It was noticeable that Torrance took the pains to confirm this fact by reference to a railroad schedule, and, finding it incontrovertible, shook his head.
"Three of them," he said.
Then he sat still with the letter in his hand, while a trace of tenderness crept into his face, which, however, grew grave again, until there was a tapping at the door, and Clavering came in.
"You seem a trifle worried, sir, and if you're busy I needn't keep you long," he said. "I just wanted to hand you a cheque for the subscription you paid for me."
"Sit down," said Torrance. "Where did you get the dollars from?"
Clavering appeared almost uneasy for a moment, but he laughed. "I've been thinning out my cattle."
"That's not a policy I approve of just now. We'll have the rabble down upon us as soon as we show any sign of weakening."
Clavering made a little deprecatory gesture. "It wasn't a question of policy. I had to have the dollars. Still, you haven't told me if you have heard anything unpleasant from the other committees."
Torrance appeared thoughtful. He suspected that Clavering's ranch was embarrassed, and the explanation was plausible.
"No," he said. "It was something else. Hetty is on her way home, and she is bringing another young woman and a maid with her. They will be here before I can stop them. Still, I could, if it was necessary, send them back."
Clavering did not answer for a moment, though Torrance saw the faint gleam in his dark eyes, and watched him narrowly. Then he said, "You will find a change in Miss Torrance, sir. She has grown into a beautiful young woman, and has, I fancy, been taught to think for herself in the city; you could not expect her to come back as she left the prairie. And if anything has induced her to decide that her place is here, she will probably stay."
"You're not quite plain. What could induce her?"
Clavering smiled, though he saw that the shot had told. "It was astonishing that Miss Torrance did not honour me with her confidence. A sense of duty, perhaps, although one notices that the motives of young women are usually a trifle involved. It, however, appears to me that if Miss Torrance makes up her mind to stay, we are still quite capable of guarding our women from anxiety or molestation."
"Yes," said Torrance grimly. "Of course. Still, we may have to do things we would sooner they didn't hear about or see. Well, you have some news?"
Clavering nodded. "I was in at the railroad, and fifty Dakota men came in on the cars. I went round to the hotel with the committee, and, though it cost some dollars to fix the thing, they wouldn't take them in. The boys, who got kind of savage, found a pole and drove the door in, but we turned the Sheriff, who had already sworn some of us in, loose on them. Four or five men were nastily clubbed, and one of James's boys was shot through the arm, while I have a fancy that the citizens would have stood in with the other crowd; but seeing they were not going to get anything to eat there, they held up a store, and as we told the man who kept it how their friends had sacked Regent, he fired at them. The consequence is that the Sheriff has some of them in jail, and the rest are camped down on the prairie. We hold the town."
"Through the Sheriff?"
Clavering laughed. "He'll earn his pay. Has it struck you that this campaign is going to cost us a good deal? Allonby hasn't much left in hand already."
"Oh, yes," said the older man, with a little grim smile. "If it's wanted I'll throw my last dollar in. Beaten now and we're beaten for ever. We have got to win."
Clavering said nothing further, though he realized, perhaps more clearly than his leader, that it was only by the downfall of the cattle-men the small farmer could establish himself, and, when he had handed a cheque to Torrance, went out.
It was three days later when Hetty Torrance rose from her seat in a big vestibule car as the long train slackened speed outside a little Western station. She laughed as she swept her glance round the car.
"Look at it, Flo," she said; "gilding and velvet and nickel, all quite in keeping with the luxury of the East. You are environed by civilization still; but once you step off the platform there will be a difference."
Flora Schuyler, who noticed the little flush in her companion's face, glanced out of the dusty window, for the interior of the gently-rocking car, with its lavish decoration and upholstery, was not new to her, and the first thing that caught her eye was the miscellaneous deposit of rubbish, old boots, and discarded clothing, amidst the willows that slowly flitted by. Then she saw a towering water-tank, wooden houses that rose through a haze of blowing dust, hideous in their unadornment, against a crystalline sky, and a row of close-packed stock-cars which announced that they were in the station.
It seemed to be thronged with the populace, and there was a murmur, apparently of disappointed expectancy, when, as the cars stopped, the three women alone appeared on the platform. Then there was a shout for the conductor, and somebody said, "You've no rustlers aboard for us?"
"No," said the grinning official who leaned out from the door of the baggage-car. "The next crowd are waiting until they can buy rifles to whip you with."
Hoarse laughter followed, and somebody said, "Boys, your friends aren't coming. You can take your band home again."
Then out of the clamour came the roll of a drum, and, clear and musical, the ringing of bugles blown by men who had marched with Grant and Sherman when they were young. The effect was stirring, and a cheer went up, for there were other men present in whom the spirit which, underlying immediate issues, had roused the North to arms was living yet; but it broke off into laughter when, one by one, discordant instruments and beaten pans joined in. The din, however, ceased suddenly, when somebody said, "Hadn't you better let up, boys, or Torrance will figure you sent the band for him?"
Miss Schuyler appeared a trifle bewildered, the maid frightened; but Hetty's cheeks were glowing.
"Flo," she said, "aren't you glad you came? The boys are taking the trail. We'll show you how we stir the prairie up by and by!"
Miss Schuyler was very doubtful as to whether the prospect afforded her any pleasure; but just then a grey-haired man, dressed immaculately in white shirt and city clothes, kissed her companion, and then, taking off his hat, handed her down from the platform with ceremonious courtesy. He had a grim, forceful face, with pride and command in it, and Miss Schuyler, who felt half afraid of him then, never quite overcame the feeling. She noticed, however, that he paid equal attention to the terrified maid.
"It would be a duty to do our best for any of Hetty's friends who have been so kind to her in the city, but in this case it's going to be a privilege, too," he said. "Well, you will be tired, and they have a meal waiting you at the hotel. This place is a little noisy to-day, but we'll start on the first stage of your journey when you're ready."
He gave Miss Schuyler his arm, and moved towards the thickest of the crowd, which, though apparently slightly hostile, made way for him. Here and there a man drove his fellows back, and one, catching up a loose plank, laid it down for the party to cross the rail switches on. Torrance turned to thank him, but the man swept his hat off with a laugh.
"I wouldn't worry; it wasn't for you," he said. "It's a long while since we've seen anything so pretty as Miss Torrance and the other one."
Flora Schuyler flushed a little, but Hetty turned to the speaker with a sparkle in her eyes.
"Now," she said, "that was 'most worth a dollar, and if I didn't know what kind of man you were, I'd give it you. But what about Clarkson's Lou?"
There was a laugh from the assembly, and the man appeared embarrassed.
"Well," he said slowly, "she went off with Jo."
Miss Torrance nodded sympathetically. "Still, if she knew no better than that, I wouldn't worry. Jo had a cast in his eye."
The crowd laughed again, and Flora Schuyler glanced at her companion with some astonishment as she asked, "Do you always talk to them that way?"
"Of course," said Hetty. "They're our boys—grown right here. Aren't they splendid?"
Miss Schuyler once more appeared dubious, and made no answer; but she noticed that the man now preceded them, and raised his hand when they came up with the band, which had apparently halted to indulge in retort or badinage with some of those who followed them.
"Hold on a few minutes, boys, and down with that flag," he said.
Then a tawdry banner was lowered suddenly between two poles, but not before Miss Torrance had seen part of the blazoned legend. Its unvarnished forcefulness brought a flush to her companion's cheek.
"Dad," she asked more gravely, "what is it all about?"
Torrance laughed a little. "That," he said, "is a tolerably big question. It would take quite a long while to answer it."
They had a street to traverse, and Hetty saw that it was filled with little knots of men, some of whom stared at her father, though as she passed their hats came off. Miss Schuyler, on her part, noticed that most of the stores were shut, and felt that she had left New York a long way behind as she glanced at the bare wooden houses cracked by frost and sun, rickety plank walks, whirling wisps of dust, and groups of men, splendid in their lean, muscular symmetry and picturesque apparel. There was a boldness in their carriage, and a grace that approached the statuesque in every poise. Still, she started when they passed one wooden building where blue-shirted figures with rifles stood motionless in the verandah.
"The jail," said Torrance, quietly. "The Sheriff has one or two rioters safe inside there."
They found an indifferent meal ready at the wooden hotel, and when they descended in riding dress a wagon with their baggage was waiting outside the door, while a few mounted men with wide hats and bandoliers came up with three saddle-horses. Torrance bestowed the maid in the light wagon, and, when the two girls were mounted, swung himself into the saddle. Then, as they trotted down the unpaved street, Hetty glanced at him and pointed to the dusty horsemen.
"What are the boys for?" she asked.
Torrance smiled grimly. "I told you we had our troubles. It seemed better to bring them, in case we had any difficulty with Larry's friends."
