Wade and his wife protested. They couldn't think of it. Clyde said nothing. Casey appealed to her.
"What do you say Miss Burnaby? Will you brave the discomforts of a shack in the dry belt?"
"I'm in the hands of my friends," she laughed.
"That includes me," said Casey. "Everything's fixed for you. This is my stamping ground, and I'm boss. What I say goes." He introduced Mr. Quilty, who was hovering in the background, and chuckled as that garrulous gentleman proceeded to unwind an apparently endless welcome.
"I like him," Clyde whispered.
"Pure gold," said Casey, and created a diversion. He helped Quilty deposit the bags in the station.
"Thon's a fine gyurrl," said the latter, with a jerk of his thumb toward the platform."
"Right," Casey replied.
"Oh, trust a quiet devil like yourself to pick wan out," said the little station agent. "I was the same meself, whin I was more younger nor what I am now. I fell dead in love with a fine, big gyurrl be th' name iv—iv—dom'd if I don't forget the name iv her, onless it was Mary or Josephine—no, thim came afther. What th' divil are ye laughin' at? Annyways, me an' this gyurrl that I loved that I forget the name iv, was strollin' wan night be moonlight, d'ye see me, now? And we come to where there was a stump risin' maybe two fut clear iv th' ground—ye'll wonder what th' stump had to do wid ut, but listen—and I stopped and put me arrm around her waist—or tried to; for a fine circumferenshus waist she had. Faix, a wan-arrmed man'd've been up against it intirely wid her—and I sez to her, 'Lena'—that was her name, Lena, I remimber now, and she was a Swede—'Lena,' I sez, 'luk at the moon!' 'Ay see him,' she sez. 'Turn yer sweet face a little more to the southeast,' I sez, that bein' to'rd the stump I mintioned before; an' when I had her at the right angle I made a lep up on the stump and kissed her. Faix, and the same was a forced play, me bein' the height I am, and her over six fut. 'I love yez,' I sez; 'say yez love me!'"
"Well, what did she say?" asked Casey, as Mr. Quilty paused for breath.
"She concealed her feelin's," Mr. Quilty replied sadly. "She said, 'Ay tenk ve go home now. Ay don't vant no feller vat have to mek love med a step-ladder!' And afther that, mind ye, what does she do but take up wid another little divil wid no legs at all, havin' lost them under a shuntin' ingin. But his artfulness is such that he gets extra-long imitation wans, like stilts, to do his coortin' on. An', though he looks like a cross bechune a sparrow and a crane and has to carry an oil can when he walks or else creak like a stable door in Janooary, she marries him and keeps him in luxury be takin' in washin' for the camps. And so, ye see, though I had stood on wan stump to kiss her, ivery time he done the likes he had to stand on two!"
"Corney," said Casey gravely, "you are an awful liar."
"I will not be insulted by yez," Mr. Quilty retorted with equal gravity. "I will consider the soorce from which ut comes. G'wan out of here, before I do yez injury."
Immediately after dinner Casey brought up his road team, two wiry, slashing chestnuts. The Wades occupied the rear seat. Clyde sat beside Casey. The horses started with a rush that brought a gasp from Mrs. Wade. Clyde involuntarily caught the seat rail.
"It's all right," Casey assured them. "A little fresh, that's all. They know they're going home. It's their way of saying they're glad. You, Dick—you, Doc! Behave, behave!" He had them in hand, checking their impatience to an easy jog, holding them fretting against the bit. "I'll let them out in a mile or two. Do you know horses, Miss Burnaby?"
"A very little. I ride and drive; but I like quiet animals."
"Oh, these are quiet." He smiled back at Mrs. Wade.
"Are they?" that lady commented. "Then I don't want to drive behind wild ones."
A light wind was in their faces, blowing the dust backward. The town vanished suddenly, lost behind swells of brown grasses. The road wound tortuously onward, skirting little groves of cottonwoods, swinging along gulches, sometimes plunging down them and ascending in long grades on the thither side.
Clyde drank in the sweet, thin air eagerly. The city and her everyday life seemed far behind. Heretofore her holidays had been passed in places where pleasure was a business. This was to be different. She would not look for amusement; she would let it come to her. She felt that she was entering a world of which she knew little, peopled by those whose outlook was strange. It seemed, somehow, that this journey was to be fateful—that she had placed herself in the grip of circumstances which moved her without volition. Where and how, she wondered vaguely, would it end?
She glanced at Dunne's profile, shaded by the hat brim tilted over his eyes against the sun; at his buckskin-gloved hands holding the reins against the steady pull of the big chestnuts; downward over the dashboard at their hoofs falling with the forceful impact of hammers and yet rising with the light springiness of an athlete's foot, throwing the miles behind them scornfully. And she was dreamily content.
"You're going to like it," said Dunne suddenly.
"Am I?" she smiled. "How do you know? How did you know?"
"It's largely a guess. I was nervous at first."
"No. This is a plain, dusty trail, the grass is so dry it's almost dead, the scenery is conspicuously absent, the smell of leather and horseflesh isn't especially pleasant—and yet you are not noticing these things. The bigness and the newness of the land have got you, Miss Burnaby. You don't know it and you can't put it into words—I can't myself—but the feeling is there. You are one of us at heart."
"The people of the new lands—the pioneers, if you choose, the modern colonists, the trail blazers."
"I wonder." The idea was new. She considered it gravely. "My parents were city folks; I have lived in the city all my life. And yet I think I have the feeling you speak of. Only I can't put it into words either."
"If you could you would be the most famous person in the world. The song is there, waiting the singer. It has always been there, waiting, and the singer has never come. We who hear it in our hearts have no voices. Now and then some genius strikes the chord by accident, almost, and loses it. I don't think any one will ever find it completely. But if some one should! Heavens! What a grand harmony it would be."
She glanced at him curiously. He was not looking at her. His eyes were on a little cloud, a white island in a sapphire sea. He seemed to be paying no attention whatever to the road, to his surroundings. But as one of the chestnuts stumbled over a loose stone he lifted him instantly with the reins and administered a sharp word of reproof and a light cut of the whip.
"He didn't mean to stumble," said Clyde.
"He should have meant not to. A horse that isn't tired and is paying attention to business should never stumble on a road. It's the slouchy horse that breaks his kind owner's neck some day. Now I'm going to let them out."
So far as Clyde could observe, he did absolutely nothing. But immediately, as though some subtle current had passed from his hands along the lines, the horses' heads came up, their ears pricked forward, their stride quickened and lengthened, and the measured beat of their hoofs became a quickstep. The horses themselves seemed to exult in the change of pace, filling their great lungs through widened nostrils and expelling the air noisily, shaking their heads, proud of themselves and their work.
Mrs. Wade laid a nervous hand on her husband's arm as the light wagon rattled down a descent. But Clyde sat quietly, her lips slightly parted, her eyes shining as the warm wind poured past in a torrent plucking at vagrant strands of her coppery golden hair.
"Fifteen miles an hour," said Casey. "Like it?"
"It's better than fifty in a car," she replied.
"The difference between God-made and man-made horsepower. Some people can't appreciate it."
"I can. It isn't the end—the pace alone. It's the means to the end."
"Plus the love of human flesh and blood for other flesh and blood. You've got it. I won't keep them at this. Too warm."
It was late afternoon when Chakchak came into view. It appeared suddenly as they swung around the corner of a butte, lying below them, the emerald of its fields drenched with the gold of the sloping sun.
"My kingdom!" said Casey. "Welcome to it!"
Clyde was surprised, in a measure disappointed. She had pictured it differently. With her the word "ranch" had connoted large prairie areas, bald landscapes, herds of cattle, lonely horsemen, buildings more or less ugly, unrelieved by any special surroundings. Here were green fields, trees, water, painted barns, and a neat little house of the bungalow type.
"Why," she exclaimed, "it's a farm!"
"Thank you," he responded; "that's what we're trying to make it. Only out here we call them 'ranches.' Slightly more picturesque term, glorified by fiction, calculated to appeal to the imagination. Gives the impression of a free, breezy life in which the horse does all the work. Invaluable in selling land. But in strict confidence I may say that work on a farm in the East and on a ranch in the West are twins—you can't tell t'other from which."
McHale appeared as they drove up, to relieve Casey of the horses. He was freshly shaven, and dressed with unusual care. Feng, in white jacket and apron, grinned from his quarters, appraising the "hiyu lich gal," with an eye to possible dollars.
"Now, this house," Casey explained, as they entered, "belongs to you three. It's yours to have, hold, and occupy for your sole use and benefit while you are here. Is that sufficiently legal, Wade? The Chinaman is yours, too. He takes his orders from you. Mrs. Wade, your room is there. Miss Burnaby, that one is intended for you. But if you like to change about, do so, by all means."
"And which is your room?" Wade asked.
"I'm bunking in one of the other buildings."
"What? We're putting you out of your own house!" Wade exclaimed. "That won't do, Casey, really it won't. We won't let you."
"Of course not," his wife concurred.
"Indeed we won't," said Clyde.
But Casey was firm. He explained that he came and went at all hours, rose early, had to be where he could confer with McHale. He insisted on his fictions, and ended by half convincing them.
Clyde, entering the room he had pointed out as hers, was struck by its absolute cleanness and daintiness. The curtains were tastefully draped, tied with ribbon; there were scarfs on dresser and stand, pin-cushion and pins, little trays for trifles. The bed was made with hospital neatness.
A moment afterward Kitty Wade entered, looking around.
"Yours, too," she said. "No mere bachelor ever did these things, Clyde. The Chinaman is out of the question. It is to find the woman."
"We'll ask Mr. Dunne," said Clyde.
But it was not till after dinner that Kitty Wade did so.
"Miss McCrae was kind enough to fix up the rooms for you," Casey replied.
