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Under Handicap - A Novel
by Jackson Gregory
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"It's rather long," she laughed into the telephone. "But it's paid. It runs:

"MY DEAR SON,—Your wire received. Sorry you misunderstood me. So that you may make no mistakes in the future I shall be more explicit now. I shall not send you one single dollar for at least one year from date. If at the end of that time you have done something for yourself I may help you. I leave for Europe to-morrow to be gone for a year on my first vacation. It will do no good for you to telegraph again. I cannot help you beyond wishing you luck. You are on your own feet. Walk if you can.

"Yours,

"WILLIAM CONNISTON, Senior."

Conniston leaned limply against the wall, staring into the telephone.

"Look here!" he cried, after a moment. "There's a mistake somewhere."

"No mistake. The wire was just brought in from the Western Union office."

"But I don't understand—"

"I'm sorry. Is there anything else?"

"No. That's all."

Even Conniston's sanguine temperament was not proof to the shock of his father's message. He knew his father too well to hope that he would change his mind now. His eyes showed a troubled anxiety when he went slowly back to confront Hapgood.

"Well, what's the good news?" cried Hapgood. And then, when he had seen Conniston's face, "Gad, man! What's wrong?"

Conniston shook his head as he sank into a chair.

"I—I'm a bit upset," he answered, unsteadily. "I made a mistake; that's all."

"It wasn't your father?"

"That's the trouble. It was! He refuses to send a dollar. And he's leaving to-morrow for a year in Europe."

"What!" yelled Hapgood, leaping to his feet in entire forgetfulness of his sore muscles.

"That's it. And when the old man says he'll do a thing he'll do it."

Hapgood stared at him speechless. And then, his hands driven deep into his pockets, he began an agitated pacing up and down the porch, his brows drawn, his eyes squinting as they had the habit of doing when he was excited.

"What are we going to do?" he demanded, stopping before Conniston.

"I wish that somebody would tell me! We have a couple of horses. You have seven dollars. Maybe," with a faint, forced smile, "we can ride back to New York!"

With a disgusted sniff Hapgood left him again to pace restlessly up and down. And finally, when he again stopped in front of Conniston's chair, his face was white, his thin lips set bloodlessly.

"I guess there's only one thing left to us. We'll go on into Crawfordsville and put up for a day or two while we try to raise some money. Your seven dollars ought to keep us from starving—"

"Will you wire your father again?"

"No. There would be no use. I tell you that when he says he is going to do a thing that settles it. If I broke both arms and legs now he wouldn't pay the doctor's bill."

"Then I'll tell you something, my friend!" The pale little eyes were glowing, malevolently red. "You've played me for a sucker long enough. You towed me along out into this cursed West of yours, making me think all the time that when you got ready to call on your father he'd come through like a flash. And you knew that he had turned you out for good. Now I am through with you. Get that? I mean it! And if I have seven dollars I guess I'll need it myself before I get out of this pickle you've got me into!"

Conniston stared at him incredulously. "Come, now, Roger. You don't mean—"

"But I do, Mr. William Conniston, fraud! I'm through with you."

Conniston got to his feet, his own face as white as Hapgood's.

"You mean what you are saying?"

"I most certainly and positively do!"

"And the wire I sent to dad—"

"You can pay for it if you want to! You don't get a cent out of me."

Conniston took one stride to him, putting a heavy hand upon Hapgood's narrow shoulder.

"You infernal little shrimp!" he cried, hoarsely. "If we weren't guests here I'd take a holy glee in slapping your face! By the Lord, I've a mind to do it anyhow!"

Hapgood jerked back, his arm lifted to shelter his face. And Conniston, with a short laugh, dropped his hand to his side. As he did so he saw Miss Crawford was coming toward them through the yard from the corner of the house. A middle-aged man, heavy and broad-shouldered and white-haired, was with her. He turned to meet her.

"Mr. Conniston," she was saying, "this is my father. And, papa, this is Mr. Hapgood."

Mr. Crawford came up the steps, giving his hand in a hearty grip to the two men who came forward to meet him, his voice, deep and grave, assuring them that he was glad that they had stayed over at his home. His face was stern, grave like his voice, clean-shaven, and handsome in a way of manly, independent strength.

"Argyl tells me," he said, to Conniston, as they all sat down, "that you are expecting some money by wire. You are leaving us, then, right away?"

"I did expect some money," Conniston laughed, his good humor with him again. "I wired to my father for it. And I just had his answer. There is nothing doing."

Mr. Crawford lifted his eyebrows. Argyl leaned forward.

"He said," went on Conniston, lightly, "that he would not send me a dollar. You see, he wants me to do something for myself. And," with a rueful grin, "I am in debt to you for a dollar to pay for my message—and I haven't ten cents!"

Mr. Crawford laughed with him. "We won't worry about the dollar just now, Mr. Conniston. What are you going to do?"

Conniston scratched his head. "I don't know. I—" And then Argyl's words came back to him, and he surprised himself by saying: "Most men go to work when they're strapped, don't they? I guess I'll go to work."

"I don't mean to be too personal, but—are you used to working?"

"I never did a day's work in my life."

"Then what can you do?"

"I don't know. I—you see, I never figured on this. I—I—Do you happen to know anybody who wants a man?"

A little flicker of a smile shot across Crawford's face.

"We're all looking for men—good men—all the time. I can use a half-dozen more cow-punchers right now. Do you want to try it?"

Conniston's one glance of the girl's eager face decided him.

"I've always had a curiosity to know what they did when they punched the poor brutes," he grinned back. "And I can work out that dollar I owe you too, can't I?"

"You're engaged," returned Mr. Crawford, crisply. "Thirty dollars a month and found. I'll have one of the boys show you where the bunk-house is. You'll begin work in the morning."



CHAPTER VI

As the significance of his change of fortunes began slowly to dawn on him, Conniston was at first merely amused. One of the men employed by John W. Crawford, a man whom Conniston came to know later as Rawhide Jones, conducted him at the Old Man's orders to the bunk-house. The man was lean, tall, sunburned, and the tout ensemble of his attire—his flapping, soiled vest, his turned-up, dingy-blue overalls, his torn neck-handkerchief, and, above all, the two-weeks' growth upon his spare face—gave him an unbelievable air of untidiness. He cast one slow, measuring glance at the young fellow who Mr. Crawford had said briefly was to go to work in the morning, and then without a word, without a further look or waiting to see if he was followed, slouched on ahead toward the gap in the encircling trees into which Lonesome Pete had disappeared earlier in the afternoon.

Conniston saw that Argyl Crawford was standing at her father's side and that she was smiling; he saw that Hapgood was laughing openly. And then he turned and strode on after his guide, conscious that the blood was creeping up into his face and at the same time that he could not "back down."

The graveled road wound through the pines for an eighth of a mile, leaving the bench land and finding its way into a hollow cleared of trees. Here was a long, low, rambling building—a stable, no doubt. At each end of the stable was a stock-corral. And at the edge of the clearing was another building, long and very low, with one single door and several little square windows. A stove-pipe protruded from the far end of this house, and from it rose a thin spiral of smoke.

"The Ol' Man said I was to show you your bunk," Rawhide Jones muttered under his breath. "You're to have the one as was Benny's. Benny got kilt some time back."

He flung the door open and entered. Conniston, at his heels, paused a moment, staring about him. A man in dingy-blue undershirt, the sleeves rolled back upon forearms remarkable for their knotting, swelling muscles, was frying great thick steaks upon the top of the stove, enveloped in the smoke and odor of his own cooking. In the middle of the room was a long table, covered with worn oil-cloth, set out with plates and cups of heavy white ware and with black wooden-handled knives and forks. Running up and down each side of the one unpartitioned room were narrow bunks, a row close to the floor, another row three feet higher, arranged roughly like berths on board a steamer.

Sitting on chairs, or on the edges of the bunks with their legs a-dangle, their eyes interestedly upon the cook's operations, were half a dozen men, rough of garb, rough of hands, big, brawny, uncouth. As Conniston came into the room every pair of eyes left the cook to examine him swiftly, frankly. He paused a moment for the introduction Rawhide Jones would make. But Rawhide Jones had no idea of doing anything more than enough to fulfil his orders. He strode on through the men until he stopped at one of the upper bunks, about the middle of the room, from which a worn, soiled red quilt trailed half-way to the floor.

"This here was Benny's. It's yourn now."

He had turned away, and, standing with his big hands resting upon his hips, was watching the cook. And Conniston saw that all of the other men, seemingly forgetful of his entrance, were again doing the same thing. He felt suddenly a deep lonesomeness, greater a thousand times than when he had been actually alone under the spell of the desert. For here there were men about him who, having seen him, turned away, shutting him out from them, with no one word of greeting, not so much as a nod. He was not in the habit of being received this way. It was, his sensitive nature told him, as though he had been examined by them, had been recognized as an alien, and had had the doors of their fraternity clicked in his face.

He felt a sudden bitterness, a sudden anger. And with it he felt a deep contempt for them, for their petty, unenlightened lives, their coarseness, their blackened hands and unshaved faces. He was a gentleman and a Conniston! He was the son of William Conniston, of Wall Street! He told himself that when they came to know who he was, who his father was, their incivility would change fast enough into servility.

