"I don't know that anything very appropriate occurs to me. You know I'm devoutly thankful you have both escaped injury," said the man, who was more shaken than he cared to admit.
"Then I'll have to begin," and Hetty's eyes sparkled. "It was my fault, Mr. Clavering, and, if it is any relief to you, I feel most horribly ashamed of my obstinacy. Will that satisfy you?"
Clavering turned his head away, for he felt greatly inclined to laugh, but he knew the Torrance temper. Hetty had been very haughty during that drive, but she had not appeared especially dignified when she sat blinking about her in the snow, nor had Miss Schuyler, and he felt that they realized it; and in feminine fashion blamed him for being there. It was Miss Schuyler who relieved the situation.
"Hadn't you better do something for the horse? It is apparently trying to hang itself—and I almost wish it would. It deserves to succeed."
Clavering could have done very little by himself, but in another minute Hetty was kneeling on the horse's head, while, at more than a little risk from the battering hoofs, he loosed some of the harness. Then, the Badger was allowed to flounder to his feet, and Clavering proceeded to readjust his trappings. A buckle had drawn, however, and a strap had burst.
"No," said Hetty sharply. "Not that way. Don't you see you've got to lead the trace through. It is most unfortunate Larry isn't here."
Clavering glanced at Miss Schuyler, and both of them laughed, while Hetty frowned.
"Well," she said, "he would have fixed the thing in half the time, and we can't stay here for ever."
Clavering did what he could; but repairing harness in the open under twenty or thirty degrees of frost is a difficult task for any man, especially when he has no tools to work with and cannot remove his mittens, and it was at least twenty minutes before he somewhat doubtfully announced that all was ready. He handed Miss Schuyler into the sleigh, and then passed the reins to Hetty, who stood with one foot on the step, apparently waiting for something.
"I don't think he will run away again," he said.
The girl glanced at him sharply. "I am vexed with myself. Don't make me vexed with you," she said.
Clavering said nothing, but took the reins and they slid slowly down into the hollow, and, more slowly still, across the frozen creek and up the opposite ascent. After awhile Hetty touched his shoulder.
"I really don't want to meddle; but, while caution is commendable, it will be dark very soon," she said.
"Something has gone wrong," Clavering said gravely. "I'm afraid I'll have to get down."
He stood for several minutes looking at the frame of the sleigh and an indented line ploughed behind it in the snow, and then quietly commenced to loose the horses.
"Well," said Hetty sharply, "what are you going to do?"
"Take them out," said Clavering.
Clavering laughed. "They are not elephants and have been doing rather more than one could expect any horse to do. It is really not my fault, you know, but one of the runners has broken, and the piece sticks into the snow."
"Then, whatever are we to do?"
"I am afraid you and Miss Schuyler will have to ride on to Allonby's. I can fix the furs so they'll make some kind of saddle, and it can't be more than eight miles or so."
Miss Schuyler almost screamed. "I can't," she said.
"Don't talk nonsense, Flo," said Hetty. "You'll just have to."
Clavering's fingers were very cold, and the girls' still colder, before he had somehow girthed a rug about each of the horses and ruthlessly cut and knotted the reins. The extemporized saddles did not look very secure, but Hetty lightly swung herself into one, though Miss Schuyler found it difficult to repress a cry, and was not sure that she quite succeeded, when Clavering lifted her to the other.
"I'm quite sure I shall fall off," she said.
Hetty was evidently very much displeased at something, for she seemed to forget Clavering was there. "If you do I'll never speak to you again," she said. "You might have been fond of him, Flo. There wasn't the least necessity to put your arm right around his neck."
Clavering wisely stooped to do something to one of his moccasins, for he saw an ominous sparkle in Miss Schuyler's eyes, but he looked up prematurely and the smile was still upon his lips when he met Hetty's gaze.
"How are you going to get anywhere?" she asked.
"Well," said Clavering, "it is quite a long while now since I was able to walk alone."
Hetty shook her bridle, and the Badger started at a trot; but when Miss Schuyler followed, Clavering, who fancied that her prediction would be fulfilled, also set off at a run. He was, however, not quite fast enough, for when he reached her Miss Schuyler was sitting in the snow. She appeared to be unpleasantly shaken and her lips were quivering. Clavering helped her to her feet, and then caught the horse.
"The wretched thing turned round and slid me off," she said, when he came back with it, pointing to the rug.
Clavering tugged at the extemporized girth. "I am afraid you can only try again. I don't think it will slip now," he said.
Miss Schuyler, who had evidently lost her nerve, mounted with difficulty and after trotting for some minutes pulled up once more, and was sitting still looking about her hopelessly when Clavering rejoined her.
"I am very sorry, but I really can't hold on," she said.
Clavering glanced at the prairie, and Hetty looked at him. Nothing moved upon all the empty plain which was fading to a curious dusky blue. Darkness crept up across it from the east, and a last faint patch of orange was dying out on its western rim, while with the approaching night there came a stinging cold.
"It might be best if you rode on, Miss Torrance, and sent a sleigh back for us," he said. "Walk your horse, Miss Schuyler, and I'll keep close beside you. If you fell I could catch you."
Hetty's face was anxious, but she shook her head. "No, it was my fault, and I mean to see it through," she said. "You couldn't keep catching her all the time, you know. I'm not made of eider-down, and she's a good deal heavier than me. It really is a pity you can't ride, Flo."
"Nevertheless," said Miss Schuyler tartly, "I can't—without a saddle—and I'm quite thankful I can't drive."
Hetty said nothing, and they went on in silence, until when a dusky bluff appeared on the skyline, Clavering, taking the bridle, led Miss Schuyler's horse into a forking trail.
"This is not the way to Allonby's," said Hetty.
"No," said Clavering quietly. "I'm afraid you would be frozen before you got there. The homestead-boys who chop their fuel in the bluff have, however, some kind of shelter, and I'll make you a big fire."
"But——" said Hetty.
Clavering checked her with a gesture. "Please let me fix this thing for you," he said. "It is getting horribly cold already."
They went on a trifle faster without another word, and presently, with crackle of dry twigs beneath them, plodded into the bush. Dim trees flitted by them, branches brushed them as they passed, and the stillness and shadowiness affected Miss Schuyler uncomfortably. She started with a cry when there was a sharp patter amidst the dusty snow; but Clavering's hand was on the bridle as the horse, snorting, flung up its head.
"I think it was only a jack-rabbit; and I can see the shelter now," he said.
A few moments later he helped Miss Schuyler down, and held out his hand to Hetty, who sprang stiffly to the ground. Then, with numbed fingers, he broke off and struck a sulphur match, and the feeble flame showed the refuge to which he had brought them. It was just high enough to stand in, and had three sides and a roof of birch logs, but the front was open and the soil inside it frozen hard as adamant. An axe and a saw stood in a corner, and there was a hearth heaped ready with kindling chips.
"If you will wait here I'll try to get some wood," he said.
He went out and tethered the horses, and when his footsteps died away, Miss Schuyler shivering crept closer to Hetty, who flung an arm about her.
"It's awful, Flo—and it's my fault," she said. Then she sighed. "It would all be so different if Larry was only here."
"Still," said Flora Schuyler, "Mr. Clavering has really behaved very well; most men would have shown just a little temper."
"I almost wish he had—it would have been so much easier for me to have kept mine and overlooked it graciously. Flo, I didn't mean to be disagreeable, but it's quite hard to be pleasant when one is in the wrong."
It was some time before Clavering came back with an armful of birch branches, and a suspiciously reddened gash in one of his moccasins—for an axe ground as the Michigan man grinds it is a dangerous tool for anyone not trained to it to handle in the dark. In ten minutes he had a great fire blazing, and the shivering girls felt their spirits revive a little under the cheerful light and warmth. Then, he made a seat of the branches close in to the hearth and glanced at them anxiously.
"If you keep throwing wood on, and sit there with the furs wrapped round you, you will be able to keep the cold out until I come back," he said.
"Until you come back!" said Hetty, checking a little cry of dismay. "Where are you going?"
"To bring a sleigh."
"But Allonby's is nearly eight miles away. You could not leave us here three hours."
"No," said Clavering gravely. "You would be very cold by then. Still, you need not be anxious. Nothing can hurt you here; and I will come, or send somebody for you, before long."
Hetty sat very still while he drew on the fur mittens he had removed to make the fire. Then, she rose suddenly.
"No," she said. "It was my fault—and we cannot let you go."
Clavering smiled. "I am afraid your wishes wouldn't go quite as far in this case as they generally do with me. You and Miss Schuyler can't stay here until I could get a sleigh from Allonby's."
He turned as he spoke, and was almost out of the shanty before Hetty, stepping forward, laid her hand upon his arm.
"Now I know," she said. "It is less than three miles to Muller's, but the homestead-boys would make you a prisoner if you went there. Can't you see that would be horrible for Flo and me? It was my wilfulness that made the trouble."
Clavering very gently shook off her grasp, and Miss Schuyler almost admired him as he stood looking down upon her companion with the flickering firelight on his face. It was a striking face, and the smile in the dark eyes became it. Clavering had shaken off his furs, and the close-fitting jacket of dressed deerskin displayed his lean symmetry, for he had swung round in the entrance to the shanty and the shadows were black behind him.
"I think the fault was mine. I should not have been afraid of displeasing you, which is what encourages me to be obstinate now," he said. "One should never make wild guesses, should they, Miss Schuyler?"
He had gone before Hetty could speak again, and a few moments later the girls heard a thud of hoofs as a horse passed at a gallop through the wood. They stood looking at each other until the sound died away, and only a little doleful wind that sighed amidst the birches and the snapping of the fire disturbed the silence. Then, Hetty sat down and drew Miss Schuyler down beside her.
"Flo," she said, with a little quiver in her voice, "what is the use of a girl like me? I seem bound to make trouble for everybody."
"It is not an unusual complaint, especially when one is as pretty as you are," said Miss Schuyler. "Though I must confess I don't quite understand what you are afraid of, Hetty."
"No?" said Hetty. "You never do seem to understand anything, Flo. If he goes to Muller's the homestead-boys, who are as fond of him as they are of poison, might shoot him, and he almost deserves it. No, of course, after what he is doing for us, I don't mean that. It is the meanness that is in me makes me look for faults in everybody. He was almost splendid—and he has left his furs for us—but he mayn't come back at all. Oh, it's horrible!"
Hetty's voice grew indistinct, and Flora Schuyler drew the furs closer about them, and slipped an arm round her waist. She began to feel the cold again, and the loneliness more, while, even when she closed her eyes, she could not shut out the menacing darkness in front of her. Miss Schuyler was from the cities, and it was not her fault that, while she possessed sufficient courage of a kind, she shrank from the perils of the wilderness. She would have found silence trying, but the vague sounds outside, to which she could attach no meaning, were more difficult to bear. So she started when a puff of wind set the birch twigs rattling or something stirred the withered leaves, and once or twice a creaking branch sent a thrill of apprehension through her and she almost fancied that evil faces peered at her from the square gap of blackness. Now and then, a wisp of pungent smoke curled up and filled her eyes, and little by little she drew nearer to the fire with a physical craving for the warmth of it and an instinctive desire to be surrounded by its brightness, until Hetty shook her roughly by the arm.
"Flo," she said, "you are making me almost as silly as you are, and that capote—it's the prettiest I have seen you put on—is burning. Sit still, or I'll pinch you—hard."
Hetty's grip had a salutary effect, and Miss Schuyler, shaking off her vague terrors, smiled a trifle tremulously.
"I wish you would," she said. "Your fingers are real, any way. I can't help being foolish, Hetty—and is the thing actually burning?"
Hetty laughed. "I guessed that would rouse you—but it is," she said. "I have made my mind up, Flo. If he doesn't come in an hour or so, we'll go to Muller's, too."
Miss Schuyler was by no means sure that this would please her, but she said nothing and once more there was a silence she found it difficult to bear.
In the meanwhile, Clavering, whose foot pained him, was urging the Badger to his utmost pace. He rode without saddle or stirrups, which, however, was no great handicap to anyone who had spent the time he had in the cattle country, and, though it was numbingly cold and he had left his furs behind him, scarcely felt the frost, for his brain was busy. He knew Hetty Torrance, and that what he had done would count for much with her; but that was not what had prompted him to make the somewhat perilous venture. Free as he was in his gallantries, he was not without the chivalrous daring of the South his fathers came from, and Hetty was of his own caste. She, at least, would have been sure of deference from him, and, perhaps, have had little cause for complaint had he married her. Of late the admiration he felt for her was becoming tinged with a genuine respect.
He knew that the homesteaders, who had very little cause to love him, were in a somewhat dangerous mood just then, but that was of no great moment to him. He had a cynical contempt for them, and a pride which would have made him feel degraded had he allowed any fear of what they might do to influence him. He had also, with less creditable motives, found himself in difficult positions once or twice already, and his quickly arrogant fearlessness had enabled him to retire from them without bodily hurt or loss of dignity.
The lights of Muller's homestead rose out of the prairie almost before he expected to see them, and a few minutes later he rode at a gallop up to the door. It opened before he swung himself down, for the beat of hoofs had carried far, and when he stood in the entrance, slightly dazed by the warmth and light, there was a murmur of wonder.
"Clavering!" said somebody, and a man he could not clearly see laid a hand on his shoulder.
He shook the grasp off contemptuously, moved forward a pace or two, and then sat down blinking about him. Muller sat by the stove, a big pipe in hand, looking at him over his spectacles. His daughter stood behind him knitting tranquilly, though there was a shade more colour than usual in her cheeks, and a big, grim-faced man stood at the end of the room with one hand on a rifle that hung on the wall. Clavering instinctively glanced over his shoulder, and saw that another man now stood with his back to the door.
"You have come alone?" asked the latter.
"Oh, yes," said Clavering unconcernedly. "You might put my horse in, one of you. If I could have helped it, I would not have worried you, but my sleigh got damaged and Miss Torrance and another lady are freezing in the Bitter Creek bluff, and I know you don't hurt women."
"No," said the man dropping his hand from the rifle, with a little unpleasant laugh. "We haven't got that far yet, though your folks are starving them."
"Well," said Clavering, "I'm going to ask you to send a sledge and drive them back to Cedar or on to Allonby's."
The men exchanged glances. "It's a trick," said one.
"So!" said Muller. "Der ambuscade. Lotta, you ride to Fremont, und Larry bring. I show you how when we have drubbles mit der franc tireurs we fix der thing."
Clavering exclaimed impatiently. "You have no time for fooling when there are two women freezing in the bluff. Would I have come here, knowing you could do what you liked with me, if I had meant any harm to you?"
"That's sense, any way," said one of the men. "I guess if he was playing any trick, one of us would be quite enough to get even with him. You'll take Truscott with you, Muller, and get out the bob-sled."
Muller nodded gravely. "I go," he said. "Lotta, you der big kettle fill before you ride for Larry. We der bob-sled get ready."
"You are not going to be sorry," said Clavering. "This thing will pay you better than farming."
The man by the door turned with a hard laugh. "Well," he said, "I guess we'd feel mean for ever if we took a dollar from you!"
Clavering ignored the speech. "Do you want me?" he said, glancing at Muller.
"No," said the man, who now took down the rifle from the wall. "Not just yet. You're going to stop right where you are. The boys can do without me, and I'll keep you company."
Ten minutes later the others drove away, and, with a significant gesture, Clavering's companion laid the rifle across his knees.
CLAVERING APPEARS RIDICULOUS
There was silence in the log-house when the men drove away, and Clavering, who sat in a corner, found the time pass heavily. A clock ticked noisily upon the wall, and the stove crackled when the draughts flowed in; but this, he felt, only made the stillness more exasperating. The big, hard-faced bushman sat as motionless as a statue and almost as expressionless, with a brown hand resting on the rifle across his knees, in front of a row of shelves which held Miss Muller's crockery. Clavering felt his fingers quiver in a fit of anger as he watched the man, but he shook it from him, knowing that he would gain nothing by yielding to futile passion.
"I guess I can smoke," he said flinging his cigar-case on the table. "Take one if you feel like it."
The swiftness with which the man's eyes followed the first move of his prisoner's hand was significant, but he shook his head deliberately.
"I don't know any reason why you shouldn't, but you can keep your cigars for your friends," he said.
He drawled the words out, but the vindictive dislike in his eyes made them very expressive, and Clavering, who saw it, felt that any attempt to gain his jailer's goodwill would be a failure. As though to give point to the speech, the man took out a pipe and slowly filled it with tobacco from a little deerskin bag.
"What are you going to do with me?" asked Clavering, partly to hide his anger, and partly because he was more than a little curious on the subject.
"Well," said the man reflectively. "I don't quite know. Keep you here until Larry comes, any way. It wouldn't take long to fix it so you'd be sorry you had worried poor folks if the boys would listen to me."
This was even less encouraging; but there were still points on which Clavering desired enlightenment.
"Will Muller bring Miss Torrance and her companion here?" he asked.
The bushman nodded. "I guess he will. It's quite a long way to Allonby's, and they'll be 'most frozen after waiting in the bluff. Now, I'm not anxious for any more talk with you."
A little flush crept into Clavering's forehead; but it was not the man's contemptuous brusqueness which brought it there, though that was not without its effect. It was evident that the most he could hope for was Larry's clemency, and that would be difficult to tolerate. But there was another ordeal before him. Hetty was also coming back, and would see him a prisoner in the hands of the men he had looked down upon with ironical contempt. Had the contempt been assumed, his position would have been less intolerable; but it was not, and the little delicately venomous jibes he seldom lost an opportunity of flinging at the homesteaders expressed no more than he felt, and were now and then warranted.
Clavering, of course, knew that to pose as a prisoner as the result of his efforts on her behalf would stir Hetty's sympathy, and his endurance of persecution at the hands of the rabble for his adherence to the principles he fancied she held would further raise him in her estimation; but he had no desire to acquire her regard in that fashion. He would have preferred to take the chances of a rifle-shot, for while he had few scruples he had been born with a pride which, occasionally at least, prevented his indulgence in petty knavery; and, crushing down his anger, he set himself to consider by what means he could extricate himself.
None, however, were very apparent. The homesteader showed no sign of drowsiness or relaxed vigilance, but sat tranquilly alert, watching him through the curling smoke. It was also some distance to the door, which, from where Clavering sat, appeared to be fastened and he knew the quick precision with which the bushman can swing up a rifle, or if it suits him fire from the hip. A dash for liberty could, he fancied, have only one result; it was evident that he must wait.
Now waiting is difficult to most men, and especially to those in whose veins there flows the hot Southern blood, and Clavering felt the taste of the second excellent cigar grow bitter in his mouth. He sat very still, with half-closed eyes, and a little ironical smile upon his lips when his grim companion glanced at him. In the meantime the stove crackled less noisily and the room grew steadily colder. But Clavering scarcely felt the chill, even when the icy draughts whirled the cigar-smoke about him, for he began to see that an opportunity would be made for him, and waited, strung up and intent. When he thought he could do so unobserved, he glanced at the clock whose fingers now moved with a distressful rapidity, knowing that his chance would be gone if the bob-sled arrived before the cold grew too great for his jailer.
Ten minutes dragged by, then another five, and still the man sat smoking tranquilly, while Clavering realized that, allowing for all probable delays, Muller and Miss Torrance should arrive before the half-hour was up. Ten more minutes fled by, and Clavering, quivering in an agony of impatience, found it almost impossible to sit still; but at last the bushman stood up and laid his rifle on the table.
"You will stop right where you are," he said. "I'm going to put a few billets in the stove."
Clavering nodded, for he dared not trust himself to speak, and the man, who took up an armful of the billets, dropped a few of them through the open top of the stove. One, as it happened, jammed inside it, so that he could get no more in, and he laid hold of an iron scraper to free it with. He now stood with his back to Clavering, but the rifle still lay within his reach upon the table.
Clavering rose up, and, though his injured foot was painful, moved forward a pace or two noiselessly in his soft moccasins. A billet had rolled in his direction, and swaying lithely from the waist, with his eyes fixed upon the man, he seized it. The homesteader was stooping still, and he made another pace, crouching a trifle, with every muscle hardening.
Then, the man turned sharply, and hurled the scraper straight at Clavering. It struck him on the face, but he launched himself forward, and, while the homesteader grabbed at his rifle, fell upon him. He felt the thud of the billet upon something soft, but the next moment it was torn from him, the rifle fell with a clatter, and he and the bushman reeled against the stove together. Then, they fell against the shelves and with a crash they and the crockery went down upon the floor.
Clavering was supple and wiry and just then consumed with an almost insensate fury. He came down uppermost but his adversary's leg was hooked round his knee, and the grip of several very hard fingers unpleasantly impeded his respiration. Twice he struck savagely at a half-seen brown face, but the grip did not relax, and the knee he strove to extricate began to pain him horribly. The rancher possessed no mean courage and a traditional belief in the prowess of his caste, was famed for proficiency in most manly sports; but that did not alter the fact that the other man's muscle, hardened by long use of the axe, was greater than his own, and the stubborn courage which had upheld the homesteader in his struggle with adverse seasons and the encroaching forest was at least the equal of that born in Clavering.
So the positions were slowly reversed, until at last Clavering lay with his head amidst a litter of broken cups and plates, and the homesteader bent over him with a knee upon his chest.
"I guess you've had 'bout enough," he said. "Will you let up, or do you want me to pound the life out of you?"
Clavering could not speak, but he managed to make a movement with his head, and the next moment the man had dragged him to his feet and flung him against the table. He caught at it, gasping, while his adversary picked up the rifle.
"You will be sorry for this night's work yet," he said.
The homesteader laughed derisively. "Well," he said, "I guess you're sorry now. Anyone who saw you would think you were. Get right back to the chair yonder and stay there."
It was at least five minutes before Clavering recovered sufficiently to survey himself, and then he groaned. His deerskin jacket was badly rent, there was a great burn on one side of it, and several red scratches defaced his hands. From the splotches on them after he brushed back his ruffled hair he also had a suspicion that his head was cut, and the tingling where the scraper had struck him suggested a very visible weal. He felt dizzy and shaken, but his physical was less than his mental distress. Clavering was distinguished for his artistic taste in dress and indolent grace; but no man appears dignified or courtly with discoloured face, tattered garments, and dishevelled hair. He thought he heard the bob-sled coming and in desperation glanced at his jailer.
"If you would like ten dollars you have only got to let me slip into that other room," he said.
The bushman grinned sardonically, and Clavering's fears were confirmed. "You're that pretty I wouldn't lose sight of you for a hundred," he said. "No, sir; you're going to stop where you are."
Clavering anathematized him inwardly, knowing that the beat of hoofs was unmistakable—he must face what he dreaded most. A sword-cut, or even a rifle-shot, would, he fancied, have entitled him to sympathy, not untinged with admiration, but he was unpleasantly aware that a man damaged in an encounter with nature's weapons is apt to appear either brutal or ludicrous, and he had noticed Miss Torrance's sensibility. He set his lips, and braced himself for the meeting.
A few minutes later the door opened, and, followed by the fraeulein Muller, Hetty and Miss Schuyler came in. They did not seem to have suffered greatly in the interval, which Clavering knew was not the case with him, and he glanced at the homesteader with a little venomous glow in his eyes when Hetty turned to him.
"Oh!" she said with a gasp, and her face grew pale and stern as closing one hand she, too, looked at the bushman.
Clavering took heart at this; but his enemy's vindictiveness was evidently not exhausted, for he nodded comprehendingly.
"Yes," he said, "he's damaged. He got kind of savage a little while ago, and before I could quiet him he broke up quite a lot of crockery."
The imperious anger faded out of Hetty's face, and Flora Schuyler understood why it did so as she glanced at Clavering. There was nothing that could appeal to a fastidious young woman's fancy about him just then; he reminded Miss Schuyler of a man she had once seen escorted homewards by his drunken friends after a fracas in the Bowery. At the same time it was evident that Hetty recognized her duty, and was sensible, if not of admiration, at least of somewhat tempered sympathy.
"I am dreadfully sorry, Mr. Clavering—and it was all my fault," she said. "I hope they didn't hurt you very much."
Clavering, who had risen, made her a little inclination; but he also set his lips, for Hetty had not expressed herself very tactfully, and just then Muller and another man came in and stood staring at them. The rancher endeavoured to smile, with very small success for he was consumed with an unsatisfied longing to destroy the bushman.
"I don't think you need be, Miss Torrance," he said. "I am only sorry I could not come back for you; but unfortunately—circumstances—prevented me."
"You have done enough," said Hetty impulsively, apparently forgetting the presence of the rest. "It was splendid of you."
Then the bushman looked up again with an almost silent chuckle. "I guess if it had been your plates he sat on, you wouldn't be quite so sure of it—and the circumstance was me," he said.
Hetty turned from the speaker, and glanced at the rest. Muller was standing near the door, with his spectacles down on his nose and mild inquiry in his pale blue eyes, and a big bronzed Dakota man beside him was grinning visibly. The fraeulein was kneeling despairingly amidst her shattered china, while Flora Schuyler leaned against the table with her lips quivering and a most suspicious twinkle in her eyes.
"Flo," said Hetty half-aloud. "How can you?"
"I don't know," said Miss Schuyler, with a little gasp. "Don't look at me, Hetty. I really can't help it."
Hetty said no more, but she glanced at the red-cheeked fraeulein, who was gazing at a broken piece of crockery with tearful eyes, and turned her head away. Clavering saw the effort it cost her to keep from laughing, and writhed.
"Well," said the man who had come with Muller, pointing to the wreck, "what started you smashing up the house?"
"It's quite simple," said the bushman. "Mr. Clavering and I didn't quite agree. He had a billet in his hand when he crept up behind me, and somehow we fell into the crockery. I didn't mean to damage him, but he wanted to get away, you see."
Hetty swung round towards Muller. "You haven't dared to make Mr. Clavering a prisoner?"
Muller was never very quick at speech, and the American by his side answered for him. "Well, we have got to keep him until Larry comes. He'll be here 'most directly."
"Flo," said Hetty, with relief in her face, "Larry is coming. We need not worry about anything now."
The fraeulein had risen in the meanwhile, and was busy with the kettle and a frying-pan. By and by, she set a steaming jug of coffee and a hot cornmeal cake before her guests for whom Muller had drawn out chairs. They were glad of the refreshment, and still more pleased when Grant and Breckenridge came in. When Larry shook hands with them, Hetty contrived to whisper in his ear:
"If you want to please me, get Clavering away."
Grant glanced at her somewhat curiously, but both were sensible that other eyes were upon them, and with a just perceptible nod he passed on with Muller into the adjoining room. Clavering and the two Americans followed him with Breckenridge, and Grant who had heard something of what had happened from the fraeulein, asked a few questions.
"You can go when it pleases you, Clavering," he said. "I am sorry you have received some trifling injury, but I have an idea that you brought it upon yourself. In the face of your conduct to them it seems to me that my friends were warranted in detaining you until they made sure of the correctness of your story."
Clavering flushed, for there was a contemptuous incisiveness in Grant's voice which stung his pride.
"I don't know that I am very grateful," he said angrily, "and you are probably doing this because it suits you. In any case, your friends dare not have offered violence to me."
Grant smiled grimly. "I wouldn't try them too far. But I don't quite catch your meaning. I can gain nothing by letting you go."
"It should be tolerably plain. I fancied you desired to please some friends at Cedar who send money to you."
There was a murmur of astonishment from the rest and Clavering saw that the shot had told.
"I guess he's lying, Larry," said one of them.
Grant stood still a moment with his eyes fixed on Clavering. "I wonder," he said, "if you are hazarding a guess."
"No," said Clavering, "I don't think I am. I know you got a wallet of dollars—though I don't know who sent them. Are you prepared to deny it?"
"I'm not prepared to exchange any words with you," said Grant. "Go while the door is open, and it would not be advisable for you to fall into our hands again. We hanged a friend of yours who, I fancy, lived up to, at least, as high a standard as you seem to do."
When Clavering had left the room, the others turned to Grant. "You have something to tell us?"
"No," said Grant quietly. "I don't think I have."
The men looked at each other, and one of them said, "That fellow's story sounded kind of ugly. What were you taking dollars from the cattle-men for, Larry?"
Grant saw the growing distrust in their eyes, but his own were resolute.
"I can't help that," he said. "I am with you, as I have always been, but there are affairs of mine I can't have anybody inquiring into. That is all I can tell you. You will have to take me on trust."
"You're making it hard," said the man who had spoken first.
Before Grant could answer, Clavering returned ready for his ride, but Grant gave him no opportunity to address Hetty and Miss Schuyler. "It is too far to drive to Allonby's in the sled," he said to them. "My sleigh is at your service. Shall I drive you?"
Hetty, for a moment, looked irresolute, but she saw Clavering's face, and remembered what was due to him and what he had apparently suffered for her sake.
"It wouldn't be quite fair to dismiss Mr. Clavering in that fashion," she said.
Grant glanced at her, and the girl longed for an opportunity of making him understand what influenced her. But this was out of the question.
"Then, if he will be surety for their safety, the team is at Mr. Clavering's disposal," he said.
Clavering said nothing to Grant, but he thrust his hand into his pocket and laid a five-dollar bill on the table.
"I am very sorry I helped to destroy some of your crockery, fraeulein, and this is the only amend I can make," he said. "If I knew how to replace the broken things I wouldn't have ventured to offer it to you."
The little deprecatory gesture was graceful, and Hetty flashed an approving glance at him; but she also looked at Grant, as if to beseech his comprehension, when she went out. Larry, however, did not understand her, and stood gravely aside as she passed him. He said nothing, but when he was fastening the fur robe round her in the sleigh Hetty spoke.
"Larry," she said softly, "can't you understand that one has to do the square thing to everybody?"
Then, Clavering, who could not hear what she was saying, flicked the horses and the sleigh slid away into the darkness.
A moment or two later, while the men still lingered talking without and Larry stood putting on his furs in the room, Breckenridge saw Miss Muller, who had been gazing at the money rise, and as though afraid her resolution might fail her, hastily thrust it into the stove.
"You are right," he said. "That was an abominably unfair shot of Clavering's, Larry. Of course, you couldn't answer him or tell anybody, but it's horribly unfortunate. The thing made the impression he meant it to."
"Well," said Larry bitterly, "I have got to bear it with the rest. I can't see any reason for being pleased with anything to-night."
Breckenridge nodded, but once more a little twinkle crept into his eyes. "I scarcely think you need worry about one trifle, any way," he said. "If you think Miss Torrance or Miss Schuyler wanted Clavering to drive them, you must be unusually dense. They only asked him to because they have a sense of fairness, and I'd stake a good many dollars on the fact that when Miss Schuyler first saw him she was convulsed with laughter."
"Did Miss Torrance seem amused?" Grant asked eagerly.
"Yes," said Breckenridge decisively. "She did though she tried to hide it. Miss Torrance has, of course, a nice appreciation of what is becoming. In fact, her taste is only slightly excelled by Miss Schuyler's."
Grant stared at him for a moment, and then for the first time, during several anxious months, broke into a great peal of laughter.
THE CAVALRY OFFICER
The winter was relaxing its iron grip at last and there were alternations of snow and thaw and frost when one evening a few of his scattered neighbours assembled at Allonby's ranch. Clavering was there, with Torrance, Hetty, and Miss Schuyler, among the rest; but though the guests made a spirited attempt to appear unconcerned, the signs of care were plainer in their faces than when they last met, and there were times when the witty sally fell curiously flat. The strain was beginning to tell, and even the most optimistic realized that the legislature of the State was more inclined to resent than yield to any further pressure that could be exerted by the cattle-barons. The latter were, however, proud and stubborn men, who had unostentatiously directed affairs so long that they found it difficult to grasp the fact that their ascendancy was vanishing. Showing a bold front still, they stubbornly disputed possession of every acre of land the homesteaders laid claim upon. The latters' patience was almost gone, and the more fiery spirits were commencing to obstruct their leader's schemes by individual retaliation and occasionally purposeless aggression.
Torrance seemed older and grimmer, his daughter paler, and there were moments when anxiety was apparent even in Clavering's usually careless face. He at least, was already feeling the pinch of straitened finances, and his only consolations were the increasing confidence that Torrance reposed in him, and Hetty's graciousness since his capture by the homesteaders. It was, perhaps, not astonishing that he should mistake its meaning, for he had no means of knowing, as Miss Schuyler did, that the cattle-baron's daughter met Larry Grant now and then.
Hetty was sitting in a corner of the big room, with Flo Schuyler and Christopher Allonby close at hand, and during a lull in the conversation she turned to him with a smile.
"You find us a little dull to-night, Chris?" she said.
Allonby laughed. "There was a time when you delighted in trapping me into admissions of that kind, but I'm growing wise," he said. "In fact, another year like this one would make an old man of me. I don't mind admitting that there is something wrong with the rest. I have told them the stories they have laughed over the last three years, and could not raise a smile from one of them; and when I got my uncle started playing cards I actually believe your father forgot what trumps were, for the first time in his life!"
"That is significant," said Hetty, whose face had grown serious. "Nothing has gone well for us lately, Chris."
Allonby sighed. "We don't like to acknowledge it, but it's a fact," he said. "Still, there's hope yet, if we can just stir up the homestead-boys into wrecking a railroad bridge or burning somebody's ranch."
"It is a little difficult to understand how that would improve affairs, especially for the man whose place was burned," said Miss Schuyler drily.
"One can't afford to be too particular," said Allonby, with a deprecating gesture. "You see, once they started in to do that kind of thing the State would have to crush them, which, of course, would suit us quite nicely. As it is, after the last affair at Hamlin's, they have sent in a draft of cavalry."
"And you are naturally taking steps to bring about the things that would suit you?" asked Flora Schuyler.
Allonby did not see the snare. "Well," he said, "I am not an admirer of Clavering, but I'm willing to admit that he has done everything he could; in fact, I'm 'most astonished they have stood him so long, and I don't think they would have done so, but for Larry. Anyway, it's comforting to know Larry is rapidly making himself unpopular among them."
A spot of colour showed in Hetty's cheek, and there was a little gleam in Flora Schuyler's eyes as she fixed them on the lad.
"You evidently consider Mr. Grant is taking an unwarranted liberty in persuading his friends to behave themselves as lawful citizens should?" she said.
"I don't quite think you understand me, of course, one could scarcely expect it from a lady; but if you look at the thing from our point of view, it's quite easy."
Flora Schuyler smiled satirically. "I fancy I do, though I may be mistaken. Subtleties of this kind are, as you suggest, beyond the average woman."
"You are laughing at me, and it's quite likely I deserve it. We will talk of something else. I was telling you about the cavalry officer."
"No," said Hetty, "I don't think you were."
"Then I meant to. He has just come up from the Apache country—a kind of quiet man, with a good deal in him and a way of making you listen when you once start him talking. We half expect him here this evening, and if he comes, I want you to be nice to him. You could make him believe we are in the right quite easily."
"From the Apache country?" and Flora Schuyler glanced at Hetty.
Allonby nodded. "New Mexico, Arizona, or somewhere there. Now, just when you were beginning to listen, there's Mr. Torrance wanting me."
He rose with evident reluctance, and Miss Schuyler sat reflectively silent when he moved away.
"What are you thinking of?" asked Hetty sharply.
"That the United States is not after all such a very big country. One is apt to run across a friend everywhere."
Hetty did not answer, but Miss Schuyler knew that she was also wondering about the cavalry officer, when half an hour later it became evident, from the sounds outside, that a sleigh had reached the door, and when a little further time had passed Allonby ushered a man in blue uniform into the room. Hetty set her lips when she saw him.
"Oh!" said Miss Schuyler. "I felt quite sure of it. This is the kind of thing that not infrequently happens, and it is only the natural sequence that he should turn up on the opposite side to Larry."
"Flo," said Hetty sharply, "what do you mean?"
"Well," she said lazily, "I fancy that you should know better than I do. I have only my suspicions and some little knowledge of human nature to guide me. Now, of course, you convinced us that you didn't care for Cheyne, but we have only your word to go upon in regard to Larry."
Hetty turned upon her with a flash in her eyes. "Don't try to make me angry, Flo. It's going to be difficult to meet him as it is."
"I don't think you need worry," and Flora Schuyler laughed. "He is probably cured by this time, and has found somebody else. They usually do. That ought to please you."
In the meantime, Allonby and the man he was presenting to his friends were drawing nearer. Hetty rose when the pair stopped in front of them.
"Captain Jackson Cheyne, who is coming to help us. Miss Torrance and Miss Schuyler, the daughter and guest of our leader," said Allonby, and the soldierly man with the quiet, brown face, smiling, held out his hand.
"We are friends already," he said, and passed on with Allonby.
"Was it very dreadful, Hetty?" said Flora Schuyler. "I could see he means to come back and talk to you."
Hetty also fancied Cheyne wished to do so, and spent the next hour or two in avoiding the encounter. With this purpose she contrived to draw Chris Allonby into one of the smaller rooms where the card-tables were then untenanted, and listened with becoming patience to stories she had often heard before. She, however, found it a little difficult to laugh at the right places, and at last the lad glanced reproachfully at her.
"It spoils everything when one has to show you where the point is," he said; and Hetty, looking up, saw Cheyne and Flora Schuyler in the doorway.
"Miss Newcombe is looking for you, Mr. Allonby," said the latter.
There was very little approval in the glance Hetty bestowed upon Miss Schuyler and Allonby seemed to understand it.
"She generally is, and that is why I'm here," he said. "I don't feel like hearing about any more lepidoptera to-night, and you can take her Captain Cheyne instead. He must have found out quite a lot about beetles and other things that bite you down in Arizona."
Miss Schuyler, disregarding Hetty, laughed. "You had better go," she said. "I see her coming in this direction now, and she has something which apparently contains specimens in her hand."
Allonby fled, but he turned a moment in the doorway. "Do you think you could get me a real lively tarantula, Captain Cheyne?" he said. "If a young lady with a preoccupied manner asks you anything about insects, tell her you have one in your pocket. It's the only thing that will save you."
He vanished with Miss Schuyler, and Hetty, somewhat against her wishes, found herself alone with Cheyne. He was deeply sunburned, and his face thinner than it had been, but the quiet smile she had once found pleasure in was still in his eyes.
"Your young friend did his best, and I am half afraid he had a hint," he said.
Hetty blushed. "I am very pleased to see you," she said hastily. "How did you like New Mexico?"
"As well as I expected," Cheyne answered with a dry smile. "It is not exactly an enchanting place—deformed mountains, sun glare, adobe houses, loneliness, and dust. My chief trouble, however, was that I had too much time to think."
"But you must have seen somebody and had something to do."
"Yes," Cheyne admitted. "There was a mining fellow who used to come over and clean out my whiskey, and sing gruesome songs for hours together to a banjo that had, I think, two strings. I stayed out all night quite frequently when I had reason to believe that he was coming. Then, we killed a good many tarantulas—and a few equally venomous pests—but when all was done it left one hours to sit staring at the sage-brush and wonder whether one would ever shake off the dreariness of it again."
"It must have been horribly lonely," Hetty said.
"Well," said Cheyne, very slowly, "there was just one faint hope that now and then brightened everything for me. I thought you might change. Perhaps I was foolish—but that hope would have meant so much to me. I could not let it go."
Hetty turned and looked at him with a softness in her eyes, for the little tremor in his voice had touched her.
"And I was hoping you had forgotten," she said.
"No," said Cheyne quietly. "I don't think I ever shall. You haven't a grain of comfort to offer me?"
Hetty shook her head, and involuntarily one hand went up and rested a moment on something that lay beneath the laces at her neck. "No," she said. "I am ever so sorry, Jake, but I have nothing whatever to offer you—now."
"Then," said Cheyne, with a little gesture of resignation, "I suppose it can be borne because it must be—and I think I understand. I know he must be a good man—or you would never have cared for him."
Hetty looked at him steadily, but the colour that had crept into her cheek spread to her forehead. "Jake," she said, "no doubt there are more, but I have met two Americans who are, I think, without reproach. I shall always be glad I knew them—and it is not your fault that you are not the right one."
Cheyne made her a little grave inclination. "Then, I hope we shall be good friends when I meet the other one. I am going to stay some little time in the cattle country."
"I almost hope you will not meet just yet," Hetty said anxiously, "and you must never mention what I have told you to anybody."
"You have only told me that I was one of two good Americans," said Cheyne, with a quiet smile which the girl found reassuring. "Now, you don't want to send me away?"
"No," said Hetty. "It is so long since I have seen you. You have come to help us against our enemies?"
Cheyne saw the girl's intention, and was glad to fall in with it, but he betrayed a little embarrassment. "Not exactly, though I should be content if my duty amounts to the same thing," he said. "We have been sent in to help to restore order, and it is my business just now to inquire into the doings of a certain Larry Grant. I wonder if you could tell me anything about him?"
He noticed the sudden intentness of Hetty's face, though it was gone in an instant.
"What have you found out?" she asked.
"Very little that one could rely upon. Everybody I ask tells me something different, he seems a compound of the qualities of Coleman the Vigilante, our first President, and the notorious James boys. As they were gentlemen of quite different character, it seems to me that some of my informants are either prejudiced or mistaken."
"Yes," said Hetty. "He is like none of them. Larry is just a plain American who is fearlessly trying to do what he feels is right, though it is costing him a good deal. You see, I met him quite often before the trouble began."
Cheyne glanced at her sharply, but Hetty met his gaze. "I don't know," he answered, "that one could say much more of any man."
Just then Flora Schuyler and Miss Allonby came in. "Hetty," said the latter, "everybody is waiting for you to sing."
In the meanwhile, Allonby and his nephew sat with Torrance and Clavering, and one or two of the older men, in his office room. Clavering had just finished speaking when Allonby answered Torrance's questioning glance.
"I have no use for beating round the bush," he said. "Dollars are getting scarce with me, and, like some of my neighbours, I had to sell out a draft of stock. The fact that I'm throwing them on the market now is significant."
One of the men nodded. "Allonby has put it straight," he said. "I was over fixing things with the station agent, and he is going to send the first drafts through to Omaha in one lot if two of his biggest locomotives can haul the cars. Still, if Clavering has got hold of the right story, how the devil did the homestead-boys hear of it?"
Clavering glanced at Torrance with a little sardonic smile on his lips. "I don't quite know, but a good many of our secrets have been leaking out."
"You're quite sure you are right, Clavering?" somebody asked.
"Yes. The information is worth the fifty dollars I paid for it. The homestead-boys mean to run that stock train through the Bitter Creek bridge. As you know, it's a good big trestle, and it is scarcely likely we would get a head of stock out of the wreck alive."
There were angry ejaculations and the faces round the table grew set and stern. Some of the men had seen what happens when a heavy train goes through a railroad trestle.
"It's devilish!" said Allonby. "Larry is in the thing?"
"Well," said Clavering drily, "it appears the boys can't do anything unless they have an order from their executive, and the man who told me declared he had seen one signed by him. Still, one has to be fair to Larry, and it is quite likely some of the foreign Reds drove him into it. Any way, if we could get that paper—and I think I can—it would fix the affair on him."
Torrance nodded. "Now we have the cavalry here, it would be enough to have him shot," he said. "Well, this is going to suit us. But there must be no fooling. We want to lay hands upon them when they are at work on the trestle."
The other men seemed doubtful, and Allonby made a protest. "It is by no means plain how it's going to suit me to have my steers run through the bridge," he said. "I can't afford it."
Clavering laughed. "You will not lose one of them," he said. "Now, don't ask any questions, but listen to me."
There were objections to the scheme he suggested, but he won over the men who raised them, and when all had been arranged and Allonby had gone back to his other guests, Clavering appeared satisfied and Torrance very grim. Unfortunately, however, they had not bound Christopher Allonby to silence, and when he contrived to find a place near Miss Schuyler and Hetty he could not refrain from mentioning what he had heard. This was, however, the less astonishing since the cattle-barons' wives and daughters shared their anxieties and were conversant with most of what happened.
"You have a kind of belief in the homestead-boys, Hetty?" he said.
"Yes, but everybody knows who I belong to."
"Of course! Well, I guess you are not going to have any kind of belief in them now. They're planning to run our big stock train through the Bitter Creek bridge."
Hetty turned white. "They would never do that. Their leaders would not let them."
"No?" said Allonby. "I'm sorry to mention it, but it seems they have Larry's order."
A little flush crept into Flora Schuyler's face, but Hetty's grew still more colourless and her dark eyes glowed. Then she shook her shoulders, and said with a scornful quietness, "Larry would not have a hand in it to save his life. There is not a semblance of truth in that story, Chris."
Allonby glanced up in astonishment, but he was youthful, and that Hetty could have more than a casual interest in her old companion appeared improbable to him.
"It is quite a long time since you and Larry were on good terms, and no doubt he has changed," he said. "Any way, his friends are going to try giant powder on the bridge, and if we are fortunate Cheyne will get the whole of them, and Larry, too. Now, we'll change the topic, since it does not seem to please you."
He changed it several times, but his companions, though they sat and even smiled now and then, heard very few of his remarks.
"I'm going," he said at last, reproachfully. "I am sorry if I have bored you, but it is really quite difficult to talk to people who are thinking about another thing. It seems to me you are both in love with somebody, and it very clearly isn't me."
He moved away, and for a moment Hetty and Miss Schuyler did not look at one another. Then Hetty stood up.
"I should have screamed if he had stayed any longer," she said. "The thing is just too horrible—but it is quite certain Larry does not know. I have got to tell him somehow. Think, Flo."
The dusk Hetty had anxiously waited for was creeping across the prairie when she and Miss Schuyler pulled up their horses in the gloom of the birches where the trail wound down through the Cedar bluff. The weather had grown milder and great clouds rolled across the strip of sky between the branches overhead, while the narrow track amidst the whitened trunks was covered with loose snow. There was no frost, and Miss Schuyler felt unpleasantly clammy as she patted her horse, which moved restively now and then, and shook off the melting snow that dripped upon her; but Hetty seemed to notice nothing. She sat motionless in her saddle with the moisture glistening on her furs, and the thin white steam from the spume-flecked beast floating about her, staring up the trail, and when she turned and glanced over her shoulder her face showed white and drawn.
"He must be coming soon," she said, and Miss Schuyler noticed the strained evenness of her voice. "Yes, of course he's coming. It would be too horrible if we could not find him."
"Jake Cheyne and his cavalry boys would save the bridge," said Flora Schuyler, with a hopefulness she did not feel.
Hetty leaned forward and held up her hand, as though to demand silence that she might listen, before she answered her.
"There are some desperate men among the homestead-boys, and if they found out they had been given away they would cut the track in another place," she said. "If they didn't and Cheyne surprised them, they would fire on his troopers and Larry would be blamed for it. He would be chased everywhere with a price on his head, and anyone he wouldn't surrender to could shoot him. Flo, it is too hard to bear, and I'm afraid."
Her voice failed her, and Miss Schuyler, who could find no words to reassure her, was thankful that her attention was demanded by her restive horse. The strain was telling on her, too, and, with less at stake than her companion, she was consumed by a longing to defeat the schemes of the cattle-men, who had, it seemed to her with detestable cunning, decided not to warn the station agent, and let the great train go, that they might heap the more obloquy upon their enemies. The risk the engineer and brakesmen ran was apparently nothing to them, and she felt, as Hetty did, that Larry was the one man who could be depended on to avert bloodshed. Yet there was still no sign of him.
"If he would only come!" she said.
There was no answer. Loose snow fell with a soft thud from the birch branches, and there was a little sighing amidst the trees. It was rapidly growing darker, but Hetty sat rigidly still in her saddle, with her hand clenched on the bridle. Five long minutes passed. Then, she turned suddenly, exultation in her voice.
"Flo," she said, "he's coming!"
Miss Schuyler could hear nothing for another minute or two, and then, when a faint sound became audible through the whispering of the trees, she wondered how her companion could be sure it was the fall of hoofs, or that the horse was not ridden by a stranger. But there was no doubt in Hetty's face, and Flora Schuyler sighed as she saw it relax and a softness creep into the dark eyes. She had seen that look in the faces of other women and knew its meaning.
The beat of hoofs became unmistakable, and she could doubt no longer that a man was riding down the trail. He came into sight in another minute, a shadowy figure swinging to the stride of a big horse, with the line of a rifle-barrel across his saddle, and then, as he saw them, rode up at a gallop, scattering the snow.
"Hetty!" he said, a swift flush of pleasure sweeping his face, and Miss Schuyler set her lips as she noticed that he did not even see her.
Hetty gathered up her bridle, and wheeled her horse. "Ride into the bluff—quick," she said. "Somebody might see us in the trail."
Larry did as he was bidden, and when the gloom of the trees closed about them, sprang down and looped his bridle round a branch. Then, he stood by Hetty's stirrup, and the girl could see his face, white in the faint light the snow flung up. She turned her own away when she had looked down on it.
"I have had an anxious day, but this makes up for everything," he said. "Now—and it is so long since I have seen you—can't we, for just a few minutes, forget our troubles?"
He held out his hand, as though to lift her down, but the girl turned her eyes on him and what he saw in them checked him suddenly.
"No," she said, with a tremor in her voice, "we can't get away from them. You must not ask any question until you have heard everything!"
She spoke with a swift conciseness that omitted no point and made the story plain, for there was a high spirit in the girl, and a tangible peril that could be grappled with had a bracing effect on her. Grant's face grew intent as he listened, and Hetty, looking down, could see the firmer set of his lips, and the glint in his eyes. The weariness faded out of it, and once more she recognized the alert, resourceful, and quietly resolute Larry she had known before the troubles came. He turned swiftly and clasped her hand.
"I wonder if you know how much you have done for me?"
Hetty smiled and allowed her fingers to remain in his grasp. "Then, you have heard nothing of this?" she said.
"No," said the man. "But Hetty——"
Again the girl checked him with a gesture. "And I need not ask you whether you would have had a hand in it?"
Grant laughed a little scornful laugh that was more eloquent than many protestations. "No," he said, "you needn't. I think you know me better than that, Hetty?"
"Yes," said the girl softly. "You couldn't have had anything to do with that kind of meanness. Larry, how was it they did not tell you?"
She felt the grasp of the man's fingers slacken and saw his arm fall to his side. His face changed suddenly, growing stern and set, until he turned his head away. When he looked round again the weariness was once more plain in it, and she almost fancied he had checked a groan.
"You have brought me back to myself," he said. "Only a few seconds ago I could think of nothing but what you had done for me. I think I was almost as happy as a man could be, and now——"
Hetty laid her hand on his shoulder. "And now? Tell me, Larry."
"No," said the man. "You have plenty of troubles of your own."
The grasp of the little hand grew tighter, and when Grant looked up he saw the girl smiling down on him half-shyly, and yet, as it were, imperiously.
"Tell me, dear," she said.
Larry felt his heart throb, and his resolution failed him. He could see the girl's eyes, and their compelling tenderness.
"Well," he said, huskily, "what I have dreaded has come. The men I have given up everything for have turned against me. No, you must not think I am sorry for what I have done, and it was right then; but they have listened to some of the crazy fools from Europe and are letting loose anarchy. I and the others—the sensible Americans—have lost our hold on them, and yet it was we who brought them in. We took on too big a contract—and I'm most horribly afraid, Hetty."
The light had almost gone, but his face still showed drawn and white and Hetty bent down nearer him.
"Put your hand in mine, Larry," she said softly. "I have something to tell you."
The man obeyed her, wondering, while a thrill ran through him as the mittened fingers closed upon his own.
"Hetty," he said, "I have only brought trouble on everyone. I'm not fit to speak to you."
"No," said the girl, with a throb in her voice. "You have only done what very few other men would have dared to do, and many a better girl than I am would be proud to be fond of you. Now listen, Larry. For years you were ever so good to me, and I was too mean and shallow and selfish even to understand what you were giving me. I fancied I had a right to everything you could do. But come nearer, Larry."
She drew him closer to her, until his garments pressed the horse's flank and the blanket skirt she wore, and leaned down still further with her hand upon his shoulder.
"I found out, dear, and now I want you to forgive me and always love me."
The grasp on her hand became compelling, and she moved her foot from the stirrup as the man's arm reached upwards towards her waist. Had she wished she could not have helped herself; as she slipped from the saddle the arm closed round her and it was several seconds before she and Grant stood a pace apart, with tingling blood, looking at one another. There was no sign of Flora Schuyler, they were alone, enfolded in the silence of the bluff.
"It is wonderful," he said. "I can't even talk, Hetty. I want to realize it."
Hetty laughed but there was a note in her voice that set the man's heart beating furiously. "Yes, it is wonderful it should come to me," she said. "No, you needn't look round, Larry. There is nothing and nobody that counts now except you and me. I am just beginning to understand your patience, and how hard I must have been to you."
"I waited a long time," he said. "It was worth while. Even the troubles I felt crushing me seem very little now. If they were only over, and there was nothing to come between you and me!"
"Larry," the girl said very softly, "are you sure they need do that? It has been so horrible lately, and I can't even sleep at night for thinking of the risks that you are taking."
Grant closed one hand, but it was too dark now for Hetty to see his face, and she was glad of it.
"You mean—" he said hoarsely, and stopped.
"Just this," her voice almost a whisper. "I am frightened of it all, and when you want me I will come to you. No, wait just a little. I could never marry the man who was fighting against my father and the people I belong to, while, now I know what you are, I could never ask him to go back on what he felt was right; but, Larry, the men you did so much for have turned against you, and the things they are doing are not right, and would never please you. Can't we go away and leave the trouble behind us? Nobody seems to want us now."
There was a cold dew on the man's forehead the girl could not see. "And your father?" he said.
"I would never help anyone against him, as I told you," said the girl. "Still, there are times when his bitterness almost frightens me. It is hard to admit it, even to you, but I can't convince myself that he and the others are not mistaken, too. I can't believe any longer that you are wrong, dear. Besides, though he says very little, I feel he wants me to marry Clavering."
"Clavering?" said Larry.
"Yes," said Hetty, with a shiver. "I dislike him bitterly—and I should be safe with you."
Grant held out his hands. "Then, you must come, my dear. One way or other the struggle will soon be over now, and if I have to go out an outcast I can still shelter you."
The girl drew back a pace. "I can't turn against my own people—but yours have turned on you. That makes it easier. If you will take me, dear, we will go away."
Grant turned from her, and ground his heel into the snow. He had already given up almost everything that made life bright to him, but he had never felt the bitterness he did at that moment, when he realized that another and heavier sacrifice was demanded of him.
"Hetty," he said slowly, "can't you understand? I and the others brought the homesteaders in; this land has fed me and given me all I have, and now I can't go back on it and them. I would not be fit to marry you if I went away."
The words were very simple, but the man's voice betrayed what he felt. Hetty understood, and the pride she had no lack of came to the rescue.
"Yes," she said with a little sob, "Larry you are right. You will forgive me, dear, for once more tempting you. Perhaps it will all come right by and by. And now I must go."
There was a crackle of brittle twigs, and Grant dimly saw Miss Schuyler riding towards them. Reaching out, he took Hetty's hands and drew her closer.
"There is just one thing you must promise me, my dear," he said. "If your father insists on your listening to Clavering, you will let me know. Then I will come to Cedar for you, and there are still a few Americans who have not lost confidence in their leader and will come with me. Nothing must make you say yes to him."
