A STORY OF THE OUTDOOR WEST
By William MacLeod Raine
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. A DESERT MEETING 2. THE KING OF THE BIG HORN COUNTRY 3. AN INVITATION GIVEN AND ACCEPTED 4. AT THE LAZY D RANCH 5. THE DANCE AT FRASER'S 6. A PARTY CALL 7. THE MAN FROM THE SHOSHONE FASTNESSES 8. IN THE LAZY D HOSPITAL 9. A RESCUE 12. MISTRESS AND MAID 13. THE TWO COUSINS 14. FOR THE WORLD'S CHAMPIONSHIP 15. JUDD MORGAN PASSES 16. HUNTING BIG GAME 17. RUN TO EARTH 18. PLAYING FOR TIME 19. WEST POINT TO THE RESCUE 20. TWO CASES OF DISCIPLINE 21. THE SIGNAL LIGHTS 22. EXIT THE KING 23. JOURNEYS END IN LOVERS' MEETING.
CHAPTER 1. A DESERT MEETING
An automobile shot out from a gash in the hills and slipped swiftly down to the butte. Here it came to a halt on the white, dusty road, while its occupant gazed with eager, unsated eyes on the great panorama that stretched before her. The earth rolled in waves like a mighty sea to the distant horizon line. From a wonderful blue sky poured down upon the land a bath of sunbeat. The air was like wine, pure and strong, and above the desert swam the rare, untempered light of Wyoming. Surely here was a peace primeval, a silence unbroken since the birth of creation.
It was all new to her, and wonderfully exhilarating. The infinite roll of plain, the distant shining mountains, the multitudinous voices of the desert drowned in a sunlit sea of space—they were all details of the situation that ministered to a large serenity.
And while she breathed deeply the satisfaction of it, an exploding rifle echo shattered the stillness. With excited sputtering came the prompt answer of a fusillade. She was new to the West; but some instinct stronger than reason told the girl that here was no playful puncher shooting up the scenery to ventilate his exuberance. Her imagination conceived something more deadly; a sinister picture of men pumping lead in a grim, close-lipped silence; a lusty plainsman, with murder in his heart, crumpling into a lifeless heap, while the thin smoke-spiral curled from his hot rifle.
So the girl imagined the scene as she ran swiftly forward through the pines to the edge of the butte bluff whence she might look down upon the coulee that nestled against it. Nor had she greatly erred, for her first sweeping glance showed her the thing she had dreaded.
In a semicircle, well back from the foot of the butte, half a dozen men crouched in the cover of the sage-brush and a scattered group of cottonwoods. They were perhaps fifty yards apart, and the attention of all of them was focused on a spot directly beneath her. Even as she looked, in that first swift moment of apprehension, a spurt of smoke came from one of the rifles and was flung back from the forked pine at the bottom of the mesa. She saw him then, kneeling behind his insufficient shelter, a trapped man making his last stand.
From where she stood the girl distinguished him very clearly, and under the field-glasses that she turned on him the details leaped to life. Tall, strong, slender, with the lean, clean build of a greyhound, he seemed as wary and alert as a panther. The broad, soft hat, the scarlet handkerchief loosely knotted about his throat, the gray shirt, spurs and overalls, proclaimed him a stockman, just as his dead horse at the entrance to the coulee told of an accidental meeting in the desert and a hurried run for cover.
That he had no chance was quite plain, but no plainer than the cool vigilance with which he proposed to make them pay. Even in the matter of defense he was worse off than they were, but he knew how to make the most of what he had; knew how to avail himself of every inch of sagebrush that helped to render him indistinct to their eyes.
One of the attackers, eager for a clearer shot, exposed himself a trifle too far in taking aim. Without any loss of time in sighting, swift as a lightning-flash, the rifle behind the forked pine spoke. That the bullet reached its mark she saw with a gasp of dismay. For the man suddenly huddled down and rolled over on his side.
His comrades appeared to take warning by this example. The men at both ends of the crescent fell back, and for a minute the girl's heart leaped with the hope that they were about to abandon the siege. Apparently the man in the scarlet kerchief had no such expectation. He deserted his position behind the pine and ran back, crouching low in the brush, to another little clump of trees closer to the bluff. The reason for this was at first not apparent to her, but she understood presently when the men who had fallen back behind the rolling hillocks appeared again well in to the edge of the bluff. Only by his timely retreat had the man saved himself from being outflanked.
It was very plain that the attackers meant to take their time to finish him in perfect safety. He was surrounded on every side by a cordon of rifles, except where the bare face of the butte hung down behind him. To attempt to scale it would have been to expose himself as a mark for every gun to certain death.
It was now that she heard the man who seemed to be directing the attack call out to another on his right. She was too far to make out the words, but their effect was clear to her. He pointed to the brow of the butte above, and a puncher in white woolen chaps dropped back out of range and swung to the saddle upon one of the ponies bunched in the rear. He cantered round in a wide circle and made for the butte. His purpose was obviously to catch their victim in the unprotected rear, and fire down upon him from above.
The young woman shouted a warning, but her voice failed to carry. For a moment she stood with her hands pressed together in despair, then turned and swiftly scudded to her machine. She sprang in, swept forward, reached the rim of the mesa, and plunged down. Never before had she attempted so precarious a descent in such wild haste. The car fairly leaped into space, and after it struck swayed dizzily as it shot down. The girl hung on, her face white and set, the pulse in her temple beating wildly. She could do nothing, as the machine rocked down, but hope against many chances that instant destruction might be averted.
Utterly beyond her control, the motor-car thundered down, reached the foot of the butte, and swept over a little hill in its wild flight. She rushed by a mounted horseman in the thousandth part of a second. She was still speeding at a tremendous velocity, but a second hill reduced this somewhat. She had not yet recovered control of the machine, but, though her eyes instinctively followed the white road that flashed past, she again had photographed on her brain the scene of the turbid tragedy in which she was intervening.
At the foot of the butte the road circled and dipped into the coulee. She braced herself for the shock, but, though the wheels skidded till her heart was in her throat, the automobile, hanging on the balance of disaster, swept round in safety.
Her horn screamed an instant warning to the trapped man. She could not see him, and for an instant her heart sank with the fear that they had killed him. But she saw then that they were still firing, and she continued her honking invitation as the car leaped forward into the zone of spitting bullets.
By this time she was recovering control of the motor, and she dared not let her attention wander, but out of the corner of her eye she appreciated the situation. Temporarily, out of sheer amaze at this apparition from the blue, the guns ceased their sniping. She became aware that a light curly head, crouched low in the sage-brush, was moving rapidly to meet her at right angles, and in doing so was approaching directly the line of fire. She could see him dodging to and fro as he moved forward, for the rifles were again barking.
She was within two hundred yards of him, still going rapidly, but not with the same headlong rush as before, when the curly head disappeared in the sage-brush. It was up again presently, but she could see that the man came limping, and so uncertainly that twice he pitched forward to the ground. Incautiously one of his assailants ran forward with a shout the second time his head went down. Crack! The unerring rifle rang out, and the impetuous one dropped in his tracks.
As she approached, the young woman slowed without stopping, and as the car swept past Curly Head flung himself in headlong. He picked himself up from her feet, crept past her to the seat beyond, and almost instantly whipped his rifle to his shoulder in prompt defiance of the fire that was now converged on them.
Yet in a few moments the sound died away, for a voice midway in the crescent had shouted an amazed discovery:
"By God, it's a woman!"
The car skimmed forward over the uneven ground toward the end of the semicircle, and passed within fifty yards of the second man from the end, the one she had picked out as the leader of the party. He was a black, swarthy fellow in plain leather chaps and blue shirt. As they passed he took a long, steady aim.
"Duck!" shouted the man beside her, and dragged her down on the seat so that his body covered hers.
A puff of wind fanned the girl's cheek.
"Near thing," her companion said coolly. He looked back at the swarthy man and laughed softly. "Some day you'll mebbe wish you had sent your pills straighter, Mr. Judd Morgan."
Yet a few wheel-turns and they had dipped forward out of range among the great land waves that seemed to stretch before them forever. The unexpected had happened, and she had achieved a rescue in the face of the impossible.
"Hurt badly?" the girl inquired briefly, her dark-blue eyes meeting his as frankly as those of a boy.
"No need for an undertaker. I reckon I'll survive, ma'am."
"Where are you hit?"
"I just got a telegram from my ankle saying there was a cargo of lead arrived there unexpected," he drawled easily.
"Hurts a good deal, doesn't it?"
"No more than is needful to keep my memory jogged up. It's a sort of a forget-me-not souvenir. For a good boy; compliments of Mr. Jim Henson," he explained.
Her dark glance swept him searchingly. She disapproved the assurance of his manner even while the youth in her applauded his reckless sufficiency. His gay courage held her unconsenting admiration even while she resented it. He was a trifle too much at his ease for one who had just been snatched from dire peril. Yet even in his insouciance there was something engaging; something almost of distinction.
"What was the trouble?"
Mirth bubbled in his gray eyes. "I gathered, ma'am, that they wanted to collect my scalp."
"Do what?" she frowned.
"Bump me off—send me across the divide."
"Oh, I know that. But why?"
He seemed to reproach himself. "Now how could I be so neglectful? I clean forgot to ask."
"That's ridiculous," was her sharp verdict.
"Yes, ma'am, plumb ridiculous. My only excuse is that they began scattering lead so sudden I didn't have time to ask many 'Whyfors.' I reckon we'll just have to call it a Wyoming difference of opinion," he concluded pleasantly.
"Which means, I suppose, that you are not going to tell me."
"I got so much else to tell y'u that's a heap more important," he laughed. "Y'u see, I'm enjoyin' my first automobile ride. It was certainly thoughtful of y'u to ask me to go riding with y'u, Miss Messiter."
"So you know my name. May I ask how?" was her astonished question.
He gave the low laugh that always seemed to suggest a private source of amusement of his own. "I suspicioned that might be your name when I say y'u come a-sailin' down from heaven to gather me up like Enoch."
"Well, ma'am, I happened to drift in to Gimlet Butte two or three days ago, and while I was up at the depot looking for some freight a train sashaid in and side tracked a flat car. There was an automobile on that car addressed to Miss Helen Messiter. Now, automobiles are awful seldom in this country. I don't seem to remember having seen one before."