"Who is Miss McCrae?"
Casey pulled a handful of photographs from a drawer, and shuffled them. He handed one to Mrs. Wade.
"That's Sheila McCrae. I'll drive you over to Talapus, her father's place, one of these days."
Clyde, moved by an interest which she could not understand, bent over Kitty Wade's shoulder. The picture was an enlarged snapshot, but a splendid likeness. Sheila was standing, one hand by her side holding her riding hat, the other, half raised to her hair, as if to arrange it when the shutter had opened. Her dark, keen face with its touch of wistfulness looked full at them.
"What a nice-looking girl!" Kitty Wade exclaimed. "Don't you think so, Clyde?"
Clyde agreed perfunctorily. But, looking into the steady, fearless eyes of the pictured girl, she felt a vague, incomprehensible hostility. Kitty Wade glanced at her quickly, detecting the strained note. Clyde felt the glance, and inwardly resented it. Kitty Wade's eyes were altogether too observant.
When Clyde awoke next morning she lay for some time in dreamy content. She was deliciously rested. The cold, clear, early morning air pouring in through the open window beneath the partially drawn blind was like an invigorating draught. Outside, beyond the shade of the veranda, she could see sunlight. Somewhere a horse whinnied. In the house she could hear an occasional rattle of dishes. She rose and dressed, humming a song. She felt strangely happy, as though she had attained a long-sought goal. Life that morning seemed to take on a new meaning to her; to be sweeter and cleaner, good in itself, a thing to rejoice in. The very air she breathed seemed charged with the indistinguishable odours of growing things, as it might strike the unspoiled, sensitive nostrils of a child. She felt a child's joy in merely being.
"How well you are looking, Clyde," said Kitty Wade, as she entered the breakfast room.
"Positively blooming," said Wade.
"Positively bloomin' hungry," laughed Clyde. "I haven't had such an appetite since I left boarding school."
"God save all here!" said Casey, from the door. "How did you sleep? No need to ask you ladies, and it doesn't matter about Wade. Hey, you, Feng! You catch breakfast quick!"
During the meal they made plans for the day. In the morning Casey was going to shift the water to his oats; in the afternoon he would drive them over to Talapus. They would have supper there, and return by moonlight. Meanwhile they were to consider the place theirs, to go where and do what they liked.
"I'll help you," Wade offered.
"We'll all help you," said Clyde.
"I can rig Wade out for irrigating," Casey replied, "but not you ladies. It's too muddy a job for you."
"But I should like to see how it is done," said Clyde.
She had her way, and accompanied them to the field, watching the turning of the water down the rows, the careful adjustment of its flow, and the progress of the streams. In spite of her care she became wet and muddy—and enjoyed herself the more.
"I told you so," said Casey. "No sympathy, Miss Burnaby."
"I don't want it. I'm enjoying myself. I'd like to play in the water, to sail sticks down the ditch, and pretend that they were boats."
"Shocking!" he laughed. "But I'd like to play with you."
"Nice pair of kids you are," Wade commented. He was perspiring from unaccustomed exertion. "'Pon my soul, though, I feel the same. To think of me messing away my life in a tenth-story office worrying about other people's business and quarrels! What do you keep in this air, Casey? Old Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth?"
"I keep some very fair Scotch in a cupboard at the house," Casey responded. "The water is all right now. Suppose we adjourn."
"I'll go you once," said Wade.
"Where do I come in?" Clyde asked. "I'm thirsty, too."
"Feng shall produce Chakchak fizzes for both of us."
They trooped into the house, thirsty, hungry, and laughing, and Kitty Wade exclaimed at Clyde's dress.
"Thank Heaven I didn't go!" she cried. "Mr. Dunne, you should get a commission from her dressmaker."
"Oh, this will wash. And I'm so beautifully hungry and thirsty."
"Thirsty! With all that water?" said Kitty Wade.
"What's water got to do with real thirst?" her husband demanded. "Come on, Casey; don't muzzle the ox, you know. Produce that Wonderful Remedy from the Land o' Cakes. It was oats we were irrigating, wasn't it? Very appropriate. Here's to Oats—oatmeal, rolled oats, wild oats, and Titus Oates. 'Tak' a wee bit drappie——'"
"Whatever has got into you?" his wife demanded.
"I feel like a pup off a chain," Wade admitted.
After dinner Clyde went to her room to prepare for the drive to Talapus. She inspected her limited wardrobe thoughtfully, finally selecting the plainest and most unpretentious attire in her possession; so that when she took a last look in the mirror she saw a girl wearing a panama hat, a white shirtwaist, and a tweed golf skirt. Kitty Wade, rather more elaborately costumed, eyed her critically.
"Oh, bother!" she said. "This isn't fair. You make me feel all dressed up, but it's too much trouble to change."
"I looked at it the other way—it was too much trouble to dress up," Clyde replied. "I don't suppose one needs to, out here. I'm going to be comfy, anyway."
Kitty Wade forebore comment, but she smiled wisely to herself. Inwardly she reflected that simplicity of dress was Clyde's long suit. With her hair, complexion, and figure the less fussiness there was to distract the eye the better. And Mrs. Wade was inclined to attribute to the fortunate owner of these things a perfect knowledge of this fact.
Mrs. Wade had the front seat, beside Casey, while Clyde sat with Wade. Clyde experienced a distinct feeling of disappointment. Wade was a good companion and a good friend, but—and the "but" was a big one.
She found herself listening to Casey's voice, watching the set of his shoulders, noting the deep, living bronze of his skin. From time to time he turned, including them in the conversation, pointing out things of interest to Wade. But nevertheless she did not enjoy the drive.
"I sent word that we were coming," said Casey, as they sighted the ranch. "That was in the interests of the ladies mostly."
"Of course," Wade agreed. "Women always like people to find them all togged up, as if they never did a day's work in their lives. I catch it from Kitty if I bring any one home with me without due notice. If women only knew how much better they look in ordinary clothes!"
Kitty Wade, turning her head to retort, surprised a quiet, enigmatic smile on Clyde's face. Their eyes met, and keen question and defiant answer leaped across the glance. Kitty Wade let the retort remain unspoken, and contemplated the nigh chestnut's ears, for her husband's last words had given her a clew.
"Oh, Clyde Burnaby, Clyde Burnaby!" she said to herself with a little shake of the head. "Now I know. What a deep finesse! You think that this McCrae girl will put on her best country-maid—or country-made—finery; and you, in your studied simplicity, will show the better by contrast—to the masculine eye, at least. I give you full credit, my dear. Not one woman in a thousand would have thought of it. I shouldn't, and I know men better than you do. But why did you do it? Are you jealous of a girl you've never seen? And does that mean you care—seriously care—for our pleasant but likely impecunious Mr. Dunne?"
She was still puzzling over this problem when they drove up to the house. Donald McCrae and his wife welcomed them, and he and Casey took the team to the stable. But as the others reached the welcome shade of the veranda Sheila emerged from the house and came forward. At sight of her Kitty Wade smiled to herself.
For Sheila had not donned finery. She was clad in simple white, unrelieved by any touch of colour. Not a ring adorned her slim, brown hands. Her masses of glistening, brown hair were dressed low on her head, giving an effect almost girlish, softening the keenness of her face. She was as composed, as dignified, as essentially ladylike as Clyde herself.
Clyde thanked her gracefully for the arrangement of their rooms. It was very good of her to take such trouble for strangers.
"Oh, but I'm afraid I did that for Casey, and not for the strangers," laughed Sheila. "I hope old Feng didn't undo my work. He thought I was butting in. Anyway, Casey would have seen that you were comfortable, though some of his ideas of domestic arrangements are masculine, to say the least of them." She told the story of the hen, and set them laughing.
Later Casey, having stabled the horses, came up with McCrae. "Well, Sheila, what's the good word?" he asked. "What yarns have you been telling Miss Burnaby?"
"I was telling her of your poultry system."
"Miss McCrae has been suggesting all sorts of things for our amusement," said Clyde; "from a dance to riding lessons."
"I didn't say a word about lessons," Sheila protested.
"But I need them," Clyde admitted. "I never pretend to know what I don't know."
"Sheila can give most men lessons," said Casey. "The only objection I have is that I intended to instruct you myself."
Clyde laughed. "Which offer shall I accept?"
"Casey's," said Sheila promptly. "I won't be selfish. Besides, educational statistics prove that we women imbibe knowledge faster from men than from each other."
Clyde darted a swift glance at her. But Sheila's face told nothing. If the words were intended to bear an added meaning she did not show it.
"Statistics are good for something, at last," said Casey.
"Give her Dolly," said Sheila. "Don't let her coax you into letting her try that old brute, Shiner. He's almost an outlaw."
"Love me, love my horse!"
The quotation seemed careless. Sheila's face told Clyde nothing.
"'Like master, like horse' is more appropriate," said Sheila.
"Oh, I'm not an outlaw—yet," he said, with just the slightest pause before the word.
Slight though it was, Clyde noticed it; noticed, too, the instant shadow on Sheila's face, the quick contraction of her dark brows, the momentary silence, transient but utter. It was as if the chill and gloom of night had suddenly struck the summer's noonday.
But in a moment the conversation was resumed, and became general. Sandy McCrae joined them, silent as usual, but evidently attracted by Clyde. Presently Sheila took Casey to diagnose the case of a favourite, sick collie.
"My heavens, Casey, did you see the kid?" she asked. "I never knew him to look twice at a girl before."
"Every boy has to start some time," he laughed. "She's well worth looking at."
"That's so. Yes, she's very pretty, Casey."
"I'm glad you like her."
It was on the tip of her tongue to disclaim, but she checked herself. "She's different from what I expected. No airs. And she looks sensible. Is she?"
