"I'll make you prove that charge!" threatened Boyle hotly.
"I can't prove it," admitted the doctor. "If I could, I'd have you in court tomorrow. But you were one of them, and I want you to understand fully that I know it, and will treat you accordingly in any private dealings that may come up between you and me."
"If you keep spoutin' it around that I ever slugged you, I'll pull you into court and make you prove it! It'll either be put up or shut up with you, mister!"
"Whenever you're ready," invited Slavens.
With somewhat more of ostentation than the simple act seemed to warrant, Boyle unbuttoned his coat, displaying his revolver as he made an exploration of his vest-pockets for a match to light his cigarette.
"Well, I guess you know what I'm here for?" Boyle suggested, passing his glance significantly from one to the other of them.
"Dr. Slavens is acquainted with your proposal," said Agnes; "and it ought to be needless for me to say that I'll not permit him to make any concession to shield myself."
"Fine! fine!" said Boyle in mock applause, throwing his head back and snorting smoke.
"In the first place," said Slavens, "your bluff don't go. Miss Gates has not broken any law in registering and entering this land under an alias. There's no crime in assuming a name, and no felony in acquiring property under it, unless fraud is used. She has defrauded nobody, and you could not make a case against her in a thousand years!"
"I can get an indictment—that's a cinch!" declared Boyle.
"Go ahead," said the doctor. "We've got some new blood in this country now, and we can find a jury that you don't own and control when it comes to trial."
"And after the indictment comes arrest and jail," Boyle continued, overlooking the doctor's argument in the lofty security of his position. "It would make a lot of noisy talk, considering the family reputation and all that."
"And the outcome of it might be—and I doubt even that—that Miss Gates would lose her homestead," Slavens supplied.
"You don't know the Federal judge in this district," Boyle grinned. "Jail's what it means, and plenty of it, for the judge has to approve a bond, if you know what that means."
"Why don't you pay Dr. Slavens for his homestead, as you were ready to pay that man Peterson if you could have filed him on it?" Agnes asked.
"Because it's mine already," said Boyle. "This man stole the description of that land, as I have told you before, at the point of a gun."
"Then you lied!" Slavens calmly charged.
Boyle hitched his hip, throwing the handle of his pistol into sight.
"You can say that," said he, "because I've got to have your name on a paper."
"I'll never permit Dr. Slavens to sign away his valuable claim to you," declared Agnes. "I'll not allow——"
Slavens lifted his hand for silence.
"I'll do the talking for this family from now on," said he, smiling reassuringly as he held her eyes a moment with his own.
He turned abruptly to Boyle.
"And the fighting, too, when necessary. You keep that little gun in its place when you're around me, young man, or you'll get hurt! One more break like that to show me that you've got it, and you and I will mix. Just put that down in your book."
"Oh, all right, pardner!" returned Boyle with that jerky insolence which men of his kind assume when they realize that they have been called, and called hard. He buttoned his coat.
"And as far as Miss Gates is concerned, consider her out of this case," said Slavens. "But I want to have some private talk with you."
They walked over to the place where Boyle's horse stood, and there, out of the hearing of Agnes, Slavens sounded Jerry sharply on his intentions. It was plain that there was no bluff in Boyle; he meant what he threatened, and he was small enough to carry it through.
As an illustration of his far-reaching influence, Boyle pointed out to Slavens that nobody had approached the physician with an offer to buy him out, although one had appeared anxious enough to open negotiations the day he filed.
"When we tell a man to lay down in this part of the country, he lays down," said Boyle; "and when we order him to walk on his hind legs, he walks. Nobody will offer you any money for that place; it isn't worth anything to a soul on earth but me. You couldn't sell out in a century. You'll get that through your nut if you hang around here long enough."
For a little while Slavens thought it over, walking away a few paces and appraising the situation studiously. Suddenly he wheeled and confronted Boyle, leveling his finger at his face.
"Your bluff don't go, Boyle!" said he. "You'd just as well get on your horse and light out; and if you want to bring it to a fight, then let it be a fight. We'll meet you on any ground you pick."
"You're a fool!" snarled Boyle.
"Then I'll be a bigger one—big enough to call you to account before another day has passed over your head for your part in that dirty work in Comanche that night. And I want to lay it off to you right now that all the influence you can command in this state isn't going to save you when I go after you!"
Boyle picked up his bridle-reins and threaded his arm through them, standing so, legs wide apart, while he rolled a cigarette. As it dangled between his lips and the smoke of it rose up, veiling his eyes, he peered narrowly through it at the doctor.
"There's a man in the graveyard up at Cheyenne that made a talk like that one time," he said.
"I'll have to take your word for that," returned Slavens, quite unmoved. "I'll meet you at the hotel in Meander tomorrow morning at nine o'clock for a settlement, one way or the other."
"One way or the other," repeated Boyle.
He mounted his horse and rode away toward Meander, trailing a thin line of smoke behind him.
Agnes hurried forward to meet Slavens as he turned toward her. Her face was bloodless, her bosom agitated.
"I heard part of what you said," she told him. "Surely you don't mean to go over there and fight him on his own ground, among his friends?"
"I'm going over there to see the county attorney," said he. "He's from Kansas, and a pretty straight sort of chap, it seemed to me from what I saw of him. I'm going to put this situation of ours before him, citing a hypothetical case, and get his advice. I don't believe that there's a shred of a case against you, and I doubt whether Boyle can bluff the government officials into making a move in it, even with all his influence."
"And you'll come back here and tell me what he says, no matter what his opinion may be, before you act one way or another?"
"If you wish it, although—Well, yes—if you wish it."
"I do, most earnestly," she assured him.
"You need a good sleep," he counseled. "Turn in as soon as I'm gone, and don't worry about this. There's a good deal of bluff in Boyle."
"He's treacherous, and he shoots wonderfully. He killed that poor fellow last night without ever seeing him at all."
"But I'm not going to take a shot at him out of the dark," said he.
"I know. But I'll be uneasy until you return."
"There's too much trouble in your face today for one of your years," he said, lifting her chin with rather a professional rebuke in his eyes. "You'll have to put it down, or it will make you old. Go right on dreaming and planning; things will come out exactly as you have designed."
"Perhaps," she agreed, but with little hope in her voice.
Slavens saddled his horse after they had refreshed themselves with coffee. Agnes stood by, racked with an anxiety which seemed to grind her heart. The physician thought of the pioneer women of his youth, of those who lived far out on the thin edge of prairie reaches, and in the gloom of forests which groaned around them in the lone winds of winter nights. There was the same melancholy of isolation in Agnes' eyes today as he had seen in theirs; the same sad hopelessness; the same hunger, and the longing to fly from the wilderness and its hardships, heart-weariness, and pain.
Her hand lay appealingly upon his shoulder for a moment before he mounted, and her face was turned up to him, unspoken yearning on her lips.
"Promise me again before you go that you will come back here before you relinquish your homestead to Boyle," she demanded. "Promise me that, no matter what the lawyer's opinion may be, you'll return here before you do anything else at all."
"I promise you," said he.
When he had ridden a little way he halted his horse and turned in his saddle to look back. She was sitting there in the sun, her head bowed, her hands clasped over her face, as if she wept or prayed. A little while he waited there, as if meditating a return, as if he had forgotten something—some solace, perhaps, for which her lips had appealed to his heart dumbly.
Yet a sincere man seldom knows these things, which a trifler is so quick to see. He did not know, perhaps; or perhaps he was not certain enough to turn his horse and ride back to repair his omission. Presently he rode on slowly, his head bent, the bridle-reins loose in his hand.
The man who had supplied the horse-blanket for covering the dead sheep-herder had taken it away, but the board upon which they had stretched him still lay under the tree where they had left it. There was blood on it where the wound had drained, a disturbing sight which persisted in meeting Agnes' eye every time she came out of the tent. She was debating in her mind whether to throw the board in the river or split it up and burn it in the stove, when Smith came along and claimed it.
"Scarce as wood's goin' to be in this valley six months from now," Smith remarked, rubbing dust over the stain which did not appear to give him any qualms, "a man's got to take care of it. That's a shelf out of my store."
"I don't suppose you'll ever put goods on it again."
"Sure. Why not?"
"Well, not groceries, at any rate," she ventured.
"It won't hurt canned goods," Smith told her, turning it stain downward. "Doctor gone back?"
"He's gone on to Meander on some business."
"Smart feller," commended Smith. "If I had to have my leg took off I'd just as lief have that man do it as any doctor I ever saw."
"I'm sure he would appreciate your confidence," she smiled.
"Been acquainted with him a good while?" he wanted to know.
"Only since I've been in this country. We met on the train coming to Comanche."
Smith sighed as if oppressed by a secret trouble, and cast his wise eye about the camp.
"I wouldn't leave them things around out here at night," he advised, indicating some boxes of supplies with which she was rather liberally provided. "Animals might git at 'em."
"You don't mean bears?" she asked with lively concern.
"No; not likely bears," said he. "Badgers, more like. They're awful thieves."
"Thank you for the advice. I meant to put them in today, but I've been so distracted by last night's awful events——"
"Yes, I know," Smith nodded. "I'll put 'em in for you."
Smith stored the boxes within the tent. The exertion brought out the sweat on his red face. He stood wiping it, his hat in his hand, turning his eyes to see how she regarded his strength.
"I tell you, a woman needs a man to do the heavy work for her in a place like this," he hinted.
"I'm finding that out," she laughed.
Smith sat down comfortably on the box lately occupied by Dr. Slavens. He buckled his hands over a knee and sat with that foot raised from the ground in a most ungainly, but perhaps refreshing, attitude.
"Thinkin' about marryin'?" he asked.
The frankness of the question relieved her of embarrassment. She smiled.
"I suppose every woman thinks of that, more or less," she admitted.
Smith nodded, and slowly lowered his foot, looking up at her with sly confidence, as if discovering to her a mighty secret which he had just become convinced she was worthy to share.
"Well, so am I," said he.
It began to look like dangerous ground, but she didn't know how to turn him. Thinking to try a show of abstract interest, she told him she was glad to hear it.
"There's money to be made in this country," he continued, warming up to his argument, "and I know how to make it. Inside of five years I'll be able to put up a house with a cupola on it, and a picket fence in front, and grass in the yard, for the woman that marries me."
"I believe you will," she agreed. "What kind of a noise does a bear make?"
"Dang bears!" said Smith, disconcerted by having his plans thrown out of joint in such an abrupt way.
"I thought I heard one the night before last," she went on. "I was afraid."
"No need to be," he assured her. "Bears don't come down here any more. What could a bear live on down here, I'd like to know? Snakes? Well, bears don't eat snakes."
"Oh!" said she, enlightened.
"There's not a bear in a hundred miles of here," he told her.
"That's comforting knowledge," she said. "You've never told me about the big grizzly that you killed. Was it long ago?"
"Not so very long," Smith replied, sighing as he saw himself led so far away from the subject nearest his heart, and despairing of working his courage up to it again that day.
"It was a big one, wasn't it?"
"Well, I got fifty dollars off of a feller for the hide."
"Tell me about it," she requested.
Inwardly she wished that Smith would go, so she might take a sleep, but she feared lest he might get back to the subject of houses and wives if she allowed him to depart from bears, and the historic grizzly in particular.
"Well, I'll tell you. I didn't kill that bear on purpose," he began. "I didn't go out huntin' him, and I didn't run after him. If he'd minded his own business like I minded mine, he'd be alive today for all I'm concerned."
"Oh, it was an accident?" she asked.
"Part accident," Smith replied. "I was a deputy game-warden in them days, and a cowboy on the side, up in the Big Horn Valley. A gang of fellers in knee-pants and yeller leggings come into that country, shootin' everything that hopped up. Millionaires, I reckon they must 'a' been, countin' their guns and the way they left game to rot on the ground. They killed just to kill, and I tracked 'em by the smell of the carcasses behind 'em. They made a sneak and got into Yellowstone Park, and there's where I collared 'em. They was all settin' around a fire one night when I come up to 'em, their guns standin' around. I throwed down on 'em, and one fool feller he made a grab for a gun. I always was sorry for that man."
"What did you do to him?" she asked.
"Busted a diamond he had in a ring," said Smith. "Well, they got fines, them fellers did, when I marched 'em out of there, I'm here to tell you! If it'd been me that was judge I'd 'a' sent 'em all to jail for life.
"When I was comin' back to the ranch from that trip I met that bear you've heard so much talk and mostly lies, about. That bear he's the most slandered bear that ever lived."
"That's it. He wasn't wallered to death, choked to death, pounded to death, nor run down. He was just plain shot in the top of the head."
"What a queer place to shoot a bear! How did you manage it?"
"He managed it. He come under the tree where I was at."
"Oh, I see."
"And that's all there is to that yarn, ma'am. I got a man today that I can put on that work of levelin' off for you in the morning, if you want me to."
"I think we'll let it stand a day or two," she told him. "I'll let you know when to take it up again. I've got so much to think about right now that I just stand turning round and round."
"Yes, you do feel that way in a new place, sometimes," Smith allowed. "Well, I guess I'll have to be goin' on down to the store. Business is pickin' up so fast I'll have to keep open all the time, not only evenin's like I have been doin'."
"I'm glad to hear it," said she.
"Yes; I'll have to hire a clerk, because I've got to 'tend to my outside work. I've been paintin' a sign to go over the front, and I tell you that name don't look so bad when it's in print, neither."
"It isn't a name to be ashamed of, I'm sure," she cheered. "It's just as good as any other name, as far as I can see."
"Phogenphole has got a good many shanks to it when you come to write it, though," reflected Smith. "It looks a lot better printed out. I think I'll git me one of these here typewritin'-machines. But say! Stop in and take a look at that sign the first time you're passin'; will you?"
Agnes assured him that she would. Smith upended his board as if to go.
"That feller, Boyle, he's gone," said he, nodding as if to confirm his own statement. "I saw him ride off up the river an hour or so ago."
"Yes; I believe he went to Meander also."
"He's a bad egg," Smith continued, "and he comes out of a basket of bad eggs. His old man, he's doin' more to keep this state down than anything you can name. He's got millions—and when I say millions, ma'am, I mean millions—of acres of government land fenced and set off to his own use, and school lands, and other lands belongin' to you and me and the high-minded citizens of this country, and he don't pay a cent for the use of 'em, neither. Taxes? That man don't know what taxes is."
"Why do the people permit him to do it?"
"People! Huh! He's got rings in their noses, that's why. What he don't own he's got cowed. I tell you, I know of a town with three or four thousand people in it, and a schoolhouse as big as one of them old-country castles up on a hill, that ranchers has to go forty miles around to git to. Can't put a road through Boyle's land—government land, every inch of it. What do you think of that?"
"I think a stop ought to be put to it, somehow."
"Sure it had! All of it's subject to homestead entry, but it's got a five-wire fence around it, and thousands of sheep and cattle that the people of this country feed and bring up and fatten for nothing, for the Hon. Mr. Boyle. More than one man's been shot by Boyle's fence-riders for tryin' to homestead a piece of land he claims he's got a lease on. He ain't got no lease, but that don't matter.
"There's men settled here in this reservation that's run up and down this state till they turned gray tryin' to locate on a piece of land. They've been hustled and humped along till they've lost heart, most of 'em, and I reckon they doubt now whether they're goin' to be let stay here from one day to another.
"Cattlemen's kicked 'em out of one place, sheepmen out of another, till this state ain't got no farms—the only thing that it needs. Yes, I tell you, when a man sets up ag'in' a Boyle or any of that crowd in this state, he's due to lose. Well, say, don't forgit to stop in and see that sign; will you?"
Agnes promised again to do so, and Smith departed, the sheep-herder's cooling-board under his arm.
With Smith's going, the temperature of her spirits, which had risen a little to help her through with him, suffered a recession. She looked about with the thought of finding another location for her camp, feeling that the disturbing associations of the previous night never would allow her to spend a comfortable hour there again.
Her homestead did not offer another spot with the advantages which she enjoyed right where she was. There the river-bank was low, coming down as the stream did to a gravelly, fordable place, and there the trees offered shelter against the summer sun, the thick-matted willows a break for the winter winds. There was a home look about it, too, such as nature sometimes contrives in uninhabited places, upon which the traveler lights with satisfaction and restful delight.
She spent the remainder of the afternoon up and down her half-mile of river-bank, trying to choose between the next likeliest spots, but she hadn't much heart in the hunt. Perhaps it would be unwise to allow any affection to grow for the place, one location or another, or for any hope to take deeper root than the sickly sprigs which she had planted at the beginning.
Drooping and weary, she returned to her tent when the sun was low, for the thought of sleep had left her with Smith's discussion of the blight of the Boyles upon that land. There appeared little use in trying to stand out against the son of this great obstructionist who, with a few friends and servitors, had kept the state for years as another man might keep his field. Others might look into the enclosure and see the opportunities which were being wasted, but none might touch.
If the gang were deprived of their chief weapon of menace, namely, the hold which the Federal laws had upon her, Dr. Slavens might be able to withstand their covetous attempt to dispossess him of his valuable holdings. She knew that Slavens would not stand by and see her indicted by the creatures of the Boyles, nor any more nearly threatened with the disgrace of prison than she was at that hour. He would put down everything to save her, even now when the fruition of his hard-lived years was at hand.
She sat in the failing sun, scooping a little furrow with the heel of her boot as she reflected. She still wore the divided riding-skirt which she had worn the day before on her excursion into the hills, and with her leather-weighted hat she looked quite like any other long-striding lady of the sagebrush. Sun and wind, and more than a week of bareheaded disregard of complexion had put a tinge of brown on her neck and face, not much to her advantage, although she was well enough with it.
How was it, she wrangled in her mind, that the lines of their lives had crossed in that place, this physician's and hers? Perhaps it was only the trick of chance, or perhaps it was the fulfilment of the plan drawn for them to live by from the first. But it seemed unfair to Dr. Slavens, who had made a discouraging beginning, that he must be called upon to surrender the means of realizing on his ambition when he held them in his hand, and for no other purpose than to save her, a stranger.
It was unfair of fate to lay their lines so, and it would be doubly ignoble and selfish of her to permit him to make the sacrifice. Dr. Slavens cared enough for her to ask her to marry him, and to expect her to marry him, although she had given him no word to confirm such expectation. He had taken hold of that matter to shape it for himself, and he intended to marry her, that was plain.
Her heart had jumped and turned warm with a softness toward him when he spoke of "this family" so naturally and frankly to Jerry Boyle. It seemed to her that those words gave her a dignity and a standing before the world which all the shadows of her troubled life could not dim.
But there were the shadows, there were the ghosts. She felt that it would be exceedingly burdensome to him to assume the future of two aged people, besides that of her own. Marrying her would be marrying a family, indeed, for she had wasted on that desert hope much of the small bit of money which the scraping and cleaning of their once great properties had yielded. And there lay the scheme prostrate, winded, a poor runner in a rugged race.
Of course, she might come clear of the tangle by permitting Dr. Slavens to surrender his homestead to Boyle; she might do that, and impoverish him, and accept that sacrifice as the price of herself. For after the doctor had given up his claim she could marry him and ride off complacently by his side, as heartless and soulless as anything which is bought and sold.
That's all it would amount to—a downright sale, even though she did not marry the doctor. She would be accepting immunity at the shameful price of a man's biggest chance in all his days. It was too much. She couldn't do it; she never intended to do it; she couldn't bring it around so that it would present an honorable aspect from any angle.
Evening came over the hills with a chill, which it gave to the cottonwoods as it passed them on the river-bank. Their leaves trembled and sighed, and some were so frightened by the foreboding of winter in that touch that they lost their hold upon the boughs and came circling down. In the tall grass which thrived rankly in that sub-irrigated spot the insects of summer were out of voice. The choristers of the brushwood seemed to be in difficulties over the beginning, also. They set out in shivering starts, and left off with jerky suddenness, as if they had no heart for singing against this unmistakable warning that their summer concert season had come to its end.
Agnes fired up her stove and sat by it, watching the eager sparks make their brave plunge into the vast night which so soon extinguished them, as the world engulfs and silences streams and clouds of little men who rush into it with a roar. So many of them there are who go forth so day by day, who avail, with all their fuss and noise, no more against it than the breath of an infant against a stone.
Sitting there with the night drawing in around her, she felt the cold truth in her heart about that place, and the acknowledgment of it, which she had kept away from her up to that hour. It wasn't worth while; she did not care for it. Then and there she was ready to give it up and leave it to whoever might come after her and shape its roughness into a home.
There was a heaviness upon her, and a weight of sadness such as comes out of the silent places of the night. It was such a wide and empty land for a young heart, and its prospect was such a waste of years! The thought of refuge and peace was sweet, but there is refuge to be found and peace to be won among men and the works of men; among books, and the softer ways of life.
At that hour she was ready to give it up, mount her horse, and ride away. If giving it up would save Dr. Slavens his hard-won claim, she would not hesitate, she told herself, to ride to Comanche that night and take the first train for the East. But flight would not put her out of the reach of the Federal officials, and if she should fly, that would only bring the spite of Boyle down upon her more swiftly and sharply than remaining there, facing him, and defying him to do his worst.
No; flight would be useless, because Jerry Boyle knew exactly where she would go. There was but one place; they would follow her to it and find her, and that would be carrying trouble to a home that had enough of it as it stood. There must be some other way. Was there no bond of tenderness in that dark man's life which she could touch? no soft influence which she might bring to bear upon him and cause him to release his rapacious hold?
None. So far as she could fit the pieces of the past together she could fashion no design which offered relief.
Agnes brought up her horse and gave it a measure of oats near the tent for the sake of the companionship of its noise, and large presence in the lantern light. She thought that even after she had gone to sleep there would be comfort in the sense of the animal's nearness.
And so, beside her stove, the lonely night around her, the dread ache of "the lonesomeness" in her heart, she sat watching the sparks run out of the stovepipe like grains of sand running in a glass. Distance and hope alike have their enchantments, she owned, which all the powers of reason cannot dispel. Hand to hand this land was not for her. It was empty of all that she yearned for; it was as crude as the beginning.
And out of the turmoil of this thought and heartache there came tears which welled copiously and without a sob, as one weeps for things which have not been and cannot be; as one weeps for hopelessness. And the whisperings of memory stirred in her heart, and the soft light of recollection kindled like a flame. Out of the past there rose a face—and flash!
There was something to be done now; there was hot blood in the heart again. In one moment the way had straightened before her, and resolution had taken firm captaincy. With a pang of hunger she remembered that for a day she had subsisted principally on coffee.
After a hasty supper, sleep was necessary, and rest. The horse had finished its oats, and was now watching her sudden activity with forward-thrown ears, its bright eyes catching the lantern-gleam as it turned its head. Satisfied, apparently, that the bustle included no immediate plans for itself, the animal lounged easily on three legs and went to sleep.
Agnes stopped to give it a caressing pat as she went in. Sleep was the important thing now, for her plan called for endurance and toil. But there was one little thing to be done tonight for which the early light of morning, in which she must be stirring, might not suffice—just a little writing. It was quickly done, her suitcase held across her knees serving for a desk.
THE STRANGE TENT
"Do nothing until I return," ran her letter, which Dr. Slavens read by the last muddy light of day. "I will hold you to a strict account of your promise to me that you would not act in this matter without first returning here."
There was no word of where she had gone, no time fixed for her to return. He had found the envelope pinned to the tent-cloth when he rode up, weary and grim, from his journey to Meander.
Inside the tent all was in order. There stood her boxes of canned goods and groceries against the wall. There was her cot, its blanket folded over the pillow and tucked in neatly to keep out the dust. She had not left hastily, it appeared, although the nervous brevity of her note seemed to indicate the contrary. She had contrived herself a broom of greasewood branches, with which she swept the space between stove and tent, keeping it clean down to hard earth. It stood there as she had left it, handle down, as carefully placed as if it were a most expensive and important utensil.
Slavens smiled as he lifted it. Even in the wilderness a true woman could not live without her broom, a greater civilizing influence, he thought, than the sword.
He did not go inside the tent, but stood holding up the flap, looking around the dim interior. Her lantern stood on a box, matches beside it, as if it had been left there ready to his hand in the expectation that he would come in and make himself at home.
It was not likely, he thought, that any of the neighbors could tell him where she had gone when she had not felt like giving him that much of her confidence. But he went down to Smith's, making casual inquiry, saying nothing about the note which she had left, not taking that to be any of Smith's concern.
As always, Smith had been astir at an early hour. He had seen her pass, going in the direction of Comanche. She was riding briskly, he said, as if she had only a short journey ahead of her, and was out of hail before he could push the pan of biscuits he was working over into the oven and open the door. It was Smith's opinion, given with his usual volubility and without solicitation, that she had gone out on one of her excursions.
"More than likely," said the doctor. "I think I'll go back up there and kind of keep an eye on her stuff. Somebody might carry some of it off."
This unmalicious reflection on the integrity of the community hurt Smith. There was evidence of deep sorrow in his heart as he began to argue refutation of the ingenuous charge. It was humiliating, he declared, that a man should come among them and hold them in such low esteem.
"In this country nobody don't go around stealin' stuff out of houses and tents," he protested. "You can put your stuff down on the side of the road and leave it there, and go back in a month and find it. Sheepmen leave supplies for their herders that way, and I've known 'em to leave their pay along with 'em. Maybe it'd be a week or two before them fellers got around to it, but it'd be there when they got there. There's no such a thing as a tramp in this country. What'd a tramp live on here?"
"I don't question your defense of conditions as they were," the doctor rejoined; "but I'm looking at things as they are. There are a lot of new people in here, the country is becoming civilized; and the more civilized men grow the more police and battle-ships and regiments of soldiers they need to keep things happy and peaceful between them, and to prevent their equally civilized and cultured neighbors from stepping in from across the seas and booting them out of their comfortable homes. You've got to keep your eyes on your suitcase and your hand on your wallet when you sit down among civilized people, Smith."
"Say, I guess you're right about that," admitted Smith after some reflection. "I read in the paper the other day that they're goin' to build three new battle-ships. Yes, I reckon things'll change here in this part of Wyoming now. It'll be so in a year or two that a man can't leave his pants hangin' out on the line overnight."
"Yes, you'll come to that," the doctor agreed.
"Pants?" pursued Smith reminiscently. "Pants? Well, I tell you. There was a time in this country, when I drove stage from Casper to Meander, that I knew every pair of pants between the Chugwater and the Wind River. If one man ever had come out wearin' another feller's pants, I'd 'a' spotted 'em quick as I would a brand on a stray horse. Pants wasn't as thick in them days as they are now, and crooks wasn't as plentiful neither. I knew one old sheepman back on the Sweetwater that wore one pair of pants 'leven years."
"That's another of the inconveniences of civilization."
"Pants and pie-annos," said Smith. "But I don't care; I'll put in a stock of both of 'em just as soon as folks get their houses built and their alfalfa in."
"That's the proper spirit," commended Slavens.
"And insurance and undertakin'," added Smith. "I'll ketch 'em comin' and goin'."
"If you had a doctor to hitch in with you on the deal," suggested Slavens.
"What's the matter with you?" grinned Smith.
"I'll be cutting a streak out of here before long, I think."
"Soon as you sell that claim?"
"Don't let 'em bluff you on the price," advised Smith. "They're long on that game here."
Slavens answered as Smith doubtless expected, and with a show of the deepest confidence in his own sagacity, no matter what feeling lay in the well of his conscience at that hour. He left Smith and went back to Agnes' camp, hoping to see a light as he drew near. There was none. As he carried no food with him, he was forced to draw on her stores for supper.
For a long time he lay upon his saddle, smoking beside the stove, turning over in his mind a thousand conjectures to account for her sudden and unexplained absence. He was not worried for her safety, for he believed that she had gone to Comanche, and that was a ride too long for her to attempt in a day. Doubtless she would set out on the return early in the morning, and reach home about noon.
It was well in the turn of the following afternoon when Slavens decided that he would wait in camp for her no longer. Fears were beginning to rise in him, and doubt that all was with her as it should be. If she went toward Comanche, she must return from Comanche; he might meet her on the way to his own camp. If not, in the morning he would go on to Comanche in search of her.
His horse, fresh and eager, knowing that it was heading for home, carried him over the road at a handsome gait. At the first stage-station out of Comanche, a matter of twenty-five miles, and of fifteen beyond his camp, he made inquiry about Agnes.
She had passed there the morning before, the man in charge said, measuring Slavens curiously with his little hair-hedged eyes as he stood in the door of his shanty, half a cabbage-head in one hand, a butcher-knife in the other. Slavens thanked him and drew on the reins.
"I'm breaking in on your preparations for supper."
"No; it's dinner," the man corrected.
"I didn't know that you'd come to six-o'clock dinners in this part of the country," the doctor laughed.
"Not as I know of," the cook-horse-wrangler said. "This dinner that I'm gittin' ready, stranger, is for tomorrow noon, when the stage comes by from Comanche. I always cook it the day before to be sure it'll be ready on time."
With that the forehanded cook turned and went back to his pot. As Slavens rode away he heard the cabbage crunching under the cook's knife as he sliced it for the passengers of the Meander stage, to have it hot and steaming, and well soaked with the grease of corned beef, when they should arrive at noon on the morrow.
Dusk was settling when the doctor reached his tent. Before he dismounted he rode to a little clear place among the bewilderment of stones which gave him a view of half a mile, and he sat there looking a while down the stage-trail toward Comanche. Beyond him a few hundred yards another tent had been planted. In front of it a man sat cooking his supper over a little blaze.
"Boyle lost no time in getting here," muttered the doctor, turning to his own shelter and kindling a fire on the ashes of other days.
Ashes were graying again over the embers long after he had boiled his pot of coffee and put away his can of warmed-over beans. Night was charged with a threat of frost, as is not uncommon in those altitudes at the beginning of September. It was so chilly that Slavens had drawn a blanket over his back as he sat before his dying fire, Indian fashion, on the ground, drawing what solace he could from his pipe.
A sound of scrambling hoofs laboring up the sharp hill from the direction of Meander came to him suddenly, startling him out of his reflections. His thought leaped to the instant conclusion that it was Agnes; he laid light fuel to the coals, blowing it to quicken a blaze that would guide and welcome her.
When the rider appeared an eager flame was laving the rocks in the yellow light, and Slavens was standing, peering beyond its radius. A glance told him that it was not she for whom he had lighted his guiding fire. It was a man. In a moment he drew up on the other side of the blaze and leaned over, looking sharply into Slavens' face.
"Hello!" he hailed loudly, as if shouting across a river.
Slavens returned his bellowed hail with moderation, recognizing in the dusty traveler Comanche's distinguished chief of police, Ten-Gallon, of the diamond rings. Slavens never had been able to feel anything but the most lively contempt for the fellow; now, since learning of Ten-Gallon's treatment of Agnes, and his undoubted hand in the plot of Hun Shanklin and Boyle against himself, the doctor held him to be nothing short of an open enemy.
"I'm lookin' for a man by the name of Boyle," announced Ten-Gallon. "Are you holdin' down camp for him?"
"He's on down the road a little way."
"Oh, yes," said Ten-Gallon, "I know you now. You're the feller that beat him to it. Well, I had a complaint ag'in' you for stealin' a man's coat over in Comanche."
"I'm out of your jurisdiction right now, I guess; but I'll go down to Comanche and give you a chance at me if you want to take it," the doctor told him, considerably out of humor, what with his own disappointment and the fellow's natural insolence.
The police chief of Comanche laughed.
"I'd be about the last man to lay hands on you for anything you done to that feller, even if you'd 'a' took his hide along with his coat," said he.
"Then the crime trust of Comanche must be dissolved?" sneered Slavens.
"I don't git you, pardner," returned Ten-Gallon with cold severity.
"Oh, never mind."
"You're the feller that beat Boyle to it, too," added the chief; "and I want to tell you, pardner, I take off my katy to you. You're one smart guy!"
"You'll find your man on down the road about a quarter," directed Slavens, on whose ear the encomiums of Ten-Gallon fell without savor.
"I heard in Meander today that you'd sold out to Boyle," said Ten-Gallon.
"Well, you got it straight," the doctor told him.
Ten-Gallon slued in his saddle, slouching over confidentially.
"Say, it ain't any of my business, maybe, but how much did you git out of this pile of rocks?"
"It isn't any of your business, but I'll tell you. I got more out of it than this whole blasted country's worth!" Slavens replied.
Ten-Gallon chuckled—a deep, fat, well-contented little laugh.
"Pardner," said he admiringly, "you certainly are one smart guy!"
Ten-Gallon rode on in his quest of Boyle, while Slavens sat again beside his fire, which he allowed to burn down to coals.
Slavens could not share the fellow's jubilation over the transfer of the homestead to Boyle, for he had surrendered it on Boyle's own terms—the terms proposed to Agnes at the beginning. As he filled his big, comforting pipe and smoked, Slavens wondered what she would say concerning his failure to return to her before signing the relinquishment. There would be some scolding, perhaps some tears, but he felt that he was steering the boat, and the return merely to keep his word inviolate would have been useless.
He reviewed the crowded events of the past two days; his arrival at Meander, his talk with the county attorney. While that official appeared to be outwardly honest, he was inwardly a coward, trembling for his office. He was candid in his expression that Boyle would make a case against Agnes if he wanted it made, for there was enough to base an action upon and make a public showing.
When it came to guarding that part of the people's heritage grandiloquently described as "the public domain," the Boyles were not always at the front, to be sure. They had entered hundreds of men on the public lands, paid them a few dollars for their relinquishment, and in that way come into illegal ownership of hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land. But all the big fish of the Northwest did it, said the county attorney; you couldn't draw a Federal grand jury that would find a true bill in such a case against a big landowner, for the men in shadow always were drawn on the juries.
Of course, when one of them turned against somebody else that would be different. In the case of the person whose entry of lands was covered by the doctor's hypothetical statement, and whose name was not mentioned between them, the crime had been no greater than their own—not so great from a moral interpretation of the law. Cupidity prompted them; the desire for a home the other. Still, that would have no weight. If Boyle wanted to make trouble, said the county attorney, he could make it, and plenty of it.
Seeing how far the shadow of the Boyles fell over that land, Slavens at once dismissed the notion that he had carried to Meander with him of bringing some legal procedure against Boyle and Boyle's accomplices on account of the assault and attempted murder which they had practiced upon him. There could be no hope of an indictment if brought before the grand jury; no chance of obtaining a warrant for the arrest of Shanklin and Boyle by lodging complaint with the county attorney.
Yet he took up that matter with the little lawyer, whose blond hair stood out in seven directions when Slavens told him of the felonious attack and the brutal disposition of what they had doubtless believed to be his lifeless body. The county attorney shook his head and showed an immediate disposition to get rid of Slavens when the story was done. It was plain that he believed the doctor was either insane or the tallest liar that ever struck that corner of the globe.
"You couldn't make a case stick on that," said he, shifting his feet and his eyes, busying his hands with some papers on his desk, which he took up in assumed desire to be about the duties of his office without further loss of time. "All I can say to you on that is, when you get ready to leave the country, take a shot at them. That's about the only thing that's left open for you to do if you want to even it up. This office can't help you any."
And that was his advice, lightly offered doubtless, with no thought that it would be accepted and carried out; but strange advice, thought Slavens, for the protector of the people's peace and dignity to give. In case he should take it, he would have to be ready to leave, that was certain.
At his meeting with Boyle in the hotel at Meander on the appointed hour, Slavens found the Governor's son more arrogant and insistent than before. Boyle set a limit of noon for Slavens to meet his demand.
"I've got everything greased," he boasted, "and I'll cut the string if you don't come up to the lick-log then."
He offered to take Slavens to interview the official in charge of the land-office if the doctor doubted that things had not been set in motion to cause trouble for Agnes in the event of Slavens' refusal to yield. While Slavens believed this to be pure bluff, knowing that whatever influence Boyle might have with the person in question, the official would be too wise to show his subserviency in any such manner, at the same time the doctor was well enough convinced of Boyle's great and pernicious influence without a further demonstration. He saw nothing to be gained by holding out until he could return to Agnes and place the situation before her, if Boyle had been willing to forego moving against her that long.
They went to the land-office together, Boyle advancing the money to Slavens for the outright purchase of the land under the provision of the act of Congress under which the reservation had been opened. Slavens immediately transferred title to Boyle, drew the money which he had on deposit in the bank at Meander, and rode away with the intention of quitting the state as soon as might be. How soon, depended upon the readiness of someone to go with him.
Boyle had told him that he might take his own time about removing his possessions from the land; but it was his intention, as he gloomed there by his low fire, to get them off the next day. In the morning, he intended to go to Comanche, which was only ten miles distant, and try to find out what had become of Agnes. From there he would send out a wagon to bring in his tent and baggage.
He turned again in his mind every reason, tenable and untenable, that he could frame to account for Agnes' sudden and unexplained trip. He thought she probably had gone for her mail, or to send a telegram and receive a reply, or for money, or something which she needed in camp. More than once he took up the probability that she had gone off on some forlorn scheme to adjust their mutual affairs; but there was not a hook of probability to sustain the weight of this conjecture, so with little handling it had to be put down as profitless.
At the best she was gone, and had been gone now two days—a long time for a trip to Comanche. He wondered if anything had happened to her on the way; whether she had fled the state in precipitation, so that his homestead might be saved from Boyle. She was generous enough to do it, but not so thoughtless, he believed, knowing as she must know the concern and worry to which he would be subject until he could have word from her.
But for Agnes' return to round it out, Slavens' adventure in that country had come to a close. Without Agnes it would be incomplete, as without her there would be missing a most important part in the future pattern of his life. He could not go without Agnes, although he had nothing yet of success to offer her.
But that was on the way. The knocks which he had taken there in those few weeks had cracked the insulation of hopelessness which the frost of his profitless years had thickened upon him. Now it had fallen away, leaving him light and fresh for the battle.
Agnes had said little about the money which Dr. Slavens had taken from Shanklin at the gambler's own crooked game. Whether she countenanced it or not, Slavens did not know. Perhaps it was not honest money, in every application of the term, but it was entirely current, and there was a most comfortable sense in the feel of it there bulked in the inner pocket of his coat. He had no qualms nor scruples about it at all. Fate had put it in his hands for the carrying out of his long-deferred desires. If it hadn't worked honestly for Shanklin, it was about to set in for a mighty reformation.
But there was the trouble of Agnes' absence, which persisted between him and sleep when he arranged himself in his blankets. He turned with it, and sighed and worked himself into a fever of anxiety. Many times he got up and listened for the sound of hoofs, to go back to his tent and tell himself that it was unreasonable to think that she would ride by night over that lonely road.
When morning began to creep in it brought with it a certain assurance that all was well with her, as daylight often brings its deceptive consolation to a heart that suffers the tortures of despair in the dark. Sleep caught him then, and held him past the hour that he had set for its bound. When he awoke the sun was shining over the cold ashes of his last night's fire.
Slavens got up with a deeper feeling of resentment against Boyle than he ever had felt for any man. It seemed to come over him unaccountably, like a disagreeable sound, or a chill from a contrary wind. It was not a pettish humor, but a deep, grave feeling of hatred, as if the germ of it had grown in the blood and spread to every tissue of his body. The thought of Boyle's being so near him was discordant. It pressed on him with a sense of being near some unfit thing which should be removed.
Dr. Slavens never had carried arms in his life, and he had no means of buckling Hun Shanklin's old revolver about him, but he felt that he must take it with him when he left the tent. Big and clumsy as it was, he thrust it under the belt which sustained his trousers, where it promised to carry very well, although it was not in a free-moving state in case an emergency should demand its speedy use.
There would be no time for breakfast. Even then he should have been in Comanche, he told himself with upbraidings for having slept so long. His horse had strayed, too. Slavens went after it in resentful mood. The creature had followed the scant grazing to the second bench, an elevation considerably above its present site.
Slavens followed the horse's trail, wondering how the animal had been able to scramble up those slopes, hobbled as it was. Presently he found the beast and started with it back to camp. Rounding the base of a great stone which stood perched on the hillside as if meditating a tumble, Slavens paused a moment to look over the troubled slope of land which had been his two days before.
There was Boyle's tent, with a fire before it, but no one in sight; and there, on the land which adjoined his former claim on the south, was another tent, so placed among the rocks that it could not be seen from his own.
"It wasn't there when I left," Slavens reflected. "I wonder what he's after?"
CROOK MEETS CROOK
Slavens was saddling his horse before his tent, his mind still running on the newcomer who had pitched to the south of him, evidently while he was away. He was certain that he would have seen the tent if it had been there before he left, for it was within plain view of the road.
Well, thought the doctor, whoever the stranger was, whatever he hoped or expected of that place, he was welcome to, for all that Slavens envied him. As for Slavens himself, he had run his race and won it by a nose; and now that he was putting down the proceeds to appease what he held as blackmail, he had no very keen regrets for what he was losing. He had passed through that. There would be the compensation——
But of that no matter; that must come in its time and place, and if never, no matter. He would have the ease of conscience in knowing that he had served her, and served her well.
His horse was restive and frisky in the cool of the morning, making a stir among the stones with its feet. Slavens spoke sharply to the animal, bending to draw up the girth, the stirrup thrown across the saddle.
"Now, you old scamp, I'll take this friskiness out of you in a minute," said he, giving the horse a slap under the belly as he reached to pull the stirrup down.
He drew back with a start as his eyes lifted above the saddle, and his hand dropped to the butt of the revolver which he carried so clumsily in his belt. Hun Shanklin was standing there facing him, not above a dozen feet away, grinning dubiously, but with what he doubtless meant for an expression of friendliness.
The old gambler threw out his hands with a sidewise motion eloquent of emptiness, lifting his shoulders in a quick little jerk, as if to say, "Oh, what's the use?"
"Kind of surprised you; didn't I, Doc?" he asked, coming nearer.
"What do you want here?" demanded Slavens harshly.
"Well, not trouble," replied Shanklin lightly. "If I'd come over for that, I guess I could 'a' started it before now."
"Yes, I suppose you could," admitted Slavens, watching him distrustfully and feeling thankful, somehow, that the horse was between them.
"I saw you up on the hill after your horse, so I thought I'd come over and let you know I was around," said Shanklin. "Thought I'd tell you that I ain't holdin' any grudges if you ain't."
"I don't see where you've got any call to. I never took a crack at you with a blackjack in the dark!"
"No, you didn't, friend," Shanklin agreed in his old easy, persuasive way. "And I never done it to you. You owe the honorable Mr. Jerry Boyle for the red mark you've got on your forrid there. I'll own up that I helped him nail you up and dump you in the river; but I done it because I thought you was finished, and I didn't want the muss around."
"Well, it will all come out on the day of reckoning, I suppose," said Slavens, not believing a word the old scamp said.
He knew that minute, as he had known all the time, that no other hand than Shanklin's had laid him low that night. Of this he was as certain in his own mind as if he had seen the gambler lift hand for the blow. Boyle had no motive for it up to that time, although he had been quick to turn the circumstance to his advantage.
"I thought Boyle'd dickered you out of this claim before now," said Shanklin, looking around warily.
"He's down the road here a little piece," replied Slavens testily, "in company of another friend of yours. You could have seen his tent as you came over if you'd looked."
"I just put up my tent last night," Shanklin explained.
Slavens took hold of his saddle-horn as if to mount, indicating by his action that the visit should come to an end. Shanklin, who was not in the least sensitive on the matter of social rebuffs, did not appear to be inclined to accept the hint. He shifted his legs, thrusting one of them forward in a lounging attitude, and dug in his trousers pockets with his long, skinny hands.
"Well, spit it out and have it over with!" snapped Slavens, feeling that there was something behind the man's actions to which he had not given words.
"That was a purty good coat I left with you that night," suggested Shanklin, looking up without the slightest stirring of humor in his dry face.
"You're welcome to it, if that's all," said Slavens.
"That's all. I was kind of attached to that coat."
Slavens left him standing there and entered the tent, feeling that Shanklin was as irresponsible morally as a savage. Evidently the inconsequential matter of an attempt at murder should not be allowed to stand between friends, according to the flat-game man's way of viewing life. It appeared that morning as if Shanklin had no trace of malice in him on account of the past, and no desire to pursue further his underhanded revenge. Conscience was so little trouble to him that he could sit at meat with a man one hour and stick a knife in his back the next.
The coat was under a sack of oats, somewhat the worse for wrinkles and dust. Slavens gave it a shake, smoothed the heaviest of the creases with his hand, and went out to deliver it to its owner.
Shanklin was facing the other way, in the direction of his own camp. His attitude was in sharp contrast with the easy, lounging posture of a few moments before. He was tense and alert, straining forward a little, his lean body poised as if he balanced for a jump. There was a clattering on the small stones which strewed the ground thickly there, as of somebody approaching, but the bulk of the horse was between Slavens and the view, as the doctor stopped momentarily in the door of the low tent.
Clearing the tent and standing upright, Slavens saw Boyle and Ten-Gallon coming on hurriedly. They had been to Shanklin's camp evidently, looking for him. From the appearance of both parties, there was something in the wind.
Boyle was approaching rapidly, Ten-Gallon trailing a bit, on account of his shorter legs perhaps, or maybe because his valor was even briefer than his wind. Boyle seemed to be grinning, although there was no mirth in his face. His teeth showed between his parted lips; he carried his right arm in front, crooked at the elbow, his fingers curved.
Slavens saw that all thought of the coat had gone but of Shanklin's mind. The old gambler did not so much as turn his head. Slavens threw the coat across his saddle as Boyle came up.
"Well, what have you got to say to it, you dirty old thief?" demanded Boyle, plunging into the matter as if preliminaries were not needed between him and Shanklin.
"You seem to be doin' the talkin'," returned Shanklin with a show of cold indifference, although Slavens saw that he watched every movement Boyle made, and more than once in those few seconds the doctor marked Hun's sinewy right arm twitch as if on the point of making some swift stroke.
Boyle stopped while there was yet a rod between them, so hot with anger that his hands were trembling.
"That don't answer me!" he growled, his voice thick in his constricted throat. "What have you got to say to the way you double-crossed me, you old one-eyed hellion?"
"Talk don't hurt, Jerry, unless a man talks too much," Shanklin answered mildly. "Now, if I wanted to talk, I could mighty near talk a rope around your little white neck. I know when to talk and when to keep still."
"And I know how to jar you loose!" threatened Boyle.
Shanklin leaned toward the Governor's son never so little, his left hand lifted to point his utterance, and opened upon Boyle the most withering stream of blasphemous profanity that Slavens had ever heard. If there ever was a man who cursed by note, as they used to say, Hun Shanklin was that one. He laid it to Boyle in a blue streak.
"What do I owe you?" he began.
Then he swung off into the most derogatory comparisons, applications, insulting flagellations, that man ever stood up and listened to. His evident motive was to provoke Boyle to some hostile act, so that twitching right arm might have the excuse for dealing out the death which lay at its finger-ends. Every little while the torrent of abuse broke upon the demand, "What do I owe you?" like a rock in the channel, and then rushed on again without laying hold of the same epithet twice. If a man were looking for a master in that branch of frontier learning, a great opportunity was at hand.
Boyle leaned against the torrent of abuse and swallowed it, his face losing its fiery hue, blanching and fading as if every word fell on his senses like the blow of a whip to the back. The Governor's son watched every muscle of Shanklin's face as if to read the gambler's intention in his eye, while his hand, stiff-set and clawlike, hovered within three inches of his pistol-butt.
Presently Shanklin stopped, panting like a lizard. Both men stooped a little lower, leaning forward in their eager watchfulness. Neither of them seemed to be conscious that the world held any other object than his enemy, crouching, waiting, drawing breath in nostril-dilating gasps.
Boyle moved one foot slightly, as if to steady himself for a supreme effort. A little stone which he dislodged tumbled down the side of a four-inch gully with a noise that seemed the sound of an avalanche. With that alarm Shanklin's arm moved swiftly. Like a reflection in a glass, Boyle's arm moved with it.
Two shots; such a bare margin between them that the ear scarcely could mark the line. Then one.
Shanklin, his hands half lifted, his arms crooked at the elbow and extended from his sides, dropped his pistol, his mouth open, as if to utter the surprise which was pictured in his features. He doubled limply at the knees, collapsed forward, fell upon his face.
Boyle put his hand to his breast above his heart, pressing it hard; took it away, turned about in his tracks as if bewildered; swayed sickly, sank to his knees, and fell over to his side with the silent, hopeless, huddling movement of a wild creature that has been shot in the woods.
Ten-Gallon came from behind the tent, where he had been compressing himself into a crevice between two boulders. His face was white, and down it sweat was pouring, drawn from the agony of his base soul. He went to the place where Dr. Slavens knelt beside Boyle.
"Cra-zy Christmas!" gasped he, his mouth falling open. Then again:
Slavens had gone to Boyle first, because there was something in the utter collapse of Shanklin which told him the man was dead. As he stripped Boyle's clothing off to bare the wound, Slavens ordered Ten-Gallon to go and see whether the old gambler had paid his last loss.
"I won't touch him! I won't lay a hand on him!" Ten-Gallon refused, drawing back in alarm.
Boyle was not dead, though Shanklin's bullet had struck him perilously near the heart and had passed through his body. With each feeble intake of breath blood bubbled from the blue mark, which looked like a little bruise, on his chest.
"Well, see if you can make a fire, then, and hurry about it! Get some water on to boil as fast as you can!" Slavens directed the nerveless chief of police.
Ten-Gallon set about his employment with alacrity while Slavens went over to Shanklin, turning his face up to the sky. For a little while he stooped over Hun; then he took the gambler's coat from the saddle and spread it over his face. Hun Shanklin was in need of no greater service that man could render him.
Dr. Slavens took off his coat and brought out his instrument-case. He gave Boyle such emergency treatment as was possible where the gun-fighter lay, and then called Ten-Gallon to help take him into the tent.
"Lord, he's breathin' through his back!" said Ten-Gallon. "He'll never live till we git him to the tent—never in this world, Doc! I knew a feller that was knifed in the back one time till he breathed through his ribs that way, and he——"
"Never mind," said Slavens. "Take hold of him."
Ten-Gallon's fire burned briskly, and the water boiled. Dr. Slavens sterilized his instruments in a pan of it, and set about to establish the drainage for the wound upon which the slender chance of Boyle's life depended. Boyle was unconscious, as he had been from the moment he fell. They stretched him on the doctor's cot. With the blankets spread underfoot to keep down the dust, the early sun shining in through the lifted flap, Slavens put aside whatever animosity he held against the man and went to work earnestly in an endeavor to save his life.
Ten-Gallon showed a nervous anxiety to get away. He wanted to go after his horse; he wanted to go to Boyle's tent and get breakfast for himself; and then he pressed the necessity of his presence in Comanche to keep and preserve the peace. But Slavens would not permit him to quit the tent until he could no longer be of assistance.
It was not the wounded body of Jerry Boyle that the pot-bellied peace officer feared, but the stiffening frame of Hun Shanklin, lying out there in the bright sun. Every time he looked that way he drew up on himself, like a snail. At length Slavens gave him permission to leave, charging him to telephone to Meander for the coroner the moment that he arrived in Comanche, and to get word to Boyle's people at the earliest possible hour.
There seemed to be nothing for Slavens to do but to forego his trip in quest of Agnes, and sit there in the hope that she would come. Boyle could not be left alone, and Shanklin's body must be brought up out of the gully and covered.
This ran through his mind in erratic starts and blanks as he bent over the wounded man, listening to his respiration with more of a humane than professional fear that the next breath might tell him of the hemorrhage which would make a sudden end of Boyle's wavering and uncertain life.
Ten-Gallon had been gone but a little while when Slavens heard him clattering back in his heel-dragging walk over the rocks. He appeared before the doctor with a lively relief in his face.
"Some people headin' in here," he announced. "Maybe they'll be of some help to you. I hated to go and leave you here alone with that feller"—jerking his head toward Shanklin's body—"for I wouldn't trust him dead no more than I would alive!"
"All right," said Slavens, scarcely looking up.
Ten-Gallon appeared to be over his anxiety to leave. He waited in front of the tent as the sound of horses came nearer.
"Stop them off there a little way," ordered the doctor. "We don't want any more dust around here than we can help."
He looked around for his hat, put it on, and went out, sleeves up, to see that his order was enforced. Agnes was alighting from a horse as he stepped out. A tall, slight man with a gray beard was demanding of Ten-Gallon what had happened there.
Relief warmed the terror out of her eyes as Agnes ran forward and caught Dr. Slavens' hand.
"You're safe!" she cried. "I feared—oh, I feared!"
A shudder told him what words faltered to name.
"It wasn't my fight," he told her.
"This is Governor Boyle," said Agnes, presenting the stranger, who had stood looking at them with ill-contained impatience, seeing himself quite forgotten by both of them in that moment of meeting.
"I am sorry to tell you, sir, that your son is gravely wounded," said Dr. Slavens, driving at once to the point.
"Where is he?" asked the Governor, his face pale, his throat working as if he struggled with anguish which fought to relieve itself in a cry.
Dr. Slavens motioned to the tent. The old man went forward, stopping when he saw his unconscious son and the bloody clothing beside the cot. He put his hand to his forehead and stood a moment, his eyes closed. Then he went in and bent over the wounded man.
A sob of pity rose in Agnes' throat as she watched him and saw the pain and affection upon his face. Presently Governor Boyle turned and walked to the spot where Hun Shanklin's body lay. Without a word, he lifted the coat from the gambler's face, covered it again, and turned away.
"Bad company! Bad company!" said he, sadly shaking his head. "How did it happen, Doctor? You were here? First"—he held up his hand, as if to check the doctor's speech—"will he live?"
"Men have recovered from worse wounds," responded the doctor. "There's a chance for him, at least."
He related, then, the circumstance of the meeting, the brief quarrel, and the fight, Ten-Gallon putting in a word here and there, although his testimony was neither asked nor welcomed.
"I don't know what the cause of the quarrel was," concluded the doctor. "Two days ago I relinquished this claim to your son. He came here immediately and took possession."
"You—you relinquished!" exclaimed Agnes, disappointment in her voice, reproach in her eyes.
"I am sorry that you relinquished it," said the Governor. "This brave young woman rode all the way to my ranch—almost a hundred miles—to save it to you. I was absent when she arrived, but I set out with her at the earliest possible moment upon my return. We rode all night last night, sir, changing horses in Comanche this morning."
"I am grateful to you, both of you, for the trouble and fatigue you have undergone in my behalf. But the case, as your son urged it, sir, was beyond temporizing. Perhaps Miss Gates has told you?"
The Governor nodded curtly, a look of displeasure on his face.
"I can't believe that Jerry meant it," he protested. "It must have been one of his jokes."
"I am sorry, then, that my idea of humor is so widely divergent from his!" said Dr. Slavens with deep feeling.
"Well, he's paid for it. The poor boy has paid for his indiscretion," said the old man sadly.
He turned away and went a little space, where he stood as if in meditation.
"You promised me that you'd do nothing until you returned and saw me," Agnes charged. "And I had saved it for you! I had saved it!"
"You would have been too late," returned the doctor sharply. "The machinery for your humiliation was already in motion. I doubt whether even the Governor could have stopped it in another day without a great deal of unpleasant publicity for you. Boyle meant to have this piece of land, and he got it. That's all."
Ten-Gallon was fooling around the fire. He drew over toward the group as the Governor came back.
"Can my son be removed from here?" the old man asked.
The doctor said that he could not, without practically throwing away his slender chance for life.
"Do for him what you can; you seem to be a capable man, sir; you inspire confidence in me," said the Governor, laying his hand appealingly on the doctor's shoulder; "and if you can save him, I'll pay you twice what this infernal claim was worth to you!"
"I've done all that can be done for him, without hope or expectation of reward," said the doctor; "and I'll stick by him to the end, one way or another. We can care for him here as long as this weather holds, just as well as they could in a hospital."
"Well, as far as what this claim's worth goes," put in Ten-Gallon, edging into the conversation, "you don't need to lose any sleep over that."
"What do you mean?" demanded Slavens, turning upon him sharply.
Ten-Gallon stirred the dust with his toe, stooped and picked up an empty revolver-cartridge.
"It ain't worth that!" said he, presenting it in the palm of his hand.
"I don't know what you're driving at," said the doctor, inclined to walk away and leave him.
"I mean that Hun Shanklin queered all of you," said Ten-Gallon. "You had the wrong figgers, and you filed on the wrong claim!"
Pressed for an explanation of how he knew, Ten-Gallon told them that he had been Shanklin's partner at the beginning, and that Shanklin had deceived and cheated both him and Boyle.
"Ah, then he did double-cross my son!" cried the Governor triumphantly, seizing this vindication for the young man's deed with avid eagerness.
"He sure did," Ten-Gallon agreed; "and he done it right! I know all about you"—nodding to the doctor—"and what happened to you back of that tent in Comanche that night. Shanklin had it in for you ever since you showed up his game the night that sucker feller was goin' to put down that wad of money. He'd been layin' for you, one way and another, for a couple of days or so. You walked right into his hand that night."
"I seemed to," admitted Slavens with bitter recollection.
"Shanklin knew about copper in these rocks over here——"
"So it's copper?" said Slavens, unable to restrain his words.
"Copper; that's what it is," nodded Ten-Gallon. "But it ain't on this claim, and I'll show that in a minute, too. Hun had been writin' to Jerry about it, tryin' to git up a company to pay him for what he knew, so they could locate the man that drawed Number One there, see? Well, Hun, he'd known about that copper a long time; he could go to it with his eyes shut. So he got the description of the land as soon as the survey maps was out, and he offered to sell the location for five thousand dollars. He had samples of the ore, and it run rich, and it is rich, richest in this state, I'm here to tell you, gentlemen.
"But Jerry wouldn't give him no five thousand for what he knew. So Hun he got some other fellers on the string, and him and me was partners on the deal and was goin' to split even on account of some things I knew and was to keep under my katy.
"Well, Hun sold the figgers of that land to Jerry for five hundred dollars in the end, and he sold it to them other fellers for the same. When it come out that you was Number One, Doc—and us fellers knew that in the morning of the day of the drawin', for we had it fixed with Mong—Hun he tells Jerry that you'll never sell out for no reasonable price.
"'We'll have to soak that feller,' he says, 'and git him out of the way.' Jerry he agreed to it, and they had men out after you all that day and night, but they didn't git a chance at you. Then you walked right into old Hun's hand. Funny!" commented Ten-Gallon stopping there to breathe.
"Very!" said the doctor, putting his hand to the tender scar on his forehead.
He pushed back his hat and turned to the Governor.
"Very funny!" said he.
"Of course, Jerry, he was winded some when you put in your bill there ahead of him and Peterson that morning and filed on the claim he had it all framed up to locate the Swede feller on. Jerry telephoned over to Comanche and found out from Shanklin how you got the numbers, and then he laid out to start a fire under you and git you off. Well, he done it, didn't he?"
Ten-Gallon leered up at Slavens with some of his old malevolence and official hauteur in his puffy face.
"Go on with your story, and be careful what charges you lay against my son!" commanded the Governor sharply.
Ten-Gallon was not particularly squelched or abashed by the rebuke. He winked at Agnes as if to express a feeling of secret fellowship which he held for her on account of things which both of them might reveal if they saw fit.
"Shanklin, he closed up his game in Comanche three or four days ago and went over to Meander," Ten-Gallon resumed. "He never had split with me on that money he got for the numbers of this claim out of Jerry and that other crowd. So I follered him. Yesterday morning, you know, the land left over from locatin' them that had drawed claims was throwed open to anybody that wanted to file on it.
"Well, the first man in the line was that old houn' that's layin' over there with his toes turnin' cold. He filed on something, and when I collared him about the money, he throwed me down. He said he sold the numbers of land that didn't have no more copper on it than the palm of his hand, and he said he'd just filed on the land that had the mines. He showed me the papers; then he hopped his horse and come on down here."
"Incredible!" exclaimed the Governor.
"It was like him," Slavens corroborated. "He was a fox."
"I was goin' to take a shot at him," bragged Ten-Gallon, "but he was too fur ahead of me. He had a faster horse than mine; and when I got here last night he was already located on that claim. The copper mine's over there where the old feller's tent stands, I tell you. They ain't enough of it on this place to make a yard of wire."
"And you carried the story of Shanklin's deception and fraud to my son," nodded the Governor, fixing a severe eye on Ten-Gallon, "and he sought the gambler for an explanation?"
"Well, he was goin' to haul the old crook over the fire," admitted Ten-Gallon, somewhat uneasy under the old man's eye.
The Governor walked away from them again in his abstracted, self-centered way, and stood looking off across the troubled landscape. Dr. Slavens stepped to the tent to see how the patient rested, and Ten-Gallon gave Agnes another wink.
"Comanche's dwindlin' down like a fire of shavin's," said he. "Nobody couldn't git hurt there now, not even a crawlin' baby."
Indignation flushed her face at the man's familiarity. But she reasoned that he was only doing the best he knew to be friendly.
"Are you still chief of police there?" she asked.
"I'm marshal now," he replied. "The police force has been done away with by the mayor and council."
"Well then, I still have doubt about the safety of Comanche," she observed, turning from him.
Governor Boyle approached Ten-Gallon and pointed to Hun Shanklin's body.
"You must do something to get that carcass out of camp right away," he said. "Isn't there a deputy coroner at Comanche?"
"The undertaker is," said Ten-Gallon, drawing back at the prospect of having to lay hands on the body of the man whom he feared in death as he had feared him in life.
"Send him over here," Governor Boyle directed.
Ten-Gallon departed on his mission, and the Governor took one of the trodden blankets from in front of the tent and spread it over Shanklin's body, shrouding it completely. Dr. Slavens had lowered the flap of the tent to keep the sun from the wounded man's face. When he came out, Agnes met him with an inquiring look.
"He's conscious," said the doctor. "The blow of that heavy bullet knocked the wind out of him for a while."
"Will he—lapse again?" asked the Governor, balancing between hope and fear.
"It isn't likely. You may go in and speak to him now if you want to. But he must keep still. A little exertion might start a hemorrhage."
Jerry Boyle lay upon his back, his bloodless face toward them, as they gathered noiselessly in the door of the tent. His eyes were standing open, great and questioning, out of his pallor, nothing but the animal quality of bewilderment and fear in their wide stare.
Governor Boyle went in and dropped to his knees beside the cot. Dr. Slavens followed hastily, and placed his hand on the wounded man's breast.
"You may listen," said he; "but keep still."
"Don't even try to whisper," admonished the Governor, taking his son's hand between his own.
"That's all right, Governor," replied the young man, his face quickening with that overrunning little crinkling, like wind over water, which was his peculiar gift for making his way into the hearts of women and men, unworthy as he was.
"Be still!" commanded the old man. "I know what happened. There's nothing to say now."
"Did I get him?" whispered Jerry, turning his head a little and looking eagerly into his father's face.
The Governor placed his hand over his son's mouth, silencing the young man with a little hissing sound, like a mother quieting her babe.
Agnes turned away, the disgust which she felt for this savage spirit of the man undisguised in her face. Dr Slavens cautioned the Governor again.
"If he says another word, you'll have to leave him," said he. "This is one case where talk will turn out anything but cheap."
He joined Agnes, and together they walked away from the scene of violence and death.
"You're tired to death," said he. "I'm going to take possession of Boyle's tent down there for you, and you've got to take a long sleep. After that we'll think about the future."
She walked on beside him, silent and submissive, interposing no objection to his plan. They found the tent very well equipped; he started to leave her there to her repose. She stood in the door with her hat in her hand, her hair in disorder, dust over her dress and shoes.
"Could you send word to Smith by the stage this morning and ask him to bring my things—tent and everything—down here?" she asked.
"Then you're not planning to go back there?" he asked, his heart jumping with hope.
She shook her head, smiling wanly.
"I can't bear the thought of it," said she.
A SUDDEN CLOUD
Dr. Slavens went back to his camp, concluding on the way that it would be wise to have a complete understanding with Governor Boyle in regard to taking further charge of his son's case. If, after three days allowed for infection to manifest itself, the wound remained healthy and clean, there would be little need of a doctor in constant attendance. Young Boyle would be able to express his preference in the matter then, and Slavens did not want to act as physician to him against his will.
Governor Boyle was walking up and down like a sentry before the tent when Dr. Slavens came up.
"He's asleep," said the father. "He seems to be pitifully weak for a man suffering from a fresh wound; he dropped off as if he had fainted."
"When you consider that a bullet of that caliber, with the powder back of it that this one had, strikes somewhere around a ton," said the doctor, "it ceases to be a wonder that he is weak."
"It's Heaven's mercy that spared him!" declared the Governor, his voice troubled with emotion.
Slavens wondered at the deep affection which this man of so hard a repute could show for his son, and at the tie of tenderness which plainly bound them. But precedent is not wanting, as the doctor reflected, to establish the contention that some of the world's greatest oppressors have been good fathers, kind husbands, and tender guardians of the home.
"Yes; Shanklin shot twice," said Slavens. "It was his second one that hit, after he had been mortally hurt himself."
"It was the hand of Providence that turned his aim!" said the Governor. "The old one-eyed villain had the reputation of being the best shot in the Northwest. He provoked my son to draw on him, or tried to at least—for I can't believe that Jerry drew first—with the intention of putting him out of the way."
"What do you propose to do about bringing another surgeon here?" asked Dr. Slavens.
"Why, I hadn't given it any serious thought," answered Governor Boyle, looking at him quickly.
"It would please me better to have you do so."
"But I have entire confidence in your ability to handle the case, sir. Your conduct in the matter has been admirable, and I see no reason why you should not continue to attend my son until—the end, one way or the other."
"You understand, Governor," said Dr. Slavens gravely, searching the old man's face with steady eyes, "that there is no ground for good feeling or friendship between your son and me?"
The Governor nodded, averting his face, as if the acknowledgment gave him pain or shame.
"And in case that everything should not turn out to the happiest conclusion for him, I should not want to stand the chance of blame."
"Quite sensible, but unnecessarily cautious, I tell you," the Governor replied.
"I have done all that a better surgeon could have done," pursued the doctor, "and I am quite willing to go ahead and do all that can be done until you can bring another physician here, to relieve me, or at least satisfy you that I have not allowed any feeling of man to man to stand between physician and patient."
"Very well; I will telegraph to Cheyenne for a physician," agreed the Governor, "since it is your wish. But I am entirely satisfied with, and trustful of you, sir. That I desire you to understand plainly."
Dr. Slavens thanked him.
"I shall send for the other physician to act merely in an advisory capacity, and in no manner to relieve you of the case unless you desire to be relieved. But I think it will be to your interest to stand by me. I feel that I am under a certain obligation to you, more especially to Miss Gates, for my son's——"
"We will not discuss that, if you please," Dr. Slavens interrupted.
"At least I will stand by what I said to you a little while back," the Governor said; "that is, in the matter of remuneration, if you pull him through."
"All of that in its proper place," said the doctor. "I am going back to Comanche now to send for the boy's mother," the Governor announced, "and telegraph to Cheyenne for the doctor of whom I spoke. I have known him for many years. I'll have some more tents and camp-supplies sent out, and anything that you stand in need of which can be procured in Comanche."
Dr. Slavens gave him a list of articles needed in the patient's case, and the Governor rode away. The undertaker from Comanche arrived a little later, and took Hun Shanklin's body up from the ground. When his wagon, on its return to Comanche, had passed the tent where Agnes was trying to sleep, she got up and joined Dr. Slavens.
"I couldn't sleep," she explained. "Every time I shut my eyes I could see that poor old gambler's body lying there with the coat over his face!"
"I don't feel either pity or pain in his case," said the doctor; "or, when it comes to that, for the other one, either."
"Well, you couldn't have prevented it, anyway," she sighed.
"And wouldn't have if I could," he declared. "I looked on them as one poison fighting another, as we set them to do in the human system. When one overcomes the other, and the body throws them both out, health follows."
"Do you think Jerry will recover?"
"There's a chance for him," he replied.
"For his mother's sake I hope he will," she said. "I went to see her, remembering in the midst of my distress her kind face and gentle heart. I'm glad that I went, although my mission failed."
"No, nothing fails," he corrected gently. "What looks to us like failure from our side of it is only the working out of the plan laid down a long time ahead. We may never see the other side of the puzzle, but if we could see it we'd find that our apparent failure had been somebody else's gain. It's the balance of compensation. Your thought of Boyle's mother, and your ride to appeal to her in my behalf, worked out in bringing his father here at a time when Jerry needed him as he never may need him in his life again."
"It was a strange coincidence," she reflected.
"We call such happenings that for want of a better name, or for the short-sightedness which keeps us from applying the proper one," said he. "It's better that you have concluded to give up the City of Refuge. You'll not need it now."
"It was a foolish undertaking, romantic and impossible, from the very beginning," she owned. "I never could have put it through."
"It would have carried many a heartache with it, and many a hard and lonely day," said he. "And so we are both back where we were, so far as landed possessions go in this country, at the beginning."
"I've lost considerable by my foolish dream," she confessed with regret.
"And I have gained everything," he smiled, taking her hand in his.
The world around them seemed to be too grave to look kindly on any love-passages of tenderness or kisses, or triflings such as is the common way of a man with a maid. In that moment when hand touched hand she looked up into his eyes with warm softness glowing in her own, and on her lips stood an invitation which his heart sprang to seize, like an eager guest leaping through the portal of welcome.
At that moment, when eye drew eye, heart warmed to heart, and lips trembled to meet, Jerry Boyle coughed as if blood were mounting to his throat and cutting off his life.
Dr. Slavens was at his side in a moment. It must have been the strangulation of an uneasy dream, for there was no symptom of hemorrhage. The wounded man still slept, groaning and drawing the lips back from the teeth, as he had drawn them in his passion when he came on that morning to meet his enemy with the intention in his heart to slay.
But love shuddered and grew pale in the cold nearness of death. The kiss so long deferred was not given, and the fluttering pulse which had warmed to welcome it fell slow, as one who strikes a long stride in a journey that has miles yet to measure before its end.
Governor Boyle was back in camp in the middle of the afternoon, and before night the tents and furnishings for lodging the party comfortably arrived from Comanche. The Governor pressed Agnes, who was considering riding to Comanche to find lodging, to remain there to assist and comfort his wife when she should arrive.
"We need the touch of a woman's hand here," said he.
They brought Jerry's tent and set it up for her. She was asleep at dusk.
* * * * *
Mrs. Boyle arrived next morning, having started as soon as the messenger bearing news of the tragedy reached the ranch. She was a slight, white-haired woman, who had gone through hardships before coming to prosperity on that frontier, so the fifty-mile ride in a wagon was no unusual or trying experience for her.
Whatever tears she had for her son's sad plight she had spent on the rough journey over. As she sat beside him stroking his heavy hair back from his pallid brow, there was in her face a shadow of haunting anxiety, as if the recollection of some old time of terror added its pangs to those of the present.
Her presence in camp, and her constant ministrations at her son's side, relieved Dr. Slavens of considerable professional anxiety, as well as labor. It gave him time to walk about among the gigantic stones which cast their curse of barrenness over that broken stretch, Agnes with him, and make a further investigation of the land's mineral possibilities.
"Ten-Gallon was telling the truth, in my opinion," said he. "I have explored these rocks from line to line of this claim, and I reached the conclusion a good many days ago that somebody had been misled in supposing it was worth money. It was nothing but Boyle's persistent determination to get hold of it that gave it a color of value in my mind."
"Still, it may be the means, after all, of yielding you as much as you expected to get out of it at the first," she suggested.
He looked at her questioningly.
"I mean the Governor's declaration yesterday morning that he would pay you twice what you expected to get out of it if you would save Jerry's life."