"Larry's friends?" asked Hetty, almost indignantly.
Torrance nodded. "Yes," he said. "You have seen a few of them. They were carrying the flag with the inscription at the depot."
Hetty asked nothing further, but Flora Schuyler noticed the little flash in her eyes, and as they crossed the railroad track the clear notes of the bugles rose again and were followed by a tramp of feet. Glancing over their shoulders the girls could see men moving in a body, with the flag they carried tossing amidst the dust. They were coming on in open fours, and when the bugles ceased deep voices sent a marching song ringing across the wooden town.
Hetty's eyes sparkled; the stockriders seemed to swing more lightly in their saddles, and Flora Schuyler felt a little quiver run through her. Something that jingling rhythm and the simple words expressed but inarticulately stirred her blood, as she remembered that in her nation's last great struggle the long battalions had limped on, ragged and footsore, singing that song.
"Listen," said Hetty, while the colour crept into her face. "Oh, I know it's scarcely music, and the crudest verse; but it served its purpose, and is there any nation on earth could put more swing and spirit into the grandest theme?"
Torrance smiled somewhat drily, but there was a curious expression in his face. "Some of those men are drawing their pension, but they're not with us," he said. "It's only because we have sent in all the boys we can spare that the Sheriff, who has their partners in his jail, can hold the town."
A somewhat impressive silence followed this, and Flora Schuyler glanced at Hetty when they rode out into the white prairie with two dusty men with bandoliers on either flank.
Events of no apparent moment have extensive issues now and then, and while cattle-man and homesteader braced themselves for the conflict which they felt would come, the truce might have lasted longer but for the fact that one night Muller slept indifferently in the new house he had built. He was never quite sure what made him restless, or prompted him to open and lean out of his window; and, when he had done this, he saw and heard nothing unusual for a while.
On one hand the birch bluff rose, a dusky wall, against the indigo of the sky, and in front of him the prairie rolled away, silent and shadowy. There was scarcely a sound but the low ripple of the creek, until, somewhere far off in the distance, a coyote howled. The drawn-out wail had in it something unearthly, and Muller, who was by no means an imaginative man, shivered a little. The deep silence of the great empty land emphasized by the sound reacted upon him and increased his restlessness.
Scarcely knowing why he did so, except that he felt he could not sleep, he slipped on a few garments, and moved softly to the door, that he might not disturb his daughter. There was no moon when he went out, but the stars shone clearly in the great vault of blue, and the barns and stables he had built rose black against the sky. Though Grant had lent him assistance and he had hewn the lumber on the spot, one cannot build a homestead and equip it for nothing, and when he had provided himself with working horses, Muller had sunk the last of his scanty capital in the venture. It was perhaps this fact which induced him to approach the stable, moving noiselessly in his slippers, and glance within.
The interior was black and shadowy, but there was no doubting the fact that the beasts were moving restlessly. Muller went in, holding his breath as he peered about him, and one broncho backed away as he approached its stall. Muller patted it on the flank, and the horse stood still, as though reassured, when it recognized him, which was not without its meaning. He listened, but hearing nothing groped round the stable, and taking a hayfork went out as softly as he had entered, and took up his post in the deepest shadow, where he commanded outbuildings and house. There was, he knew, nobody but Grant dwelling within several leagues of him, and as yet property was at least as safe in that country as it was in Chicago or New York; but as he leaned, impassively watchful, against the wall, he remembered an episode which had happened a few weeks earlier.
He had been overtaken by a band of stockriders when fording the creek with his daughter, and one who loitered behind them reined his horse in and spoke to the girl. Muller never knew what his words had been; but he saw the sudden colour in the fraeulein's face, and seized the man's bridle. An altercation ensued, and when the man rejoined his comrades, who apparently did not sympathize with him, his bridle hand hung limp and the farmer was smiling as he swung a stick. Muller attached no especial importance to the affair; but Grant, who did not tell him so, differed in this when he heard of it. He knew that the cattle-rider is usually rather chivalrous than addicted to distasteful gallantries.
In any case, Muller heard nothing for a while, and felt tempted to return to his bed when he grew chilly. He had, however, spent bitter nights stalking the franc tireurs in the snow, and the vigilance taught and demanded by an inflexible discipline had not quite deserted him, though he was considerably older and less nimble now. At last, however, a dim, moving shadow appeared round a corner of the building, stopped a moment, and then slid on again towards the door. So noiseless was it that Muller could almost have believed his eyes had deceived him until he heard the hasp rattle. Still, he waited until the figure passed into the stable, and then very cautiously crept along the wall. Muller was not so vigorous as he had been when proficiency in the use of the bayonet had been drilled into him; but while his fingers tightened on the haft of the fork he fancied that he had still strength enough to serve his purpose. He had also been taught to use it to the best advantage.
He straightened himself a little when he stood in the entrance and looked about him. There was a gleam of light in the stable now, for a lantern stood upon a manger and revealed by its uncertain glimmer a pile of prairie hay, with a kerosene-can upon it, laid against the logs. Muller was not wholly astonished, but he was looking for more than that, and the next moment he saw a shadowy object apparently loosing the nearest horse's halter. It was doubtless a merciful deed, but it was to cost the incendiary dear; for when, perhaps warned by some faint sound, he looked up suddenly, he saw a black figure between him and the door.
On the instant he dropped the halter, and the hand that had held it towards his belt; but, as it happened, the horse pinned him against the stall, and his opportunity had passed when it moved again. Muller had drawn his right leg back with his knee bent a trifle, and there was a rattle as he brought the long fork down to the charge. Thus, when the man was free the deadly points twinkled in a ray from the lantern within a foot of his breast. It was also unpleasantly evident that a heave of the farmer's shoulder would bury them in the quivering flesh.
"Hands oop!" a stern voice said.
The man delayed a second. The butt of the pistol that would equalize the affair was almost within his grasp, and Muller stood in the light, but he saw an ominous glint in the pale blue eyes and the farmer's fingers tighten on the haft. There was also a suggestive raising of one shoulder; and his hands went up above his head. Muller advanced the points an inch or two, stiffening his right leg, and smiled grimly. The other man stared straight in front of him with dilated eyes, and a little grey patch growing larger in either cheek.
"Are you going to murder me, you condemned Dutchman?" he said.
"Yes," said Muller tranquilly, "if you der movement make. So! It is done without der trouble when you have der bayonet exercise make."
The points gleamed as they swung forward, and the man gasped; but they stopped at the right second, and Muller, who had hove his burly form a trifle more upright, sank back again, bringing his foot down with a stamp. The little demonstration was more convincing than an hour of argument.
"Well," said the man hoarsely, "I'm corralled. Throw that thing away, and I'll give you my pistol."
Muller laughed, and then raised his great voice in what was to the other an unknown tongue. "Lotta," he said, "Come quick, and bring the American rifle."
There was silence for perhaps five minutes, and the men watched each other, one white in the face and quivering a little, his adversary impassive as a statue, but quietly observant. Then there was a patter of hasty footsteps, and the fraeulein stood in the lantern light with a flushed, plump face and somewhat scanty dress. She apparently recognized the man, and her colour deepened, but that was the only sign of confusion she showed; and it was evident that the discipline of the fatherland had not been neglected in Muller's household.
"Lotta," he said in English, "open der little slide. You feel der cartridge? Now, der butt to der shoulder, und der eye on der sight, as I have teach you. Der middle of him is der best place. I shout, und you press quite steady."
He spoke with a quiet precision that had its effect; and, whatever the girl felt, she obeyed each command in rotation. There was, however, one danger which the stranger realized, and that was that with an involuntary contraction of the forefinger she might anticipate the last one.
"She'll shoot me before she means to," he said, with a little gasp. "Come and take the condemned pistol."
"Der middle of him!" said Muller tranquilly. "No movement make, you!"
Dropping the fork he moved forward, not in front of the man, but to his side, and whipped the pistol from his belt.
"One turn make," he said. "So! Your hand behind you. Lotta, you will now a halter get."
The girl's loose bodice rose and fell as she laid down the rifle, but she was swift, and in less than another minute Muller had bound his captive's hands securely behind his back and cross-lashed them from wrist to elbow. He inspected the work critically and then nodded, as if contented.
"Lotta," he said, "put der saddle on der broncho horse. Then in der house you der cordial find, und of it one large spoonful mit der water take. My pipe you bring me also, und then you ride for Mr. Grant."
The girl obeyed him; and when the drumming of horse-hoofs died away Muller sat down in front of his prisoner, who now lay upon a pile of prairie hay, and with his usual slow precision lighted his big meerschaum. The American watched him for a minute or two, and then grew red in the face as a fit of passion shook him.
