Agnes had drawn a little apart from them. She had no heart to come to Dr. Slavens' defense, although she knew that the charge was calumnious. But it furnished her a sudden and new train of thought. What interest had the chief of police in circulating such a report? Was the motive for Dr. Slavens' disappearance behind that insidious attempt to discredit him, and fasten a character upon him wholly foreign to his own?
It was a matter worth looking into. Had Dr. Slavens incurred, somehow, the disfavor of the vicious element which was the backbone of the place? And had he paid the penalty of such temerity, perhaps with his life?
Thinking over the futility of a further appeal to the authorities there, and wondering where she could turn for honest assistance beyond William Bentley, who could do no more than herself, Agnes walked away from the camp a short distance, retracing the way they had come.
"Of all the deluded, deceived creatures!" said Mrs. Reed.
"Hush-sh-sh!" said the miller's wife.
It was almost sunset when Agnes, overtaking her thoughts, halted with a start to find that she had gone half the distance back to the river. Hoping that they would not be waiting supper on her account, she turned and hurried back.
Meanwhile, at camp there had been a little running-up of excitement, occasioned by the arrival of the Governor's son, who came on a commission from his mother and sister, bearing a note of invitation to Mrs. Reed, her sister, Mrs. Mann, and June Reed.
Jerry Boyle—for that was the name of the Governor's son—was greatly surprised to find his friend, Joe Walker, in the camp. But that only made it easier for him, he declared, seeing that Walker could vouch for him and put him on unquestionable terms at once.
"Just as if it were necessary!" exclaimed Mrs. Reed, glowing with pleasure. "And you the brother of my daughter's dearest friend!"
Jerry Boyle seemed older by ten years than Walker. He was a tall man, with a little forward bend to him that gave him an awkward cast. He was dark-skinned and big-nosed, with black eyebrows which met at its bridge and appeared to threaten an invasion of that structure. Little sensitive, expressive ripples ran over his face as he talked, and that was all the time. For Boyle was as voluble as a political press-agent.
Bentley recognized him, even before he was introduced, as the man whom Walker had pointed out in the dance-house the night before. He said nothing about that, but he smiled to himself when he recalled Walker's anxiety to leave the place. It was a sort of guilty honor, he thought, such as that which was anciently supposed to stand between thieves.
As Agnes approached, Boyle was in the middle of a story of his experiences in Comanche during the days of its infancy. Mrs. Reed, busy about the stove, had grown so deeply interested that she stood with a lamb chop in her hand poised above the frying-pan, her face all smiles. Boyle was seated on a low box, and some of the others were standing around him, hiding him from Agnes, who stopped near the stove on catching the sound of the new voice. Mrs. Reed nodded reassuringly.
"It's the Governor's son," said she.
Boyle caught sight of Agnes at that moment and jumped to his feet. Walker turned to introduce him.
"No need," said Boyle, striding forward to their great amazement, his hand outstretched. "Miss Gates and I are old friends."
Agnes drew back with a frightened, shrinking start, her face very white.
"I beg your pardon, sir!" she protested with some little show of indignation.
"This is Miss Horton," said Walker, coming to her rescue with considerable presence. "She's one of us."
Boyle stammered, staring in amazement.
"I apologize to Miss Horton," said he with something like an insolent emphasis upon the name. "The resemblance is remarkable, believe me!"
Agnes inclined her head in cold acknowledgment, as if afraid to trust her tongue, and passed on into the tent. Boyle stared after her, and a feeling that there was something out of tune seemed to fall upon the party waiting there for supper in the red sunset.
Boyle forgot the rest of his story, and the others forgot to ask him to resume it. He repeated something about remarkable resemblances, and seemed to have fallen into a period of abstraction, from which he roused himself presently with a short, grunting laugh.
"I must be gettin' on," said he, arising and taking his cowboy hat from the table, where it lay among the plates—to the great satisfaction and delight of Mrs. Mann, who believed that she had met a real westerner at last.
"Oh, stay for supper!" pleaded June.
"You'll get enough of me when you come out to the ranch," he laughed, giving her cheek a brotherly pinch.
While Mrs. Reed would have resented such familiarity with June's cheek on the part of Mr. Walker, or even Mr. Bentley, she took it as an act of condescension and compliment on the part of the Governor's son, and smiled.
Walker went off down the street with Boyle, to speed him on his way. The Governor's son was to send out to the ranch, some forty miles distant, for a conveyance to carry Mrs. Reed and her party thither. It was to be there early on the morning of the second day from that time, that being, for that country, only an easy day's drive for a double team to a democrat wagon.
There was an uncomfortable air of uneasiness and constraint upon them during supper and afterward, a period usually filled with banter and chatter, and shrill laughter from June. They were not able to get clear of the suspicion raised by Boyle's apparent recognition of Agnes and her denial that she was Miss Gates. The two older women especially seemed to believe that Agnes had been guilty of some serious misdemeanor in her past.
"He wasn't mistaken in her identity," whispered Mrs. Reed to Mrs. Mann when Agnes went in for a wrap as the chill of night began to settle.
Mrs. Mann, charitable and romantic as she was in her mild way, shook her head sadly.
"I'm afraid he wasn't," said she.
"I'm sorry that I can't take June away from here tomorrow," lamented Mrs. Reed. "There's something hidden in that woman's life!"
Agnes had come out silently, as anyone must have come over that velvet-soft earth, which much trampling only made the softer. In the gloom she stood just behind Mrs. Reed. That pure-minded lady did not know that she was there, and was unable to see the rolling warning in her sister's eyes.
"Would you mind walking over to the stage-office with me, Mr. Bentley?" asked Agnes. "I want to engage passage to Meander for tomorrow."
On the way to the stage-office they talked matters over between them. Her purpose in going to Meander was, primarily, to enlist the sheriff of the county in the search for Dr. Slavens, and, remotely, to be there when her day came for filing on a piece of land.
"I made up my mind to do it after we came back from the canyon," she explained. "There's nothing more to be hoped for here. That story the police told us only strengthens my belief that a crime has been committed, and in my opinion that chief knows all about it, too."
She said nothing of Boyle and the start that his salutation had given her. Whatever Bentley thought of that incident he kept to himself. But there was one thing in connection with Boyle's visit which he felt that she should know.
"The Governor's son told Walker that he saw the doctor late last night in about the same condition as that policeman described," he said. "It came up when Walker asked Boyle to keep an eye open and let us know if he happened to run across him."
"Well, in spite of the high authority, I don't believe it," said she with undisturbed conviction.
For a little while Bentley walked on beside her in silence. When he spoke there was the softness of reverence in his voice.
"If I had the faith of a good woman in such measure as that," said he, "I'd think I was next door to heaven!"
"It is the being who inspires faith that is more admirable than the faith itself, it seems to me," she rejoined. "Faith has lived in many a guilty heart—faith in somebody, something."
"Yes," he agreed gently. And then, after a little while: "Yes."
"Will you be returning to the East soon?" she asked.
"I've been thinking some of going on to Meander to get a fuller impression of this country and see how the boy is getting on," he replied.
"Then go with me," she invited.
"I wondered if you had faith enough in me to ask me," he laughed.
There was an extra stage out the next morning, owing to the movement toward Meander of people who must file on their claims within the next ten days. Smith was to drive it. He was in the office when they arrived.
"I think I'll assume the responsibility of taking the doctor's two bags with me," said Bentley.
She agreed that there was little use in leaving them behind. Walker was to go to his ranch the next day; the others would break camp the following morning. There would be nobody to leave his possessions in charge of, except the hotel-keeper, who had a notoriously short memory, and who was very likely to forget all about it, even if the doctor ever returned.
Bentley made arrangements for the transportation of that much excess baggage, therefore. The cost was reminiscent of freight charges in the days of the Santa Fe Trail.
"We'll leave word for him at the hotel-office," said he.
As they came out of the stage-office a man was mounting a horse before the stable door, a group of stage employees around him. He galloped off with a flourish. The man who had caparisoned his horse stood looking after him as he disappeared in the night.
"That feller's in a hurry—he couldn't wait for the stage in the morning," said Smith. "He's ridin' relay to Meander tonight on our horses, and he'll be there long before we start. He's the Governor's son."
Comanche was drying up like a leaky pail. There remained only the dregs of the thronging thousands who had chopped its streets to dust beneath their heels; and they were worked out, panned down to scant profit, and growing leaner picking every day.
The ginger was gone out of the barker's spiel; the forced gaiety was dying out of the loud levees where the abandoned of the earth held their nightly carousals. Comanche was in the lethargy of dissolution; its tents were in the shadow of the approaching end.
Most of the shows had gone, leaving great gaps in the tented streets where they had stood, their debris behind them, and many of the saloons were packing their furnishings to follow. It had been a seasonable reaping; quick work, and plenty of it while it lasted; and they were departing with the cream of it in their pouches. What remained ran in a stream too thin to divide, so the big ones were off, leaving the little fellows to lick up the trickle.
A few gambling-joints were doing business still, for men will gamble when they will neither eat nor drink. Hun Shanklin had set up a tent of his own, the big one in which he had made his stand at the beginning having been taken down. To make sure of police protection, he had established himself on Main Street, next door to headquarters.
Ten-Gallon, the chief, now constituted the entire force, all his special officers having been dropped to save expense to the municipality, since the population had begun to leak away so rapidly and the gamblers' trust had been dissolved.
The chief slept until the middle of each afternoon. Then he went on duty in Hun Shanklin's tent, where he usually remained the rest of the day, his chair tilted back against the pole at the front end. It was generally understood that he had a large interest in the game, which was the same old one of twenty-seven.