"I see. You're quite a Sherlock Holmes. Do you know anything more about me?"
"I know y'u have just fallen heir to the Lazy D. They say y'u are a schoolmarm, but I don't believe it."
"Well, I am." Then, "Why don't you believe it?" she added.
He surveyed her with his smile audacious, let his amused eyes wander down from the mobile face with the wild-rose bloom to the slim young figure so long and supple, then serenely met her frown.
"Y'u don't look it."
"No? Are you the owner of a composite photograph of the teachers of the country?"
He enjoyed again his private mirth. "I should like right well to have the pictures of some of them."
She glanced at him sharply, but he was gazing so innocently at the purple Shoshones in the distance that she could not give him the snub she thought he needed.
"You are right. My name is Helen Messiter," she said, by way of stimulating a counter fund of information. For, though she was a young woman not much given to curiosity, she was aware of an interest in this spare, broad-shouldered youth who was such an incarnation of bronzed vigor.
"Glad to meet y'u, Miss Messiter," he responded, and offered his firm brown hand in Western fashion.
But she observed resentfully that he did not mention his own name. It was impossible to suppose that he knew no better, and she was driven to conclude that he was silent of set purpose. Very well! If he did not want to introduce himself she was not going to urge it upon him. In a businesslike manner she gave her attention to eating up the dusty miles.
"Yes, ma'am. I reckon I never was more glad to death to meet a lady than I was to meet up with y'u," he continued, cheerily. "Y'u sure looked good to me as y'u come a-foggin' down the road. I fair had been yearnin' for company but was some discouraged for fear the invitation had miscarried." He broke off his sardonic raillery and let his level gaze possess her for a long moment. "Miss Messiter, I'm certainly under an obligation to y'u I can't repay. Y'u saved my life," he finished gravely.
"It isn't a personal matter at all," she assured him, with a touch of impatient hauteur.
"It 's a heap personal to me."
In spite of her healthy young resentment she laughed at the way in which he drawled this out, and with a swift sweep her boyish eyes took in again his compelling devil-may-care charm. She was a tenderfoot, but intuition as well as experience taught her that he was unusual enough to be one of ten thousand. No young Greek god's head could have risen more superbly above the brick-tanned column of the neck than this close-cropped curly one. Gray eyes, deep and unwavering and masterful, looked out of a face as brown as Wyoming. He was got up with no thought of effect, but the tigerish litheness, the picturesque competency of him, spake louder than costuming.
"Aren't you really hurt worse than you pretend? I'm sure your ankle ought to be attended to as soon as possible."
"Don't tell me you're a lady doctor, ma'am," he burlesqued his alarm.
"Can you tell me where the nearest ranch house is?" she asked, ignoring his diversion.
"The Lazy D is the nearest, I reckon."
"North by east, ma'am."
"Then I'll take the most direct road to it.
"In that case I'll thank y'u for my ride and get out here."
He waved a jaunty hand toward the recent battlefield. "The Lazy D lies right back of that hill. I expect, mebbe, those wolves might howl again if we went back."
"Where, then, shall I take you?"
"I hate to trouble y'u to go out of your way.
"I dare say, but I'm going just the same," she told him, dryly.
"If you're right determined—" He interrupted himself to point to the south. "Do y'u see that camel-back peak over there?"
"The one with the sunshine on its lower edge?"
"That's it, Miss Messiter. They call those two humps the Antelope Peaks. If y'u can drop me somewhere near there I think I'll manage all right."
"I'm not going to leave you till we reach a house," she informed him promptly. "You're not fit to walk fifty yards."
"That's right kind of y'u, but I could not think of asking so much. My friends will find me if y'u leave me where I can work a heliograph."
"Or your enemies," she cut in.
"I hope not. I'd not likely have the luck to get another invitation right then to go riding with a friendly young lady."
She gave him direct, cool, black-blue eyes that met and searched his. "I'm not at all sure she is friendly. I shall want to find out the cause of the trouble you have just had before I make up my mind as to that."
"I judge people by their actions. Y'u didn't wait to find out before bringing the ambulance into action," he laughed.
"I see you do not mean to tell me."
"You're quite a lawyer, ma'am," he evaded.
"I find you a very slippery witness, then."
"Ask anything y'u like and I'll tell you."
"Very well. Who were those men, and why were they trying to kill you?"
"They turned their wolf loose on me because I shot up one of them yesterday."
"Dear me! Is it your business to go around shooting people? That's three I happen to know that you have shot. How many more?"
"No more, ma'am—not recently."
"Well, three is quite enough—recently," she mimicked. "You seem to me a good deal of a desperado."
"Don't say 'Yes, ma'am,' like that, as if it didn't matter in the least whether you are or not," she ordered.
"Oh!" She broke off with a gesture of impatience at his burlesque of obedience. "You know what I mean—that you ought to deny it; ought to be furious at me for suggesting it."
"Of course you ought."
"There's a heap of ways I ain't up to specifications," he admitted, cheerfully.
"And who are they—the men that were attacking you?"
There was a gleam of irrepressible humor in the bold eyes. "Your cow-punchers, ma'am."
"They ce'tainly belong to the Lazy D outfit."
"And you say that you shot one of my men yesterday?" He could see her getting ready for a declaration of war.
"Down by Willow Creek—Yes, ma'am," he answered, comfortably.
"And why, may I ask?" she flamed
"That's a long story, Miss Messiter. It wouldn't be square for me to get my version in before your boys. Y'u ask them." He permitted himself a genial smile, somewhat ironic. "I shouldn't wonder but what they'll give me a giltedged testimonial as an unhanged horse thief."
"Isn't there such a thing as law in Wyoming?" the girl demanded.
"Lots of it. Y'u can buy just as good law right here as in Kalamazoo."
"I wish I knew where to find it."
"Like to put me in the calaboose?"
"In the penitentiary. Yes, sir!" A moment later the question that was in her thoughts leaped hotly from her lips. "Who are you, sir, that dare to commit murder and boast of it?"
She had flicked him on the raw at last. Something that was near to pain rested for a second in his eyes. "Murder is a hard name, ma'am. And I didn't say he was daid, or any of the three," came his gentle answer.
"You MEANT to kill them, anyhow."
"Did I?" There was the ghost of a sad smile about his eyes.
"The way you act, a person might think you one of Ned Bannister's men," she told him, scornfully.
"I expect you're right."
She repented her a little at a charge so unjust. "If you are not ashamed of your name why are you so loath to part with it?"
"Y'u didn't ask me my name," he said, a dark flush sweeping his face.
"I ask it now."
Like the light from a snuffed candle the boyish recklessness had gone out of his face. His jaws were set like a vise and he looked hard as hammered steel.
"My name is Bannister," he said, coldly.
"Ned Bannister, the outlaw," she let slip, and was aware of a strange sinking of the heart.
It seemed to her that something sinister came to the surface in his handsome face. "I reckon we might as well let it go at that," he returned, with bitter briefness.
CHAPTER 2. THE KING OF THE BIG HORN COUNTRY
Two months before this time Helen Messiter had been serenely teaching a second grade at Kalamazoo, Michigan, notwithstanding the earnest efforts of several youths of that city to induce her to retire to domesticity "What's the use of being a schoolmarm?" had been the burden of their plaint. "Any spinster can teach kids C-A-T, Cat, but only one in several thousand can be the prettiest bride in Kalamazoo." None of them, however, had been able to drive the point sufficiently home, and it is probable that she would have continued to devote herself to Young America if an uncle she had never seen had not died without a will and left her a ranch in Wyoming yclept the Lazy D.
When her lawyer proposed to put the ranch on the market Miss Helen had a word to say.
"I think not. I'll go out and see it first, anyhow," she said.
"But really, my dear young lady, it isn't at all necessary. Fact is, I've already had an offer of a hundred thousand dollars for it. Now, I should judge that a fair price."
"Very likely," his client interrupted, quietly. "But, you see, I don't care to sell."
"Then what in the world are you going to do with it?"
"But, my dear Miss Messiter, it isn't an automobile or any other kind of toy. You must remember that it takes a business head and a great deal of experience to make such an investment pay. I really think—"
"My school ends on the fourteenth of June. I'll get a substitute for the last two months. I shall start for Wyoming on the eighteenth of April."
The man of law gasped, explained the difficulties again carefully as to a child, found that he was wasting his breath, and wisely gave it up.
Miss Messiter had started on the eighteenth of April, as she had announced. When she reached Gimlet Butte, the nearest railroad point to the Lazy D, she found a group of curious, weatherbeaten individuals gathered round a machine foreign to their experience. It was on a flat car, and the general opinion ran the gamut from a newfangled sewing machine to a thresher. Into this guessing contest came its owner with so brisk and businesslike an energy that inside of two hours she was testing it up and down the wide street of Gimlet Butte, to the wonder and delight of an audience to which each one of the eleven saloons of the city had contributed its admiring quota.
Meanwhile the young woman attended strictly to business. She had disappeared for half an hour with a suit case into the Elk House; and when she returned in a short-skirted corduroy suit, leggings and wide-brimmed gray Stetson hat, all Gimlet Butte took an absorbing interest in the details of this delightful adventure that had happened to the town. The population was out en masse to watch her slip down the road on a trial trip.
Presently "Soapy" Sothern, drifting in on his buckskin from the Hoodoo Peak country, where for private reasons of his own he had been for the past month a sojourner, reported that he had seen the prettiest sight in the State climbing under a gasoline bronc with a monkey-wrench in her hand. Where? Right over the hill on the edge of town. The immediate stampede for the cow ponies was averted by a warning chug-chug that sounded down the road, followed by the appearance of a flashing whir that made the ponies dance on their hind legs.
"The gasoline bronc lady sure makes a hit with me," announced "Texas," gravely. "I allow I'll rustle a job with the Lazy D outfit."
"She ce'tainly rides herd on that machine like a champeen," admitted Soapy. "I reckon I'll drift over to the Lazy D with you to look after yore remains, Tex, when the lightning hits you."
Miss Messiter swung the automobile round in a swift circle, came to an abrupt halt in front of the hotel, and alighted without delay. As she passed in through the half score of admirers she had won, her dark eyes swept smilingly over assembled Cattleland. She had already met most of them at the launching of the machine from the flat car, and had directed their perspiring energies as they labored to follow her orders. Now she nodded a recognition with a little ripple of gay laughter.