"You condemned Dutchman!" he said.
Muller laughed. "Der combliment," he said, "is nod of much use to-night."
It was an hour later when Grant and several horsemen arrived, and he nodded as he glanced at the prisoner.
"I figured it was you. There's not another man on the prairie mean enough for this kind of work," he said, pointing to the kerosene-can. "You didn't even know enough to do it decently, and you're about the only American who'd have let an old man tie his hands."
The prisoner winced perceptibly. "Well," he said hoarsely, glancing towards the hayfork, rifle, and pistol, which still lay at Muller's feet, "if you're astonished, look at the blamed Dutchman's armoury."
"I've one thing to ask you," Grant said sternly. "It's going to pay you to be quite straight with me. Who hired you?"
There was defiance in the incendiary's eyes, but Grant was right in his surmise that he was resolute only because that of the two fears which oppressed him he preferred to bear the least.
"You can ask till you get sick of it, but you'll get nothing out of me," he said.
"Take him out," said Grant. "Put him on to the led horse. If you'll come round to my place for breakfast, I'll be glad to see you, Muller."
"I come," said Muller. "Mit der franc tireur it is finish quicker, but here in der Republic we reverence have for der law."
Grant laughed a little. "Well," he said drily, "I'm not quite sure."
He swung himself to the saddle, swept off his hat to the girl, who stood with the lantern light upon her in the doorway, smiling but flushed, and shook his bridle. Then there was a jingle that was lost in the thud of hoofs, and the men vanished into the shadowy prairie. Half an hour later the homestead was once more dark and silent; but three men sent out by Grant were riding at a reckless gallop across the great dusky levels, and breakfast was not finished when those whom they had summoned reached Fremont ranch.
They were young men for the most part, and Americans, though there were a few who had only just become so among them, and two or three whose grim faces and grey hair told of a long struggle with adversity. They were clad in blue shirts and jean, and the hard brown hands of most betokened a close acquaintance with plough stilt, axe, and bridle, though here and there one had from his appearance evidently lived delicately. All appeared quietly resolute, for they knew that the law which had given them the right to build their homes upon that prairie as yet left them to bear the risks attached to the doing of it. Hitherto, the fact that the great ranchers had made their own laws and enforced them had been ignored or tacitly accepted by the State.
When they were seated, one of the men deputed to question the prisoner, stood up. "You can take it that there's nothing to be got out of him," he said.
"Still," said another, "we know he is one of Clavering's boys."
There was a little murmur, for of all the cattle-barons Clavering was the only man who had as yet earned his adversaries' individual dislike. They were prepared to pull down the others because their interests, which they had little difficulty in fancying coincided with those of their country, demanded it; but Clavering, with his graceful insolence, ironical contempt of them, and thinly-veiled pride, was a type of all their democracy anathematized. More than one of them had winced under his soft laugh and lightly spoken jibes, which rankled more than a downright injury.
"The question is what we're going to do with him," said a third speaker.
Again the low voices murmured, until a man stood up. "There's one cure for his complaint, and that's a sure one, but I'm not going to urge it now," he said. "Boys, we don't want to be the first to take up the rifle, and it would make our intentions quite as plain if we dressed him in a coat of tar and rode him round the town. Nobody would have any use for him after that, and it would be a bigger slap in Clavering's face than anything else we could do to him."
Some of the men appeared relieved, for it was evident they had no great liking for the sterner alternative; and there was acclamation until Grant rose quietly at the head of the table.
"I've got to move a negative," he said. "It would be better if you handed him to the Sheriff."
There was astonishment in most of the faces, and somebody said, "The Sheriff! He'd let him go right off. The cattle-men have got the screw on him."
"Well," said Larry quietly, "he has done his duty so far, and may do it again. I figure we ought to give him the chance."
Exclamations of dissent followed, and a man with a grim, lean face stood up. He spoke tolerable English, but his accent differed from that of the rest.
"The first man put it straight when he told you there was only one cure—the one they found out in France a hundred years ago," he said. "You don't quite realize it yet. You haven't lived as we did back there across the sea, and seen your women thrust off the pavement into the gutter to make room for an officer, or been struck with the sword-hilt if you resented an insult before your fellow citizens. Will you take off your hats to the rich men who are trampling on you, you republicans, and, while they leave you the right of speech, beg them to respect your rights and liberties? Do that, and sit still a little, and they'll fasten the yoke we've groaned under on your necks."
"I don't know that it isn't eloquent, but it isn't business," said somebody.
The man laughed sardonically. "That's where you're wrong," he said. "I'm trying to show you that if you want your liberties you've got to fight for them, and your leader doesn't seem to know when, by hanging one man, he can save a hundred from misery. It's not the man who laid the kindling you're striking at, but, through him, those who employed him. Let them see you'll take your rights without leave of them. They've sent you warning that if you stay here they'll burn your homesteads down, and they're waiting your answer. Hang their firebug where everyone can see him, in the middle of the town."
It was evident that the men were wavering. They had come there with the law behind them, but, from their youth up, some following visions that could never be realized, had hated the bureaucrat, and the rest, crippled by the want of dollars, had fought with frost and drought and hail. It was also plain that they felt the capture of the incendiary had given them an opportunity. Then, when a word would have turned the scale, Grant stood up at the head of the table, very resolute in face.
"I still move a negative and an amendment, boys," he said. "First, though that's not the most important, because I've a natural shrinking from butchering an unarmed man. Secondly, it was not the cattle-men who sent him, but one of them, and just because he meant to draw you on it would be the blamedest bad policy to humour him. Would Torrance, or Allonby, or the others, have done this thing? They're hard men, but they believe they're right, as we do, and they're Americans. Now for the third reason: when Clavering meant to burn Muller's homestead, he struck at me, guessing that some of you would stand behind me. He knew your temper, and he'd have laughed at us as hot-blooded rabble—you know how he can do it—when he'd put us in the wrong. Well, this time we'll give the law a show."
There was discussion, but Larry sat still, saying nothing further, with a curious gravity in his face, until a man stood up again.
"We think you're right," he said. "Still, there's a question. What are you going to do if they try again?"
"Strike," said Larry quietly. "I'll go with you to the hanging of the next one."
Nothing more was said, and the men rode away with relief in their faces, though three of them, girt with rifle and bandolier, trotted behind the wagon in which the prisoner sat.
LARRY PROVES INTRACTABLE
It was some little time after her arrival at Cedar Range when Miss Torrance, who took Flora Schuyler with her, rode out across the prairie. There were a good many things she desired to investigate personally, and, though a somewhat independent young woman, she was glad that the opportunity of informing Torrance of her intention was not afforded her, since he had ridden off somewhere earlier in the day. It also happened that although the days were growing colder she arrayed herself fastidiously in a long, light skirt, which she had not worn since she left Cedar, and which with the white hat that matched it became her better than the conventional riding attire. Miss Schuyler naturally noticed this.
"Is it a garden party we are going to?" she asked.
Hetty laughed. "We may meet some of our neighbours, and after staying with you all that while in New York I don't want to go back on you. I had the thing specially made in Chicago for riding in."
Miss Schuyler was not quite satisfied, but she made no further comment, and there was much to occupy her attention. The bleached plain was bright with sunshine and rolled back into the distance under an arch of cloudless blue, while the crisp, clear air stirred her blood like an elixir. They swept up a rise and down it, the colour mantling in their faces, over the long hollow, and up a slope again, until, as the white grass rolled behind her, Flora Schuyler yielded to the exhilaration of swift motion, and, flinging off the constraint of the city, rejoiced in the springy rush of the mettlesome beast beneath her. Streaming white levels, the blue of the sliding sky, the kiss of the wind on her hot cheek, and the roar of hoofs, all reacted upon her until she laughed aloud when she hurled her half-wild broncho down a slope.
"This is surely the finest country in the world," she said.
The words were blown behind her, but Hetty caught some of them, and, when at last she drew bridle where a rise ran steep and seamed with badger-holes against the sky, nodded with a little air of pride.
"Oh, yes, and it's ours. All of it," she said. "Worth fighting for, isn't it?"
Flora Schuyler laughed a little, but she shook her head. "It's a pity one couldn't leave that out. You would stay here with your men folk if there was trouble?"
Hetty looked at her with a little flash in her eyes. "Why, of course! It's our country. We made it, and I'd go around in rags and groom the boys' horses if it would help them to whip out the men who want to take it from us."
Flora Schuyler smiled a trifle drily. "The trouble is that when we fall out, one is apt to find as good Americans as we are, and sometimes the men we like the most, standing in with the opposition. It has happened quite often since the war."
Hetty shook her bridle impatiently. "Then, of course, one would not like them any longer," she said.
