"My God!" whispered Hardy, following his flight with startled eyes, and as the rout of cowboys flashed up over the top of Lookout Point and were gone he bowed his head in silence.
"Lucy," he said, at last, "my mind has been far away. I—I have not seen what was before me, and I shall always be the loser. But look—I have two friends in all the world, you and Jeff, and you are the dearer by far. But you could see as Jeff went by that he was mad. What he will do at the river I can only guess; he is crazy, and a crazy man will do anything. But if I am with him I can hold him back—will you let me go?" He held out his hands and as Lucy took them she saw for the first time in his shy eyes—love. For a moment she gazed at him wistfully, but her heart never faltered. Whatever his will might be she would never oppose it, now that she had his love.
"Yes, Rufus," she said, "you may go, but remember—me."
THE LAST CROSSING
The rush and thunder of cow ponies as they hammered over the trail and plunged down through the rocks and trees had hardly lost its echoes in the cliffs when, with a flash of color and a dainty pattering of hoofs, Chapuli came flying over the top of Lookout Point and dashed up the river after them. The cowmen had left their horses in the deep ravine at the end of the malpai bluffs and were already crouched behind the rampart of the rim rocks as close as Indian fighters, each by some loophole in the blackened malpai, with a rifle in his hand. As Hardy crept in from behind, Jeff Creede motioned him to a place at his side greeting him at the same time with a broad grin.
"Hello, sport," he said, "couldn't keep out of it, eh? Well, we need ye, all right. Here, you can hold straighter than I can; take my gun and shoot rainbows around the leaders when they start to come across."
"Not much," answered Hardy, waving the gun away, "I just came down to keep you out of trouble."
"Ye-es!" jeered Creede, "first thing I know you'll be down there fightin' 'em back with rocks. But say," he continued, "d'ye notice anything funny up on that cliff? Listen, now!"
Hardy turned his head, and soon above the clamor of the sheep he made out the faint "Owwp! Owwwp!" of hounds.
"It's Bill Johnson, isn't it?" he said, and Creede nodded significantly.
"God help them pore sheepmen," he observed, "if Bill has got his thirty-thirty. Listen to 'em sing, will ye! Ain't they happy, though? And they don't give a dam' for us—ump-um—they're comin' across anyway. Well, that's what keeps hell crowded—let 'er go!"
There was a glitter of carbines against the opposite cliffs where the spare herders had taken to cover, but out on the rocky point where the chute led into the river a gang of Mexicans and two Americans were leading their wagon cover around a fresh cut of goats and sheep. On the sand bar far below the stragglers from the first cut, turned back in the initial rush, were wandering aimlessly about or plodding back to the herd, but the sheepmen with bullheaded persistence were preparing to try again. Chief among them towered the boss, Jasper Swope, wet to the waist from swimming across the river; and as he motioned to the herders to go ahead he ran back and mounted his mule again. With a barbaric shout the Mexicans surged forward on the tarpaulin, sweeping their cut to the very edge; then, as the goats set their feet and held back, a swarthy herder leapt into the midst and tumbled them, sheep and goats alike, into the water. Like plummets they went down into the slow-moving depths, some headfirst, some falling awkwardly on their backs or slipping like beavers on a slide; there was a prolonged and mighty splash and then, one by one the heads bobbed up and floated away until, led by the high-horned goats, they struck out for the opposite shore. Below, yelling and throwing stones to frighten them, a line of Mexicans danced up and down along the rocky shore, and to keep them from drifting into the whirlpool Jasper Swope plunged boldly into the water on his mule.
Sink or swim, the sheep were in the water, and for a minute there was a tense silence along the river; then, as the goats lined out, a rifle shot echoed from the cliffs and a white column of water rose up before the leader. He shook his head, hesitated and looked back, and once more the water splashed in his face, while the deep ploomp of the bullet answered to the shot. Fighting away from the sudden stroke the goat lost his headway and, drifting, fouled those below him; a sudden confusion fell upon the orderly ranks of the invaders and, like a flock of geese whose leader is killed, they jostled against one another, some intent on the farther shore and some struggling to turn back. Instantly a chorus of savage shouts rose up from along the river, the shrill yells of the cowboys mingling with the whooping and whistling of the sheepmen, until at last, overcome by the hostile clamor, the timid sheep turned back toward the main herd, drawing with them the goats. For a minute Jasper Swope fought against them, waving his hat and shouting; then, rather than see them drift too far and be drawn into the clutch of the whirlpool, he whipped his mule about and led them back to the shore.
