THE TRAIL HORDE
CHARLES ALDEN SELTZER
Author of "The Ranchman," "'Firebrand' Trevison," "The Range Boss," "The Vengeance of Jefferson Gawne," "The Boss of the Lazy Y," Etc.
Frontispiece by P. V. E. Ivory
Chicago A.C. McClurg & Co. 1920 Copyright A. C. McClurg & Co. 1920 Published September, 1920 Copyrighted in Great Britain M. A. Donohue & Co., Printers and Binders, Chicago
CHAPTER PAGE I Concerning Morals 1 II Driving a Bargain 11 III A Woman's Eyes 19 IV Rebellion 24 V A Man's Word 40 VI The Invisible Power 52 VII The Coalition 57 VIII A Woman's Mercy 64 IX The Arm of Power 80 X The Second Obstacle 99 XI The Long Trail 109 XII The Night Wind's Mystery 114 XIII The Invisible Menace 120 XIV Lawler's "Nerve" 127 XV Concerning an Outlaw 142 XVI A "Norther" 148 XVII The Line Cabin 158 XVIII Storm-Driven 165 XIX Death at a Door 172 XX The "Killing" 183 XXI Chance—and a Man 186 XXII The White Waste 191 XXIII A Woman's Wiles 196 XXIV Della's Handkerchief 208 XXV In Which a Man Plots 215 XXVI A Menace Appears 225 XXVII Evidence 229 XXVIII The Trail Horde 234 XXIX Antrim Strikes 246 XXX A Woman Lies 253 XXXI "Jail's Empty, Kane!" 257 XXXII Red King Runs 263 XXXIII The Fight at the Cabin 270 XXXIV "Good Old Shorty!" 283 XXXV Haunting Memories 288 XXXVI A Man Meditates Vengeance 298 XXXVII The Trap 303 XXXVIII The Governor's Guns 310 XXXIX Slade's Prisoner 314 XL Primitive Instincts 318 XLI The Clean-up 323 XLII Going East 331 XLIII The Majesty of Peace 341
THE TRAIL HORDE
* * * * *
There were fifty thousand acres within view of the ranchhouse—virgin grass land dotted with sage, running over a wide level, into little hills, and so on to an upland whose rise was so gradual that it could be seen only from a distance, best from the gallery of the ranchhouse.
The first tang of autumn was in the sage-scented breeze that swept the county, and the tawny valley, basking in the warm sunlight that came down from a cloudless sky, showed its rugged beauty to advantage.
Kane Lawler paused at the edge of the gallery and filled his lungs from the sage-laden breeze, and then wheeled to face his mother.
She smiled at him.
"Have you seen Ruth Hamlin lately, Kane?"
Lawler's lips opened, then closed again, tightly. And by that token Mrs. Lawler knew that something Kane had been on the point of saying never would be said. For she knew her son as no other person in the country knew him.
Kane Lawler was big. From the broad shoulders that bulged the gray flannel shirt, down the yellow corduroy trousers that encased his legs to the tops of the boots with their high heels and dull-roweled spurs, Lawler looked what he was, a man who asked no favors of his kind.
Mrs. Lawler had followed him out of the house, and she now stood near him, watching him.
There was in Lawler's lean face as he turned from his mother and peered steadily out into the valley, a hint of volcanic force, of resistless energy held in leash by a contrary power. That power might have been grim humor—for his keen gray eyes were now gleaming with something akin to humor—it might have been cynical tolerance—for his lips were twisted into a curious, mirthless half-smile; it might have been the stern repression that had governed him all his days.
Whatever it was it seemed to be no secret from his mother, for she smiled understandingly, and with pride that must have been visible to anyone who watched her.
Massed in the big valley—at a distance of two or three miles from the big ranchhouse, was a herd of cattle. Circling them were a number of cowboys on horses. In the huge corral that spanned a shallow, narrow river, were other cattle. These were the result of the fall—or beef—round-up. For a month there had been intense activity in the section. Half the cattlemen in the county had participated in the round-up that had centered upon Lawler's range, the Circle L: and the cattle had been herded down in the valley because of its natural advantages.
There the herd had been held while the neighboring cattlemen engaged in the tedious task of "cutting out"—which meant that each cattle owner took from the herd the steers that bore his "brand," with the addition of a proportionate number of unbranded steers, and calves, designated as "mavericks." Then the neighboring outfit had driven their stock home.
"It was a big round-up, Kane," said Mrs. Lawler, watching the herd.
"Eight thousand head," Lawler replied. "We're starting a thousand toward Willets today."
"Have you seen Gary Warden? I mean, have you arranged with Warden to have him take the cattle?"
Lawler smiled. "I had an agreement with Jim Lefingwell. We made it early last spring."
"A written agreement?"
"Shucks—no. I never had a written agreement with Lefingwell. Never had to. Jim's word was all I ever wanted from him—all I ever asked for."
"But perhaps Gary Warden's business methods are different?"
"I talked that over with Lefingwell when he sold out to Warden. Jim said he'd already mentioned our agreement to Warden and that Warden had agreed to carry it out."
"But suppose Warden has changed his mind?"
Lawler spoke seriously. "No man goes back on his word in this country. But from what I've heard of Warden, he's likely to. If he does, we'll drive the stock to Keppler, at Red Rock. Keppler isn't buying for the same concern, but he'll pay what Lefingwell agreed to pay. We'll ship them, don't worry."
"Red Rock means a five hundred mile drive, Kane."
Lawler replied, "You're anticipating, Mother. Warden will take them."
Lawler grinned and stepped off the gallery. A few minutes later he emerged from the stable carrying a saddle, which he flung over one of the top rails of the corral fence. He roped a big, red bay, smooth, with a glossy coat that shone like a flame in the clear white light of the morning sun.
The bay was built on heroic lines. He was tall and rangy, and the spirit of a long line of thoroughbred ancestors was in him. It showed in the clear white of his gleaming, indomitable eyes, in his thin, sensitive nostrils and long, shapely muzzle; in the contour of his head and chest, and in his slender, sinewy legs.
Man and horse were big, capable, strong-willed. They were equipped for life in the grim, wild country that surrounded them. From the slender, powerful limbs of the big bay, to the cartridge-studded belt that encircled the man's middle, with a heavy pistol at the right hip, they seemed to typify the ruggedness of the country, seemed to embody the spirit of the Wild.
Lawler mounted, and the big bay whistled as he pranced across the ranchhouse yard to the big corral where the cattle were confined. Lawler brought the bay to a halt at a corner of the corral fence, where his foreman, Blackburn, who had been breakfasting in the messhouse, advanced to meet him, having seen Lawler step down from the gallery.
Blackburn was of medium height, swarthy, with heavy brows under which were keen, deep-set eyes. His mouth was big, expressive, with a slightly cynical set in repose.
"We're hittin' the trail in about an hour," said Blackburn. "Are you wantin' me to put 'em through, or are we takin' two days to it, as usual?"
"Two days," advised Lawler. "There's no hurry. It's a bad trail in spots, and they'll want to feed. They'll stand the trip on the cars better if they've had plenty of grass."
"Gary Warden is keeping Lefingwell's agreement with you, I reckon?" asked Blackburn. He eyed Lawler intently.
"Of course." Lawler caught the expression of his foreman's eyes, and his brows drew together. He added: "Why do you ask?"
"Just wonderin'," hesitated Blackburn; "just wonderin'. You seen this here man, Warden?"
Lawler had not met Warden; he had not even seen the man from a distance. That was because he had not visited Willets since Warden had bought Lefingwell's ranch and assumed Lefingwell's position as resident buyer for a big eastern live-stock company. Lawler had heard, though, that Warden seemed to be capable enough; that he had entered upon the duties of his position smoothly without appreciable commotion; he had heard that Warden, was quiet and "easy-going," and that as a cattle buyer he seemed to "know his business."
This information had reached Lawler's ears through the medium of neighboring cattle owners, and he was willing to accept it as accurate, though he was not prepared to form an estimate of Warden until he had an opportunity to talk with him personally.
"Well," went on Blackburn; "them that's looked him over don't hesitate to say he don't measure up to Jim Lefingwell's size."
"Jim was a mighty big man—in size and principles," said Lawler.
"Now you're shoutin'! There wasn't no man bigger'n Jim, sideways, edgeways, or up an' down. I reckon any man would have a hard time measurin' up to Jim Lefingwell. Mebbe that's what's wrong with Warden. Folks has got Jim Lefingwell on their minds, an' they're not givin' Warden what's comin' to him, them bein' biased." He squinted at Lawler. "Folks is hintin' that Warden don't own Jim Lefingwell's ranch a-tall; that some eastern guys bought it, an' that Warden's just managin' it. Seems like they's a woman at the Lefingwell's old place, keepin' Warden company. She's eastern, too, they say. Got a old maid with her to keep her company—a chapper-own, they say—which ain't in no ways illuminatin' my think-tank none. Which is a chapper-own?"
"A kind of a moral monitor, Blackburn," grinned Lawler. "Some folks need them. If you're thinking of getting one——"
"Bah!" Blackburn's eyes were vitriolic with disgust. "I sabe what you are hintin' at when you gas of morals—which I'm a heap acquainted with because I ain't got none to speak of. But I'm plumb flabbergasted when you go to connectin' a battleship with anything that's got a whole lot to do with morals. Accordin' to my schoolin', a monitor is a thing which blows the stuffin' out of——"
"A monitor of morals could do that," gravely said Lawler. "In fact, according to the best authorities, there have been many monitors who have blown the stuffing out of the reputations of their charges."