Nothing more was said until they crossed the ridge above them, when Hetty pulled her horse up. Across the wide levels before her advanced a line of dusty teams, the sunlight twinkling on the great breaker ploughs they hauled, while the black loam rolled in softly gleaming waves behind them. They came on with slow precision, and in the forefront rolled a great machine that seamed and rent the prairie into triple furrows.
"What are they doing there? Do they belong to you?" asked Miss Schuyler.
The flush the wind had brought there turned to a deeper crimson in Hetty's usually colourless face. "To us!" she said, and her voice had a thrill of scorn. "They're homesteaders. Ride down. I want to see who's leading them."
She led the way with one little gloved hand clenched on the dainty switch she held; but before she reached the foremost team the man who pulled it up sprang down from the driving-seat of the big machine. A tall wire fence, with a notice attached to it, barred his way. The other ploughs stopped behind him, somebody brought an axe, and Hetty set her lips when the glistening blade whirled high and fell. Thrice it flashed in the sunlight, swung by sinewy arms, and then, as the fence went down, a low, half-articulate cry rose from the waiting men. It was not exultant, but there was in it the suggestion of a steadfast purpose.
Hetty sat still and looked at them, a little sparkle in her dark eyes, and a crimson spot in either cheek, while the laces that hung from her neck across the bodice of the white dress rose and fell. It occurred to Flora Schuyler that she had never seen her companion look half so well, and she waited with strained expectancy for what should follow, realizing, with the dramatic instinct most women have, who the man with the axe must be. He turned slowly, straightening his back and stood for a moment erect and statuesque, with the blue shirt open at his bronzed neck and the great axe gleaming in his hand; and Hetty gasped. Miss Schuyler's surmise was verified, for it was Larry Grant.
"Larry," said her companion, and her voice had a curious ring, "what are you doing here?"
The man, who appeared to ignore the question, swung off his wide hat. "Aren't you and Miss Schuyler rather far from home?" he asked.
Flora Schuyler understood him when, glancing round, she noticed the figure of a mounted man forced up against the skyline here and there. Hetty, however, had evidently not seen them.
"I want an answer, please," she said.
"Well," said Larry gravely, "I was cutting down that fence."
"Why were you cutting it down?" persisted Miss Torrance.
"It was in the way."
Grant turned and pointed to the men, sturdy toilers starved out of bleak Dakota and axe-men farmers from the forests of Michigan. "Of these, and the rest who are coming by and by," he said. "Still, I don't want to go into that; and you seem angry. You haven't offered to shake hands with me, Hetty."
Miss Torrance sat very still, one hand on the switch, and another on the bridle, looking at him with a little scornful smile on her lips. Then she glanced at the prairie beyond the severed fence.
"That land belongs to my friends," she said.
Grant's face grew a trifle wistful, but his voice was grave. "They have had the use of it, but it belongs to the United States, and other people have the right to farm there now. Still, that needn't make any trouble between you and me."
"No?" said the girl, with a curious hardness in her inflection; but her face softened suddenly. "Larry, while you only talked we didn't mind; but no one fancied you would have done this. Yes, I'm angry with you. I have been home 'most a month, and you never rode over to see me; while now you want to talk politics."
Grant smiled a trifle wearily. "I would sooner talk about anything else; and if you ask him, your father will tell you why I have not been to the range. I don't want to make you angry, Hetty."
"Then you will give up this foolishness and make friends with us again," said the girl, very graciously. "It can't come to anything, Larry, and you are one of us. You couldn't want to take away our land and give it to this rabble?"
Hetty was wholly bewitching, as even Flora Schuyler, who fancied she understood the grimness in the man's face, felt just then. He, however, looked away across the prairie, and the movement had its significance to one of the company, who, having less at stake, was the more observant. When he turned again, however, he seemed to stand very straight.
"I'm afraid I can't," he said.
"No?" said Hetty, still graciously. "Not even when I ask you?"
Grant shook his head. "They have my word, and you wouldn't like me to go back upon what I feel is right," he said.
Hetty laughed. "If you will think a little, you can't help seeing that you are very wrong."
Again the little weary smile crept into Grant's face. "One naturally thinks a good deal before starting in with this kind of thing, and I have to go through. I can't stop now, even to please you. But can't we still be friends?"
For a moment there was astonishment in the girl's face, then it flushed, and as her lips hardened and every line in her slight figure seemed to grow rigid, she reminded Miss Schuyler of the autocrat of Cedar Range.
"You ask me that?" she said. "You, an American, turning Dutchmen and these bush-choppers loose upon the people you belong to. Can't you see what the answer must be?"
Grant did apparently, for he mutely bent his head; but there was a shout just then, and when one of the vedettes on the skyline suddenly moved forward he seized Miss Torrance's bridle and wheeled her horse.
"Ride back to the Range," he said sharply, "as straight as you can. Tell your father that you met me. Let your horse go, Miss Schuyler."
As he spoke he brought his hand down upon the beast's flank and it went forward with a bound. The one Flora Schuyler rode flung up its head, and in another moment they were sweeping at a gallop across the prairie. A mile had been left behind before Hetty could pull her half-broken horse up; but the struggle that taxed every sinew had been beneficial, and she laughed a trifle breathlessly.
"I'm afraid I lost my temper; and I'm angry yet," she said. "It's the first time Larry wouldn't do what I asked him, and it was mean of him to send us off like that, just when one wanted to put on all one's dignity."
Miss Schuyler appeared thoughtful. "I fancy he did it because it was necessary. Didn't it strike you that you were hurting him? That is a good man and an honest one, though, of course, he may be mistaken."
"He must be," said Hetty. "Now I used to think ever so much of Larry, and that is why I got angry with him. It isn't nice to feel one has been fooled. How can he be good when he wants to take our land from us?"
Flora Schuyler laughed. "You are quite delightful, Hetty, now and then. You have read a little, and been taught history. Can't you remember any?"
"Oh yes," said Hetty, with a little thoughtful nod. "Still, the men who made the trouble in those old days were usually buried before anyone was quite sure whether they were right or not. Try to put yourself in my place. What would you do?"
There was a somewhat curious look in Miss Schuyler's blue eyes. "I think if I had known a man like that one as long as you have done, I should believe in him—whatever he did."
"Well," said Hetty gravely, "if you had, just as long as you could remember, seen your father and his friends taking no pleasure, but working every day, and putting most of every dollar they made back into the ranch, you would find it quite difficult to believe that the man who meant to take it from them now they were getting old and wanted to rest and enjoy what they had worked for was doing good."
Flora Schuyler nodded. "Yes," she said, "I would. It's quite an old trouble. There are two ways of looking at everything, and other folks have had to worry over them right back to the beginning."
Then she suddenly tightened her grasp on the bridle, for the ringing of a rifle rose, sharp and portentous, from beyond the rise. The colour faded in her cheek, and Hetty leaned forward a trifle in her saddle, with lips slightly parted, as though in strained expectancy. No sound now reached them from beyond the low, white ridge that hemmed in their vision but a faint drumming of hoofs. Then Flora Schuyler answered the question in her companion's eyes.
"I think it was only a warning," she said.
She wheeled her horse and they rode on slowly, hearing nothing further, until the Range rose from behind the big birch bluff. Torrance had returned when they reached it, and Hetty found him in his office room.
"I met Larry on the prairie, and of course I talked to him," she said. "I asked him why he had not been to the Range, and he seemed to think it would be better if he did not come."
Torrance smiled drily. "Then I guess he showed quite commendable taste as well as good sense. You are still decided not to go back to New York, Hetty?"
"Yes," said the girl, with a little resolute nod. "You see, I can't help being young and just a little good-looking, but I'm Miss Torrance of Cedar all the time."
Torrance's face was usually grim, but it grew a trifle softer then. "Hetty," he said, "they taught you a good many things I never heard of at that Boston school, but I'm not sure you know that all trade and industry is built upon just this fact: what a man has made and worked hard for is his own. Would anyone put up houses or raise cattle if he thought his neighbours could take them from him? Now there's going to be trouble over that question here, and, though it isn't likely, your father may be beaten down. He may have to do things that wouldn't seem quite nice to a dainty young woman, and folks may denounce him; but it's quite plain that if you stay here you will have to stand in with somebody."
The girl, who was touched by the unusual tenderness in his eyes, sat down upon the table, and slipped an arm about his neck.
"Who would I stand in with but you?" she said. "We'll whip the rustlers out of the country, and, whether it sounds nice at the time or not, you couldn't do anything but the square thing."
Torrance kissed her gravely, but he sighed and his face grew stern again when she slipped out of the room.
"There will not be many who will come through this trouble with hands quite clean," he said.