A second time, calling out all his men to help, the boss sheepman tried to cross the goats alone, intending to hold them on the shore for a lure; but just as they were well lined out the same careful marksman behind the malpai threw water in their faces and turned them back. But this time Jasper Swope did not lead the retreat. Slapping his black mule over the ears with his hat he held straight for the opposite shore, cursing and brandishing his gun.
"You dam', cowardly passel of tail-twisters!" he cried, shaking his fist at the bluffs, "why don't you come out into the open like men?"
But a grim silence was his only answer.
"Hey, you bold bad man from Bitter Creek, Texas!" he shouted, riding closer to the beach. "Why don't you come down and fight me like a man?" His big voice was trembling with excitement and he held his pistol balanced in the air as if awaiting an attack, but Jefferson Creede did not answer him.
"I'll fight you, man to man, you big blowhard!" thundered Swope, "and there goes my pistol to prove it!" He rose in his stirrups as he spoke and hurled it away from him, throwing his cartridge belt after it. "Now," he yelled, "you've been sayin' what you'd do; come out of your hole, Jeff Creede, I want ye!"
"Well, you won't git me, then," answered Creede, his voice coming cold and impassive from over the rim. "I'll fight you some other time."
"Ahrr!" taunted Swope, "hear the coward talk! Here I stand, unarmed, and he's afraid to come out! But if there's a man amongst you, send him down, and if he licks me I'll go around."
"You'll go around anyhow, you Mormon-faced wool-puller!" replied the cowman promptly, "and we're here to see to it, so you might as well chase yourself."
"No, I like this side," said the sheepman, pretending to admire the scenery. "I'll jest stay here a while, and then I'll cross in spite of ye. If I can't cross here," he continued, "I'll wait for the river to fall and cross down below—and then I'll sheep you to the rocks, you low-lived, skulkin' murderers! It's a wonder some of you don't shoot me the way you did Juan Alvarez, down there." He waved his hand toward the point where the wooden cross rose against the sky, but no one answered the taunt.
"Murderers, I said!" he shouted, rising up in his saddle. "I call you murderers before God A'mighty and there ain't a man denies it! Oh, my Mexicans can see that cross—they're lookin' at it now—and when the river goes down they'll come in on you, if it's only to break even for Juan."
He settled back in his saddle and gazed doubtfully at the bluff, and then at the opposite shore. Nature had placed him at a disadvantage, for the river was wide and deep and his sheep were easy to turn, yet there was still a chance.
"Say," he began, moderating his voice to a more conciliatory key, "I'll tell you what I'll do. There's no use shooting each other over this. Send down your best man—if he licks me I go around; if I lick him I come across. Is it a go?"
There was a short silence and then an argument broke out along the bluff, a rapid fire of exhortation and protest, some urging Creede to take him up, others clamoring for peace.
"No!" shouted Jefferson Creede, raising his voice angrily above the uproar. "I won't do it! I wouldn't trust a sheepman as far as I could throw a bull by the tail! You'd sell your black soul for two bits, Jasp Swope," he observed, peering warily over the top of the rock, "and you'd shoot a man in the back, too!"
"But look at me!" cried Swope, dropping off his mule, "I'm stripped to my shirt; there goes my gun into the water—and I'm on your side of the river! You're a coward, Jeff Creede, and I always knowed it!"
"But my head ain't touched," commented Creede dryly. "I've got you stopped anyhow. What kind of a dam' fool would I be to fight over it?"
"I'll fight ye for nothin', then!" bellowed the sheepman. "I'll—" He stopped abruptly and a great quiet fell upon both shores. From the mouth of the hidden ravine a man had suddenly stepped into the open, unarmed, and now he was coming out across the sands to meet him. It was Rufus Hardy, dwarfed like David before Goliath in the presence of the burly sheepman, but striding over the hard-packed sand with the lithe swiftness of a panther.
"I'll fight you," he said, raising his hand in challenge, but Swope's answer was drowned in a wild yell from Creede.
"Come back here, Rufe, you durn' fool!" he called. "Come back, I tell ye! Don't you know better than to trust a sheepman?"
"Never mind, now," answered Hardy, turning austerely to the bluff. "I guess I can take care of myself."