Blackburn gulped. He was puzzled, and his eyes were glazed with the incomprehension which had seized him. Twice again as he watched Lawler's grave face he gulped. And then he eyed Lawler belligerently.
"I reckon them monitors is eastern. I've never seen one galivantin' around these parts."
"They're a lot eastern," assented Lawler. "I've never seen one, but I've read about them in books. And once my mother saw one—she tells me the East raises them by the hundred."
"That accounts for it," declared Blackburn; "anything which comes from the East is likely to be a heap shy on hoss sense."
He now squinted at Lawler, watching him keenly.
"Accordin' to report Joe Hamlin ought to go around draggin' one of them monitors."
Blackburn shrewdly noted the quickening of Lawler's eyes, and the dull red that stole into his face.
"What do you mean, Blackburn?"
"Davies an' Harris hit town ag'in last night; an' comin' back they run plumb into Joe Hamlin. He was in the upper end of the box arroyo. He'd roped an' hog-tied a Circle L cow an' was blottin' our brand out."
"What happened?" Lawler's lips were set in grim lines.
"Nothin'—followin' your orders regardin' the cuss. Davies an' Harris let him go—after warnin' him. Somethin' ought to be done. It ain't addin' a heap to the morals of the outfit for the men to know a man can rustle cattle that promiscuous—an' the boss not battin' an eyewinker. This is the fourth time he's been caught with the goods—to say nothin' of the times he's done it without nobody gittin' wise—an' the boys is beginnin' to ask questions, bein' a heap puzzled because somethin' don't happen to Joe."
Lawler's face was expressionless. Except for the flush in his cheeks he seemed to be unaffected by Blackburn's words. His voice was a trifle cold when he spoke:
"I'll attend to Hamlin. I'll stop at the Two Bar on my way to Willets. By the time you reach town with the cattle I'll have the deal with Warden clinched."
Blackburn nodded, and Lawler wheeled the bay, heading him northward.
As he rode, Lawler's face changed expression. He frowned, and his lips set stiffly.
What he had been almost on the point of telling his mother was that he knew why Ruth Hamlin had refused him. It was pride, nothing less. Lawler suspected that Ruth knew her father was a rustler. In fact, there had been times when he had seen that knowledge lying naked in her eyes when she looked at her parent. Accusation and disgust had been there, but mingling with them was the persistent loyalty that had always governed the girl; the protective instinct, and a hope of reformation.
The pride that Mrs. Lawler had exhibited was not less strong in the girl's heart. By various signs Lawler knew the girl loved him; he knew it as positively as he knew she would not marry him while the stigma of guilt rested upon her parent. And he was convinced that she was ignorant of the fact that Lawler shared her secret. That was why Lawler had permitted Hamlin to escape; it was why he had issued orders to his men to suffer Hamlin's misdeeds without exacting the expiation that custom provided. Lawler did not want Ruth to know that he knew.
He sent the big bay forward at a steady, even pace, and in an hour he had crossed the sweep of upland and was riding a narrow trail that veered gradually from the trail to Willets. The character of the land had changed, and Lawler was now riding over a great level, thickly dotted with bunch grass, with stretches of bars, hard sand, clumps of cactus and greasewood.
He held to the narrow trail. It took him through a section of dead, crumbling lava and rotting rock; through a little stretch of timber, and finally along the bank of a shallow river—the Wolf—which ran after doubling many times, through the Circle L valley.
In time he reached a little grass level that lay close to the river. A small cabin squatted near the center of the clearing, surrounded by several outbuildings in a semi-dilapidated condition, and a corral, in which there were several horses.
Lawler sent Red King straight toward the cabin. When he reached the cabin he swung off and walked toward the door, his lips set in straight lines, his manner decisive.
He had taken only several steps when a voice greeted him, coming from the interior of the cabin—a man's voice, snarling, venomous:
"You come another step, Kane Lawler, an' I'll bore you!"
Lawler halted, facing the door. The door was closed, but a little slide in the upper part of it was open. Through the aperture projected the muzzle of a rifle, and behind the rifle appeared a man's face—dark, bearded, with eyes that gleamed with ferocious malignancy.
DRIVING A BARGAIN
Lawler stiffened. There was no mistaking the deadly threat of the rifle and the man's menacing manner. Lawler's face was pale, but his eyes were unwavering as they looked into those that glared out at him through the aperture in the door.
Guilt and fear were the emotions that had driven Hamlin to this rather hysterical threat. Lawler resisted an impulse to laugh, though he felt a pulse of grim humor shoot through him.
To his knowledge—excepting Hamlin's predilection to rustle cattle—the man was harmless. He never had been known to draw a gun, even in self-defense, and Lawler was convinced that there was not sufficient provocation for him to break one of the rules that had governed him until now. Hamlin might be goaded, or frightened, into using the rifle, but Lawler had no intention of goading or frightening him. In fact, being aware of the reason for Hamlin's belligerence, he had no intention of acquainting the man with the knowledge of what had happened the night before. At least, not at this instant.
Lawler's lips wore a shadowy smile.
"I reckon you don't know me, Hamlin?" he said.
"I know you mighty well, Lawler," snapped Hamlin; "you heard me mention your name!"
"Then you've got a new way of greeting your friends, eh—with a rifle. Well, put it down and open the door. There's some things I want to say to you."
"What about?" asked Hamlin, suspiciously. Overwhelming every other thought in his mind was the conviction that Davies and Harris had apprised Lawler of what had happened the night before, and that Lawler had come to capture him, single-handed.
The wild gleam in Hamlin's eyes began to dull. However, he was still suspicious.
"You seen any of your men this mornin'—Davies or Harris?" he asked.
"Davies and Harris went to town last night. I reckon they didn't get back yet. What's Davies and Harris got to do with me visiting you?"
"Nothin'." There was relief in Hamlin's voice. The muzzle of the rifle wavered; the weapon was withdrawn and the slide closed. Then the door slowly opened, and Hamlin appeared in it, a six-shooter in hand.
"If you're foolin' me, Kane Lawler, I'll sure bore you a-plenty!" he threatened.
"Shucks!" Lawler advanced to the door, ignoring the heavy pistol, which was shoved close to his body as he walked into the cabin, Hamlin retreating before him.
"Hamlin, you're losing whatever sense you had," said Lawler as he halted near the center of the big room. There were three rooms, their doors opening from the one in which Lawler and Hamlin stood.
"Meanin' what?" demanded Hamlin, nervously fingering the six-shooter.
It was clear that Hamlin was impressed with the repressed force that he could see in Lawler; with the slumbering energy that Lawler's lithe, sinewy body suggested; with the man's complete lack of fear and with the cold confidence that swam in his steady eyes.
Hamlin did not know at this minute whether or not he had meant to shoot Lawler. He believed that if Lawler had told him he had come to take him for blotting out the Circle L brand in the arroyo the preceding night he would have killed Lawler. But he was not sure. Something about Lawler made the thought of shooting him seem ridiculous. It would take a lot of provocation for any man to kill Lawler, for something about Lawler seemed to hint that it couldn't be done.
"Meaning that you are old enough to know that you can't keep on rustling my cattle without getting in trouble."
"Ah!" exclaimed Hamlin, his breath hissing through his teeth as he sucked it in with a gasp; "you sneaked on me, damn you!"
He threw the muzzle of the pistol up, his body stiffening, his eyes glittering with the malignance that had been in them when he had been looking out at Lawler through the aperture in the door.
"You know about that deal, an' you've come for me. You tried to fool me, eh—tellin' me that you didn't see Davies an' Harris. Well, damn your hide you ain't goin' to take me; I'll blow you to hell first!"
Lawler's eyes were steady and unblinking as he watched Hamlin; they bored into Hamlin's with a compelling intensity, that brought a conviction of futility into Hamlin's soul. They were cold eyes—cold as icebergs, Hamlin thought as he watched them; but they seemed to flame also, to flame with a fire that was cold as the ice in them.
The terrible power of them, and the promise of volcanic action back in them; the awful confidence that shone in them; the threat compelling Hamlin against his will, deadening his muscles, jumbling his thoughts—brought chaos into the man's brain, and he stood, his mouth agape with wonder over the thing that was happening to him, as Lawler walked steadily to him. He made no resistance as Lawler deliberately wrenched the pistol from his hand and as deliberately walked to a side wall and placed it upon a shelf.
Hamlin stood, nerveless and pallid, for an instant, watching Lawler's movements—until Lawler turned and faced him again. Then he staggered to a chair and dropped into it, lowering his head dejectedly, sitting with his hands folded, completely subjected.
Lawler would hang him, now. Lawler would take him to the Circle L and turn him over to Blackburn and the other men of the outfit. And Blackburn would hang him, for Blackburn had told him he would. Or, if Lawler didn't take him to Blackburn he would take him to the sheriff. He would be hanged then, but he would go to the new prison at the capital, and Ruth would have to stay on here to do the real suffering for his misdeeds.
"You damned fool!" came Lawler's voice into the vacuumlike stillness of the cabin. "You haven't got nerve enough to shoot a coyote!"
Hamlin knew it; he knew, now, at least, that he hadn't had nerve enough to shoot Lawler. He cringed under Lawler's contemptuous tone. And then he became aware that Lawler was speaking again.
"I'm giving you another chance. I'm letting you off, clean. For Ruth's sake.
"Look here, Hamlin!"
Hamlin's chin was caught in an iron grasp and he found himself looking into the terrible eyes. He saw grim pity in the eyes and he shuddered.