It was during the afternoon, and Torrance had driven off again, when, as the two girls were sitting in the little room which was set apart for them, a horseman rode up to the Range, and Flora Schuyler, who was nearest the window, drew back the curtain.
"That man should sit on horseback always," she said; "he's quite a picture."
Hetty nodded. "Yes," she said. "Still, you told me you didn't like him. It's Clavering. Now, I wonder what he put those things on for—he doesn't wear them very often—and whether he knew my father wasn't here."
Clavering would probably have attracted the attention of most young women just then, for he had dressed himself in the fashion the prairie stockriders were addicted to, as he did occasionally, perhaps because he knew it suited him. He had artistic perceptions, and could adapt himself harmoniously to his surroundings, and he knew Hetty's appreciation of the picturesque. His sallow face showed clean cut almost to feminine refinement under the wide hat, and the blue shirt which clung about him displayed his slender symmetry. It was, however, not made of flannel, but apparently of silk, and the embroidered deerskin jacket which showed the squareness of his shoulders, was not only daintily wrought, but had evidently cost a good many dollars. His loose trousers and silver spurs were made in Mexican fashion: but the boldness of the dark eyes, and the pride that revealed itself in the very pose of the man, redeemed him from any taint of vanity.
He sat still until a hired man came up, then swung himself from the saddle, and in another few moments had entered the room with his wide hat in his hand.
"You find us alone," said Hetty. "Are you astonished?"
"I am content," said Clavering. "Why do you ask me?"
"Well," said Hetty naively, "I fancied you must have seen my father on the prairie, and could have stopped him if you had wanted to."
There was a little flash in Clavering's dark eyes that was very eloquent. "The fact is, I did. Still, I was afraid he would want to take me along with him."
Hetty laughed. "I am growing up," she said. "Three years ago you wouldn't have wasted those speeches on me. Well, you can sit down and talk to Flora."
Clavering did as he was bidden. "It's a time-honoured question," he said. "How do you like this country?"
"There's something in its bigness that gets hold of one," said Miss Schuyler. "One feels free out here on these wide levels in the wind and sun."
Clavering nodded, and Flora Schuyler fancied from his alertness that he had been waiting for an opportunity. "It would be wise to enjoy it while you can," he said. "In another year or two the freedom may be gone, and the prairie shut off in little squares by wire fences. Then one will be permitted to ride along a trail between rows of squalid homesteads flanked by piles of old boots and provision-cans. We will have exchanged the stockrider for the slouching farmer with a swarm of unkempt children and a slatternly, scolding wife then."
"You believe that will come about?" asked Miss Schuyler, giving him the lead she felt he was waiting for.
Clavering looked thoughtful. "It would never come if we stood loyally together, but—and it is painful to admit it—one or two of our people seem quite willing to destroy their friends to gain cheap popularity by truckling to the rabble. Of course, we could spare those men quite well, but they know our weak points, and can do a good deal of harm by betraying them."
"Now," said Hetty, with a sparkle in her eyes, "you know quite well that if some of them are mistaken they will do nothing mean. Can't they have their notions and be straight men?"
"It is quite difficult to believe it," said Clavering. "I will tell you what one or two of them did. There was trouble down at Gordon's place fifty miles west, and his cow-boys whipped off a band of Dutchmen who wanted to pull his fences down. Well, they came back a night or two later with a mob of Americans, and laid hands on the homestead. We are proud of the respect we pay women in this country, Miss Schuyler, but that night Mrs. Gordon's and her daughters' rooms were broken into, and the girls turned out on the prairie. It was raining, and I believe they were not even allowed to provide themselves with suitable clothing. Of course, nothing of that kind could happen here, or I would not have told you."
Hetty's voice was curiously quiet as she asked, "Was nothing done to provoke them?"
"Yes," said Clavering, with a dry smile, "Gordon shot one of them; but is it astonishing? What would you expect of an American if a horde of rabble who held nothing sacred poured into his house at night? Oh, yes, he shot one of them, and would have given them the magazine, only that somebody felled him with an axe. The Dutchman was only grazed, but Gordon is lying senseless still."
There was an impressive silence, and the man sat still with the veins on his forehead a trifle swollen and a glow in his eyes. His story was also accurate, so far as it went; but he had, with a purpose, not told the whole of it.
"You are sure there were Americans among them?" asked Hetty, very quietly.
"They were led by Americans. You know one or two of them."
"No," said Hetty, almost fiercely. "I don't know. But Larry wasn't there?"
Clavering shook his head, but there was a curious incisiveness in his tone. "Still, we found out that his committee was consulted and countenanced the affair."
"Then Larry wasn't at the meeting," said Miss Torrance. "He couldn't have been."
Clavering made her a little and very graceful inclination. "One would respect such faith as yours."
Miss Schuyler, who was a young woman of some penetration, deftly changed the topic, and Clavering came near to pleasing her, but he did not quite succeed, before he took his departure. Then Hetty glanced inquiringly at her companion.
Flora Schuyler nodded. "I know just what you mean, and I was mistaken."
"Yes?" said Hetty. "Then you like him?"
Miss Schuyler shook her head. "No. I fancied he was clever, and he didn't come up to my expectations. You see, he was too obvious."
"Yes. Are you not just a little inconsistent, Hetty?"
Miss Torrance laughed. "I don't know," she said. "I am, of course, quite angry with Larry, but nobody else has a right to abuse him."
Flora Schuyler said nothing further, and while she sat in thoughtful silence Clavering walked down the hall with Hetty's maid. He was a well-favoured man, and the girl was vain. She blushed when he looked down on her with a trace of admiration in his smile.
"You like the prairie?" he said.
She admitted that she was pleased with what she had seen of it, and Clavering's assumed admiration became bolder.
"Well, it's a good country, and different from the East," he said. "There are a good many more dollars to be picked up here, and pretty women are quite scarce. They usually get married right off to a rancher. Now I guess you came out to better yourself. It takes quite a long time to get rich down East."
The girl blushed again, and when she informed him that she had a crippled sister who was a charge on the family, Clavering smiled as he drew on a leather glove.
"You'll find you have struck the right place," he said. "Now I wonder if you could fix a pin or something in this button shank. It's coming off, you see."
The girl did it, and when he went out found a bill lying on the table where he had been standing. The value of it somewhat astonished her, but after a little deliberation she put it in her pocket.
"If he doesn't ask for it when he comes back I'll know he meant me to keep it," she said.
Miss Schuyler had conjectured correctly respecting the rifle-shot which announced the arrival of a messenger; a few minutes after the puff of white smoke on the crest of the rise had drifted away, a mounted man rode up to Grant at a gallop. His horse was white with dust and spume, but his spurs were red.
"Railroad district executive sent me on to let you know the Sheriff had lost your man," he said.
"Lost him," said Grant.
"Well," said the horseman, "put it as it pleases you, but, as he had him in the jail, it seems quite likely he let him go."
There was a growl from the teamsters who had clustered round, and Grant's face grew stern. "He was able to hold the two homesteaders Clavering's boys brought him."
"Oh, yes," said the other, "he has them tight enough. You'll remember one of the cattle-boys and a storekeeper got hurt during the trouble, and our men are not going to have much show at the trial Torrance and the Sheriff are fixing up!"
"Then," said Grant wearily, "we'll stop that trial. You will get a fresh horse in my stable and tell your executive I'm going to take our men out of jail, and if it suits them to stand in they can meet us at the trail forks, Thursday, ten at night."
The man nodded. "I'm tolerably played out, but I'll start back right now," he said.
He rode off towards the homestead, and Grant turned to the rest. "Jake, you'll take the eastern round; Charley, you'll ride west. Give them the handful of oats at every shanty to show it's urgent. They're to be at Fremont in riding order at nine to-morrow night."
In another ten minutes the men were riding hard across the prairie, and Grant, with a sigh, went on with his ploughing. It would be next year before he could sow, and whether he would ever reap the crop was more than any man in that region would have ventured to predict. He worked however, until the stars were out that night and commenced again when the red sun crept up above the prairie rim the next day; but soon after dusk mounted men rode up one by one to Fremont ranch. They rode good horses, and each carried a Winchester rifle slung behind him when they assembled, silent and grim, in the big living-room.
"Boys," said Grant quietly, "we have borne a good deal, and tried to keep the law, but it is plain that the cattle-men, who bought it up, have left none for us. Now, the Sheriff, who has the two homesteaders safe, has let the man we sent him go."
There was an ominous murmur and Grant went on. "The homesteaders, who only wanted to buy food and raised no trouble until they were fired on, will be tried by the cattle-men, and I needn't tell you what kind of chance they'll get. We pledged ourselves to see they had fair play when they came in, and there's only one means of getting it. We are going to take them from the Sheriff, but there will be no fighting. We'll ride in strong enough to leave no use for that. Now, before we start, are you all willing to ride with me?"