And still he had as much as he could do to keep the little hurt, the sting of his reception, from showing in his face. He glanced as disgustedly as Hapgood could have done into the rude bunk with its tangled pile of coarse blankets, and turned away from it. For one fleeting second the temptation was strong upon him to turn his back upon the lot of them, to stalk proudly to the door, to go to Mr. Crawford and tell him that he was not used to this sort of thing and did not intend to try to grow accustomed to it. One thing only restrained him. He knew that even as he closed the door behind him he would hear their voices in rude laughter, and Greek Conniston did not like being laughed at. Instead he left the bunk and walked quietly to one of the farther chairs. The air of the bunk-house was already thick with smoke from the stove and from cigarettes and pipes. Conniston took out his own pipe, filled it, and, sitting back, added his smoke to the rest.

The cook had turned to say something to Rawhide Jones, and, carelessly putting his hand behind him, blistered it against the red-hot top of the stove, whereupon he burst into such a volley of curses as Conniston had never heard. The words which streamed from the big man's mouth actually made Conniston shiver. He turned questioning eyes to the other men in the room. They were again talking to one another, no man of them seeming to have so much as heard. Rawhide Jones laughed at the cook's discomfiture and went back to the door, where he washed his face and hands at a little basin, plastered his wet hair down as his companions had already done, and dropped into easy conversation with the heavy, round-shouldered, yellow-haired man sitting across the room from Conniston.

"Looks like the Ol' Man means real business, huh, Spud?"

Spud answered with a joyous oath that it certainly looked like it.

"He's puttin' Brayley in on this en' an' takin' ol' Bat Truxton clean off'n it to throw him onto the Rattlesnake," Spud went on. "Bat 'll have nigh on a hundred men down there workin' overtime before the week's up, he says. I guess he'll have his paws full without tryin' to run the cow en', too."

"An' I reckon," continued Jones, thoughtfully, "as how Brayley won't sleep all the time up here. He's got to swing the whole Half Moon an' the Lone Dog an' the Five Hills an' the Sunk Hole outfit." He shook his head and spat before he concluded. "What with the Ol' Man buyin' the Sunk Hole, an' figgerin' on marketin' in Injun Creek, an' crowdin' work down in the Rattlesnake, Brayley 'll be some busy if he don't take on another big bunch of punchers. Huh?"

Spud made no answer, for at this juncture the cook put a big platter of steak, piled high, upon the table, and the men, dragging their chairs after them, waited no other invitation "to set in." Conniston for a moment held back. Then, as he saw that there were several vacant places, he took up his own chair and sat down at the end of the table nearest him. The man at his left helped himself to meat by harpooning the largest piece in sight and dragging it, dripping, over the edge of the platter and to his own plate. Then he shoved the platter toward Conniston without looking to see whether or not it arrived at its proper destination, and gave his undivided attention to the dish of boiled potatoes which the man upon his left had shoved at him. Conniston, helping himself slowly, found soon that the potatoes, the rice, and a tray of biscuits were all lodged at his elbow, waiting to be ferried on around the end of the table.

For a few moments all conversation died utterly. These men had done a day's work, a day's work calling upon straining muscles and unslacking energy, and their hunger was an active thing. They plied their knives and forks, took great draughts of their hot tea and coffee, with little attention to aught else. But presently, as their hunger began to be appeased, they broke into conversation again, talking of a hundred range matters of which Conniston understood almost nothing. He drew from the fragments which reached him above the general clatter the same thing that he had got from the few words which had passed between Rawhide Jones and Spud. Evidently, the cowboys were pressed with work both on the Half Moon and on the other ranges, and the new foreman, Brayley, was putting on more men and sparing no one in carrying out the orders which came from headquarters. Equally apparently, the man whom they called Bat Truxton was in command of the reclamation work in Rattlesnake Valley, and now with a force of a hundred men was working with an activity even more feverish than Brayley's.

During the meal five more men came in, and with a word of rough greeting to their fellows dropped into their chairs and helped themselves deftly. Conniston recognized one of the men as the half-breed, Joe, whom he had seen meet Miss Crawford in Indian Creek. Another was Lonesome Pete. Conniston was more gratified than he knew when the red-headed reader of "Macbeth" nodded to him and said a quiet "Howdy." The last man to come in was Brayley.

He was a big man, a trifle shorter than Conniston, but heavier, with broader shoulders, rounded from years in the saddle, with great, deep chest, and thick, powerful arms. He lurched lightly as he walked, his left shoulder thrust forward as though he were constantly about to fling open a door with its solid impact. He was a man of forty, perhaps, and as active of foot as a boy. His heavy, belligerent jaw, the sharp, beady blackness of his eyes, the whole alert, confident air of him bespoke the born foreman.

Conniston was conscious of the piercing black eyes as they swept the table and rested on him. He noticed that Brayley alone of the men who had entered late had no word of greeting for the others, received no single word from them. And he saw further, wondering vaguely what it meant, that as the big foreman came in the eyes of all the others went first to him and then to Conniston.

Brayley stopped a moment at the door, washing his face and hands swiftly, carelessly, satisfied in rubbing a good part of the evidence of the day's toil upon the towel hanging upon a nail close at hand. Three strokes with the community comb, dangling from a bit of string, and jerking his neck-handkerchief into place, he lurched toward the table. Five feet away he stopped suddenly, his eyes burning into Conniston's.

"Who might you be, stranger?" he snapped, his words coming with unpleasant, almost metallic sharpness.

There fell a sudden silence in the bunk-house. Knives and forks ceased their clatter while the cowboys turned interested eyes upon the Easterner.

Conniston caught the unveiled threat in the foreman's tones, saw that he had come in in the mood of a man ready to find fault, and took an instinctive disliking for the man he was being paid a dollar a day to take orders from. He returned Brayley's glance steadily, angered more at knowing that the blood was again creeping up into his cheeks than because of the curt question. And, staring at him steadily, he made no further answer.

"Can't you talk?" cried Brayley, angrily. "Are you deef an' dumb? I said, who might you be?"

"I heard you," replied Conniston, quietly. And to the man upon his left, "Will you kindly pass me the bread?"

The man grinned in rare enjoyment, and, since he kept his eyes upon Brayley's glowering face, it was hardly strange that he handed Conniston a plate of stewed prunes instead.

"Thank you," Conniston said to him, still ignoring Brayley. "But it was bread I said."

"An' I said something!" cut in Brayley, his voice crisp and incisive. "Did you get me?"

"I got you, friend." Conniston put out his hand for the bread and caught a gleam of sparkling amusement in Lonesome Pete's eyes from across the table. "And maybe after you tell me who you are I might answer you."

"Me!" thundered the big man, lurching one step nearer, his under jaw thrust still farther out. "Me! I'm Brayley, that's who I am! An' I'm the foreman of this here outfit."

"Thank you, Brayley." Conniston's anger was pounding in his temples, but he strove to keep it back. "I'm Conniston. I was told to report here by Mr. Crawford to go to work in the morning. I suppose I report to you?"

"Conniston are you, huh? All right, Conniston. Now who happened to tell you to slap yourself down in that there chair, huh?"

"Nobody," returned Conniston, calmly. "I didn't suppose that I was to stand up and eat."

Lonesome Pete's grin overran his eyes, and the ends of his fiery mustache curved upward. Two or three men laughed outright. Brayley's brows twitched into a scowling frown.

"Nobody's askin' you to git funny, little rooster! You git out 'n that chair an' git out 'n it fas'. Sabe?"

Calm-blooded by nature and by long habit, Conniston had mastered the flood of blood to his brain and grown perfectly cool. Brayley, on the other hand, had come in in a seething rage from a tussle with a colt in which his stirrup leather had broken and he had rolled in the dust of the corral, to the boundless glee of two or three of his men who had seen it, and now there was nothing to restrain his anger. Conniston was laughing into his face.

"I hear you," he said, lightly. "My ears are good, and your voice is not bad by any means. Only I'd really like to know why you want me to get up. Is it custom here for a new man to remain standing until the foreman is seated? If I am violating any customs—"

Again Brayley took one lurching step forward. Conniston pushed his chair back so that his feet were clear of the table leg.

"I say, Brayley"—Lonesome Pete had half risen from his chair and was speaking softly—"Conniston here didn't know. Nobody put him wise as how you sat in that particular chair. An'," even more softly, "he's a frien' of Mr. Crawford."

"Who's askin' you to chip in?" challenged Brayley, his eyes flashing for the moment from Conniston to Lonesome Pete. "An' if he's a frien' of Crawford's, why ain't he up to the house instead of down here? Huh?"

Lonesome Pete shrugged his shoulders and settled back into his chair.

"Slip me a sinker, Rawhide," he said, quietly, to the man next to him as though he had lost all interest in the conversation.

"Frien' of the Ol' Man's or no frien'," blustered Brayley, his eyes again on Conniston's, "if you're goin' to work I guess you're goin' to take orders from me like the rest of the boys. An' the first order is, git out'n that there chair!"