"I'm delighted to be able to contribute to the entertainment of Gimlet Butte," she said, as she swept in. For this young woman was possessed of Western adaptation. It gave her no conscientious qualms to exchange conversation fraternal with these genial savages.
The Elk House did not rejoice in a private dining room, and competition strenuous ensued as to who should have the pleasure of sitting beside the guest of honor. To avoid ill feeling, the matter was determined by a game of freeze-out, in which Texas and a mature gentleman named, from his complexion, "Beet" Collins, were the lucky victors. Texas immediately repaired to the general store, where he purchased a new scarlet bandanna for the occasion; also a cake of soap with which to rout the alkali dust that had filtered into every pore of his hands and face from a long ride across the desert.
Came supper and Texas simultaneously, the cow-puncher's face scrubbed to an apple shine. At the last moment Collins defaulted, his nerve completely gone. Since, however, he was a thrifty soul, he sold his place to Soapy for ten dollars, and proceeded to invest the proceeds in an immediate drunk.
During the first ten minutes of supper Miss Messiter did not appear, and the two guardians who flanked her chair solicitously were the object of much badinage.
"She got one glimpse of that red haid of Tex and the pore lady's took to the sage," explained Yorky.
"And him scrubbed so shiny fust time since Christmas before the big blizzard," sighed Doc Rogers.
"Shucks! She ain't scared of no sawed-off, hammered-down runt like Texas, No, siree! Miss Messiter's on the absent list 'cause she's afraid she cayn't resist the blandishments of Soapy. Did yo' ever hear about Soapy and that Caspar hash slinger?"
"Forget it, Slim," advised Soapy, promptly. He had been engaged in lofty and oblivious conversation with Texas, but he did not intend to allow reminiscences to get under way just now.
At this opportune juncture arrived the mistress of the "gasoline bronc," neatly clad in a simple white lawn with blue trimmings. She looked like a gleam of sunshine in her fresh, sweet youth; and not even in her own school room had she ever found herself the focus of a cleaner, more unstinted admiration. For the outdoors West takes off its hat reverently to women worthy of respect, especially when they are young and friendly.
Helen Messiter had come to Wyoming because the call of adventure, the desire for experience outside of rutted convention, were stirring her warm-blooded youth. She had seen enough of life lived in a parlor, and when there came knocking at her door a chance to know the big, untamed outdoors at first hand she had at once embraced it like a lover. She was eager for her new life, and she set out skillfully to make these men tell her what she wanted to know. To them, of course, it was an old story, and whatever of romance it held was unconscious. But since she wanted to talk of the West they were more than ready to please her.
So she listened, and drew them out with adroit questions when it was necessary. She made them talk of life on the open range, of rustlers and those who lived outside the law in the upper Shoshone country, of the deadly war waging between the cattle and sheep industries.
"Are there any sheep near the Lazy D ranch?" she asked, intensely interested in Soapy's tale of how cattle and sheep could no more be got to mix than oil and water.
For an instant nobody answered her question; then Soapy replied, with what seemed elaborate carelessness:
"Ned Bannister runs a bunch of about twelve thousand not more'n fifteen or twenty miles from your place."
"And you say they are spoiling the range?"
"They're ce'tainly spoiling it for cows."
"But can't something be done? If my cows were there first I don't see what right he has to bring his sheep there," the girl frowned.
The assembled company attended strictly to supper. The girl, surprised at the stillness, looked round. "Well?"
"Now you're shouting, ma'am! That's what we say," enthused Texas, spurring to the rescue.
"It doesn't much matter what you say. What do you do?" asked Helen, impatiently. "Do you lie down and let Mr. Bannister and his kind drive their sheep over you?"
"Do we, Soapy?" grinned Texas. Yet it seemed to her his smile was not quite carefree.
"I'm not a cowman myself," explained Soapy to the girl. "Nor do I run sheep. I—"
"Tell Miss Messiter what yore business is, Soapy," advised Yorky from the end of the table, with a mouthful of biscuit swelling his cheeks.
Soapy crushed the irrepressible Yorky with a look, but that young man hit back smilingly.
"Soapy, he sells soap, ma'am. He's a sorter city salesman, I reckon."
"I should never have guessed it. Mr. Sothern does not LOOK like a salesman," said the girl, with a glance at his shrewd, hard, expressionless face.
"Yes, ma'am, he's a first-class seller of soap, is Mr. Sothern," chuckled the cow-puncher, kicking his friends gayly under the table.
"You can see I never sold HIM any, Miss Messiter," came back Soapy, sorrowfully.
All this was Greek to the young lady from Kalamazoo. How was she to know that Mr. Sothern had vended his soap in small cubes on street corners, and that he wrapped bank notes of various denominations in the bars, which same were retailed to eager customers for the small sum of fifty cents, after a guarantee that the soap was good? His customers rarely patronized him twice; and frequently they used bad language because the soap wrapping was not as valuable as they had expected. This was manifestly unfair, for Mr. Sothern, who made no claims to philanthropy, often warned them that the soap should be bought on its merits, and not with an eye single to the premium that might or might not accompany the package.
"I started to tell you, ma'am, when that infant interrupted, that the cowmen don't aim to quit business yet a while. They've drawn a dead-line, Miss Messiter."
"Yes, ma'am, beyond which no sheep herder is to run his bunch."
"And if he does?" the girl asked, open eyed.
"He don't do it twict, ma'am. Why don't you pass the fritters to Miss Messiter, Slim?"
"And about this Bannister Who is he?"
Her innocent question seemed to ring a bell for silence; seemed to carry with it some hidden portent that stopped idle conversation as a striking clock that marks the hour of an execution.
The smile that had been gay grew grim, and men forgot the subject of their light, casual talk. It was Sothern that answered her, and she observed that his voice was grave, his face studiously without expression.
"Mr. Bannister, ma'am, is a sheepman."
"So I understood, but—" Her eyes traveled swiftly round the table, and appraised the sudden sense of responsibility that had fallen on these reckless, careless frontiersmen. "I am wondering what else he is. Really, he seems to be the bogey man of Gimlet Butte."
There was another instant silence, and again it was Soapy that lifted it. "I expaict you'll like Wyoming, Miss Messiter; leastways I hope you will. There's a right smart of country here." His gaze went out of the open door to the vast sea of space that swam in the fine sunset light. "Yes, most folks that ain't plumb spoilt with city ways likes it."
"Sure she'll like it. Y'u want to get a good, easy-riding hawss, Miss Messiter," advised Slim.
"And a rifle," added Texas, promptly.
It occurred to her that they were all working together to drift the conversation back to a safe topic. She followed the lead given her, but she made up her mind to know what it was about her neighbor, Mr. Bannister, the sheep herder, that needed to be handled with such wariness and circumspection of speech.
Her chance came half an hour later, when she stood talking to the landlady on the hotel porch in the mellow twilight that seemed to rest on the land like a moonlit aura. For the moment they were alone.
"What is it about this man Bannister that makes men afraid to speak of him?" she demanded, with swift impulse.
Her landlady's startled eyes went alertly round to see that they were alone. "Hush, child! You mustn't speak of him like that," warned the older woman.
"Why mustn't I? That's what I want to know."
"Is isn't healthy."
"What do you mean?"
Again that anxious look flashed round in the dusk. "The Bannister outfit is the worst in the land. Ned Bannister is king of the whole Big Horn country and beyond that to the Tetons."
"And you mean to tell me that everybody is afraid of him—that men like Mr. Sothern dare not say their soul is their own?" the newcomer asked, contemptuously.
"Not so loud, child. He has spies everywhere That's the trouble. You don't know who is in with him. He's got the whole region terrified."
"Is he so bad?"
"He is a devil. Last year he and his hell riders swept down on Topaz and killed two bartenders just to see them kick, Ned Bannister said. Folks allow they knew too much."
"But the law—the Government? Haven't you a sheriff and officers?"
"Bannister has. He elects the sheriff in this county."
"Aren't there more honest people here than villains?"
"Ten times as many, but the trouble is that the honest folks can't trust each other. You see, if one of them made a mistake and confided in the wrong man—well, some fine day he would go riding herd and would not turn up at night. Next week, or next month, maybe, one of his partners might find a pile of bones in an arroyo.
"Have you ever seen this Bannister?"
"You MUST speak lower when you talk of him, Miss Messiter," the woman insisted. "Yes, I saw him once; at least I think I did. Mighty few folks know for sure that they have seen him. He is a mystery, and he travels under many names and disguises."
"When was it you think you saw him?"
"Two years ago at Ayr. The bank was looted that night and robbed of thirty thousand dollars. They roused the cashier from his bed and made him give the combination. He didn't want to, and Ned Bannister"—her voice sank to a tremulous whisper—"put red-hot running-irons between his fingers till he weakened. It was a moonlight night—much such a night as this—and after it was done I peeped through the blind of my room and saw them ride away. He rode in front of them and sang like an angel—did it out of daredeviltry to mock the people of the town that hadn't nerve enough to shoot him. You see, he knew that nobody would dare hurt him 'count of the revenge of his men."
"What was he like?" the mistress of the Lazy D asked, strangely awed at this recital of transcendent villainy.
"'Course he was masked, and I didn't see his face. But I'd know him anywhere. He's a long, slim fellow, built like a mountain lion. You couldn't look at him and ever forget him. He's one of these graceful, easy men that go so fur with fool women; one of the kind that half shuts his dark, devil eyes and masters them without seeming to try."
"So he's a woman killer, too, is he? Any more outstanding inconsistencies in this versatile Jesse James?"
"He's plumb crazy about music, they say. Has a piano and plays Grigg and Chopping, and all that classical kind of music. He went clear down to Denver last year to hear Mrs. Shoeman sing."
Helen smiled, guessing at Schumann-Heink as the singer in question, and Grieg and Chopin as the composers named. Her interest was incredibly aroused. She had expected the West and its products to exhilarate her, but she had not looked to find so finished a Mephisto among its vaunted "bad men." He was probably overrated; considered a wonder because his accomplishments outstepped those of the range. But Helen Messiter had quite determined on one thing. She was going to meet this redoubtable villain and make up her mind for herself. Already, before she had been in Wyoming six hours, this emancipated young woman had decided on that.