"I think so."
"Yes, I think so, too. She dresses very simply. I was prepared to be reduced to a condition of helpless feminine envy by her clothes. As it is, I feel quite of the same clay."
"You don't need to envy anybody's clothes. That white dress looks good to me. I never saw you looking better."
The rich blood crept up under her tanned cheeks. Such compliments were rare in her life. Casey himself seldom paid them. Frank friendship was very well; but now and then, womanlike, she longed for such current coin of courtesy.
"Of course," he assured her. "You know how to wear clothes. And you know you look particularly well in white. I've told you so before."
"Half a dozen times."
"No—once. I remember it very well, because you don't often notice what I have on. Perhaps that's lucky, too."
"If it's you in the clothes, that's good enough."
"That's just the trouble. You accept me as part of the everyday scenery. I might wear a blanket, for all you'd care."
"I've seen some mighty becoming blanket costumes."
"I'm not a klootch," she flashed. "I'm a white woman, and when I wear a becoming dress I like somebody to tell me so."
"And didn't I just tell you?"
"So you did—and I'll put a ring around the date. It's the first time you've condescended to pay me a compliment in a year. You men are the limit. You take it as a matter of course that a girl should be neat and spick and span. If she wasn't you'd notice it soon enough. It's easy for a girl like this Miss Burnaby. I don't suppose she ever did a day's work or anything useful in her life. She orders her clothes from the best places, and gets them fitted and sent home, and that's all there is to it. But how about me? I've got a hundred things to attend to every day. I've got to make my own clothes, or take a long chance on a mail-order house. That's why, when I do get anything that looks passable, I like it to be noticed."
"That's so," he admitted. "That's natural. I never thought of it, Sheila, and that's the truth. Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Oh, heavens! Casey, I'm sorry I did now. Why do men have to be told? I don't get taken this way often. Women and dogs have to be thankful for small mercies. Only a dog can shove a cold, wet nose into his master's hand and get a pat and a kind word; but a woman——"
She broke off, colouring furiously. The red tide surged over cheeks and brow to the roots of her hair. For the first time, with him, she was afraid of being misunderstood.
But Casey's perceptions, fairly acute where men and affairs were concerned, quite failed to grasp the situation. He saw only that Sheila, ordinarily sensible and dependable, had flown off the handle over something, and he metaphorically threw up his hands helplessly at the vagaries of women.
"Well, well, now, never mind," he said, in blundering consolation. "You look well in anything. I've often noticed, but I didn't think you cared for compliments. Anyway"—he grasped eagerly at something safe—"anyway, you can't beat that white dress."
She turned to him again, once more the everyday Sheila.
"All right, old boy, we'll let it go at that. Forget it. And now I'll tell you something: I wore this white dress—absolutely the plainest thing I have—because I didn't want to come into a finery contest with Miss Burnaby. And now let's look at the old dog. I'm afraid he'll have to be shot."
Farwell put in an appearance after supper. It was plain that the big engineer had not expected to find other guests; also that their presence embarrassed him. Quite unused to dissembling his feelings, he took no pains to hide his dislike for Dunne. Casey, on the other hand, was polite, suave, quiet, wearing the mocking smile that invariably exasperated the engineer.
"You and Mr. Farwell are not friends," Clyde ventured on the way home.
"He doesn't think much of me," Casey admitted. "I rub him the wrong way."
"As you were doing to-night."
"You know you were. Is there a private quarrel between you, apart from the water matter?"
"Not exactly. But it would come to that if we saw much of each other."
"Then I hope you won't. It's embarrassing to others."
"I'm awfully sorry. It was very bad form, of course. But somehow I couldn't help it."
"Never mind. The McCraes are affected by this water trouble, aren't they?"
"As much as I am. You are surprised that Farwell goes there. I have never mentioned it to them, nor they to me. It's none of my business."
"Nor of mine."
"I didn't mean that."
"I know you didn't. Still, I think I could guess why Mr. Farwell goes to Talapus."
"So could I," said Casey dryly, and the subject dropped.
But Kitty Wade came to Clyde's room for a chat before retiring. "Those McCraes," she said, "are very nice. Mr. McCrae is one of the real pioneers. He told us some of the most interesting things. How did you like Miss McCrae?"
"I think she's a very nice, sensible girl. Good-looking, too."
"H'm!" said Kitty Wade. "Yes, I think she is. Dresses nicely and simply. No imitation fine things. Shows the correct instinct. You and she might have been having a plain-clothes competition."
Clyde did not respond. Kitty Wade resumed, after a brief pause: "I'll tell you one thing, Clyde; this man Farwell is in love with her."
"I could see that, Kitty."
"And she doesn't care for him."
"I thought that, too."
"I wonder," Kitty Wade went on, "if there is anything between her and Mr. Dunne? Do you suppose he and Mr. Farwell are jealous of each other? They were like two dogs with one bone."
Clyde yawned. "Oh, mercy, Kitty," she said wearily, "ask me something easier. I wouldn't blame either of them. She seems to be a thoroughly nice girl."
Kitty Wade on her way to her room nodded wisely. "You don't fool me a little bit, Clyde," she said to herself. "This Sheila McCrae is probably just as nice as you are, and you own up to it like a little lady. But all the same you hate each other; and, what's more, you both know it."
Clyde lay stretched at length in sweet, odorous hay. There was no reason why she should not have taken the hammock in the shade of the veranda that morning, save that she wanted to be alone. Therefore she had taken a book and wandered forth. Behind the corrals she had come upon a haystack, cut halfway down and halfway across, and on impulse she had climbed up a short ladder and lain down. Her hands clasped behind her head, her book forgotten, she stared up into the blue sky, and dreamed daydreams. And then she went to sleep.
She was aroused by the sound of hammering. Peeping over the edge of the stack, she recognized Tom McHale. McHale was putting a strand of wire around the stack, and as she looked he began to sing a ballad of the old frontier. Clyde had never heard "Sam Bass," and she listened to McHale's damaged tenor.
"Sam was born in Indianner, it was his native home, And at the age of seventeen young Sam began to roam; And first he went to Texas, a cowboy for to be— He robs the stage at——"
He stopped abruptly, and Clyde saw two mounted men approaching. They bore down on McHale, who lifted his coat from a rail, and put it on. To Clyde's amazement the action revealed a worn leather holster strapped to the inner side of the garment, and from it protruded the ivory butt of a six-shooter. McHale was apparently unarmed; in reality a weapon lay within instant reach of his hand.
The two horsemen were roughly dressed. Each wore a gun openly at his belt. One was large, sandy-haired, gray-eyed. The other was dark, quick, restless, shooting odd, darting glances from a pair of sinister black eyes.
"Is your name Dunne?" asked the first roughly.
"Dunne?" queried McHale, as if the name were strange to him. "Did you say Dunne, or Doane?"
"I said Dunne."
"Oh," McHale responded. "Lemme think. No, I guess not. I never used that name that I remember of. No, partner, my name ain't Dunne."
"We want Dunne. Where'll we find him?"
"Why, now," said McHale, "that's a right hard question. You might find him one place, and then again you mightn't. I reckon I wouldn't be misleading you none if I was to tell you you'd find him wherever he's at."
"You workin' for him?" the dark man put in quickly.
"I was, a minute ago. Now I got a job with an inquiry office. Anything else I can tell you?"
"No," said the dark man. "But you can tell Dunne that up to a minute ago he had a —— —— fool workin' for him!"
Dead silence while a watch could tick off ten seconds. Clyde scarcely breathed. At different times in her life she had heard noisy quarrels in city streets, quarrels big with oath and threat. This was different. She experienced a sensation as though, even in the bright sunshine beneath the blue, unflecked summer sky where all was instinct with growth and health and life, she were watching a deathbed.
The two strangers sat motionless, their eyes on McHale, their right hands resting quietly by their waists. McHale stood equally still, facing them, his eyes narrowed down to slits, his left hand holding the lapel of his coat, his right hand, a half-smoked cigarette between the first and second fingers, on a level with his chin. He expelled a thin stream of smoke from his lungs, and spoke:
"I reckon you can tell him yourself. Here he come now."
The eyes of the first man never shifted. The other instantly looked over his shoulder. McHale laughed.
"You're an old-timer," he said to the gray-eyed man; "but him"—he jerked a contemptuous thumb at the second—"it's a wonder to me he ever growed up. Don't you do it no more, friend. Don't you never take your eyes off a man you've called a —— —— fool, or maybe the next thing they beholds is the Promised Land!"
But his words had not been intended as a ruse. Casey was riding over on his little gray mare to see who the strangers were, and what they wanted.
"This man tells me you're Dunne," said the gray-eyed man.
"That's correct," Casey admitted.
"My name is Dade; his name is Cross." He indicated his companion by a sidewise nod. "We've bought land from this here irrigation outfit. So have half a dozen other men, friends of ours. Now we can't get water."
"Well, the company puts it up that some of you fellows is to blame. You've cut the ditches so they won't carry. We've come to tell you that this has got to stop."
"That's kind of you, anyway," Casey observed quietly. He and Dade eyed each other appraisingly.
"What I want to make plumb clear," said the latter, "is that this don't go no more. It's no good. You'll leave the ditches alone, or else——"
"Or else?" Casey suggested.
"Or else we'll make you," said Dade grimly. "We want water, and we'll have it."
"I wonder," said Casey, "if you are trying to hang a nice little bluff on me, Mr. Dade? Suppose, for instance, you have no land, and don't need any water."
"I can show you my deed."
"That's quite possible. All right, Mr. Dade. Is there anything more you want to say?"
"I reckon that's all," said Dade. "If you'll say that the ditches will be let alone there'll be no trouble; if not, there will be."
"What kind of trouble, Mr. Dade?"