Again a hoarse murmur answered him, and Grant, glancing down the row of set faces under the big lamps, was satisfied.
"Then we'll have supper," he said quietly. "It may be a long while before any of us gets a meal again."
It was a silent repast. As yet the homesteaders, at least in that district, had met contumely with patience and resisted passively each attempt to dislodge them, though it had cost their leader a strenuous effort to restrain the more ardent from the excesses some of their comrades farther east had already committed; but at last the most peaceful of them felt that the time to strike in turn had come. They mounted when supper was over and rode in silence past willow bluff and dusky rise across the desolate waste. The badger heard the jingle of their bridles, and now and then a lonely coyote, startled by the soft drumming of the hoofs, rose with bristling fur and howled; but no cow-boy heard their passage, or saw them wind in and out through devious hollows when daylight came. Still, here and there an anxious woman stood, with hazy eyes, in the door of a lonely shanty, wondering whether the man she had sent out to strike for the home he had built her would ever ride back again. For they, too, had their part in the struggle, and it was perhaps the hardest one.
It was late at night when they rode into the wooden town. Here and there a window was flung open; but the night was thick and dark, and there was little to see but the dust that whirled about the dimly flitting forms. That, however, was nothing unusual, for of late squadrons of stockriders and droves of weary cattle had passed into the town; and a long row of shadowy frame houses had been left behind before the fears of any citizen were aroused. It was, perhaps, their silent haste that betrayed the horsemen, for they rode in ordered ranks without a word, as men who have grim business in hand, until a hoarse shout went up. Then a pistol flashed in the darkness in front of them, doors were flung open, lights began to blink, and a half-seen horseman came on at a gallop down the shadowy street. He pulled his horse up within a pistol-shot from the homesteaders, and sat still in his saddle staring at them.
"You'll have to get down, boys, or tell me what you want," he said. "You can't ride through here at night without a permit."
There was a little ironical laughter, and somebody asked, "Who's going to stop us?"
"The Sheriff's guard," said the horseman. "Stop right where you are until I bring them."
"Keep clear," said Grant sternly, "or we'll ride over you. Forward, boys!"
There was a jingle of bridles, and the other man wheeled his horse as the heels went home. Quick as he was, the foremost riders were almost upon him, and as he went down the street at a gallop the wooden houses flung back a roar of hoofs. Every door was open now and the citizens peering out. Lights flashed in the windows, and somebody cried, "The rustler boys are coming!"
Other voices took up the cry; hoots of derision mingled with shouts of greeting, but still, without an answer, the men from the prairie rode on, Grant peering into the darkness as he swung in his saddle at the head of them. He saw one or two mounted men wheel their horses, and more on foot spring clear of the hoofs, and then the flash of a rifle beneath the black front of a building. A flagstaff ran up into the night above it, and there were shadowy objects upon the verandah. Grant threw up a hand.
"We're here, boys," he said.
Then it became evident that every man's part had been allotted him, for while the hindmost wheeled their horses, and then sat still, with rifles across their saddles, barring the road by which they had come, the foremost pressed on, until, pulling up, they left a space behind them and commanded the street in front. The rest dismounted, and while one man stood at the heads of every pair of horses, the rest clustered round Grant in the middle of the open space. The jail rose dark and silent before them, and for the space of a moment or two there was an impressive stillness. It was broken by a shout from one of the rearguard.
"There's quite a crowd rolling up. Get through as quick as you can!"
Grant stood forward. "We'll give you half a minute to send somebody out to talk to us, and then we're coming in," he said.
The time was almost up before a voice rose from the building: "Who are you, any way, and what do you want?"
"Homesteaders," was the answer. "We want the Sheriff."
"Well," said somebody, "I'll tell him."
Except for a growing clamour in the street behind there was silence until Breckenridge, who stood near Grant touched him,
"I don't want to meddle, but aren't we giving them an opportunity of securing their prisoners or making their defences good?" he said.
"That's sense, any way," said another man. "It would be 'way better to go right in now, while we can."
Grant shook his head. "You have left this thing to me, and I want to put it through without losing a man. Men don't usually back down when the shooting begins."
Then a voice rose from the building: "You wanted the Sheriff. Here he is."
A shadowy figure appeared at a window, and there was a murmur from Grant's men.
"He needn't be bashful," said one of them. "Nobody's going to hurt him. Can't you bring a light, so we can see him?"
A burst of laughter followed, and Grant held up his hand. "It would be better, Sheriff; and you have my word that we'll give you notice before we do anything if we can't come to terms."
It seemed from the delay that the Sheriff was undecided, but at last a light was brought, and the men below saw him standing at the window with an anxious face, and behind him two men with rifles, whose dress proclaimed them stockriders. He could also see the horsemen below, as Grant, who waited until the sight had made its due impression, had intended that he should. There were a good many of them, and the effect of their silence and the twinkling of light on their rifles was greater than that of any uproar would have been.
"Now you can see me, you needn't keep me waiting," said the Sheriff, with an attempt at jauntiness which betrayed his anxiety. "What do you want?"
"Two of your prisoners," said Grant.
"I'm sorry you can't have them," said the Sheriff. "Hadn't you better ride home again before I turn the boys loose on you?"
But his voice was not quite in keeping with his words, and it would have been wiser if he had turned his face aside.
"It's a little too far to ride back without getting what we came for," said Grant quietly. "Now, we have no great use for talking. We want two homesteaders, and we mean to get them; but that will satisfy us."
"You want nobody else?"
"No. You can keep your criminals, or let them go, just as it suits you."
There was a laugh from some of the horsemen, which was taken up by the crowd and swelled into a storm of cries. Some expressed approval, others anger, and the Sheriff stepped backwards.
"Then," he said hoarsely, "if you want your friends, you must take them."
The next moment the window shut with a bang, and the light died out, leaving the building once more in darkness.
"Get to work," said Grant. "Forward, those who are going to cover the axe-men!"
There was a flash from the verandah, apparently in protest and without intent to hurt, for the next moment a few half-seen objects flung themselves over the balustrade as the men with the axes came up, and others with rifles took their places a few paces behind them. Then one of the horsemen shouted a question.
"Let them pass," said Grant.
The door was solid and braced with iron, but those who assailed it had swung the axe since they had the strength to lift it, and in the hands of such men it is a very effective implement. The door shook and rattled as the great blades whirled and fell, each one dropping into the notch the other had made; the men panted as they smote; the splinters flew in showers.
"Holding out still!" gasped one of them. "There's iron here. Get some of the boys to chop that redwood pillar, and we'll drive it down."
There was an approving murmur, but Grant grasped the man by the shoulder. "No," he said. "We haven't come to wreck the town. I've another plan if you're more than two minutes getting in."
The axes whirled faster, and at last a man turned breathlessly. "Get ready, boys," he said. "One more on the bolt head, Jake, and we're in!"
A brawny man twice whirled the hissing blade about his head, and as he swung forward with both hands on the haft with a dull crash the wedge of tempered steel clove the softer metal. The great door tilted and went down, and Breckenridge sprang past the axe-men through the opening. His voice came back exultantly out of the shadowy building. "It was the old country sent you the first man in!"
The men's answer was a shout as they followed him, with a great trampling down the corridor, but the rest of the building was very silent, and nobody disputed their passage until at last a man with grey hair appeared with a lantern behind an iron grille.
"Open that thing," said somebody.
The man smiled drily. "I couldn't do it if I wanted to. I've given my keys away."
One or two of the homesteaders glanced a trifle anxiously behind them. The corridor was filling up, and it dawned upon them that if anything barred their egress they would be helpless.
"Then what are you stopping for?" asked somebody.
"It's in my contract," said the jailer quietly. "I was raised in Kentucky. You don't figure I'm scared of you?"
"No use for talking," said a man. "You can't argue with him. Go ahead with your axes and beat the blamed thing in."
It cost them twenty minutes' strenuous toil; but the grille went down, and two of the foremost seized the jailer.
"Let him go," said Grant quietly. "Now, we can't fool time away with you. Where's the Sheriff?"
"I don't quite know," said the jailer, and the contempt in his voice answered the question.
Grant laughed a little. "Well," he said, "I guess he's sensible. Now, what you have got to do is to bring out the two homesteaders as quick as you can."
"I told you I couldn't do it," said the other man.
"You listen to me. We are going to take those men out, if we have to pull this place to pieces until we find them. That, it's quite plain, would let the others go, and you would lose the whole of your prisoners instead of two of them. Tell us where you put them, and you can keep the rest."
"Oh, yes," said Grant. "There are quite enough men of their kind loose in this country already."