CHAPTER 3. AN INVITATION GIVEN AND ACCEPTED
And already she had met him. Not only met him, but saved him from the just vengeance about to fall upon him. She had not yet seen her own ranch, had not spoken to a single one of her employees, for it had been a part of her plan to drop in unexpected and examine the situation before her foreman had a chance to put his best foot forward. So she had started alone from Gimlet Butte that morning in her machine, and had come almost in sight of the Lazy D ranch houses when the battle in the coulee invited her to take a hand.
She had acted on generous impulse, and the unforeseen result had been to save this desperado from justice. But the worst of it was that she could not find it in her heart to regret it. Granted that he was a villain, double-dyed and beyond hope, yet he was the home of such courage, such virility, that her unconsenting admiration went out in spite of herself. He was, at any rate, a MAN, square-jawed, resolute, implacable. In the sinuous trail of his life might lie arson, robbery, murder, but he still held to that dynamic spark of self-respect that is akin to the divine. Nor was it possible to believe that those unblinking gray eyes, with the capability of a latent sadness of despair in them, expressed a soul entirely without nobility. He had a certain gallant ease, a certain attractive candor, that did not consist with villainy unadulterated.
It was characteristic even of her impulsiveness that Helen Messiter curbed the swift condemnation that leaped to her lips when she knew that the man sitting beside her was the notorious bandit of the Shoshone fastnesses. She was not in the least afraid. A sure instinct told her he was not the kind of a man of whom a woman need have fear so long as her own anchor held fast. In good time she meant to let him have her unvarnished opinion of him, but she did not mean it to be an unconsidered one. Wherefore she drove the machine forward toward the camelbacked peak he had indicated, her eyes straight before her, a frown corrugating her forehead.
For him, having made his dramatic announcement, he seemed content for the present with silence. He leaned back in the car and appreciated her with a coolness that just missed impudence. Certainly her appearance proclaimed her very much worth while. To dwell on the long lines of her supple young body, the exquisite throat and chin curve, was a pleasure with a thrill to it. As a physical creation, a mere innocent young animal, he thought her perfect; attuned to a fine harmony of grace and color. But it was the animating vitality of her, the lightness of motion, the fire and sparkle of expression that gave her the captivating charm she possessed.
They were two miles nearer the camel-backed peak before he broke the silence.
"Beats a bronco for getting over the ground. Think I'll have to get one," he mused aloud.
"With the money you took from the Ayr bank?" she flashed.
"I might drive off some of your cows and sell them," he countered, promptly. "About how much will they hold me up for a machine like this?"
"This is only a runabout. You can get one for twelve or fourteen hundred dollars of anybody's money."
"Of yours?" he laughed.
"I haven't that much with me. If you'll come over and hold up the ranch perhaps we might raise it among us," she jeered.
His mirth was genuine. "But right now I couldn't get more than how much off y'u?"
"Sixty-three dollars is all I have with me, and I couldn't give you more—NOT EVEN IF YOU PUT RED HOT IRONS BETWEEN MY FINGERS." She gave it to him straight, her blue eyes fixed steadily on him.
Yet she was not prepared for the effect of her words. The last thing she had expected was to see the blood wash out of his bronzed face, to see his sensitive nostrils twitch with pain. He made her feel as if she had insulted him, as if she had been needlessly cruel. And because of it she hardened her heart. Why should she spare him the mention of it? He had not hesitated at the shameless deed itself. Why should she shrink before that wounded look that leaped to his fine eyes in that flash of time before he hardened them to steel?
"You did it—didn't you?" she demanded.
"That's what they say." His gaze met her defiantly.
"And it is true, isn't it?"
"Oh, anything is true of a man that herds sheep," he returned, bitterly.
"If that is true it would not be possible for you to understand how much I despise you."
"Thank you," he retorted, ironically.
"I don't understand at all. I don't see how you can be the man they say you are. Before I met you it was easy to understand. But somehow—I don't know—you don't LOOK like a villain." She found herself strangely voicing the deep hope of her heart. It was surely impossible to look at him and believe him guilty of the things of which, he was accused. And yet he offered no denial, suggested no defense.
Her troubled eyes went over his thin, sunbaked face with its touch, of bitterness, and she did not find it possible to dismiss the subject without giving him a chance to set himself right.
"You can't be as bad as they say. You are not, are you?" she asked, naively.
"What do y'u think?" he responded, coolly.
She flushed angrily at what she accepted as his insolence. "A man of any decency would have jumped at the chance to explain."
"But if there is nothing to explain?"
"You are then guilty."
Their eyes met, and neither of them quailed.
"If I pleaded not guilty would y'u believe me?"
She hesitated. "I don't know. How could I when it is known by everybody? And yet—"
He smiled. "Why should I trouble y'u, then, with explanations? I reckon we'll let it go at guilty."
"Is that all you can say for yourself?"
He seemed to hang in doubt an instant, then shook his head and refused the opening.
"I expect if we changed the subject I could say a good deal for y'u," he drawled. "I never saw anything pluckier than the way y'u flew down from the mesa and conducted the cutting-out expedition. Y'u sure drilled through your punchers like a streak of lightning."
"I didn't know who you were," she explained, proudly.
"Would it have made any difference if y'u had?"
Again the angry flush touched her cheeks. "Not a bit. I would have saved you in order to have you properly hanged later," she cut back promptly.
He shook his head gayly. "I'm ce'tainly going to disappoint y'u some. Your enterprising punchers may collect me yet, but not alive, I reckon."
"I'll give them strict orders to bring you in alive."
"Did you ever want the moon when y'u was a little kid?" he asked.
"We'll see, Mr. Outlaw Bannister."
He laughed softly, in the quiet, indolent fashion that would have been pleasant if it had not been at her. "It's right kind of you to take so much interest in me. I'd most be willing to oblige by letting your boys rope me to renew this acquaintance, ma'am." Then, "I get out here Miss Messiter," he added.
She stopped on the instant. Plainly she could not get rid of him too soon. "Haven't you forgot one thing?" she asked, ironically.
"Yes, ma'am. To thank you proper for what y'u did for me." He limped gingerly down from the car and stood with his hand on one of the tires. "I have been trying to think how to say it right; but I guess I'll have to give it up. All is that if I ever get a chance to even the score—"
She waved his thanks aside impatiently "I didn't mean that. You have forgotten to take my purse."
His gravity was broken on the instant, and his laughter was certainly delightfully fresh. "I clean forgot, but I expect I'll drop over to the ranch for it some day."
"We'll try to make to make you welcome, Mr. Bannister."
"Don't put yourself out at all. I'll take pot-luck when I come."
"How many of you may we expect?" she asked, defiantly.
"Oh, I allow to come alone."
"You'll very likely forget."
"No, ma'am, I don't know so many ladies that I'm liable to such an oversight.
"I have heard a different story. But if you do remember to come, and will let us know when you expect to honor the Lazy D, I'll have messengers sent to meet you."
He perfectly understood her to mean leaden ones, and the humorous gleam in his eye sparkled in appreciation of her spirit. "I don't want all that fuss made over me. I reckon I'll drop in unexpected," he said.
She nodded curtly. "Good-bye. Hope your ankle won't trouble you very much."
"Thank y'u, ma'am. I reckon it won't. Good-bye, Miss Messiter."
Out of the tail of her eye she saw him bowing like an Italian opera singer, as impudently insouciant, as gracefully graceless as any stage villain in her memory. Once again she saw him, when her machine swept round a curve and she could look back without seeming to do so, limping across through the sage brush toward a little hillock near the road. And as she looked the bare, curly head was inclined toward her in another low, mocking bow. He was certainly the gallantest vagabond unhanged.
CHAPTER 4. AT THE LAZY D RANCH
Helen Messiter was a young woman very much alive, which implies that she was given to emotions; and as her machine skimmed over the ground to the Lazy D she had them to spare. For from the first this young man had taken her eye, and it had come upon her with a distinct shock that he was the notorious scoundrel who was terrorizing the countryside. She told herself almost passionately that she would never have believed it if he had not said so himself. She knew quite well that the coldness that had clutched her heart when he gave his name had had nothing to do with fear. There had been chagrin, disappointment, but nothing in the least like the terror she might have expected. The simple truth was that he had seemed so much a man that it had hurt her to find him also a wild beast.
Deep in her heart she resented the conviction forced upon her. Reckless he undoubtedly was, at odds with the law surely, but it was hard to admit that attractive personality to be the mask of fiendish cruelty and sinister malice. And yet—the facts spoke for themselves. He had not even attempted a denial. Still there was a mystery about him, else how was it possible for two so distinct personalities to dwell together in the same body.
She hated him with all her lusty young will; not only for what he was, but also for what she had been disappointed in not finding him after her first instinctive liking. Yet it was with an odd little thrill that she ran down again into the coulee where her prosaic life had found its first real adventure. He might be all they said, but nothing could wipe out the facts that she had offered her life to save his, and that he had lent her his body as a living shield for one exhilarating moment of danger.
As she reached the hill summit beyond the coulee, Helen Messiter was aware that a rider in ungainly chaps of white wool was rapidly approaching. He dipped down into the next depression without seeing her; and when they came face to face at the top of the rise the result was instantaneous. His pony did an animated two-step not on the programme. It took one glance at the diabolical machine, and went up on its hind legs, preliminary to giving an elaborate exhibition of pitching. The rider indulged in vivid profanity and plied his quirt vigorously. But the bronco, with the fear of this unknown evil on its soul, varied its bucking so effectively that the puncher astride its hurricane deck was forced, in the language of his kind, to "take the dust."
His red head sailed through the air and landed in the white sand at the girl's feet. For a moment he sat in the road and gazed with chagrin after the vanishing heels of his mount. Then his wrathful eyes came round to the owner of the machine that had caused the eruption. His mouth had opened to give adequate expression to his feelings, when he discovered anew the forgotten fact that he was dealing with a woman. His jaw hung open for an instant in amaze; and when he remembered the unedited vocabulary he had turned loose on the world a flood of purple swept his tanned face.
She wanted to laugh, but wisely refrained. "I'm very sorry," was what she said.