"You'll see when it comes."
"Very well," said Casey. "Now, listen to me, Mr. Dade. You and your friend there and your whole outfit can go plumb. Get that? Every ranch here has water, and we're going to keep it. How we keep it is our own business. If you've bought land you may look to the company for water, and not to us. If you haven't bought land—if you're hired to come here to start something—why, let it start!"
He and Dade looked straight into each other's eyes in the silence that followed. Cross made a sudden movement.
"Be careful, partner!" McHale warned him in hard tones.
Once more Clyde, an involuntary listener, felt the presence of a crisis, the chill of fate impending. But, as before, it passed.
"You're barking up the wrong tree," said Dade. "Nothing starts—now. Better remember what I told you. Come on, Sam, we'll get going."
Clyde heard the trample of hoofs dying in the distance, and then McHale's voice:
"You run the bluff, but you took an awful chance. That there Cross come mighty close to making a break."
"Yep. He's apt to be too blamed soon. T'other one, Dade, is cold-drawn. I judge he's bad. Ever hear of him?"
"Nor me," said McHale; "but he has the earmarks."
Casey's reply was lost as they turned away. Clyde waited until they were out of sight, and then descended. The morning adventure had given her food for thought. Until then she had been deceived by the smooth current of life at Chakchak. It had seemed an idyllic, carefree existence. Although she had known of the trouble, it had seemed far in the background; it was a skeleton which had not obtruded itself. Now, by accident, she had surprised it stalking abroad in the glare of day.
That afternoon she and Casey rode together. He was in his usual spirits, laughing, joking, full of whimsical good humour. But back of it she thought she detected a preoccupation. Occasionally he would be silent and his eyes would narrow as if he were working out some problem.
Far up beneath the shoulder of a butte a little spring of delicious water bubbled from the gravelly soil, trickled a few hundred yards, and disappeared. It was hidden by willow and cottonwood, draped with greenery, an oasis. Here they dismounted, drank the sweet spring water, watered the horses, and rested. Clyde sat down, leaning against a convenient tree. Casey stretched himself against another, his hands clasped behind his head, a long, thin cigar clenched between his teeth.
Through the fragrant smoke he eyed his companion in lazy content, noting how the mottled sunlight, filtering through the leaves, touched her glorious hair to living, coppery gold.
"Did you ever have your picture painted?" he asked suddenly.
"Why, no," she replied. "Whatever made you think of that?"
"Your hair and the sunlight on it. If I were a painter I should like to paint you now—and keep the picture."
"The first compliment you have ever paid me," she laughed, pleased nevertheless. "I shall remember it."
"And that's a compliment to me," he responded. "Funny what we recollect and what we don't. There doesn't seem to be any rule for it. But I think I shall always remember just how you look at this moment."
"That's very nice."
"I wonder if I may ask you something without offending you?"
"I don't think you would ask anything that should offend me."
"Thanks! It's this: I want to make things pleasant for you all. I've been wondering in my own mind why you came here. You won't misunderstand me. But why?"
"Have you forgotten your invitation?"
"No. But its acceptance was an unexpected piece of luck. There isn't much here to amuse you. What's the real reason?"
She looked full at him, and then dropped her eyes; her fingers plucked blades of grass and cast them aside.
"I don't think I know the answer," she replied at last. "For one thing, I thought I might help you—if you'd let me."
"Help me! How?"
"With money. You and the others."
"Good Lord!" he ejaculated. "Whatever put that in your head?"
"The only letter you ever wrote me. I could read between the lines. Afterward Mr. Wade told me more. But he wouldn't take what I offered."
"I should say not—if you offered money. He was right."
"Do you mean that you wouldn't let me help you if you needed money?"
"Certainly I wouldn't."
"Because I'm a woman, I suppose."
"Partly. But I wouldn't let any one throw money away on what is apt to be a losing game."
"You think it that?"
"Size it up for yourself. You talked with Wade. Didn't he tell you so?"
"Then you see! It wouldn't do at all."
"But it's my money. I can afford to lose it. I'll not have a pleasure or a luxury the less. And this is my pleasure. Would you refuse me this one thing? You lent me money!"
"Ten dollars—pshaw! This is different. I'm more grateful than I can tell you. But there's no necessity—just yet, anyway."
"Then I won't consider it a definite refusal. That was one reason why I came. And then I wanted to see your country. I wanted something new. I can't explain it very well. I had to come; something made me."
She flushed, but the eyes that met his inquiring gaze were entirely steady.
"Something made me. If the Wades had not been coming I should have come alone. I'm frank with you, you see."
"Yes, I understand the feeling," Casey said. "I have had it myself. I've had to get out of old surroundings sometimes. And I've always gone. Sometimes it has turned out well; sometimes not."
"We shall see how this turns out," she said, with a nod and a little laugh. "I've a feeling that I shall bring you luck."
"I believe you will," he agreed. "We'll say so, anyway. Just now I wouldn't trade places with any man on earth."
She laughed in pure pleasure, bending toward him. "I appropriate that to myself. Don't dare to explain it. Do you come here often?"
"Not very often. That maze of coulee and butte you see is a good cattle range. I come this way looking for strays. The last time I was here Sheila McCrae was with me."
Suddenly, for Clyde, the sunlight lost its golden charm. In an altered tone she said:
"Indeed!" And she added deliberately: "I don't think I ever met a nicer girl than Miss McCrae."
"No nicer anywhere," he agreed heartily. "Well, perhaps we'd better be moving. We have a long ride yet."
Their way led by devious cattle trails along the coulees, over ridges, into other coulees. Clyde lost all idea of direction, but her companion was never at a loss, and finally they emerged upon a broad, well-travelled trail. Then Clyde, after much inward debate, told Casey of her presence that morning at the interview with Dade and Cross.
"Well, they're quite a pair," said Casey. "They came to run some sort of a bluff, but concluded not to push it to a show-down. They'll make trouble for us, I suppose. They're simply hired men, and that's their job."
"What kind of trouble?"
"I wish I knew," he replied, shaking his head.
"Is it all worth while?" she asked. "I haven't asked a question about the blown-up dam and the cut ditches. I'm not going to. But where will it end? You admit that there may be violence—even bloodshed. Why not avoid it?"
"By letting the courts settle it."
"If we could have our water till then, that's what we'd do. As it is—well, I'm afraid we can't afford to."
"I've already offered——"
"I know, I know," he interrupted; "but that's out of the question."
That evening dragged. There were long silences. Nobody seemed inclined to talk. Wade went to sleep in his chair, his cigar dropping from his relaxing fingers. He grumbled when his wife woke him.
"I'm dead sleepy. I'm going to bed. I'm too sleepy to care whether it's polite or not; I'm all in."
"So am I," said Kitty, yawning frankly. "I shall follow my lord and master."
"And I my amiable chaperon," said Clyde.
"I'm afraid all I have to follow is an example," said Casey. He came close to her in the moonlight. "Perhaps I seemed ungrateful this afternoon. I didn't mean to be. I can't tell you how much I appreciated your offer, your generosity; none the less because I can't possibly accept it."
"It is nothing," she said. "It is not even generosity. Real generosity must cost something in renunciation."
"No," he replied; "the cost has little to do with it. It is the spirit of the offer that counts. Don't belittle it."
"It cost me something to make the offer," she said impulsively. "The money would have been the least part of it."
"I don't think I understand."
"I'm glad you don't; and I can't explain now. Some day, perhaps. And now—good night."
He took her hand and looked down into her eyes. He could feel the hand tremble slightly, but the eyes were steady. Darkened by the moonlight they seemed unfathomable pools, deep, mysterious, holding something which he could almost but not quite discern. In the pale light her face lost colour. It was idealized, purified, the face of a dream. Her marvellous crown of hair shone strand by strand as of twisted gold; it shimmered with halolike glory. Her slightly parted lips, vivid against the white of the face, seemed to invite him.
He bent forward, and plucked himself angrily back from the temptation. She released her hand.
"Good night," she said softly.
"Good night," he responded, hesitated, and turned away to his own quarters.
But as Clyde sought her room she seemed to walk on air. She trembled in every fibre of her strong, young body, but her blood sang in her veins. The woman within her called aloud triumphantly. It was long before she slept, and when she did so her slumber was a procession of dreams.
She awoke somewhere in the night, with a strange sound in her ears, a detonation distant but thunderous. She rose, went to the window, and peered out.
As she stood, she commanded a view of Casey Dunne's quarters. The door opened, and two men emerged, running for the stables. It seemed not a minute till two horses were led out, ready saddled. The two men went up instantly. They tore past her window in a flurry of hoofs. She recognized Casey Dunne and McHale. Neither was completely dressed. But around the waist of each was a holster-weighted belt, and across each saddle was slanted a rifle. Because of these warlike manifestations Clyde slept no more that night.
As the night air vibrated with the first explosion Casey Dunne and McHale leaped from their beds, and rushed for the door, opened it, and stood listening. There they heard another and another.
"Dynamite!" cried McHale, reaching for his clothes. "I'll bet it's our dam. Jump into some pants, Casey. There's just a chance to get a sight of somebody."
They threw on clothes with furious haste, caught up weapons, and raced for the stables. Their haste communicated itself to their horses, which bolted before the riders were firm in the saddles. Casey, as they tore past the house, thought he caught a glimpse of white at Clyde's window; but just then he had his hands full with Shiner, who was expressing his disapproval of such unseemly hours by an endeavour to accomplish a blind runaway.
Halfway to the river they came upon the first evidence of dynamite in the form of a bit of wrecked fluming. Water poured down a sidehill from a mass of shattered boards and broken, displaced timbers. They scarcely paused to view the ruin, but rode for the dam. There was no dam. Where it had been, remained only a few forlorn and twisted posts between which the muddied water whispered softly. The work had been very complete. McHale swore into the night.
