"I hope you may get it. Smith ought to know what's good in this country and what isn't. When you have it you'll lead on the water and plant the rose?"
"And plant the rose," she repeated softly.
"Don't you think," he asked, taking her hand tenderly as she walked by his side, "that you'd better let me do the rough work for you now?"
"You are too generous, and too trusting in one unknown," she faltered.
The beat of hoofs around the sharp turn in the road where it led out into the valley in which Meander lay, fell sharp and sudden on their ears. There the way was close-hemmed with great boulders, among which it turned and wound, and they scarcely had time to find a standing-place between two riven shoulders of stone when the horseman swept around the turn at a gallop.
He rode crouching in his saddle as if to reach forward and seize some fleeing object of pursuit, holding his animal in such slack control that he surely must have ridden them down if they had not given him the entire way. His hat was blown back from his dark face, which bore a scowl, and his lips were moving as if he muttered as he rode. Abreast of the pair he saw them where they stood, and touched his hat in salute.
In the dust that he left behind they resumed their way. Dr. Slavens had drawn Agnes Horton's hand through his arm; he felt that it was cold and trembling. He looked at her, perplexity in his kind eyes.
"That's the man who stood with Peterson at the head of the line," he said.
"Yes; Jerry Boyle," she whispered, looking behind her fearfully. "Let's hurry on! I'm afraid," she added with the ineffectiveness of dissimulation, "that I've kept you from your sleep too long. Together with your awful experience and that long ride, you must be shattered for the want of rest."
"Yet I could stand up under a good deal more," he rejoined, his thoughts trailing Jerry Boyle up the shadowy gorge. "But I was asking you, before that fellow broke in——"
She raised her hand appealingly.
"Don't, please. Please—not now!"
SENTIMENT AND NAILS
Vast changes had come over the face of that land in a few days. Every quarter-section within reach of water for domestic uses had its tent or its dugout in the hillside or its hastily built cabin of planks. Where miles of unpeopled desert had stretched lonely and gray a week before, the smoke of three thousand fires rose up each morning now, proclaiming a new domain in the kingdom of husbandry.
On the different levels of that rugged country, men and women had planted their tent-poles and their hopes. Unacquainted with its rigors, they were unappalled by the hardships, which lay ahead of them, dimly understood. For that early autumn weather was benignant, and the sun was mellow on the hills.
Speculation had not turned out as profitable as those who had come to practice it had expected. Outside of the anxiety of Jerry Boyle and others to get possession of the apparently worthless piece of land upon which Dr. Slavens had filed, there were no offers for the relinquishment of homesteads. That being the case, a great many holders of low numbers failed to file. They wanted, not homes, but something without much endeavor, with little investment and no sweat. So they had passed on to prey upon the thrifty somewhere else, leaving the land to those whose hearts were hungry for it because it was land, with the wide horizon of freedom around it, and a place to make home.
And these turned themselves to bravely leveling with road-scrapers and teams the hummocks where the sagebrush grew, bringing in surveyors to strike the level for them in the river-shore, plotting ditches to carry the water to their fields. Many of them would falter before the fight was done; many would lose heart in the face of such great odds before the green blessing of alfalfa should rise out of the sullen ground.
Many a widow was there, whose heart was buried in a grave back East, and many a gray man, making his first independent start. Always the West has held up its promise of freedom to men, and the hope of it has led them farther than the hope of gold.
About midway between Meander and Comanche, Agnes Horton was located on the land which Smith had selected for her. Smith had retired from driving the stage and had established a sort of commercial center on his homestead, where he had a store for supplying the settlers' needs. He also had gone into the business of contracting to clear lands of sagebrush and level them for irrigation, having had a large experience in that work in other parts of the state.
Agnes had pitched her tent on the river-bank, in a pleasant spot where there was plenty of grazing for her horse. Just across her line, and only a few hundred yards up-stream, a family was encamped, putting up a permanent home, making a reckless inroad among the cottonwoods which grew along the river on their land. Across the stream, which was fordable there, a young man and his younger wife, with the saddle-marks of the city on them, had their white nest. Agnes could hear the bride singing early in the morning, when the sun came up and poured its melted gold over that hopeful scene, with never a cloud before its face.
Twenty miles farther along, toward Comanche, Dr. Slavens had pitched his tent among the rocks on the high, barren piece of land which he had selected blindly, guided by Hun Shanklin's figures. He was not a little surprised, and at the same time cheered and encouraged, to find, when he came to locating it, that it was the spot where they had seen Shanklin and another horseman on the afternoon of their stage excursion, when the two had been taken by Smith as men of evil intent, and the doctor had been called to the box to handle the lines.
His neighbors in the rich valley below him regarded him with doubt of his balance, and that was a current suspicion up and down the river among those who did not know the story. But the politicians in Meander, and those who were on hand before the filing began, who knew how Jerry Boyle had nursed Axel Peterson, and how he had dropped the Scandinavian when the stranger rode up unexpectedly and filed on Number One, believed that the doctor had held inside information, and that his claim was worth millions.
But if the quarter-section contained anything of value, there was no evidence of it that Dr. Slavens could find. It was about the crudest and most unfinished piece of earth that he ever had seen outside the Buckhorn Canyon. It looked as if the materials for making something on a tremendous pattern had been assembled there, thrown down promiscuously, and abandoned.
Ledges of red rock, which seemed as if fires had scorched them for ages, stood edgewise in the troubled earth, their seamed faces toward the sky. It was as if nature had put down that job temporarily, to hurry off and finish the river, or the hills beyond the river, and never had found time to come back. Tumbled fragments of stone, huge as houses, showing kinship with nothing in their surroundings, stood here thickly in a little cup between the seared hills, and balanced there upon the sides of buttes among the streaks of blue shale.
A little grass grew here and there in carpet-size splotches, now yellow and dry, while that in the valley was at its best. Spiked plants, which looked tropical, and which were as green during the rigors of winter as during the doubtful blessings of summer, stood on the slopes, their thousand bayonets guarding against trespass where only pressing necessity could drive a human foot. Sheep-sage, which grew low upon the ground, and unostentatious and dun, was found here, where no flocks came to graze; this was the one life-giving thing which sprang from that blasted spot.
The lowest elevation on the doctor's claim was several hundred feet above the river, from which he hauled the water which he drank and used for culinary purposes. If there was wealth in the land and rocks, nature had masked it very well indeed. The pick and the hammer revealed nothing; long hours of prying and exploring yielded no gleam of metal to confirm his fast-shrinking belief that he had pitched on something good.
His only comfort in those first days was the thought of the money which he had taken from Shanklin, with the aid of the gambler's own honest little die. That cash was now safe in the bank at Meander. There was enough of it, everything else failing, to take him—and somebody—back to his own place when she was ready to go; enough to do that and get the automobile, take the world on its vain side, and pull success away from it. He was able for it now; no doubt of his ability to climb over any obstacle whatever remained after his wrestling match with the river in the Buckhorn Canyon. There was no job ahead of him that he could even imagine, as big as that.
Nobody had come forward to make him an offer for his place. Jerry Boyle had not appeared, nothing had been seen of the man who accosted him at the window the morning he filed. Although he had remained in Meander two days after that event, nobody had approached him in regard to the land which so many had seemed anxious to get before it came into his ownership. Boyle he had not seen since the evening Dr. Slavens and Agnes met him in the gorge riding in such anxious haste.
Perhaps the value of the claim, if value lay in it, was the secret of a few, and those few had joined forces to starve out his courage and hope. If nobody came forward with a voluntary offer for the land, it never would be worth proving up on and paying the government the price asked for it. All over that country there was better land to be had without cost.
As the days slipped past and nobody appeared with ten thousand dollars bulging his pockets, Slavens began to talk to himself among the solitudes of his desert. He called himself a foremost example of stupidity and thick-headedness for not giving ear to the man who wanted to talk business the day he filed on that outcast corner of the earth. Then, growing stubborn, he would determine to pay the government the purchase price, clean up on it at once, and take title to it. Then, if it had the stuff in it, they might come around with some sort of offer in time.
No matter; he would stick to it himself until winter. That always was his final conclusion, influenced, perhaps, by a hope that the roughness of winter would speedily convince "somebody" that roses and dreams of roses belonged to the summer. He would have nothing more to pay on the homestead for a year. And much could happen in a year, in a day; even an hour.