On the side there was an army-game outfit at which a pimple-faced young man presided, small whiskers growing between his humors where they had escaped the razor, like the vegetation of that harsh land in the low places, out of the destroying edge of the wind. For army-game was held so innocuous in Comanche that even a cook might run it.
It was the third day after the drawing, and the middle of the afternoon. That short-time had seen these many changes in Comanche, and every hour was witnessing more. Mrs. Reed and her party had gone that morning in the wagon sent for them from the Governor's ranch. The Hotel Metropole, now almost entirely without guests for its many tents and cots, was being taken down.
The red-nosed proprietor was loading cots into a wagon, his large wife, in a striped kimono with red ruffles at the sleeves and a large V of bare bosom showing, standing in the door of the office-tent directing his labors in a voice which suggested a mustache and knee-boots. A dangling strand of her greasy black hair swung in the wind across her cheek, at times lodging in the curve of it and obscuring her eye. As the lady's hands were both employed, one in holding up the train of her florescent garb, the other in supporting her weight against the tent-pole, she had no free fingers to tuck the blowing wisp in place. So, when it lodged she blew it out of the way, slewing her mouth around to do so, and shutting one eye as if taking aim.
All these employments left her no time for the man who had approached within a few feet of her and stood with an inquiring poise as if asking permission to speak. She went on with her directing, and skirt-holding, and leaning against the tent-pole, and blowing, without giving him a full look, although she had taken his appraisement with the corner of her eye.
The man was not of an appearance to inspire the hope of gain in the bosom of the hostess. His band-less slouch-hat flapped down over his forehead and face, partly hiding a bandage, the sanguine dye of which told what it concealed. A black beard of some days' growth, the dust of the range caught in it, covered his chin and jowls; and a greasy khaki coat, such as sheep-herders wear, threatened to split upon his wide shoulders every time he moved his arms.
His trousers were torn, and streaked with the stain of rain and clay. He had pinned the rents about his knees together, but he seemed so insecurely covered that a strong wind might expose him, or a sudden start burst his seams and scant contrivances to shield his nakedness. He touched his hat in a moment when he caught the quick eye of the landlord's wife upon him again, and moved a little nearer.
"Can you tell me, madam," said he respectfully, "what has become of the party that was camped in the tent around on the other side—four ladies and several men?"
"We don't lodge either sheep-herders or sheep-shearers unless they take a bath first," said she, turning from him disdainfully.
"But I am neither a herder nor a shearer," he protested, "although I may——"
"May be worse," she finished, though perhaps not in the way he intended.
"Suit yourself about it," he yielded. "I don't want lodging, anyhow."
The landlord came staggering in with an armload of cheap bed-covers and threw them down where his dragoon of a wife directed with imperious gesture.
"Just look at all that money invested and no return!" she lamented.
The battered stranger appealed to the landlord, repeating his question.
"None of your business," the landlord replied crabbedly. "But they're gone, if that'll do you any good."
"Did they leave two grips—a suitcase and a doctor's instrument-case—with you?" inquired the man.
"They left a pie-anno and a foldin'-bed, and a automobile and a safety-razor!" said the landlord, looking reproachfully at his big wife, who was motioning him out to his labors again.
"Or any word for Dr. Slavens?" the stranger pursued with well-contained patience.
"What do you want to know for?" asked the woman, turning upon him suddenly.
"Because the grips belonged to me, madam; I am Dr. Slavens."
The landlord looked at him sharply.
"Oh, you're the feller that went off on a drunk, ain't you? I remember you now. Well, they didn't leave no grips here."
"And no word either that I know of," added the woman.
She swept Dr. Slavens with wondering eyes, for she had held a pretty good opinion of him before his sudden, and evidently heavy, fall.
"But where in this world have you been, man?" she asked.
"Nowhere in this world," he answered. "I've been taking a little side-trip to hell!"
"You cert'nly look like it, mister!" the woman shuddered, closing the wide V at her bosom, the flaring garment clutched in her great ring-encumbered hand.
"Will you tell me, then, about my friends?" he asked.
"Gone; that's all we know," said she.
"Part went on the train, two or three days ago; some went on the stage; and the rest left in a wagon this morning," said the landlord.
But he couldn't tell who went on the train, the stage, or the wagon. It was none of his business, he said. They paid their bill; that was all he knew, or cared.
"May I take a look around the tent to see if they left any written word for me there?" the doctor requested.
"Go on," said the woman, a little softening of sympathy coming into her hard eyes.
Dr. Slavens went back to the tent, which stood as it had been left that morning when the last of the party went away. The canvas under which their table stood stretched there hospitably still, and the stove with the morning's ashes cold upon its little hearth. Inside, the cots were all in place, but there was not a line of writing from any friendly hand to tell him where they had gone, or where his property had been left.
He walked toward the business part of the town and turned down Main Street, considering with himself what turn to make next. His head bent in meditation, he passed along lamely, his hands in the pockets of his torn trousers, where there was nothing, not even the thickness of a dime, to cramp his finger-room. Pausing in the aimless way of one who has no unfinished business ahead of him, he looked around, marking the changes which had come upon the street during those few days.
The litter of broken camp was on every hand; broken barrels, piles of boxes, scattered straw, bottles sown as thickly upon the ground as if someone had planted them there in the expectation of reaping a harvest of malt liquors and ardent spirits. Here the depression of a few inches marked where a tent had stood, the earth where the walls had protected it from the beating feet showing a little higher all around; there in the soft ground was the mark of a bar, the vapors of spilled liquors rising sharply in the sun.
Bands of boys and camp-dregs, of whom he might have been one from his appearance, scraped and dug among the debris, searching for what might have been dropped from careless or drunken hands and trampled out of sight. That they were rewarded frequently was attested by the sharp exclamations and triumphant cries.
Across from where he stood was the site of a large place, its littered leavings either already worked over or not yet touched. No one scratched and peered among its trash-heaps or clawed over its reeking straw. Dr. Slavens took possession of the place, turning the loose earth and heaped accumulations with his feet as he rooted around like a swine. It must have been worked over and exhausted, he concluded, for it turned no glint of silver to the sun. Persisting, he worked across the space which the tent had covered, and sat down on a box to rest.
The sun was low; the tops of two tall, round tents across the way came between it and his eyes when he sat down. That was the luck of some people, thought he, to arrive too late. The pay-dirt was all worked out; the pasturage was cropped; the dry sage was all gathered and burned.
No matter. A man had but one moment of life to call his own, wrote Marcus Aurelius. The moment just passed into the score of time's count, the moment which the hand of the clock trembles over, a hair's breadth yet to go—these are no man's to claim. One is gone forever; the other may mark the passing of his soul. Only this moment, this throb of the heart, this half-drawn breath, is a living man's to claim. The beggar has it; the monarch can command no more. Poor as he was, Dr. Slavens thought, smiling as he worked his foot, into the trampled dust, he was as rich in life's allotment as the best.
The sole of his cut and broken shoe struck some little thing which resisted, then turned up white beneath his eye. Broken porcelain, or bone fragment, it appeared. He would have pushed it aside with his toe; but just then it turned, showing the marking of a die.
Here was a whimsical turn of circumstance, thought he. An outcast die for a broken man, recalling by its presence the high games of chance which both of them had played in their day and lost, perhaps. It was a little, round-cornered die, its spots marked deep and plain. As it lay in his hand it brought reminiscences of Hun Shanklin, for it was of his pattern of dice, and his size, convenient for hiding between the fingers of his deceptive hand.
Dr. Slavens rolled it on the box beside him. It seemed a true and honest die, for it came up now an ace, now trey; now six, now deuce. He rolled it, rolled it, thinking of Hun Shanklin and Hun's long, loose-skinned hand.
For a place of wiles, such as Comanche had been and doubtless was still, it was a very honest little die, indeed. What use would anybody have for it there? he wondered. The memory of what he had seen dice do there moved him to smile. Then the recollection of what had stood on that spot came to him; the big tent, with the living pictures and variety show, and Hun Shanklin's crescent table over against the wall.
That must have been the very spot of its location, with the divided wall of the tent back of him, through which he had disappeared on the night that Walker lost his money and Shanklin dropped his dice. Of course. That was the explanation. The little cube in Slavens' palm was one of Shanklin's honest dice, with which he tolled on the suckers. He had lost one of them in his precipitate retreat.
Dr. Slavens put the cube in his pocket and got up, turning the debris of the camp again with his foot, watching for the gleam of silver. As he worked, a tubby man with whiskers turned out of the thin stream of traffic which passed through the street and sat on one of the boxes near at hand. He sat there wiping his face, which was as red and sweat-drenched as if he had just finished a race, holding his hat in his hand, exclaiming and talking to himself.
He was so self-centered in his overflowing indignation that he did not notice the man kicking among the rubbish just a few feet away. Presently the little man drew out a roll of money and counted it on his knee, to look up when he had finished, and shake his fist at the tent which stood shoulder-to-shoulder by the police station. The gesture was accompanied by maledictions upon crooks and robbers, and the force of his expressions made necessary the use of the handkerchief again. This the man took from his hat, which he held in his hand ready to receive it again like a dish, and scrubbed his fiery face, set over with fiery whiskers and adorned with a fiery nose. When he had cooled himself a bit he sat watching the doctor at his labor, lifting his eyebrows every time he blinked.
"Lost something?" he asked.
"Yes," replied the doctor, kicking away, not even looking at his questioner.
"Well, if you dropped it out of your hand or through a hole in your pocket you're lucky!" said the little man, shaking his fist at the tent where his wrath appeared to center. "This place is full of crooks. They'll rob you when you're asleep and they'll skin you when you're awake, with both eyes open."
The doctor had nothing to add to this, and no comment to append. The man on the box put on his hat, with a corner of handkerchief dangling from it over his ear.