"No," said Hetty simply. "If I cannot avoid it any other way, I will send for you. I can't wait any longer—and here is Flo."
Larry stooped; but before she laid her foot in the hand he held out for her to mount by, Hetty bent her head swiftly, and kissed him.
"Now," she said softly, "do you think I could listen to Clavering? You will do what you have to, and I will wait for you. It is hard on us both, dear; but I can't help recognizing my duty, too."
Larry lifted her to the saddle, and she vanished into the gloom of the birches before he could speak to Miss Schuyler, who wheeled her horse and followed her. A few minutes more and he was riding towards Fremont as fast as his horse could flounder through the slushy snow, his face grown set and resolute again, for he knew he had difficult work to do.
"I don't quite know what has come over you, Larry," Breckenridge said an hour or two later with a puzzled look at Grant as he lifted his eyes from the writing pad on his knee. "I haven't seen you so obviously contented for months, and yet the work before us may be grim enough. The most unpleasant point about it is that Clavering must have got hold of one of your warrant forms. It was a mistake to trust anybody with one not filled in."
"Well, I feel that way too," Grant confessed, "and at the same time I'm desperately anxious. We are going to have trouble with the boys right along the line, and there is no man living can tell what will happen if any of them go down in an affair with the cavalry."
"It wouldn't be difficult to guess what the consequences would be if they cut the track just before the stock train came through. You are quite sure they have not changed their minds again?"
"Yes," said Larry quietly. "I bluffed it out of Harper. He would have taken a hand in, and only kicked when it came to taking lives. More of the others cleared out over that point, too, and as the rest were half-afraid of some of those who objected giving them away, they changed their plans; but it seems quite certain they mean to pull the rails up at the bend on the down grade by the bunch grass hollow. It is fortunate, any way. Cheyne and his cavalry will be watching the bridge, you see; but you had better get ready. I'll have the last instructions done directly, and it will be morning before you are through."
Breckenridge poured himself out a big cup of coffee from the jug on the stove, put on a black leather jacket, and went out to the stable. When he came back, Grant handed him a bundle of notes.
"You will see every man gets one and tell him all he wants to know. I dare not put down too much in black and white. They are to be round at the rise behind the depot at six Thursday night."
"You believe they will come?"
"Yes," Grant said firmly. "They are good men, and I'm thankful there are still so many of them, because just now they are all that is standing between this country and anarchy."
Breckenridge smiled a little, but his voice was sympathetic. "Well," he said, "I am glad, on my own account, too. It's nicer to have the chances with you when you have to reckon with men of the kind we are going to meet, but I shall not be sorry when this trouble's through. It is my first attempt at reforming and a little of it goes a long way with me. I don't know that there is a more thankless task than trying to make folks better off than they want, or deserve, to be."
He went out with a packet of messages, and Grant sat still, with care in his face, staring straight in front of him.
THE STOCK TRAIN
It was almost unpleasantly hot in the little iron-roofed room at the railroad depot, and the agent, who flung the door open, stood still a minute or two blinking into the darkness. A big lamp that flickered in the wind cast an uncertain gleam upon the slushy whiteness under foot, and the blurred outline of a towering water-tank showed dimly through the sliding snow. He could also just discern the great locomotive waiting on the side-track, and the sibilant hiss of steam that mingled with the moaning of the wind whirling a white haze out of the obscurity. Beyond the track, and showing only now and then, the lights of the wooden town blinked fitfully; on the other hand and behind the depot was an empty waste of snow-sheeted prairie. The temperature had gone up suddenly, but the agent shivered as he felt the raw dampness strike through him, and, closing the door, took off and shook his jacket and sat down by the stove again.
He wore a white shirt of unusually choice linen, with other garments of fashionable city cut, for a station agent is a person of importance in the West, and this one was at least as consequential as most of the rest. He had finished his six o'clock supper at the wooden hotel a little earlier; and as the next train going west would not arrive for two or three hours, he took out a rank cigar, and, placing his feet upon a chair, prepared to doze the time away, though he laid a bundle of accounts upon his knee, in case anyone should come in unexpectedly. This, however, was distinctly improbable on such a night.
The stove flung out a drowsy heat, and it was not long before his eyes grew heavy. He could still hear the wailing of the wind and the swish of the snow that whirled about the lonely building, and listened for a while with tranquil contentment; for the wild weather he was not exposed to enhanced the comfort of the warmth and brightness he enjoyed. Then, the sounds grew less distinct and he heard nothing at all until he straightened himself suddenly in his chair as a cold draught struck him. A few flakes of snow also swept into the room and he saw that the door was open.
"Hallo!" he called. "Wait there a moment. I guess this place doesn't belong to you."
A man who looked big and shapeless in his whitened furs signed to somebody outside without answering, and four or five other men in fur caps and snow-sprinkled coats came in. They did not seem to consider it necessary to wait for permission, and it dawned upon the agent that something unusual was about to happen.
"We have a little business to put through," said one.
"Well," said the agent brusquely, "I can't attend to you now. You can come back later—when the train comes in."
One of the newcomers smiled sardonically, and the agent recognized two of his companions. They were men of some importance in that country, who had, however joined the homestead movement and were under the ban of the company's chief supporters, the cattle-barons. There was accordingly no inducement to waste civility on them; but he had an unpleasant feeling that unnecessary impertinence would not be advisable.
"It has got to be put through now," said the first of them, with a little ring in his voice. "We want a locomotive and a calaboose to take us to Boynton, and we are quite willing to pay anything reasonable."
"It can't be done. We have only the one loco here, and she is wanted to shove the west-bound train up the long grade to the hills."
"I guess that train will have to get through alone to-night," said another man.
The agent got up with an impatient gesture. "Now," he said, "I don't feel like arguing with you. You can't have the loco."
"No?" said the homesteader, with a little laugh. "Well, I figure you're mistaken. We have taken charge of her already and only want the bill. If you don't believe me, call your engineer."
The agent strode to the door, and there was a momentary silence after he called, "Pete!"
Then, a shout came out of the sliding snow: "I can't come."
It broke off with significant suddenness, and the agent turned to the man who had first spoken. "You are going to be sorry for this, Mr. Grant," he said and then tried to slip away, but one of the others pulled the door to and stood with his back to it while Grant, smiling, said, "I'm quite willing to take my chances. Have the stock-cars passed Perry's siding?"
"I don't know," said the agent.
"Then, hadn't you better call them up and see? We are giving you the first chance of doing it out of courtesy, but one of us is a good operator."
"I was on the Baltimore and Ohio road," said one man. "You needn't play any tricks with me."
The agent sat down at the telegraph instrument, and looked up when it rapped out an answer to his message.
"Stock train left Birch Hollow. No sign of her yet."
"That's all right," said the man who had served the B. and O. "Tell them to side-track her for half an hour, anyway, after your loco comes through. It's necessary. Don't worry 'bout any questions, but tell them to keep us a clear road, now."
The agent, who saw that the other man was prepared to do the work himself, complied, and the latter once more nodded when the instrument clicked out the answer.
"Make out your bill," said Grant, taking a wallet from his pocket.
"No," said the agent; "we're going to have the law of you."
Grant laughed. "It strikes me there is very little law in this country now, and your company would a good deal sooner have the dollars than a letter telling them you had let us take one of their locomotives away from you."
"That," said the agent reflectively, "sounds quite sensible. Well, I'll take the dollars. It doesn't commit us to anything."
The bills were counted over, and as the men went out Grant turned in the doorway. "It would not be advisable for you to wire any of the folks along the line to stop us," he said. "We are going through to Boynton as fast as your engineer can shove his loco along, and if anybody switched us into a side-track it would only mean the smashing up of a good deal of the company's property."
He had gone out in another moment, and, in a few more, climbed into the locomotive cab, while somebody coupled on a calaboose in the rear. Then, he showed the engineer several bills and the agent's receipt together.
"If you can hold your tongue and get us through to Boynton five minutes under the mail schedule time, the dollars are yours," he said.
The engineer looked doubtful for a moment, then, his eyes twinkling, he took the bills.
"Well," he said, "you've got the agent's receipt, and the rest is not my business. Sit tight, and we'll show you something very like flying to-night."
Another man flung open the furnace door, a sudden stream of brightness flashed out as he hurled in coal, the door shut with a clang, and there was a whirr of slipping wheels as the engineer laid his hand on the lever. The great locomotive panted, and Grant, staring out through the glasses, saw a blinking light slide back to them. Then, the plates beneath him trembled, the hammering wheels got hold, and the muffled clanging and thudding swelled into a rhythmic din. The light darted past them, the filmy whiteness which had streamed down through the big headlamp's glare now beat in a bewildering rush against the quivering glass, and the fan-shaped blaze of radiance drove on faster through the snow.
Five minutes passed, and Grant, who held a watch in his hand, glanced at the engineer as the blaze whirled like a comet along the clean-cut edge of a dusky bluff.
"You'll have to do better," he said.
"Wait till we have got her warmed up," said the man, who stood quietly intent, his lean hand on the throttle. "Then you'll see something."
Grant sat down on a tool-locker, took out his cigar-case, and passed it to Breckenridge who sat opposite him. Breckenridge's face was eager and there was an unusual brightness in his eyes, for he was young and something thrilled within him in unison with the vibration of the great machine. There was, however, very little to see just then beyond the tense, motionless figure of the man at the throttle and the damp-beaded face of another forced up in the lurid glare from the furnace door. A dim whiteness lashed the glasses, and when Breckenridge pressed his face to one of them the blaze of radiance against which the smoke-stack was projected blackly only intensified the obscurity they were speeding through.