"Look here," Conniston replied, quietly, "I didn't know that I was taking a seat reserved for you, and I didn't mean any offense. You can take that as a sort of an apology if you like. But at the same time, even if I am to take orders from you, I am not going to be bulldozed by you or anybody like you. If you will ask me decently—"

"Ask you!" bellowed Brayley. "Ask you! By the Lord, I don't ask my men! I make 'em!"

He had leaped forward with his last word, his two big hands outstretched with clawing fingers. Before Conniston could spring from his chair to meet the attack the iron hands were upon his shoulders. He felt himself being lifted bodily from his seat. His weight was scarcely less than the irate foreman's, and he employed every pound of it as he staggered to his feet and flung himself against his burly antagonist. The men about the table sat still, watching, saying no word.

Conniston's strength was less than the other's, and he knew it, knew that his endurance would be nothing against the muscles seasoned by daily physical work until they were like steel. He knew that in two minutes of battling struggle he would be like a kitten in the big, powerful hands. And he was of no mind to have Brayley manhandle him before such an audience as was now sitting quietly watching, listening to his panting breaths. In one straining effort he jerked his right shoulder free, swung his clenched fist back, and drove it smashing into Brayley's face.

Brayley's head snapped back, and the blood from his cut mouth ran across his white, bared teeth. Conniston sprang forward to follow up the blow. But Brayley had caught his balance and was leaping to meet him, snarling. His hard, toil-blackened fist drove through Conniston's guard, striking him full upon the jaw. Conniston reeled, and before he could catch himself a second blow caught him under the ear, and with outflung arms he pitched backward and fell, striking the back of his head upon the rough boards of the floor.

For one dizzy moment the world went black for him. And then it went red, flaming, flaring red, as he heard a man's laugh. An anger the like of which he had never known in the placid days of his easy life was upon him, an anger which made him forget all things under the arch of heaven excepting the one man with bloody fists glaring into his eyes, an anger blind and hot and primitive. Again he knew that he was on his feet; again he was rushing at the man who stood waiting for him.

"Stan' back!" roared Brayley. "I ain't goin' to play with you all day."

Conniston laughed and did not know that he had done so. He only saw that Brayley had stepped back a pace, and that he had something, black but glistening in the pale light, tight clenched in his hand. Crying out hoarsely, inarticulately, he threw himself forward.

Again Brayley met him, this time the revolver in his hand thrust before him. It was almost in Conniston's face now. Somebody cried out sharply. Several of the men jumped from their seats and leaped out from behind Conniston. Two or three of them slipped under the table to crawl out on the other side. Then Conniston saw what the something was in Brayley's hand.

"Shoot, you dirty coward!" he yelled, as he swung his arm out toward the big six-shooter.

For one moment Brayley seemed to hesitate. And then as the two men came together the barrel of the gun rose and fell swiftly, striking Conniston full upon the forehead. His arms dropped like lead; the dizzy blackness came back upon him, growing blacker, blacker; and he fell silently, unconsciously.

It was very quiet in the bunk-house when he opened his eyes. A sudden pain through the temples, a rising nausea, blackness and dizziness again, made him close them, frowning. He knew that he was lying in his bunk and that he was very weak. There was a cold, wet towel tied tight about his forehead.

The table had been cleared away, and the cook was finishing his dish-washing by the stove. A lantern swinging from the beam which ran across the middle of the room showed him that all the men were in their bunks with the exception of two who were playing cribbage at the table. They were Lonesome Pete and Rawhide Jones. When they saw him leaning out from his bunk Lonesome Pete put down his cards and came to him.

"How're they comin', stranger?" he asked, with no great expression in either eyes or voice.

"Where's Brayley?" demanded Conniston, quickly.

"He ain't here none jest now. No, he ain't exac'ly ran away, nuther. Brayley ain't the kind as runs away. He was sent for to come to the Lone Dog, where there's some kind of trouble on. Seein' as that's thirty mile or worse, the chances is he'll ride mos' all night an' won't be back for a day or two."

Conniston sank back upon his straw pillow. "What I have to say to him will keep," he said, quietly.

The red-headed man looked at him curiously. "Brayley's the boss on this outfit, pardner. What he says goes as she lays. It's sure bad business buckin' your foreman. If you can't hit it up agreeable like, you better quit."

For a moment Conniston lay silent, plucking with nervous fingers at the worn red quilt.

"What did he do to me?" he asked, presently. "Hit me over the head with a revolver?"

Lonesome Pete nodded.

"That's what you call fair play out in the West?"

"What fooled me, Conniston, is that he didn't drill a couple er holes through you! He ain't used to bein' so careful an' tender-hearted-like, Brayley ain't."

"Just because I'm to work under him, does that mean that in the eye of you men he had a right—"

An uplifted hand stopped him. "When two men has onpleasant words it ain't up to anybody else to say who's right. Us fellers has jest got to creep lively out'n the line of bullets an' let the two men most interested settle that theirselves. Only I don't mind sayin', jest frien'ly like, as it is considered powerful foolish for a man to prance skallyhutin' into a mixup as is apt to smash things considerable onless he's heeled."

"Heeled? You mean—"

Lonesome Pete whipped one of the guns from his sagging belt and laid it close to Conniston's pillow.

"That when a man's got one of them where he can find it easy he ain't got to take nothin' off'n nobody! An' one man's jest as good as another, whether he's foreman or a thirty-dollar puncher! An' bein' as we got to go to work early in the mornin', I reckon you better roll over an' hit the hay!"

He turned abruptly and went back to his discarded hand. And Greek Conniston, the son of William Conniston, of Wall Street, lay back upon his bunk and thought deeply of many things.



CHAPTER VII

The next day the gates of a new world opened for Greek Conniston. And it was a world which he liked little enough. The cook, rattling his pots and pans and stove-lids, woke him long before it was four o'clock. One by one the men tumbled out, dressed swiftly, washed and combed their hair at the low bench by the door, and then sat about smoking or wandered away to the stable to attend to their horses. At four o'clock the table was set, coffee and biscuits and steaks sending out their odors to float together upon the morning air. Conniston got up with the others and washed at the common basin, contenting himself with running his fingers through his hair rather than to use the one broken-toothed comb. One or two of the boys said a short "Mornin'" to him, but the most of them seemed to see him no more than they had when he had entered the bunk-house last evening. Lonesome Pete nodded to him and, when they all sat down, indicated a chair at his side for him to sit in.

There was a great bruise upon his forehead and a cut where the muzzle of Brayley's gun had struck him, but he was surprised to find that both dizziness and faintness had passed entirely and that he was feeling little inconvenience from the blow which last night had stretched him out unconscious.

He ate with the others in silence, making no reference to Brayley, noting that they gave no evidence of remembering the trouble of last night. The fare was coarse, and he was not used to such dishes for breakfast any more than he was used to getting up at four o'clock to eat them. But he was hungry, and the coffee and the biscuits were good. After breakfast he found himself outside of the bunk-house with Lonesome Pete.

"When Brayley's away," the cowboy was saying, over his cigarette-making, "Rawhide Jones takes his place. An' Rawhide says you're to come with me an' give me a hand over to the cross-fence. I guess we'd better be makin' a start, huh?"

Conniston went with him to the stable. "We ain't brought in any extry hosses," Pete was explaining, as they came into one of the corrals. "You'll ride your own to-day?"

In one of the stalls Conniston found the horse he had ridden from Indian Creek, with his saddle, bridle, spurs, and chaps hanging upon wooden pegs. And in the next stall he saw the horse Hapgood had ridden.

"Hasn't Hapgood gone yet?" he asked of Pete.

"I don't reckon he has. He had supper with the Ol' Man up to the house las' night. An' I guess he's stayed over to res' up."

They swung to their horses' backs and rode through the trees and on eastward across a long grassy slope from which the shadows of the night were just beginning to lift. As day came on Conniston saw that ahead of them for miles ran a barren-looking, treeless country, rising on the one hand to the foot of the mountains, falling away gradually on the other to the Big Flat. They rode swiftly, side by side, for five miles, passing through many grazing herds of cattle, many smaller bands of horses. And finally, when they came to a wire fence running north and south, Lonesome Pete swung down from his saddle.

On the ground near the fence were hammers, a pick, a shovel, and a crowbar. The old barley-sack at the foot of one of the posts gave out the jingle of nails as Pete's boot struck against it. And Conniston, dismounting and tying his horse, began his first lesson in fence-repairing.

The loose wires they tightened with the short iron bar, in the end of which a V-shaped cut had been made. While Pete caught the slack wire with this bar, and, using the post as a fulcrum, the bar as a lever, drew it taut, Conniston with hammer and staples made it secure. Now and again they found a rotten post which must be taken out, while a new one from a row which had been dumped from a wagon yesterday was put into its place.

It was easy work, and Conniston found, that he rather enjoyed the novelty of it. But as hour after hour dragged by with the same unceasing monotony, as the sun crept burning into the hot sky, and the wires, the crowbar, even the pick-handle blistered his hands, he began to feel the cramp of fatigue in his stooping shoulders and in his forearms and back. Noon came at last, and he and Lonesome Pete ate the cold lunch which the latter had brought, drank from the bottle of water, and lay down for a smoke. Conniston had left his pipe at the bunk-house, and accepted from his fellow-worker his coarse, cheap tobacco and brown papers.

The morning had been endlessly long. The afternoon was an eternity. It was hotter now that the sun had rolled past the zenith, now that the sand had drunk deep of its fiery rays. The air shimmered and danced above the gray monotone of flat country, Conniston's eyeballs were burning with it. And back and arms and shoulders ached together. He had hoped that they would quit work at five o'clock. Five o'clock came and went, and the red-headed man said no word of stopping. Half-past five, six o'clock. And still they tightened wires, hammered burning staples, dug endless post-holes. Conniston's hands were torn with the sharp staples, blistered with the work. Half-past six, and he was ready to throw down his tools and quit. But a glance at his companion's face, sweat-covered but showing nothing of the fatigue of the day, and Conniston held doggedly to his work, ashamed to stop.

And, together with the breathless heat of the still afternoon, the ache and dizziness returned to his head where Brayley's gun had struck him; a new and growing nausea told him that a man is not knocked unconscious one day to forget all about it the next. As he straightened up from bending over the lowest wire, nausea and faintness together threatened to make him throw up his hands and acknowledge himself unfit for the new sort of existence into which he had rushed carelessly. He was not certain why, in spite of all that he felt, he held on. He knew only that as the son of William Conniston he must be the superior in all things to the man who worked at his side like a machine; he knew that in spite of his liking for Lonesome Pete he held the cowboy in a mild contempt, and that he must not be outdone by him.

When at length the sun had sunk out of sight through the flaming colors of its own weaving in the flat lands to the west, and Lonesome Pete threw down his tools at the foot of the last post which they had planted in the sandy soil, Conniston was too tired to greatly care that the day was done. He refused the proffered cigarette, and slowly walked away to where his horse was waiting for him. He did not know that the other man was looking at him curiously, that there was much amusement and a hint of surprise in the bright-blue eyes. He knew only that he had toiled from before sunrise until after sunset; that the waking hours to which he had been long accustomed had been turned topsy-turvy; that instead of spending money he had been making money; that he had earned his board and lodging and one dollar! And even while he ached and throbbed throughout his whole weary body he was vaguely amused at that.

When finally they came again into the Half Moon corrals Lonesome Pete carelessly offered to unsaddle for Conniston and water and feed his horse. And Conniston, while not ungrateful, answered with short doggedness that he could do his own part of the work.

They came to the bunk-house to find that several of the boys had eaten before them, that two or three of them were already in bed. The cook, however, had supper waiting for them, kept hot in the oven of his big stove. Conniston knew that he was hungry; during the ride in he had thought longingly of a hot meal and bed. But now he learned what it was to be hungry and at the same time too tired to eat. He drank some coffee, ate a little bread and butter, and, pushing his plate away, climbed into his bunk.

He thought longingly of silk pajamas and a hot bath—and started up finding himself half asleep, dreaming of miles of wire fence, of hammering staples and tightening wires, of laboring with breaking back over holes which, as fast as he dug them, filled with the shifting sand. And then—it seemed to him that he had been in bed ten minutes—he heard the cook rattling his pots and pans and stove-lids, and knew that the night had gone and that the second day of his new life had come.

The first day had been purgatory. The second was hell. His raw, blistered fingers shrank from his hammer-handle, from the sun-heated iron bar. The muscles which through long idleness had grown soft, and which had been taxed all day yesterday, cried out with sharp pains as to-day they were called upon. He had thought that the night would have rested him; instead it had but made his arms and hands and back stiff and unfit. When ten o'clock came he felt as tired as he had been last night at quitting-time. The heat was more intense, the day sultry, with a thin film of clouds across the gray sky allowing the sun's rays to scorch the earth, refusing to let the sand radiate the heat which clung to it like a bank of heavy steam. Their water-bottle, although they kept it always in the shade of some scorched tree or bush, grew as warm as the air about it. Still Conniston drank great quantities of the warm water until even it warred against him and made him sick. All morning long he fought against a dull, throbbing headache. At noontime he ate little, but sat still, with his bursting temples between his hands.

Again the afternoon dragged on, unbearably long, each tortuous second a slow period of agony. Lonesome Pete's stories of the range country he heard, while he did not attempt to grasp their significance. They no longer amused him. His own position, his own condition, no longer amused him. He felt that he could not laugh; he knew that he would not. He told himself over and over that he was a fool for attempting drudgery like this. He vowed that when at last the day's work was done he would go to Mr. Crawford and say, "I have worked off what I owe you. I am going to quit." They could think what they chose. They could laugh if it pleased them. His was a finer nature than theirs; he was a gentleman, thank God, and no day-laborer.

And night came, and he ate what he could and dragged himself into his bunk in silence. He saw the glances which were directed toward him when he came into the bunk-house; he knew what the men were thinking. He knew what they would say. And while it had been pride until now, now it was nothing in the world but lack of moral courage which made him stick to the thing which he hated.

This day again he had seen Roger Hapgood's horse in the stable. He had heard one of the men say that Hapgood was still resting up at the house as a guest. He himself had not had a fleeting glimpse of Argyl Crawford, and he knew that Hapgood was seeing her constantly. A quick bitterness made up of resentment and a kind of jealousy sprang up within him. He knew that at least the girl was blameless, and yet he blamed her. He told himself, knowing that he was wrong, that she was unfair, unjust, even unkind.

The third day came. It was longer, drearier, wearier than the other two had been. He began to fear that soon he should have to give up. His body, instead of becoming gradually inured to the long hours of toil, seemed to be gradually succumbing to them. He felt that he was wearing out, breaking down. He did not know if Hapgood were still on the Half Moon or if he had gone. He did not greatly care.

Brayley was back from the Lone Dog. He saw him at night when he came into the bunk-house. He and Brayley looked at each other, saying no word. Brayley turned with a casual remark to one of the men; Conniston took his place at the table. Still they said nothing to each other, each man knowing without words that what had passed between them was passed until some new incident should arise to settle matters for them. Brayley, being quick of eye, saw that Conniston had adopted at least one of the customs of the range, and that he carried a revolver at his belt.

The third day was Friday. Conniston determined to work Saturday. Then he would have Sunday for rest. And when Sunday afternoon came he could quit if he felt that his aching body had not recuperated enough to make the following week bearable. But he had yet to learn that in the rush of busy days on the range there is no Sunday. For Sunday morning came and brought no opportunity to sleep until noon. Breakfast was ready at the usual dim hour, and the men went to work as they had on every day since he came to the Half Moon. They knew what he did not, that for many weeks to come they might have no single day off. And they understood, and did not complain.

Brayley stopped him that morning as he was going out of the bunk-house door with Lonesome Pete.

"We got something else to do besides tinker with ol' fences," he said, roughly. "Pete, you got to git along alone to-day. I'll give you a man to-morrow if I can spare one. Conniston, you git your hoss an' go with Rawhide an' Toothy."

Not stopping for an answer, Brayley lurched away toward the range-house. Lonesome Pete, nodding his red head to show that he had heard, filled his water-bottle and got the lunch the cook had ready for him. And Conniston, wondering vaguely what work the Sunday was to bring for him, turned silently and followed Rawhide and the man whom they called Toothy to the stables.

Toothy was a little man, so stubborn, they said, that he even refused to let the sun brown his skin. Instead of being the coppery hue of his companions, the parchment-like stuff drawn tight over his high cheek-bones was a dirty yellow. His eyes were small, set close together, and squinted eternally in a sort of mirthless grin. His teeth, which had given him his name, were the most conspicuous of his odd features. The two front incisors of his upper jaw protruded outward so as to close when his mouth was shut—and generally it wasn't—over his lower lip. He was the smallest man on the range and by long odds the ugliest. But he could ride!

Conniston was sorry to be separated from Lonesome Pete, the only man of the outfit with whom he spoke a dozen words a day, the only man who did not treat him as a rank outsider and an alien. But, on the other hand, he was glad that he was to be given a respite from the blistering wires of the cross-fence, that he was to be given change of work. And when he learned what the work was he was doubly glad. The three men were to ride twenty miles from the bunk-house to the lower corrals of the Lone Dog to gather up a herd of steers there and drive them across to the Sunk Hole. It would mean long hours in the saddle, but Conniston told himself that riding, urging on lagging cattle, would be almost rest after the drudgery of the last four days. And in some elusive way, not clear to himself, he felt that this work carried with it a bit less humiliation than the sort of "hired man's work" which he had been doing with Lonesome Pete.

Like many men who know of the range only what they have read in books, only what they have seen in breezy pictures, it seemed to Conniston that there could be no life so lazy as that of the cowboy who has nothing to do but ride a spirited horse, day in and day out to drive sluggish-blooded cows from one pasture to another or to a market-place, to watch over them as they grazed, or to ride along the outskirts of a scattering herd to see that they did not stray beyond a set boundary-line. That life, as he saw it, was an existence without responsibility, without fatigue, even tinged with something of exhilaration as one galloped up and down over wide grassy meadows. To-day he began to learn that a gay-colored picture may hide quite as much as it shows.

They left the Half Moon corrals at a gentle canter, Conniston swinging along beside the other men, actually enjoying himself. He wondered at the deliberate slowness with which Rawhide Jones and Toothy began their errand. For he had heard the few short orders which Brayley had given, and he knew that to-day was a day of haste, with much to be done. But before they had cantered more than a mile across the rolling country to the west he saw that there was going to be no loitering. They had ridden slowly only until their horses had "warmed up," and now, shaking out their reins loosely, they swept on at a pace which allowed of little conversation. They drew away from the Half Moon corrals at four o'clock. It was not yet six when they pulled in their panting, sweat-covered horses at the corrals of the Lone Dog.

These corrals were at the lower, eastern end of the Lone Dog, and some ten miles from the Lone Dog bunk-house. To reach them the three men had ridden across three spurs of the mountains, across much rough country, and always at a swinging gallop. Conniston's legs, where they rubbed against the sweat leathers of his saddle, were already chafed and raw. With the day's work still ahead of him he was tired and sore. He was more glad than he was willing to confess even to himself when he saw the corrals ahead. For now, he assured himself, there could be little to do but jog along after a slow-moving body of cattle.

The three big corrals were crowded with a bellowing, churning, restless mass of cattle, big, long-horned steers for the most part, and vicious-looking. In a much smaller inclosure were a few saddle-horses—half-broken colts, to look at them—thrusting their long noses above their fence to stare at the seething jam of cattle, or, with tails and manes flying, to run here and there snorting. Two men on horseback were sitting idly near the corrals, seeming to have nothing in all the world to do but smoke cigarettes and watch the milling cattle.

Conniston drew rein with his companions as they stopped for a word with the two men from the Lone Dog. And then he followed them when they turned and rode to the little corral. The horses in it bunched up, quick-eyed, alert, at the far side of the inclosure. Rawhide Jones and Toothy as they rode were taking down the ropes coiled upon their saddles.

"We're goin' to change hosses here," Rawhide said, shortly. "Pick out one for yourse'f, Conniston."

They had ridden into the corral, their ropes in their hands, each man dragging a wide loop at his right side. Toothy rode swiftly into the knot of horses, scattered them, and, as they shot across the corral, sent his rope flying out over their heads. The long loop widened into a circle, hissed through the air, and settled about the neck of a little pinto mare, tightening as it fell. A quick turn about the horn of his saddle, and Toothy set up his own horse. The pinto mare, checked in her headlong flight, swung about, confronting her captor with quivering nostrils and belligerent, flashing eyes. Almost at the same instant Rawhide's rope obeyed Rawhide's hand as Toothy's had done, settling unerringly about the neck of a second horse. And Conniston, with grave misdoubtings and a thumping heart, took his own rope into his hand and rode among the untamed brutes, one of which he was to ride.

Here was another thing which seemed, upon the face of it, so simple and which was simple—to the range born and bred. He knew that there were four men watching him as he fumbled awkwardly with his rope. He knew that in spite of their grave faces they were laughing inwardly. He found that to hold the coil of rope in his left hand while that same hand must keep a tight rein upon his mount, to whirl the widening loop with his right, throwing it at just the right second with just the right force, was one of the things which in pictures looked to be so easy and which were not at all easy to accomplish. He grew hot and red as he became entangled in his own rope.

At last he selected a big roan and threw his rope. He threw awkwardly and a second too late. The loop fell fifteen paces behind the horse, who had seen, understood, and shot by in a flash. Again he coiled his rope, drawing it in to him as he had seen the others do; again he threw, and again he missed. He heard Rawhide Jones curse softly, contemptuously.

Now the horse which he was riding began to plunge and rear, frightened at the rope which now fell upon its back, now struck its flanks in the unskilled hands of the man who was growing the more awkward as his anger surged higher within him.

"You blame fool!" yelled Rawhide Jones. "What in hell are you tryin' to do? Want to throw your own cayuse?"

Conniston glared at him and again coiled his rope. The big roan was once more surrounded by a crowd of his fellows, his ears erect, his long neck outstretched, his eyes watchful and distrustful. The man who was beginning to look upon lassoing as a sheer matter of sleight of hand made his loop again carefully, slowly, trying to convince himself that here was an easy matter, and that the next time he should succeed. And even as he began whirling it above his head, one half of both mind and muscle given over to restrain his nervous mount, he saw another rope shoot out from behind him and settle, tightening, about the roan's neck.

"Bein' as we ain't got all summer to practise up lass'in' bosses," Toothy murmured, apologetically.

Conniston tied his rope to his saddle-strings in silence. After all, there was something to do beyond sit in a saddle. And he soon found that even that was not always play. For the roan which he had selected fought at having the saddle thrown upon his back, so that Toothy had to lend a helping hand. And when the cinch was drawn tight he fought at being mounted. He had been broken, at least—and at most—as much broken as the rest of the three and four year olds in the corral. But he had not been ridden above a dozen times, and certainly had not known the feel of rope or bridle or saddle for months. When at last Conniston got his foot into the stirrup and swung up, violating all range ethics by "pulling leather," the colt shot through the gate of the corral which Rawhide Jones had thrown open, and across the uneven plain, determined, since he could not run away from his enemy, to run away with him.

At home Conniston was accounted an excellent horseman. That meant that he was used to horses, that he rode gracefully, that he was not afraid of them. Horses like the maddened, terrified brutes in the corral, like the quivering, frantic thing he precariously bestrode, he had never even seen. And still, because he was doggedly determined not to fail in everything, because he knew that the men who were watching were enjoying themselves hugely and that they would be greatly delighted to see him thrown, he at last stopped his horse, and with spur and quirt urged him back to the corrals. The roan still fought, still half bucked. But he had not entirely forgotten his past defeats in encounters like this, and finally allowed himself to be mastered.

Then began the real day's work. There were perhaps fifty cows and young heifers in the corrals which were to be left behind, as only the steers were to be driven across country to the Sunk Hole. While Rawhide Jones and Toothy rode into one of the corrals Conniston was to sit his horse at the open gate, allowing the steers to run by him into the open, but heading off any of the smaller cattle. The two Lone Dog men were together working another corral.

Steer after steer passed by Conniston as he held his horse aside, keeping a watchful eye for the cows. Rawhide and Toothy were "cutting them out" as best they could, urging the steers toward the gate, trying to keep the cows to the far side of the inclosure. But again and again a quick-footed heifer pressed her slender body against that of some big, long-horned steer, running with him. That she did not pass through the gate was Conniston's lookout.

They were not sluggish-blooded brutes. They were as swift as a horse almost, quick-footed, alert to leap forward or to stop with sharp hoofs cutting the dry dirt, and swing shortly to the side. In a sudden onrush toward him Conniston shut off one cow by forcing his horse in front of her and threatening her with his waving quirt. As she turned and ran back into the mass behind her he saw two more cows running toward the gate. He swung his horse and dashed at them. But they had seen their opportunity, they had grasped it, and they shot through the gate, mingling with the herd outside.

Again Rawhide cursed him, and Conniston made no answer, having none to make. He gave over his place silently at Rawhide's surly order and rode over to aid Toothy. And he marveled at the ease with which Rawhide did the thing which he himself had found simple from a distance and impossible near at hand.

At last, behind the scattering herd of running cattle, they left the corrals and the Lone Dog men behind, and began their drive forty miles to the Sunk Hole. Now a man must be a hundred places at the same time. In twenty minutes the three horses were wet and dripping with sweat. The herd was one which ordinarily, when there was not so much requiring to be done at once on the ranges, half a dozen men would have handled. The steers were wild; they were as stubborn as hogs; there was no narrow, fenced-in road to keep them in the way they should go. They broke back again and again; they turned off to right and left by ones and twos, by scores. While Conniston galloped after one of them that had left the others and broken into a run to the right the main part of the herd over which he should have been watching took advantage of the opportunity to lose themselves in the timbered gulches to the left. Both Rawhide Jones and Toothy had to ride with him to drive them out of the gulches and back to the herd.

Conniston learned that day how a cattle-man can swear—and why. He learned that a steer is not the easiest thing in the world to handle, that sometimes he is not content with fleeing from his natural enemy, but charges with lowered horns and froth-dripping mouth upon man and horse. He learned many, many little things that day, and some big things. And the biggest thing came to him suddenly, and brought a look into his eyes which had never been there before. He learned that Greek Conniston, the son of William Conniston, of Wall Street, was the most inefficient man upon the range.



CHAPTER VIII

Day followed day in an endless round of range duties, and two weeks had passed since Greek Conniston began work for the Half Moon outfit. He admitted to himself over many a solitary pipeful of cheap tobacco that Miss Argyl Crawford had been the reason for his coming out into the wilderness. And he asked himself what good his coming had done. He had not so much as caught a fleeting glimpse of her since her father had engaged him to go to work at thirty dollars a month. He did not even know that she was still on the range, that she had not gone to Crawfordsville, where her father had a house, where he owned the electric-lighting plant, the water system, and a general merchandise store, and where both father and daughter spent many weeks each year.

The range-house, although but a few hundred yards distant from the bunk-house, might as well have been in the next county. News from it seldom filtered to the men's sleeping-quarters. The foreman, Brayley now, Bat Truxton before him, reported frequently to Mr. Crawford at his office in the big building, took orders from him there, advised with him. The other men went there only when they were sent for, and that was not more than half a dozen times yearly, when that many.

Conniston knew that Hapgood had stayed with the Crawfords two or three days, resting up, as he overheard Brayley say with a fine scorn, and that then he had gone on into Crawfordsville. Conniston supposed that by now he had borrowed money and, if not again in New York, was on his way thither. Of all else of the doings in the big house he was as ignorant as though he had never crossed the desert lands between the Half Moon and Indian Creek.

Conniston most of all men working for Mr. Crawford felt that he could not go to the house. He had come to these people as an equal, as one of their own station in life, even from a plane a bit higher than theirs. When he had gone to work he had not thought that he was to be put upon the same footing as every ignorant laborer who drew his pay from the owner of the Half Moon. He had thought that it would be a lark, that he would come to the house and laugh with the girl over his days of rubbing elbows with thirty-dollar-a-month men. That he would be, in a way, a guest.

Now it was evident that they had forgotten him, that if they thought of Conniston it was merely to remember that he was one of the common outfit. And Conniston's pride told him that if they chose to ignore him, to look down upon him, to shut him out of their world socially, he could do equally as well without them. Which was all very well, but which did not in the least hinder him from dreaming dreams inhabited solely by a slender, lithe, graceful girl with big gray eyes like dawn skies in springtime.

The two weeks had not been wasted. He had learned something, and he had made a friend. The friend was Lonesome Pete. Night after night, with a dogged perseverance which neither towering barriers in the way of unbelievably long words nor the bantering ridicule of his fellows could affect, the red-headed man sat at the table in the bunk-house under the swinging-lamp and conned "Macbeth." Upon long rides across the range he carried "Macbeth" in his hand, a diminutive and unsatisfactory dictionary in his hip-pocket.

One day Conniston and Lonesome Pete were riding together upon some range errand. Lonesome Pete was particularly interested in his study, and Conniston asked him the question he had been upon the verge of asking many times.

"How does it happen, Pete," he said, carelessly, "that you're getting so interested in an education here of late?"

Pete did not answer with his usual alacrity. Conniston, looking at him, about to repeat the question, thinking that it had been lost in the thud of their horses' hoofs, was considerably amazed to see the cowboy's face go as flaming a red as his hair.

"Look here, Con," Pete said, finally, his tone half belligerent, while his eyes, usually so frank, refused to meet Conniston's amused regard, "what I do an' why I do it ain't any other jasper's concern, is it?"

"Certainly not," answered Conniston, promptly. "Certainly not mine. I didn't go to frolic into your personal business, Pete."

"I mean other jaspers, not you, Con," Pete continued, after they had galloped on for a moment in silence. "You been helpin' me so's I don't know how I'd 'a' made such fas' improvement without you. It's like this: here I am, gittin' along first-rate, maybe, like the res' of the boys, workin' steady, an' a few good hard iron dollars put away in a sock. An' all the time with no more eddication than a wall-eyed, year-ol' steer. An' some day, in case I might creep a ways off'n the range, I ain't no more fit to herd with real folks than that same steer is."

"You're figuring, then, on leaving the range? On going to a city to live? To cut something of a dash in society? Is that it, Pete?"

Again Pete blushed.

"Git out, Con! You're joshin'! But what I says is so, an' you know it as well's I do. Now, it's goin' on three months I'm down in Rattlesnake Valley, where the Ol' Man's stringin' his chips on makin' a big play. He's goin' to make a town down in that sand-pile or bust a tug; I ain't sayin' which right now. Anyway, he's already got a school down there, an' they make the kids go. I figgered it out, seein' as them little freckle-nosed sons o' guns could learn readin' an' writin' an' such-like, by gravy, I could do it too!"

The explanation was so simple, and Lonesome Pete had such difficulty in making his halting words come, and had such a way of refusing to look at Conniston, that the latter began to suspect the truth.

"How about the teacher, Pete?" he asked, quietly, innocently. "They have a real fine teacher, I suppose? Man or—woman?"

"Nuther! She's a lady! An' she's that smart as would make a man wonder! In case there's anything as that same Miss Jocelyn Truxton don't know, I ain't wise to it none."

"And—pretty?"

Lonesome Pete's joyous grin was like a beam of summer sunlight.

"They ain't none han'somer as ever wasted her time ridin' herd on a bunch of dirty-faced brats. Say, Con," a bit doubtfully, "I wouldn't mind showin' you—you ain't goin' to blow it off to the boys, are you?"

Conniston swore himself to secrecy and watched Lonesome Pete with twinkling eyes as the cowboy put his hand deep into the inside pocket of his vest—the left pocket. First he removed the safety-pin with which the top edges of the pocket were held securely together. Then he brought out a bit of cardboard wrapped carefully in a wonderfully clean red handkerchief. Whipping the handkerchief from the cardboard, he held out to Conniston's gaze the picture it concealed.

"That's her, Con. An' I'll leave it to you if she ain't in the blue-ribbon class, huh?"

She was pretty, decidedly pretty. Very dark, evidently young, her face rounded, her mouth laughing, her eyes soft and big. And withal it was a doll-like prettiness, a prettiness which was a trifle too conscious of itself; there was a bit too much pose, too much studied effect. Conniston thought that the girl's two chief characteristics were so close under the smiling surface that he could not help seeing them, and that they were, first, vanity; second, weakness.

"So that's Jocelyn Truxton, is it?" He handed the picture back to Lonesome Pete, who, with a long, worshipful glance at it, restored it in its wrapping to his vest pocket. "Not the daughter of Bat Truxton?"

"You wouldn't think it to look at her after seein' him, would you?"

Never having seen either of them, Conniston remained non-committal.

"Mrs. Bat Truxton was a Boston, Mass., girl, an' I reckon as how Miss Jocelyn takes after her."

So there had sprung up between the two men a strange sort of friendship, a strange sort of intimacy. For even when he came to have a strong liking for Lonesome Pete, Conniston could never for a second look upon this illiterate, uncouth cowboy as an equal, could not refrain from feeling toward him an amused and tolerant contempt. If palmy days ever came again, he was used to thinking, he would find a place for the red-headed man in his retinue of hired men. He could have an easy job at a good salary gardening about the Adirondack country home, or perhaps he might grow into a fair chauffeur.

Gradually Conniston had learned how to ride the wild devils they called broken saddle-horses as a cowman should, and without pulling leather. With Lonesome Pete a patient tutor, he was even beginning to learn how to throw a rope without entangling his own person and his own horse in it, and how to make it obey him and drop over the horns of a running steer. These things came slowly and with many discouraging failures. But they served as a stimulant and an encouragement to the man who taught him and whom he taught.

When he had been with the outfit for three weeks Conniston began to feel confident that he could perform the part of the day's work which was allotted to him. His muscles had begun to harden so that they no longer ached and throbbed day and night.

Then one morning he saw Argyl Crawford. He had begun of late to tell himself that he had invested her in his imagination with a charm which was not hers; that after the studied neglect that he had sustained at her hands and at her father's hands he was going to forget all about her. And now, as she came unexpectedly out of the circle of trees, pausing upon a little grassy knoll just where his idle eyes were resting, where the early sun found her out, making her a thing of light against the dull-green background, Conniston caught his breath and told himself that she was in reality the queen of this land of enchantment.

She came out of the forest as a mountain Naiad might have done, her beauty a glorious, wonderful thing, her grace the free, lithe, unconscious grace of the wild things of this country of hers, swift-footed, firm-footed, and, it seemed to the man who watched her, with a sort of shyness which belongs to the creature of the woodlands. As she paused, her hands at her sides, her head lifted with tip-tilted chin, unconscious that any one saw her, not seeing the man who squatted by the spring below the bunk-house, he felt vaguely as though he were looking upon a nymph who, if he so much as moved, would turn swiftly and flash away from him into the depths of her shadowy forest.

Having no desire to be seen just then, Conniston sat very still. The other boys were breakfasting within the bunk-house. He had hurried with his meal, and now was washing a pair of socks. He had no wish to have her see him doing this sort of work. He moved slightly so that the little clump of willows near the spring stood like a screen between them.

He remembered suddenly that he had not had a shave for four days.

Rawhide Jones, Toothy, and Brayley came out of the bunk-house together. They all saw her and as one man lifted their broad-brimmed hats. She called to Brayley, and as the others went down to the stable he walked, lurching, to her. Conniston could not hear what she was saying, but Brayley's heavier voice came to him distinctly. The girl was asking something, and Brayley after a moment's thought agreed to her request. She turned, smiling at him and thanking him, and went back through the trees toward the house. The big foreman came back to the bunk-house. Conniston, his socks washed and now dripping, turned away from the stream and came to the clothes-line running from the corner of the low building to a tree sixty feet away.

"Hey, you, Conniston," Brayley called to him. "You're jest the man I'm lookin' for. Saddle Dandy for Miss Argyl an' take him up to the house for her. An' take your own hoss along. She wants you to go with her."

Conniston flushed up, suddenly rebellious. He had not gone to work to be a lacky to Miss Argyl. He had no desire to lead her horse up to the house for her that she might swing into her saddle, leaving him to follow her at due and respectful distance like a groom. Why had she singled him out from the others to go with her, to play the part of the menial at her orders? Was it simply so that she, a Crawford, the daughter of a man who for all that Conniston knew to the contrary had never been out of this little corner of the West and was in the beginning a nobody, might say in the future that she had been served by a Conniston, by the son of William Conniston, of Wall Street—boasting of it? If she crooked her finger must he run to do her bidding because her father was taking advantage of his temporary exile to have him work for him at a dollar a day?

"Well?" snapped Brayley, as Conniston stood frowning, making no answer, "Did you think I said she wanted you to-morrow?"

For a moment Conniston hesitated. Then, scarcely knowing why he did it, he turned upon his heel and went to hang out his wet socks. Still making no reply to Brayley, he got his hat and strode off to the stable.

Ten minutes later he rode through the circle of trees and to the front of the house, leading Miss Argyl's pony. Miss Crawford, in khaki riding-habit, gray gauntlets, and wide, gray hat, already booted and spurred for her ride, was waiting upon the front steps. As she saw Conniston ride up she nodded gaily to him with a merry "Good morning," and ran lightly down the steps to meet him. He answered her a bit stiffly—with dignity, he would have said—and swung down from his saddle to help her to mount. But before he could come to her side she had mounted, and sat watching him as he again got into his saddle. He saw a vast amusement in her eyes as they omitted no detail of his appearance, missing neither the stubby growth upon cheek and chin, nor the unbuttoned vest with Durham tag and strings protruding, nor the not over-clean chaps, nor the gun at his belt. And when her eyes rested at last upon his they were smiling, and his stubbornly grave and vacant.

"You are going to ride with me?" she asked, quickly.

He inclined his head.

"Orders from Brayley," he said, quietly.

"Oh!" And then, flicking her horse across the flank with her quirt, she turned away from the house and down the roadway which led by the pond and along which Conniston had come that day when he first saw the Half Moon. And Conniston, ten paces behind her, erect, sober-faced, followed her like a well-trained groom.

For a mile they rode at a swift gallop, the girl in front not so much as turning her head to see if he were following, their way leading along the bank of Indian Creek and through the gloomy half-light which sifted down through the mesh of branches of the big trees reaching high overhead. Then she left the road for a narrow trail which wound through trees and bushes down into the creek-bed and across it, coming out through the trees upon the dry grass-covered plain to the east. And now again she rode at a swinging gallop, and he followed her. He knew that twenty miles ahead of them was Rattlesnake Valley. He began to wonder if that were where she was going.

Suddenly she jerked in her horse and sat waiting for him. And Conniston, grown stubbornly determined that if she wanted him she must call to him, stopped his own horse at a respectful distance behind her. She turned her head and looked at him wonderingly.

"What is it, Mr. Conniston? What makes you act so strangely? Don't you want to ride with me?"

He touched his hat with mock solemnity.

"I did not know that you wanted me to. I imagined that the hired man's place—"

"Oh, nonsense!" she broke in, impatiently. And with a swift smile which was so faint, so elusive that it was gone before he could be sure that he had not imagined it, "I thought that you were going—that we were going to be friends."

"That was ages ago," he retorted, bitterly. "Ages before I turned into a dollar-a-day laborer. Before I went to work for your father, Miss Crawford."

"And that is nonsense. A man does a man's work, honorable work with his two hands, and makes his own money, much or little. The most independent men in the world, Mr. Conniston, are men like Brayley and Toothy and Rawhide Jones and the rest. Are you not as good a man as these, as independent, as free to do as you like, as they are?"

"Am I as good a man!" He laughed shortly. "Conceit, no doubt, Miss Crawford, but none the less I really do fancy that a Conniston is as good as the sort of men I have been herding with here of late!"

She seemed not to notice his sarcasm, although his tones rang with it.

"Your going to work for father—I think it was brave of you. If it makes any difference at all it will be because you make it do so. I should be glad to have you ride with me as a companion if you wish."

She pricked her horse with her spur and rode on. And Conniston, after a brief moment of hesitation in which he began to see that he had been acting rather foolishly, galloped up to her side.

"I am afraid I have been boorish, Miss Crawford. You must forgive me."

"In three weeks you have learned a great deal, but there is still a great deal which you do not seem to have assimilated."

"I have learned—" There was a question in his unfinished sentence.

"You have learned to ride as a man must who is to do his day's work of twelve, maybe fifteen, hours in the saddle. Surely that is something. You have learned to rope a steer on the dead run. You have learned to rope your own horse, to throw him while you saddle him, and to ride him when he gets up. You have learned to work."

He stared at her in surprise.

"How do you know what I have been doing?"

She laughed, a happy gurgle of a laugh which made a man want to laugh with her without knowing the cause of her merriment.

"Lonesome Pete has brought me news, and Toothy, and even your friend Brayley! Do you know," mischief lurking in the depths of her eyes above the assumed gravity of her face, "I think that the boys are actually beginning to approve of you."

"Flattering, I must say!"

"I think that it is."

"Even," he cried, incredulously, wondering if she could jest so earnestly—"even by such men as Toothy and Rawhide Jones and the rest?"

She looked at him steadily, frowning a little bit.

"I don't know why you should speak of them so contemptuously. If, on the one hand, they have had no great social advantages, on the other hand have they not at least made men out of themselves?"

"I had hardly looked upon them in that light," he answered, with something of the sneer still in his voice. "I had looked upon them rather as I had supposed you were ready to consider me, as machines of the type which ladies and gentlemen have to wait upon them, to do the unskilled labor for them, as common laborers."

"Common laborers! I hate that word. They are men, aren't they? They are stanch friends and good enemies. They are true to their own laws and to their conceptions of right and wrong. And they are strong and self-reliant and free and independent."

"And still they are ignorant, unrefined, coarse. Not your equals, Miss Crawford, and, I thank God, not mine!"

"Not yours? Are you sure?"

"You are serious—or are you making fun of me?"

"I am very serious." There was no mistaking that when he looked into her eyes.

"They are the sons of Smith and Jones and Brown," he replied slowly. "Smith and Jones and Brown before them were uneducated, ignorant, living lives with low horizons, seeing nothing, knowing nothing of the greater world beyond their ken. They were a degree higher than the horses which they mastered, the cattle which they drove to market. And now their sons, inheriting the limited natures of their sires, have grown like weeds in the environment in which fate put them, with no knowledge of the other things. I think that it is answer enough when I say that I am the son of William Conniston."

He did not mean to boast. He merely stated a simple fact simply. And the scorn leaping up in her eyes, ringing in her clear voice as she answered him, startled him.

"We know a man by his hands, not by his name!" she cried, her face flushing with her eagerness. "Our admiration, our respect is always for the man who does things, not for the man whose father did them for him. And now, because men like Lonesome Pete and Brayley and the rest of the boys live a life which knows nothing of your world, you sneer at them!"

"I'll admit," he granted, although stung by her hot words, "that the poor devils have hardly had a fair chance. They are handicapped—"

"Handicapped!" Her scorn was a fine thing, leaping out at him, cutting into his words. "Can't you see who it is that is handicapped in the great race here—here in the West? Here where there is a fight going on every day, every night of the year, a battle royal of man against mother earth? And the man who fights here successfully a winning fight, not stopping to ask at what odds, must be endowed with a great strength, a rugged physical and moral constitution, self-reliance, a true, deep insight into the natures of other men. Those things my father has. So has Bat Truxton, so has Brayley, so, for that matter, has Lonesome Pete."

He had never seen her so tense, so vehement, so warmly impulsive before. Nor so radiantly beautiful.

"Do you know," she was running on, swiftly, "how it happened that you were selected to ride with me to-day?"

"No. At first I thought merely because you wanted to humiliate me. Now I am beginning to believe that you sent for me to instruct me in certain matters relative to the brotherhood of man!"

"And you were not right at first, and are not right now. I asked Brayley to let me have a man to help me with something I have to do over in the valley, and he said he would send you. Do you guess why?"

"No. It was a kindness from Brayley, and I am not in the habit of expecting kindnesses from him."

"Then I will tell you. He sent you because you are the only man he has working under him whom he could spare. Because he needs all the good men!"

Conniston felt his face go red. He tried to laugh at what she said, to show her that it mattered little to him what a man of Brayley's type said or thought. And he was angry with himself because he knew that it did matter. Biting back the words which first sprang to his lips, he tried to say, lightly:

"I'm afraid that I shall have to lick Brayley for that."

"Lick him!" Again she laughed her disdain. "Why didn't you do it that first night in the bunk-house? Unless," she challenged, "in spite of all your blue blood and white hands and father's name, Brayley is the better man!"

"What do you know of that?" His voice was harsh, his question a command for an answer. "Who told you?"

"I knew there was trouble. I asked about it. Brayley told me."

He made no answer. There was nothing for him to say. She had Brayley's account of the fight, she believed it, and Conniston would not let her know that he cared enough to give his own version.