"Straight on," said the jailer. "First door."
They went on in silence, but there was a shout when somebody answered their questions from behind a door, which a few minutes later tottered and fell beneath the axes. Then, amidst acclamation, they led two men out, and showed them to the jailer.
"You know them?" said Grant. "Well, you can tell your Sheriff there wasn't a cartridge in the rifles of the men who opened his jail. He'll come back when the trouble's over, but it seems to me the cattle-men have wasted a pile of dollars over him."
He laughed when a question met them as they once more trampled into the verandah.
"Yes," he said. "The boys are bringing them!"
Two horses were led forward, and the released men swung themselves into the saddle. There was a hasty mounting, and when the men swung into open fours a shout went up from the surging crowd.
"They have taken the homesteaders out. The Sheriff has backed down."
A roar followed that expressed approbation and disgust; it was evident that the sympathies of the citizens were divided. In the momentary silence Grant's voice rang out:
"Sling rifles! Keep your order and distance! Forward, boys!"
Again a hoarse cry went up, but there was only applause in it now, for the crowd recognized the boldness of the command and opened out, pressing back against the houses as the little band rode forward. Their silence was impressive, but the leader knew his countrymen, for, while taunts and display would have courted an onset, nobody seemed anxious to obstruct the men who sat unconcernedly in their saddles, with the rifles which alone warranted their daring disdainfully slung behind them.
On they went past clusters of wondering citizens, shouting sympathizers, and silent cattle-men, until there was a hoot of derision, and, perhaps in the hope of provoking a conflict in which the rest would join, a knot of men pushed out into the street from the verandah of the wooden hotel. Grant realized that a rash blow might unloose a storm of passion and rouse to fury men who were already regretting their supineness.
"Keep your pace and distance!" he commanded.
Looking straight in front of them, shadowy and silent, the leading four rode on, and once more the crowd melted from in front of them. As the last of the band passed through the opening that was made for them a man laughed as he turned in his saddle.
"We can't stay any longer, boys, but it wasn't your fault. It's a man you want for Sheriff," he said.
"No talking there! Gallop!" said Grant, and the horsemen flitted across the railroad track, and with a sinking thud of hoofs melted into the prairie. They had accomplished their purpose, and the cattle-men, going back disgustedly to remonstrate with the Sheriff, for a while failed to find him.
The prairie was shining white in the moonlight with the first frost when Torrance, Hetty, and Miss Schuyler drove up to Allonby's ranch. They were late in arriving and found a company of neighbours already assembled in the big general room. It was panelled with cedar from the Pacific slope, and about the doors and windows were rich hangings of tapestry, but the dust was thick upon them and their beauty had been wasted by the moth. Tarnished silver candlesticks and lamps which might have come from England a century ago, and a scarred piano littered with tattered music, were in keeping with the tapestry; for signs of taste were balanced by those of neglect, while here and there a roughly patched piece of furniture conveyed a plainer hint that dollars were scanty with Allonby. He was from the South, a spare, grey-haired man, with a stamp of old-fashioned dignity, and in his face a sadness not far removed from apathy and which, perhaps, accounted for the condition of his property.
His guests, among whom were a number of young men and women, were, however, apparently light-hearted, and had whiled away an hour or two with song and badinage. A little removed from them, in a corner with the great dusty curtain of a window behind her, sat Hetty Torrance with Allonby's nephew and daughter. Miss Allonby was pale and slight and silent; but her cousin united the vivacity of the Northerner with the distinction that is still common in the South, and—for he was very young—Hetty found a mischievous pleasure in noticing his almost too open admiration for Flora Schuyler, who sat close beside them. A girl was singing indifferently, and when she stopped, Miss Allonby raised her head as a rhythmical sound became audible through the closing chords of the piano.
"Somebody riding here in a hurry!" she said.
It was significant that the hum of voices which followed the music ceased as the drumming of hoofs grew louder; the women looked anxious and the men glanced at one another. Tidings brought in haste were usually of moment then. Torrance, however, stood up and smiled at the assembly.
"I guess some of those rascally rustlers have been driving off a steer again," he said. "Can't you sing us something, Clavering?"
Clavering understood him, and it was a rollicking ballad he trolled out with verve and spirit; but still, though none of the guests now showed it openly, the anxious suspense did not abate, and by and by Miss Allonby smiled at the lad beside her somewhat drily.
"Never mind the story, Chris. I guess we know the rest. That man is riding hard, and you are as anxious as any of us," she said.
A minute or two later there was a murmur of voices below, and Allonby went out. Nobody appeared to notice this, but the hum of somewhat meaningless talk which followed and the strained look in one or two of the women's faces had its meaning. Every eye was turned towards the doorway until Allonby came back and spoke with Torrance apart. Then he smiled reassuringly upon his guests.
"You will be pleased to hear that some of our comrades have laid hands upon one of the leaders in the attack upon the jail," he said. "They want to lodge him here until they can send for the Sheriff's posse, and of course I could only agree. Though the State seems bent on treating us somewhat meanly, we are, I believe, still loyal citizens, and I feel quite sure you will overlook any trifling inconvenience the arrival of the prisoner may cause you."
"Doesn't he put it just a little curiously?" suggested Flora Schuyler.
"Well," said Christopher Allonby, "it really isn't nice to have one of our few pleasant evenings spoiled by this kind of thing."
"You don't understand. I am quite pleased with your uncle, but there's something that amuses me in the idea of jailing one's adversary from patriotic duty."
Christopher Allonby smiled. "There's a good deal of human nature in most of us, and it's about time we got even with one or two of them."
"Find out about it, Chris," said Miss Allonby; "then come straight back and tell us."
The young man approached a group of his elders who were talking together, and returned by and by.
"It was done quite smartly," he said. "One of the homestead boys who had fallen out with Larry came over to us, and I fancy it was Clavering fixed the thing up with him. The boys didn't know he had deserted them, and the man he took the oats to believed in him."
"I can't remember you telling a tale so one could understand it, Chris," said Miss Allonby. "Why did he take the oats to him?"
The lad laughed. "They have their committees and executives, and when a man has to do anything they send a few grains of oats to him. One can't see much use in it, and we know 'most everything about them; but it makes the thing kind of impressive, and the rustler fancied our boy was square when he got them. He was to ride over alone and meet somebody from one of the other executives at night in a bluff. He went, and found a band of cattle-boys waiting for him. I believe he hadn't a show at all, for the man who went up to talk to him grabbed his rifle, but it seems he managed to damage one or two of them."
"You don't know who he is?" asked Miss Allonby; and Flora Schuyler noticed a sudden intentness in Hetty's eyes.
"No," said the lad, "but the boys will be here with him by and by, and I'm glad they made quite sure of him, any way."
Hetty's eyes sparkled. "You can't be proud of them! It wasn't very American."
"Well, we can't afford to be too particular, considering what we have at stake; though it might have sounded nicer if they had managed it differently. You don't sympathize with the homestead boys, Miss Torrance?"
"Of course not!" said Hetty, with a little impatient gesture. "Still, that kind of meanness does not appeal to me. Even the men we don't like would despise it. They rode into the town without a cartridge in their rifles, and took out their friends in spite of the Sheriff, while the crowd looked on."
"It was Larry Grant fixed that, and 'tisn't every day you can find a man like him. It 'most made me sick when I heard he had gone over to the rabble."
"You were a friend of his?" asked Flora Schuyler.
"Oh, yes;" and a little shadow crept into Allonby's face. "But, that's over now. When a man goes back on his own folks there's only one way of treating him, and it's not going to be nice for Larry if we can catch him. We're in too tight a place to show the man who can hurt us most much consideration."
Hetty turned her head a moment, and then changed the subject, but not before Flora Schuyler noticed the little flush in her cheek. The music, laughter, and gay talk began again, and if anyone remembered that while they chased their cares away grim men who desired their downfall toiled and planned, no sign of the fact was visible.
Twenty minutes passed, and then the thud of hoofs once more rose from the prairie. It swelled into a drumming that jarred harsh and portentous through the music, and Hetty's attention to the observations of her companions became visibly less marked. One by one the voices also seemed to sink, and it was evidently a relief to the listeners when a girl rose and closed the piano. Somebody made an effort to secure attention to a witty story, and there was general laughter, but it also ceased, and an impressive silence followed. Out of it came the jingle of bridles and trampling of hoofs, as the men outside pulled up, followed by voices in the hall, and once more Allonby went out.
"They're right under this window," said his nephew. "Slip quietly behind the curtains, and I think you can see them."