"Our own medicine! Well, watch us take it. We ain't like boys that can't build a little thing like a dam. Which way do you reckon them fellers went?"
"Try the old ford," said Casey. "It's all chance, anyway."
A mile downstream they came to the ford, where the river for a brief distance had broadened and shallowed. Fresh tracks of one horse led down to the water's edge. On the other side, where they emerged, they were still filled with muddy water.
"That's the cuss that blowed the flume," said McHale. "He's met up with another one or two here. They've gone on downstream, but we sure can't trail them in this light. What do we do?"
"Ride ahead and trust to luck," said Casey. "It's all we can do."
"I guess that's so," McHale agreed. "But if we run up on 'em——"
He paused abruptly. Out of the distance came the unmistakable sound of a blast, closely followed by a second.
"Another dam!" Casey exclaimed. "That's Oscar's, or Wyndham's. Our own medicine, sure enough!"
"If I can put a gunsight on to one of them fellers I'll fix him so's he won't hold medicine nohow," said McHale savagely. "No use followin' the river. They'll quit it now, and strike for somewheres. Let's take a chance and hike out sorter southeast. It's as good as any other way."
They struck southeast at a steady jog, angling away from the river. The night was absolutely cloudless; the moon, near the full, bathed the landscape in a flood of white light which threw objects into startling relief, but intensified the shadows. Beneath it the land slumbered in a silence broken only by the soft drumming of hoofs. But for an occasional small band of cattle lying quietly on the slopes, it seemed devoid of life.
They rode in silence, but with eyes and ears keenly alert. At the top of each rise they paused to search the surrounding country. Now and then they drew up to listen. But their watchfulness availed nothing.
"Looks like we're out o'luck," McHale observed finally.
"Looks that way," Casey admitted. "All the same, we'll keep going."
"If we happen across 'em," McHale continued, "I s'pose we round 'em up?"
"Of course. But they may take some rounding."
"Sure! Only I'll tell you, Casey, I'm awful tired of having it put all over me by fellers that ain't got no license to. Some of these gents that allow they're hard citizens ain't so dog-goned much. I s'pose they figure on us peaceable farmers bein' bluffed out by a hard face and a hostile talk. That's an awful bad bet for 'em to make."
They were approaching a region of broken ground, carved and ridged with coulees and low hills, worthless save for range purposes. There Casey decided that he would turn back. At best it was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Chance only could serve them. Suddenly McHale checked his horse.
"Listen!" he said sharply.
They were riding by the base of a low hill. At one side the ground sloped away in a shallow depression which marked the head of a coulee. As they sat listening intently the stillness was broken by a hollow, muffled sound, the unmistakable trampling of hoofs. Faint at first, it increased in volume. Plainly, horses were coming up the draw.
Four horsemen came into view. They were riding carelessly, slouching in their saddles. One struck a match to light a pipe. The flame of it showed for an instant above his cupped hands. At a hundred yards they perceived the waiting horsemen, and halted abruptly.
"You there!" Casey hailed. "We want to talk to you!"
A vicious oath came as answer, distinct in the stillness. Then: "You get back and mind your own business!"
McHale's rifle action clicked and clashed as he levered a cartridge from magazine to chamber. "Up with your hands, the bunch of you," he ordered, "or——"
The remainder was lost in the bark of a gun as one of the other party fired. McHale's horse jumped as though stung, just as he pulled the trigger, bumping into Shiner. Immediately that uncertain quadruped wheeled and kicked at him. So quick was his pivoting motion that Casey was almost unseated. He saved himself, but lost his rifle, which fell to the ground. With a furious curse and a jerk of the bit he wheeled Shiner around, drawing his automatic belt gun.
But the four strangers had taken advantage of the incident to turn and plunge back into the coulee. They were almost out of sight. Casey's gun spat a continuous jet of flame across the night, the rapid reports blending into a roll of sound. McHale, cursing his unsteady horse, fired again and again. But the strangers, apparently unhurt, swept out of sight.
Casey leaped to the ground, secured his rifle, and was back in the saddle again in an instant. They sailed into the shallow head of the coulee at a dead run, Casey struggling to refill the clip of his automatic, McHale cursing his horse and himself because he had used the rifle instead of his six-shooter.
At its head the coulee was merely a slight depression. Farther on it broadened and deepened. Down the middle of its length ran a sinuous grove of cottonwoods. On either side its flanks were bare, white with clay and alkali, rising to steep banks of yellow earth, bald and bleached in the moonlight.
Through this natural theatre thundered pursuers and pursued. The latter had secured a good lead. The windings of the coulee hid them from view.
Suddenly Casey became aware that there was no one ahead—that he and McHale were riding madly, to no purpose. At the same moment the latter made the like discovery. Their horses' hoofs slid and cut grooves in the earth as the riders dragged them to a halt. Usually considerate, in the excitement of the moment they used the brutal methods of the "buster."
"They've doubled back on us!" cried McHale. "Cut through them cottonwoods somewheres and let us go by a-hellin'. Fooled us, by glory, like we was a pair of hide-an'-go-seek kids. Yes—there they go now! Look up by the top past that cut bank!" He lifted his rifle as he spoke.
High up at the coulee's rim, some hundreds of yards away, figures moved. At that distance, even in the brilliant moonlight, details were lost. The eye could discern black spots merely; but it seemed that the men had dismounted for the ascent, and were helping the horses to scramble upward.
McHale fired, shoved down the lever, drew it home, and fired again. Since the light did not serve to show the dust puffs of the bullets, he could not tell whether he was shooting high or low. The main thing was that he did not hit. Casey chimed in. The bluffs and banks echoed to the reports of the high-powered rifles; but the figures gained the rim and vanished. Immediately afterward a tongue of flame leaped from the spot where they were last seen, and a bullet sang in close proximity to Casey's head. They wheeled into the shelter of the trees, where the shadows effectually concealed their whereabout. At short intervals bullets searched for their position. McHale bit large consolation and spat in disgust.
"I reckon it's a get-away," he said. "I ain't fool enough to go up that bank while they're there. And by the time we'd get around they'd be a couple of miles 'most anywheres."
"We've got ourselves to blame," said Casey.
"Well, that first shot burned up this cayuse of mine," McHale grumbled. "How could I shoot, with him jumpin' around? And that blasted, yeller-hided buzzard head of yours, he don't know no better'n to whale into him with both heels. It wouldn't happen again, not in a million years."
"It doesn't need to," said Casey sourly. "We found our meat, and we couldn't stop it."
"The laugh is on us," McHale admitted. "For the powder we burned we sure ought to have a scalp or two to show. Still, moonlight shootin' is chance shootin', and when a cussed mean cayuse is sashayin' round if a man hits anything but scenery he's lucky!"
"I thought that old-timer, Dade, was doing the talking."
"Sure he was. And I'll bet it was his tillikum, Cross, that took the first crack at us. Didn't waste no time. He's some soon, that feller. I s'pose they got a camp, somewheres. No use tryin' to find it. We can't prove that they used the powder on our dams. Well, what say if we point out for home? Daylight's breakin' now."
A pale light was spreading in the east, underneath the stars that rimmed the horizon. Objects became more visible. As they rode unmolested from the coulee the pale light began to flush faintly. Rosy shafts shot upward, and the stars vanished. Here and there birds began to twitter. An old grouse scuttled away, wings a-trail, as if mortally hurt, to distract attention from her young brood hidden in the short grass. A huge owl sailed ghostlike on silent wings, homeward bound from midnight foray. A coyote yipped shrill protest against the day. Away to the west, where the mountains loomed grandly, bright lights lay on peaks still white with the remnants of winter snows. Suddenly, driving the shadows before it, the sun seemed to leap above the rim of the world.
During the next twelve hours there was much riding from ranch to ranch. Of all the small dams constructed and maintained by the ranchers for irrigation purposes but one remained; and that one was Donald McCrae's.
McCrae himself considered this an invidious distinction. He would have preferred to suffer with his neighbours. He did not know why his structure had been spared, and he lent men and teams to others, labouring hard himself in the task of rebuilding.
The temper of the ranchers was at the breaking point. Naturally the blame fell on Farwell; he was the villain of the piece. He had expected unpopularity, but he had no idea of the depth of it. The black looks he met did not disturb him in the least; nor, to do him justice, would he have been seriously alarmed if he had known that more than one man was quite ready to pick a deadly quarrel with him. For some time he had not seen Sheila McCrae, but he found himself thinking of her constantly. And so, one evening he rode over to Talapus.
Somewhat to his relief, neither McCrae nor Sandy was visible. Mrs. McCrae was calmly civil. Her manner gave no hint that he was unwelcome. Sheila, she told him, had gone for a walk somewhere along the ditch.
"Oh," said Farwell, with elaborate carelessness, "then I think I'll just stroll along and meet her."
At the end of ten minutes' walk he came upon the girl. She was sitting, her chin propped on her hands, beside the stream where a little bordering grove of willows had sprung up. The deep murmur of the running water muffled his footsteps so that she neither saw nor heard him till he was at her side.
"Good evening," he said.
She turned her head slowly, without start or exclamation.
"I did not expect to see you, Mr. Farwell."
"I thought I'd run over," he said awkwardly. "I intended to come before."
She allowed a long minute of silence to lie between them. "And why have you come now?" she asked.
"Why?" Farwell repeated the word. "Why? I wanted to see you. Why shouldn't I come?"
"You ought to know why. It's one thing to do your work; but it's quite another to blow up our dams!"
"Why do you think I did that?"
"Because I have ordinary common sense. I don't suppose you did it with your own hand. But you've brought in a bunch of toughs and gunmen to overawe us and do your dirty work. It will lead to serious trouble."
