gay banterings only with a bow. The ladies from the post had their guesses as to who he might be, and laid cunning little traps to provoke him into betrayal through his voice. As cunningly he evaded
them, with unsmiling courtesy, his steady gray eyes only seeming to laugh at them behind his green mask.
Frances had finished a dance with a Robin Hood—the slender one in billiard-cloth green—there being no fewer than four of them, variously rounded, diversely clad, when the Scot approached her where she stood with her gallant near the musicians' brake of palms.
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and Thou Beside me singing in the wilderness—
said the tall Highlandman, bending over her shoulder, his words low in her ear. "Only I could be happy without the wine," he added, as she faced him in quick surprise.
"Your penetration deserves a reward—you are the first to guess it," said she.
"Three dances, no less," said he, like a usurer demanding his toll.
He offered his arm, and straightway bore her off from the astonished Robin Hood, who stood staring after them, believing, perhaps, that he was the victim of some prearranged plan.
The spirit of his free ancestors seemed to be in the lithe, tall Highlander's feet. There was no dancer equal to him in that room. A thistle on the wind was not lighter, nor a wheeling swallow more graceful in its flight.
Many others stopped their dancing to watch that pair; whisperings ran round like electrical conjectures. Nola steered Major King near the whirling couple, and even tried to maneuver a collision, which failed.
"Who is that dancing with Frances Landcraft?" she breathed in the major's ear.
"I didn't know it was Miss Landcraft," he replied, although he knew it very well, and resolved to find out who the Scotsman was, speedily and completely.
"My enchanted hour will soon pass," said the Scot, when that dance was done, "and I have been looking the world over for you."
"Dancing all the way?" she asked him lightly.
"Far from it," he answered, his voice still muffled and low.
They were standing withdrawn a little from the press in the room after their second dance, when Major King came by. The major was a cavalier in drooping hat, with white satin cape, and sword by his side, and well enough known to all his friends in spite of the little spat of mustache and beard. As the major passed he jostled the Scot with his shoulder with a rudeness openly intentional.
The major turned, and spoke an apology. Frances felt the Highlander's muscles swell suddenly where her hand lay on his arm, but whatever had sprung into his mind he repressed, and acknowledged the major's apology with a lofty nod.
The music for another dance was beginning, and couples were whirling out upon the floor.
"I don't care to dance again just now, delightfully as you carry a clumsy one like me through—"
"A self-disparagement, even, can't stand unchallenged," he interrupted.
"Mr. Macdonald," she whispered, "your wig is awry."
They were near the door opening to the illumined garden, with its late roses, now at their best, and hydrangea clumps plumed in foggy bloom. They stepped out of the swirl of the dance like particles thrown from a wheel, not missed that moment even by those interested in keeping them in sight.
"You knew me!" said he, triumphantly glad, as they entered the garden's comparative gloom.
"At the first word," said she.
"I came here in the hope that you would know me, and you alone—I came with my heart full of that hope, and you knew me at the first word!"
There was not so much marvel as satisfaction, even pride for her penetration, in it.
"Somebody else may have recognized you, too—that man who brushed against you—"
"He's one of your officers."
"I know—Major King. Do you know him?"
"No, and he doesn't know me. He can have no interest in me at all."
"Very well; set your beautiful red wig straight and then tell me why you wanted to come here among your enemies. It seems to me a hardy challenge, a most unnecessary risk."
"No risk is unnecessary that brings me to you," he said, his voice trembling in earnestness. "I dared to come because I hoped to meet you on equal ground."
"You're a bold man—in more ways than one." She shook her head as in rebuke of his temerity.
"But you don't believe I'm a thief," said he, conclusively.
"No; I have made public denial of it." She laughed lightly, but a little nervously, an uneasiness over her that she could not define.
"An angel has risen to plead for Alan Macdonald, then!"
"Why should you need anybody to plead for you if there's no truth in their charges? What is a man like you doing in this wild place, wasting his life in a land where he isn't wanted?"
They had turned into a path that branched beyond the lanterns. The white gravel from the river bars with which it was paved glimmered among the shadowy shrubs. Macdonald unclasped his plaid from his shoulders and transferred it to hers. She drew it round her, wrapping her arms in it like a squaw, for the wind was coming chill from the mountains now.