He swung about and advanced to the stretch of level sand where Swope was standing. "What guarantee do I get," he demanded sharply, "that if I lick you in a fair fight the sheep will go around?"
"You—lick—me!" repeated the sheepman, showing his jagged teeth in a sardonic grin. "Well, I'll tell ye, Willie; if you hit me with that lily-white hand of yourn, and I find it out the same day, I'll promise to stay off'n your range for a year."
"All right," replied Hardy, suddenly throwing away his hat. "You noticed it when I hit you before, didn't you?" he inquired, edging quickly in on his opponent and beginning an amazing bout of shadow boxing. "Well, come on, then!" He laughed as Swope struck out at him, and continued his hectoring banter. "As I remember it your head hit the ground before your heels!"
Then in a whirlwind of blows and feints they came together. It was the old story of science against brute strength. Jasper Swope was a rough-and-tumble fighter of note; he was quick, too, in spite of his weight, and his blows were like the strokes of a sledge; but Hardy did not attempt to stand up against him. For the first few minutes it was more of a chase than a fight, and in that the sheepman was at his worst, cumbered by his wet clothes and the water in his shoes. Time and again he rushed in upon his crouching opponent, who always seemed in the act of delivering a blow and yet at the moment only sidestepped and danced away. The hard wet sand was ploughed and trampled with their tracks, the records of a dozen useless plunges, when suddenly instead of dodging Hardy stepped quickly forward, his "lily-white hand" shot out, and Jasper Swope's head went back with a jerk.
"You son-of-a-goat!" he yelled, as the blood ran down his face, and lowering his head he bored in upon Hardy furiously. Once more Hardy sidestepped, but the moment his enemy turned he flew at him like a tiger, raining blows upon his bloody face in lightning succession.
"Huh!" grunted the sheepman, coughing like a wood-chopper as he struck back through the storm, and the chance blow found its mark. For a moment Hardy staggered, clutching at his chest; but as Swope sprang forward to finish his work he ducked and slipped aside, stumbling like a man about to drop.
A shrill yell went up from the farther shore as Hardy stood swaying in his tracks, and a fierce shout of warning from the bluff; but Jasper Swope was implacable. Brushing the blood from his eyes he stepped deliberately forward and aimed a blow that would have felled an ox, straight at his enemy's head. It missed; the drooping head snapped down like Judy before Punch and rose up again, truculently; then before the sheepman could regain his balance Hardy threw his whole strength into a fierce uppercut that laid Swope sprawling on his back.
A howl of triumph and derision rose up from the rim of the bluff as the burly sheepman went down, but it changed to a sudden shout of warning as he scrambled back to his feet again. There was something indescribably vengeful about him as he whirled upon his enemy, and his hand went inside his torn shirt in a gesture not to be mistaken.
"Look out there, Rufe!" yelled Creede, leaping up from behind his rock pile. "Run! Jump into the river!" But instead Hardy grabbed up a handful of sand and ran in upon his adversary. The pistol stuck for a moment in its hidden sling and as Swope wrenched it loose and turned to shoot, Hardy made as if to close with him and then threw the sand full in his face. It was only an instant's respite but as the sheepman blinked and struck the dirt from his eyes the little cowman wheeled and made a dash for the river. "Look out!" screamed Creede, as the gun flashed out and came to a point, and like a bullfrog Hardy hurled himself far out into the eddying water. Then like the sudden voice of Nemesis, protesting against such treachery, a rifle shot rang out from the towering crags that overshadowed the river and Jasper Swope fell forward, dead. His pistol smashed against a rock and exploded, but the man he had set himself to kill was already buried beneath the turbid waters. So swiftly did it all happen that no two men saw the same—some were still gazing at the body of Jasper Swope; others were staring up at the high cliff whence the shot had come; but Jeff Creede had eyes only for the river and when he saw Hardy's head bob up, halfway to the whirlpool, and duck again to escape the bullets, he leapt up and ran for his horse. Then Bill Johnson's rifle rang out again from the summit of his high cliff, and every man scrambled for cover.
A Mexican herder dropped his gun suddenly and slipped down behind a rock; and his compadres, not knowing from whence the hostile fire came, pushed out their carbines and began to shoot wildly; the deep canyon reverberated to the rattle of thirty-thirtys and the steady crack, crack of the rifle above threw the sheep camp into confusion. There was a shout as Creede dashed recklessly out into the open and the sand leapt up in showers behind him, but Bat Wings was running like the wind and the bullets went wide of their mark.