"I can handle trouble," said Farwell grimly. "Has anybody meddled with your dam?"
"Then I don't see what you have to complain of. I don't admit anything. But when you get indignant at blowing up dams you ought to remember what happened to ours."
"Oh, as for that"—she shrugged her shoulders. "We had to have water. Nobody blamed you before. But these dams that did you no harm—that's different."
"But you have water. Your own dam is all right," he insisted.
"Yes. And do you know what people are saying? They say that the reason is because we have some sort of an understanding with you. They say——" She stopped abruptly.
"What else do they say?"
"Other things. I've told you enough."
"What do you care?"
"Well, I do care. This is the only house you come to. Your visits must end now."
"End?" Farwell echoed. "I guess not. Not unless you absolutely forbid me to come. And then I don't know. I'd find it pretty hard."
"I tell you I would," he protested. "You don't know."
"Bosh! We're not so fascinating as that."
Now Farwell was of the battle-axe type. He was accustomed to take what he wanted, to smash through opposition. He looked at the girl facing him in the fading light, and a great desire swelled within him. Her words gave the needed spur to his courage, and he went to the point as he would have gone in to quell a riot in a camp.
"'We,'" he said. "Who's talking of 'we'? I'm not. I come to see you. You ought to know that. Of course you know it. I didn't think I'd ever fall in love, but I have. You might as well know it now. I don't know whether you think anything of me or not; it would be just my luck if you didn't. Anyway, that's how I feel, and I'm not going to give up seeing you just because some people have set a crazy yarn going."
The words boiled out of him like steam from a hot spring. He scowled at her ferociously, his eyes hot and angry. It would have been difficult to imagine a more unloverlike attitude. And yet she had no doubt of his sincerity. She would have been less than woman if she had not suspected his feelings before. But she had not expected this outbreak.
"I'm sorry you said that," she told him quietly. "It's quite impossible. I can tell you now what I couldn't tell you before. People say that I have promised to marry you in exchange for your promise that we shall have water for the ranch."
"If you'll tell me the name of a man who utters an infernal lie like that I'll wring his neck," he growled.
"I believe you would. But what good would it do? You can't fight rumours and gossip in that way. That's the trouble with you—you depend on force alone. Can't you see the position this puts us in—puts me in? You can't come here any more."
"I don't see that at all," he objected. "I'll blow up your dam myself if you think it will help, but as for not seeing you—why, it's out of the question. I've got to see you. I'm going to see you. I can't help it. I tell you I think of you all the time. Why, hang it, Sheila, I think of you when I ought to be thinking of my work."
She would have laughed if she had not seen that he was in deadly earnest. His work was a fetish, all-absorbing, demanding and receiving the tribute of his entire attention and energy. That thought of a woman should come between him and it was proof positive of devotion extraordinary.
"You must not do that," she said, gently.
"But I can't help it," he reiterated. "It's new to me, this. I can't concentrate on my work. I keep thinking of you. If that isn't being in love, what in thunder is? I'm talking to you as straight as I'd talk to a man. I believe I love you as much as any woman was ever loved. You don't know much about me, but I'm considered a good man in my profession. From a material point of view I'm all right."
"If I cared for you that would be the last thing I'd think of."
"Why can't you care for me?" he demanded. "I don't expect much. We'd get along."
"No," she said decidedly. "No. It's impossible. We're comparatively strangers. I think you're going to be a big man some day. I rather admire you in some ways. But that is all."
"Well, anyway, I'm not going to quit," he announced doggedly. "I never gave up anything yet. You talk as if it didn't matter! Maybe it doesn't to you, but it does to me. You don't know how much I care. I can't tell you, either. This talk isn't my line. Look here, though. About ten years ago, down in the desert of the Southwest, my horse broke his leg, and I was set afoot. I nearly died of thirst before I got out. All those blistering days, while I stumbled along in that baking hell, I kept thinking of a cool spring we had on our place when I was a boy. It bubbled up in moss at the foot of a big cedar, and I used to lie flat and drink till I couldn't hold any more. It was the sweetest water in the world. All those days I tortured myself by thinking of it. I'd have given my soul, if I have one, to satisfy my thirst at that spring. And that's how I feel about you. I want your love as I wanted that water."
"I'm very sorry," she said. "It's out of the question."
"But why?" he demanded. "Give me a chance. I'm not a monster. Or do you mean that you care for somebody else? Is that it? Do you care anything for that Dunne? A fellow that's in love with another woman!"
Even in the dying light he could see the dark flush that surged over cheek and brow. She rose to the full height of her lithe figure, facing him.
"No, I don't!" she flamed. "But if I did what business would it be of yours? Casey Dunne is my friend—a gentleman—which is more than you seem to be, Mr. Farwell."
She took a step toward him in her indignation. Suddenly, with a sweep of his arm, he clipped her to him, kissing her on forehead and cheek. She struck him in the face with her clenched fist driven by muscles as hard as an athlete's.
"You great brute!" she panted.
With the blow and the words, Farwell's moment of madness passed. He held her from him at arm's length.
"A brute!" he said. "You're right. I didn't know it before. Now, I do. How can I put myself right with you?"
"Let me go!" she cried.
As he released her she heard the quick pad of running feet. Out of the dusk behind her bounded young Sandy McCrae. He came like a young wolf to its first kill, his lips lifted in a snarl. In his right hand lay a long-barrelled, black Colt's.
"Sheila!" he cried. "What's the matter? Who's this? What in—ah!"
The gun leaped up. Instinctively she threw out her hand, striking it as he pulled the trigger. A thin stream of flame blazed almost into Farwell's face, and the sharp report split the evening silence into fragments. Something like a questing finger of death ran through his hair, and his hat twitched from his head, to flutter down softly ten feet away. But he was unhurt.
Sheila locked both arms around her brother's, dragging it down.
"No, no, no!" she cried. "I tell you no, Sandy! Don't shoot again. It's a mistake."
He wrenched furiously to free his hand. "Mistake!" he shouted. "He was holding you! I saw him. I heard you. Let go. I'll blow his heart out!"
But she clung to his arm. "It's a mistake, Sandy, I tell you! Can't you understand me? Don't use that gun. I won't let you. Give it to me!"
He ceased his attempts to free his arm. "All right, Sheila. I won't shoot—this time. You, Farwell, what have you got to say for yourself?"
"Mighty little," Farwell replied. "I asked your sister to marry me, and she refused. I kissed her against her will. That's all—and plenty. If you want my opinion, I think I ought to be shot."
Sandy glared at him, taken aback by this frank admission.
"If she hadn't jolted my hand you sure would have been," he said grimly. "You're mighty lucky to be alive right now. After this if I see you——"
"Shut up, Sandy!" Sheila interrupted authoritatively, with sisterly directness. "I'm quite able to look after my own affairs. Mr. Farwell is sorry. You be white enough to let it go that way."
"It's up to you, if you want it," Sandy replied. "If you can stand for a thing like that once I can. But not twice."
"There won't be any twice. Shall we go to the house, Mr. Farwell?"
Farwell, amazed, fell into step with her. He had expected to be overwhelmed with reproaches, to face a storm of feminine anger. Still, he could not think that she was palliating his offence; and he was quite aware that she had saved his life. Young McCrae, in offended dignity, stalked in front.
"I want you to know," said Farwell, "that I'm utterly ashamed of myself. To prove it I'm going to do the best I can. I'm going to wire in my resignation, and I'm going away."
"What?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Don't. You are sorry, and that's the main thing. We won't mention it again. And neither will Sandy. But for a while you must not come here."
"I'll do anything," he said. "I think you are the best girl on earth."
Sheila did not reply; but she did not reprove him.
Mrs. McCrae, looking somewhat anxious, met them at the house.
"I heard a shot," she said. "Was it you, Sandy?"
"Yes," her son replied.
"What did you shoot at?"
The young man glanced at Farwell from the corner of his eye.
"A skunk," he replied. "I missed him."
Sheila bit her lip angrily. Farwell took his medicine in silence.
A week sufficed to put the ranchers' ditches and dams in condition to take care of water; but at the end of that time there was little water to take care of. It was being diverted into the company's ditch system. Their ditches were running full, emptying upon lands on which scarcely a pretence of cultivation was being made, while the actual farmers, just when they needed it most, had barely sufficient water for their domestic purposes, for stock, and for their small gardens. There was none for the main crops in the fields.
Naturally the crops suffered, the grain most of all. A series of hot, dry winds came. With water they would have done little or no damage; without it the leaves curled, shrivelled, and turned pale, starving for lack of moisture. And the peculiarly galling feature of it was that the water which would have meant so much was practically running to waste.
In spite of these troubles Casey managed to devote time to his guests. His projected excursion to the foothills was abandoned, but he and Clyde rode almost daily. He had reserved his little gray mare, Dolly, for her use, and she was becoming, if not expert, at least confident in the saddle.
She grew to love the long evenings, the soft twilights, the warm, sweet scent of the grasses, and the great stillness broken only by an occasional word and the beat of willing hoofs. On these evening rides she allowed her imagination to run riot. It pleased her to pretend that she and Casey were the only inhabitants of the land—an Eve and Adam of the West, pioneers of a remote civilization. All day she looked forward to this hour or two; at night, in her bed, she lived them over, recreating each mile, each word, each little thing—how the great owl had sailed ghostly across their path, the gray shape of a coyote fading into the dusk, the young broods of grouse hiding in the grass.
Occasionally she undertook to analyze her feelings toward Casey Dunne, but the result was indefinite. She enjoyed his companionship, looked forward to it, remembered his words, his tricks of manner and speech. But these things, she told herself, were not conclusive.