He stared in silence as he slowly picked himself from the ground. His red hair rose like the quills of a porcupine above a face that had the appearance of being unfinished. Neither nose nor mouth nor chin seemed to be quite definite enough.
She choked down her gayety and offered renewed apologies.
"I was going for a doc," he explained, by way of opening his share of the conversation.
"Then perhaps you had better jump in with me and ride back to the Lazy D. I suppose that's where you came from?"
He scratched his vivid head helplessly. "Yes, ma'am."
"Then jump in."
"I was going to Bear Creek, ma'am," he added dubiously.
"How far is it?"
"'Bout twenty-five miles, and then some."
"You don't expect to walk, do you?"
"No; I allowed—"
"I'll take you back to the ranch, where you can get another horse."
"I reckon, ma'am, I'd ruther walk."
"I ain't used to them gas wagons."
"It's quite safe. There is nothing to be afraid of."
Reluctantly he got in beside her, as happy as a calf in a branding pen.
"Are you the lady that sashaid off with Ned Bannister?" he asked presently, after he had had time to smother successively some of his fear, wonder and delight at their smooth, swift progress.
"The boys allow you hadn't oughter have done it." Then, to place the responsibility properly on shoulders broader than his own, he added: "That's what Judd says."
"And who is Judd?"
"Judd, he's the foreman of the Lazy D."
Below them appeared the corrals and houses of a ranch nestling in a little valley flanked by hills.
"This yere's the Lazy D," announced the youth, with pride, and in the spirit of friendliness suggested a caution. "Judd, he's some peppery. You wanter smooth him down some, seeing as he's riled up to-day."
A flicker of steel came into the blue eyes. "Indeed! Well, here we are."
"If it ain't Reddy, AND the lady with the flying machine," murmured a freckled youth named McWilliams, emerging from the bunkhouse with a pan of water which had been used to bathe the wound of one of the punctured combatants.
"What's that?" snapped a voice from within; and immediately its owner appeared in the doorway and bored with narrowed black eyes the young woman in the machine.
"Who are you?" he demanded, brusquely.
"Your target," she answered, quietly. "Would you like to take another shot at me?"
The freckled lad broke out into a gurgle of laughter, at which the black, swarthy man beside him wheeled round in a rage. "What you cacklin' at, Mac?" he demanded, in a low voice.
"Oh, the things I notice," returned that youth jauntily, meeting the other's anger without the flicker of an eyelid.
"It ain't healthy to be so noticin'," insinuated the other.
"Y'u don't say," came the prompt, sarcastic retort. "If you're such a darned good judge of health, y'u better be attending to some of your patients." He jerked a casual thumb over his shoulder toward the bunks on which lay the wounded men.
"I shouldn't wonder but what there might be another patient for me to attend to," snarled the foreman.
"That so? Well, turn your wolf loose when y'u get to feelin' real devilish," jeered the undismayed one, strolling forward to assist Miss Messiter to alight.
The mistress of the Lazy D had been aware of the byplay, but she had caught neither the words nor their import. She took the offered brown hand smilingly, for here again she looked into the frank eyes of the West, unafraid and steady. She judged him not more than twenty-two, but the school where he had learned of life had held open and strenuous session every day since he could remember.
"Glad to meet y'u, ma'am," he assured her, in the current phrase of the semi-arid lands.
"I'm sure I am glad to meet YOU," she answered, heartily. "Can you tell me where is the foreman of the Lazy D?"
He introduced with a smile the swarthy man in the doorway. "This is him ma'am—Mr. Judd Morgan."
Now it happened that Mr. Judd Morgan was simmering with suppressed spleen.
"All I've got to say is that you had no business mixing up in that shootin' affair back there. Perhaps you don't know that the man you saved is Ned Bannister, the outlaw," was his surly greeting.
"Oh, yes, I know that."
"Then what d'ye mean—Who are you, anyway?" His insolent eyes coasted malevolently over her.
"Helen Messiter is my name."
It was ludicrous to see the change that came over the man. He had been prepared to bully her; and with a word she had pricked the bubble of his arrogance. He swallowed his anger and got a mechanical smile in working order.
"Glad to see you here, Miss Messiter," he said, his sinister gaze attempting to meet hers frankly "I been looking for you every day."
"But y'u managed to surprise him, after all ma'am," chuckled Mac.
"Where's yo' hawss, Reddy?" inquired a tall young man, who had appeared silently in the doorway of the bunkhouse.
Reddy pinked violently. "I had an accident, Denver," he explained. "This lady yere she—"
"Scooped y'u right off yore hawss. Y'u don't say," sympathized Mac so breathlessly that even Reddy joined in the chorus of laughter that went up at his expense.
The young woman thought to make it easy for him, and suggested an explanation.
"His horse isn't used to automobiles, and so when it met this one—"
"I got off," interposed Reddy hastily, displaying a complexion like a boiled beet.
"He got off," Mac explained gravely to the increasing audience.
Denver nodded with an imperturbable face. "He got off."
Mac introduced Miss Messiter to such of her employees as were on hand. "Shake hands with Miss Messiter, Missou," was the formula, the name alone varying to suit the embarrassed gentlemen in leathers. Each of them in turn presented a huge hand, in which her little one disappeared for the time, and was sawed up and down in the air like a pump-handle. Yet if she was amused she did not show it; and her pleasure at meeting the simple, elemental products of the plains outweighed a great deal her sense of the ludicrous.
"How are your patients getting along?" she presently asked of her foreman.
"I reckon all right. I sent Reddy for a doc, but—"
"He got off," murmured Mac pensively.
"I'll go rope another hawss," put in the man who had got off.
"Get a jump on you, then. Miss Messiter, would you like to look over the place?"
"Not now. I want to see the men that were hurt. Perhaps I can help them. Once I took a few weeks in nursing."
"Bully for you, ma'am," whooped Mac. "I've a notion those boys are sufferin' for a woman to put the diamond-hitch on them bandages."
"Bring that suit-case in," she commanded Denver, in the gentlest voice he had ever heard, after she had made a hasty inspection of the first wounded man.
From the suit-case she took a little leather medicine-case, the kind that can be bought already prepared for use. It held among other things a roll of medicated cotton, some antiseptic tablets, and a little steel instrument for probing.
"Some warm water, please; and have some boiling on the range," were her next commands.
Mac flew to execute them.
It was a pleasure to see her work, so deftly the skillful hands accomplished what her brain told them. In admiring awe the punchers stood awkwardly around while she washed and dressed the hurts. Two of the bullets had gone through the fleshy part of the arm and left clean wounds. In the case of the third man she had to probe for the lead, but fortunately found it with little difficulty. Meanwhile she soothed the victim with gentle womanly sympathy.
"I know it hurts a good deal. Just a minute and I'll be through."
His hands clutched tightly the edges of his bunk. "That's all right, doc. You attend to roping that pill and I'll endure the grief."
A long sigh of relief went up from the assembled cowboys when she drew the bullet out.
The sinewy hands fastened on the wooden bunk relaxed suddenly.
"'Frisco's daid," gasped the cook, who bore the title of Wun Hop for no reason except that he was an Irishman in a place formerly held by a Chinese.
"He has only fainted," she said quietly, and continued with the antiseptic dressing.
When it was all over, the big, tanned men gathered at the entrance to the calf corral and expanded in admiration of their new boss.
"She's a pure for fair. She grades up any old way yuh take her to the best corn-fed article on the market," pronounced Denver, with enthusiasm.
"I got to ride the boundary," sighed Missou. "I kinder hate to go right now."
"Here, too," acquiesced another. "I got a round-up on Wind Creek to cut out them two-year-olds. If 'twas my say-so, I'd order Mac on that job."
"Right kind of y'u. Seems to me"—Mac's sarcastic eye trailed around to include all those who had been singing her praises—"the new queen of this hacienda won't have no trouble at all picking a prince consort when she gets round to it. Here's Wun Hop, not what y'u might call anxious, but ce'tainly willing. Then Denver's some in the turtle-dove business, according to that hash-slinger in Cheyenne. Missou might be induced to accept if it was offered him proper; and I allow Jim ain't turned the color of Redtop's hair jest for instance. I don't want to leave out 'Frisco and the other boys carrying Bannister's pills—"
"Nor McWilliams. I'd admire to include him," murmured Denver.
That sunburned, nonchalant youth laughed musically. "Sure thing. I'd hate to be left out. The only difference is—"
His roving eye circled blandly round. "I stand about one show in a million. Y'u roughnecks are dead ones already."
With which cold comfort he sauntered away to join Miss Messiter and the foreman, who now appeared together at the door of the ranchhouse, prepared to make a tour of the buildings and the immediate corrals.
"Isn't there a woman on the place?" she was asking Morgan.
"No'm, there ain't. Henderson's daughter would come and stay with y'u a while I reckon."
"Please send for her at once, then, and ask her to come to-day."
"All right. I'll send one of the boys right away."
"How did y'u leave 'Frisco, ma'am?" asked Mac, by way of including himself easily.
"He's resting quietly. Unless blood-poisoning sets in they ought all to do well."
"It's right lucky for them y'u happened along. This is the hawss corral, ma'am," explained the young man just as Morgan opened his thin lips to tell her.
Judd contrived to get rid of him promptly. "Slap on a saddle, Mac, and run up the remuda so Miss Messiter can see the hawsses for herself," he ordered.
"Mebbe she'd rather ride down and look at the bunch," suggested the capable McWilliams.
As it chanced, she did prefer to ride down the pasture and look over the place from on horseback. She was in love with her ranch already. Its spacious distances, the thousands of cattle and the horses, these picturesque retainers who served her even to the shedding of an enemy's blood; they all struck an answering echo in her gallant young heart that nothing in Kalamazoo had been able to stir. She bubbled over with enthusiasm, the while Morgan covertly sneered and McWilliams warmed to the untamed youth in her.
"What about this man Bannister?" she flung out suddenly, after they had cantered back to the house when the remuda had been inspected.
Her abrupt question brought again the short, tense silence she had become used to expect.
"He runs sheep about twenty or thirty miles southwest of here," explained McWilliams, in a carefully casual tone.
"So everybody tells me, but it seems to me he spills a good deal of lead on my men," she answered impatiently. "What's the trouble?"