"You live here?" he inquired.
"Yes; right now I do," the doctor replied.
"Well, do you know anything about a long, lean, one-eyed man that runs a dice-game over there in that tent?"
"I've heard of him," said the doctor.
"Well, he skinned me out of two hundred dollars a little while ago, blast his gizzard!"
"You're not the first one, and it's not likely that you'll be the last," the doctor assured him, drawing a little nearer and studying the victim from beneath his hanging hat-brim.
"No; maybe not," snapped the other. "But I'll even up with him before I go away from here."
"Would you be willing to risk ten dollars more on a chance to get it back?" asked the doctor.
"Show me the man who can tell me how to do it, and watch me," bristled the victim.
"I know that man, and I know his scheme," said the doctor, "and I've got one that will beat it."
The whiskered man put his hand into the pocket where the remainder of his roll was stored, and looked at the battered stranger with a disfavoring scowl.
"How do I know you ain't another crook?" he asked.
"You don't know, and maybe I am a crook in a small way. I'm in hard luck right now."
"What's your scheme?"
"That's my capital," the doctor told him. "If I had a few dollars I'd put it through without splitting with anybody; but I haven't a cent. I've been kicking this straw and trash around here for the last hour in the hope of turning up a dime. I'll say this to you: I'll undertake to recover your two hundred dollars for you if you'll put up ten. If I get it back, then you are to give me twenty-five of it, and if I win more I'm to keep all above the two hundred. And you can hold on to your ten dollars till we stand up to the table, and then you can hold to my coat. I can't get away with it, but I don't guarantee, you understand, that I'll win."
The little man was thoughtful a spell. When he looked up there was the glitter of hope in his sharp scrutiny.
"It'd take a crook to beat that old man's game," said he, "and maybe you can do it. As long as I can hold on to the money I don't see how I stand to lose it, and I've got a notion to go you."
"Suit yourself," said the doctor, turning again to his exploration of the straw.
"Ain't much in that," commented the gambler's victim, watching him with puzzled face.
No comment from the searching man.
"You're a funny feller, anyhow, and I got a notion to take you up. Crook, heh?"
"Oh, a sort of a tin-horn," answered the doctor apparently indifferent about the whole matter.
Slavens was working farther away now, so the man left his place on the box to draw within the range of confidential conversation.
"If I was to put up the ten, would you be willing to go over there now and put that scheme of yours in motion?" he asked.
"No; not now. There would be some preliminaries. In the first place, that old man knows me, although he might not spot me at the first look in this rig. I'd have to get a pair of goggles to hide my eyes. And then there would be supper."
"Sure," agreed the little man. "I was going to ask you about that, anyhow."
"Thank you. The crowd will be thicker in there about ten o'clock tonight, and he'll have more money on the table. It will be better for me and for my scheme to wait till about that time. It's a long shot, partner; I'll tell you that before you take it."
"One in five?" asked the man, looking around cautiously, leaning forward, whispering.
"Not one in twenty," discounted the doctor. "But if it goes, it goes as smooth as grease."
The man stood considering it, looking as grave as a Scotch capitalist. Suddenly he jerked his head.
"I'll take it!" said he.
Over a greasy supper, in a tent away out on the edge of things, they arranged the details of their plot against Hun Shanklin's sure thing. What scheme the doctor had in mind he kept to himself, but he told his co-conspirator how to carry himself, and, with six small bills and some paper, he made up as handsome a gambler's roll as could have been met with in all Comanche that night. Out of the middle of its alluring girth the corner of a five-dollar note showed, and around the outside Slavens bound a strip of the red handkerchief upon which the little man had mopped his sweating brow. It looked bungling enough for any sheep-herder's hoard, and fat enough to tempt old Hun Shanklin to lead its possessor on.
After he had arranged it, the doctor pushed it across to his admiring companion.
"No," said the little man, shaking his head; "you keep it. You may be a crook, but I'll trust you with it. Anyhow, if you are a crook, I'm one too, I reckon."
"Both of us, then, for tonight," said the doctor, hooking the smoked goggles behind his ears.
HUN SHANKLIN'S COAT
Several sheep-herders, who had arrived late to dip into the vanishing diversions of Comanche, and a few railroad men to whom pay-day had just supplied a little more fuel to waste in its fires, were in Hun Shanklin's tent when Dr. Slavens and his backer arrived.
Shanklin was running off about the same old line of talk, for he was more voluble than inventive, and never varied it much. It served just as well as a new lecture for every occasion, for the memory of suckers is even shorter than their judgment.
Gents were invited to step up and weigh the honesty of those dice, and gaze on the folly of an old one-eyed feller who had no more sense than to take such long chances. If anybody doubted that he took long chances, let that man step up and put down his money. Could he throw twenty-seven, or couldn't he? That was the question, gents, and the odds were five to one that he could.
"I ain't in this business for my health, gents," he declared, pouring the dice out on his table, shaking them, and pouring them again. "I'm a gambler, and I'm here to make money, and make it as easy as I can; but if I'd been takin' my pay in sheepskins since I've been in this man's town I wouldn't have enough of them to make me a coat. Live and let live is my motto, and if you can't let 'em live let 'em die.
"Five times one dollar is five dollars, and five times five is twenty-five. Did any of you fellers ever make that much in a minute? Look at them dice. Take 'em in your hand; roll 'em on the table. Don't they run true and straight? Twenty-seven comes up for you sometimes, and it comes up for me. But it comes up oftener for me than it does for you, because I've got it charmed. That's m' lucky number. I was borned on the 27th of Jannewarry, in Range 27, Township 27, twenty-seven mile from Turkey Trail, Montaney, where the wind blows circles and the water runs up-hill.
"You win, friend," pushing stake and winnings to a sheep-herder who had ventured a dollar. "Five times one is five."
Interest in the game began to show rising temperature; the infection of easy money was working through the bystanders' sluggish blood. Shanklin kept the score of loss and gain a little in his own favor, as he was able to do from his years of practice, while still leaving the impression among the players that collectively they were cleaning him out. Some who felt sudden and sharp drains dropped out, but others took their places, eyes distended, cheeks flushed, money in hand.
Dr. Slavens and his backer made their way to the front. Slavens noted that Shanklin was making an extraordinary spread of money, which he had beside his hand in a little valise. It was craftily disposed in the mouth of the half-open bag, which seemed crammed to the hinges with it, making an alluring bait. The long, black revolver of Shanklin's other days and nights lay there beside the bag asserting its large-caliber office of protection with a drowsy alligator look about it.
Slavens was as dirty and unwashed as the foulest in that crowd. His khaki coat bore a varnish of grease, his hat was without band or binding, and the growth of beard which covered his face like the bristles of a brush gave him the aspect of one who had long been the companion and warder of sheep upon the hills. With the added disguise of the smoked-glass goggles, common to travelers in that glaring, dusty land, it would have required one with a longer and more intimate acquaintance with him than Hun Shanklin could claim to pick him out of a crowd.
Slavens pulled out his roll and stood against the table, holding it in his hand with a loutish display of excitement and caution, as if unable to make up his mind whether to risk it on the game or not. When Shanklin saw it he began to direct his talk with a view to charming it out of the supposed sheep-herder's hand.
With nervous fingers Slavens untied the strip of handkerchief, turned his back, and slipped off a dollar bill. This he put on the table with a cautious leaning forward and a suspicious hovering over it with the hand, playing the part so well that Shanklin's sharp old eye was entirely deceived.
"You win, friend," said Shanklin, pushing five dollars across the table. "This is like takin' money away from a child."
There was some tolling to be done on both sides in that game. Slavens turned his back again, with a true pastoral show of secrecy concerning his money, although he bungled it so that Shanklin could see him pulling the five-dollar note from the middle of his roll, as if searching for the next smallest bill. This he put on the table.
There was too much under his eye that throw for old Hun to let it get away. So the magic twenty-seven came rattling out of the box, and Hun raked over his winnings with doleful face and solemn shaking of the head, according to his way. He predicted feelingly that his luck could not last, and that the next time his number came up there would be only two dollars on the table.
From the little pile of one-dollar bills under his hand—the five which he had won and the one that he had first staked—the doctor counted five slowly, and then counted it over again, to make sure. He won.
The others were watching him as he pushed the twenty-five dollars out in the middle of the table with a defiant snort. He crouched over his stake with guarding mien as old Hun took up the box and shook the dice. They fell near his hand, scattering a little, rolling over to the edge of his money as they settled down. He had won again.
This extraordinary luck seemed to turn the bettor's head. He spread out his fingers, leaning lower over his stake, as if to prevent its being swept away by violence or mistake.
"I won, I tell you! I won!" said he.
"You won, friend," said Hun, counting out the money to him, a look of triumph in his greedy little eye. For, according to all the signs, the poison was so deep in the supposed sheep-herder's blood that nothing but the loss of all his hoard would cool it again.
Slavens nervously counted down twenty-five dollars again, keeping the remainder of his winnings in his hand, as if ready to take chance on the jump.
A man must have it given to him both ways in order to key him up to the right place, Hun Shanklin knew. All winning would no more do than all loss. So this time the loaded dice were switched into the box, and the charmed number came out again.
"Hold on! Hold on!" protested the bettor as Shanklin started to sweep the money away with one hand and gather in his tricky dice with the other. For Hun never left those dice any longer on the board than necessary.
Slavens threw himself forward on the table, his elbows spread, scrutinizing the dice as if he had not yet figured the total.
"Yes; you win this time," said he grudgingly, removing his hand from his stake, but dropping the money which he clutched in his fist at the same time.