"Ruth knows you're stealing cattle. Everybody knows it, now. Who is buying them?"
"Singleton!" Lawler's voice snapped with astonishment. "Dave Singleton, Lefingwell's old range boss?"
Hamlin nodded. And then the grip of Lawler's fingers on his chin relaxed. He heard Lawler step back, but he did not lift his head for a few minutes, during which a strained silence descended upon the room. Then he covertly raised his head, to see Lawler standing with his arms folded over his chest, watching him.
Lawler had not suspected Singleton. Between himself and Singleton there had always been a lack of ordinary cordiality, a constraint closely approaching dislike; but Lawler had never entertained a suspicion that Lefingwell's range boss was dishonest.
Hamlin was a moral weakling, he knew. Everybody in the Wolf River section knew it. Hamlin was lazy and shiftless, seemingly contented to drift along in an aimless way, regardless of what happened to him. There was at Hamlin's feet some of the wealth that other cattlemen of the district were gaining. He had proved on a quarter-section of good grass land amid plenty of water, and yet he chose to steal cattle rather than raise them.
Lawler's pity for the man was stronger than the resentment he felt. Hamlin was Ruth's father, though looking at him as he sat dejectedly in the chair, Lawler found it hard to discern the relationship.
"How long has Singleton been buying cattle from you?"
"About a year. I sold him what stock I had, before—before I got to runnin' my brand on other folks' stock, an' he hinted he wasn't particular whose cattle I got, long as he could get 'em under the market price."
"Does Singleton come here?"
Lawler's quick conclusion was that Ruth must have seen Singleton at the cabin, must have noted that the visits seemed surreptitious. Perhaps she had watched, convincing herself of her father's guilt. Lawler had wondered how she had gained the knowledge she seemed to have, and Singleton's visits must be the explanation.
Hamlin had bowed his head again after a swift glance at Lawler. He stiffened when he felt Lawler at his side again, for there had come into the atmosphere of the cabin a premonitory chill which warned him that Lawler was on the verge of action.
But he was not prepared for what happened.
Lawler's sinewy hands fell on his shoulders. The fingers bit deeply into the flesh, drawing a groan of pain from Hamlin. He was lifted to his feet—off his feet, so that he dangled in the air like a pendulum. He was suspended by the shoulders, Lawler's fingers gripping him like iron hooks; he was shaken until his feet, powerless to retard the movement, were flopping back and forth wildly, and his teeth rattled despite his efforts to clench them. It seemed to him that Lawler would snap his head from his shoulders, so viciously did Lawler shake him. Then suddenly the terrible fingers relaxed, and Hamlin reeled and swayed, dizzy and weak from the violence of movement. He was trying to keep his feet solidly on the floor when he felt Lawler's fingers at his throat.
To his astonishment, the fingers did not sink into the flesh. They touched his throat lightly, and he dazedly met Lawler's eyes, burning, with a passion he never had seen in them before. And Lawler's voice was dry and light, but steady—so steady and cold that Hamlin realized that only the man's complete mastery of himself had kept him from committing murder.
"Hamlin, I ought to kill you. I'm letting you off on one condition—that you break off with Singleton, and that you keep silent about the things we both know. If you confess to Ruth that you've been rustling cattle, or if you tell her—or hint of it—that I know you've been rustling—I'll tear you apart!
"You're like a lot of other damned, weak-kneed polecats. You've got a girl who is good as gold, and you're making a regular hell for her. She's wise to what you've been doing—she suspects you. And from now on you're going to show her that she was wrong—that you're straight and square.
"There's a job for you over at the Circle L—if you want it. I'll throw things in your way; I'll put you on your feet again—give you stock and tools, and pretend I've sold them to you. I'll do anything to keep you square. But if you tell Ruth, I'll kill you as sure as my name is Lawler!"
"I'm agreein'," said Hamlin, thickly. "I ain't wanted to do the things I've been doin'. But things didn't go right, an' Singleton—damn it, Lawler; I never liked the man, an' I don't know why I've been doin' what I have been doin'. But I've wanted to do somethin' for Ruth—so's she could quit teachin' an' live like a lady. I thought if I could get a bunch of coin together that mebbe she'd have——"
"She'd see you dead before she'd touch it," scoffed Lawler.
"Mebbe I'd be better off if I was dead," said Hamlin, glumly.
"You'll die, right enough, if you don't keep your word to me," grimly declared Lawler.
He strode to the door, leaped upon Red King and rode away.
Inside the cabin, Hamlin got to his feet and swayed toward the door, reaching it and looking out, to see Lawler riding rapidly toward Willets.
A WOMAN'S EYES
There had been a day when Willets was but a name, designating a water tank and a railroad siding where panting locomotives, hot and dry from a long run through an arid, sandy desert that stretched westward from the shores of civilization, rested, while begrimed, overalled men adjusted a metal spout which poured refreshing water into gaping reservoirs.
In that day Willets sat in the center of a dead, dry section, swathed in isolation so profound that passengers in the coaches turned to one another with awe in their voices and spoke of God and the insignificance of life.
But there was a small river near the water tank—the headwaters of the Wolf—or there had been no tank. And a prophet of Business, noting certain natural advantages, had influenced the railroad company to build a corral and a station.
From that day Willets became assured of a future. Cattlemen in the Wolf River section began to ship stock from the new station, rather than drive to Red Rock—another shipping point five hundred miles east.
From the first it became evident that Willets would not be a boom town. It grew slowly and steadily until its fame began to trickle through to the outside world—though it was a cattle town in the beginning, and a cattle town it would remain all its days.
Therefore, because of its slow growth, there were old buildings in Willets. The frame station had an ancient appearance. Its roof sagged in the center, its walls were bulging with weakness. But it stood defiantly flaunting its crimson paint above the wooden platform, a hardy pioneer among the moderns.
Business had strayed from the railroad track; it had left the station, the freighthouse, the company corral, and some open sheds, to establish its enterprises one block southward. There, fringing a wide, unpaved street that ran east and west, parallel with the gleaming steel rails, Business reared its citadels.
Willets buildings were not imposing. One-story frames predominated, with here and there a two-storied structure, or a brick aristocrat seeming to call attention to its substantial solidity.
Willets had plenty of space in which to grow, and the location of the buildings on their sites, seemed to indicate that their builders appreciated the fact that there was no need for crowding. Between each building was space, suggestive of the unending plains that surrounded the town. Willets sat, serene in its space and solitude, unhurried, uncramped, sprawling over a stretch of grass level—a dingy, dirty, inglorious Willets, shamed by its fringe of tin cans, empty bottles, and other refuse—and by the clean sweep of sand and sage and grass that stretched to its very doors. For Willets was man-made.
From the second story of a brick building that stood on the southern side of the street, facing the station, Gary Warden could look past the red station into the empty corrals beside the railroad track. Jim Lefingwell, Warden's predecessor, had usually smiled when he saw the corral comfortably filled with steers. But Gary Warden smiled because the corral was empty.
Warden was standing beside a flat-topped desk at one of his office windows. Warden was big, though not massive. He seemed to have the frame of a tall, slender man, and had he stayed slender he might have carried his flesh gracefully. But Warden had lived well, denying himself nothing, and the flesh which had been added had formed in flabby bunches, drooping his shoulders, sagging his jaws, swelling the back of his neck.
And yet Warden was not old; he had told some new-made friends in Willets that he was thirty-five. But he looked older, for a certain blase sophistication that shone from his eyes and sat on the curves of his lips, did much to create the impression of past maturity.
Warden dressed well. He was coatless, but he wore a shirt of some soft, striped material, with a loose, comfortable-looking collar and a neat bow tie. His hair was short, with bristles in the roll of fat at the back of his neck; while at his forehead it was punctiliously parted, and plastered down with precision.
Warden was not alone. At another window, her elbows on the sill, her hands crossed, her chin resting on the knuckles of the upper one, sat a woman.
She was young, slender, lissom. There was grace in every line of her, and witchery in the eyes that watched Warden with a steady gaze. She too, was hatless, seemingly conscious of the beauty of her hair, which was looped and twisted into glistening strands that fell over her temples and the back of her neck.
As she watched Warden, who was smiling at the empty corral, she withdrew her elbows from the window-sill, twisted around, so that she faced Warden, and idly twirled the felt hat that she took from her lap.
"Does something please you, Gary?" she asked with slight, bantering emphasis.
Warden's smile broadened. "Well, I'm not exactly displeased."
"With Willets—and the rest of it?"
"With that corral—over there." He pointed.
"Why, it's empty!"
"Why you are pleased! That is odd. As a buyer, I should think you would be more pleased if the corral were full—had cows in it. That is what you are here for, isn't it?"
"Yes," grinned Warden; "to keep it empty until it is filled with steers at my price."
"Oh, bother!" The woman yawned. "I am glad it is you and not I who is to deal with these clod-hoppers. I should turn sour—or laugh myself to death."
"Getting tired of it already, Della?"
"Dreadfully tired, Gary. If I could see one interesting person, or a good-looking man with whom I could flirt——"
"Don't forget our engagement, Della," warned Warden.
She laughed, shooting a mischievous glance at him. "Oh, it would be harmless, I assure you—mere moral exercise. Do you imagine I could lose my heart to one of these sagebrush denizens?"
"Not you, Della," grinned Warden; "that isn't your style."
The girl yawned again, and got to her feet, smoothing her ruffled skirts. Then she walked to a mirror on a wall near the door, and spent some time placing the felt hat on her head at a precise angle, making certain that the coils of hair under it were arranged in the most effective manner. She tucked a stray wisp into the mass at the nape of her neck, patted the glistening coils so that they bulged a little more—smiling with smooth serenity at the reflection in the glass.