His sentiments she had no means of judging. He was forever doing little things to please her; but then he did as much for others. At times he was confidential; but he seldom talked of himself, his confidences taking the form of allowing her to share his private viewpoint, revealing to some extent his mental processes. But he had never said one word which indicated more than friendship. Clyde saw little of Sheila McCrae. The latter had ridden over once or twice to see, as she said, how Casey was treating them. On these occasions Clyde experienced a recurrence of latent hostility. Sheila took no pains whatever with her appearance. She came in a worn riding costume, plain, serviceable, workmanlike; and she talked water and crops and stock with Casey and McHale, avoiding more feminine topics. If there was any understanding between her and Casey it did not appear to Clyde. But it was this unreasoning hostility more than anything else which made Clyde doubt herself. Was it, she wondered, in reality jealousy?
She put the thought from her indignantly, but it refused to be banished. She even catalogued her attractions, comparing them with the other girl's. The balance was in her favour; but in the end she felt ashamed of herself. Why should she do this? She found no satisfactory reply.
After a week of the water famine she saw a change in her host. He was more silent, thoughtful. Often when they rode together he had nothing to say, staring at the horizon with narrowed eyes.
"Do you ever tell anybody your troubles?" she asked abruptly one evening. They were riding slowly homeward, and the silence had been especially marked.
"Not very often," Casey replied. "People I've met have usually had enough of their own. They didn't want to hear mine."
"Well, I haven't many troubles, and I'd like to share yours, if I may. I suppose it's this water question."
"Why, yes," he admitted. "It's getting to be a mighty hard thing to swallow—and look pleasant."
"I know." She nodded sympathetically. "You feel helpless."
"Not that exactly. The difficulty is to know just what to do—whether to do anything or not. The boys are very hostile. It wouldn't take much to start them."
"In what direction?"
"In any that would give action. They'd like nothing better than open war."
She exclaimed at the words. "Surely there's no possibility of that?"
"More than a possibility," he returned gravely. "Water is a necessity to us. The people who have taken it do not require it. They have established what is practically an armed camp. Also they have brought in a number of hard citizens—what are known as 'gunmen'—to overawe us. These patrol their ditch system, and warn us to keep away from it. It is guarded at every important point. Not satisfied with this, some of these fellows have been apparently looking for trouble in town and elsewhere. One of these fine days they will get it."
He shook his head forebodingly. They topped a rise as he spoke. Below them lay the line of the company's main canal. As they rode down to it a man on a horse seemed to appear from nowhere in particular, and came toward them. As he drew nearer Casey recognized the man Cross.
Cross raised his hat in acknowledgment of Clyde's presence. But his words to Casey were very much to the point.
"You got notice to keep off this property," said he.
"Well?" said Casey.
"Do it," said Cross. "Hike—meanin' you, understand, and not the lady. She's plumb welcome to ride where she likes. I savvy your game, Dunne. You ain't got nerve enough to ride out here alone, and you bring a woman with you to play safe."
Casey paled with anger beneath his tan. "Mr. Cross," he said quietly, "that goes—because the lady is with me. But I rather think one of us will stay in this country a long time."
"Cheap bluff," Cross sneered. "You ain't goin' to prospect round these ditches, linin' them up for powder. Come here alone, and I'll make you eat the sights off of my gun."
Casey laughed softly—with him most dangerous of signs.
"Mr. Cross, you really amuse me. I won't argue the point just now. Later, perhaps. Good evening."
Clyde had listened in amazement. Once more she had experienced the sensation of standing on the brink of tragedy. Once more it had failed to occur.
"And that's one of the gunmen," said Casey. "That's what we have been putting up with. I think it will have to stop."
"Don't get into any trouble," she begged. "Promise me you won't. What do you care what men like that say?"
"I'm partly human," he replied grimly. "I can stand as much as most men, but there are some things I won't stand. I'm not going to climb a tree for any man. However, I won't crowd things with Cross, though I know plenty of men that would, on that provocation. I'm all for peace and a quiet life. You won't think I'm afraid, I hope."
"Certainly not," she said indignantly. "You don't give me much of your confidence, but I know you better than to think such a thing. I wish you would tell me more of what is going on. Let me be your friend, and not merely your guest. Talk to me as you would to—Miss McCrae."
It was the first time she had spoken to him of Sheila. It was her challenge. She would be on the same footing.
"Sheila's different," he replied. "Sheila's one of us. I've known her for years. She's a good deal like a sister."
"Oh," she said, "a sister?"
To have saved her immortal soul she could not have kept the note of sceptical interrogation from the word. He laughed.
"Yes, a sister. Why, great Scott! you didn't think I was in love with her, did you, just because I call her by her first name? I think everything of her, but not in that way. She's a thousand times too good for me. Besides, she knows me too well. That's usually fatal to sentiment. That's why no man is a hero to his wife."
"How do you know he isn't? Kitty Wade simply worships her husband."
"Maybe. But I'll bet his pedestal isn't nearly so high as it was before they were married. When you marry, Miss Burnaby"—he smiled at her frankly—"you will occupy the pedestal yourself."
"Doesn't your rule work both ways?" she laughed.
"I won't admit it—to you, anyway."
"Why not—to me?"
"Because Wade tells me no man can be forced to incriminate himself," he replied.
Clyde glanced at him swiftly, flushing in the dusk. But she did not press for an explanation. She was satisfied. She was no longer jealous of Sheila McCrae.
When they arrived at the ranch Dunne took the horses to the stables. Clyde, entering the house, found Wade alone, deep in newspapers, the accumulation of a week which he had just received. There was a package of letters for Clyde.
"Look here, Clyde," said the lawyer. "Here's a funny thing." He held a newspaper open at the market page. "This Western Airline stock is as jumpy as a fever chart. For a while it went down and down and down, away below what I should think to be its intrinsic value. There was a rumour of a passed dividend. Nothing definite—merely a rumour. Then came another rumour of an application for a charter for a competing line. Both these stories seem to have brought out considerable stock. There was heavy selling. Likely the traders went short. I'll bet some of them were nipped, too, for the market went up without warning—yes, by George! bounced like a rubber ball."
Clyde looked up from a letter which enclosed a formal-looking statement. "What would send it up?"
"Buyers in excess of sellers—in other words, demand in excess of supply," Wade responded. "That's on the face of it. Probably not half a dozen men know the inside. Orders may have been issued to support the stock—that is, to buy all offered in order to keep the price from declining farther. It's hard to say, at this distance. It's possible that the depressing rumours may have originated with the very men who are now supporting the stock."
"Why should they do that?"
"To buy more cheaply shares which would be offered in consequence. It's funny, though," he continued, opening another paper. "Now, here's a later date—let's see—yes, here we are. The market opened five points higher than it closed on the preceding day, and it closed ten points above that opening. Holy Moses! do you know what that means?"
"Demand in excess of supply."
"Demand! Supply!" Wade echoed contemptuously. "Economics be hanged! It means a fight for Western Air. It means that somebody is willing to pay a fancy price for shares. Why? Because a few shares one way or the other mean the ownership of the road, the dictation of its policy. There's no other explanation. I wonder who——"
"Look at this," said Clyde. She handed him a telegram. He read:
Sell nothing whatever until you hear from me. Instruct Bradley & Gauss.
Wade's lips puckered in a noiseless whistle. He did not need to be told that "Jim" was Clyde's uncle, wily old Jim Hess, of the Hess System. It was he who was out gunning for York and Western Air, and he had the reputation of getting what he went after. What his tactics had been Wade could only surmise. But the antics of the stock were proof that he was in earnest.
"Well," he queried, "what do you know about this, young lady? Have you been holding out on me?"
"I haven't much information," she replied. "Bradley & Gauss are my brokers. They have been buying Western Air for me as it was offered. There's their statement. Uncle Jim told me to buy it—said that it ought to be worth as much as Hess System some day."
"Heavens! What a tip!" Wade exclaimed. "This will be good news for Casey."
"I don't want him to know."
"Well, he—he—that is, he might be disappointed. Uncle Jim may not get control. If he does he'll treat everybody fairly, of course. I don't want to raise false hopes."
"Considerate of you," said Wade, "not to say ingenious."
She flushed angrily for a moment, and then laughed.
"It's all the reason you'll get. Be a good friend, do. Promise! Also you are to say nothing to Kitty."
"Afraid of being jollied?"
"Mr. Wade, you are impertinent!" But her eyes laughed at him.
"I'll keep your dark secret," said Wade. "It will be a joke on Kitty!"
And so Casey Dunne was left in ignorance.
Tom McHale ambled into Coldstream one afternoon, and dropped his pony's reins behind the station. Thence he clanked his spurs into Mr. Quilty's sanctum. That gentleman, nodding somnolently above a blackened clay pipe, rolled an appraising eye at him.
"Fwhere in Hiven's name is the maskyrade at?" he queried sourly. "An' do yez riprisint Wild Bill Hickox—rest his sowl—or th' 'Pache Kid—th' divil burn him!"
Tom glanced down at his ancient regalia of worn leather chaps, spurs, and the old forty-one that sagged from his right hip, and grinned.
"Guns is coming into style again out our way," he replied. "All the best families wears 'em. There's so many of these here durn hobos and railway men and Irish and other low characters——"
"Th' nerve of yez!" snorted Mr. Quilty. "And the name iv yez 'McHale!'—as Irish, be hivins, as Con iv th' Hundred Battles!"
McHale chuckled to himself, having succeeded in his purpose of getting Mr. Quilty going.
"Irish? Not on your life!" he denied gravely. "What put that notion in your head? The McHales is high-grade Scotch. Always was. They come from Loch Lomond or Commarashindhu or them parts. Annie Laurie married a McHale. Of course we're Scotch. You can tell by the Mac. The only McHale that ever was in Ireland went there to civilize it."