Slavens had a good tent in a sheltered place, which he believed he could make comfortable for winter, and he meant to send for some books. Meantime, he had tobacco to smoke and a rifle to practice with, and prospects ahead, no matter which way the cat might jump.
The doctor's target practice was a strong contributing force to the general belief among his neighbors that he was deranged. They said he imagined that he was repelling invaders from his claim, which would be valuable, maybe, to a man who wanted to start a rattlesnake farm. But Slavens had a motive, more weighty than the pastime that this seemingly idle pursuit afforded. There was a time of settlement ahead between him and Jerry Boyle for the part the Governor's son had borne in his assault. When the day for that adjustment came, Slavens intended to seek it.
Concerning Shanklin, he was in a degree satisfied with what he had done. The loss of that much money, he believed, was a greater drain on the old crook than a gallon of blood. Slavens felt that it hurt Shanklin in the gambler's one sensitive spot. There was a great deal owing to him yet from that man, in spite of what he had forced Shanklin to pay, and he meant to collect the balance before he left that state.
So the rifle practice went ahead, day by day, supplemented by a turn now and then with Hun Shanklin's old black pistol, which Mackenzie had turned over to Slavens as part of his lawful spoil.
While Dr. Slavens banged away among his rocks, not knowing whether he was a victim of his own impetuosity or the peculiarly favored son of fortune, Agnes Horton, in her tent beside the river, was undergoing an adjustment of vision which was assisting her to see startlingly things exactly as they were. The enchantment of distance had fallen away. When she came to grips with the land, then its wild unfriendliness was revealed, and the magnitude of the task ahead of her was made discouragingly plain.
All over her cultivable strip of land which lay between the river and the hills, the gray sage grew in clumps, each cluster anchoring the soil around it in a little mound. Through many years the earth had blown and sifted around the sapless shrubs until they seemed buried to the ears, and hopeless of ever getting out again, but living on their gray life in a gray world, waiting for the best.
All of this ground must be leveled before it could receive the benefits of irrigation, and the surprising thing to her was how much wood the land yielded during this operation. Each little sagebrush had at least twenty times as much timber under the earth as it had above, and each thick, tough root was a retarding and vexatious obstacle in the way of scraper and plow. Smith said it was sometimes necessary in that country to move three acres of land in order to make one.
But Smith was enthusiastically for it. He kept asserting that it paid, and pointed to the small bit of agricultural land that there was in the whole expanse of that reservation, for an example, to prove his point. There was room for other industries, such as mining and grazing, but the man who could grow food and forage for the others was the one who would take down the money from the hook. That was Smith's contention.
He told Agnes that she could lift enough water with a wheel in the river to irrigate a garden and more, but there was no need of putting in the wheel until spring. The rains of that season would bring up the seed, and while it was making the most of the moisture in the ground she could be setting her wheel.
"A person's got to plan ahead in this country," said Smith. "You must know to a skinned knuckle just what you'll need a year, or five years, ahead here, if you ever make it go worth havin'. It ain't like it is back where you come from. There you can go it more or less hit-or-miss, and hit about as often as you miss. Here you've got to know."
Smith was moving to organize the settlers along the river into a company to put in a canal which would water all their land, the chief capital to be elbow-grease; the work to be done that fall and winter. Smith was indeed the head and inspiration of all enterprise in that new place. People to whom that country was strange, and that included nearly all of them, looked to him for advice, and regarded with admiration and wonder his aptness in answering everything.
Agnes was doubtful of the future, in spite of her big, brave talk to Dr. Slavens in the days before the drawing. Now that she had the land, and a better piece of it than she had hoped for, considering her high number, she felt weakly unfit to take it in hand and break it to the condition of docility in which it would tolerate fruit-trees, vines, and roses.
It cheered her considerably, and renewed her faith in her sex, to see some of the women out with their teams, preparing their land for the seeding next spring. More than one of them had no man to lean on, and no money to hire one to take the rough edge off for her. In that respect Agnes contrasted her easier situation with theirs. She had the means, slender as they might be, indeed, to employ somebody to do the work in the field. But the roses she reserved for her own hands, putting them aside as one conceals a poem which one has written, or a hope of which he is afraid.
In the first few days of her residence on her land, Agnes experienced all the changes of mercurial rising and falling of spirits, plans, dreams. Some days she saddled her horse, which she had bought under the doctor's guidance at Meander, and rode, singing, over the hills, exalted by the wild beauty of nature entirely unadorned. There was not yet a house in the whole of what had been the Indian Reservation, and there never had been one which could be properly called such.
Here was a country, bigger than any one of several of the far eastern states, as yet unchanged by the art of man. The vastness of it, and the liberty, would lay hold of her at such times with rude power, making her feel herself a part of it, as old a part of it as its level-topped buttes and ramparts of riven stone.
Then again it frightened her, giving her a feeling such as she remembered once when she found herself alone in a boat upon a great lake, with the shore left far behind and none in sight beyond the misty horizon. She seemed small then, and inadequate for the rough struggle that lay ahead.
Smith noted this, and read the symptoms like a doctor.
"You've got to keep your nerve," he advised, bluntly kind, "and not let the lonesomeness git a hold on you, Miss Horton."
"The lonesomeness?" she echoed. It seemed a strange-sounding phrase.
"It's a disease," Smith proceeded, "and I suppose you git it anywhere; but you git it harder here. I've seen men take it, and turn gray and lose their minds, runnin' sheep. After you once git over it you're broke. You wouldn't leave this country for a purty on a chain."
"I hope I'll not get it," she laughed. "How do people act when they take the lonesomeness?"
"Well, some acts one way and some acts another," said Smith. "Some mopes and run holler-eyed, and some kicks and complains and talk about 'God's country' till it makes you sick. Just like this wasn't as much God's country as any place you can name! It's all His'n when you come down to the p'int, I reckon. But how a woman acts when she takes it I can't so much say for I never knew but one that had it. She up and killed a man."
"Oh, that was terrible! Did she lose her mind?"
"Well, I don't know but you could say she did. You see she married a sheepman. He brought her out here from Omaha, and left her up there on the side of the mountain in a little log cabin above Meander while he went off foolin' around with them sheep, the way them fellers does. I tell you when you git sheep on the brain you don't eat at home more than once in three months. You live around in a sheep-wagon, cuttin' tails off of lambs, and all such fool things as that."
"Why, do they cut the poor things' tails off?" she asked, getting the notion that Smith was having a little fun at her expense.
"They all do it," he informed her, "to keep the sand and burrs out of 'em. If they let 'em grow long they git so heavy with sand it makes 'em poor to pack 'em, they say, I don't know myself; I'm not a sheepman."
"But why did she shoot a man? Because he cut off lambs' tails?"
"No, she didn't," said Smith. "She went out of her head. The feller she shot was a storekeeper's son down in Meander, and he got to ridin' up there to talk to her and cheer her up. The lonesomeness it had such a hold on her, thinkin' about Omaha and houses, and pie-annos playin' in every one of 'em, that she up and run off with that feller when he promised to take her back there. They started to cut across to the U.P. in a wagon—more than a hundred miles. That night she come to her head when he got too fresh, and she had to shoot him to make him behave."
"Her husband should have been shot, it seems to me, for leaving her that way," Agnes said.
"A man orto stick to his wife in this country, specially if she's new to it and not broke," said Smith; "and if I had one, ma'am, I'd stick to her."
Smith looked at her as he said this, with conviction and deep earnestness in his eyes.
"I'm sure you would," she agreed.
"And I'd be kind to her," he declared.
"There's no need to tell me that," she assured him. "You're kind to everybody."
"And if she didn't like the name," Smith went on significantly, "I'd have it changed!"
"I'm sure she'd like it—she'd be very ungrateful if she didn't," Agnes replied, somewhat amused by his earnestness, but afraid to show it. "I'm going to order lumber for my house in a day or two."
Smith switched from sentiment to business in a flash.
"Let me sell you the nails," he requested. "I can give 'em to you as cheap as you can git 'em in Meander."
"LIKE A WOLF"
Agnes had been on her homestead almost a week. She was making a brave "stagger," as Smith described all amateurish efforts, toward cutting up some dry cottonwood limbs into stove-lengths before her tent on the afternoon that Jerry Boyle rode across the ford.
While she had not forgotten him, she had begun to hope that he had gone back to Comanche, and his sudden appearance there gave her an unpleasant shock. He drew up near her with a friendly word, and dismounted with a cowboy swing to his long body and legs.
"Well, Agnes, you dodged me in Meander," said he. "You've located quite a piece up the river and off the stage-road, haven't you?"