Swinging beneath the mesquite trees and scrambling madly over stones and bushes he hammered up the slope of Lookout Point and disappeared in a cloud of dirt, but as Hardy drifted around the bend and floated toward the whirlpool there was a crash of brush from down the river and Creede came battering through the trees to the shore. Taking down his reata as he rode he leapt quickly off his horse and ran out on the big flat rock from which they had often fished together. At his feet the turbid current rolled ponderously against the solid wall of rock and, turning back upon itself, swung round in an ever-lessening circle until it sucked down suddenly into a spiral vortex that spewed up all it caught in the boiling channel below. There in years past the lambs and weaklings from the herds above had drifted to their death, but never before had the maelstrom claimed a man.
Swimming weakly with the current Hardy made a last ineffectual effort to gain the bank; then fixing his eyes upon his partner he resigned himself to the drag of the whirlpool, staking his life on a single throw of the rope. Once the plaited rawhide was wetted it would twist and bind in the honda and before Creede could beat it straight and coil it his partner would be far out in the centre of the vortex. Planting his feet firmly on the rock the big cowboy lashed the kinks out of his reata and coiled it carefully; then as the first broad swirl seized its plaything and swung him slowly around Creede let out a big loop and began to swing it about his head, his teeth showing in a tense grin as he fixed his eyes upon the mark. At each turn his wrist flexed and his back swayed with a willowy suppleness but except for that he was like a herculean statue planted upon the point.
The maelstrom heaved and rocked as it swung its victim nearer and like a thing with life seemed suddenly to hurry him past; then as Hardy cried out and held up a hand for help the rope cut through the air like a knife and the loop shot far out across the boiling water. It was a long throw, fifty feet from the rock, and the last coil had left his tense fingers before the noose fell, but it splashed a circle clean and true about the uplifted hand. For a moment the cowboy waited, watching; then as the heavy rope sank behind his partner's shoulders he took in his slack with a jerk. The noose tightened beneath Hardy's arms and held him against the insistent tug of the river; and while the whirlpool roared and foamed against his body Creede hauled him forth roughly, until, stooping down, he gathered him into his arms like a child.
"My God, boy," he said, "you're takin' big chances, for a family man—but say, what did I tell you about sheepmen?"
* * * * *
The Mexicans were still firing random shots along the river when Creede lifted his partner up on Bat Wings and carried him back to Hidden Water. Long before they reached the house they could see Lucy standing in the doorway, and Hardy held himself painfully erect in the saddle, with Creede steadying him from behind; but when Bat Wings halted before the ramada Jeff broke rudely in on the play acting by taking the little man in his arms and depositing him on a bed.
"Fell into the river," he said, turning with a reassuring smile to Lucy, "but he ain't hurt none—only kinder weak, you know. I reckon a little hot tea would help some, bein' as we're out of whiskey, and while you're brewin' it I'll git these wet clothes off. Yes'm, we're havin' a little trouble, but that's only them locoed Mexicans shootin' off their spare ammunition." He dragged up a cot as he spoke and was hurriedly arranging a bed when Lucy interposed.
"Oh, but don't leave him out here!" she protested, "put him back in his own room, where I can take care of him."
"All right," said Creede, and picking him up from his bare cot beneath the ramada he carried Hardy into the little room where he had lived before Lucy Ware came. "I guess your troubles are over for a while, pardner," he remarked, as he tucked him into the clean white bed, and then with a wise look at Lucy he slipped discreetly out the door.
As she entered with the tea Hardy was lying very limp and white against the pillow, but after the hot drink he opened his big gray eyes and looked up at her sombrely.
"Sit down," he said, speaking with elaborate exactness, "I want to tell you something." He reached out and took her hand, and as he talked he clung to it appealingly. "Lucy," he began, "I didn't forget about you when I went down there, but—well, when Jasper Swope came out and challenged us my hair began to bristle like a dog's—and the next thing I knew I was fighting. He said if I licked him he'd go round—but you can't trust these sheepmen. When he saw he was whipped he tried to shoot me, and I had to jump into the river. Oh, I'm all right now, but—listen, Lucy!" He drew her down to him, insistently. "Can't you forgive me, this time?" he whispered, and when she nodded he closed his heavy eyes and fell asleep.