"To civ'lize Ireland!" Mr. Quilty cried in derision. "Hear till him! And Ireland the owldest civ'lization in the wurruld, barrin' none, and the best! Faix, we was givin' lessons in it to all mankind whin th' dom raggety-britched tattherdemalions iv Scotchmen hadn't th' dacincy to wear kilts, even, but wint about bare to th' four winds iv hivin, a barbarious race lower nor a Digger Injun, a scandal to God, man, and faymales black and white."
"Well, maybe you're right about them old times, Corney," admitted McHale, with an innocent face. "I meant a little later than that. This here McHale was with William the Conqueror at the Battle of the Boyne——"
Mr. Quilty spat at the mention of this historic event.
"Bad scran till him, then!" he exclaimed. "Yez do be a high-grade liar, and ign'rant as well. Willyum th' Conq'ror was Irish on his mother's side, an' he bate th' heads off iv th' bloody Sassenach, an' soaked their king wan in th' eye wid a bow 'n' arry at a fight I disremimber th' name of, back a thousand years before Willyum th' Dutchman—may his sowl get its needin's!—come out iv his swamps. I tell yez th' McHales come from Galway. In th' good owld days they hanged thim be th' dozen to th' glor iv God an' th' greater safety iv all live stock. An th' pity is they didn't make a cleaner job iv ut."
McHale, who was enjoying himself hugely, sifted tobacco into paper.
"I won't say you ain't right, Corney," he observed mildly. "I always understood we was Scotch, but I ain't noways bigoted about it. That hangin' business seems to point to us bein' Irish. Did you ever notice how many Irishmen is hanged? Of course, there's lots ain't that ought to be, but the general average is sure high."
"I hope to glory ye boost it wan higher yerself," Quilty retorted. "Small loss 'tw'u'd be to anny wan. A divil iv a desp'rado yez are, wid yer gun an' all! I'm a good mind to swipe yez over th' nut wid me lanthern an' take ut away from yez!"
McHale drew the weapon gently, and spun it on his finger, checking the revolutions six times with startling suddenness. Mr. Quilty watched him sourly.
"Play thricks!" he commented. "Spin a gun! Huh! Why don't yez get a job wid a dhrama that shows the West as it used to wasn't? I knowed wan iv thim gun twirlers wanst. He was a burrd pluggin' tomatty cans an' such—a fair wonder he was. But wan day he starts to make a pinwheel iv his finger forninst a stranger he mistakes fer a tindherfut, an' he gets th' face iv him blowed in be a derringer from that same stranger's coat pocket."
"Sure," McHale agreed. "It was comin' to him. He should have stuck to tomatter cans. Them plays is plumb safe."
"They's no safe play wid a gun," Mr. Quilty declared oracularly. "I'm an owlder man nor ye, an' I worked me way West wid railway construction. I knowed th' owld-time gunmen—the wans they tell stories of. Where are they now? Dead, ivery mother's son iv thim, an' most iv thim got it from a gun. No matther how quick a man is, if he kapes at ut long enough he meets up wid some felly that bates him till it—wanst. And wanst is enough.
"Plenty," McHale agreed. "Sure. The system is not to meet that sport. I don't figure he lives in these parts."
Mr. Quilty blinked at him for a moment, and lowered his voice. "See, now, b'y," said he, "I'm strong for mindin' me own business, but a wink's as good as a nod to a blind horse. Nobody's been hurted hereabouts yet, but keep at ut and some wan will be. I don't want ut to be you or Casey. Go aisy, like a good la-ad."
"I'm easy as a fox-trot," said McHale. "So's Casey. We ain't crowdin' nothin'. Only we're some tired of havin' a hot iron held to our hides. We sorter hate to smell our own hair singein'. We ain't on the prod, but we don't aim to be run off our own range, and that goes as it lies."
He rose, flipping his cigarette through the open window, and inquired for freight. They were expecting a binder and a mower. These had not arrived. McHale looked at the date of his bill of lading, and stated his opinion of the railway.
"Be ashamed, bawlin' out me employers in me prisince," said Mr. Quilty. "G'wan out o' here, before I take a shotgun to yez."
"Come up and have a drink," McHale invited.
"Agin' the rules whin on duty," Quilty refused. "An' I do be on duty whiniver I'm awake. 'Tis prohibition the comp'ny has on me, no less."
McHale rode up the straggling street to Shiller's hotel, and dismounted. Bob Shiller in shirt sleeves sat on the veranda.
"They's a right smart o' dust to-day, Bob," said McHale. "S'pose we sorter sprinkle it some."
"We'll go into one of the back rooms, where it's cooler," proposed Shiller.
"Oh, I'd just as soon go to the bar," said McHale. "Might be some of the boys there. I like to lean up against the wood."
"Well——" Shiller began, and stopped uncertainly.
"Well—what?" McHale demanded.
"Just as well you don't go into the bar right now," Shiller explained. "You had a sort of a run-in with a feller named Cross, hadn't you—you or Casey? He's in there with a couple of his friends—hard-lookin' nuts. He's some tanked, and shootin' off his mouth. We'll have Billy bring us what we want where it's cooler."
McHale kicked a post meditatively three times.
"There's mighty little style about me, Bob," he said. "I'm democratic a lot. Havin' drinks sent up to a private room looks to me a heap like throwin' on dog."
"I asked you," said Shiller. "It's my house. The drinks are on me."
"I spoke of the dust," McHale reminded him. "That makes it my drinks. And then I done asked a man to meet me in the bar. I wouldn't like to keep him waitin'."
"I don't want trouble here," said Shiller positively. "I ask you in a friendly way not to make it."
"Well, I ain't makin' it, am I?" said McHale. "That's all right about not wantin' trouble, but I got other things to think of. This here Cross and Dade and that bunch don't run the country. Mighty funny if I have to drink in a back room for them gents. Next thing you'll want me to climb a tree. I'm allowin' to stop my thirst facin' a mirror with one foot on a rail. I'll do it that way, or you and me won't be friends no more."
"Go to it, then," said Shiller. "You always was a bullhead."
McHale grinned, hitched his holster forward a trifle, and walked toward the bar. As he entered he took a swift survey of its half dozen occupants.
Three of them were regulars, citizens of Coldstream. The others were strangers, and each of them wore a gun down his thigh. They were of the type known as "hard-faced." Cross, a glass in his right hand, was standing facing the door. As it pushed open he turned his head and stared at McHale, whom he did not immediately recognize.
"Come on, friend," said he; "get in on this."
"Sure," said McHale promptly. "A little number nine, Billy. Here's a ho!" He set his glass down, and faced Cross. "Come again, boys. What'll you take with me?"
But Cross swore suddenly. "Well!" he exclaimed. "Look at what blowed in off of one of them dry-ranch layouts!"
McHale smiled blandly, pushing a bottle in his direction.
"Beats all how some things drift about all over the country," he observed. "Tumbleweeds and such. They go rollin' along mighty gay till they bump into a wire fence somewheres."
"It's sure a wonder to me your boss lets you stray this far off," said Cross, with sarcasm. "He needs a man to look after him the worst way. He don't seem to have no sand. I met up with him along our ditch a while back, and I told him to hike. You bet he did. Only that he'd a girl with him I'd have run him clean back to his reservation."
"You want to get a movin'-picture layout," McHale suggested. "That'd make a right good show—you runnin' Casey. You used to work for one of them outfits, didn't you?"
"No. What makes you think I did?"
"Your face looked sorter familiar to me," McHale replied. "Studyin' on it, it seems like I'd seen it in one of them picture shows down in Cheyenne. Right good show, too. It showed a bunch of boys after a hoss thief. He got away."
"Haw-haw!" laughed one of the regulars, and suddenly froze to silence. Billy, behind the bar, stood as if petrified, towel in hand. Cross's face, flushed with liquor, blackened in a ferocious scowl.
"You —— —— ——!" he roared. "What do you mean by that?"
"Mean?" asked McHale innocently. "Why, I was tellin' you about a show I seen. What's wrong with that?"
"You called me a horse thief!" cried Cross.
"Who? Me?" said McHale. "Why, no, Mr. Cross, you ain't no hoss thief. I know different. If anybody says you are, you just send him right along to me. No, sir; I know you ain't. There's two good reasons against it."
Cross glared at him, his fingers beginning to twitch.
"Let's hear them," he said. "If they ain't good you go out of that door feet first."
"They're plumb good—best you ever heard," McHale affirmed. "Now, listen. Here's how I know you ain't no hoss thief: For one thing, you got too much mouth; and for another you ain't got the nerve!"
Out of the dead silence came Shiller's voice from the door:
"I'll fill the first man that makes a move plumb full of buckshot. If there's any shootin' in here, I'm doin' it myself." He held a pump gun at his shoulder, the muzzle dominating the group. "You, Tom," he continued, "you said you wouldn't make trouble."
"Am I makin' it?" asked McHale.
"Are you makin' it?" Shiller repeated. "Oh, no, you ain't. You're a gentle, meek-and-mild pilgrim, you are. I ain't goin' to hold this gun all day, neither. You better hit the high spots. I'll give you time to get on your cayuse and drift. At the end of two minutes this man goes out of that door, and I ain't responsible for what happens. I'm sure sorry, Tom, to treat you like this, but I got my house to consider."
"That's all right, Bob," said McHale. "Looks like you hold the ace. I'll step. Far's I'm concerned you needn't keep them gents two minutes nor one." He turned to the door.
"I'm lookin' for you, McHale," said Cross.
"Come a-runnin'," said McHale. "Bring your friends."
He walked into the middle of the road, turned, and waited. His action attracted little attention. Coldstream was indoors, somnolent with the afternoon heat. Across the street the proprietor of the general store commented lazily to a friend: