"I guess we'll lock them in the back store until morning," he said, after a short conference apart with Grant. "A little cooling down is not going to do them much harm, and I don't think anyone could get out without an axe."
The building looked secure and, when food and hot coffee had been served them, Grant retired to rest. He slept soundly, and it was close on daylight when a pounding on the door awakened him.
"I guess you had better get up at once," their host called.
A few minutes later Grant and Breckenridge went downstairs with him, and the storekeeper, opening a door, lifted the lamp he held and pointed to an open window in the roof. A barrel, with a box or two laid upon it, stood suggestively beneath it.
Breckenridge glanced at Larry, and saw a curious little smile on his face. "Yes," he said, "it's quite simple. Now, I never saw that window. Where would they be likely to head for?"
"Pacific Slope," said the storekeeper. "Wages are high just now, and they seemed quite afraid of you. The west-bound fast freight stopped here for water about two hours ago, and it was snowing that thick nobody would see them getting into a box car. They heave a few dry goods out here occasionally."
Breckenridge turned to Grant. "You seem relieved."
"Yes," said Grant, with a little shake of his shoulders. "If they have lit out of the country it will content me. I have had quite enough hard things to do lately."
A sudden thought struck Breckenridge. "You didn't mean—" he said with a shudder.
"I didn't mean to let them go, but I'm glad they've gone," Grant answered. "We made a warning of one of the cattle-barons' men, and the man who takes the law into his own hands is doubly bound to do the square thing all round. If he does less, he is piling up a bigger reckoning than I would care to face."
CHEYNE RELIEVES HIS FEELINGS
A blustering wind moaned outside the lonely building, and the stove snapped and crackled as the chilly draughts swept into the hall at Cedar Range. Jackson Cheyne had arrived on horseback in the creeping dusk an hour or two earlier, after spending most of four nights and days in the slushy snow, and was now resting contentedly in a big hide chair. Indeed, notwithstanding the fact that Hetty sat close by, he was feeling pleasantly drowsy when she turned to him.
"You have only told us that you didn't find the train-wreckers, and you know we are just dying with curiosity," she said.
Cheyne looked up languidly, wondering whether the half-indifferent inquisitiveness was assumed, as he remembered the anxiety he had seen in Hetty's face when he first came in. Instead of answering directly, he glanced round the little group sitting about the stove—for Miss Schuyler, and Christopher Allonby and his cousin were there, as well as Hetty.
"One would scarcely fancy you were dying of anything," he said. "In fact, it would be difficult to imagine any of you looking better. I wonder if you know that with the way that the light falls that dusky panelling forms a most effective background, Miss Schuyler?"
Flora Schuyler laughed. "We are not to be put off. Tell us what you found—and you needn't have any diffidence: we are quite accustomed to hearing the most astonishing things at Cedar."
"The trouble is that I didn't find anything. I spent several most unpleasant hours watching a railroad-trestle in blinding snow, until the cattle-train went by in safety. Nobody seemed to have the slightest wish to meddle with it."
Without exactly intending it he allowed his eyes to rest on Hetty a moment, and fancied he saw relief in her face. But it was Flora Schuyler who turned to him.
"What did you do then?"
"I and the boys then decided it would be advisable to look for a ranch where we could get food and shelter, and had some difficulty in finding one. In the morning, we made our way back to the depot, and discovered that a gentleman you know had hired a locomotive a little while after the cattle-train started."
"Larry, of course!" ejaculated Chris Allonby. "I wanted to stake five dollars with Clavering that he would be too smart for him again."
Cheyne looked at him inquiringly. "I don't quite understand."
"No?" and Allonby's embarrassment was unmistakable. "Well, there is no great reason why you should. I have a habit of talking at random occasionally. There are quite enough sensible people in this country without me just now."
"Then," said Cheyne, "I went on to an especially forlorn place called Boynton, and discovered with some difficulty that Mr. Grant, who hired the locomotive, had stopped it at a dangerous curve and picked several men up. He took them on to Boynton, and there they seem to have disappeared, though it was suggested that they had departed for a place unknown, either on the top of, or underneath a fast freight train."
Chris Allonby chuckled. "Well," he said, "we haven't the least use for Larry here, but I am almost proud he was a friend of mine."
Cheyne glancing round at the others fancied there was a little glow in Hetty's eyes and a trace of warmer colour in Flora Schuyler's face. It was only just perceptible to him, but he had less doubt when he saw that Miss Allonby was watching her companion covertly, for he was quite aware that the perceptions of the average young woman were likely to be much keener than his own in such affairs.
"I can't help fancying you have a clue to what really happened, Miss Torrance," he said.
"Yes," said Hetty quietly. "It is quite plain to me that Larry saved the train."
Cheyne glanced at her sharply, and then turned to Allonby. "It strikes you that way, too?"
"Of course," said Allonby unguardedly. "It is too bad of Larry. He has beaten us again, though Clavering fixed the thing quite nicely."
Cheyne's face grew stern. "I am to understand that you did not warn the engineer or any of the railroad men?"
"No," said Allonby, with evident embarrassment. "We didn't. It was necessary to make the thing as ugly for Larry's friends as we could, and we knew you would be at the bridge. If you had caught them in the act, with the train not far away, it would have looked ever so much better for us—and you."
He stopped, with an unpleasant feeling that he had blundered. Cheyne's face had become grimmer. Miss Schuyler's lips were curled in a little scornful smile, and there was a curious sparkle in Hetty's eyes.
"I wonder if you quite recognize the depth of Mr. Grant's iniquity yet?" Flora Schuyler asked.
Cheyne smiled. "I confess I should very much like to meet the man. You see, my profession prevents my being a partisan, and the cleverness and daring of what he has evidently done appeals to me. He took the chances of his own men turning on him to save them from an affray with us, brought them off, and sent your cattle-train through; and what, it seems to me, was more than all, disregarded the probability of his enemies associating him with the contriving of the outrage."
"Wouldn't you have done that?" asked Miss Allonby.
"No," said the soldier quietly. "I don't think I should. A man who would do what this one has done would be very likely to take a hand in that kind of thing."
Again there was an almost embarrassing silence broken by Miss Allonby. "I wonder who could have told him."
Nobody spoke until Cheyne felt it advisable to break the silence.
"You have no sympathy with Grant, Miss Allonby?"
"No," said the girl plaintively. "I don't go quite as far as Mr. Clavering and my cousin do—though Chris generally talks too much—but Larry is a nuisance, and really ought to be crushed. You see, we had everything we wanted before he and the others made the trouble here."
"That is quite convincing," Cheyne said, with somewhat suspicious gravity. He looked at the others, and fancied that Hetty would have answered but that Flora Schuyler flashed a warning glance at her.
"One could almost fancy that most of us have too much now," she said. "Are we better, braver, stronger, or of choicer stuff than those others who have nothing, and only want the little the law would give them? Oh, yes, we are accomplished—very indifferently, some of us—and have been better taught, though one sometimes wonders at the use we make of it; but was that education given us for our virtues, or thrust upon us by the accident that our fathers happened to be rich?"
"You will scarcely approve, Miss Allonby?" said Cheyne.
The girl's lips curled scornfully. "I never argue with people who talk like that. It would not be any use—and they would never understand me; but everybody knows we were born different from the rabble. It is unfortunate you and Larry couldn't go up and down the country together, convincing people, Flo."
Cheyne, seeing the gleam in Miss Schuyler's eyes, wondered whether there had been malice in the speech, and was not sorry that Torrance and Clavering came in just then.
"I have just come from Newcombe's and heard that you had failed," said Torrance. "If you will come along to my room, I should like to hear about it."
Cheyne smiled as he rose. "I don't know that failed was quite the correct word. My object was to protect the track, and so far as I could discover, no attempt was made to damage it."
Torrance glanced at him sharply as they moved away. "Now, we were under the impression that it was the capture of the man responsible for the affair."
"Then," said the soldier drily, "I am afraid you were under a misapprehension."
He passed the next half-hour with Torrance amicably, and it was not until he was returning to the hall with Clavering that he found an opportunity of expressing himself freely. Torrance, he realized, was an old man, and quite incapable of regarding the question except from his own point of view.
"I am just a little astonished you did not consider it advisable to follow the thing up further, when you must have seen what it pointed to," said Clavering.
"That," said Cheyne, smiling, "is foolish of you. I would like to explain that I am not a detective or a police officer."
"You were, at least, sent here to restore tranquillity."
"Precisely!" said Cheyne. "By the State. To maintain peace, and not further the cattle-men's schemes. I am, for the present, your leader's guest; but I have no reason for thinking he believes that in any way constitutes me his ally. In his case I could not use the word accomplice."
Clavering flashed an observant glance at him. "It should be evident which party is doing the most to bring about tranquillity."
"It is not," said Cheyne. "I don't know that it is my business to go into that question; but one or two of the efforts you have made lately would scarcely impress the fact on me."
"You are frank, any way," with a disagreeable laugh.
"No," said Cheyne, with a twinkle in his eyes, "I'm not sure that I am. We occasionally talk a good deal more plainly in the United States cavalry."
He passed on to the hall and Clavering went back to Torrance's room. "We have got to get rid of that man, sir," he said. "If we don't, Larry will have him. Allonby had better go and worry the Bureau into sending for another two or three squadrons under a superior officer."
Torrance sighed heavily. "I'm 'most afraid they are not going to take kindly to any more worrying," he said. "In fact, now it's evident how the feeling of the State is going, I have an idea they'd sooner stand in with the homestead boys. Still, we can try it, any way."
It was about the same time that Grant flung himself wearily into a chair in the great bare room at Fremont ranch. His face was haggard, his eyes heavy, for he had spent the greater part of several anxious days and nights endeavouring to curb the headstrong passions of his followers, and riding through leagues of slushy snow.
"Will you hurry Tom up with the supper, while I look through my letters?" he said.
Breckenridge went out, and, when he came back a little while later, found Grant with a strip of paper on his knee.
"More bad news?" he asked.
Grant made no answer, but passed the strip of paper across to him, and Breckenridge's pulses throbbed fast with anger as he read: "It is quite difficult to sit on both sides of the fence, and the boys have no more use for you. Still, there was a time when you did what you could for us, and that is why I am giving you good advice. Sit tight at Fremont, and don't go out at nights."
"The consumed asses!" he said. "You see what he means? They have gone after the herring Clavering drew across the trail."
The bronze grew darker in Larry's face, and his voice was hoarse. "Yes—they figure the cattle-men have bought me over. Well, there were points that would have drawn any man's suspicions—the packet I would not give up to Chilton—and, as you mention, Miss Torrance's wallet. Still, it hurts."
Breckenridge saw the veins swell up on his comrade's forehead and the trembling of his hands. "Don't worry about them. They are beasts, old man," he said.
Grant said nothing for at least a minute, and then clenched one lean brown hand. "I felt it would come, and yet it has shaken most of the grit out of me. I did what I could for them—it was not easy—and they have thrown me over. That is hard to bear, but there's more. No man can tell, now there is no one to hold them in, how far they will go."
Breckenridge's answer was to fling a cloth upon the table and lay out the plates. Grant sat very still; his voice had been curiously even, but his set face betrayed what he was feeling, and there was something in his eyes that Breckenridge did not care to see. He also felt that there were troubles too deep for any blundering attempt at sympathy, but the silence grew oppressive, and by and by he turned to his companion again.
"We'll presume the fellow who wrote that means well," he said. "What does his warning point to?"
Grant smiled bitterly. "An attempt upon my homestead or my life, and I have given them already rather more than either is worth to me," he said.
Breckenridge was perfectly sensible that he was not shining in the role of comforter; but he felt it would be something accomplished if he could keep his comrade talking. He had discovered that verbal expression is occasionally almost a necessity to the burdened mind, though Larry was not greatly addicted to relief of that description.
"Of course, this campaign has cost you a good deal," he said.
"Probably five thousand dollars—all that seemed good in life—and every friend I had."
"After all, Larry, the thing may be no more than a joke or an attempt at bluff. Even admitting that it is not, it probably only expresses the views of a few of the boys."
Grant shook his head. "No. I believe it is quite genuine. I saw how affairs were going even before I wouldn't give Chilton the packet; most of the boys were ready to break away then. Well, one could scarcely blame them for not trusting me, and I felt I was laying down my authority when I sent the stock train through."
"Not blame them!" said Breckenridge, clenching his fist, his eyes blazing. "Where in the wide world would the crazy fools get another man like you? But if you can take it quietly, I ought to, and the question is, what are you going to do?"
"What I can," said Grant. "Hold the boys clear of trouble where it is possible. There are still one or two who will stand behind me, and what we can't do may be done for us. When a man is badly wanted in this country he usually comes to the front, and I will be glad to drop out when I see him."
"Larry," Breckenridge said slowly, "I am younger than you are, and I haven't seen as much, but it would be better for me if I had half your optimism. Still, that was not quite what I was asking. If the beasts actually mean to burn your place or attempt your life you are surely not going to give them the opportunity. Can't we fix up a guard among the few sensible men or send for the cavalry?"
Grant smiled wearily as he shook his head. "No," he said. "The one thing I can't do is to lift my hand against the men I brought here in a private quarrel."
Just then the cook came in with the supper, and, though the pair had eaten nothing since sunrise and ridden through soft snow most of that day, it cost Breckenridge an effort to clear the plate set before him. Grant scarcely touched the food, and it was a relief to both when the meal was over, and Grant's plate, still half-filled, was taken away. After he had several times lighted a cigar and let it go out again, Breckenridge glanced at him deprecatingly.
"I can't keep it up any longer, and I know how it is with you, because I feel the thing myself," he said. "Now, if you want me here, I'll stay, but I have a notion the poor attempts at talk I'm making are only worrying you."
Grant smiled, but Breckenridge saw the answer in his face, and went out hastily, which was, under the circumstances, the wisest thing he could do. Then, Grant stretched his arms wearily above his head, and a faint groan escaped him.
"It had to come—but it hurts," he said.
Late one night Larry came home to Fremont, wet with rain and splashed with mire, for it was thawing fast and he had ridden far. He sloughed off his outer garments, and turned to Breckenridge, who had been waiting him, with a little, weary smile.
"The dollars are safe, any way, and that is a big load off my mind," he said. "Gillot has them in his safe, and nobody can touch them without a countersigned order from the executive."
Breckenridge heaved a sigh of relief, for he knew that Gillot, who had a store in the railroad town, was a determined man, and quite capable of taking care of what had been entrusted him. The dollars in question, which had been raised by levy and sent by sympathizers, had been placed in Larry's hands to further the homesteaders' objects in that district as he deemed advisable. He had, however, for reasons Breckenridge was acquainted with, just relinquished the responsibility.
"I think you were wise," said the lad. "It roused a good deal of feeling when you wouldn't let Harper and his friends have what they asked for, and the boys were very bitter at the meeting while you were away!"
"Well," said Grant drily, "I knew what they wanted those dollars for, and if I'd had twice as many I would not have given them one."
"They could not have done much harm with the few they wanted, and it would have saved you a good deal of unpleasantness. I didn't like the way the boys were talking, and it was quite plain the men who kept their heads were anxious. In fact, two or three of them offered to come over and sleep here until the dissatisfaction had simmered down."
"You did not accept their offer?"
"No, but I wish you would."
Grant shook his head. "It wouldn't suit me to own up that I was afraid of my friends—and I don't want to believe there are any of them who would injure me. If there were, I could not draw trigger on them in defence of my own property."
"Then we will hope for the best," said Breckenridge, somewhat doubtfully.
Grant, who had had supper somewhere else, presently retired, and Breckenridge, who found the big room dreary without him, followed a little later. It was long before he slept, for he had seen the temper of the more reckless spirits at the meeting he had attended, and he could not shake off the memory of his comrade's face. Larry had made no protest, but Breckenridge could understand what he was feeling. The ranch was very quiet, but he did not think his comrade slept; in this, however, he was wrong, for, worn out by physical effort and mental strain, Larry had sunk into heavy slumber.
Two or three hours later Breckenridge awakened suddenly. He sat up listening, still a little dazed with sleep, but nothing disturbed the silence of the wooden building, and it was a moment or two before the moan of the wind forced itself on his perceptions. Then, he thought he heard the trampling of a horse and stealthy footsteps in the mire below, and, springing from his bed, ran to the window. The night was dark, but he could dimly see a few shadowy figures moving towards the house. In another minute he slipped into part of his clothing and hastening into Grant's room shook him roughly.
"Get up! There are men outside."
Larry was on his feet in a few seconds and struggling into his garments. "Light the lamps downstairs," he ordered.
Breckenridge stood still, astonished. "That would give them an advantage. They might be the Sheriff's boys."
"No," said Larry, with a laugh that sounded very bitter, "I don't think they are! Go down, and do what I tell you."
Breckenridge went, but his fingers shook so that he broke several sulphur matches in his haste before he had lighted one big lamp in the log-built hall. Then, as he turned towards the living room, there was a pounding on the door, and while he stood irresolute Grant, partly dressed, came running down the stairway. Two other men showed dimly behind him, but Breckenridge scarcely saw them, for he sprang through the doorway into the unlighted room, and the next moment fell over a table. Picking himself up with an objurgation, he groped along the wall for the rack where the rifles stood, and was making his way back towards the blink of light with two of them in his hands, when a hoarse voice demanded admission and the door rattled under the blows showered upon it. Then, as he came out into the hall, Grant turned to him.
"Put those rifles down," he said quietly.
Breckenridge stared at him. "But——"
"Put them down!" said Grant, with a little impatient gesture; Breckenridge let the weapons fall but he was pleased to see the cook, who now stood at the foot of the stairway, slip softly forward and pick up one of them. Grant was looking at the door and did not see the man move back half-way up the stairs as silently as he came.
Once more a hoarse shout rose from outside: "Open that door before we break it in!"
For a moment or two, as if to give point to the warning, the door creaked and rattled as the axe-heads beat upon it, and then the din ceased suddenly, for Grant, who recognized the voice, raised his hand.
"Open it for them," he said, so loudly that he could be heard outside.
Breckenridge was almost glad to obey. It would have pleased him better to have taken his place, rifle in hand, with the cook on the stairway, but since Grant had evidently determined not to oppose the assailants' entrance by violence, it was a relief to do anything that would terminate the suspense. Still, his heart throbbed painfully as he seized the bolt, and he glanced round once more in what he felt was futile protest. Grant, who evidently saw what he was thinking in his face, only smiled a little and signed with his hand.
Breckenridge drew the bolt, and sprang backwards as the door swung open. Men with axes and rifles showed up in the light; but while here and there an axe flashed back a twinkling gleam, or a face shone white, the rest was blurred and shadowy, and he could only see hazy figures moving against the blackness of the night. His companion was standing alone in the middle of the hall, motionless and impassive, with nothing in his hands.
"Now," he said, in a voice that jarred on Breckenridge's ears, "the door is open. What do you want?"
"We want you," said one of the men outside.
"Then, I'll come out and talk to you," said Grant.
Breckenridge laid a restraining hand upon his arm, but he shook it off, and moving forward stopped just outside the threshold. The lad could not see his face, but he noticed that he stood very straight, with his head thrown back a trifle, and that one or two of those without edged farther into the shadowy crowd. Glancing behind him, he also saw the cook leaning forward on the stairway with the rifle glinting in his hands.
"Well?" said Grant, and his voice rang commandingly.
"We have come for the dollars," said a man. "We want them, and they're ours."
"Then, you must ask your committee for them. They are not in my house."
"Bluff!" said somebody; and an angry clamour broke out.
"Hand them out," cried one voice, "before we burn the place for you."
Larry swung up one hand commandingly, and Breckenridge felt a thrill of pride when, as if in tribute to his comrade's fearlessness, a sudden silence followed. Larry stood alone, statuesque in poise, with arm stretched out in the face of the hostile crowd, and once more the respect the men had borne him asserted itself.
"You will listen to me, boys, and it may be the last time I shall speak to you," he said. "You know that right back from the beginning I have done the best I could for you, and now I feel it in me that if you will wait just a little longer the State will do more than I could ever do. Can't you understand that if you go round destroying railroad-trestles, shooting cattle, and burning ranches, you are only playing into the hand of your enemies, and the very men in the legislature who would, if you kept your patience, make your rights sure to you, will be forced to turn the cavalry loose on you? Can't you sit tight another month or two, instead of throwing all we have fought for away?"
The silence that followed the speech lasted for a space of seconds, and then, when Breckenridge hoped Grant might still impose prudence upon the crowd, there were murmurs of doubt and suspicion. They grew rapidly louder, and a man stepped out from the rest.
"The trouble is that we don't believe in you, Larry," he said. "You were with us solid one time, but that was before the cattle-barons bought you."
A derisive laugh followed, and when Grant turned a little Breckenridge saw his face. The bronze in it had faded, and left paler patches, that seemed almost grey, while the lad, who knew his comrade's pride and uprightness, fancied he could guess how that taunt, made openly, had wounded him.
"Well," he said, very slowly, "I can only hope you will have more confidence in your next leader; but I am on the list of the executive still, and if the house was full of dollars I wouldn't give you one of them with which to make trouble that you'll most surely be sorry for. Any way, those I had are safe in a place where, while your committee keep their heads, you will not lay hands on them."
A shout of disbelief was followed by uproar, through which there broke detached cries: "Pull him down! He has them all the time! Pound them out of him! Burn the place down for a warning to the cattle-men!"
They died away when one of the men, with emphatic gestures, demanded attention. Moving out from the rest, he turned to Grant. "You have rifles and cartridges here, and after all, those are what we want the most. Now—and it's your last chance—hand them out."
"No," said Grant.
The man made a little gesture of resignation. "Boys," he said, "you will have to go in and take them."
Grant still stood motionless and unyielding on his threshold, but he had only a moment's grace, for the men outside surged on again, and one swung a rifle-butt over him. Breckenridge saw his comrade seize it, and had sprung to his side when a rifle flashed on the stairway behind him and a man cried out and fell. The next instant another rifle-butt whirled, and Grant, reeling sideways, went down and was trampled on.
Breckenridge ran towards the rifle still lying in the hall, but before he could reach it there was a roar of voices and a rush of feet, and the men who poured in headlong were upon him. Something hard and heavy smote him in the face, and as he reeled back gasping there was another flash on the stairway. His head struck something, and he was never sure of what happened during the next half-hour.
When, feeling very dizzy, Breckenridge raised himself in the corner where he had been lying, the hall was empty save for two huddled figures in the doorway, and while he blinked at them in a half-dazed fashion, it seemed to him that a red glare, which rose and fell, shone in. He could also smell burning wood, and saw dim wreaths of smoke drive by outside. His hearing was not especially acute just then, but he fancied that men were trampling, and apparently dragging furniture about, all over the building. Then, as his scattered senses came back to him, he rose feebly to his feet, and finding to his astonishment that he still possessed the power of locomotion, walked unevenly towards the motionless objects in the doorway. One of them, as he expected, was Grant, who was lying very white and still, just as he had fallen.
"Larry," Breckenridge said, and shivered at the sound of his own voice. "Larry!"
But there was no answer, and Breckenridge sat down by Grant's side with a little groan, for his head swam once more and he felt a horrible coldness creeping over him. How long he sat there, while the smoke that rolled in from outside grew denser, he did not know; but by and by he was dimly conscious that the men were coming down the stairway. They clustered about him, and one of them, stooping over the injured homesteader, signed to his comrades.
"Put him into the wagon, and start off at once," he said.
Three or four men came out from the rest, and when they shuffled away with their burden, the one who seemed to be leader pointed to Grant as he turned to Breckenridge.
"He would have it, and the thump on the head he got would have put an end to most men," he said. "Still, I don't figure you need worry about burying him just yet, and I want a straight answer. Are those dollars in the house?"
Breckenridge sat blinking at him a moment, and then very shakily dragged himself to his feet, and stood before the man, with one hand clenched. His face was white and drawn and there was a red smear on his forehead.
"If you would not believe the man who lies there, will you take my word?" he said unevenly. "He told you they were not."
"I guess he spoke the truth," said somebody. "Any way, we can't find them. Well, what is to be done with him?"
Breckenridge, who was not quite himself, laughed bitterly. "Leave him where he is, and go away. You have done enough," he said. "He gave you all he had—and I know, as no other man ever will, what it cost him—and this is how you have repaid him."
Some of the men looked confused, and the leader made a deprecatory gesture. "Any way, we'll give you a hand to put him where you want."
Breckenridge waved him back fiercely. "I am alone; but none of you shall lay a hand on him while I can keep you off. If you have left any life in him, the touch of your fingers would hurt him more than anything."
The other man seemed to have a difficulty in finding an answer, and while he stared at Breckenridge there was a trample of hoofs in the mire outside, and a shout. Breckenridge could not catch its meaning, but the men about him streamed out of the hall and he could hear them mounting in haste. As the rapid beat of hoofs gradually died away, looking up at a sound, he saw the cook bending over his comrade. The man, seeing in his eyes the question he dared not ask, shook his head.
"No, I guess they haven't killed him," he said. "Kind of knocked all the senses out of him; and now I've let the rest out, we'll get him to bed."
"The rest?" Breckenridge asked bewildered.
The man nodded. "Yes," he said, "I guess I got one or two of the homestead-boys, and then Charley and I lit out through a back window, and slipped round to see why the stockboys weren't coming. It was quite simple. The blame firebugs had put a man with a rifle at the door of their sleeping shed."
Three or four other men trooped in somewhat sheepishly, though, as the cook had explained, it was not their fault they had arrived after the fight was over; and while they carried their master upstairs Breckenridge thought he heard another beat of hoofs. He paid no great attention to it, but when Larry had been laid on the bed glanced towards the window at the streaks of flame breaking through the smoke that rolled about a birch-log building.
"What can be done?" he said.
"I don't know that we can do anything," answered the cook. "The fire has got too good a holt, but it's not likely to light anything else the way the wind is. It was one of them blame Chicago rustlers put the firestick in."
"Pshaw!" said Breckenridge. "Let it burn. I mean, what can be done for Larry?"
"We might give him some whiskey—only we haven't any. Still, I've seen this kind of thing happen in the Michigan lumber-camps, and I guess he's most as well without it. You want to give a man's brains time to settle down after they've had a big shake-up."
Breckenridge sat down limply on the foot of the bed, faint and dizzy, and wondering if he really heard a regular, rhythmic drumming through the snapping of the flame. It grew louder while he listened, and a faint musical jingling became audible with it.
"That sounds like cavalry," the cook said. "They have been riding round and seen the blaze."
And a few minutes later a voice rose sharply outside, and some, at least, of the riders pulled up. The cook, at a sign from Breckenridge, went down, and came back by and by with a man in bespattered blue uniform.
"Captain Cheyne, United States cavalry—at your service," he said. "I am afraid I have come a trifle late to be of much use; but a few of my men are trying to pick up the rustlers' trail. Now, how did that man get hurt, and what is the trouble about?"
Breckenridge told him as concisely as he could, and Cheynes bent over the silent figure on the bed.
"Quietness is often good in these cases; but there is such a thing as collapse following the shock, and I guess by your friend's face it might be well to try to rouse him," he said. "Have you any brandy?"
"No," said Breckenridge. "It has been quite a time since we had that or any other luxuries in this house. Its owner stripped himself for the benefit of the men who did their best to kill him."
Cheyne brought out a flask. "This should do as well," he said. "You can tell that man to boil some water, and in the meanwhile help me to get the flask top into your partner's mouth."
It was done with some difficulty, and Breckenridge waited anxiously until a quiver ran through the motionless body. Then Cheyne repeated the dose, and Larry gasped and slowly opened his eyes. He said something the others could not catch, and closed them again; but Breckenridge fancied a little warmth crept into his pallid skin.
"I guess that will do," said Cheyne. "In one or two of my stations we had to be our own field hospital; but I don't know enough of surgery to take the responsibility of stirring up his circulation any further. Still, when you can get them ready, we will have hot bottles at his feet."
"My boys have got the fire under," Cheyne said, coming in an hour later. "Now, I have been in the saddle most of the day, and while your cook has promised to billet the boys, I'll have to ask you for shelter. If you told me a little about what led up to this trouble, it might pass the time."
"I don't see why I should," Breckenridge informed him.
"It could not hurt you, any way," suggested Cheyne, "and it might do you good."
Breckenridge looked at him steadily, and felt a curious confidence in the discretion of the quiet, bronze-faced man. As the result of it, he told him a good deal more than he had meant to do when he commenced the story.
"I think you have done right," Cheyne said. "A little rough on him! I had already figured he was that kind of a man. Well, I hear the rest of the boys coming back, and I'll send up a sergeant who knows a good deal about these accidents to look after him."
The sergeant came up by and by and kept watch with Breckenridge for a while; but, after an hour or so Breckenridge's head grew very heavy, and the sergeant, taking his arm, silenced his protests by nipping it and quietly put him out of the room. When he awoke next morning he found that Grant was capable at least of speech, for Cheyne was asking him questions, and receiving very unsatisfactory answers.
"In fact," said the cavalry officer, "you don't feel disposed to tell me who the men that tried to burn your place were, or anything about them?"
"No," Larry said feebly. "It would be pleasanter if you concluded I was not quite fit to talk just now."
Cheyne glanced at Breckenridge, who was watching him anxiously. "In that case I could not think of worrying you, and have no doubt I can find out. In the meanwhile I guess the best thing you can do is to go to sleep again."
He drew Breckenridge out of the room, and shook hands with him. "If you are wanted I'll send for you," he said. "Keep your comrade quiet, and I should be astonished if he is not about again in a day or two."
Then, he went down the stairway and swung himself into the saddle, and with a rattle and jingle he and the men behind him rode away.
CLAVERING'S LAST CARD
There was an impressive silence in Hetty's little drawing-room at Cedar Range when Cheyne, who had ridden there the day after he left Fremont, told his story. He had expected attention, but the effect his narrative produced astonished him. Hetty had softly pushed her chair back into the shadow where the light of the shaded lamp did not fall upon her, but her stillness was significant. He could, however, see Miss Schuyler, and wondered what accounted for the impassiveness of her face, now the colour that had flushed her cheek had faded. The silence was becoming embarrassing when Miss Schuyler broke it.
"Mr. Grant is recovering?" she asked.
"Yes," said Cheyne. "He was coming round when I left him. The blow might have been a dangerous one; but I had a suspicion he had more than that to contend with."
"Yes?" said Hetty, a little breathlessly.
"Of course, his affairs were not my business," Cheyne went on, "but it seemed to me the man had been living under a heavy strain; and though we were strangers, I could not help feeling a sympathy that almost amounted to a liking for him. He must have found it trying when the men he had done his best for came round to burn his place; but I understand he went out to speak to them with empty hands when they struck him down."
"What made them attack him?" asked Miss Schuyler.
"I'm not quite sure, but I have an idea they were displeased because he did not countenance their attempt to wreck the cattle-train. Then, I believe he held some dollars in trust for them, and, as they presumably wanted them for some fresh outrage, would not give them up. Mr. Grant is evidently a man with a sense of responsibility."
Hetty looked up suddenly. "Yes," she said. "He would have let them tear him to pieces before he gave them one."
Cheyne noticed the faint ring in her voice, and fancied it would have been plainer had she not laid a restraint upon herself. A vague suspicion he had brushed away once more crept into his mind.
"Well," he said, slowly, watching Hetty the while, "I fancy the efforts he made to save your friends' stock will cost him a good deal. The point is that a man of his abilities must have recognized it at the time."
Hetty met his glance, and Cheyne saw the little glow in her eyes. "Do you think that would have counted for anything with such a man?"
Cheyne made a little gesture of negation that in a curious fashion became him. "No. That is, I do not believe he would have let it influence him."
"That," said Miss Schuyler, "is a very comprehensive admission."
Cheyne smiled. "I don't know that I could desire a higher tribute paid to me. Might one compliment you both on your evident desire to be fair to your enemies?"
He saw the faint flush in Hetty's face, and was waiting with a curious expectancy for her answer, when Torrance came in. He appeared grimly pleased at something as he signed to Cheyne.
"His friends have burned the rascal out," he said. "Well, I don't know that we could have hoped for anything better; but I want to hear what you can tell me about it. You will have to spare me Captain Cheyne for a little, Hetty."
Cheyne rose and went away with him, while, when the door closed behind them, Hetty—who had seen the vindictive satisfaction in her father's face—turned to her companion with a flash of imperious anger in her eyes.
"Flo," she said, "how can he? It's wicked of him."
Miss Schuyler checked her with a gesture. "Any way, he is your father."
Hetty flushed, but the colour faded and left her face white again. "Well," she said, "Clavering isn't, and it is he who has made him so bitter against Larry. Flo, it's horrible. They would have been glad if the boys had killed him, and when he's ill and wounded they will not let me go to him."
Her voice broke and trembled, and Flora Schuyler laid a hand restrainingly upon her arm. "Of course. But why should you, Hetty?"
Hetty, who shook off her grasp, rose and stood quivering a little, but very straight, looking down on her with pride, and a curious hardness in her eyes.
"You don't know?" she said. "Then I'll tell you. Because there is nobody like Larry, and never will be. Because I love him better than I ever fancied I could love anybody, and—though it's 'most wonderful—he has loved me and waited ever so patiently. Now they are all against him, I'm going to him. Flo, they have 'most made me hate them, the people I belong to, and I think if I was a man I could kill Clavering."
Flora Schuyler sat very still a moment, but it was fortunate she retained her composure whatever she may have felt, for Hetty was in a mood for any rashness. Stretching out her hand, she drew the girl down beside her with a forceful gentleness.
"Hetty," she said, "I think I know how such a man as Larry is would feel, and you want him to be proud of you. Well, there are things that neither he nor you could do, and you must listen to me quietly."
She reasoned with the girl for a while until Hetty shook the passion from her.
"Of course you are right, Flo," she said, and her voice was even. "If he could bear all that, I can be patient too. Larry has had ever so many hard things to do, but it is only because it would not be fair to him I'm not going to him now. Flo, you will not leave me until the trouble's through?"
Miss Schuyler turned and kissed her, and then, rising quietly, went out of the room. She had shown Hetty her duty to Larry, which she felt would be more convincing just then than an exposition of what she owed her father, and had reasons for desiring solitude to grapple with affairs of her own. What she had done had cost her an effort, but Flora Schuyler was fond of Hetty and recognized the obligation of the bond she was contracting when she made a friend.
Some minutes had passed when Hetty rose and took down her writing-case from a shelf. She could at least communicate with Larry, for the maid, who had more than one admirer among the cow-boys, had found a means by which letters could be conveyed; but the girl could not command her thoughts, and written sympathy seemed so poor and cold a thing. Two letters were written and flung into the stove, for Flora Schuyler's counsel was bearing fruit; and she had commenced two more when there was a tapping at the door. Hetty looked up with a little flash in her eyes, and swept the papers into the writing-case as Clavering came in. Then she rose, and stood looking at him very coldly.
It was an especially unfortunate moment for the man to approach her in, and, though he did not know why it should be so, he recognized it; but there were reasons that made any further procrastination distinctly unadvisable.
"There is something I have been wanting to tell you for a long time, Hetty," he said.
"It would be better for you to wait a little longer," the girl said chillingly. "I don't feel inclined to listen to anything to-night."
"The trouble," said Clavering, who spoke the truth, "is that I can't. It has hurt me to keep silent as long as I have done already."
He saw the hardening of Hetty's lips, and knew that he had blundered; but he was committed now, and could only obey when she said, with a gesture of weariness "Then go on."
The abrupt command would probably have disconcerted most men and effectually spoiled the appeal they meant to make, and Clavering's face flushed as he recognized its ludicrous aspect. Still, he could not withdraw then, and he made the best of a difficult position with a certain gracefulness which might, under different circumstances, have secured him a modicum of consideration. As it was, however, Hetty's anger left her almost white, and there was a light he did not care to see in her eyes when she turned towards him.
"I am glad you have told me this," she said. "Since nothing else would convince you, it will enable me to talk plainly; I don't consider it an honour—not in the least. Can't you see that it is wholly and altogether out of the question that I should ever think in that way of you?"
Clavering gasped, and the darker colour that was in his cheek showed in his forehead too. Hetty reminded him very much of her father, then—and he had witnessed one or two displays of the cattle-baron's temper.
"I admit that I have a good many shortcomings, but, since you ask, I must confess that I don't quite understand why my respectful offer should rouse your indignation."
"No?" said Hetty coldly, with the vindictive sparkle still in her eyes. "Then aren't you very foolish?"
Clavering smiled, though it was not easy. "Well," he said, "I was evidently too audacious; but you have not told me yet why the proposal I ventured to make should appear quite preposterous."
"I think," said Hetty, "it would be considerably nicer for you if I didn't. I can, however, tell you this—I would never, under any circumstances, marry you."
Clavering bent his head, and took himself away with the best grace he could, while Hetty, who, perhaps because she had been under a heavy strain, became suddenly sensible of a most illogical desire to laugh, afterwards admitted that he really accomplished it becomingly. But the laughter that would have been a relief to her did not come, and after toying in a purposeless fashion with her writing-case, she rose and slipped out of the room, unfortunately leaving it open.
A few minutes later Clavering met the maid in the corridor that led to Torrance's room, and the girl, who saw his face, and may have guessed what had brought the anger into his eyes, stopped a moment. It is also probable that, being a young woman with quick perceptions, she had guessed with some correctness how far his regard for Hetty went.
"You don't seem pleased to-night," she said.
"No?" said Clavering, with a little laugh which rang hollow. "Well, I should be. It is quite a while since I had a talk with you."
"Pshaw!" said the girl, who failed to blush, though she wished to, watching him covertly. "Now, I wonder if what I'm going to tell you will make you more angry still. Suppose you heard Miss Torrance had been sending letters to Larry Grant?"
"I don't know that I should believe it," said Clavering, as unconcernedly as he could.
"Well, she has," the girl said. "What is more, she has been going out to meet him in the Cedar Bluff."
Clavering's face betrayed him, and for a moment the girl, who saw his lips set, was almost afraid. He contrived, however, to make a light answer, and was about to ask a question when a door creaked. The next moment Torrance came out into the corridor, and Clavering's opportunity vanished with the maid. Torrance, who had evidently not seen her, kept him talking for a while.
In the meanwhile, the girl contrived an excuse for entering the room where she was quite aware Hetty and Clavering had met. She did not find her mistress, but, as it happened, noticed the writing-case, and, having a stake in affairs, opened it. Inside she found two sheets of paper, and after considering the probabilities of detection appropriated one of them on which was written, "Larry dear."
She had, however, no intention of showing it to Clavering just then, but, deciding that such a paper might be worth a good many dollars to the person who knew how to make use of it, she slipped it into her pocket, and went out into the hall, where she saw him talking to Torrance. As she watched they shook hands, and Clavering swung himself on to the back of a horse somebody led up to the door. It was two or three weeks before he came back again, and was led straight to the room where Torrance and some of his neighbours were sitting. Clavering took his place among the rest, and watched the faces that showed amidst the blue cigar-smoke. Some were intent and eager, a few very grim, but the stamp of care was on all of them save that of Torrance, who sat immobile and expressionless at the head of the table. Allonby was speaking somewhat dejectedly.
"It seems to me that we have only gone round," he said. "It has cost us more dollars than any of us care to reckon, and I for one am tolerably near the end of my tether."
"So are the homestead-boys. We can last them out, and we have got to," said somebody.
Allonby raised his hand with a little hopeless gesture. "I'm not quite sure; but what I want to show you is that we have come back to the place we started from. When we first met here we decided that it was advisable to put down Larry Grant, and though we have not accomplished it yet, it seems to me more necessary than ever just now."
"I don't understand you," said one of the younger men. "Larry's boys have broken loose from him, and he can't worry anybody much alone."
Torrance glanced at Allonby with a sardonic twinkle in his eyes. "That sounds very like sense," he said.
"Well," said Allonby drily, "it isn't, and I think you know it at least as well as I do. It is because the boys have broken out we want to get our thumb on Larry."
There was a little murmur of bewilderment, for men were present that night who had not attended many meetings of the district committee.
"You will have to make it plainer," somebody said.
Allonby glanced at Torrance, who nodded, and then went on. "Now, I know that what I am going to tell you does not sound nice, and a year ago I would have had unpleasant thoughts of the man who suggested any course of that kind to me; but we have got to go under or pull down the enemy. The legislature are beginning to look at things with the homesteaders' eyes, and what we want is popular sympathy. We lost a good chance of getting it over the stock-train. Larry was too clever for us again, and that brings me to the point which should be quite plain. The homestead-boys have lost their heads and will cut their own throats if they are let alone. They are ripe for ranch-burning and firing on the cavalry, and once they start the State will have to step in and whip them out for us."
"But where does Larry come in?" asked somebody.
"That," said Clavering, "is quite easy. So long as Larry is loose he will have a following, and somehow he will hear of and stop their wildest moves. As most of you know, I don't like him; but Larry is not a fool."
"To be quite plain, we are to cut out the restraining influence, and give the rabble a free hand to let loose anarchy," said one man. "Then, you can strike me off the roll. That is a kind of meanness that wouldn't suit me!"
There were murmurs of approval from one or two of the company, but Torrance checked them. "Gentlemen," he said, "we must win or be beaten and get no mercy. You can't draw back, and the first step is to put Larry down. If the State had backed us we would have made an end of the trouble, and it is most square and fitting they should have the whipping of the rabble forced upon them now. Are we cavalry troopers or a Sheriff's posse, to do their work for them, and be kicked by way of thanks? They would not nip the trouble when they could, and we'll sit tight and watch them try to crush it when it's 'most too big for them."
Again there was a murmur, of grim approval this time; but one of the objectors rose with an ironical smile.
"You have made a very poor show at catching Larry so far," he said. "Are you quite sure the thing is within your ability?"
"I guess it is," said Torrance sharply. "He is living at his homestead, and we need not be afraid of a hundred men with rifles coming to take him from us now."
"He has a few neighbours who believe in him," one of the men said. "They are not rabble, but level-headed Americans, with the hardest kind of grit in them. It wouldn't suit us to be whipped again."
Clavering stood up, with his eyes fixed on Torrance. "I agree with our leader—it can be done. In fact, I quite believe we can lay our hands on Larry alone," he said. "Can I have a word with you, Mr. Torrance?"
Torrance nodded, and, leaving Allonby speaking, led Clavering into an adjoining room. "Sit down, and get through as quick as you can," he said.
For five minutes Clavering spoke rapidly, in a slightly strained voice, and a dark flush spread across the old man's face and grew deeper on his forehead, from which the veins swelled. It had faded before he finished, and there were paler patches in the cattle-baron's cheeks when he struck the table with his fist.
"Clavering," he said hoarsely, "if you are deceiving me you are not going to find a hole in this country that would hide you."
Clavering contrived to meet his gaze, though it was difficult. "I was very unwilling to mention it," he said. "Still, if you will call Miss Torrance's maid, and the man who grooms her horses, you can convince yourself. It would be better if I was not present when you talk to them."
Torrance said nothing, but pointed to the door, and when the maid and man he sent for had gone, sat for five long minutes rigidly still with a set white face and his hands clenched on the table.
"My daughter—playing the traitress—and worse! It is too hard to bear," he said.
Then he stood up, shaking the passion from him, when Clavering came in, and, holding himself very stiff and square, turned to him.
"I don't know why you have told me—now—and do not want to hear," he said. "Still, by the Lord who made us both, if you try to make use of this knowledge for any purpose, or let a whisper get about, I'll crush you utterly."
"Have I deserved these threats, sir?"
Torrance looked at him steadily. "Did you expect thanks? The man who grooms her horses would tell me nothing—he lied like a gentleman. But they are not threats. You found buying up mortgages—with our dollars—an easy game."
"But—" said Clavering.