When he awoke in the morning there was nothing to show for his fierce fight with Swope or his battle with the river—nothing but a great weariness and a wistful look in his eyes. But all day while the boys rode back and forth from the river he lay in bed, looking dreamily out through the barred window or following Lucy with furtive glances as she flitted in and out. Whenever she came near he smiled, and often the soft light crept into his eyes, but when by chance he touched her hand or she brushed back his hair a great quiet settled upon him and he turned his face away.
It was Creede who first took notice of his preoccupation and after a series of unsatisfactory visits he beckoned Lucy outside the door with a solemn jerk of the head.
"Say," he said, "that boy's got something on his mind—I can tell by them big eyes of his. Any idee what it is?"
"Why, no," answered Lucy, blushing before his searching gaze, "unless it's the sheep."
"Nope," said Creede, "it ain't that. I tried to talk sheep and he wouldn't listen to me. This here looks kinder bad," he observed, shaking his head ominously. "I don't like it—layin' in bed all day and thinkin' that way. W'y, that'd make me sick!"
He edged awkwardly over to where she was standing and lowered his voice confidentially.
"I'll tell you, Miss Lucy," he said, "I've known Rufe a long time now, and he's awful close-mouthed. He's always thinkin' about something away off yonder, too—but this is different. Now of course I don't know nothin' about it, but I think all that boy needs is a little babyin', to make him fergit his troubles. Yes'm, that boy's lonely. Bein' sick this way has took the heart out of 'im and made 'im sorry for himself, like a kid that wants his mother. And so—well," he said, turning abruptly away, "that's all, jest thought I'd tell you." He pulled down his hat, swung dexterously up on Bat Wings and galloped away down the valley, waving his hand at the barred window as he passed.
Long after the clatter of hoofs had ceased Lucy stood in the shade of the ramada, gazing pensively at the fire-blasted buttes and the tender blue mountains beyond. How could such rugged hillsides produce men who were always gentle, men whose first thought was always of those who loved them and never of fighting and blood? It was a land of hardships and strife and it left its mark on them all. The Rufus that she had known before had seemed different from all other men, and she had loved him for it, even when all his thought was for Kitty; but now in two short years he had become stern and headstrong in his ways; his eyes that had smiled up at her so wistfully when he had first come back from the river were set and steady again like a soldier's, and he lay brooding upon some hidden thing that his lips would never speak. Her mutinous heart went out to him at every breath, now that he lay there so still; at a word she could kneel at his side and own that she had always loved him; but his mind was far away and he took no thought of her weakness. He was silent—and she must be a woman to the end, a voiceless suppliant, a slave that waits, unbidden, a chip on the tide that carries it to some safe haven or hurries it out to sea.
With downcast eyes she turned back into the house, going about her work with the quiet of a lover who listens for some call, and as she passed to and fro she felt his gaze upon her. At last she looked up and when she met his glance she went in and stood beside his bed.
"What is it you want, Rufus?" she asked, and his face lit up suddenly as he answered with his eloquent eyes, but he could not speak the word.
"Who am I?" he murmured, musingly, "to ask for all the world?" But he held close to the little hands and as he felt their yielding his breath came hard and he gazed up at her with infinite tenderness.
"Dear Lucy," he said, "you do not know me. I am a coward—it was born in me—I cannot help it. Not with men!" he cried, his eyes lighting up. "Ah, no; my father was a soldier, and I can fight—but—"
He paused and his vehemence died away suddenly. "Lucy," he began again, still clinging to her hands for courage, "you have never laughed at me—you have always been gentle and patient—I will tell you something. You know how I ran away from Kitty, and how when she came down here I avoided her. I was afraid, Lucy, and yet—well, it is all over now." He sighed and turned restlessly on his pillow. "One day I met her up the river and she—she called me a coward. Not by the word—but I knew. That was the day before the sheep came in through Hell's Hip Pocket, and even Jeff doesn't know of the fights I had that night. I went out yesterday and fought Jasper Swope with my bare hands to wipe the shame away—but it's no use, I'm a coward yet." He groaned and turned his face to the wall but Lucy only sighed and brushed back his hair. For a minute he lay there, tense and still; then as her hand soothed him he turned and his voice became suddenly soft and caressing, as she had always liked it best.
"Don't laugh at me for it, Lucy," he said, "I love you—but I'm afraid." He caught her hands again, gazing up wistfully into her eyes, and when she smiled through her tears he drew her nearer.
"Lucy," he whispered, "you will understand me. I have never kissed any one since my mother died—could—could you kiss me first?"
"Ah, yes, Rufus," she answered, and as their lips met he held her gently in his arms.
THE END OF IT ALL
There is a mocking-bird at Hidden Water that sings the songs of all the birds and whistles for the dog. His nest is in a great cluster of mistletoe in the mesquite tree behind the house and every morning he polishes his long curved bill against the ramada roof, preens out his glossy feathers, and does honor to the sun. For two years, off and on, Hardy had heard him, mimicking orioles and larks and sparrows and whistling shrilly for the dog, but now for the first time his heart answered to the wild joy of the bird lover. The world had taken on light and color over night, and the breeze, sifting in through the barred window, was sweet with the fragrance of untrampled flowers.
April had come, and the grass; the air was untainted; there was no braying by the river—the sheep had gone. It had been bought at the price of blood, but at last there was peace. The dreamy quah, quah of the quail was no longer a mockery of love; their eggs would not be broken in the nest but the mothers would lead forth their little ones; even the ground-doves and the poor-wills, nesting in last year's sheep tracks, would escape the myriad feet—and all because a crazy man, hiding among the cliffs, had shot down Jasper Swope. Without hate or pity Hardy thought of that great hairy fighting-man; the God that let him live would judge him dead—and Bill Johnson too, when he should die. The sheep were gone and Lucy had kissed him—these were the great facts in the world.
They were sitting close together beneath the ramada, looking out upon the sunlit valley and talking dreamily of the old days, when suddenly Hardy edged away and pointed apologetically to the western trail. There in single file came Judge Ware in his linen duster, a stranger in khaki, and a woman, riding astride.
"There comes father!" cried Lucy, springing up eagerly and waving her hand.
"And Kitty," added Hardy, in a hushed voice. Not since they had come had he spoken of her, and Lucy had respected his silence. Except for the vague "Perhaps" with which she had answered Bill Lightfoot's persistent inquiries he had had no hint that Kitty might come, and yet a vague uneasiness had held his eyes to the trail.
"Tell me, Lucy," he said, drawing her back to his side as the party dipped out of sight in the interminable thicket of mesquites, "why have you never spoken of Kitty? Has anything dreadful happened? Please tell me quick, before she comes. I—I won't know what to say." He twisted about and fixed an eye on the doorway, but Lucy held out a restraining hand.
"It has been a great secret," she said, "and you must promise not to tell, but Kitty has been writing a play."
"A play!" exclaimed Hardy, astounded, "why—what in the world is it about?"
"About Arizona, of course," cried Lucy. "Don't you remember how eager she was to hear you men talk? And she collected all those spurs and quirts for stage properties! Why, she wrote books and books full of notes and cowboy words while she was down here and she's been buried in manuscript for months. When she heard that you were having the round-up early this year she was perfectly frantic to come, but they were right in the midst of writing it and she just couldn't get away."
"They?" repeated Hardy, mystified. "Why who—"
"Oh, I forgot," said Lucy, biting her lip. Then in a lower voice she added: "She has been collaborating with Tupper Browne."
"Tupper Browne! Why, what does he know about Arizona?" cried Hardy indignantly, and then, as Lucy looked away, he stopped short.
"Oh!" he said, and then there was a long silence. "Well, Tupper's a good fellow," he remarked philosophically. "But Lucy," he said, starting up nervously as the sound of horses' feet came up from the creek bed, "you'll—you'll do all the talking, won't you?"
"Talking!" repeated Lucy, pausing in her flight. "Why, yes," she called back, laughing. "Isn't that always the woman's part?" And then she fell upon Kitty's neck and kissed her. Hardy came forward with less assurance, but his embarrassment was reduced to a minimum by Judge Ware who, as soon as the first greetings were over, brought forward the mild-mannered gentleman in khaki and introduced him.
"Mr. Shafer," he said, "this is my superintendent, Mr. Hardy. Mr. Shafer represents the United States Forestry Service," he added significantly.
"Ah, then you must bring us good news!" cried Hardy, holding out his hand eagerly.
"Yes," answered the official modestly, but his speech ended with that word.