"It is soon said," he answered, quite willingly. "I am not hiding under any other man's name—the one they call me by here is my own. I was a 'son of a family,' as they say in Mexico, and looked for distinction, if not glory, in the diplomatic service. Four years I grubbed, an under secretary in the legation at Mexico City, then served three more as consul at Valparaiso. An engineer who helped put the railroad through this country told me about it down there when the rust of my inactive life was beginning to canker my body and brain. I threw up my chance for diplomatic distinction and came off up here looking for life and adventure, and maybe a copper mine. I didn't find the mine, but I've had some fun with the other two. Sometimes I'd like to lose the adventure part of it now—it gets tiresome to be hunted, after a while."
"What else?" she asked, after a little, seeing that he walked slowly, his head up, his eyes far away on the purple distances of the night, as if he read a dream.
"I settled in this valley quite innocently, as others have done, before and after me, not knowing conditions. You've heard it said that I'm a rustler—"
"King of the rustlers," she corrected.
"Yes, even that. But I am not a rustler. Everybody up here is a rustler, Miss Landcraft, who doesn't belong to, or work for, the Drovers' Association. They can't oust us by merely charging us with homesteading government land, for that hasn't been made a statutory crime yet. They have to make some sort of a charge against us to give the color of justification to the crimes they practice on us, and rustler is the worst one in the cattlemen's dictionary. It stands ahead of murder and arson in this country. I'm not saying there are no rustlers around the edges of these big ranches, for there are some. But if there are any among the settlers up our way we don't know it—and I think we'd pretty soon find out."
They turned and walked back toward the house.
"I don't see why you should trouble about it; this plainly isn't your place," she said.
"First, I refused to be driven out by Chadron and the rest because the thing got on my mettle. I knew that I was right, and that they were simply stealing the public domain. Then, as I hung on, it became apparent that there was a man's work cut out for somebody up here. I've taken the ready-made job."
"Tell me about it."
"There's a monstrous injustice being practiced, systematically and cruelly, against thousands of homeless people who come to this country in innocent hope every year. They come here believing it's the great big open-handed West they've heard so much about, carrying everything with them that they own. They cut the strings that hold them to the things they know when they face this way, and when they try to settle on the land that is their inheritance, this copper-bottomed combination of stockmen drives them out. If they don't go, they shoot them. You've heard of it."
"Not just that way," said she, thoughtfully.
"No, they never shoot anybody but a rustler, the way the world hears of it," said he, in resentment. "But they'll hear another story on the outside one of these days. I'm in this fight up to the eyes to break the back of this infernal combination that's choking this state to death. It's the first time in my life that I ever laid my hand to anything for anybody but myself, and I'm going to see it through to daylight."
"But there must be millions behind the cattlemen, Mr. Macdonald."
"There are. It seems just about hopeless that a handful of ragged homesteaders ever can make a stand against them. But they're usurping the public domain, and they'll overreach themselves one of these days. Chadron has title to this homestead, but that's every inch of land that he's got a legal right over. In spite of that, he lays the claim of ownership to the land fifteen miles north of here, where I've nested. He's been telling me for more than two years that I must clear out."
"You could give it up, and go back to your work among men, where it would count," she said.
"There are things here that count. I couldn't put a state on the map—an industrial and progressive one, I mean—back home in Washington, or sitting with my feet on the desk in some sleepy consulate. And I'm going to put this state on the map where it belongs. That's the job that's cut out for me here, Miss Landcraft."
He said it without boast, but with such a stubborn note of determination that she felt something lift within her, raising her to the plane of his aspirations. She knew that Alan Macdonald was right about it, although the thing that he would do was still dim in her perception.
"Even then, I don't see what a ranch away off up here from anywhere ever will be worth to you, especially when the post is abandoned. You know the department is going to give it up?"
"And then you—" he began in consternation, checking himself to add, slowly, "no, I didn't know that."
"Perhaps in a year."
"It can't make much difference in the value of land up this valley, though," he mused. "When the railroad comes on through—and that will be as soon as we break the strangle hold of Chadron and men like him—this country will develop overnight. There's petroleum under the land up where I am, lying shallow, too. That will be worth something then."
The music of an old-style dance was being played. Now the piping cowboy voice of some range cavalier rose, calling the figures. The two in the garden path turned with one accord and faced away from the bright windows again.
"They'll be unmasking at midnight?" he asked.
"I'm afraid I can't go in again, then. The hour of my enchantment is nearly at its end."
"You shouldn't have come," she chided, yet not in severity, rather in subdued admiration for his reckless bravery. "Suppose they—"
"Mac! O Mac!" called a cautious, low voice from a hydrangea bush close at hand.
"Who's there?" demanded Macdonald, springing forward.
"They're onto you, Mac," answered the voice from the shrub, "they're goin' to do you hurt. They're lookin' for you now!"
There was a little rustling in the leaves as the unseen friend moved away. The voice was the voice of Banjo Gibson, but not even the shadow of the messenger had been seen.
"You should have gone before—hurry!" she whispered in alarm.
"Never mind. It was a risk, and I took it, and I'd take it again tomorrow. It gave me these minutes with you, it was worth—"
"You must go! Where's your horse?"
"Down by the river in the willows. I can get to him, all right."
"They may come any minute, they—"
"No, they're dancing yet. I expected they'd find me out; they know me too well. I'll get a start of them, before they even know I'm gone."
"They may be waiting farther on—why don't you go—go! There—listen!
"They're saddling," he whispered, as low sounds of haste came from the barnyard corral.
"Go—quick!" she urged, flinging his plaid across his arm.
"I'm going—in one moment more. Miss Landcraft, I'll ride away from you tonight perhaps never to see you again, and if I speak impetuously before I leave you, forgive me before you hear the words—they'll not hurt you—I don't believe they'll shame you."
"Don't say anything more, Mr. Macdonald—even this delay may cost your life!"
"They'll kill me if they can; they've tried it more than once. I never know when I ride away whether I'll ever return. It isn't a new experience, just a little graver than usual—only that. I came here tonight because I—I came to—in the hope—" he stammered, putting out his hands as if supplicating her to understand, his plaid falling to the ground.
"Go!" she whispered, her hand on his arm in appeal, standing near him, dangerously near.
"I've got a right to love you—I've got a right!" he said, the torrent of his passion leaping all curbing obstacles of delicacy, confusion, fear. He flung the words from him in wild vehemence, as if they eased a pang.
"No—no, you have no right! you—"
"I'll leave you in a minute, Frances, without the expectation of ever seeing you again—only with the hope. It's mine to love you, mine to have you if I come through this night. If you're pledged to another man it can't be because you love him, and I'll tear the right away from him—if I come through this night!"
He spoke rapidly, bending so near that his breath moved the hair on her temple. She stood with arms half lifted, her hands clenched, her breath laboring in her bosom. She did not know that love—she had not known that love—could spring up that way, and rage like a flame before a wind.
"If you're pledged to another man, then I'll defy him, man to man—I do defy him, I challenge him!"
As he spoke he stooped, suddenly, like a wind-bent flame, clasped her, kissed her, held her enfolded in his arms one moment against his breast. He released her then, and stepped back, standing tall and silent, as if he waited for her blast of scorn. It did not come. She was standing with hands pressed to her face, as if to cover some shame or sorrow, or ease the throbbing of a soul-deep pain.
The sound of men and horses came from the corral. He stood, waiting for judgment.
"Go now," she said, in a sad, small voice.
"Give me a token to carry away, to tell me I have not broken my golden hope," he said.
"No, I'll give you nothing!" she declared, with the sharpness of one wronged, and helpless of redress. "You have taken too much—you have taken—"
"What?" he asked, as if he exulted in what he heard, his blood singing in his ears.
"Oh, go—go!" she moaned, stripping off one long white glove and throwing it to him.
He caught it, and pressed it to his lips; then snatching off his bonnet, hid it there, and bent among the shrubbery and was gone, as swiftly and silently as a wolf. Frances flew to the house and up the stairs to her room. There she threw up the window and sat panting in it, straining, listening, for sounds from the river road.
From below the voices of the revelers came, and the laughter over the secrets half-guessed before masks were snatched away around the banquet table. There was a dash of galloping hoofs from the corral, the clatter of the closing gate. The sound grew dimmer, was lost, in the sand of the hoof-cut trail.
After a little, a shot! two! a silence; three! and one as if in reply. Frances slipped to her knees beside the open window, a sob as bitter as the pang of death rising from her breast. She prayed that Alan Macdonald might ride fast, and that the vindictive hands of his enemies might be unsteady that night by the gray riverside.
IF HE WAS A GENTLEMAN
"Don't you think we'd better drop it now, Frances, and be good?"
Major King reined his horse near hers as he spoke, and laid his hand on the pommel of her saddle as if he expected to meet other fingers there.
"You puzzle me, Major King," she returned, not willing to understand.
They were bringing up the rear of the tired procession which was returning to the post from the ball. Already the east was quickening. The stars near the horizon were growing pale; the morning wind was moving, with a warmth in it from the low places, like a tide toward the mountains.
"Oh, I mean this play acting of estrangement," said he, impatiently. "Let's forget it—it doesn't carry naturally with either you or me."
"Why, Major King!" Her voice was lively with mild surprise; she was looking at him as if for verification of his words. Then, slowly: "I hadn't thought of any estrangement, I hadn't intended to bring you to task for one flirtatious night. Be sure, sir, if it has given you pleasure, it has brought me no pain."
"You began it," said he, petulantly. It is almost unbelievable how boyishly silly a full-grown man can be.
"I began it, Major King? It's too early in the morning for a joke!"
"You were wilful and contrary; you would speak to the fellow that day."
"Never mind it, though. Wilfulness doesn't become either of us, Frances. I've tried my turn at it tonight, and it has left me cold."
"Poor man!" said she, in low voice, like a sigh. Perhaps it was not all for Major King; perhaps not all assumed.
"Let's not quarrel, Frances."
"Not now, I'm too tired for a real good one. Leave it for tomorrow."
He rode on in silence, not sure, maybe, how much of it she meant. Covertly she looked at him now and then, thinking better of him for his ingenuous confession of failure to warm himself at little Nola Chadron's heart-flame. She extended her hand.
"Forgive me, Major King," she said, very softly, not far removed, indeed, from tenderness.
For a little while Major King left his horse to keep the road its own way, his cavalry hands quite regardless of manuals, regulations, and military airs. Both of them were enfolding her one. He might have held it until they reached the post, but that she drew it away.
There were some qualms of uneasiness in her breast that hour, some upbraidings of conscience for treason to Major King, of whom she had been girlishly fond, girlishly proud, womanly selfish. That quick, wild scene in the garden was not to be put away for all those arraignments of her honest heart, although it seemed impossible, recalled there in the thin hours of that long and eventful night, like something remembered of another, not of herself.
Her cheeks grew hot, her heart leaped again, at the recollection of that strong man's wild, bold words, his defiant kiss upon her lips. She had yielded them in the recklessness of that moment, in the force of his all-carrying demand, when she might have denied them, or sped away from him, as innocence is believed to know from instinct when to fly from a destructive lure.
Closing her eyes against the gray-creeping morning, she saw him again, standing that moment with her glove to his lips; saw him bend and speed away, the cunning of his hunted ancestors in his swift feet and self-eliminating form. A wild fear struck her, a cold dread fell like ashes into her heart, as she wondered how well he had ridden that night, and how far.
Perhaps he was lying in his blood that hour, never to come back to her again. Yet, why should it matter so much to her? Only that it was a gallant life gone out, whatever its faults had been; only the interest that she might have in any man who had danced with her, and told her his story, and spoken of his designs. So she said, confessing with the same breath that it was a poor, self-deluding lie.
Back again in her home at the post, the day awake around her, reveille sounding in the barracks, she turned the key in her door as if to shut the secret in with her, and bent beneath the strain of her long suspense. She no longer tried to conceal, or to deny to her own heart, the love she bore that man, which had come so suddenly, and so fiercely sweet.
No longer past than the evening before her heart had ached with jealous pain over the little triumph that Nola Chadron had thought she was making of Major King. Now Nola might have Major King, and all the world beside that her little head might covet. There was no reservation in the surrender that she made of him in her conscience, no regret.
She reproached herself for it in one breath, and glowed with a strange new gladness the next, clasping the great secret fearfully in her breast, in the world-old delusion that she had come into possession of a treasure uniquely and singularly her own. One thing she understood plainly now; she never had loved Major King. What a revolution it was to overturn a life's plans thus in a single night! thought she.
How easily we are astounded by the eruptions in our own affairs, and how disciplined in the end to find that the foundations of the world have withstood the shock!
Chadron himself had not gone out after Macdonald. He had been merry among his guests long after the shots had sounded up the river. Frances believed that the old man had put the matter into the hands of his cowboys and ranch foreman, having no sons, no near male relatives of his own in that place. She did not know how many had gone in pursuit of Macdonald, but several horses were in the party which rode out of the gate. None had returned, she was certain, at the time the party dispersed. The chase must have led them far.
There was no way of knowing what the result of that race had been. If he had escaped, Frances believed that he would let her know in some way; if he had fallen, she knew that the news of his death, important as it would be to Chadron, would fly as if it had wings. There was nothing to do but wait, and in any event hide away that warm sweet thing that had unfolded in beautiful florescence in her soul.
She told herself that he must have escaped, or the pursuers would have returned long before the party from the post left the Chadron house. He had led them a long ride in his daring way, and doubtless was laughing at them now in his own house, among his friends. She wondered what his surroundings were, and what his life was like on that ranch for which he risked it. In the midst of this speculation she fell asleep, and lay wearily in dreamless repose for many hours.
Sleep is a marvelous clarifier of the mind. It is like the saleratus which the pioneers used to cast into their barrels of Missouri River water, to precipitate the silt and make it clear. Frances rose out of her sleep with readjusted reasoning; in fear, and in doubt.
She was shocked by the surrender that she had made to that unknown man. Perhaps he was nothing more than a thief, as charged, and this story fixing his identification had been only a fabrication. An honest man would have had no necessity for such haste, such wild insistence of his right to love her. It seemed, in the light of due reflection, the rude way of an outlawed hand.
Then there came the soft pleading of something deeper to answer for Alan Macdonald, and to justify his rash deed. He had risked life to see her and set himself right in her eyes, and he had doubled the risk in standing there in the garden, defiantly proud, unbent, and unrepentant, refusing to leave her without some favor to carry away.
There was only a sigh to answer it, after all; only a hope that time would bring her neither shame nor regret for that romantic passage in the dusky garden path. That she had neither shame nor regret in that hour was her sweetest consolation. More, she was comfortable in the security that the secret of that swift interlude was her own. Honest man or thief, Alan Macdonald was not the man to speak of that.
Frances was surprised to find that she had slept into the middle of the afternoon. Major King had called an hour ago, with inquiries, the maid reported. There! that must be the major's ring again—she hoped she might know it by this time, indeed. In case it was the major, would miss—
Yes; miss would see him. Ask him to wait. The maid's ear was true; it was the major's ring. She came bounding upstairs to report on it, her breath short, her eyes big.
"Oh, miss! I think something must 'a' happened to him, he looks all shook!" she said.
"Nonsense!" said Frances, a little flutter of apprehension, indefinable, cold, passing through her nerves in spite of her bearing and calm face.
Major King had remained standing, waiting her. He was handsome and trim in his uniform, dark-eyed, healthy-skinned, full of the vigor of his young manhood. The major's face was pale, his carriage stiff and severe. He appeared as if something might have happened to him, indeed, or to somebody in whom he was deeply concerned.
Frances knew that her face was a picture of the worriment and straining of her past night, for it was a treacherous mirror of her soul. She smiled as she made a little pause in the reception-room door. Major King bowed, with formal, almost official, dignity. His hand was in the bosom of his coat, and he drew it forth with something white in it as she approached.
"I'm dreadfully indolent to belong to a soldiering family, Major King," she said, offering her hand in greeting.
"Permit me," said he, placing the folded white thing in her outstretched fingers.
"What is it? Not—it isn't—" she stammered, something deeper than surprise, than foreboding, in her eyes and colorless cheeks.
"Unmistakably yours," he said; "your name is stamped in it."
"It must be," she owned, her spirits sinking low, her breath weak between her lips. "Thank you, Major King."
The glove was soiled with earth-marks; it was wrinkled and drawn, as if it had come back to her through conflict and tragedy. She rolled it deliberately, in a compact little wad, her fingers as cold as her hope for the life of the man who had borne it away. She knew that Major King was waiting for a word; she was conscious of his stern eyes upon her face. But she did not speak. As far as Major King's part in it went, the matter was at an end.
"Miss Landcraft, I am waiting."
Major King spoke with imperious suggestion. She started, and looked toward him quickly, a question in her eyes.
"I sha'n't keep you then," she returned, her words little more than a whisper.
"Don't try to read a misunderstanding into my words," said he, his voice shaking. Then he seemed to break his stiff, controlled pose as if it had been a coating of ice, and expand into a trembling, white-hot man in a moment. "God's name, girl! Say something, say something! You know where that glove was found?"
"No; and I shall not ask you, Major King."
"But I demand of you to know how it came in that man's possession! Tell me that—tell me!"
He stood before her, very near to her. His hands were shaking, his eyes gleaming with fury.
"I might ask you with as much reason how it came in yours," she told him, resentful of his angry demand.
"A messenger arrived with it an hour ago."
"For you, Major King?"
"For me, certainly."
She had no need to ask him whence the messenger came. She could see the horsemen returning to the ranchhouse by the river in the gray morning light, in the triumph of their successful hunt. Alan Macdonald had fallen. It had been Nola's hand that had dispatched this evidence of what she could but guess to be the disloyalty of Frances to her betrothed. If Nola had hoped to make a case with the major, Frances felt she had succeeded better than she knew.
"Then there is nothing more to be said, Major King," said she, after a little wait.
"There is much more," he insisted. "Tell me that he snatched the glove from you, tell me that you lost it—tell me anything, and I'll believe you—but tell me something!"
"There is nothing to tell you," said she, resentful of the meddling of Nola Chadron, which his own light conduct with her had in a manner justified.
"Then I can only imagine the truth," he told her, bitterly. "But surely you didn't give him the glove, surely you cannot love that wolf of the range, that cattle thief, that murderer!"
"You have no right to ask me that," she said, flashing with resentment.
"I have a right to ask you that, to ask you more; not only to ask, but to demand. And you must answer. You forget that you are my affianced wife."
"But you are not my confessor, for all that."
"God's name!" groaned King, his teeth set, his eyes staring as if he had gone mad. "Will you shame us both? Do you forget you are my affianced wife?"
"That is ended—you are free!"
"Frances!" he cried, sharply, as in despair of one sinking, whom he was powerless to save.
"It is at an end between us, Major King. My 'necessity' of explaining everything, or anything, to you is wiped away, your responsibility for my acts relieved. Lift your head, sir. You need not blush before the world for me!"
Sweat was springing on the major's forehead; he drew his breath through open lips.
"I refuse to humor your caprice—you are irresponsible, you don't know what you are doing," he declared. "You are forcing the issue to this point, Frances, I haven't demanded this."
"You have demanded too much. You may go now, Major King."
"It's only the infatuation of a moment. You can't care for a man like that, Frances," he argued, shaken out of his passion by her determined stand.
"This is not a matter for discussion between you and me, sir."
Major King bowed his head as if the rebuke had crushed him. She stood aside to let him pass. When he reached the door she turned to him. He paused, expectantly, hopefully, as if he felt that a reconciliation was dawning.
"If it hadn't been for you they wouldn't have discovered him last night," she charged. "You betrayed him to his enemies. Can you tell me, then—will you tell me—is Alan Macdonald—dead?"
Major King stood, his stern eyes on the glove, unrolled again, now dangling in her hand.
"If he was a gentleman, as you said of him once, then he is dead," said he.
He turned and left her. She did not look after him, but stood with the soiled glove spread in her hands, gazing upon it in sad tenderness.
A BOLD CIVILIAN
Colonel Landcraft was a slight man, and short of stature for a soldierly figure when out of the saddle. His gray hair was thinning in front, and his sharp querulous face was seamed in frowning pattern about the eyes. His forehead was fashioned on an intention of massiveness out of keeping with his tapering face, which ran out in a disappointing chin, and under the shadow of that projecting brow his cold blue eyes seemed as unfriendly as a winter sky.
Early in his soldiering days the colonel had felt the want of inches and pounds, a shortage which he tried to overcome by carrying himself pulled up stiffly, giving him a strutting effect that had fastened upon him and become inseparable from his mien. This air of superior brusqueness was sharpened by the small fierceness of his visage, in which his large iron-gray mustache branched like horns.
Smallness of stature, disappointment in his ambition for preferment, and a natural narrowness of soul, had turned Colonel Landcraft into a military martinet of the most pronounced character. He was the grandfather of colonels in the service, rank won in the old Indian days. That he was not a brigadier-general was a circumstance puzzling only to himself. He was a man of small bickerings, exactions, forms. He fussed with civilians as a regular thing when in command of posts within the precincts of civilization, and to serve under him, as officer or man, was a chafing and galling experience.
If ever there was an unpopular man in the service, then that man was Colonel John Hancock Landcraft, direct descendant—he could figure it out as straight as a bayonet—of the heavy-handed signer himself. His years and his empty desires bore heavily on the colonel. The trespass of time he resented; the barrenness of his hope he grieved.
There he was in those Septembral days, galloping along toward the age limit and retirement. Within a few weeks he would be subject to call before the retiring board any day, and there was nothing in his short-remaining time of service to shore up longer the hope of advancement in rank as compensatory honor in his retirement. He was a testy little old man, charged for instant explosion, and it was generally understood by everybody but the colonel himself that the department had sent him off to Fort Shakie to get him out of the way.
On the afternoon of the day following Nola Chadron's ball, when Major King returned to Frances the glove that Alan Macdonald had carried away from the garden, Colonel Landcraft was a passenger on the mail stage from Meander to the post. The colonel had been on official business to the army post at Cheyenne. Instead of telegraphing to his own post the intelligence of his return, and calling for a proper equipage to meet him at the railroad end, he had chosen to come back in this secret and unexpected way.
That was true to the colonel's manner. Perhaps he hoped to catch somebody overstepping the line of decorum, regulations, forms, either in the conduct of the post's business or his own household. For the colonel was as much a tyrant in one place as the other. So he eliminated himself, wrapped to the bushy eyebrows in his greatcoat, for there was a chilliness in the afternoon, and clouds were driving over the sun.
His austerity silenced the talkative driver, and when the stage reached the hotel the colonel parted from him without a word and clicked away briskly on his military heels—built up to give him stature—to see what he might surprise out of joint at the post.
Perhaps it was a shock to his valuation of his own indispensability to find everything in proper form at the post. The sentry paced before the flagstaff, decorum prevailed. There was not one small particular loose to give him ground for flying at the culpable person and raking him with his blistering fire.
Colonel Landcraft turned into his own house with a countenance somewhat fallen as a consequence of this discovery. It seemed to bear home to him the fact that the United States Army would get along very neatly and placidly without him.
The colonel occupied one wing of his sprawling, commodious, and somewhat impressive house as official headquarters. This room was full of stiff bookcases, letter files, severe chairs. The colonel's desk stood near the fireplace in a strong light, with nothing ever unfinished left upon it. It was one of the colonel's greatest satisfactions in life that he always was ready to snap down the cover of that desk at a moment's notice and march away upon a campaign to the world's end—and his own—leaving everything clear behind him.
A private walk led up to a private door in the colonel's quarters, where a private in uniform, with a rifle on his shoulder, made a formal parade when the colonel was within, and accessible to the military world for the transaction of business. This sentinel was not on duty now, the return of the colonel being unlooked-for, and nobody was the wiser in that household when the master of it let himself into the room with his key.