"Well, good-bye, Gary. I left Aunt Hannah at Corwin's store. She'll be afraid I've eloped with you. No," she added, as Warden advanced toward her; "no kisses now. I'll look in again before we leave town."
She opened the door, and as it closed she flashed a smile at Warden. Then he heard her descending the stairs. He watched the closed door for an instant, frowning disappointedly; then he strode again to one of the front windows, grinning as his gaze rested on the empty corral.
Accident or design had placed the schoolhouse at the eastern edge of town. The invisible power which creates the schoolhouse seemingly takes no account of time or place. It comes, unheralded, unsung, and squats in the place where the invisible power has placed it, and instantly becomes as indispensable as the ungainly youth that occupies it.
All youth is not ungainly. Ruth Hamlin was considering the negative proposition as she stood on the little platform in front of the blackboard just before noon, calmly scrutinizing the faces of the score of pupils who composed her "class."
About half of her pupils, she decided, were worthy of the affection she had bestowed upon them. The remainder were ungrateful, incorrigible hoodlums. There had been times when Ruth wondered if the task of teaching was worth while.
A good teacher must not be vindictive; and Ruth was trying her best to keep alive the spark of mercy and compassion that threatened to burn itself out.
Despite her apparent calm—the outward sign of cold self-control—Ruth's face revealed indications of the terrific struggle that was going on within her. Her face was pale, and though her eyes seemed to smile, there was a gleam far back in them that suggested thoughts of force, instant, vicious. Also there was wrath in them—wrath that threatened to break with volcanic fury.
The girl was of medium height, and yet she seemed to be almost tall as she stood on the platform. She was erect, her head was held high. She was slender, with a gracefully rounded figure, but as she stood there, her muscles straining, her chest swelling with the passion she was trying to suppress, she must have appeared Amazonic to the culprits whose crimes had goaded her to thoughts of corporal punishment.
It was not difficult to single out the culprits. There were two, and they sat defiantly in their seats, sneering their contempt of the teacher's wrath, advertising their entire disregard for the restraining influence of rules.
Both were boys. The larger, freckle-faced, with an uptilted nose and belligerent eyes, was fully as tall as Ruth. He was broad and muscular, and it was evident that consideration for his size was one influence that had thus far delayed the punishment he no doubt merited.
It was evident, too, that the culprit suspected this, for as Ruth's hesitation continued he grew bolder and more contemptuous. And now, having divined that Ruth would not attempt to inflict the punishment she meditated, the young man guffawed loudly.
"Shucks," he sneered, winking piratically at his brother-culprit; "she's tryin' to run a whizzer in on us. She ain't goin' to do nuthin'!"
"Jimmy Singleton; you advance to the platform!" Ruth's voice came sharply, quavering with the passion she had been suppressing until now.
She stood rigid until "Jimmy" got out of his seat with elephantine deliberation, and shuffled to the edge of the platform, where he stood, grinning defiantly.
Ruth raised the lid of her desk and took out a formidable willow branch, which she had cut only the day before from a tree that grew beside the Wolf near her cabin, in anticipation of the present incident.
She had known for many days that she would have to punish Jimmy Singleton, for Jimmy had been growing daily less amenable to discipline. But she had hoped that she would not be compelled to punish him—she had escaped that disagreeable task so far.
But there was no alternative, and though she grew deadly white and her legs grew weak as she drew out the willow switch, she advanced on Jimmy, her eyes flaming with desperate resolution.
As she reached Jimmy's side, he lunged toward her. He struck viciously at her with his fist, the blow landing on her shoulder near the neck. It had been aimed at her face, but she had somehow dodged it. The force of the blow brought Jimmy against her, and he seized her around the waist and attempted to throw her. She brought the switch down sharply on Jimmy's legs as they struggled, and the sting of the blow enraged the boy. He deliberately wrenched himself loose; then leaped forward, swinging his arms viciously.
He had not struck the girl fairly, but she was in a daze from the rapid movement, and she was not aware of what was going on around her, centering all her energy in an attempt to keep the boy from striking her face.
But she suddenly became conscious that a big form had loomed close to her; she heard a deep, angry voice saying:
"I'll attend to you—you young pirate!"
And then Jimmy was jerked backward, away from her; and she saw Kane Lawler standing not more than two or three paces from her. His right hand was twisted in Jimmy's collar; and there was an expression of cold rage on his face—despite the smile he gave her when she looked at him—that chilled her.
But she made no objection when Lawler walked to a chair that stood on the platform, dragging the now protesting Jimmy after him by the scruff of the neck. There was something of majestic deliberation in Lawler's movements, she thought, as he seated himself in the chair and placed the struggling Jimmy across his knees.
Ruth had never entertained a bloodthirsty thought, but her passions were very near that point when she saw Lawler's large, capable right hand begin to descend upon Jimmy's anatomy. She gasped at first, at Lawler's temerity; and then she stepped back and watched him, her heart singing with approval.
Lawler's capable right hand descended many times with a force that brought dismal howls from the unlucky culprit—so many times and with such force that the girl began to fear that Jimmy would be fatally injured. Jimmy likewise entertained that fear, for his howls grew more shrill, laden with mingled terror and pain, until the piercing appeal of them sent the other pupils out of their seats and into the open shouting that Jimmy was being "killed."
Then, just when Ruth decided to protest, Lawler swung Jimmy around and placed him upright upon the platform. What Lawler said to Jimmy, Ruth did not hear, so low was his voice. But she heard Jimmy's reply, as did some of the children who still lingered outside the door:
"You've walloped me, damn you; you've walloped me!"
Jimmy ran frenziedly to the door, plainly in fear that he would be "walloped" again if he did not make his escape; and when he reached the door he shrieked through unmanly tears:
"My paw will wallop you; you locoed maverick—you see if he don't!"
Jimmy vanished. There was no doubt in Lawler's mind, nor in Ruth's, that he had gone to relate his trouble to his "paw;" and that "paw" would presently appear to exact the lurid punishment Jimmy desired.
But thoughts of imminent punishment were not in Lawler's mind as he faced Ruth. There was nothing but humorous concern in his eyes and voice.
"Did he hurt you, Ruth?"
"I—I think not," she smiled; "but I have no doubt that he would have thrashed me soundly if you hadn't come when you did. I am sorry it happened, but I just had to discipline him. He was setting a bad example for the other pupils."
"Teaching school isn't the best job in the world, is it?"
"Decidedly not!" She looked quickly at Lawler, for something in his voice hinted of subtlety; and when she saw his eyes agleam with the whimsical humor that was always in them when he spoke of his hope of winning her, she knew that he had attacked her obliquely.
Her cheeks flushed, and she drooped her shining eyes from his, murmuring low:
"But I am going to keep at it for the present, Kane."
"I was hoping—" he began. But he paused when she shook her head.
"Is that what you rode to town for?" she asked.
"That's the big reason," he returned. "The other is that I'm here to sell Gary Warden my cattle."
"I don't like Gary Warden!" she declared.
His eyes twinkled. "I've heard that before—two or three times. By the time I see him I'll be disliking, him, myself."
The class, Ruth now noted, had departed—undoubtedly to follow Jimmy Singleton; or perhaps seizing the opportunity so suddenly presented to play truant. At all events the school was deserted except for themselves.
But Ruth did not seem to mind, nor did Lawler express any regret for the absence of an audience. He grinned widely at Ruth.
"You'll not get them back today, I reckon. If you're riding back home I'd be pleased to——"
"But you have business with Gary Warden!" she reminded him.
"That can wait. Blackburn won't have the herd here until tomorrow."
Her eyes were glowing with pleasure, and the faint flush on her face betrayed her still more. But she looked at him resolutely.
"I shall stay the day out, whether the children come back or not," she said. "And you must not permit me to interfere with business."
It cost her something to tell him that, for the lure of him had seized her long ago—during the first days of their acquaintance, in fact—and she was deliberately refusing the happiness that was offered her—because she could not confess her father's crimes to this man, and because she would not marry him unless he knew.
And not even then, perhaps. For she knew something of Lawler's high ideals, the rugged honesty of him, his straightforwardness and his hatred for the thieves who stole cattle—thieves like her father. She couldn't marry him, feeling that each time he looked at her she must feel that he would be thinking of the misdeeds of her parent. That would be unbearable.
He took a step, and stood beside her, looking down at her gravely. He took one of her hands, she permitting it, lifting her eyes to his as he drew the hand toward him. The hand lay inertly in his left; he covered it with his right and held it thus in a warm, firm grip. Then he met her eyes, his own swimming with a gentleness that made her draw a slow, deep breath of wonder.
This minute had been anticipated by both of them; for many months, when they had stood close together, they had felt the imminence of surrender to the longing that dwelt in both of them.
But the girl resisted, as she had resisted many times. Her breath came rapidly, and the captive hand trembled as she tried to withdraw it.
"No; not now, Kane!" she protested; "not now—please!"
Lawler laughed lowly, and held the hand for an instant longer, while he compelled the girl's eyes to meet his.
"All right," he said; "not now. But the time will come. Something is worrying you, Ruth. But you don't trust me enough to tell me what it is. Some day—when you discover that nothing but your love means anything to me; when you realize that I love you enough to take you in spite of the thing that worries you—you'll tell me. And then we'll forget it."
He stepped back, releasing her hand, for he had heard a commotion outside—Jimmy's voice, high-pitched, carrying a note of savage triumph; and the voices of the other pupils in a shrill murmur, coming closer.
Ruth started, clenched her hands and backed to the desk, where she stood, her eyes wide, her breath coming fast, a picture of apprehension and dismay.
Her big eyes went to Lawler, who grinned faintly at her.
"I reckon Jimmy's coming with his 'paw,'" he said.
A big man, massive, muscular, with heavy shoulders that seemed to droop with the weight of his great, long arms, stepped into the room.
The man's head was big, like the rest of him, and covered with shaggy, tawny hair which seemed to bristle with truculence. His chin was huge, square, and sagging a little, his lips were in a hideous pout; and his eyes, small, black, with heavy brows that made them seem deep-set, were glittering with passion.
He paused just inside the door, seemingly to accustom his eyes to the subdued light of the room. His long arms were hanging at his sides, the fingers clenching and unclenching close to the heavy pistols he wore—one at each hip. As he stood there, blinking his eyes at Ruth and Lawler, Lawler spoke.
"Come in, Singleton," he said.
Ruth was still standing at the desk. Her arms were now outstretched along it, her hands gripping its edge. She started at the sound of Lawler's voice, amazed at the change that had come in it—wondering how—when it had been so gentle a few minutes before—it could now have in it a quality that made her shudder.
She saw the big man's eyes widen, noted that his shoulders sagged a little when he heard Lawler's voice; observed that there seemed to come an appreciable lessening of the tension of his taut muscles. She marveled that the sound of one man's voice could have so calming an effect upon another—that it could, at a stroke, seemingly, cool the white-hot rage that had seized the man.
But there was no doubt that a change had come over the big man. His shoulders sagged further. A suggestion of a mirthless smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth; he unclenched the fingers of his hands.
"It's you, eh?" he said, gruffly. "My kid was sayin' someone in the schoolhouse had walloped him, an' I was aimin' to find out who it was. I reckon he's gone."
"I walloped him, Singleton."
Lawler's voice was gentle. In it was still a trace of that quality that Ruth had sensed, softened now slightly by the knowledge that Singleton's rage had slightly cooled.
"There isn't a heap to be said, I reckon," Lawler resumed as Singleton stood rigid again. "Your boy was trying to 'wallop' his teacher. I happened to look in, and I had to take a hand in it, just to keep things even. He had it coming to him, Singleton."
Lawler's manner was conciliatory, even mildly placative. "I figured on saving you a job, Singleton."
Singleton's face reddened.
"Lawler, I figger to lick my own kid."
"Singleton, I reckon it can't be undone, and you'll have to make the best of it. You and I have never got along well, but I want you to know I didn't know it was your boy I punished."
"Hell's fire!" snarled Singleton; "what you interferin' in the schoolhouse for? What business you got buttin' in?" It was dear that Singleton's rage was again rising. He must have noticed that the pupils had crowded around the door, and that Jimmy was watching him, no doubt disappointed that the salutary punishment for which he had hoped had been unnecessarily delayed.
Undoubtedly the presence of the children contributed to Singleton's anger; but at bottom was his old dislike of Lawler—a dislike that the incident of the whipping had increased to hatred.
It was plain that Singleton meditated violence. Yet it was equally plain that he feared Lawler. He never had seen Lawler draw a gun, but he had heard tales of the man's ability with the weapon. There lingered in his mind at this minute—as it had dwelt during all the days he had known Lawler—the knowledge that Lawler's father had been a gunman of wide reputation, and that he had taught his son the precision and swiftness that had made him famous in the deadly art.
That knowledge had always exerted a deterring influence upon Singleton; there had been times when he would have drawn a gun on Lawler had it not been that he feared the son might be as swift as the father.
So Singleton had assured himself; he was not afraid of Lawler, he was afraid of the reputation of Lawler's father. Singleton was reluctant to admit that it was not Lawler's gun that he was afraid of, but something that was in the man himself—in his confident manner, in the level glance of his eyes; in the way he looked at Singleton—seeming to hint that he knew the man's thoughts, and that when the time came—if it ever came—he would convince Singleton that his fears were well founded.
And, singularly, Singleton knew it; he knew that if he drew his gun on Lawler, Lawler would anticipate the movement; Singleton had become convinced of it—the conviction had become an obsession. That was why his rage had cooled so suddenly when he had entered the schoolroom.
But he knew, too, that Lawler never sought trouble; that within the past few years—or since Singleton had known him—he had never drawn the gun that reposed at his hip. And that knowledge brought the rage surging back into Singleton's veins. He knew he could talk to Lawler; that he could say some of the things that were in his mind—that had been in his mind all along; and that he would be safe so long as he kept his hands away from his guns.
As he snarled his questions at Lawler he took a step toward him. His eyes were truculent again, his lips in the pout that had been on them when he had entered. If Lawler didn't go for his gun he need have no fear of him. For he was bigger than Lawler, stronger. And if he could goad Lawler into using his fists instead of the dreaded gun he had no doubt of the outcome.
"Singleton," replied Lawler, answering the questions that had been hurled at him; "what I am here for is my business. I don't feel a heap like explaining it."
"Business—bah!" sneered Singleton. "I reckon the business that brought you here could be carried on better with no kids around."
Singleton saw a pin point of fire glow in Lawler's eyes. But he noted with venomous satisfaction that Lawler's hand did not move upward the slightest fraction of an inch toward his gun, and he laughed discordantly, taking another step toward Lawler, so that he would be close enough to strike when the time came.
"Lawler," he said, sticking his face close to the other's, his eyes glittering with the malignant triumph that had seized him over the conviction that Lawler would not try to draw his gun; "I'm figgerin' on wallopin' you like you walloped my kid. Understand? I'm aimin' to make you fight—with your fists. I'm goin' to knock hell out of you!".
Lawler had not moved. Had Singleton not been so obsessed with thoughts of an easy victory he might have noted that the pin point of fire that had glowed in Lawler's eyes had grown larger, and that his muscles had stiffened. Also, had Singleton been observant at this minute he must have seen a faint grin on Lawler's lips.
"Hell's fire!" snarled Singleton; "won't anything make you fight! There's that girl there—Ruth Hamlin. You think she's got a right to be proud as she is. Lawler, you don't know her; you don't know what's goin' on over there at the Two Bar—Hamlin's ranch. This here school teachin' of hers is only a blind—a blind, I tell you! A blind for other things that her an'——"
Ruth's sharp, protesting cry was drowned in a sodden swish as Lawler struck. His fist had shot upward with the weight of his body behind it, landing fairly on the point of Singleton's chin, snapping his teeth shut with a clack.
Singleton's head went back, his body rose from the floor. He came down with his knees unjointed, his head sagging on his chest; came down in a heap and tumbled forward upon his face, his arms limp, the fingers slowly spreading.
For an instant Lawler stood over him, pale, his eyes agleam. Then when Singleton did not move he turned to Ruth, smiling faintly.
"Go home, now, Ruth, before this beast comes to life. Go out and send the children away. I've got something to say to Singleton."
Ruth looked intently at him, saw there would be no use of pleading with him, and walked to the door, dragging the children away from it, telling them to go home.
Jimmy Singleton, terrorized by the thing that had happened to his father, needed no urging. He ran, whimpering, toward town, the other children following.
Ruth went to the shed where she kept her pony, threw saddle and bridle on him and led him to the step, where she usually mounted.
The door of the schoolhouse was closed. Trailing the reins over the pony's head, she ran to one of the windows—a small one in the center of the side wall, dust-begrimed, with one pane of glass missing.
Peering within, she saw Singleton sitting up, staring dazedly around, supporting himself with his hands, an expression of almost laughable, bewilderment on his face.
Lawler was standing near him—big, stern, seeming to wait for Singleton to rise before he spoke to him.
And while Ruth watched, Singleton staggered to his feet. He swayed uncertainly as he faced Lawler; and when Lawler advanced toward him he cringed and staggered back, raising one arm as though to ward off an expected blow.
Ruth heard his voice; it was a whine, tremulous with fear.
"Don't hit me again, Lawler; I wasn't meanin' anything!"
And then Ruth saw that Singleton must have been struck a second time, for high up on his left cheek was a huge gash that had suffused his chin and neck with blood. She remembered that while saddling and bridling her pony she had heard a sound from within the schoolhouse, but she had thought then that it must have been Lawler moving a chair. Plainly, Singleton had recovered from the first blow, and had received another.
Lawler's voice again reached her. It was low, vibrant with passion.
"Singleton, I ought to kill you. I will kill you if you ever tell that girl that you know her father is a rustler. Damn your hide, she knows it now—and it's breaking her heart!
"I'm warning you. Don't you ever go near the Two Bar again. Don't you ever buy another steer from Hamlin. Don't even speak to him. I'll kill you sure as hell if you do!"
Ruth reeled away from the window. She got on her pony somehow, taking care to make no sound, for she did not want Lawler to know that she had heard. Once on the pony she sent the little animal rapidly away, toward the Two Bar—away from Lawler and from that happiness for which she had hoped despite the hideous knowledge which for months had tortured her.
Inside the schoolhouse Singleton was standing, beaten by the man over whom he had thought to triumph easily; by a man whose pallid face and blazing eyes conveyed to Singleton something of the terrible power and energy of him when aroused.
Singleton did not think of his guns, now; he was aware of nothing but the great awe that had seized him. And as Lawler watched, saying nothing more, Singleton turned from him and slunk out through the door.