"Last week he crossed the dead-line with a bunch of five thousand sheep."
"Who draws this dead-line?"
"The cattlemen got together and drew it. Your uncle was one of those that marked it off, ma'am."
"And Bannister crossed it?"
"Yes, ma'am. Yesterday 'Frisco come on him and one of his herders with a big bunch of them less than fifteen miles from here. He didn't know it was Bannister, and took a pot-shot at him. 'Course Bannister came back at him, and he got Frisco in the laig."
"Didn't know it was Bannister? What difference WOULD that make?" she said impatiently.
Mac laughed. "What difference would it make, Judd?"
Morgan scowled, and the young man answered his own question. "We don't any of us go out of our way more'n a mile to cross Bannister's trail," he drawled.
"Do you wear this for an ornament? Are you upholstered with hardware to catch the eyes of some girl?" she asked, touching with the end of her whip the revolver in the holster strapped to his chaps.
His serene, gay smile flashed at her. "Are y'u ordering me to go out and get Ned Bannister's scalp?"
"No, I am not," she explained promptly. "What I am trying to discover is why you all seem to be afraid of one man. He is only a man, isn't he?"
A veil of ice seemed to fall over the boyish face and leave it chiseled marble. His unspeaking eyes rested on the swarthy foreman as he answered:
"I don't know what he is, ma'am. He may be one man, or he may be a hundred. What's more, I ain't particularly suffering to find out. Fact is, I haven't lost any Bannisters."
The girl became aware that her foreman was looking at her with a wary silent vigilance sinister in its intensity.
"In short, you're like the rest of the people in this section. You're afraid."
"Now y'u're shoutin', Miss Messiter. I sure am when it comes to shootin' off my mouth about Bannister."
"And you, Mr. Morgan?"
It struck her that the young puncher waited with a curious interest for the answer of the foreman.
"Did it look like I was afraid this mawnin', ma'am?" he asked, with narrowed eyes.
"No, you all seemed brave enough then, when you had him eight to one."
"I wasn't there," hastily put in McWilliams. "I don't go gunning for my man without giving him a show."
"I do," retorted Morgan cruelly. "I'd go if we was fifty to one. We'd 'a' got him, too, if it hadn't been for Miss Messiter. 'Twas a chance we ain't likely to get again for a year."
"It wasn't your fault you didn't kill him, Mr. Morgan," she said, looking hard at him. "You may be interested to know that your last shot missed him only about six inches, and me about four."
"I didn't know who you were," he sullenly defended.
"I see. You only shoot at women when you don't know who they are." She turned her back on him pointedly and addressed herself to McWilliams. "You can tell the men working on this ranch that I won't have any more such attacks on this man Bannister. I don't care what or who he is. I don't propose to have him murdered by my employees. Let the law take him and hang him. Do you hear?"
"I ce'tainly do, and the boys will get the word straight," he replied.
"I take it since yuh are giving your orders through Mac, yuh don't need me any longer for your foreman," bullied Morgan.
"You take it right, sir," came her crisp reply. "McWilliams will be my foreman from to-day."
The man's face, malignant and wolfish, suddenly lost its mask. That she would so promptly call his bluff was the last thing he had expected. "That's all right. I reckon yuh think yuh know your own business, but I'll put it to yuh straight. Long as yuh live you'll be sorry for this."
And with that he wheeled away.
She turned to her new foreman and found him less radiant than she could have desired. "I'm right sorry y'u did that. I'm afraid y'u'll make trouble for yourself," he said quietly.
"I don't know myself just why." He hesitated before adding: "They say him and Bannister is thicker than they'd ought to be. It's a cinch that he's in cahoots somehow with that Shoshone bunch of bad men."
"But—why, that's ridiculous. Only this morning he was trying to kill Bannister himself."
"That's what I don't just savvy. There's a whole lot about that business I don't get next to. I guess Bannister is at the head of them. Everybody seems agreed about that. But the whole thing is a tangle of contradiction to me. I've milled it over a heap in my mind, too."
"What are some of the contradictions?"
"Well, here's one right off the bat, as we used to say back in the States. Bannister is a great musician, they claim; fine singer, and all that. Now I happen to know he can't sing any more than a bellowing yearling."
"How do you know?" she asked, her eyes shining with interest.
"Because I heard him try it. 'Twas one day last summer when I was out cutting trail of a bunch of strays down by Dead Cow Creek. The day was hot, and I lay down behind a cottonwood and dropped off to sleep. When I awakened it didn't take me longer'n an hour to discover what had woke me. Somebody on the other side of the creek was trying to sing. It was ce'tainly the limit. Pretty soon he come out of the brush and I seen it was Bannister."
"You're sure it was Bannister?"
"If seeing is believing, I'm sure."
"And was his singing really so bad?"
"I'd hate ever to hear worse."
"Was he singing when you saw him?"
"No, he'd just quit. He caught sight of my pony grazing, and hunted cover real prompt."
"Then it might have been another man singing in the thicket."
"It might, but it wasn't. Y'u see, I'd followed him through the bush by his song, and he showed up the moment I expected him."
"Still there might have been another man there singing."
"One chance in a million," he conceded.
A sudden hope flamed up like tow in her heart. Perhaps, after all, Ned Bannister was not the leader of the outlaws. Perhaps somebody else was masquerading in his name, using Bannister's unpopularity as a shield to cover his iniquities. Still, this was an unlikely hypothesis, she had to admit. For why should he allow his good name to be dragged in the dust without any effort to save it? On a sudden impulse the girl confided her doubt to McWilliams.
"You don't suppose there can be any mistake, do you? Somehow I can't think him as bad as they say. He looks awfully reckless, but one feels one could trust his face."
"Same here," agreed the new foreman. "First off when I saw him my think was, 'I'd like to have that man backing my play when I'm sitting in the game with Old Man Hard Luck reaching out for my blue chips.'"
"You don't think faces lie, do you?"
"I've seen them that did, but, gen'rally speaking, tongues are a heap likelier to get tangled with the truth. But I reckon there ain't any doubt about Bannister. He's known over all this Western country."
The young woman sighed. "I'm afraid you're right."
CHAPTER 5. THE DANCE AT FRASER'S
"Heard tell yet of the dance over to Fraser's?"
He was a young man of a brick red countenance and he wore loosely round his neck the best polka dot silk handkerchief that could be bought in Gimlet Butte, also such gala attire as was usually reserved only for events of importance. Sitting his horse carelessly in the plainsman's indolent fashion, he asked his question of McWilliams in front of the Lazy D bunkhouse.
"Nope. When does the shindig come off?"
"Friday night. Big thing. Y'u want to be there. All y'u lads."
"Mebbe some of us will ride over."
He of the polka dot kerchief did not appear quite satisfied. His glance wandered toward the house, as it had been doing occasionally since the moment of his arrival.
"Y'u bet this dance is ace high, Mac. Fancy costumes and masks. Y'u can rent the costumes over to Slauson's for three per. Texas, he's going to call the dances. Music from Gimlet Butte. Y'u want to get it tucked away in your thinker that this dance ain't on the order of culls. No, sirree, it's cornfed."
"Glad to hear of it. I'll cipher out somehow to be there, Slim."
Slim's glance took in the ranchhouse again. He had ridden twenty-three miles out of his way to catch a glimpse of the newly arrived mistress of the Lazy D, the report of whose good looks and adventures had traveled hand in hand through many canons even to the heart of the Tetons. It had been on Skunk Creek that he had heard of her three days before, and now he had come to verify the tongue of rumor, to see her quite casually, of course, and do his own appraising. It began to look as if he were going to have to ride off without a glimpse of her.
He nodded toward the house, turning a shade more purple than his native choleric hue. "Y'u want to bring your boss with y'u, Mac. We been hearing a right smart lot about her and the boys would admire to have her present. It's going to be strictly according to Hoyle—no rough-house plays go, y'understand."
"I'll speak to her about it." Mac's deep amusement did not reach the surface. He was quite well aware that Slim was playing for time and that he was too bashful to plump out the desire that was in him. "Great the way cows are jumpin', ain't it?"
"Sure. Well, I'll be movin' along to Slauson's. I just drapped in on my way. Thought mebbe y'u hadn't heard tell of the dance."
"Much obliged. Was it for old man Slauson y'u dug up all them togs, Slim? He'll ce'tainly admire to see y'u in that silk tablecloth y'u got round your neck."
Slim's purple deepened again. "Y'u go to grass, Mac. I don't aim to ask y'u to be my valley yet awhile."
"C'rect. I was just wondering do all the Triangle Bar boys ride the range so handsome?"
"Don't y'u worry about the Triangle Bar boys," advised the embarrassed Slim, gathering up his bridle reins.
With one more reluctant glance in the direction of the house he rode away. When he reached the corral he looked back again. His gaze showed him the boyish foreman doubled up with laughter; also the sweep of a white skirt descending from the piazza.
"Now, ain't that hoodooed luck?" the aggrieved rider of the Triangle Bar outfit demanded of himself, "I made my getaway about three shakes too soon, by gum!"
Her foreman was in the throes of mirth when Helen Messiter reached him.
"Include me in the joke," she suggested.
"Oh, I was just thinkin'," he explained inadequately.
"Does it always take you that way?"
"About these boys that drop in so frequent on business these days. Funny how fond they're getting of the Lazy D. There was that stock detective happened in yesterday to show how anxious he was about your cows. Then the two Willow Creek riders that wanted a job punching for y'u, not to mention mention the Shoshone miner and the storekeeper from Gimlet Butte and Soapy Sothern and—"
"Still I don't quite see the joke."
"It ain't any joke with them. Serious business, ma'am."
"What happened to start you on this line?"
"The lad riding down the road on that piebald pinto. He come twenty miles out of his way, plumb dressed for a wedding, all to give me an invite to a dance at Fraser's. Y'u would call that real thoughtful of him, I expect."
She gayly sparkled. "A real ranch dance—the kind you have been telling me about. Are Ida and I invited?"
"Invited? Slim hinted at a lynching if I came without y'u."
She laughed softly, merry eyes flashing swiftly at him. "How gallant you Westerners are, even though you do turn it into burlesque."