"But not far enough, it seems," she answered, a little weariness in her voice, as of one who turns unwillingly to face at last something which has been put away for an evil day.
"No need for us to take up old quarrels, Agnes," he chided with a show of gentleness.
"I don't want to quarrel with you, Jerry; I never did quarrel with you," she disclaimed.
"'Misunderstandings' would be a better word then, I suppose," he corrected. "But you could have knocked me over with a feather when you repudiated me over there at Comanche that day. I suppose I should have known that you were under an alias before I made that break, but I didn't know it, Agnes, believe me."
"How could you?" she said, irritably. "That was nothing; let it rest. But you understand that it was for the sake of others that the alias was—and is—used; not for my own."
"Of course, Agnes. But what do you want to be wasting yourself on this rough country for? There are more suitable places in Wyoming for you than this lonesome spot. What's the object, anyhow?"
"I am building here the City of Refuge," said she, "and its solitude will be its walls."
"Ready for the time when he comes back, I suppose?"
She nodded assent slowly, as if grudging him that share of the knowledge of her inner life.
"Poor old kid, you've got a job ahead of you!" he commiserated.
A resentful flush crept into her face, but she turned aside, gathering her sticks as if to hide her displeasure. Boyle laughed.
"Pardon the familiarity—'vulgar familiarity' you used to call it—Agnes. But 'what's bred in the bone,' you know."
"It doesn't matter so much when there's no one else around, but it's awkward before people."
"You wouldn't marry me on account of my tongue!" said he with sour reminiscence.
"It wasn't so much that, Jerry," she chided, "and you know it perfectly well."
"Oh, well, if a man does take a drink now and then——" he discounted.
"But many drinks, and frequently, are quite different," she reproved.
"We'll not fuss about it."
"Far from it," she agreed.
"I didn't come down to open old matters, although I suppose you thought that was my intention when you dodged me and stuck so close to that tin-horn doctor up at Meander."
"It's comforting to know you haven't come for—that," said she, ignoring his coarse reference to Slavens.
"No; things change a good deal in four years' time, even sentiment—and names."
"But it wouldn't be asking too much to expect you to respect some of the changes?"
"I don't suppose," he mused, "that many people around here care whether a man's name is the one he goes by, or whether it's the one he gets his mail under at the post-office at Comanche. That's generally believed to be a man's own business. Of course, he might carry it too far, but that's his own lookout."
"Are you on your way to Comanche?" she asked.
Boyle motioned her to the trunk of the cottonwood whose branches she had been chopping into fuel, with graceful and unspoken invitation to sit down and hear the tale of his projected adventures.
"I've been wearing a pair of these high-heeled boots the past few days for the first time since I rode the range," he explained, "and they make my ankles tired when I stand around."
He seated himself beside her on the fallen log.
"No, I'm not going to Comanche," said he. "I came down here to see you. They gave me the worst horse in the stable at Meander, and he'll never be able to carry me back there without a long rest. I'll have to make camp by the river."
She glanced at his horse, on the saddle of which hung, cowboy fashion, a bag of grub which also contained a frying-pan and coffeepot, she knew, from having seen many outfits like it in the stores at Comanche. A blanket was rolled behind the high cantle. As for the horse, it seemed as fresh and likely as if it had come three miles instead of thirty. She believed from that evidence that Jerry's talk about being forced to make camp was all contrived. He had come prepared for a stay.
"I got into the habit of carrying those traps around with me when I was a kid," he explained, following her eyes, "and you couldn't drive me two miles away from a hotel without them. They come in handy, too, in a pinch like this, I'm here to tell you."
"It's something like a wise man taking his coat, I suppose."
"Now you've got it," commended Boyle.
"But Smith, who used to drive the stage, could have fixed you up all right," she told him. "He's got a tent to lodge travelers in down by his new store. You must have seen it as you passed?"
"Yes; and there's another crook!" said Boyle with plain feeling on the matter. "But I didn't come down here to see Smith or anybody else but you. It's business."
He looked at her with severity in his dark face, as if to show her that all thoughts of tenderness and sentiment had gone out of his mind.
"I'm listening," said she.
"There's a man down here a few miles spreadin' himself around on a piece of property that belongs to me," declared Boyle, "and I want you to help me get him off."
She looked at him in amazement.
"I don't understand what you mean," said she.
"Dr. Slavens? Why, he's on his own homestead, which he filed upon regularly. I can't see what you mean by saying it belongs to you."
"I mean that he stole the description of that land at the point of a gun, that's what I mean. It belongs to me; I paid money for it; and I'm here to take possession."
"You've got your information wrong," she denied indignantly. "Dr. Slavens didn't steal the description. More than that, he could make it pretty uncomfortable for certain people if he should bring charges of assault and intended murder against them, Mr. Jerry Boyle!"
"Oh, cut out that high-handshake stuff, Miss Agnes Horton-Gates, or Gates-Horton, and come down to brass tacks! The time was when you could walk up and down over me like a piece of hall carpet, and I'd lie there and smile. That day's gone by. I've got wool on me now like a bellwether, and I'm shaggy at the flanks like a wolf. I can be as mean as a wolf, too, when the time comes. You can't walk up and down over me any more!"
"Nobody wants to walk up and down over you!" she protested. "But if you want to put Dr. Slavens off that homestead, go and do it. You'll not draw me into any of your schemes and murderous plots, and you'll find Dr. Slavens very well able to take care of himself, too!"
"Oh, sure he can!" scoffed Boyle. "You didn't seem to think so the time you turned Comanche inside out hunting him, when he was layin' drunk under a tent. I don't know what kind of a yarn he put up when he came back to you, but I've got the goods on that quack, I'll give you to understand!"
Boyle was dropping his polish, which was only a superficial coating at the best. In the bone he was a cowboy, belonging to the type of those who, during the rustlers' war, hired themselves out at five dollars a day, and five dollars a head for every man they could kill. Boyle himself had been a stripling in those days, and the roughness of his training among a tribe of as desperate and unwashed villains as ever disgraced the earth underlay his fair exterior, like collar-welts on a horse which has been long at pasture.
"I'm not under obligations to keep anybody's secrets in this country when it comes to that," Boyle reminded her.
"It couldn't be expected of you," she sighed.
"You're close to that feller," he pursued, "and he's as soft as cheese on you. All right; pool your troubles and go on off together for all I care, but before you turn another wheel you'll put the crowbar under that man that'll lift him off of that land; savvy? Well, that's what you'll do!"
"You can spread it all up and down the river that I'm living here under an assumed name, and you may tell them anything else—all that is true—that you think you ought to tell, just as soon as you want to begin," she said, rising and moving away from him in scorn. "I'll not help you; I couldn't help you if I would."
Boyle got up, his face in a scowl, and as she retreated toward her tent, followed her in his peggy, forward-tilting cowboy walk.
"Say," he hailed, unveiling at once all the rudeness of his character, "come back here a minute and take your medicine!"
She paused while he came up.
"Jerry," said Agnes gently, turning upon him eyes full of sadness and lost hope, "get on your horse and go away. Don't force me to think worse of you than I have thought. Go away, Jerry; go away!"
Boyle's face was flushed, and his naturally pop-eyed expression was greatly aggravated by his anger. It seemed that his eyes were straining to leap out, and had forced themselves forward until the whites showed beyond the lids.
"Yes, that Slavens is one of these men that'd eat hot rocks for the woman he loves," he sneered. "Well, it's up to him to show how far he'll go for you."
"It's unworthy of even you, Jerry, to talk like that," she reproved. "As far as I know, I am nothing more to Dr. Slavens than any other friend. If you want his claim, why don't you go down there and buy it, as you were ready to buy it from Peterson if you could have filed him on it?"
"Because I can get it cheaper," said Boyle. "I'll not give him ten cents for it. It's your job to go and tell him that I want him to go over to Meander and pay up on that land, and I'll furnish the money for it, but before he pays he must sign a relinquishment to me."
"I'll not do it!" she declared.
"If you won't lead, I'll have to try spurs, and I don't like to do that, Agnes, for the sake of old days."
"Forget the old days."
"I'll go you," said he.
"There's nothing that you can tell these people about me that will lower me much in their estimation. None of them, except Smith, knows me very well, anyhow. I don't care so much for their opinion, for I'm not here to please them."
Boyle placed his hand on her shoulder and looked gravely into her face.
"But if I was to show proof to the land commissioner that you'd got possession of a homestead here through fraud and perjury, then where would you land?" he asked.
"It isn't true!" she cried, fear rising within her and driving away the color of courage which to that moment had flown in her face.
"It is true, Agnes," he protested. "You registered under the name of Agnes Horton and made affidavit that it was your lawful name; you entered this land under the same name, and took title to it in the preliminaries, and that's fraud and perjury, if I know anything about the definition of either term."
"Do you mean to tell me, Jerry," she faltered, "that I'd have to go to prison if Dr. Slavens wouldn't consent to save me by giving up his claim to you?"
"Well, the disgrace of it would amount to about the same, even if a jury refused to send you up," said he brutally, grinning a little over the sight of her consternation. "You'd be indicted, you see, by the Federal grand jury, and arrested by the United States marshal, and locked up. Then you'd be tried, and your picture would be put in the papers, and the devil would be to pay all around. You'd lose your homestead anyhow, and your right to ever take another. Then where would the City of Refuge be?"
"But you wouldn't do it," she appealed, placing her hand on his arm, looking into his face beseechingly, the sudden weight of her trouble making her look old. "You wouldn't do it, Jerry, would you?"
"Wouldn't I?" he mocked disdainfully. "Well, you watch me!"
"It's a cowardly way to use an advantage over a woman!"
"Never mind," grinned Boyle. "I'll take care of that. If that tin-horn doctor wants to toe the line and do what I say to keep you out of a Federal pen, then let him step lively. If he does it, then you can stay here in peace as long as you live, for anything I'll ever say or do. You'll be Agnes Horton to me as long as my tongue's in workin' order, and I'll never know any more about where you came from or what passed before in your history than Smith down there."
Agnes stood with her head drooping, as if the blackmailer's words had taken away the last shoring prop of her ambition and hope. After a while she raised her white, pained face.
"And if I refuse to draw the doctor into this to save myself?" she asked.
"Then I guess you'll have to suffer, old kid!" said he.
Boyle saw the little tremor which ran over her shoulders like a chill, and smiled when he read it as the outward signal of inward terror. He had no doubt in the world that she would lay hold of his alternative to save herself and her plans for others, as quickly as he, coward at heart, would sacrifice a friend for his own comfort or gain.
Yet Agnes had no thought in that moment of sacrificing Dr. Slavens and his prospects, which the unmasking of Boyle's hand now proved to be valuable, to save herself. There must be some other way, she thought, and a few hours to turn it in her mind, and reflect and plan, might show her the road to her deliverance. She did not doubt that the penalty for what she had done would be as heavy as Boyle threatened.
"So it's up to you, handle first," exulted Boyle, breaking her reflections. "I'll ride off down the river a little piece and go into camp, and tomorrow evening I'll come up for your answer from Slavens. It's about twenty miles from here to his claim, and you can make it there and back easy if you'll start early in the morning. So it's all up to you, and the quicker the sooner, as the man said."
With that, Boyle rode away. According to her newly formed habit, Agnes gathered her wood and made a fire in the little stove outside her tent, for the day was wasting and the shadow of the western hills was reaching across the valley.
Life had lost its buoyancy for her in that past unprofitable hour. It lay around her now like a thing collapsed, which she lacked the warm breath to restore. Still, the evening was as serene as past evenings; the caress of the wind was as soft as any of the south's slow breathings of other days. For it is in the heart that men make and dismantle their paradises, and from the heart that the fountain springs which lends its color to every prospect that lies beyond.
Boyle's dust had not settled before Smith came by, jangling a road-scraper behind his team. He was coming from his labor of leveling a claim, skip one, up the river. He drew up, his big red face as refulgent as the setting sun, a smile on it which dust seemed only to soften and sweat to illumine. He had a hearty word for her, noting the depression of her spirit.
After passing the commonplaces, a ceremony which must be done with Smith whether one met him twice or twenty times a day, he waved his hand down the river in the direction that Boyle had gone.
"Feller come past here a little while ago?" he asked, knowing very well that Boyle had left but a few minutes before.
"He has just gone," she told him.
"Jerry Boyle," nodded Smith; "the Governor's son. He ain't got no use for me, and I tell you, if I had a woman around the place——"
Smith hung up his voice there as if something had crossed his mind. He stood looking down the valley in a speculative way.
"Yes?" she inquired, respectfully recalling him.
"Yes," repeated Smith. "If I had a woman around the house I'd take a shot at that feller as quick as I would at a lobo-wolf!"
Smith jangled on, his scraper making toadish hops and tortoise-like tips and amblings over the inequalities in the way. She looked after him, a new light shining from her eyes, a new passion stirring her bosom, where his words had fallen like a spark upon tinder.
So that was the estimation in which men held Jerry Boyle—men like Smith, who moved along the lower levels of life and smoothed over the rough places for others to pass by and by! It must be but the reflection of thought in higher planes—"If I had a woman around the place!" Such then was the predatory reputation of Jerry Boyle, who was capable of dishonorable acts in more directions than one, whose very presence was a taint.
And he would ride back there tomorrow evening, perhaps after the sun had set, perhaps after darkness had fallen, to receive the answer to his dishonorable proposal that she sacrifice her friend to save herself from his spite, and the consequences of her own misguided act.
"If I had a woman around the place!"
The spark in the tinder was spreading, warming, warming, glowing into a fierce, hot flame. Like a wolf—like a wolf—Smith would take a shot at him—like a wolf! Smith had compared him to a wolf; had said he could be as mean as a wolf—and if there was a woman around the place!
She went into the tent, the blood rising hot to her temples, beating, singing in her ears. The revolver which she had brought with her on the doctor's advice hung at the head of her cot. With it strapped around her she went back to her stove, which she fed with a wild vigor, exulting in seeing the flames pour out of the pipe and the thin sides grow red.
"Like a wolf—like a wolf!"
The words pounded in her mind, leaped through her circulation like quickening fire.
"Like a wolf—if there was a woman around the house——"
And a man like that was coming back, perhaps when the darkness had let down over that still valley, expecting her to say that she had killed the hope of her dearest friend to shield herself from his smirched and guilty hand!
AN ARGUMENT ENDS
Morning found Agnes only the more firmly determined to bear her troubles alone. Smith came by early. He looked curiously at the revolver, which she still carried at her waist, but there was approval in his eyes. The sight of the weapon seemed to cheer Smith, and make him easier in his mind about something that had given him unrest. She heard him singing as he passed on to his work. Across the river the bride was singing also, and there seemed to be a song in even the sound of the merry axes among the cottonwoods, where her neighboring settler and his two lank sons were chopping and hewing the logs for their cabin. But there was no song in her own heart, where it was needed most.
She knew that Jerry Boyle had camped somewhere near the stage-road, where he could watch her coming and going to carry the demand on Dr. Slavens which he had left with her. He would be watching the road even now, and he would watch all day, or perhaps ride up there to learn the reason when he failed to see her pass. She tied back the flaps of her tent to let the wind blow through, and to show any caller that she was not at home, then saddled her horse and rode away into the hills. It needed a day of solitude, she thought, to come to a conclusion on the question how she was to face it out with Jerry Boyle. Whether to stay and fight the best that she was able, or to turn and fly, leaving all her hopes behind, was a matter which must be determined before night.
In pensive mood she rode on, giving her horse its head, but following a general course into the east. As her wise animal picked its way over the broken ground, she turned the situation in her mind.
There was no doubt that she had been indiscreet in the manner of taking up her homestead, but she could not drive herself to the belief that she had committed a moral crime. And the doctor. He would drop all his prospects in the land that he held if she should call on him, she well believed. He was big enough for a sacrifice like that, with never a question in his honest eyes to cloud the generosity of the act. If she had him by to advise her in this hour, and to benefit by his wisdom and courage, she sighed, how comfortable it would be.
Perhaps she should have gone, mused she, pursuing this thought, to his place, and put the thing before him in all its ugliness, with no reservations, no attempts to conceal or defend. He could have told her how far her act was punishable. Perhaps, at the most, it would mean no more than giving up the claim, which was enough, considering all that she had founded on it. Yes, she should have ridden straight to Dr. Slavens; that would have been the wiser course.
Considering whether she would have time to go and return that day, wasted as the morning was, she pulled up her horse and looked around to see if she could estimate by her location the distance from her camp. That she had penetrated the country east of the river farther than ever before, was plain at a glance. The surroundings were new to her. There was more vegetation, and marks of recent grazing everywhere.
She mounted the hill-crest for a wider survey, and there in a little valley below her she saw a flock of sheep grazing, while farther along the ridge stood a sheep-wagon, a strange and rather disconcerting figure striding up and down beside it.
Doubtless it was the shepherd, she understood. But a queer figure he made in that place; and his actions were unusual, to say the least, in one of his sedate and melancholy calling. He was a young man, garbed in a long, black coat, tattered more or less about the skirts and open in front, displaying his red shirt. His hair was long upon his collar, and his head was bare.
As he walked up and down a short beat near his wagon, the shepherd held in his hand a book, which he placed before his eyes with a flourish now, and then with a flourish withdrew it, meantime gesticulating with his empty hand in the most extravagant fashion. His dog, sharper of perception than its master, lay aside from him a little way, its ears pricked up, its sharp nose lifted, sniffing the scent of the stranger. But it gave no alarm.
Agnes felt that the man must be harmless, whatever his peculiarities. She rode forward, bent on asking him how far she had strayed from the river. As she drew near, she heard him muttering and declaiming, illustrating his arguments of protestation with clenched fist and tossing head, his long hair lifting from his temples in the wind.
He greeted her respectfully, without sign of perturbation or surprise, as one well accustomed to the society of people above the rank of shepherd.
"My apparent eccentric behavior at the moment when you first saw me, madam, or miss, perhaps, most likely I should say, indeed——"
Agnes nodded, smiling, to confirm his penetration.
"So, as I was saying, my behavior may have led you into doubt of my balance, and the consequent question of your safety in my vicinity," he continued.
"Nothing of the kind, I assure you," said she. "I thought you might be a—a divinity student by your dress, or maybe a candidate for the legal profession."
"Neither," he disclaimed. "I am a philosopher, and at the moment you first beheld me I was engaged in a heated controversy with Epictetus, whose Discourses I hold in my hand. We are unable to agree on many points, especially upon the point which he assumes that he has made in the discussion of grief. He contends that when one is not blamable for some calamity which bereaves him or strips him of his possessions, grief is unmanly, regret inexcusable.
"'How?' say I, meeting him foot to foot on the controversy, 'in case I lose my son, my daughter, my wife—the wife of my soul and heart—shall I not grieve? shall I not be permitted the solace of a tear?'
"And Epictetus: 'Were you to blame for the disease which cut them off? Did you light the fire which consumed them, or sink the ship which carried them down?'
"'No,' I answer; 'but because I'm blameless shall I become inhuman, and close my heart to all display of tenderness and pain?'
"And there we have it, miss, over and over again. Ah, I am afraid we shall never agree!"
"It is lamentable," Agnes agreed, believing that the young man's life in the solitudes had unsettled his mind. "I never agree with him on that myself."
The philosopher's hollow, weathered face glowed as she gave this testimony. He drew a little nearer to her, shaking the long, dark, loose hair back from his forehead.
"I am glad that you don't think me demented," said he. "Many, who do not understand the deeper feelings of the soul, do believe it. The hollow-minded and the unstable commonly lose their small balance of reason in these hills, miss, with no companionship, month in and month out, but a dog and the poor, foolish creatures which you see in the valley yonder. But to one who is a philosopher, and a student of the higher things, this situation offers room for the expansion of the soul. Mine has gone forth and enlarged here; it has filled the universe."
"But a man of your education and capabilities," she suggested, thinking to humor him, "ought to be more congenially situated, it seems to me. There must be more remunerative pursuits which you could follow?"
"Remuneration for one may not be reward for another," he told her. "I shall remain here until my mission is accomplished."
He turned to his flock, and, with a motion of the arm, sped his dog to fetch in some stragglers which seemed straying off waywardly over the crest of the opposite hill. As he stood so she marked his ascetic gauntness, and noted that the hand which swung at his side twitched and clenched, and that the muscles of his cleanly shaved jaws swelled as he locked his teeth in determination.
"Your mission?" she asked, curious regarding what it might be, there in the solitude of those barren hills.
"I see that you are armed," he observed irrelevantly, as if the subject of his mission had been put aside. "I have a very modern weapon of that pattern in the wagon, but there is little call for the use of it here. Perhaps you live in the midst of greater dangers than I?"
"I'm one of the new settlers over in the river bottom," she explained. "I rode up to ask you how far I'd strayed from home."
"It's about seven miles across to the river, I should estimate," he told her. "I graze up to the boundary of the reservation, and it's called five miles from there."
"Thank you; I think I'll be going back then."
"Will you do me the favor to look at this before you go?" he asked, drawing a folded paper from the inner pocket of his coat and handing it to her.
It was a page from one of those so-called Directories which small grafters go about devising in small cities and out-on-the-edge communities, in which the pictures of the leading citizens are printed for a consideration. The page had been folded across the center; it was broken and worn.
"You may see the person whose portrait is presented there," said he, "and if you should see him, you would confer a favor by letting me know."
"Why, I saw him yesterday!" she exclaimed in surprise. "It's Jerry Boyle!"
The sheep-herder's eyes brightened. A glow came into his brown face.
"You do well to go armed where that wolf ranges!" said he. "You know him—you saw him yesterday. Is he still there?"
"Why, I think he's camped somewhere along the river," she told him, unable to read what lay behind the excitement in the man's manner.
He folded the paper and returned it to his pocket, his breath quick upon his lips. Suddenly he laid hold of her bridle with one hand, and with the other snatched the revolver from her low-swinging holster.
"Don't be alarmed," said he; "but I want to know. Tell me true—lean over and whisper in my ear. Is he your friend?"
"No, no! Far from it!" she whispered, complying with his strange order out of fear that his insanity, flaming as it was under the spur of some half-broken memory, might lead him to take her life.
He gave her back the revolver and released the horse.
"Go," said he. "But don't warn him, as you value your own life! My mission here is to kill that man!"
Perhaps it was a surge of unworthiness which swept her, lifting her heart like hope. The best of us is unworthy at times; the best of us is base. Selfishness is the festering root of more evil than gold. In that flash it seemed to her that Providence had raised up an arm to save her. She leaned over, her face bright with eagerness.
"Has he wronged you, too?" she asked.
He lifted his hand to his forehead slowly, as if in a gesture of pain. The blood had drained from his face; his cheek-bones were marked white through his wind-hardened skin.
"It's not a subject to be discussed with a woman, sir," said he absently. "There was a wife—somewhere there was a wife! This man came between us. I was not then what I am today—a shepherd on the hills.... But I must keep you here; you will betray me and warn him if I let you go!" he cried, rousing suddenly, catching her bridle again.
"No, I'll not warn him," Agnes assured him.
"If I thought you would"—he hesitated, searching her face with his fevered eyes, in which red veins showed as in the eyes of an angry dog—"I'd have to sacrifice you!"
Agnes felt that she never could draw her weapon in time, in case the eccentric tried to take it away again, and her heart quailed as she measured the distance she would have to ride before the fall of the ground would protect her, even if she should manage to break his hold on the bridle, and gallop off while he was fetching his pistol from the wagon.
"I'll not warn him," said she, placing her hand on his arm. "I give you my sincere word that I'll do nothing to save him from what I feel to be your just vengeance."
"Go, before I doubt you again!" he cried, slapping her horse with his palm as he let go the bridle.
From the tip of the hill she looked back. He had disappeared—into the wagon, she supposed; and she made haste to swerve from the straight course to put another hill between them, in case he might run after her, his mad mind again aflame with the belief that she would cheat him of his revenge.
Agnes arrived in camp full of tremors and contradictory emotions. One minute she felt that she should ride and warn Boyle, guilty as he might be, and deserving of whatever punishment the hand of the wronged man might be able to inflict; the next she relieved herself of this impulse by arguing that the insane sheep-herder was plainly the instrument of fate—she lacked the temerity, after the first flush, to credit it to Providence—lifted up to throw his troubles between her and her own.
She sat in the sun before her tent thinking it over, for and against, cooling considerably and coming to a saner judgment of the situation. Every little while she looked toward the hills, to see if the shepherd had followed her. She had seen no horse in the man's camp; he could not possibly make it on foot, under two hours, even if he came at all, she told herself.
Perhaps it was an imaginary grievance, based upon the reputation which Boyle had earned for himself; maybe the poor, declaiming philosopher had forgotten all about it by now, and had returned to his discourses and his argument. She brewed a pot of tea, for the shadows were marking noonday, and began to consider riding down the river to find Boyle and tell him of the man's threat, leaving him to follow his own judgment in the matter. His conscience would tell him whether to stand or fly.
Strong as her resentment was against the man who had come into her plans so unexpectedly and thrown them in a tangle, she felt that it would be wrong to her own honesty to conceal from him the knowledge of his danger. Perhaps there remained manliness enough in him to cause him to withdraw his avaricious scheme to oust Dr. Slavens in return for a service like that. She determined at last to seek Boyle in his camp.
She brought up her horse and saddled it, took a look around camp to see that everything was in shape—for she liked to leave things tidy, in case some of the neighbors should stop in—and was about to mount, when a man's head and shoulders appeared from behind her own cottonwood log. A glance showed her that it was the sheep-herder. His head was bare, his wild hair in his eyes.
He got to his feet, his pistol in his hand.
"I watched you," said he, sheathing the weapon, as if he had changed his mind about the use of it. "I knew you'd go!"
"But I didn't intend to when I parted from you up there on the hill," she declared, greatly confused over being caught in this breach of faith with even a crazy man.
"I considered that, too," said the philosopher. "But I watched you. I'll never be fool enough to entirely trust a woman again. You all lie!"
She wondered how he had arrived there so quickly and silently, for he gave no evidence of fatigue or heat. She did not know the dry endurance which a life like his builds up in a man. Sheep-herders in that country are noted for their fleetness. It is a common saying of them that their heels are as light as their heads.
But there he was, at any rate, and her good intentions toward Boyle must be surrendered. Conscience had a palliative in the fact that she had meant to go.
"Heaven knows I have as little reason to wish him well as you!" said she, speaking in low voice, as if to herself, as she began to undo the saddle girth.
"Stay here, then," said the sheep-herder, watching her with glistening eyes. "I'll kill him for both of us! Where is his camp?"
"I don't know," she replied, shuddering.
The demented shepherd's way of speaking of taking a human life, even though a worthless one, or a vicious one, was eager and hungry. He licked his lips like a dog.
"You said he was camped on the river. Where?"
"I don't know," she returned again.
"I'll tell you," said he, staying her hand as she tugged on a strap. "Both of us will go! You shall ride, and I'll run beside you. But"—he bent over, grinding his teeth and growling between them—"you sha'n't help kill him! That's for me, alone!"
She drew back from his proposal with a sudden realization of what a desperately brutal thing this unstrung creature was about to do, with a terrible arraignment of self-reproach because she had made no effort to dissuade him or place an obstacle in the way of accomplishing his design. It was not strange, thought she, with a revulsion of self-loathing, that he accepted her as a willing accomplice and proposed that she bear a hand. Even her effort to ride and find Boyle had been half-hearted. She might have gone, she told herself, before the herder arrived.
"No, no! I couldn't go! I couldn't!" she cried, forgetting that she was facing an unbalanced man, all the force of pleading in her voice.
"No, you want to kill him yourself!" he charged savagely. "Give me that horse—give it to me, I tell you! I'll go alone!"
He sprang into the saddle, not waiting to adjust the stirrups to his long legs. With his knees pushed up like a jockey's, he rode off, the pointer of chance, or the cunning of his own inscrutable brain, directing him the way Boyle had gone the evening before.
His going left her nerveless and weak. She sat and watched him out of sight beyond the cottonwoods and willows, thinking what a terrible thing it was to ride out with the cold intention of killing a man. This man was irresponsible; the strength of his desire for revenge had overwhelmed his reason. The law would excuse him of murder, for in the dimness of his own mind there was no conception of crime.
But what excuse could there be for one who sat down in deliberation——
Base Jerry Boyle might be, ready to sacrifice unfeelingly the innocent for his own pleasure and gain, ready to strike at their dearest hopes, ready to trample under his feet the green gardens of their hearts' desire; yet, who should sit in judgment on him, or seek a justification in his deeds to—to—— Even then she could not bring her thoughts to express it, although her wild heart had sung over it less than twenty-four hours before.
A shiver of sickness turned her cold. With quick, nervous fingers she unbuckled the belt which held her revolver and cartridges; she carried the weapon into the tent and flung it to the ground.
At dusk the sheep-herder returned, with the horse much blown.
"He had been there, but he's gone," he announced. "I followed him eastward along the stage-road, but lost his trail."
He dismounted and dropped the reins to the ground. Agnes set about to relieve the tired animal of the burden of the saddle, the sheep-herder offering no assistance. He stood with his head bent, an air of dejection and melancholy over him, a cloud upon his face. Presently he walked away, saying no more. She watched him as he went, moodily and unheeding of his way, until he passed out of view around a thicket of tangled shrubs which grew upon the river-bank.
While her horse was relieving his weariness in contented sighs over his oats, Agnes made a fire and started her evening coffee. She had a feeling of cleanness in her conscience, and a lightness of heart which she knew never could have been her own to enjoy again if the crazed herder had come back with blood upon his hands.
There was no question about the feeling of loneliness that settled down upon her with aching intensity when she sat down to her meal, spread on a box, the lantern a yellow speck in the boundless night. A rod away its poor, futile glimmer against such mighty odds was understood, standing there with no encompassing walls to mark the boundary of its field. It was like the struggle of a man who stands alone in the vastness of life with no definite aim to circumscribe his endeavor, wasting his feeble illumination upon a little rod of earth.
We must have walls around us, both lanterns and men, rightly to fill the sphere of our designed usefulness; walls to restrain our wastrel forces; walls to bind our lustful desires, our foolish ambitions, our outwinging flights. Yet, in its way, the lantern served nobly, as many a man serves in the circle which binds his small adventures, and beyond which his fame can never pass.
From the door of her tent Agnes looked out upon the lantern, comparing herself with it, put down there as she was in that blank land, which was still in the night of its development. Over that place, which she had chosen to make a home and a refuge, her own weak flame would fall dimly, perhaps never able to light it all. Would it be worth the struggle, the heart-hunger for other places and things, the years of waiting, the toil and loneliness?
She went back to her supper, the cup which she had gone to fetch in her hand. The strength of night made her heart timid; the touch of food was dry and tasteless upon her lips. For the first time since coming to that country she felt the pain of discouragement. What could she do against such a great, rough thing? Would it ever be worth the labor it would cost?
Feeble as her light was against the night, it was enough to discover tears upon her cheeks as she sat there upon the ground. Her fair hair lay dark in the shadows, and light with that contrast which painters love, where it lifted in airy rise above her brow. And there were the pensive softness of her chin, the sweep of her round throat, the profile as sharp as a shadow against the mellow glow. Perhaps the lantern was content in its circumscribed endeavor against the night, when it could light to such good advantage so much loveliness.
* * * * *
"If I'd have put my hands over your eyes, who would you have named?" asked a voice near her ear, a voice familiar, and fitted in that moment with old associations.
"I'd have had no trouble in guessing, Jerry, for I was expecting you," she answered, scarcely turning her head, although his silent manner of approach had startled her.
"Agnes, I don't believe you've got any more nerves than an Indian," he said, dropping down beside her.
"If one wanted to make a facetious rejoinder, the opening is excellent," she said, fighting back her nervousness with a smile. "Will you have some supper?"
"I'd like it, if you don't mind."
She busied herself with the stove, but he peremptorily took away from her the office of feeding the fire, and watched her as she put bacon on to fry.
"Agnes, you ought to have been frying bacon for me these four years past—figuratively, I mean," he remarked, musingly.
"If you don't mind, we'll not go back to that," she said.
Boyle made no mention of the purpose of his visit. He made his supper with ambassadorial avoidance of the subject which lay so uneasily on her mind. When he had finished, he drew out his tobacco-sack and rolled a cigarette, and, as it dangled from his lip by a shred of its wrapping, he turned to her.
"Well?" he asked.
She was standing near the lantern, removing the few utensils—the bacon had been served to him in the pan—from her outdoor table. When she answered him she turned away until her face was hidden in the shadow.
"I didn't carry your message to Dr. Slavens as you ordered, Jerry."
"I know it," said he. "What next?"
"I guess it's 'up to you,' as you put it. I'm not going to try to save myself at the expense of any of my friends."
Boyle got up. He took a little turn away from the box whereon the lantern stood, as if struggling to maintain the fair front he had worn when he appeared. After a little he turned and faced her, walking back slowly until only the length of the little stove was between them.
"Have you considered your own danger?" he asked.
"It wouldn't help you a great deal here, among these rough, fair-minded people, to take an advantage like that of a woman, especially when her transgression is merely technical and not intentional," she rejoined.
"I wouldn't have to appear in it," he assured her.
"Well, set the United States marshal after me as soon as you want to; I'll be here," she said, speaking with the even tone of resignation which one commands when the mind has arrived at a determined stand to face the last and worst.
"Agnes, I told you yesterday that I was all over the old feeling that I had for you."
Boyle leaned forward as he spoke, his voice earnest and low.
"But that was a bluff. I'm just as big a fool as I ever was about it. If you want to walk over me, go ahead; if you want to—oh, rats! But I'll tell you; if you'll come away with me I'll drop all of this. I'll leave that tin-horn doctor where he is, and let him make what he can out of his claim."
"I couldn't marry you, Jerry; it's impossible to think of that," she told him gently.
"Oh, well, that's a formality," he returned, far more in his voice than his words. "I'll say to you——"
"You've said too much!" she stopped him, feeling her cheeks burn under the outrage which he had offered to her chaste heart. "There's no room for any more words between you and me—never! Go now—say no more!"
She walked across the bright ring of light toward the tent, making a little detour around him, as if afraid that his violent words might be followed by violent deeds.
Boyle turned where he stood, following her with his eyes. The light of the lantern struck him strongly up to the waist, leaving his head and shoulders in the gloom above its glare. His hands were in the pockets of his trousers, his shoulders drooping forward in that horseback stoop which years in the saddle had fastened on him.
Agnes had reached the tent, where she stood with her hand on the flap, turning a hasty look behind her, when a shot out of the dark from the direction of the river-bank struck her ears with a suddenness and a portent which seemed to carry the pain of death. She was facing that way; she saw the flash of it; she saw Jerry Boyle leap with lithe agility, as if springing from the scourge of flames, and sling his pistol from the hostler under his coat.
In his movement there was an admirable quickness, rising almost to the dignity of beauty in the rapidity with which he adjusted himself to meet this sudden exigency. In half the beat of a heart, it seemed, he had fired. Out of the dark came another leap of flame, another report. Boyle walked directly toward the point from which it came, firing as he went. No answer came after his second shot.
Agnes pressed her hand over her eyes to shut out the sight, fearing to see him fall, her heart rising up to accuse her. She had forgotten to warn him! She had forgotten!
Boyle's voice roused her. There was a dry harshness in it, a hoarseness as of one who has gone long without water on the lips.
"Bring that lantern here!" he commanded.
She did not stand to debate it, but took up the light and hurried to the place where he stood. A man lay at his feet, his long hair tossed in disorder, his long coat spread out like a black blotch upon the ground. Boyle took the lantern and bent over the victim of his steady arm, growled in his throat, and bent lower. The man's face was partly hidden by the rank grass in which he lay. Boyle turned it up to the light with his foot and straightened his back with a grunt of disdain.
"Huh! That rabbit!" said he, giving her back the light.
It did not require that gleam upon the white face to tell Agnes that the victim was the polemical sheep-herder, whose intention had been steadier than his aim.
Boyle hesitated a moment as if to speak to her, but said nothing before he turned and walked away.
"You've killed him!" she called after him sharply. "Don't go away and leave him here like this!"
"He's not dead," said Boyle. "Don't you hear him snort?"
The man's breathing was indeed audible, and growing louder with each labored inspiration.
"Turn him over on his face," directed Boyle. "There's blood in his throat."
"Will you go for Smith?" she asked, kneeling beside the wounded man.
"He's coming; I can hear the sauerkraut jolt in him while he's half a mile away. If anybody comes looking for me on account of this—coroner or—oh, anybody—I'll be down the river about a quarter below the stage-ford. I'll wait there a day longer to hear from you, and this is my last word."
With that Boyle left her. Smith came very shortly, having heard the shots; and the people from up the river came, and the young man from the bridal nest across on the other side. They made a wondering, awed ring around the wounded man, who was pronounced by Smith to be in deep waters. There was a bullet through his neck.
Smith believed there was life enough left in the sheep-herder to last until he could fetch a doctor from Meander.
"But that's thirty miles," said Agnes, "and Dr. Slavens is not more than twenty. You know where he's located—down by Comanche?"
Smith knew, but he had forgotten for the minute, so accustomed to turning as he was to the center of civilization in that section for all the gentle ministrants of woe, such as doctors, preachers, and undertakers.
"I'll have him here before morning," said Smith, posting off to get his horse.
The poor sheep-herder was too sorely hurt to last the night out. Before Smith had been two hours on his way the shepherd was in the land of shades, having it out face to face with Epictetus—if he carried the memory of his contention across with him, to be sure.
The neighbors arranged him respectably upon a board, and covered him over with a blanket, keeping watch beside him in the open, with the clear stars shining undisturbed by this thing which made such a turmoil in their breasts. There he lay, waiting the doctor and the coroner, and all who might come, his earthly troubles locked up forever in his cold heart, his earthly argument forever at an end.
Dr. Slavens rode in before dawn, more concerned about Agnes than about the person in whose behalf he had been summoned. On the way he asked Smith repeatedly how the tragedy affected her; whether she was frightened or greatly disturbed.
"She's as steady as a compass," said Smith; and so he found her.
Somewhat too steady, in fact. It was the steadiness of a deep and settled melancholy, through which his best efforts could do no more than strike a feeble, weary smile.
Immediately upon the death of the herder, one of the men had ridden to Meander and carried word to the coroner. That official arrived in the middle of the forenoon, bringing with him the undertaker and a wagon. After some perfunctory inquiries, the coroner concluded that an inquest was not necessary. He did not go to the trouble to find Boyle and question him, but he looked with a familiar understanding in his piggish eyes at Agnes when she related the circumstances of the tragedy.
Coroners, and others who knew the Governor's son, had but one measure for a woman who entertained Jerry Boyle alone in her tent, or even outside it, at night. Boyle's associations had set the standard of his own morality, as well as that of his consorts. The woman from up the river, and the little bride from across the ford, drew off together, whispering, after Agnes had told her story. Presently they slipped away without a word.
Even Dr. Slavens, cool and just-minded as he was, felt the hot stirring of jealous suspicion. It brought to his mind unpleasantly the ruminations of his solitary days in camp among the rocks, when he had turned over in his mind the belief that there was something of the past between Agnes and Boyle.
He had not convicted her in his own judgment of any wrong, for the sincerity of her eyes had stood between him and the possibility of any such conclusion. Now the thought that, after all his trust, she might be unworthy, smote painfully upon his heart.
When the others had gone away, after a little standing around, hitch-legged and wise, in close discussion of the event, the doctor sitting, meantime, with Agnes in front of the tent, he spoke of the necessity of getting back to his claim. She was pale after the night's strain, although apparently unconscious of the obloquy of her neighbors. Nevertheless, she pressed him to remain for the midday meal.
"I've not been very hospitable, I'm afraid," said she; "but this thing has stunned me. It seems like it has taken something away from the prospect of life here."
"Yes, it has taken something away," he responded, gravely thoughtful, his look bent upon the ground.
She sprang up quickly, a sharp little cry upon her lips as if from the shock of a blow from a hand beloved.
"I saw it in their eyes!" she cried. "But you—but you! Oh—oh—I trusted you to know!"
"Forgive me," he begged. "I did not mean to hurt you. Perhaps I was thinking of the romance and the glamour which this had stripped away from things here. I think my mind was running on that."
"No," she denied. "You were thinking like that little woman across the river with the fright and horror in her big eyes. You were thinking that I am guilty, and that there can be but one answer to the presence of that man in my camp last night. His notorious name goes before him like a blight."
"You'll have to move your camp now," as if seeking delicately to avoid the ghost that seemed to have risen between them; "this place will have unpleasant associations."
"Yes; it cannot be reconsecrated and purified."
He stood as if prepared to leave. Agnes placed her hand upon his shoulder, looking with grieved eyes into his face.
"Will you stay a little while," she asked, "and hear me? I want to part from you with your friendship and respect, for I am entitled to both, I am worthy of both—if ever."
"Let me move your stool out into the sun," he suggested. "There's a chill in the wind today. Of course I'll stay, and we'll have some more of that excellent coffee before I go. You must teach me how you make it; mine always turns out as muddy as a bucket of Missouri River water."
His cheerfulness was like that which a healthy man displays at the bedside of a dying friend—assumed, but helpful in its way. He placed her folding canvas stool in the sun beyond the shadow of the tent and found a box for himself. Thus arranged, he waited for her to speak.
"Still, I am not sure of what I protested in regard to your friendship and respect," said she after a little brooding silence. "I am a fraud, taken at the best, and perhaps a criminal."
Dr. Slavens studied her face as she paused there and looked away, as if her thoughts concentrated beyond the blue hills in the west.
"My name is not Horton," she resumed, facing him suddenly. "It is Gates, and my father is in the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth."
"But there was no call for you to tell me this," he protested softly.
"Yes, every reason for it," she averred. "The fabric of all my troubles rests on that. He was president of a bank—you remember the scandal, don't you? It was nation-wide."
"I spoke to you once of the ghosts of money. They have worried me for four years and more, for nothing but the ghosts are left when one loses place and consequence before the world. It was a national bank, and the charge was misapplication of funds. He had money enough for all the sane uses of any man, but the pernicious ambition to be greater assailed him, even old as he was.
"He never said, and I never have held it so, that his punishment was unjust. Only it seemed to us unfair when so many greater evildoers escape or receive pardons. You will remember, perhaps, that none of the depositors lost anything. Wild as his schemes appeared, they turned out sound enough after a while, and everything was liquidated.
"We gave up everything of our own; mother and I have felt the rub of hardship before today. The hardest of all was the falling away of those whom we believed to be friends. We learned that the favors of society are as fickle as those of fortune, and that they walk hand in hand.
"No matter. Father's term will expire in less than one month. He is an old, broken, disgraced man; he never will be able to lift up his face before the world again. That is why I am here. Mother and I concluded that we might make a refuge for him here, where he would be unknown. We planned for him to leave his name, and as much of his past as he could shake off, behind him at the prison door.
"It was no sacrifice for me. All that I had known in the old life was gone. Sneers followed me; the ghosts of money rose up to accuse. I was a felon's daughter; but, worse than that—I was poor! This country held out its arms to me, clean and undefiled. When I got my first sight of it, and the taste of its free air in my nostrils, my heart began to unfold again, and the cramped wrinkles fell out of my tired soul."
The sunshine was around them, and the peace of the open places. They sat for the world to see them, and there was nothing to hide in the sympathy that moved Dr. Slavens to reach out and take the girl's hand. He caressed it with comforting touch, as if to mitigate the suffering of her heart, in tearing from it for his eyes to see, her hoarded sorrow and unearned shame.
"There is that freedom about it," said he, "when one sees it by day and sunlight."
"But it has its nights, too," she shuddered, the shadow of last night in her eyes.
"Yet they all pass—the longest of them and the most painful," he comforted her.
"And leave their scars sometimes. How I came here, registered, drew a claim, and filed on it, you know. I did all that under the name of Horton, which is a family name on mother's side, not thinking what the consequence might be. Now, in payment for this first breach of the law, I must at least give up all my schemes here and retreat. I may be prosecuted; I may even go to prison, like my father did."
"Surely not!" he protested. "Who is there to know it, to lay a charge against you?"
"Such person is not wanting in the miserable plot of my life," she answered. "I will reach him soon in my sorry tale."
"Boyle!" Slavens said, as if thinking aloud. "He's the man!"
"You take the name from my mouth," she told him. "He has threatened me with prosecution. Perjury, he says it would be called, and prison would be the penalty."
"It might be so here," he admitted.
"I met Jerry Boyle about five years ago, when father was in Congress. His father was at that time Senator from this state. We lived in Washington, and Jerry Boyle was then considered a very original and delightful young man. He was fresh in from the range, but he had the polish of a university education over his roughness, and what I know now to be inborn coarseness was then accepted for ingenuousness. He passed current in the best society of the capital, where he was coddled as a butterfly of new species. We met; he made love to me, and I—I am afraid that I encouraged him to do it at first.
"But he drank and gambled, and got into brawls. He stabbed an attache of the Mexican Legation over a woman, and the engagement to marry him which I had entered into was broken. I was foolish in the first instance, but I plead the mitigation of frivolity and youth. My heart was not in it. I beg you to believe, Dr. Slavens, that my heart was not in it at all."
She looked at him with pleading sincerity, and from her eyes his heart gathered its recesses full of joy.
"I need no further assurance of that," he smiled.
"You are generous. It was on the afternoon of the day that followed your disappearance from Comanche that Boyle came into camp there. I had not forgotten him, of course, nor his influential position in this state; but I never thought of meeting him there. It was a sickening shock to me. I denied his protestations of acquaintanceship, but it passed off poorly with all of them who were present, except William Bentley, generous gentleman that he is."
"He is so," testified Slavens.
"I left Comanche because I was afraid of him, but he rode post the night that I engaged passage and beat me to Meander; but he wasn't hurrying on my account, as you know. He tried to see me there in Meander, but I refused to meet him. The day before yesterday he came here and solicited my help in carrying out a scheme. I refused. He threatened me with exposure and arrest on account of false entry and affidavit."
Agnes told then of her ride into the hills, the meeting with the herder, and subsequent events up to the shooting. But she said nothing of Boyle's base proposal to her, although her face burned at the recollection, giving Slavens more than half a guess what was behind that virtuous flame.
"And so, you poor little soul, all your plans for your City of Refuge are shattered because you refuse to sacrifice somebody to keep them whole," said he.
"No matter," she returned in that voice of abnegation which only a long marching line of misfortunes can give a woman or a man command over. "I have decided, anyway, to give it up. It's too big and rough and lonesome for me."
"And that person whom you put up your heart and soul to shield," he went on, looking steadily into her face and pursuing his former thought, "has something in his possession which this man Boyle covets and thinks he must have? And the cheapest and easiest way to get it is to make you pay for it in the violation of your honest principles, if he can drive you to it in his skulking way?"
She bowed assent, her lips tightly set.
"Yes," said he. "Just so. Well, why didn't Boyle come to me with his threats, the coward!"
"No, no!" she cried in quick fright. "Not that; it is something—something else."
"You poor dissembler!" he laughed. "You couldn't be dishonest if you wanted to the worst way in the world. Well, don't you worry; I'll take it up with him today."
"You'll not give it up!" she exclaimed vehemently. "All your hopes are there, and it's yours, and you'll not give it up!"
"Never mind," he soothed, again taking her hand, which she had withdrawn to aid in emphasizing her protest. "I don't believe he'd carry out his threats about the United States marshal and all that."
"You'll not give it up to him unless he pays you for it," she reiterated, ignoring her own prospect of trouble. "It's valuable, or he wouldn't be so anxious to get it."
"Perhaps," Slavens assented.
"I'm going to leave here," she hurriedly pursued. "It was foolish of me to come, in the first place. The vastness of it bewildered me, and 'the lonesomeness,' as Smith calls it, is settling in my heart."
"Well, where will you go?" he asked bewilderedly.
"Somewhere—to some village or little farm, where we can raise poultry, mother and I."
"But I haven't planned it that way," Slavens smiled. "If you leave, what am I going to do?"
"I don't know," she acknowledged, "unless—unless you come some time."
"Look here, Agnes," said he, taking the matter entirely in hand. "When we leave this place, we'll leave together. I've arranged that all in my mind and intention. It's all disposed of and settled. Here comes Boyle now, I think."
Boyle left his horse standing a few rods distant and came over to where they sat.
"You look comfortable," he commented, as serene and unperturbed as if the load of one more human life on his soul were a matter too light to be felt with inconvenience.
"Very comfortable," answered Slavens, rising stiffly. "We have nothing on our hands that common water will not wash off."
"Oh, that nut!" depreciated Boyle. "He'd talked around for a year or two about getting me. I only beat him to it when he tried; that's all."
"But there was another occasion—another attempt that didn't turn out quite like you intended," said Slavens. "Do you remember me?"
"Yes; you're the tin-horn doctor that held a man up in Comanche and stole the coat off of his back," Boyle retorted with easy insolence.
Agnes looked at the doctor imploringly, plainly begging him not to provoke Boyle to another outbreak of violence. She was standing beside him, the fear and loathing which Boyle's presence aroused undisguised in her frank face.
"It was an outrage against one of the honest men who tried to murder me," said the doctor. "But, vicious as it was, neither Shanklin nor you, his side-partner, has ever made a squeal. If it was a holdup, why haven't you sent one of your little sheriffs out after me?"
"I'm no partner of Hun Shanklin's!" denied Boyle.
"Maybe you've parted company since the night you slugged me and nailed me up in that box for the river to hide your work."