"I have not meant to be unkind, Mr. Conniston," she said, after a moment. A new note had crept into her voice with what sounded like sympathy. He did not look toward her. "And, after all, it is none of my concern how you think, how you carry yourself. But I did want you to realize just what that great handicap is. You said on that day when you first came to the Half Moon that you were going to make yourself my friend, didn't you? Do you mind if I talk to you now like a friend? You may call me presumptuous if you like. No doubt I am. As a friend I have a right to be meddlesome, haven't I?" She smiled at him as brightly as if she had never said or thought the things which she had flung at him a moment ago. "To begin with, then, I think that you have deep down in some corner of your being a strength which might do great things, that nature intended you to be a man, a great, big, splendid man!"

"Thanks," murmured Conniston, dryly. "I don't know what I have done to deserve—"

"Nothing! You have done nothing! That is just it. Oh, you see, when I start to meddle I do it very thoroughly! It is not what you have done but what you might do. And I was going to tell you what the real handicap is. It is not the being-without-things, without advantages, which has restricted the fuller growth of such men as Bat Truxton and Brayley. It is something very different from that—essentially different. It is the being-raised-a-rich-man's-son! It is the being-born-something instead of the being-obliged-to-make-oneself-something!"

"Theoretically, Miss Crawford, I suppose that you are right. But theory is only theory, you know. Frankly, would not a man be a fool to work when there is no need for it? Would not a man be a fool to eschew the pleasures of life when fortune is ready to spill them into his lap for him? Does not the rich man's son get a great deal more out of the game than the poor devil who spends his life punching cows at thirty dollars a month? Even if I began to take myself seriously at this late hour and to take life as a serious sort of thing, too; even if I tucked in and fell in love with my work"—he shuddered for her benefit—"what good would it do me? If I turned out to be the best rider, the best shot, the best roper of steers, what then?"

"My father," she answered, simply, "like every other man who does big things on a big scale, is always looking for good men, for foremen, for men like Bat Truxton, like Brayley, and for men who must do work for which such men as Brayley are unfit—men who have got an education and have retained their strength of manhood through it. You could grow; you could step from one position to another, you could yourself be a strong man, a big man, a man like my father, like your father. Don't you see? You could be that sort of a man, a real man, a man's man, instead of being the sort of man who is sent upon a girl's errand because none of the other men can be spared. You have done the natural thing heretofore; the fault has not been yours. You have merely been unfortunate in being too fortunate. But now, don't you see, it is different. Now you are being submitted to the test. Why, even your friend, Roger Hapgood—"

"Leave out the friend part. What about him?"

"He is taking hold. He is shaking off the listlessness which has clung to him ever since he was born. Father learned from him that he had studied law in college and got him a place with Mr. Winston in Crawfordsville. And he is working, working hard, and making good!"

"You seem to know everything, Miss Crawford."

"Oh, this is so simple. Mr. Winston is father's lawyer. Mr. Hapgood has ridden back to the Half Moon several times upon business for the firm."

Conniston frowned, little pleased. The Half Moon range-house, then, was open to Hapgood as a friend, as an equal. It was closed to Greek Conniston as a day-laborer! And he knew well enough why Hapgood was staying, why he was working so hard. He had not forgotten the pale-eyed man's appreciation of the girl—and of her father's wealth. He knew that Roger Hapgood was working for much more than his monthly stipend, for much more than the love of the law.

He whirled suddenly toward the girl, surprising her in her scrutiny of his frowning face.

"Why do you care what I do?" he cried, almost fiercely. "Why do you tell me to go ahead, to do something? What difference does it make to you? Will you tell me?"

She returned his look steadily, answered steadily, not hesitating.

"Because it seemed to me a shame for a man like you to be a pawn in a game all of his life while he might be playing the game himself, directing the pawns."

"And there is no other interest?"

"A friend's interest. For," smiling at him, "I believed what you said when you told me that we were going to be friends."

"We are." He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "You have talked very plainly to me to-day, and I can do no more and no less than to thank you. You have told me several things. Some of them are true. I don't know that I agree with the others. You have a way of looking at life, at the world, which is new to me. I must think it all over. I shall know how to think, what to do, to-morrow."

She looked at him questioningly.

"For to-morrow I shall have decided. And then I shall ask for my time and quit, or—"

"Or—?" she asked, quickly.

"Or I shall tie into my work in earnest. I wonder which it will be?"

"I don't wonder at all!" she cried, softly, her eyes very bright. "And to-morrow evening will you come up to the house and tell me what you have decided?"

"I think," he answered her, quietly, "that I have already decided. But I shall not tell you until to-morrow evening."



CHAPTER IX

That night Conniston sat up late, perched high on the corral fence, staring at the stars while he tore down and builded up the World.

He had ridden to Rattlesnake Valley with Argyl, and had spent a big part of the day there with her. He saw scores of men at work with scrapers, picks, and shovels, and understood little enough of what they were doing. He rode with her into a town, a brand-new town, of twenty small, neat houses, as alike as rows of peas. In one of the houses he worked for Argyl, tacking down carpets in the empty rooms, moving furniture which he had uncrated in the yard. This was to be her father's camp, she told him, where he would soon have to spend a part of each week superintending the work which Bat Truxton was pushing forward seven days out of the week. Then they had at last ridden home together, and he had left her at the house, going slowly back to the corrals with the two horses. And now, his day's work done, he stared at the stars, rearranging the universe.

He knew that he was William Conniston, the son of William Conniston of Wall Street. That fact was unchanged, unchangeable. But in some new way, vaguely different, it was not the all-important fact which it had been. It was still something to be glad of, something which he was not going to forget or underestimate. But it was not everything.

Sitting there alone, his pipe dead between his teeth, Greek Conniston asked himself many questions which had never suggested themselves to his complacency before. And he answered them, one by one, without fear or favor. In what was he better than Brayley, than Toothy even? Was he a better man physically? No. Was he a better man morally? No. Was he a better man intellectually? He had thought he was; now he hesitated long before answering that question. Certainly he had had an education which they had missed. Certainly his intellect had been trained, in a fashion, by great men, by learned university professors. But was it any keener than Brayley's and Toothy's; was it any stronger; was it, after all, any more highly trained? In a crisis now was his intellect any better than theirs? In his present environment was it any better? And finally he answered that question as he had answered the others.

Was he a better man in the composite, in the grand total of manhood? Measured by all the standards by which men are measured, stripping off the superficialities of surface culture and clothes, the thin veneer of education which in his case, as in the cases of the great majority of young men who have been graduated from this or that university, had imparted only a sort of finish, a neat, gleaming polish, and no great metamorphosis of the inner and true being, was he a better man? If there was any one particular, no matter how small, in which Greek Conniston was a better man than the men among whom he had moved with careless contempt, he wanted to know what it was!

"I have been a howling young ass!" he told himself, his contempt suddenly swerving upon himself. "A conceited fool and a snob! Lordy, lordy, why didn't somebody tell me—and kick me? A snob—a d—d, insufferable, conceited snob!"

Three weeks ago the things which Argyl Crawford had said to him would have amused the very self-satisfied young man. A week later, when something of the truth had begun to filter in dimly upon him, he would have felt hurt, insulted. Now he was ready to go to her, to thank her, to tell her that a fool was dead, that he hoped a man was being born.

"And I would right now," he muttered to himself, "only I suppose that anything I said would sound like the braying of a jackass!"

The one thing which she had said to him which now returned with ever-increasing significance was the reason, as she had explained it, why he had been chosen to go with her to Rattlesnake Valley. Out of the dozens of men who worked under Brayley's orders he was absolutely the only one who could be spared from the day's work! Every other man had a quicker eye, a stronger body, a firmer hand; every other man was a better rider, a better herder, a better roper, a better all-round man. When there was work that must be done, man's work, he was the one who could be spared from it.

By nature headlong, when Greek Conniston went into a thing he was in the habit of going deep into it. When he drove a new car he drove it night and day and at top speed. When he spent money he spent lavishly, generously, recklessly. When he wasted time he wasted it profligately. And now that he abandoned an old position he did it as thoroughly as he had dissipated his father's money. He was plunging from what had so long seemed to him a great height. Plunging; not cautiously lowering himself inch by inch down a dizzy precipice of self-respect, not looking the while for the first ledge upon which he might rest; plunging headlong from the zenith of self-conceit to the nadir of self-contempt. And the depths into which he hurled himself seemed to him very deep, very black.

He ignored considerations by the way. That he had been handicapped in the race did not suggest itself to him to comfort him. He merely saw that the race was on and that he was far in the rear, choked with the dust of the going. He saw, and saw clearly, that of all the men who took their dollar a day from John Crawford he, Greek Conniston, did the least to earn his. That he was not only not the best man on the range, but that he was the poorest man. He was just his father's son. A man's son, not a man!

He had not eaten supper, had forgotten that he had not eaten. Long he sat in the thickening night, alone, feeling the part of a man marooned by his dawning understanding upon a desert island, vast, impassable, restless seas between him and his race. He watched the stars come out until they were thick set in the black vault above him, flung in sprays, flashing and scintillating down to the low horizons about him. His brooding eyes ran out across the floor of the plain toward Rattlesnake Valley.

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