His young laugh echoed hers. "Burlesque nothing. My life wouldn't be worth a thing if I went alone. Honest, I wouldn't dare."
"Since the ranch can't afford to lose its foreman Ida and I will go along," she promised. "That is, if it is considered proper here."
"Proper. Good gracious, ma'am! Every lady for thirty miles round will be there, from six months old to eighty odd years. It wouldn't be PROPER to stay at home."
The foreman drove her to Fraser's in a surrey with Ida Henderson and one of the Lazy D punchers on the back seat. The drive was over twenty-five miles, but in that silent starry night every mile was a delight. Part of the way led through a beautiful canon, along the rocky mountain road of which the young man guided the rig with unerring skill. Beyond the gorge the country debouched into a grassy park that fell away from their feet for miles. It was in this basin that the Fraser ranch lay.
The strains of the fiddle and the thumping of feet could be heard as they drove up. Already the rooms seemed to be pretty well filled, as Helen noticed when they entered. Three sets were on the floor for a quadrille and the house shook with the energy of the dancers. On benches against the walls were seated the spectators, and on one of them stood Texas calling the dance.
"Alemane left. Right hand t'yer pardner and grand right and left. Ev-v-rybody swing," chanted the caller.
A dozen rough young fellows were clustered near the front door, apparently afraid to venture farther lest their escape be cut off. Through these McWilliams pushed a way for his charges, the cowboys falling back respectfully at once when they discovered the presence of Miss Messiter.
In the bedroom where she left her wraps the mistress of the Lazy D found a dozen or more infants and several of their mothers. In the kitchen were still other women and babies, some of the former very old and of the latter very young. A few of the babies were asleep, but most of them were still very much alive to this scene of unwonted hilarity in their young lives.
As soon as she emerged into the general publicity of the dancing room her foreman pounced upon Helen and led her to a place in the head set that was making up. The floor was rough, the music jerky and uncertain, the quadrilling an exhibition of joyous and awkward abandon; but its picturesque lack of convention appealed to the girl from Michigan. It rather startled her to be swung so vigorously, but a glance about the room showed that these humorous-eyed Westerners were merely living up to the duty of the hour as they understood it.
At the close of the quadrille Helen found herself being introduced to "Mr. Robins," alias Slim, who drew one of his feet back in an embarrassed bow.
"I enjoy to meet y'u, ma'am," he assured her, and supplemented this with a request for the next dance, after which he fell into silence that was painful in its intensity.
Nearly all the dances were squares, as few of those present understood the intricacies of the waltz and two-step. Hence it happened that the proficient McWilliams secured three round dances with his mistress.
It was during the lunch of sandwiches, cake and coffee that Helen perceived an addition to the company. The affair had been advertised a costume ball, but most of those present had construed this very liberally. She herself, to be sure, had come as Mary Queen of Scots, Mac was arrayed in the scarlet tunic and tight-fitting breeches of the Northwest Mounted Police, and perhaps eight or ten others had made some attempt at representing some one other than they were. She now saw another, apparently a new arrival, standing in the doorway negligently. A glance told her that he was made up for a road agent and that his revolvers and mask were a part of the necessary costuming.
Slowly his gaze circled the room and came round to her. His eyes were hard as diamonds and as flashing, so that the impact of their meeting looks seemed to shock her physically. He was a tall man, swarthy of hue, and he carried himself with a light ease that looked silken strong. Something in the bearing was familiar yet not quite familiar either. It seemed to suggest a resemblance to somebody she knew. And in the next thought she knew that the somebody was Ned Bannister.
The man spoke to Fraser, just then passing with a cup of coffee, and Helen saw the two men approach. The stranger was coming to be formally introduced.
"Shake hands with Mr. Holloway, Miss Messiter. He's from up in the hill country and he rode to our frolic. Y'u've got three guesses to figure out what he's made up as."
"One will be quite enough, I think," she answered coldly.
Fraser departed on his destination with the coffee and the newcomer sat down on the bench beside her.
"One's enough, is it?" he drawled smilingly.
"Quite, but I'm surprised so few came in costume. Why didn't you? But I suppose you had your reasons."
"Didn't I? I'm supposed to be a bad man from the hills."
She swept him casually with an indifferent glance. "And isn't that what you are in real life?"
His sharp scrutiny chiseled into her. "What's that?"
"You won't mind if I forget and call you Mr. Bannister instead of Mr. Holloway?"
She thought his counterfeit astonishment perfect.
"So I'm Ned Bannister, am I?"
Their eyes clashed.
She felt sure of it, and yet there was a lurking doubt. For there was in his manner something indescribably more sinister than she had felt in him on that occasion when she had saved his life. Then a debonair recklessness had been the outstanding note, but now there was something ribald and wicked in him.
"Since y'u put it as a question, common politeness demands an answer. Ned Bannister is my name."
"You are the terror of this country?"
"I shan't be a terror to y'u, ma'am, if I can help it," he smiled.
"But you are the man they call the king?"
"I have that honor."
At the sharp scorn of her accent he laughed.
"Do you mean that you are proud of your villainy?" she demanded.
"Y'u've ce'tainly got the teacher habit of asking questions," he replied with a laugh that was a sneer.
A shadow fell across them and a voice said quietly, "She didn't wait to ask any when she saved your life down in the coulee back of the Lazy D."
The shadow was Jim McWilliams's, and its owner looked down at the man beside the girl with steady, hostile eyes.
"Is this your put in, sir?" the other flashed back.
"Yes, seh, it is. The boys don't quite like seeing your hardware so prominent at a social gathering. In this community guns don't come into the house at a ranch dance. I'm a committee to mention the subject and to collect your thirty-eights if y'u agree with us."
"And if I don't agree with you?"
"There's all outdoors ready to receive y'u, seh. It would be a pity to stay in the one spot where your welcome's wore thin."
"Still I may choose to stay."
"Ce'tainly, but if y'u decide that way y'u better step out on the porch and talk it over with us where there ain't ladies present."
"Isn't this a costume dance? What's the matter with my guns? I'm an outlaw, ain't I?"
"I don't know whether y'u are or not, seh. If y'u say y'u are we're ready to take your word. The guns have to be shucked if y'u stay here. They might go off accidental and scare the ladies."
The man rose blackly. "I'll remember this. If y'u knew who y'u were getting so gay with—"
"I can guess, Mr. Holloway, the kind of an outfit y'u freight with, and I expect I could put a handle to another name for you."
"By God, if y'u dare to say—"
"I don't dare, especially among so many ladies," came McWilliams's jaunty answer.
The eyes of the two men gripped, after which Holloway swung on his heel and swaggered defiantly out of the house.
Presently there came the sound of a pony's feet galloping down the road. It had not yet died away when Texas announced that the supper intermission was over.
"Pardners for a quadrille. Ladies' choice."
The dance was on again full swing. The fiddlers were tuning up and couples gathering for a quadrille. Denver came to claim Miss Messiter for a partner. Apparently even the existence of the vanished Holloway was forgotten. But Helen remembered it, and pondered over the affair long after daylight had come and brought with it an end to the festivities.
CHAPTER 6. A PARTY CALL
The mistress of the Lazy D, just through with her morning visit to the hospital in the bunkhouse, stopped to read the gaudy poster tacked to the wall. It was embellished with the drawing of a placid rider astride the embodiment of fury incarnate, under which was the legend: "Stick to Your Saddle."
BIG FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION AT GIMLET BUTTE. ROPING AND BRONCO BUSTING CONTESTS FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD AND BIG PRIZES, Including $1,000 for the Best Rider and the Same for Best Roper. Cow Pony Races, Ladies' Races and Ladies' Riding Contest, Fireworks, AND FREE BARBECUE!!!! EVERYBODY COME AND TURN YOUR WOLF LOOSE.
A sudden thud of pounding hoofs, a snatch of ragtime, and her foreman swept up in a cloud of white dust. His pony came from a gallop to an instant halt, and simultaneously Mac landed beside her, one hand holding the wide-brimmed hat he had snatched off in his descent, the other hitched by a casual thumb to the belt of his chaps.
She laughed. "You really did it very well."
Mac blushed. He was still young enough to take pride in his picturesque regalia, to prefer the dramatic way of doing a commonplace thing. But, though he liked this girl's trick of laughing at him with a perfectly grave face out of those dark, long-lashed eyes, he would have liked it better if sometimes they had given back the applause he thought his little tricks merited.
"Sho! That's foolishness," he deprecated.
"I suppose they got you to sit for this picture;" and she indicated the poster with a wave of her hand.
"That ain't a real picture," he explained, and when she smiled added, "as of course y'u know. No hawss ever pitched that way—and the saddle ain't right. Fact is, it's all wrong."
"How did it come here? It wasn't here last night."
"I reckon Denver brought it from Slauson's. He was ridin' that country yesterday, and as the boys was out of smokin' he come home that way."
"I suppose you'll all go?"
"And you'll ride?"
"I aim to sit in."
"At the roping, too?"
"No, m'm. I ain't so much with the rope. It takes a Mexican to snake a rope."
"Then I'll be able to borrow only a thousand dollars from you to help buy that bunch of young cows we were speaking about," she mocked.
"Only a thousand," he grinned. "And it ain't a cinch I'll win. There are three or four straightup riders on this range. A fellow come from the Hole-in-the-Wall and won out last year."
"And where were you?"
"Oh, I took second prize," he explained, with obvious indifference.
"Well, you had better get first this year. We'll have to show them the Lazy D hasn't gone to sleep."
"Sure thing," he agreed.
"Has that buyer from Cheyenne turned up yet?" she asked, reverting to business.
"Not yet. Do y'u want I should make the cut soon as he comes?"
"Don't you think his price is a little low—twenty dollars from brand up?"
"It's a scrub bunch. We want to get rid of them, anyway. But you're the doctor," he concluded slangily.
She thought a moment. "We'll let him have them, but don't make the cut till I come back. I'm going to ride over to the Twin Buttes."
His admiring eyes followed her as she went toward the pony that was waiting saddled with the rein thrown to the ground. She carried her slim, lithe figure with a grace, a lightness, that few women could have rivaled. When she had swung to the saddle, she half-turned in her seat to call an order to the foreman.
"I think, Mac, you had better run up those horses from Eagle Creek. Have Denver and Missou look after them."