Flora Schuyler drew the tapestry back, the rest followed her and Christopher Allonby flung it behind them, so that it shut out the light. In a moment or two their eyes had become accustomed to the change, and they saw a little group of mounted men close beneath. Two of them dismounted, and appeared to be speaking to some one at the door, but the rest sat with their rifles across their saddles and a prisoner in front of them. His hat was crushed and battered, his jacket rent, and Flora Schuyler fancied there was a red trickle down his cheek; but his face was turned partly away from the window, and he sat very still, apparently with his arms bound loosely at the wrists.
"All these to make sure of one man, and they have tied his hands!" she said.
Hetty noticed the ring in her companion's voice, and Allonby made a little deprecatory gesture.
"It's quite evident they had too much trouble getting him to take any chances of losing him," he said. "I wish the fellow would turn his head. I fancy I should know him."
A tremor ran through Hetty for she also felt she recognized that tattered figure. Then one of the horsemen seized the captive's bridle, and the man made a slight indignant gesture as the jerk flung off his hands. Flora Schuyler closed her fingers tight.
"If I were a man I should go down and talk quite straight to them," she said.
The prisoner was sitting stiffly now, but he swayed in the saddle when one of the cattle-men struck his horse and it plunged. He turned his head as he did so, and the moonlight shone into his face. It was very white, and there was a red smear on his forehead. Hetty gasped, and Flora Schuyler felt her fingers close almost cruelly upon her arm.
"It's Larry!" she said.
Christopher Allonby nodded. "Yes, we have him at last," he said. "Of course, one feels sorry; but he brought it on himself. They're going to put him into the stable."
The men rode forward, and when they passed out of sight Hetty slipped back from behind the curtain, and, sat down, shivering as she looked up at Miss Schuyler.
"I can't help it, Flo. If one could only make them let him go!"
"You need not let any of them see it," said Miss Schuyler, sharply. "Sit quite still here and talk to me. Now, what right had those men to arrest him?"
The warning was sufficient. Hetty shook out her dress and laughed, though her voice was not steady.
"It's quite simple," she said. "The Sheriff can call out any citizen to help him or send any man off after a criminal in an emergency. Of course, being a responsible man he stands in with us, and in times like these the arrangement suits everybody. We do what seems the right thing, and the Sheriff is quite pleased when we tell him."
Flora Schuyler smiled drily. "Yes. It's delightfully simple. Still, wouldn't it make the thing more square if the other men had a good-natured Sheriff, too?"
"Now you are laughing at me. The difference is that we are in the right."
"And Larry, of course, must be quite wrong!"
"No," said Hetty, "he is mistaken. Flo, you have got to help me—I'm going to do something for him. Try to be nice to Chris Allonby. They'll send him to take care of Larry."
Miss Schuyler looked steadily at her companion. "You tried to make me believe you didn't care for the man."
A flush stole into Hetty's cheek, and a sparkle to her eyes. "Can't you do a nice thing without asking questions? Larry was very good to me for years, and—I'm sorry for him. Any way, it's so easy. Chris is young, and you could fool any man with those big blue eyes if he let you look at him."
Flora Schuyler made a half-impatient gesture, and then, sweeping her dress aside, made room for Christopher Allonby. She also succeeded so well with him that when the guests had departed and the girls came out into the corral where he was pacing up and down, he flung his cigar away and forsook his duty to join them. It was a long ride to Cedar Range, and Torrance had decided to stay with Allonby until morning.
"It was very hot inside—they would put so much wood in the stove," said Hetty. "Besides, Flo's fond of the moonlight."
"Well," said Allonby, "it's quite nice out here, and I guess Miss Schuyler ought to like the moonlight. It's kind to her."
Flora Schuyler laughed as they walked past the end of the great wooden stable together. "If you look at it in one sense, that wasn't pretty. You are guarding the prisoner?"
"Yes," said the lad, with evident diffidence. "The boys who brought him here had 'bout enough of him, and they're resting, while ours are out on the range. I'm here for two hours any way. It's not quite pleasant to remember I'm watching Larry."
"Of course!" and Miss Schuyler nodded sympathetically. "Now, couldn't you just let us talk to him? The boys have cut his forehead, and Hetty wanted to bring him some balsam. I believe he used to be kind to her."
Allonby looked doubtful, but Miss Schuyler glanced at him appealingly—and she knew how to use her eyes—while Hetty said:
"Now, don't be foolish, Chris. Of course, we had just to ask your uncle, but he would have wanted to come with us and would have asked so many questions, while we knew you would tell nobody anything. You know I can't help being sorry for Larry, and he has done quite a few nice things for you, too."
"Miss Schuyler is going with you?"
"Of course," and Hetty smiled mischievously as she glanced at her companion. "Still, you needn't be jealous, Chris. I'll take the best care she doesn't make love to him."
Flora Schuyler looked away across the prairie, which was not quite what one would have expected from a young woman of her capacities; but the laughing answer served to banish the lad's suspicions, and he walked with them towards the door. Then he stopped, and when he drew a key from an inner pocket Hetty saw something twinkle in the moonlight at his belt.
"Chris," she said, "stand still for a minute and shut your eyes quite tight."
The lad did as he was bidden, for a few years ago he had been the complaisant victim of Hetty's pleasantries, and felt a light touch on his lips. Then, there was a pluck at his belt, and Hetty was several yards away when he made a step forward with his eyes wide open. She was laughing at him, but there was a pistol in her hand.
"It was only my fingers, Chris, and Flo wasn't the least nearer than she is now," she said. "If you dared to think anything else, you would make me too angry. We'll bring this thing back to you in five minutes, but you wouldn't have us go in there quite defenceless. Now you walk across the corral, and wait until we tell you."
Allonby was very young, and somewhat susceptible. Hetty was also very pretty, and, he fancied, Miss Schuyler even prettier still; but he had a few misgivings, and when they went in closed the lower half of the door and set his back to it.
"No," he said decisively, "I'm staying right here."
The girls made no demur, but when they had crossed a portion of the long building Miss Schuyler touched her companion. "I'll wait where I am," she said drily, "you will not want me."
Hetty went on until she came to where the light of a lantern shone faintly in a stall. A man sat there with his hands still bound and a wide red smear upon his forehead. His face flushed suddenly as he glanced at her, but he said nothing.
"I'm ever so sorry, Larry," said the girl.
The man smiled, though it was evident to Hetty, whose heart beat fast, that it was only by an effort he retained his self-control.
"Well," he said, "it can't be helped, and it was my fault. Still, I never suspected that kind of thing."
Hetty coloured. "Larry, you mustn't be bitter—but it was horribly mean. I couldn't help coming—I was afraid you would fancy I was proud of them."
"No," he said, sternly. "I couldn't have fancied that. There was nothing else?"
"Your head. It is horribly cut. We saw you from the window, and I fancied I could tie it up for you. You wouldn't mind if I tried, Larry? I have some balsam here, and I only want a little water."
For a moment Grant's face was very expressive, but once more he seemed to put a check upon himself, and his voice was almost too even as he pointed to the pitcher beside him. "There is some ready. Your friends don't treat their prisoners very well."
The girl winced a little, but dipping her handkerchief in the pitcher she laved his forehead, and then would have laid the dressing on it; but he caught her hand.
"No," he said, "take mine instead."
"You needn't be quite too horrid, Larry," and there was a quiver in her voice. "It wouldn't hurt you very much to take a little thing like that from me."
Grant smiled very gravely. "I think you had better take mine. If they found a lady's handkerchief round my head, Allonby's folks would wonder how it got there."
Hetty did as he suggested, and felt a curious chagrin when he failed to look at her. "I used to wonder, Larry, how you were able to think of everything," she said. "Now I have brought you something else; but you must promise not to hurt anybody belonging to Allonby with it."
Grant laughed softly, partly to hide his astonishment, when he saw a pistol laid beside him.
"I haven't grown bloodthirsty, Hetty," he said. "Where did you get it?"
"It was Chris Allonby's. Flo and I fooled him and took it away. It was so delightfully easy. But you will keep it?"
He shook his head. "Just try to think, Hetty."
Hetty's cheeks flushed. "You are horribly unkind. Can't you take anything from me? Still—you—have got to think now. If I let you go, you will promise not to make any more trouble for my father and Allonby, or anybody?"
Grant only looked at her with an odd little smile, but the crimson grew deeper in Hetty's cheek. "Oh, of course you couldn't. I was sorry the last time I asked you," she said. "Larry, you make me feel horribly mean; but you would not do anything that would hurt them, unless it was quite necessary?"
"No," said the man drily, "I don't think I'm going to have an opportunity."
"You are. I came to let you go. It will be quite easy. Chris is quite foolish about Flo."
Grant shook his head. "Doesn't it strike you that it would be very rough on Chris?"
Hetty would not look at him, and her voice was very low. "If anyone must be hurt, I would sooner it was Chris than you."