A MAN'S WORD
When Lawler finally emerged from the schoolhouse door there was no one about. Far down the street, in front of a building, he saw a group of children. Lawler recognized the building as the Wolf Saloon—so named because of the river that ran through the town. He had no doubt that Singleton had entered the building—that would explain the presence of the children in front of it.
But Lawler merely glanced toward town; he turned instantly and gazed long into the great stretch of plain that ran eastward. He caught sight of a dot on his right, so far away that it was dim in the haze of distance, and he knew Ruth had followed his advice.
Lawler watched the dot until it vanished, and when he turned again—to mount Red King—his color had returned, though something of the mighty passion that had gripped him was still swimming in his eyes.
He sent Red King into town at a slow lope, not even looking toward the Wolf as he passed it, but hearing subdued voices that seemed to die away as he drew close.
He brought Red King to a halt in front of the brick building in which Gary Warden had his office, dismounted, tied the horse to a hitching rail and strode to an open doorway from which ran the stairs that led to the second floor. A gilt sign on the open door advised him of the location of Warden's office.
With one foot on the stairs, ready to ascend, Lawler heard a woman's voice, floating downward, coming from the landing above:
"Well, good-bye Gary," said the voice; "I'll see you tonight."
Lawler heard a man's voice answering, the words unintelligible to him; then the woman laughed, banteringly.
Then came the sound of a door closing, and the light tread of a woman's foot on the stairs.
Lawler had halted when he heard the woman's voice; he now stepped back in the narrow hallway, against the open door, to give the woman room to pass him.
Turning his back to the stairs, unconcernedly waiting, subconsciously realizing that the woman was descending, he gazed past the station building to see the empty corrals on the other side of the railroad track. His eyes narrowed with satisfaction—for there would be room for the thousand head of cattle that Blackburn and the other men of the Circle L outfit would bring to Willets in the morning. There would be no delay, and no camp on the edge of town, awaiting the emptying of the corral.
When he heard the woman's step on the bottom of the stairs he turned and faced her. She was looking straight at him, and as their eyes met he saw hers widen eloquently. She half paused as she started to pass him, and it seemed to him that she was about to speak. He smiled gravely, puzzled, hesitant, for her manner indicated that she knew him, or was mistaking him for another. He paused also, and both stood for a fleeting instant face to face, silent.
Lawler noted that the woman was beautiful, well dressed, with a manner unmistakably eastern. He decided that she had mistaken him for someone of her acquaintance, for he felt assured he never had seen her before. He bowed, saying lowly:
"I beg your pardon, ma'am; I reckon it's a case of mistaken identity."
"Why," she returned, laughing; "I thought sure I knew you. Are you quite certain that I don't?"
There was guile in her eyes; so far back that he could not see it, or so cleverly veiled with something else that he was not aware of it. It seemed to him that the eyes were merely engaging, and frankly curious. He did not see the admiration in them, the elation, and the demure coquetry.
"I reckon you'll have to be the judge of that, ma'am. You certainly have the advantage of me."
"You are—" Her pause was eloquent.
"I am Kane Lawler, ma'am."
He looked into her eyes for the disappointment he expected to find there, and saw only eager interrogation.
"Oh, then I don't know you. I beg your pardon."
"I reckon there's no harm done," smiled Lawler.
He bowed again, noting that she looked intently at him, her eyes still wide and filled with something he could not fathom. And when halfway up the stairs he looked back, curious, subtly attracted to the woman, he saw her standing in the doorway, ready to go out, watching him over her shoulder. He laughed and opened the door of Gary Warden's office.
Warden was sitting at his desk. He turned at the sound of the door opening, and faced Lawler inquiringly.
Perhaps in Lawler's eyes there still remained a trace of the cold passion that had seized him in the schoolhouse; it may have been that what Lawler had heard of Gary Warden was reflected in his gaze—a doubt of Warden's honorableness. Or perhaps in Lawler's face he observed signs which told him that before him stood a man of uncommon character.
At any rate, Warden was conscious of a subtle pulse of antagonism; a quick dislike—and jealousy.
Warden could not have told what had aroused the latter emotion, though he was subconsciously aware that it had come when he had noted the rugged, manly strength of Lawler's face; that the man was attractive, and that he admired him despite his dislike.
That knowledge aroused a dull rage in him. His cheeks flushed, his eyes glowed with it.
But Warden's smile contradicted his thoughts. He managed that so cleverly that many men, watching him, might have been deceived.
In Lawler's keen eyes, however, glowed understanding—a knowledge of Warden's character that vindicated the things he had heard about the man—the tentative suggestions that Warden was not a worthy successor to Lefingwell.
That knowledge, though, would not have bothered him, had he not seen in Warden's eyes something that seemed to offer him a personal affront. As quickly as Warden had veiled his eyes from Lawler, the latter had seen the dislike in them, the antagonism, and the rage that had stained his cheeks.
He had come to Warden's office with an open mind; now he looked at the man with a saturnine smile in which there was amused contempt. Assuredly the new buyer did not "measure up" to Jim Lefingwell's "size," as Blackburn had suggested.
Therefore, aware that he could not meet this man on the basis of friendliness that had distinguished all his relations with Jim Lefingwell, Lawler's voice was crisp and businesslike:
"You're Gary Warden?"
At the latter's short, affirmative nod, Lawler continued:
"I'm Kane Lawler, of the Circle L. I've come to make arrangements with you about buying my cattle. I've got eight thousand head—good clean stock. They're above the average, but I'm keeping my word with Jim Lefingwell, and turning them in at the market price."
"That's twenty-five dollars, delivered at the railroad company's corral, in town here."
He looked straight at Lawler, his face expressionless except for the slight smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth—which might have been indicative of vindictiveness or triumph.
"Thirty," smiled Lawler. "That was the price Lefingwell agreed to pay."
Warden appeared to be blandly amused.
"Lefingwell agreed to pay thirty, you say? Well, Lefingwell always was a little reckless. That's why my company asked for his resignation. But if you have a written contract with Lefingwell—in which it appears that Lefingwell acted for the company, why, of course we'll have to take your stock at the contract price. Let me see it, if you please."
"There was no written contract; I had Jim Lefingwell's word—which was all I ever needed."
"Lefingwell's word," smiled Warden. "Unfortunately, a man's word is not conclusive proof."
"Meaning that Jim Lefingwell was lying when he told you he'd agreed to pay thirty dollars for my stock this fall?"
"Oh, no. I don't insinuate against Lefingwell's veracity. But the company requires a written agreement in a case like this—where the former representative——"
"We won't argue that," interrupted Lawler. "Jim Lefingwell told me he'd had a talk with you about my agreement with him, and Jim said you'd carry it out."
"Mr. Lefingwell did not mention the matter to me."
"I'd hate to think Jim Lefingwell lied to me," said Lawler, slowly.
Warden's face grew crimson. "Meaning that I'm a liar, I suppose," he said, his voice quavering with sudden passion.
Lawler's level gaze made him stiffen in his chair. Lawler's smile, cold and mirthless, brought a pulse of apprehension through him, and Lawler's voice, slow, clear, and distinct, forced the blood from his face, leaving it pale:
"I don't let any man twist my words so that they mean something I don't intend them to mean, Mister Man. If I intended to call you a liar, I'd have said it to you mighty plain, so there'd be no doubt in your mind about it. So far as I know, you are not a liar. I'm telling you this, though: A man's word in this country has got to be backed by his performances—and he's got to have memory enough to know when he gives his word.
"I reckon that where you come from men give their word without knowing it. Maybe that's what happened to you when Jim Lefingwell spoke to you about his agreement with me. Anyway, I feel that charitable enough toward you to advance that explanation. You can take that for what it seems worth to you. And I won't be bothered any, no matter which way you take it."
Lawler turned toward the door. On the threshold he paused, for Warden's voice reached him.
"You'd better sell at twenty-five, Mr. Lawler."
Warden's voice was low and smooth; he seemed to have decided to accept the "charity" offered him by Lawler. But there was mockery in his voice, and his eyes were alight with cunning. In the atmosphere about him was complacency which suggested that Warden knew exactly what he was doing; that he had knowledge unsuspected by Lawler, and that he had no doubt that, ultimately, Lawler would accept his offer.
"Not a steer at twenty-five," returned Lawler.
"That price means immediate shipment," pursued Warden. "The railroads are having some trouble with their rolling stock—it is hard to get cars. Some shippers are not getting them at all. And the shortage will grow."
"Perhaps it will. I don't blame you for buying as low as you can. That's business, Warden. I heard through Lew Brainard, of the Two Diamond, that owners in the South Basin, over at Shotwell, were offered forty just before the round-up. I was kicking myself for making that agreement with Lefingwell at thirty. But I intended to keep my word with him. But I feel mighty free, now, to sell where I can get the market price."
"Twenty-five is the market price," said Warden. "Just before the round-up there was some nervousness, it is true; and some buyers were offering forty—and they contracted for some at that price. But that was before we made—" He hesitated, reddened, and then went on quickly, plainly embarrassed, endeavoring to conceal his embarrassment by lighting a cigar.
"It was before the market broke," he went on. "The market is glutted. The West raised more cattle this season than ever before. There is no demand and the price had to tumble. A good many cattle owners will be glad to take twenty, and even fifteen, before long."
"But if there are no cars?" smiled Lawler.
Again he saw Warden's face redden.
"A shortage of cars would mean a shortage of cattle in the East, I reckon," went on Lawler. "And a shortage of cattle would mean higher prices for those that got through. But I'm not arguing—nor am I accepting twenty-five for my cattle. I reckon I'll have to ship my stock East."
"Well, I wish you luck," said Warden.
He turned his back to Lawler, bending over his desk.
Something in his voice—a hint of mockery tempered with rage—brought Lawler to a pause as he crossed the threshold of the doorway. He turned and looked back at Warden, puzzled, for it seemed to him that Warden was defying him; and he seemed to feel the atmosphere of complacence that surrounded the man. His manner hinted of secret knowledge—strongly; it gave Lawler an impression of something stealthy, clandestine. Warden's business methods were not like Lefingwell's. Lefingwell had been bluff, frank, and sincere; there was something in Warden's manner that seemed to exude craft and guile. The contrast between the two men was sharp, acute, startling; and Lawler descended the stairs feeling that he had just been in contact with something that crept instead of walking upright like a man.
A recollection of the woman he had met at the foot of the stairs came to Lawler as he descended, and thought of her did much to erase the impression he had gained of Warden. He grinned, thinking of how he had caught her watching him as he had mounted the stairs. And then he reddened as he realized that he would not have known she was watching him had he not turned to look back at her.
He found himself wondering about her—why she had been in Warden's office, and who she could be. And then he remembered his conversation with Blackburn, about "chapper-owns," and he decided she must be that woman to whom Blackburn had referred as "a woman at Lefingwell's old place, keepin' Warden company." He frowned, and crossed the street, going toward the railroad station building, in which he would find the freight agent.
And as he walked he was considering another contrast—that afforded by his glimpse of the strange woman and Ruth Hamlin. And presently he found himself smiling with pleasure, with a mental picture of Ruth's face before him—her clear, direct-looking, honest eyes, with no guile in them like that which had glowed in the eyes that had gazed into his at the foot of the stairs.
Over in Corwin's store, where "Aunt Hannah," had gone to make some small purchases, the woman who had encountered Lawler in the hall was talking with the proprietor. Aunt Hannah was watching a clerk.
"Della," she called; "do you want anything?"
"Nothing, Aunty," returned the woman. Then she lowered her voice, speaking to Corwin:
"So he owns the Circle L? Is that a large ranch?"
"One of the biggest in the Wolf River section," declared Corwin.
"Then Lawler must be wealthy."
"I reckon he's got wads of dust, ma'am."
The woman's eyes glowed with satisfaction.
"Well," she said; "I was just curious about him. He is a remarkably striking-looking man, isn't he?"
"You've hit it, ma'am," grinned Corwin. "I've been years tryin' to think up a word that would fit him. You've hit it. He's different. Looks like one of them statesmen with cowpuncher duds on—like a governor or somethin', which is out of place here."
The woman smiled affirmation. "So he does," she said, reflectively. "He is big, and imposing, and strikingly handsome. And he is educated, too, isn't he?"
"I reckon he is," said Corwin. "Privately, that is. His maw was a scholar of some kind back East, before she married Luke Lawler an' come out here to live with him. Luke's dead, now—died five years ago. Luke was a wolf, ma'am, with a gun. He could shoot the buttons off your coat with his eyes shut. An' he was so allfired fast with his gun that he'd make a streak of lightnin' look like it was loafin'. Luke had a heap of man in him, ma'am, an' Kane is just as much of a man as his dad was, I reckon. Luke was——"
"About Kane Lawler," interrupted the woman. "You say he is well educated?"
"That's about the only thing I've got ag'in' him, ma'am. I hold that no cattleman has got a right to know so durned much. It's mighty dangerous—to his folks—if he ever gets any. Now take Kane Lawler. If he was to marry a girl that wasn't educated like him, an' he'd begin to get fool notions about hisself—why, it'd make it pretty hard for the girl to get along with him." He grinned. "But accordin' to what I hear, Kane ain't goin' to marry no ignoramus exactly, for he's took a shine to Ruth Hamlin, Willets' school teacher. She's got a heap of brains, that girl, an' I reckon she'd lope alongside of Kane, wherever he went."
The woman frowned. "Is Mr. Lawler going to marry Ruth Hamlin?"
Corwin looked sharply at her. "What do you suppose he's fannin' up to her for?" he demanded. "Neither of them is a heap flighty, I reckon. An' Kane will marry her if she'll have him—accordin' to the way things generally go."
The woman smiled as she left Corwin and joined the older woman at the front of the store. She smiled as she talked with the other woman, and she smiled as they both walked out of the store and climbed into a buckboard. The smile was one that would have puzzled Corwin, for it was inscrutable, baffling. Only one thing Corwin might have seen in it—determination. And that might have puzzled him, also.
THE INVISIBLE POWER
Jay Simmons, the freight agent, was tilted comfortably in a chair near a window looking out upon the railroad platform when Lawler stepped into the office. The office was on the second floor, and from a side window the agent had seen Lawler coming toward the station from Warden's office. He had been sitting near the side window, but when he saw Lawler approaching the station he had drawn his chair to one of the front windows. And now, apparently, he was surprised to see Lawler, for when the latter opened the door of the office Simmons exclaimed, with assumed heartiness:
"Well, if it ain't Kane Lawler!"
Simmons was a rotund man, bald, with red hair that had a faded, washed-out appearance. His eyes were large, pale blue in color, with a singularly ingratiating expression which was made almost yearning by light, colorless lashes.
Simmons' eyes, however, were unreliable as an index to his character. One could not examine very far into them. They seemed to be shallow, baffling. Simmons did not permit his eyes to betray his thoughts. He used them as masks to hide from prying eyes the things that he did not wish others to see.
"Come a-visitin', Lawler?" asked Simmons as Lawler halted midway in the room and smiled faintly at the greeting he received.
"Not exactly, Simmons."
"Not exactly, eh? I reckon that means you've got some business. I'll be glad to help you out—if I can."
"I'm going to ship my stock East, Simmons, and I'm wanting cars for them—eight thousand head."
Simmons still sat in the chair beside the window. He now pursed his lips, drew his brows together and surveyed Lawler attentively.
"Eight thousand head, eh? Sort of whooped 'em up this season, didn't you. I reckon Gary Warden took 'em all?"
"Warden and I couldn't get together. I'm shipping them East, myself."
"Consignin' 'em to who?"
"They'll go to Legget and Mellert."
"H'm; they're an independent concern, ain't they?"
"Yes; that's the firm my father shipped to before Jim Lefingwell opened an office here."
Simmons locked his fingers together and squinted his eyes at Lawler.
"H'm," he said. Then he was silent, seemingly meditating. Then he shook his head slowly from side to side. Apparently he was gravely considering a problem and could find no solution for it.
He cleared his throat, looked at Lawler, then away from him.
"I reckon it's goin' to be a lot bothersome to ship that bunch of stock, Lawler—a heap bothersome. There's been half a dozen other owners in to see me within the last week or so, an' I couldn't give them no encouragement. There ain't an empty car in the state."
Lawler was watching him intently, and the expression in his eyes embarrassed Simmons. He flushed, cleared his throat again, and then shot a belligerent glance at Lawler.
"It ain't my fault—not a bit of it, Lawler. I've been losin' sleep over this thing—losin' sleep, I tell you! I've telegraphed every damned point on the line. This road is swept clean as a whistle. 'No cars' they wire back to me—'no cars!' I've read that answer until there ain't no room for anything else in my brain.
"The worst of it is, I'm gettin' blamed for it. You'd think I was runnin' the damned railroad—that I was givin' orders to the president. Lem Caldwell, of the Star, over to Keegles, was in here yesterday, threatenin' to herd ride me if I didn't have a hundred cars here this day, week. He'd been to see Gary Warden—the same as you have—an' he was figgerin' on playin' her independent. An' some more owners have been in. I don't know what in hell the company is thinkin' of—no cars, an' the round-up just over."
Simmons had worked himself into a near frenzy. His face had become bloated with passion, he was breathing fast. But Lawler noted that his eyes were shifty, that he turned them everywhere except upon Lawler.
Simmons now paused, seemingly having exhausted his breath.
"I've just left Gary Warden," said Lawler, slowly. "He offered his price for my stock. He told me if I accepted, it meant there would be no delay, that they would be shipped immediately. Warden seems to know where he can get cars."
Simmons' face reddened deeply, the flush suffusing his neck and ears. He shot one swift glance at Lawler, and then looked down. In that swift glance, however, Lawler had seen a fleeting gleam of guilt, of insincerity.
Lawler laughed shortly—a sound that made Simmons shoot another swift glance at him.
"How is it that Gary Warden figures on getting cars, Simmons?" said Lawler.
Simmons got up, his face flaming with rage.
"You're accusin' me of holdin' somethin' back, eh? You're callin' me a liar! You're thinkin' I'm——"
"Easy, there, Simmons."
There was a chill in Lawler's voice that brought Simmons rigid with a snap—as though he had suddenly been drenched with cold water. The flush left his face; he drew a deep, quick breath; then stood with open mouth, watching Lawler.
"Simmons," said the latter; "it has been my experience that whenever a man is touchy about his veracity, he will bear watching. You and Gary Warden have both flared up from the same spark. I don't know whether this thing has been framed up or not. But it looks mighty suspicious. It is the first time there has been a lack of cars after a round-up. Curiously, the lack of cars is coincident with Gary Warden's first season as a buyer of cattle.
"I don't say that you've got anything to do with it, but it's mighty plain you know something about it. I'm not asking you to tell what you know, because if there is a frame-up, it's a mighty big thing, and you are about as important a figure in it as a yellow coyote in a desert. I reckon that's all, Simmons. You can tell your boss that Kane Lawler says he can go to hell."
He wheeled, crossed the floor, went out of the room and left the door open behind him. Simmons could hear his step on the stairs. Then Simmons sat down again, drew a big red bandanna handkerchief from a hip pocket and wiped some big beads of perspiration from his forehead. He was breathing fast, and his face was mottled with purple spots. He got up, ran to a side window, and watched Lawler until the latter vanished behind a building opposite Gary Warden's office.
Again Simmons mopped his brow. And now he drew a breath of relief.
"Whew!" he said, aloud; "I'm glad that's over. I've been dreadin' it. He's the only one in the whole bunch that I was afraid of. An' he's wise. There'll be hell in this section, now—pure, unadulterated hell, an' no mistake!"
When Lawler reached Willets' one street he saw a buckboard drawn by two gray horses. The vehicle was headed west, away from him, and the horses were walking. The distance between himself and the buckboard was not great, and he saw that it was occupied by two women—one of them the woman whom he had met at the foot of the stairs leading to Warden's office. The other was elderly, and was looking straight ahead, but the young woman's head was turned toward Lawler at the instant Lawler caught sight of the buckboard. It seemed to him that the young woman must have been watching him, before he became aware of the buckboard, for there was a smile on her face as she looked at him; and when she seemed sure that he was looking she gayly waved a white handkerchief.
Lawler did not answer the signal. He looked around, thinking that perhaps the woman might have waved the handkerchief at some friend she had just left, and when he turned she had her back to him.
Lawler was conscious of a pulse of amusement over the woman's action, though he experienced no fatuous thrill. The woman was frivolous, and had made no appeal to his imagination.
Besides, Lawler was in no mood for frivolous thought. He was having his first experience with the invisible and subtle power that ruled the commerce of the nation, and his thoughts were serious—almost vicious.
Somewhere a mighty hand had halted activity in the Wolf River section; a power, stealthy, sinister, had interfered with the business in which he was vitally interested, interrupting it, disturbing it.
Lawler had kept himself well informed. In the big library at the Circle L were various volumes relating to economics that had been well thumbed by him. He had been privately educated, by his mother. And among the books that lined the shelves of the library were the philosophers, ancient and modern; the masters of art, science, and letters, and a miscellany of authorities on kindred subjects.
When his father had insisted that he be educated he had studied the political history of his state; he had kept a serious eye upon the activities of all the politicians of note; he had kept his mind open and free from party prejudice. He knew that the present governor of the state was incapable, or swayed by invisible and malign influences. He was aware that the state railroad commissioner lacked aggressiveness, or that he had been directed to keep in the background. And he was also aware that for a year or more the people of the state had regretted electing the present governor; the dissatisfaction manifesting itself in various ways, though chiefly in the tone of the editorials published by the newspapers in the towns.
As the average newspaper editor endeavors to anticipate public opinion he invariably keeps himself well informed concerning the activities of an office-holder, that he may be prepared to campaign against him at the instant he detects dissatisfaction among his subscribers. And the present governor was being scathingly arraigned by the newspapers of the state, while he sat in smug complacence in his office at the capital. He had made no effort to correct some of the evils of government about which he had raged just before the election.
Lawler smiled with grim amusement as he walked toward the Willets Hotel—where he meant to stay overnight. For he was convinced that the car shortage could not exist if the state officials—especially the railroad commissioner—would exert authority to end it. It seemed to Lawler that there must exist a secret understanding between the railroad commissioner and the invisible power represented by Gary Warden. And he wondered at the temerity of the governor—the sheer, brazen disregard for the public welfare that permitted him to become leagued with the invisible power in an effort to rob the cattle owners of the state. He must certainly know that he had been elected by the cattle owners—that their votes and the votes of their employees had made it possible for him to gain the office he had sought.
But perhaps—and Lawler's lips curved with bitterness—the governor wanted only one term. For two years of complete and absolute control of the cattle industry of the state would make him wealthy enough to hold public opinion in contempt.
From a window of his office Gary Warden had watched Lawler go into the station building. And from the same window Warden saw Lawler emerge. He watched Lawler, noting the gravity of his face, exulting, smiling mockingly. Warden also noted the little drama of the fluttering handkerchief, and the smile went out and a black, jealous rage seized him.
However, Gary Warden and Jay Simmons were not the only persons in town who watched Lawler. When he had entered town the school children who had preceded him had watched him from in front of the Wolf; and half a dozen lean-faced, rugged, and prosperous-looking men had watched him from the lounging-room of the Willets Hotel.
The men in the lounging-room were watching Lawler now, as he walked toward the building, for they seemed to divine that he would enter.
When Lawler stepped over the threshold his lips were set in stern, serious lines and his brows were drawn together in a frown. For his thoughts were dwelling upon the sinister power that threatened to create confusion in the section.
He did not see the men in the lounging-room until he had taken several steps toward the desk; and then he glanced carelessly toward them. Instantly his eyes glowed with recognition; he walked toward them.
"Howdy, Lawler," greeted one, extending a hand. And, "howdy," was the word that passed the lips of the others as Lawler shook hands with them. He called them all by name; but it was to the first man that he spoke, after the amenities had been concluded.
"I heard you were in town, Caldwell," he said.
Caldwell—a big man with a black beard, probing, intelligent eyes, and an aggressive chin, grinned grimly.
"Gary Warden tell you?" he asked.
"No. Warden didn't mention you."
"Then it was Jay Simmons. You ain't been anywhere else."
"How do you know?"
Caldwell exchanged glances with his companions. "I reckon we've been watchin' you, Lawler. We seen you ride into town on Red King, an' we seen you go over to the station from Warden's office."
"Watching me?" queried Lawler; "what for?"
"Wall, I reckon we wanted to see how you took it."
"What Warden an' Simmons had to say to you. We got ours—me yesterday; Barthman an' Littlefield this mornin'; an' Corts, Sigmund, an' Lester the day before yesterday. I reckon the whole section will get it before long. Looks like they're tryin' to squeeze us. How many steers did you sell to Warden at twenty-five?"
"An' Simmons?" said Caldwell, gleefully.
"Seems Simmons ain't makin' no exceptions. We've all heard the same story. We knowed you'd be in, an' we sort of waited around, wonderin' what you'd do about it. We didn't bring no cattle over, for we hadn't made no arrangement with Jim Lefingwell—like you done—an' we didn't want to stampede Warden."
Lawler told them what had occurred in his interview with Warden.
"I reckon Warden's the liar, all right," declared Caldwell; "Jim Lefingwell's word was the only contract anyone ever needed with him." He looked keenly at Lawler. "What you aimin' to do?" he questioned.
"I've been thinking it over," said Lawler.
"You ain't figgerin' to lay down to the cusses?" Caldwell's voice was low and cold.
Lawler looked straight at him, smiling. Caldwell laughed, and the others grinned.
"Lawler, we knowed you wouldn't," declared Caldwell; "but a man's got a right to ask. Right here an' now somethin' has got to be done. Looks to me as if we've got to play this game to a showdown, an' we might as well start right now. They're ain't none of us men goin' to let Gary Warden an' the railroad company run our business; but there's a few owners around here that ain't got no stomach for a fight, an' they'd sell to Warden for ten dollars rather than have any trouble. Them's the guys we've got to talk mighty plain to. For if they go to sellin' for what they can get, they'll make it allfired uncomfortable for us."
"This is a free country, Caldwell. So far as I'm concerned every man runs his own ranch and sells for what he thinks is a fair price. If we go to interfering with them, we'd be as bad as Warden and the railroad company."
"Lawler, you're right," agreed Caldwell, after reflecting a moment. "I didn't realize that, at first. A man don't think, when he's mad clear through. But it's mighty plain—we've got to stand on our own feet, if we stand at all."
Barthman, a tall, lean-faced man, cleared his throat.
"Lawler, you're the man to handle this thing. You've got the most money, the most brains, an' you're known all over the state—on account of them slick Herefords you've been raisin', an' on account of headin' the delegation to the state convention last fall, from this county. You can talk, for you mighty near stampeded that convention last fall. If you'd said the word you'd have been governor today instead of that dumb coyote which is holdin' down the office now. You've got the reputation an' the backbone—an' they've got to listen to you. I've heard that cattle owners all over the state are gettin' the same deal." Barthman's eyes gleamed with passion. "I propose that you be elected chairman of this meetin', an' that you be instructed to hop on the mornin' train an' go to the railroad commissioner at the capital an' tell him that if he don't give orders to bust up this thievin' combination the cattle owners of this county will come down there an' yank off his hide!"
A WOMAN'S MERCY
Gary Warden did not stand at the office window many minutes after he saw Lawler on the street. He drew on his coat, took his hat from a hook, on the wall and descended the stairs. At the street door he glanced swiftly around, saw Red King standing at the hitching rail in front of the building, and several other horses farther up the street. There were several men on the sidewalks, but he did not see Lawler.
Grinning crookedly, Warden crossed the street and made his way to the station building, where a few minutes later he was talking with Simmons. Simmons was visibly excited. There was curiosity in Warden's gaze.
"He's wise," said Simmons. He was still wiping perspiration from his forehead, and he mechanically repeated to Warden the words he had uttered to himself immediately after Lawler left his office: "I'm glad it's over. I've been dreadin' it. He's the only one in the whole bunch that I was afraid of. There'll be hell to pay in this section, now—pure, unadulterated hell, an' no mistake!" And then he added something that had occurred to him afterward: "If the big guys back of this thing knowed Kane Lawler as well as I know him, they'd have thought a heap before they started this thing!"