With fatherly kindness Shanklin admonished him to hold on to his money, and helped him pick it up. And, sharp as his old eye was, he did not see that one of his precious dice, hidden under a bill, had changed places with another, which had waited that moment in the doctor's hand.
The others around the table had given the game over to the amazing sheep-herder who seemed to have so much cash. They stood by, gaping and exclaiming, growing hotter and hotter with the fever all the time themselves, licking their dry lips, feeling of their money, getting ready to pitch into it as soon as the film of chance had thickened a little on their eyes, shutting out reason entirely.
Slavens straightened up and gave his backer two gentle prods in the ribs, which was the signal agreed upon to let the other know that the scheme was in working order, and that something was due to happen. He counted down one hundred dollars and stood expectant, while Shanklin held his hand over the mouth of the dicebox and looked at him with contemptuous reproach.
"No, you don't! No, you don't!" said Hun. "If you want to play this man's game you got to shove up some money of your own. That money's my money, and you've been shovin' it on and draggin' it off so much I'm afraid you'll wear it out if you keep on.
"It's mine, I tell you! Every cent of it's mine! If you got any of your own put it up, and then I'll roll 'em. If you got a hundred to pile on top of that, or five hundred, or ten hundred, come on and pile it up. Then I'll roll 'em. But I ain't a goin' to stand here and speculate in my own money all night!"
So there they were, caught in a blind canyon when they thought they were coming into the clear. That was an unlooked-for and unprepared-for turn that Shanklin had given to their plans. Right when they had him unsuspectingly loaded up so he could no more throw twenty-seven than he could fly, except by the tremendously long chance that the good die would fall right to make up the count, he sat down on his hind legs and balked.
Slavens was at the end of his rope. There appeared nothing for it but to withdraw the stake and sneak off with only half of his backer's loss of the afternoon retrieved. He was reaching out his hand to pull the money away, when the little fellow with whiskers caught his arm.
Slavens thought he read a signal in the touch, and turned as if to consult his roll again. As he did so the little man thrust a comfortable wad of bills into his hand, and Slavens faced the table, counting down five one-hundred-dollar bills.
Hun Shanklin's eye was burning the backs of those aristocrats of the currency as he lifted his box.
"That's more like it," he commended. "I can play with a gentleman that carries them things around with him all night, even if I lose at every throw."
"Hold on!" said the doctor as Hun was tilting the box to throw. "Cover that money before you throw. I've got six hundred dollars down there, and I want you to count out three thousand by the side of it."
"Well, I've got the money, friend, if that's what you doubt," said Shanklin, with a lofty air of the injured gentleman.
He drew a sheaf of bills from the valise and, in the stillness of awe which had come over the crowd, counted down the required amount.
"I've won fortunes, gentlemen, and I've lost 'em," said Shanklin, taking up the box again. "Keep your eye on the dice."
He was so certain of what would come out of the box that he reached for the money before the dice had settled, ready to sweep it away. But a change came over his face, as of sudden pain, when he saw the result of the throw, and with a little dry snort his hand shot out toward the revolver which lay beside his valise.
The little man with whiskers, admirably cool, got there first. Hun Shanklin was looking into the end of his own gun, and unloading, through the vent of his ugly, flat mouth, the accumulated venom of his life. He was caught in his own trap by a sharper man than himself, a being that up to that minute he had believed the world could not produce.
Dr. Slavens quickly gathered the money. The others around the table, blazing now in their desire to get a division of fortune's favors, put down their bets and called loudly for the gamekeeper to cover them.
"Game's closed," Shanklin announced, shutting up his valise, into which he had tossed both dice and box.
He made a move as if to part the tent-wall behind him.
"Hold on!" said the doctor, snatching off his goggles and pushing up the brim of his hat. "I've got another score to settle with you, Shanklin. Do you know me now?"
Shanklin didn't wait to reply. He dropped to his knees just as Slavens reached for him, catching the collar of his coat. In an instant the gambler was gone, but his coat was in Dr. Slavens' hand, a circumstance from which the assembled men drew a great deal of merriment.
The chief of police, remiss in his high duty, should have been there to sustain Shanklin's hand, according to their gentlemanly agreement when the partnership was formed. He arrived too late. Shanklin was gone, and from the turmoil in the tent the chief concluded that he had trimmed somebody in his old-fashioned, comfortable way. So his duty, as he saw it in that moment, lay in clearing them out and dispersing them, and turning deaf ears to all squeals from the shorn and skinned.
Dr. Slavens and his friend had nothing to linger for. They were the first to leave, the doctor carrying Shanklin's coat under his arm, the pockets of his own greasy makeshift bulging with more money than he ever had felt the touch of before. As they hurried along the dark street away from the scene of their triumph, the little man with fiery whiskers did the talking.
"Mackenzie is my name," said he, all of the suspicion gone out of him, deep, feeling admiration in its place, "and if you was to happen up to southern Montana you'd find me pretty well known. I've got fifty thousand sheep on the range up there, average four dollars a head, and I'd hand half of 'em over to you right now if you'd show me how you turned that trick. That was the slickest thing I ever saw!"
"It wouldn't do you any good at all to know how it was done," said Slavens, "for it was a trick for the occasion and the man we worked it on. The thing for us to do is to go to some decent, quiet place and divide this money."
"Give me my two hundred and the stake," said Mackenzie, "and keep the rest. I don't need money; I've got two national banks full of it up there in Montana now."
"Lord knows I need it!" said the doctor, beginning to sweat over the nearness to visions which he once believed he should never overhaul.
He stepped along so fast in his eagerness to come up with and lay hands on them that Mackenzie was thrown into a trot to keep up.
"I don't know who you are or where you came from," said Mackenzie, "but you're not a crook, anyhow. That money's yours; you got it out of him as beautiful as I ever saw a man skinned in my day. But if you don't want to tip it off, that's your business."
"It was a chance," said the doctor, recalling a night beside the river and the words of Agnes when she spoke of that theme, "and I had the sense and the courage for once to take it."
In the cafe-tent where they had taken their supper they sat with a stew of canned oysters between them, and made the division of the money which the lost die had won. Mackenzie would accept no more than the two hundred dollars which he had lost on Shanklin's game, together with the five hundred and ten advanced in the hope of regaining it.
It was near midnight when they parted, Mackenzie to seek his lodging-place, Dr. Slavens to make the rounds of the stores in the hope of finding one open in which he could buy a new outfit of clothing. They were all closed and dark. The best that he could do toward improving his outcast appearance was to get shaved. This done, he found lodging in a place where he could have an apartment to himself, and even an oil-lamp to light him to his rest.
Sitting there on the side of his bed, he explored the pockets of Hun Shanklin's coat. There were a number of business cards, advertising various concerns in Comanche, which Shanklin had used for recording his memoranda; two telegrams, and a printed page of paper, folded into small space. There was nothing more.
The paper was an extra edition of The Chieftain, such as the doctor had grown sadly familiar with on the day of the drawing. With a return of the heartsickness which he had felt that day, he unfolded it far enough to see the date. It was the day of the drawing. He dropped the half-folded sheet to the floor and took up the telegrams.
One, dated the day before, was from Meander. The other was evidently Shanklin's reply, which perhaps had not been filed, or perhaps was a copy. The first read:
Can close with Peterson if you are sure he will be Number One. Be certain on numbers N. W. quar. 6-12-33. Repeat. Jerry.
The reply which Shanklin had written and perhaps sent, preserving a copy in his crafty, cautious way, was:
Peterson is Number One. N. W. quarter 6-12-33 is right.
There was neither name nor address on the telegram, but it was easy to see that it was for "Jerry" at Meander. Some deal was on foot, a crooked deal, no doubt, between Shanklin and somebody for something in which Peterson and Number One——
Hold on! Slavens sat up with a quickening of interest in those two words which he thought he never should feel again. Peterson! That was the name of the winner of Number One. Certainly! Queer that he didn't put two and two together at the first glance, thought he. He wondered how much they were paying Peterson for his relinquishment, and what there was in the northwest quarter of Section Six, Township Twelve, Range Thirty-three, that Hun Shanklin wanted to get his hands on.
Well, it was interesting, at any rate, even though he didn't draw himself. In a flash he thought of Agnes and of her hopes, and her high number, and wondered whether she had gone to Meander to file. Slavens held up Shanklin's coat by the collar and ran through the pockets in the hope of finding something that would yield further particulars.
There was nothing else in the coat. It didn't matter, he reflected; his interest in Claim Number One was gone forever. He didn't care who had it, or what was done with it, or whether Hun Shanklin and the man called Jerry gave ten thousand dollars for it or ten cents.
But that was a pretty good coat. It was a great deal better and more respectable than the one he had on, and it looked as if it might come nearer fitting. True, Shanklin was a thin man; but he was wide.
The doctor put on the garment. It was a very comfortable fit; the sleeves were a little long, but there was room enough in the shoulders. Surprising, said he, how wide that old rascal was in the chest. He transferred his money to Hun Shanklin's pockets, chuckling at the thought that he was returning it whence it came. In conscience, said he, if conscience required such a palliative, he had made restitution.
On the floor at his foot lay the extra. In falling it had presented to his view the other side of the fold. The ruled, double-column box, with the surrounding type lifted irregularly around it, attracted his attention. He picked it up, sat again on the edge of the bed, and read his own name printed there as the winner of Number One.
He couldn't make it out. He turned the paper, looking again at the date. "Owing to a mistake in transmitting the news," he read. He got up and walked the length of his compartment, the paper in his hand. How was that? Number One—he was the winner of Number One! How was that? How was that?
There was fortune's caper for you! Number One! And the time past—or but a few hours between then and the limit—for stepping up and claiming it! And Hun Shanklin had a hand in it. Wait a minute—wait!