"Sure, ma'am," he said aloud; and to himself: "She's ce'tainly a thoroughbred. Does everything well she tackles. I never saw anything like it. I'm a Chink if she doesn't run this ranch like she had been at it forty years. Same thing with her gasoline bronc. That pinto, too. He's got a bad eye for fair, but she makes him eat out of her hand. I reckon the pinto is like the rest of us—clean mashed." He put his arms on the corral fence and grew introspective. "Blamed if I know what it is about her. 'Course she's a winner on looks, but that ain't it alone. I guess it's on account of her being such a game little gentleman. When she turns that smile loose on a fellow—well, there's sure sunshine in the air. And game—why, Ned Bannister ain't gamer himself."
McWilliams had climbed lazily to the top board of the fence. He was an energetic youth, but he liked to do his thinking at his ease. Now, as his gaze still followed its lodestar, he suddenly slipped from his seat and ran forward, pulling the revolver from its scabbard as he ran. Into his eyes had crept a tense alertness, the shining watchfulness of the tiger ready for its spring.
The cause of the change in the foreman of the Lazy D was a simple one, and on its face innocent enough. It was merely that a stranger had swung in casually at the gate of the short stable lane, and was due to meet Miss Messiter in about ten seconds. So far good enough. A dozen travelers dropped in every day, but this particular one happened to be Ned Bannister.
From the stable door a shot rang out. Bannister ducked and shouted genially: "Try again."
But Helen Messiter whirled her pony as on a half-dollar, and charged down on the stable.
"Who fired that shot?" she demanded, her eyes blazing.
The horse-wrangler showed embarrassment. He had found time only to lean the rifle against the wall.
"I reckon I did, ma'am. Y'u see—"
"Did you get my orders about this feud?" she interrupted crisply.
"Yes, ma'am, but—"
"Then you may call for your time. When I give my men orders I expect them to obey."
"I wouldn't 'a' shot if I'd knowed y'u was so near him. Y'u was behind that summer kitchen," he explained lamely.
"You only expect to obey orders when I'm in sight. Is that it?" she asked hotly, and without waiting for an answer delivered her ultimatum. "Well, I won't have it. I run this ranch as long as I am its owner. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. I hadn't ought to have did it, but when I seen Bannister it come over me I owed him a pill for the one he sent me last week down in the coulee. So I up and grabbed the rifle and let him have it."
"Then you may up and grab your trunk for Medicine Hill. Shorty will drive you tomorrow."
When she returned to her unexpected guest, Helen found him in conversation with McWilliams. The latter's gun had found again its holster, but his brown, graceful hand hovered close to its butt.
"Seems like a long time since the Lazy D has been honored by a visit from Mr. Bannister," he was saying, with gentle irony.
"That's right. So I have come to make up for lost time," came Bannister's quiet retort.
Miss Messiter did not know much about Wyoming human nature in the raw, but she had learned enough to be sure that the soft courtesy of these two youths covered a stark courage that might leap to life any moment. Wherefore she interposed.
"We'll be pleased to show you over the place, Mr. Bannister. As it happens, we are close to the hospital. Shall we begin there?"
Her cool, silken defiance earned a smile from the visitor. "All your cases doing well, ma'am?"
"It's very kind of you to ask. I suppose you take an interest because they are YOUR cases, too, in a way of speaking?"
"Yes. If it were not for you I'm afraid our hospital would be empty."
"It must be right pleasant to be nursed by Miss Messiter. I reckon the boys are grateful to me for scattering my lead so promiscuous."
"I heard one say he would like to lam your haid tenderly," murmured McWilliams.
"With a two-by-four, I suppose," laughed Bannister.
"Shouldn't wonder. But, looking y'u over casual, it occurs to me he might get sick of his job befo' he turned y'u loose," McWilliams admitted, with a glance of admiration at the clean power showing in the other's supple lines.
Nor could either the foreman or his mistress deny the tribute of their respect to the bravado of this scamp who sat so jauntily his seat regardless of what the next moment might bring forth. Three wounded men were about the place, all presumably quite willing to get a clean shot at him in the open. One of them had taken his chance already, and missed. Their visitor had no warrant for knowing that a second might not any instant try his luck with better success. Yet he looked every inch the man on horseback, no whit disturbed, not the least conscious of any danger. Tall, spare, broad shouldered, this berry-brown young man, crowned with close-cropped curls, sat at the gates of the enemy very much at his insolent case.
"I came over to pay my party call," he explained.
"It really wasn't necessary. A run in the machine is not a formal function."
"Maybe not in Kalamazoo."
"I thought perhaps you had come to get my purse and the sixty-three dollars," she derided.
"No, ma'am; nor yet to get that bunch of cows I was going to rustle from you to buy an auto. I came to ask you to go riding with me."
The audacity of it took her breath. Of all the outrageous things she had ever heard, this was the cream. An acknowledged outlaw, engaged in feud with her retainers over that deadly question of the run of the range, he had sauntered over to the ranch where lived a dozen of his enemies, three of them still scarred with his bullets, merely to ask her to go riding with him. The magnificence of his bravado almost obliterated its impudence. Of course she would not think of going. The idea! But her eyes glowed with appreciation of his courage, not the less because the consciousness of it was so conspicuously absent from his manner.
"I think not, Mr. Bannister" and her face almost imperceptibly stiffened. "I don't go riding with strangers, nor with men who shoot my boys. And I'll give you a piece of advice, sir. That is, to burn the wind back to your home. Otherwise I won't answer for your life. My punchers don't love you, and I don't know how long I can keep them from you. You're not wanted here any more than you were at the dance the other evening."
McWilliams nodded. "That's right. Y'u better roll your trail, seh; and if y'u take my advice, you'll throw gravel lively. I seen two of the boys cutting acrost that pasture five minutes ago. They looked as if they might be haided to cut y'u off, and I allow it may be their night to howl. Miss Messiter don't want to be responsible for y'u getting lead poisoning."
"Indeed!" Their visitor looked politely interested. "This solicitude for me is very touching. I observe that both of you are carefully blocking me from the bunkhouse in order to prevent another practice-shot. If I can't persuade you to join me in a ride, Miss Messiter, I reckon I'll go while I'm still unpunctured." He bowed, and gathered the reins for departure.
"One moment! Mr. McWilliams and I are going with you," the girl announced.
"Changed your mind? Think you'll take a little pasear, after all?"
"I don't want to be responsible for your killing. We'll see you safe off the place," she answered curtly.
The foreman fell in on one side of Bannister, his mistress on the other. They rode in close formation, to lessen the chance of an ambuscade. Bannister alone chatted at his debonair ease, ignoring the responsibility they felt for his safety.
"I got my ride, after all," he presently chuckled. "To be sure, I wasn't expecting Mr. McWilliams to chaperon us. But that's an added pleasure."
"Would it be an added pleasure to get bumped off to kingdom come?" drawled the foreman, giving a reluctant admiration to his aplomb.
"Thinking of those willing boys of yours again, are you?" laughed Bannister. "They're ce'tainly a heap prevalent with their hardware, but their hunting don't seem to bring home any meat."
"By the way, how IS your ankle, Mr. Bannister? I forgot to ask." This shot from the young woman.
He enjoyed it with internal mirth. "They did happen on the target that time," he admitted. "Oh, it's getting along fine, but I aim to do most of my walking on horseback for a while."
They swept past the first dangerous grove of cottonwoods in safety, and rounded the boundary fence corner.
"They're in that bunch of pines over there," said the foreman, after a single sweep of his eyes in that direction.
"Yes, I see they are. You oughtn't to let your boys wear red bandannas when they go gunning, Miss Messiter. It's an awful careless habit."
Helen herself could see no sign of life in the group of pines, but she knew their keen, trained eyes had found what hers could not. Riding with one or another of her cowboys, she had often noticed how infallibly they could read the country for miles around. A scattered patch on a distant hillside, though it might be a half-hour's ride from them, told them a great deal more than seemed possible. To her the dark spots sifted on that slope meant scrub underbrush, if there was any meaning at all in them. But her riders could tell not only whether they were alive, but could differentiate between sheep and cattle. Indeed, McWilliams could nearly always tell whether they were HER cattle or not. He was unable to explain to her how he did it. By a sort of instinct, she supposed.
The pines were negotiated in safety, and on the part of the men with a carelessness she could not understand. For after they had passed there was a spot between her shoulder-blades that seemed to tingle in expectation of a possible bullet boring its way through. But she would have died rather than let them know how she felt.
Perhaps Bannister understood, however, for he remarked casually: "I wouldn't be ambling past so leisurely if I was riding alone. It makes a heap of difference who your company is, too. Those punchers wouldn't take a chance at me now for a million dollars."
"No, they're some haidstrong, but they ain't plumb locoed," agreed Mac.
Fifteen minutes later Helen drew up at the line corner. "We'll part company here, Mr. Bannister. I don't think there is any more danger from my men."
"Before we part there is something I want to say. I hold that a man has as much right to run sheep on these hills as cows. It's government land, and neither one of us owns it. It's bound to be a case of the survival of the fittest. If sheep are hardier and more adapted to the country, then cows have got to vamos. That's nature, as it looks to me. The buffalo and the antelope have gone, and I guess cows have got to take their turn."
Her scornful eyes burned him. "You came to tell me that, did you? Well, I don't believe a word of it. I'll not yield my rights without a fight. You may depend on that."
"Here, too," nodded her foreman. "I'm with my boss clear down the line. And as soon as she lets me turn loose my six-gun, you'll hear it pop, seh."
"I have not a doubt of it, Mr. McWilliams," returned the sheepman blithely. "In the meantime I was going to say that though most of my interests are in sheep instead of cattle—"
"I thought most of your interests were in other people's property," interrupted the young woman.
"It goes into sheep ultimately," he smiled. "Now, what I am trying to get at is this: I'm in debt to you a heap, Miss Messiter, and since I'm not all yellow cur, I intend to play fair with you. I have ordered my sheep back across the deadline. You can have this range to yourself for your cattle. The fight's off so far as we personally are concerned."
A hint of deeper color touched her cheeks. Her manner had been cavalier at best; for the most part frankly hostile; and all the time the man was on an errand of good-will. Certainly he had scored at her expense, and she was ashamed of herself.