Still, there was much to feel and hear—the shrill wail of the wind that buffeted their shelter, the bewildering throb and quiver of the locomotive which, with its suggestion of Titanic effort, seemed to find a response in human fibre, pounding and clashing with their burden of strain, and the roar of the great drivers that rose and fell like a diapason. Perhaps Breckenridge, who was also under a strain that night, was fanciful, but it seemed to him there was hidden in the medley of sound a theme or motive that voiced man's domination over the primeval forces of the universe, and urged him to the endurance of stress, and great endeavour. It was, for the most part, vague and elusive; but there were times when it rang exultingly through the subtly harmonious din, reminding him of Wagnerian music.
Leaning forward, he touched Grant's knee. "Larry, it's bracing. The last few months were making me a little sick of everything—but this gets hold of one." Grant smiled, but Breckenridge saw how weary his bronzed face showed in the dim lantern light. "There was a time, two or three years ago, when I might have felt it as you seem to do," he said. "I don't seem to have any feeling but tiredness left me now."
"You can't let go," said Breckenridge.
"No," and Grant sighed, "not until the State takes hold instead of me, or the trouble's through."
Breckenridge said nothing further, and Grant sat huddled in a corner with the thin blue cigar-smoke curling about him. He knew it was possible he was taking a very heavy risk just then, since the homesteaders might have changed their plans again; and his task was a double one, for he had not only to save the stock train, but prevent an encounter between his misguided followers and the cavalry. So there was silence between them while, lurching, rocking, roaring, the great locomotive sped on through the night, until the engineer, turning half-round, glanced at Grant.
"Is she making good enough time to suit you? Perry's siding is just ahead, and we'll be on the Bitter Creek trestle five minutes after that," he said.
Grant rose and leaned forward close to the glasses. He could see nothing but the radiance from the headlamp whirling like a meteor through the filmy haze; but the fierce vibration of everything, and the fashion in which the snow smote the glasses, as in a solid stream, showed the pace at which they were travelling. He looked round and saw that Breckenridge's eyes were fixed upon him. His comrade's voice reached him faint and strained through the hammering of the wheels.
"You feel tolerably sure Harper was right about the bridge?"
Grant nodded. "I do."
"What if he was mistaken, and they meant to try there after all? There are eight of us."
"We have got to take the risk," said Grant very quietly, "and it is a big responsibility; but if the boys got their work in and fell foul of Cheyne, we would have half the State ablaze."
He signed for silence, and Breckenridge stared out through the glasses, for he feared his face would betray him, and fancied he understood the burden that was upon the man who, because it seemed the lesser evil, was risking eight men's lives.
As he watched, a blink of light crept out of the snow, grew brighter, and swept back to them. Others appeared in a cluster behind it, a big water-tank flashed by, and the roar of wheels and scream of whistle was flung back by a snow-covered building. Then, as Breckenridge glanced to the opposite side, the blaze of another headlamp dazzled his eyes and he had a blurred vision of a waiting locomotive and a long row of snow-smeared cars. In another second cars and station had vanished as suddenly as they had sprung up out of the night, and they were once more alone in the sliding snow. Breckenridge drew a breath of relief.
"There's the stock train, any way. And now for the bridge!" he said.
"That was the easiest half of it. Muller was there—I saw him—and he could have warned the agent at the last minute," Grant answered.
Neither of them said anything further, but Breckenridge felt his heart beat faster as the snow whirled by. The miles were slipping behind them, and he was by no means so sure as Larry was that no attempt would be made upon the bridge. His fancy would persist in picturing the awful leap into the outer darkness through the gap in the trestle, and he felt his lips and forehead grow a trifle colder and his flesh shrink in anticipation of the tremendous shock. He looked at Grant; the latter's face was very quiet, and had lost its grimness and weariness—there was almost a suggestion of exaltation in it.
"We are almost on the bridge now," he said.
The engineer nodded, and the next moment Breckenridge, who had been watching the light of the headlamp flash along the snow beside the track, saw it sweep on, as it were, through emptiness. Then, he heard a roar of timber beneath him, and fancied he could look down into a black gulf through the filmy snow. He knew it was a single track they were speeding over, and that the platform of the calaboose behind them overhung the frozen river far below.
He set his lips and held his breath for what seemed a very long time, and then, with a sigh of relief, sank back into his seat as he felt by the lessening vibration, that there was frozen soil under them. But in spite of himself the hands he would have lighted a cigar with shook, and the engineer who looked round glanced at him curiously.
"Feeling kind of sick?" he said. "Well, it's against the regulations, but there's something that might fix you as well as tea in that can."
Breckenridge smiled feebly. "The fact is, I have never travelled on a locomotive before, and when I took on the contract I didn't quite know all I was letting myself in for," he said.
"How far are we off the long down grade with the curve in it?" asked Grant.
"We might get there in 'bout ten minutes," said the engineer.
"Slacken up before you reach the grade and put your headlamp out," said Grant. "I want you to stop just this side of the curve, and wait for me five minutes."
The engineer looked at him steadily. "Now, there's a good deal I don't understand about all this. What do you want me to stop there for?"
"I don't see why you should worry. It does not concern you. Any way, I have hired this special, and I give you my word that nothing I am going to do will cause the least damage to any of the company's property. I want you to stop, lend me a lantern, and sit tight in the cab until I tell you to go on. We will make it two dollars a minute."
The engineer nodded. "I don't know what you are after, but I guess I can take your word," he said. "You seem that kind of a man."
Ten minutes later the fireman vanished into the darkness, and the blaze of the headlamp went out before he returned and the roar of the drivers sank. The rhythmic din grew slack, and became a jarring of detached sounds again, the snow no longer beat on the glasses as it had done, and, rocking less, the great locomotive rolled slowly down the incline until it stopped, and Grant, taking the lantern handed him, sprang down from the cab. Four other men were waiting on the calaboose platform, and when Grant hid the lantern under his fur coat they floundered down the side of the graded track which there crossed a hollow. A raw wind whirled the white flakes about them and Breckenridge could scarcely see the men behind him. He was thankful when, slipping, sliding, stumbling, they gained the level.
From there he could just distinguish the road bed as something solid through the whirling haze, and he felt they were following a bend of it when Grant stopped and a clinking sound came out of the obscurity above them. It might have been made by somebody knocking out key wedges or spikes with a big hammer and in his haste striking the rail or chair.
Then Grant said something Breckenridge could not catch, and they were crawling up the slope, with the clinking and ringing growing a trifle louder. Breckenridge's heart beat faster than usual, but he was tolerably collected now. He had a weapon he was not unskilled with in his pocket, and the chance of a fight with even desperate men was much less disconcerting than that of plunging down into a frozen river with a locomotive. He had also a reassuring conviction that if Larry could contrive it there would be no fight at all.
He crawled on, with the man behind clutching at him, now and then, and the one in front sliding back on him, until his arms were wet to the elbows and his legs to the knees; but the top of the grade seemed strangely difficult to reach, and he could see nothing with the snow that blew over it in his eyes. Suddenly Larry rose up, there was a shout and a flounder, and, though he did not quite know how he got there, Breckenridge found himself standing close behind his comrade, and in the light of the lantern held up saw a man drop his hammer. There were other men close by, but they were apparently too astonished to think of flight.
"It's Larry!" somebody exclaimed.
"Stop where you are," said Grant sharply as one man made a move. "I don't want to shoot any of you, but I most certainly will if you make me. Are there any more of you?"
"No," said one of the men disgustedly.
Grant walked forward swinging his lantern until his eyes rested on one partly loosened rail. "And that is as far as you have got?" he said. "Take up your hammer and drive the wood key in. Get hold of their rifles, Charley. I guess they are under that coat."
There was an angry murmur, and a man started to speak; but Grant stopped him.
"Hammer the wedges in," he said. "It was pure foolishness made me come here to save you from the cavalry who had heard of what you meant to do, because we have no use for men of your kind in this country. You haven't even sense enough to keep your rifles handy, and there will be two or three less of you to worry decent folks if you keep us waiting."
A man took up the hammer, and then waited a moment, looking at those who stood about Larry. He could see the faces of one or two in the lantern light, and recognized that he need expect no support from them. The men were resolute Americans, who had no desire for anything approaching anarchy.
"We are with Larry, and don't feel like fooling. Hadn't you better start in?" one of them said.
The rail was promptly fastened, and Grant, after examining it, came back.
"Go on in front of us, and take your tools along! It will not be nice for the man who tries to get away," he said.
The prisoners plodded dejectedly up the track until they reached the calaboose, into which the others drove them. Then Grant and Breckenridge went back to the locomotive, and the former nodded to the engineer:
"Take us through to Boynton as fast as you can."
"That is a big load off your mind," Breckenridge said as the panting engine got under way.
But Grant, huddled in a corner, neither moved nor spoke until, half an hour later, they rolled into a little wooden town and the men in the calaboose got down. There was nobody about the depot to ask them any questions, and they crossed the track to the straggling street apparently on good terms with each other, though four of them knew that unpleasant results would follow any attempt at a dash for liberty. In answer to Grant's knock, a man let them into one of the stores.