Hun Shanklin, and a man called Jerry, and Peterson, the Swede. But Shanklin, who sent telegrams assuring somebody that Peterson was Number One—Shanklin most of all. Slavens passed his hand with tentative pressure over the soiled bandage which bound his brow, feeling with finger and thumb along the dark stain which traced what it hid from sight. Shanklin! That would explain some things, many things. Perhaps all things.
He stood there, counting on his fingers like a schoolboy, frowning as he counted. One—two—three. The third day—that was the third day. And he was Number One. And he had lost!
* * * * *
Out in the office of the lodging-place a lamp burned smokily at the elbow of an old man who read a paper by its light.
"This should be the twenty-eighth, according to my reckoning," said Slavens, appearing before him and speaking without prelude.
The old man looked up, unfriendly, severe.
"You're purty good at figures," said he.
He bumped his bony shoulders over his paper again.
Undaunted, Slavens asked him the hour. The old clerk drew out a cheap watch and held it close to his grizzled face.
"Time for all honest men but me and you to be in bed, I reckon. It's a quarter to one."
A quarter to one! Next morning—no; that very morning at nine o'clock, Peterson would step up to the window of the land-office in Meander and file on Claim Number One—his claim—Dr. Warren Slavens' claim, the seed of his dead hope. That is, if the long chance that lay between him and that hour should be allowed to pass unimproved.
"Do you want to sell that watch?" asked the doctor suddenly.
The old man looked up at him sharply, the shadow of his nose falling long upon his slanting paper.
"You go to thunder!" said he.
"No," said Slavens without showing offense. "I want that watch for a few hours, and I'll pay you for it if you want to let me have it."
He drew out a roll of money as thick as the old man's thin neck, and stood with it in his hand. The old man slipped the leather thong from his buttonhole and laid the watch on the board in front of him.
"It cost me a dollar two or three years ago"—what was a year to him in his fruitless life, anyway?—"and if you want to give me a dollar for it now you can take it."
Slavens took up the timepiece after putting down the required price.
"I paid for my bed in advance, you remember?" said he.
The old clerk nodded, his dull eye on the pocket into which all that money had disappeared.
"Well, I'm going out for a while, and I may not be back. That's all."
With that the doctor passed out into the street.
Eight hours between him and the last chance at Claim Number One—eight hours, and sixty miles. That was not such a mighty stretch for a good horse to cover in eight hours—nothing heroic; very ordinary in truth, for that country.
With a clearly defined purpose, Slavens headed for the corral opposite the Hotel Metropole, beside which the man camped who had horses for hire. A lantern burned at the closed flap of the tent. After a little shaking of the pole and rough shouting, the man himself appeared, overalled and booted and ready for business.
"You must weigh a hundred and seventy?" said he, eying his customer over after he had been told what a horse was wanted for. "What's your hurry to git to Meander?"
"A hundred and eighty," corrected the doctor, "and none of your business! If you want to hire me a horse, bring him out. If you don't, talk fast."
"I ain't got one I'd hire you for that ride, heavy as you are," said the man; "but I've got one a feller left here for me to sell that I'd sell you."
"Let me see him," said the doctor.
The man came out of the straw-covered shed presently, leading a pretty fair-looking creature. He carried a saddle under his arm. While the doctor looked the beast over with the lantern the man saddled it.
"Well, how much?" demanded the doctor.
"Hundred and fifty," said the man.
"I'll give you a hundred, and that's fifty more than he's worth," the doctor offered.
"Oh, well, seein' you're in such a rush," the man sighed.
As he pocketed the price he gave the directions asked.
"They's two roads to Meander," he explained; "one the freighters use that runs over the hills and's solid in most all kinds of weather, and the stage-road, that follows the river purty much. It's shorter by a few miles and easier to foller; but it's got some purty loose ground here and there."
"Much obliged," said the doctor, striking his heels to his horse's sides and galloping off, following the road which he had seen the stages take to Meander, in the days when Claim Number One was farther off even than eight hours and sixty miles.
In Meander that morning people began to gather early at the land-office, for it was the first day for filing, and a certain designated number, according to the rules laid down and understood before the drawing, must appear and make entry on their chosen tracts.
There had been a good deal of talk and excitement over the nonappearance in Meander of the man who drew the first chance. The story had gone around, from what source nobody knew, that he would lapse, in which case Number Two would become Number One, and all along the line would advance. Number One would have to be there to file first, as Number Two could not be entered ahead of him, and if he did not step up to the window when it opened, his chance was gone forever.
The United States Government would accept no excuses; the machinery of its vast, admirable business could not be thrown out of gear for an hour or a day, and stand idle while the clerks waited for the holder of Claim Number One to come from some distant part and step into his own. So there was a good deal of nervousness and talking, and speculating and crowding forward in the waiting line, as the hour for opening the office drew near.
At the head of the line, holding a card with certain figures on it, stood Axel Peterson, a bony-faced man with lean, high shoulders, engineer in the flour-mill at Meander. Peterson strained his long neck and lifted his chin as if his loose collar bound him and choked his aspirations.
It was a racking hour for Axel Peterson, who had been offered a sum which was riches to him if he would file on the land described by the figures on the card, pay its purchase price to the government on the spot with the money provided him for that purpose, and then step out. Already he had signed an agreement to make a deed to it. However, the land was yet in the mists of uncertainty just ahead, beyond his grasp.
For it was stipulated in his agreement that if the-holder of the first choice should appear in time to file, then Peterson was to hand over the money which he carried in his pocket to purchase immediate title to the claim. In that case, Jerry Boyle, the Governor's son, who stood side by side with Peterson before the window and held Peterson's agreement to deed certain described lands in his hand; in that case Jerry Boyle would be free to open negotiations with the holder of the first chance.
There was no secret among those gathered to file regarding what was going forward at the head of the line. It was generally understood, also, that others were on hand to grab the same piece of land as that which Boyle was so eager to get into his possession. Gold, some said. Others were strong in the statement that it was coal and oil. At any rate there was another man present who had been active with Peterson, but he had arrived too late. Boyle already had the Scandinavian down in writing.
Milo Strong was in his place, hoping in his heart that Dr. Slavens would not appear, as the physician's lapse would set him one forward. Off to one side, among hundreds gathered to witness the filing on lands which would mean the development of a great stretch of country around Meander, and thereby add to its prosperity and importance, were William and Horace Bentley and Agnes.
They watched the clerks in the land-office arrive and enter through the side door. A shelf had been arranged in one of the front windows of the office, past which the entrants could file without going into the building. At nine o'clock this window would be opened. It was before it that Peterson and Jerry were standing.
William Bentley looked at his watch.
"Seven minutes more," he announced.
"He'll never come," said Agnes, shaking her head sadly. "His chance is slipping away."
"I've hoped right up to this minute that he would come," said William, "but I drop out now. It would have been such easy money for him, too."
"Yes; Boyle's got that fellow tied up to relinquish to him the minute the entry is made," Horace added. "I know the lawyer who drew up the papers. It's illegal all through, but they say Boyle's got such a pull through his father that anything he wants will go."
Until that hour Agnes had kept her faith in Dr. Slavens and her hope that he would appear in time to save his valuable claim. Now hope was gone, and faith, perhaps, had suffered a tarnishment of luster.
For that is the way of human judgment. When one whom we have expected to rise up out of the smoke of obscurity or the fog of calumniation fails in what we feel to be his obligation to the world and ourselves—especially ourselves—faith falters in its place, and gives way to reproach, bitter words, hot arraignments. There is no scorn like the scorn of one who has been a friend.
And still Agnes kept her faith that Dr. Slavens was blameless for his unexplained disappearance and prolonged absence deep-anchored in her heart. But there was a surface irritation at that moment, a disposition to censure and scold. For nothing short of death should keep a man away from the main chance of his career, thought she, and she could not believe that he was dead.
It was altogether disappointing, depressing. He should have come; he should have moved the encumbering obstacles out of his way, no matter what their bulk. Not so much for his own sake maybe, when all was refined to its base of thought, as for the redemption of her faith and trust.
"I don't care to stay and see them file," said she, turning away. "I'll get enough of it, I suppose, when my turn comes, waiting in line that way in the sun."
"There's a special stage out for Comanche at eleven," said William, his watch in his hand. "If I can get a seat I'll return on it. It's time I was back in the shop."
"For," he might have added if he had expressed his thoughts, "no matter what I think of you, Agnes, I see that it would be useless for me to hang around and hope. Dr. Slavens has stepped into the door of your heart, and there is no room for anybody else to pass."
But he left it unsaid, standing with his head bent as if in meditation, his watch in his hand.
"Two minutes more," he announced.
"I'm moving from the hotel," said she quickly, "to a room I've taken with a dear old lady in a funny little house among the trees. It's cheaper for me while I wait to file. I'll see you to say good-bye."
She hurried away, leaving the two men standing looking after her, Horace smiling, for he did not altogether understand. William could see deeper. He knew that she was afraid lest her disappointment would burst out in tears if she remained to see Axel Peterson square his elbows on the shelf before the window and make entry on Claim Number One.
A clerk within the office was pounding on the window-sash, for the paint which the building had been treated to in honor of the occasion had gummed it fast. Axel Peterson, straining his long neck, swallowing dry gulps, looked to the right, the left, the rear. The ends of his fingers were fairly on Claim Number One; nobody was pressing forward to supplant him and take away his chance.
Of course, in case Boyle could not induce the holder of the first chance, in the event that he might yet come, to file on the coveted land, then there would be a chance left for Peterson. So Peterson knew—Boyle had made that plain. But who could resist the amount Boyle was ready to give? Nobody, concluded Axel Peterson, feeling a chill of nervousness sweep him as the window-sash gave and the window opened, showing the two clerks ready, with their pens in hand.
The preliminary questions were being asked; the card with Peterson's signature on it was taken out of the file for its identification—although he was personally known to everybody in the town—for no detail of caution and dignity could be omitted on an occasion so important as that; Axel Peterson was taking his breath in short bites, his hand trembling as he took up the pen to enter his name when that moment should arrive; his voice was shaking as he answered the questions put to him by the clerk.
There was a stirring down the line, and a crowding forward. From the outer rim of the people gathered to bear witness to the important ceremony there rose a subdued shout, like the expression of wonder or surprise. The volume of this sound increased as it swept toward the office. Those in the line, Axel Peterson first of all, saw a movement in the crowd, saw it part and open a lane for a dusty man on a sweat-drenched horse to pass.
One of the clerks arranged the detail-map of the reservation before him with great deliberation, his pen ready to check off the parcel of land when the entrant should give its description. The other spread the blank on the desk, dipped his pen, and asked:
"What tract do you wish to file on, Mr. Peterson?"
The man on horseback had forged through the crowd and brought his stumbling beast to a stand not a rod away from Axel Peterson's side. Peterson had viewed the proceeding with a disturbing qualm. Boyle, as talkative before as a washerwoman, now grew suddenly silent. His mouth stood open impotently; the gray of a sinking heart came over his face as he looked long at the battered man, who had dropped the reins to the ground and was coming toward them on unsteady legs.
Then, in a flash, Boyle recovered his poise.
"Quick! Quick!" he called to the clerk, thrusting an impatient hand through the window. "Give him the paper and let him sign; you can fill in the numbers afterward!"
The clerk owed his appointment to Boyle's father when the latter was in Congress; so he was ready at heart to obey. But it was an irregularity which might rebound with uncomfortable result. Thus he hesitated a few seconds, and as he hesitated the road-stained horseman pushed in between Axel Peterson and the window.
"You're a little hasty," said the man. "It's a few seconds until nine yet, according to my time. My name is Slavens, and I am Number One."
The people in the crowd pressed closer, closing around the tired horse, which stood with its head drooping, its flaccid sides heaving. Jerry Boyle said nothing, but he put into his pocket the paper which he had been holding ready in his hand for Axel Peterson's signature the minute the entry should be made, and turned his back. A black-visaged man with shifting, greasy eyes shouldered, panting, through the press of people and put his hand on Slaven's arm.
"I'd like to have a word with you before you file," he requested.
Slavens looked at him severely from the shadow of his battered hat. The man lacked the bearing of one who inspires confidence; Slavens frowned his disapproval of the approach.
"It means money to you," pressed the man, stretching out his hand and showing a card with numbers penciled on it.
Axel Peterson had stood gaping, his card with numbers on it also in his hand, held up at a convenient angle for his eyes. Dr. Slavens had read them as he pushed Peterson aside, and the first two figures on the other man's card—all that Slavens could hastily glimpse—were the same. And, stranger still, they were the same as Hun Shanklin had recorded in telegraphed reply to the request from Jerry that he repeat them.
That was enough to show him that there was something afoot worth while, and to fortify him in his determination, strong in his mind every mile of that long night ride, to file on that identical tract of land, come of it what might.
"I'll talk to you after a while," said he.
Boyle said nothing, although the look he gave the forward man was blasting and not without effect. The fellow fell back; something which looked like a roll of bills passed from Boyle's hand to Axel Peterson's, and with a jerk of the shoulder, which might have been intended as a defiance to his rival or as an expression of resignation, Boyle moved back a little into the crowd, where he stood whispering with his friends. Peterson's face lit up again; he swallowed and stretched his neck, wetting his dry lips with his tongue.
The preliminaries were gone over again by the clerks with deliberate dignity; the card bearing the doctor's signature was produced, his identity established, and the chart of the reservation again drawn forward to check off the land as he gave the description.
"What tract have you selected, Dr. Slavens?" asked the clerk with the blank.
Dr. Slavens drew from the pocket of his coat a crumpled yellow paper, unfolded it, and spread it on the shelf.
"The northwest quarter of Section Six, Township Twelve, Range Thirty-three," he replied, his eyes on Hun Shanklin's figures.
Jerry Boyle almost jumped at the first word. As the doctor completed the description of the land he strode forward, cursing in smothered voice.
"Where did you get that paper?" he demanded, his voice pitched an octave above its ordinary key by the tremulous heat of his anger.
Dr. Slavens measured him coldly with one long, contemptuous look. He answered nothing, for the answer was obvious to all. It was none of Boyle's business, and that was as plain as spoken words.
Boyle seemed to wilt. He turned his back to the winner of Number One, but from that moment he stuck pretty close to Axel Peterson until something passed between them again, this time from Peterson's hand to Boyle's. Peterson sighed as he gave it up, for hope went with it.
Meantime a wave of information was running through the crowd.
"It's Number One," men repeated to each other, passing the word along. "Number One got here!"
Hurrying to the hotel, Agnes was skirting through the thinner edges of the gathering at the very moment when Dr. Slavens turned from the window, his papers in his hand. As he went to his weary horse and took up the reins, the creature greeted him with a little chuckling whinny, and the people gave him a loud and hearty cheer.
When the cheering spread to the people around her, Agnes stopped and asked a man why they did that. She spoke a little irritably, for she was out of humor with people who would cheer one man for taking something that belonged to another. That was the way she looked at it, anyhow.
"Why, haven't you heard?" asked the man, amazed, but enlarged with importance, because he had the chance of telling somebody. "It's Number One. He rode up on a horse just in the nick of the second and saved his claim."
"Number One!" said she. "A horse!"
"Sure, ma'am," said her informant, looking at her queerly. "Here he comes now."
Dr. Slavens passed within a few feet of her, leading his horse toward the livery stable. If it had not been that the wind was blowing sharply, turning back the flapping brim of his old hat, she would have repudiated him as an impostor. But there was no mistaking him, in spite of the strange clothing which he wore, in spite of the bloody bandage about his head.
And at the sight of that bandage her heart felt a strange exultation, a stirring leap of joy, even stronger than her pity and her pain. For it was his vindication; it was the badge of his honor; it was his credentials which put him back in the right place in her life.
He had come by it in no drunken squabble, she knew; and he had arisen from the sickness of it to mount horse and ride—desperately, as his condition told—to claim his own. Through the leagues of desert he had come, through the unfriendly night, with what dim hope in his breast no man might know. Now, sparing the horse that had borne him to his triumph, he marched past her, his head up, like one who had conquered, even though he limped in the soreness of bruised body.
People standing near wondered to see the tall, pale woman put out her hands with more than a mother's pity in her eyes, and open her lips, murmuring a name beneath her breath.
The Bentleys, who had seen Dr. Slavens arrive, had not been able to force their way to him through the crowd. Now, with scores of others, they followed him, to have a word with him after he had stabled his horse. As they passed Agnes, William made his way to her.
"He arrived in time!" he cried triumphantly, the sparkle of gladness in his honest eyes. "He has justified your faith, and your trust, and your——"
She put out both her hands, tears in her eyes, as he halted there, leaving unsaid what there was no need to say.
"I'll tell him where to find you," said he, passing on.
In her room at the hotel Agnes sat down to wait. Peace had come into her soul again; its fevered alarms were quiet. Expectancy trembled in her bosom, where no fear foreshadowed what remained for him to say. Her confidence was so complete in him, now that he had come, that she would have been satisfied, so she believed at that hour, if he had said:
"I was unable to come sooner; I am sorry."
For love is content with little while it is young.
Agnes thought of her prettiest dress, tucked away in the little steamer-trunk, and brought it out. It was not extremely gay, but it was light in color and fabric, and gave a softness to the lines of the body, and a freshness of youth. And one needs to look carefully to that when one is seven-and-twenty, she reflected.
Her fingers fluttered over her hair; she swayed and turned before the glass, bringing the lines of her neck into critical inspection. There was the turn of youth there yet, it comforted her to see, and some degree of comeliness. He would come soon, and she must be at her best, to show him that she believed in him, and give him to understand that she was celebrating his triumph over the contrary forces which he had whipped like a man.
Faith, thought she, as she sat by the window and looked down upon the crowd which still hung about the land-office, was a sustaining food. Without it the business of all the world would cease. She had found need to draw heavily upon it in her years, which she passed in fleeting review as she looked pensively upon the crowd, which seemed floundering aimlessly in the sun.
All at once the crowd seemed to resolve into one personality, or to become but the incidental background for one man; a tall man with a slight stoop, whose heavy eyebrows met above his nose like two black caterpillars which had clinched in a combat to contest the passage. Here and there he moved as if seeking somebody, familiarly greeted, familiarly returning the salutations.
That morning she had seen him at the head of the line of men waiting to file on land, close beside Peterson, who believed himself to be Number One. She had wondered then what his interest might be, and it was largely due to a desire to avoid being seen by him that she had hurried away. Now he turned as if her thoughts had burned upon his back like a sunglass, looked directly toward her window, lifted his hat, and smiled.
As if his quest had come to an end at the sight of her, he pushed across the street and came toward the hotel. She left the window, closing it hurriedly, a shadow of fear in her face, her hand pressed to her bosom, as if that meeting of eyes had broken the lethargy of some old pain. She waited, standing in the center of the room, as if for a summons which she dreaded to hear.
The hotel at Meander had not at that day come to such modern contrivances as telephones and baths. If a patron wanted to talk out on the one wire that connected Meander with the world and the railroad, he had to go to the stage-office; if he wanted a bath he must make a trip to the steam laundry, where they maintained tubs for that purpose. But these slight inconveniences were not all on one side of the house. For if a message came to the office for a guest in his room, there was nothing for the clerk to do but trot up with it.
And so it came that when Agnes opened her door to the summons, her bearing had no touch of fear or timidity. In the hall she faced the panting clerk, who had leaped up the stairs and was in a hurry to leap down again.
"Mr. Jerry Boyle asks if he may have the pleasure of seeing you in the parlor, Miss Horton," said the clerk.
"Tell Mr. Boyle," she answered with what steadiness she could command, "that I have an appointment in a few minutes. I'm afraid that I shall not be able to see him before—before—tomorrow afternoon."
That was enough for the clerk, no matter how near or how far it came to satisfying the desires of Jerry Boyle. He gave her a stubby bow and heeled it off downstairs again, kicking up quite a dust in his rapid flight over the carpet in the hall.
As if numbed or dreaming, Agnes walked slowly about her room, touching here or there a familiar article of apparel, and seeking thus to recall herself to a state of conscious reasoning. The events of the morning—the scene before the land-office, her start back to the hotel, the passing of that worn, wounded, and jaded man—seemed to have drawn far into the perspective of the past.
In a little while William Bentley came up for his bag—for in that hotel every man was his own porter—and called her to the door. He was off with Horace on the eleven o'clock stage for Comanche. Next morning he would take a train for the East. Dr. Slavens sent word that he would come to the hotel as soon as he could make himself presentable with a new outfit.
"Horace will stay at Comanche a while to look around," said William, giving her his card with his home address. "If there's anything that I can do for you any time, don't wait to write if you can reach a telegraph-wire."
If there was pain in his eyes she did not see it, or the yearning of hope in his voice, she did not hear. She only realized that the man who filled her life was coming soon, and that she must light again the fires of faith in her eyes to greet him.
THE OTHER MAN
Dr. Slavens stood at the door of the parlor to meet her as she came toward him, a little tremor of weakness in her limbs, a subconscious confession of mastery which the active feminine mind might have denied with blushing show of indignation.
The clothiers of Meander had fitted Slavens out with a very good serge suit. Tan oxfords replaced his old battered shoes. A physician had dressed the cut on his forehead, where adhesive plaster, neatly holding gauze over the cut, took away the aspect of grimness and gravity which the bloody bandage of the morning had imparted. For all his hard fight, he was quite a freshened-up man; but there was a questioning hesitation in his manner as he offered his hand.
Her greeting removed whatever doubt that William Bentley's assurance of her fidelity might have left. She took his hand between both her own and held it so a little while, looking into his eyes without the reservation of suspicion or distrust.
"We believed you'd come in time all along," said she.
"You believed it," he replied softly, not the faintest light of a smile on his serious face; "and I cannot weigh my gratitude in words. There is an explanation to be made, and I have saved it for you. I'm a beast to think of food just now, perhaps, but I haven't eaten anything since yesterday evening."
"You can tell me afterward, if you wish," she said.
Through the meal they talked of the others, of who had come to Meander, who had gone home; of June and her mother and the miller's wife. Nothing was said of the cause of his absence nor of his spectacular arrival just in the second remaining to him to save his chance.
"I noticed a road running up toward the mountain," said he when they had finished. "Shall we walk up that way?"
Out past the little cultivated gardens, where stunted corn was growing in the futile hope that it might come to ear, they followed the road which led into the mountain gorge. A rod-wide stream came plunging down beside the way, bursting its current upon a thousand stones here and there, falling into green pools in which the trout that breasted its roaring torrent might find a place to pant.
Here, in an acre of valley, some remnant of glacier had melted after its slow-plowing progress of ten million years. The smooth, round stones which it had dropped when it vanished in the sun lay there as thickly strewn as seeds from a gigantic poppy-boll. And then, as the gorge-wedge narrowed, there were great, polished boulders, like up-peeping skulls, and riven ledges against which Indian hunters had made their fires in the old days. And on the tipping land of the mountainside, and the little strips where soil lodged between the rocks, the quaking-asp grew thick and tall.
There in a little nook among the trees, where trampling tourists had eaten their luncheon upon a flat stone and left the bags and pickle-bottles behind them, they sat down. At that altitude the sunshine of an afternoon in late August was welcome. A man whipping the stream for trout caught his tackle in some low branches not ten feet from where they sat, and swore as he disentangled it. He passed on without seeing them.
"That goes to illustrate how near a man may be to something, and not know it," said the doctor, a smile quickening his grave face for a moment. "This time yesterday I was kicking over the rubbish where a gambling-tent had stood in Comanche, in the hope of finding a dime."
He stopped, looked away down the soft-tinted gorge as if wrapped in reminiscent thought. She caught her breath quickly, turning to him with a little start and gazing at his set face, upon which a new, strange somberness had fallen in those unaccounted days.
"Did you find it?" she asked.
"No, I didn't," he answered, coming out of his dream. "At that hour I knew nothing about having drawn the first number, and I didn't know that I was the lucky man until past midnight. I had just a running jump at the chance then, and I took it."
"And you won!" she cried, admiration in her eyes.
"I hope so," said he, gazing earnestly into her face.
Her eyes would not stand; they retreated, and a rush of blood spread over her cheeks like the reserve of an army covering its withdrawal from the field.
"I feel like I had just begun to live," he declared.
"I didn't see you arrive this morning," she told him, "for I turned and went away from the land-office when they opened the window. I couldn't stand it to see that man Peterson take what belonged to you."
He looked at her curiously.
"But you don't ask me where I was those two days," said he.
"You'll tell me—if you want me to know," she smiled.
"When I returned to the Hotel Metropole, even more ragged and discreditable-appearing than I was when you saw me this morning," he resumed, "the proprietor's wife asked me where I'd been. I told her I had been on a trip to hell, and the farther that experience is behind me the stronger my conviction that I defined it right.
"When I left you that night after we came back from the river, I went out to look for young Walker, all blazing up, in my old-time way of grabbing at things like a bullfrog at a piece of flannel, over what you had said about a man not always having the sense and the courage to take hold of his chances when they presented.
"Walker had talked to me about going in with him on his sheep-ranch, under the impression, I suppose, that I had money to invest. Well, I hadn't any, as you know, but I got the notion that Walker might set me up with a flock of sheep, like they do in this country, to take care of on shares. I had recovered entirely from my disappointment in failing to draw a claim, as I thought, knowing nothing about the mistake in telephoning the names over.
"I used to be quick to get over things that were based on hope that way," he smiled, turning to her for a second and scarcely noting how she leaned forward to listen. "Just then I was all sheep. I had it planned out ten years ahead in that twenty minutes. When a man never has had anything to speculate in but dreams he's terribly extravagant of them, you know. I was recklessly so.
"Well, I was going along with my head in the clouds, and I made a short cut to go in the back way of the biggest gambling-tent, where I thought Walker might be watching the games. Right there the machinery of my recollection jumps a space. Something hit me, and a volcano burst before my eyes."
"Oh, I knew it! I knew it!" she cried, poignant anguish in her wailing voice. "I told that chief of police that; I told him that very thing!"
"Did you go to that brute?" he asked, clutching her almost roughly by the wrist.
"William Bentley and I," she nodded. "The chief wouldn't help. He told us that you were in no danger in Comanche."
"What else?" he asked.
"Go on with the story," said she.
"Yes. I came back to semiconsciousness with that floating sensation which men had described to me, but which I never experienced before, and heard voices, and felt light on my closed eyes, which I hadn't the power to open. But the first thing that I was conscious of, even before the voices and the light, was the smell of whisky-barrels.
"Nothing smells like a whisky-barrel. It's neither whisky nor barrel, but whisky-barrel. Once you have smelled it you never forget. I used to pass a distillery warehouse on my way to school twice a day, and the smell of whisky-barrels was part of my early education; so I knew.
"From the noise of voices and the smell of the barrels I judged that I must be behind the stage of the variety-theater tent, where they kept the stock of whisky for the bar. In a little while I was able to pick up the identity of one of the voices. The other one—there were two of them near me—belonged to a man I didn't know. You have heard us speak, when we were back in camp, of Hun Shanklin, the gambler?"
She nodded, her face white, her lips parted, her breath hanging between them as by a thread.
"It was his voice that I heard; I was coming stronger every second. I made out that they were talking of my undesirable presence in that community. Shanklin owed me a grudge on account of a push that I gave his table one night when he was robbing a young fool with more money than brains by his downright crooked game. That shove laid the old rascal's scheme bare and kept him out of several thousand dollars that night.
"I supposed until last night that his sole object in assaulting me in the dark was to pay off this score; but there was another and more important side to it than that. Shanklin and the fellow with him, whoever it was, knew that I was the winner of Number One, and they wanted me out of the way.
"I'm not clear yet in my mind just why; but they must have had some inside information ahead of others in Comanche that I, and not Peterson, was the lucky man, as reported first. For that extra wasn't out then."
"It was all a swindle, the extra," she hastened to explain. "That editor knew all the time who Number One was. He held your name back just so he might sell a lot more papers. We found out about it after we came here."
"Of course Shanklin was in with him some way. They're all crooks," the doctor commented.
"Perhaps the other man was that wicked chief of police," said she. "I wouldn't consider him above it."
"Nor I," Slavens admitted. "But I don't know; I never heard him speak. I thought I heard that other voice this morning here in Meander, but I'm not sure. I'll be listening. I must get on with my yarn, and I warn you now that I'm going to tax your credulity and try your confidence before I'm through.
"I lay there gathering strength while they talked about putting me away, like a man who had been choked. I couldn't see them when I opened my eyes, for they were back of me somewhere, moving the barrels and boxes around. There was a lantern standing on the ground near my head, and the thought came to me that if I could knock it over and put it out I might make a stagger for the outside and get clear of them. So I upset it.
"The thing didn't go out. It lay on its side, burning away the same as ever, but the move I had made tipped it off to them that I wasn't all in. I heard Shanklin swearing as he came toward me, and I picked up what strength I had, intending to make a fight for it. I wasn't as brisk as I believed myself to be, unluckily, and I had only made it to my knees when they piled on to me from behind. I suppose one of them hit me with a board or something. There's a welt back there on my head, but it don't amount to anything."
"The cowards!" she breathed, panting in indignation.
"I wish we could find a name in some language that would describe them," said he; "I've not been able to satisfy myself with anything that English offers. No matter. The next thing that I knew I was being drenched with icy water. It was splashing over my head and running down my face, and the restorative qualities of it has not been overrated by young ladies who write stories about fainting beauties for the magazines, I can hereby testify. It brought me around speedily, although I was almost deaf on account of a roaring, which I attributed to the return circulation in my battered head, and sickened by an undulating, swirling motion by which I seemed to be carried along.
"I felt myself cramped, knees against my chin, and struggled to adjust my position more comfortably. I couldn't move anything but my hands, and exploration with them quickly showed me that I was in a box, rather tight on sides and bottom—one of those tongue-and-groove cases such as they ship dry goods in—with the top rather open, as if it had been nailed up with scraps. The water was splashing through it and drenching me, and I knew in a flash, as well as if they had told me what they were going to do, what they had done. They had carted me to the river and thrown me in."
"The canyon! The canyon!" said she, shuddering and covering her face with her hands. "Oh, that terrible water—that awful place!"
"But I am here, sitting beside you, with the sun, which I never hoped to see again, shining on my face," he smiled, stroking her hair comfortingly, as one might assuage the terror of a child.
Agnes lifted her head in wondering admiration.
"You can speak of it calmly!" she wondered, "and you went through it, while it gives me a chill of fear even to think about it! Did you—come to shore before you entered the canyon?"
"No; I went through it from end to end. I don't know how far the river carried me in that box. It seemed miles. But the canyon is only two miles long, they say. The box floated upright mainly, being pretty well balanced by my weight in the bottom, but at times it was submerged and caught against rocks, where the current held it and the water poured in until I thought I should be drowned that way.
"I was working to break the boards off the top, and did get one off, when the whole thing went to pieces against a rock. I was rolled and beaten and smashed about a good bit just then. Arms were useless. The current was so powerful that I couldn't make a swimming-stroke. My chief recollection of those few troubled moments is of my arms being stretched out above my head, as if they were roped there with the weight of my body swinging on them. I supposed that was my finish."
"But you went through!" she whispered, touching him softly on the arm as if to recall him from the memory of that despairing time.
"I came up against a rock like a dead fish," said he, "my head above water, luckily. The current pinned me there and held me from slipping down. That saved me, for I hadn't strength to catch hold. The pressure almost finished me, but a few gasps cleared my lungs of water, and that helped some.
"There is no need for me to pretend that I know how I got on that rock, for I don't know. A man loses the conscious relation with life in such a poignant crisis. He does heroic things, and overcomes tremendous odds, fighting to save what the Almighty has lent him for a little while. But I got on that rock. I lay there with just as little life in me as could kindle and warm under the ashes again. I might have perished of the chill of that place if it hadn't been that the rock was a big one, big enough for me to tramp up and down a few feet and warm myself when I was able.
"I don't know how far along the canyon I was, or how long it was after day broke over the world outside before the gray light sifted down to me. It revealed to me the fact that my rock of refuge was about midway of the stream, which was peculiarly free of obstructions just there. It seemed to me that the hand of Providence must have dashed me against it, and from that gleam I gathered the conviction that it was not ordained for me to perish there. I could not see daylight out of either end of the canyon, for its walls are winding, and of course I had nothing but a guess as to how far I had come.
"There was no foothold in the cliffs on either hand that I could see, and the pounding of that heavy volume of water down the fall of the canyon seemed to make the cliffs tremble. I had to get ashore against the cliff-side, somehow, if I ever intended to get out, and I intended to get out, no two ways about it. I might drown if I plunged in, but I might not. And I was certain to starve if I stuck to the rock. So I took off my coat, which the river had spared me, and let myself down from the lower end of the rock. I had that rolling and thrashing experience all over again, still not quite so bad, for there was daylight to cheer me every time my head got clear of the water.
"There's no use pulling the story out. I made it. I landed, and I found that I could work my way along the side of the cliff and over the fallen masses by the waterside. It wasn't so bad after that.
"My hope was that I might find a place where a breach in the cliff would offer me escape that way, but there was none. The strip of sky that I could see looked no wider than my hand. I saw the light at the mouth of the canyon when it was beginning to fall dusk in there. I suppose it was along the middle of the afternoon."
"We were over there about then," said she, "thinking you might have gone in to try for that reward. If we only had known!"
"You could have come over to the other end with a blanket," said he, touching her hand in a little communicative expression of thankfulness for her interest. "There is a little gravelly strand bordering the river at that end. After its wild plunge it comes out quite docile, and not half so noisy as it goes in. I reached that strip of easy going just as it was growing too dark for safe groping over the rocks, and when I got there my legs bent like hot candles.
"I crawled the rest of the way; when I got out I must have been a sight to see. I know that I almost frightened out of his remaining wits a sheep-herder who was watering his flock. He didn't believe that I came through the canyon; he didn't believe anything I said, not even when I told him that I was cold and hungry."
"The unfeeling beast!"
"Oh, no; he was just about an average man. He had a camp close by, and let me warm and dry myself by his fire; gave me some coffee and food when he saw that I wasn't going to hurt him, but I don't believe he shut an eye that entire night. He was so anxious to get rid of me in the morning that he gave me an old hat and coat, and that was the rig I wore when I returned to Comanche."
"The hotel-keeper gave you the message that we left?" she asked.
"He was surly and ungracious, said he didn't know where you were. I was of the opinion that you had turned my baggage over to him, and that he found it convenient to forget all about it."
"We brought it here—it's in my room now; and we told him when we left where we were going, Mr. Bentley and I."
"Well, what little money I had was in my instrument-case," said he. "So I was up against it right. I knew there was no use in lodging a complaint against Shanklin, for I had no proof against him, and never could convince a jury that I was in my right mind if I should tell my story in court. So I let that pass."
"It was a miraculous deliverance from death!" Agnes exclaimed, taking her breath freely again. Tears mounted to her eyes as she measured Dr. Slavens' rugged frame as if with a new interest in beholding a common pattern which had withstood so much.
He told her of meeting Mackenzie, and of finding the lost die; of the raid they had made by means of it on Shanklin's money; of his discovery of the midnight extra in the pockets of the gambler's coat.
"So there you have it all," said he, smiling in embarrassment as if the relation of so much about himself seemed inexcusable. "Anyway, all of the first part of the story. The rest is all on dry land, and not interesting at all."
"But you hadn't had time to look over the land; you didn't know the good locations from the worthless," said she. "How did you pick out the claim you filed on?"
"Well, there's a little more of the story, it seems, after all. There was a plot between Shanklin and another to file Peterson on a certain tract and then buy him out, I suppose."
He told her of the telegram signed "Jerry," and of Shanklin's reply.
"So I concluded," he said, "that if the land described by their numbers was valuable to them it would be valuable to me. That my guess was good, I had proof when I filed. The chap who was piloting Peterson up to the window, and who I suspect was the 'Jerry' of the message, wanted to know where I got the figures. He wasn't a bit nice about it, either."
A swift pallor overspread Agnes Horton's face; a look of fright stood in her eyes.
"Was he a tall man, dark, with heavy eyebrows?" she inquired, waiting his answer with parted lips.
"That fits him," said he. "Do you know him?"
"It's Jerry Boyle, the Governor's son. He is Walker's friend; Walker brought him to camp the day after you disappeared. He had an invitation for Mrs. Reed and her party from his mother—you know they had been expecting it. And he said—he said——"
"That is, he told Walker that he saw you—drunk at two o'clock that morning."
"Hum-m," rumbled the doctor, running his hands through his hair. "Hum-m! I thought I knew that voice!"
He got to his feet in his agitation. Agnes rose quickly, placing her hand on his arm.
"Was he the other man?" she asked.
"Well, it's a serious charge to lay against the Governor's son," he replied, "but I'm afraid he was the other man."
There was such a look of consternation in her face that he sought to calm her.
"He's not likely to go any further with it, though," Slavens added.
"Oh, you don't know him. You don't know him!" Agnes protested earnestly.
He searched her face with a quick glance.
"Do you?" he asked, calmly.
"There is something bad in his face—something hiding, it seems to me," she said, without show of conscious evasion.
"I'll call him, no matter what move he makes," Slavens declared, looking speculatively across the gorge. "Look how high the sun is up the wall over yonder. I think we'd better be going back."
"Oh, I've kept you too long," she cried in self-reproach. "And to think you were in the saddle all night."
"Yes; I lost the trail and rode a good many miles out of the way," said he. "But for that I'd have been on hand an hour sooner."
"Well, you were in time, anyway."
"And I've drawn blindly," he laughed. "I've got a piece of land marked 'Grazing,' on the chart. It may be worth a fortune, and it may be worth twenty cents an acre. But I'm going to see it through. When are you going to file?"
"My number comes on the fifth day, but lapses may bring me in line tomorrow," she answered. "Smith, the stage-driver, knows of a piece adjoining the one he has selected for himself, if nobody 'beats him to it,' as he says. He has given me the numbers, and I'm going to take his word for it. About half of it can be irrigated, and it fronts on the river. The rest is on the hills."