"I am convinced," began Judge Ware, suddenly quelling all conversation by the earnestness of his demeanor. "I am convinced that in setting aside the Salagua watershed as a National Forest Reserve, our President has added to the record of his good deeds an act of such consummate statesmanship that it will be remembered long after his detractors are forgotten. But for him, millions of acres of public land now set aside as reserves would still be open to the devastation of unrestricted grazing, or have passed irrevocably into the power of this infamous land ring which has been fighting on the floor of Congress to deprive the American people of their rights. But after both houses had passed a bill depriving the executive of his power to proclaim Forest Reserves—holding back the appropriations for the Forestry Service as a threat—he baffled them by a feigned acquiescence. In exchange for the appropriations, he agreed to sign the act—and then, after securing the appropriations, he availed himself of the power still vested in him to set aside this reserve and many other reserves for our children and our children's children—and then, gentlemen, true to his word, he signed the bill!"
Judge Ware shook hands warmly with Mr. Shafer at the end of this speech and wished him all success in protecting the people's domain. It was a great day for the judge, and as soon as Creede and the other cowmen came in with the day's gather of cattle he hastened out to tell them the news.
"And now, gentlemen," he said, holding up his hand to stop the joyous yelling, "I wish to thank you one and all for your confidence in me and in the good faith of our Government. It called for a high order of manhood, I am sure; but in not offering any armed resistance to the incoming of the sheep your loyalty has withstood its supreme test."
"How's that?" inquired Creede, scratching his head doubtfully. Then, divining the abysmal ignorance from which the judge was speaking, he answered, with an honest twinkle in his eye: "Oh, that's all right, Judge. We always try to do what's right—and we're strong for the law, when they is any."
"I'm afraid there hasn't been much law up here in the past, has there?" inquired Mr. Shafer tactfully.
"Well, not so's you'd notice it," replied the big cowboy enigmatically. "But say, Judge," he continued, making a point at the old gentleman's linen duster, "excuse me, but that yaller letter stickin' out of your pocket looks kinder familiar. It's for me, ain't it? Um, thanks; this detective outfit back in St. Louie is tryin' to make me out a millionaire, or somethin' like that, and I'm naturally interested." He tore the letter open, extracted a second epistle from its depths and read it over gravely. "Well, boys," he observed, grinning cheerfully as he tucked it away in his shaps, "my luck always did run in bunches—I'm rich!"
He strode briskly over to the corral, caught up a fresh horse and, riding back to the camp, began to go through his war bag hurriedly. He was in the midst of a feverish packing, throwing away socks and grabbing up shirts, when a gay laugh from the house attracted his attention. He listened for a moment abstractedly; then he flew at his work once more, dumping everything he had out on his bed and stuffing what he needed back into his war bag; but when there came a second peal of laughter, he stopped and craned his neck.
"Well—I'll—be—dam'd!" he muttered, as he recognized the voice, and then he flew at his work again, manhandling everything in sight. He was just roping his enormous bed, preparatory to depositing it in the bunk-house, when Kitty Bonnair stepped out of the house and came toward him, walking like a boy in her dainty riding suit. There was a great noise from the branding pen and as she approached he seemed very intent upon his work, wrestling with his bundle as if he were hog-tying a bull and using language none too choice the while, but Kitty waited patiently until he looked up.
"Why, howdy do, Mr. Creede," she cried, smiling radiantly. "I got a new idea for my play just from seeing you do that work."
The cowboy regarded her sombrely, took a nip or two with his rope's end, jerked the cords tight, and sat down deliberately on the bundle.
"That's good," he said, wiping the sweat from his eyes. "How's tricks?" There was a shadow of irony in his voice but Kitty passed it by.
"Fine and dandy," she answered. "How are you coming?"
"Oh, pretty good," he conceded, rising up and surveying the battlefield, "and I reckon I ain't forgot nothin'," he added meaningly. He kicked his blanket roll, tied his war bag behind the saddle, and hitched up his overalls regally. "Sorry I ain't goin' to see more of you," he observed, slipping his six-shooter into his shaps, "but—"
"What, you aren't going?" cried Kitty, aghast. "Why, I came all the way down here to see you—I'm writing a play, and you're the hero!"
"Ye-es!" jeered Creede, laughing crudely. "I'm Mary's little lamb that got snatched baldheaded to make the baby laugh."
"You're nothing of the kind," retorted Kitty stoutly. "You're the hero in my play that's going to be acted some day on the stage. You kill a Mexican, and win a beautiful girl in the last act!"
"That's good," commented Creede, smiling grimly, "but say, that Mex. will keep, won't he—because I'm due back in St. Louie."
"Oh!" cried Kitty, clasping her hands in despair. "St. Louis! And won't I ever see you any more?"
"Well, you might," conceded the cowboy magnanimously, "if you wait around long enough."
"But I can't wait! I've got to finish my last act, and I came clear down here, just to hear you talk. You can't imagine how interesting you are, after living up there in the city," she added naively.
"No," grumbled Creede, picking up his bridle lash, "but say, I've got to be goin'!" He hooked a boot negligently into the stirrup and looked back over his shoulder. "Anything else I can do for you?" he inquired politely.
"Oh, you dear Jeff!" cried Kitty ecstatically, "yes! Do come back here and let me tell you!" He kicked his foot reluctantly out of the stirrup and stalked back, huge and commanding as ever, but with a puzzled look in his eye.
"Bend your head down, so I can whisper it," she coaxed, and brute-like he bowed at her bidding. She whispered a moment eagerly, added a word, and pushed his head away. For a minute he stood there, thinking ponderously; then very deliberately he pulled his six-shooter out of his shaps and handed it over to her.
"All right," he said, "but say"—he beckoned her with an inexorable jerk of the head—"what do I git, now?" He looked down upon her as he had on the morning they had parted, out behind the corral, and the hot blood leaped into Kitty Bonnair's cheeks at the memory of that kiss. For a moment she hesitated, twisting her trim boot into the ground, then she drew the coveted pistol from her belt and handed it back.
"Well, since you insist," he said, and very sternly he thrust the redeemed weapon back into his shaps. A change came over him as he regarded her; there was an austere tightening of his lips and his eyes glowed with a light that Kitty had never seen before.
"That was a rough deal you gave me, girl," he said, his voice vibrant with anger, "and I ain't forgotten it. You dropped your rope over my horns and gave me a little run and then you took your turns and busted me like a wild steer! And then maybe you laughed a little," he suggested, with a searching glance. "No? Well, it's all right, as far as I'm concerned—my hide's whole, and I'm rope-wise—but I'll tell you, Miss Kitty, if you'd jest keep this gun of mine and shoot some feller once in a while we'd all enjoy it more." He paused, and as Kitty stood downcast before this sudden censure he smiled to himself, and a twinkle of mischief crept into his masterful eyes.
"But don't mind a little thing like that, girl," he said, throwing out his hands largely. "You don't lose no friends by tryin' to educate us a little—ump-umm! Of course I'm kinder sore over that letter, but you look good to me yet, Kitty!"
"Why—Mr. Creede!" faltered Kitty, looking up.
"That's right," asserted Creede, lowering his voice confidentially, "they was something about you that caught my eye the first time I saw you." He laughed, showing all his white teeth, and at the same time his eyes were very grave.
"Come over here," he said, "and I'll tell you what it was. No—I won't kiss you—come on up close." Wondering at her own acquiescence, Kitty Bonnair obeyed, and with a mysterious smile he stooped down until his lips were close to her ear.
"You remind me of my girl," he whispered, "back in St. Louie!" And then with a great laugh he broke away and leapt triumphantly into the saddle.
"Whoop-eee!" he yelled. "Watch me fly!" And spreading his arms like a bird he thundered away down the western trail.
There was a strange stillness about the old ranch house when Kitty came back to it and she wondered vaguely where Lucy and Rufus were, but as she stepped inside the dirt ramada the quiet seemed to lay its spell upon her and she halted by the doorway, waiting for a last glimpse of Jeff as he went up over the western rim. The bawling of cattle and the shrill yells of the cowboys no longer tempted her to the parada ground—she was lonely, and there was no one who cared for her. Yet, somewhere within, she could hear the murmur of voices, and at last when she could endure it no longer she turned and entered quickly. The big living-room where they had so often sat together was vacant now, but Hardy's door was open, and as she looked in she saw them standing together—Lucy with downcast eyes, and Rufus, holding both her hands. It was all very innocent and lover-like, but when their lips met she turned and fled to her room.
Half an hour later Kitty emerged from her hiding, robed like a woman; there was a new grace about her as she stood before them, a new dignity, and she wore fresh flowers in her hair, forget-me-nots, picked from among the rocks as she rode toward Hidden Water.
"Bless you, my children," she said, smiling and holding out her hands, "I shall die an old maid." And then she kissed them both.