Torrance stopped him with a little scornful gesture. "I knew when I took this thing up I would have to let my scruples go, and now—while I wonder whether my hands will ever feel clean again—I'm going through. You are useful to the committee, and I'll have to tolerate you."
Clavering turned away, with pulses throbbing furiously and rage in his heart, though he had known what the cost would be when he staked everything he hoped for on Larry's destruction; while his neighbours noticed a change in Torrance when he once more sat down at the head of the table. He seemed several years older, and his face was very grim.
"I believe I can promise you that Larry will make us no more trouble," he said. "Mr. Clavering has a workable scheme, and it will only need the Sheriff and a few men whom I will choose when I am ready."
Nobody seemed to consider it advisable to ask questions, and the men dispersed; but as they went down the stairway, Allonby turned to Torrance.
"This thing is getting too big for you and me," he said. "You have not complained, but to-night one could fancy that it's breaking you. Now, I'm not made like you, and when I think of what it has cost me I have got to talk."
Torrance turned, and Allonby shivered as he met his eyes.
"It has cost me what every dollar I ever made could not buy me back," he said, and the damp showed on his forehead as he checked a groan.
LARRY RIDES TO CEDAR
A soft wind swept the prairie, which was now bare of snow. Larry rode down the trail that led through the Cedar Bluff. He was freely sprinkled with mire, for spring had come suddenly, and the frost-bleached sod was soft with the thaw; and when he pulled up on the wooden bridge to wait until Breckenridge, who appeared among the trees, should join him, the river swirled and frothed beneath. It had lately burst its icy chains, and came roaring down, seamed by lines of foam and strewn with great fragments of half-melted snow-cake that burst against the quivering piles.
"Running strong!" said Breckenridge. "Still, the water has not risen much yet, and as I crossed the big rise I saw two of Torrance's cow-boys apparently screwing up their courage to try the ford."
"It might be done," said Larry. "We have one horse at Fremont that would take me across. The snow on the ranges is not melting yet, and the ice will be tolerably firm on the deep reaches; but it's scarcely likely that we will want to swim the Cedar now."
"No," said Breckenridge, with a laugh, "the bridge is good enough for me. By the way, I have a note for you."
"A note!" said Larry, with a slight hardening of his face, for of late each communication that reached him had brought him fresh anxieties.
"Well," said Breckenridge drily, "I scarcely think this one should worry you. From the fashion in which it reached me I have a notion it's from a lady."
There was a little gleam in Larry's eyes when he took the note, and Breckenridge noticed that he was very silent as they rode on. When they reached Fremont he remained a while in the stable, and when at last he entered the house Breckenridge glanced at him questioningly.
"You have something on your mind," he said. "What have you been doing, Larry?"
Grant smiled curiously. "Giving the big bay a rub down. I'm riding to Cedar Range to-night."
"Have you lost your head?" Breckenridge stared at him. "Muller saw the Sheriff riding in this morning, and it's more than likely he is at the Range. You are wanted rather more badly than ever just now, Larry."
Grant's face was quietly resolute as he took out the note and passed it to his companion. "I have tried to do my duty by the boys; but I am going to Cedar to-night."
Breckenridge opened the note, which had been written the previous day, and read, "In haste. Come to the bluff beneath the Range—alone—nine to-morrow night."
Then, he stared at the paper in silence until Grant, who watched him almost jealously, took it from him. "Yes," he said, though his face was thoughtful, "of course, you must go. You are quite sure of the writing?"
Grant smiled, as it were, compassionately. "I would recognize it anywhere!"
"Well," said Breckenridge significantly, "that is perhaps not very astonishing, though I fancy some folks would find it difficult. The 'In haste' no doubt explains the thing, but it seems to me the last of it does not quite match the heading."
"It is smeared—thrust into the envelope wet," Larry said.
Breckenridge rose, and walked, with no apparent purpose, across the room. "Larry," he said, "Tom and I will come with you. No—you wait a minute. Of course, I know there are occasions on which one's friends' company is superfluous—distinctly so; but we could pull up and wait behind the bluff—quite a long way off, you know."
"I was told to come alone." Larry turned upon him sharply.
Breckenridge made a gesture of resignation. "Then I'm not going to stay here most of the night by myself. It's doleful. I'll ride over to Muller's now."
"Will it be any livelier there?"
Breckenridge wondered whether Larry had noticed anything unusual in his voice, and managed to laugh. "A little," he said. "The fraeulein is pretty enough in the lamplight to warrant one listening to a good deal about Menotti and the franc tireurs. She makes really excellent coffee, too," and he slipped out before Grant could ask any more questions.
Darkness was just closing down when the latter rode away. There was very little of the prairie broncho in the big horse beneath him, whose sire had brought the best blood that could be imported into that country, and he had examined every buckle of girth and headstall as he fastened them. He also rode, for lightness, in a thin deerskin jacket which fitted him closely, with a rifle across his saddle, gazing with keen eyes across the shadowy waste when now and then a half-moon came out. Once he also drew bridle and sat still a minute listening, for he fancied he heard the distant beat of hoofs, and then went on with a little laugh at his credulity. The Cedar was roaring in its hollow and the birches moaning in a bluff, but as the damp wind that brought the blood to his cheeks sank, there was stillness save for the sound of the river, and Grant decided that his ears had deceived him.
It behooved him to be cautious, for he knew the bitterness of the cattle-men against him, and the Sheriff's writ still held good; but Hetty had sent for him, and if his enemies had lain in wait in every bluff and hollow he would have gone.
While he rode, troubled by vague apprehensions, which now and then gave place to exultation that set his heart throbbing, Hetty sat with Miss Schuyler in her room at Cedar Range. An occasional murmur of voices reached them faintly from the big hall below where Torrance and some of his neighbours sat with the Sheriff over their cigars and wine, and the girls knew that a few of the most daring horsemen among the cow-boys had their horses saddled ready. Hetty lay in a low chair with a book she was not reading on her knee, and Miss Schuyler, glancing at her now and then over the embroidery she paid almost as little attention to, noticed the weariness in her face and the anxiety in her eyes. She laid down her needle when Torrance's voice came up from below.
"What can they be plotting, Hetty?" she said. "Horses ready, that most unpleasant Sheriff smiling cunningly as he did when I passed him talking to Clavering, and the sense of expectancy. It's there. One could hear it in their voices, even if one had not seen their faces, and when I met your father at the head of the stairs he almost frightened me. Of course, he was not theatrical—he never is—but I know that set of his lips and look in his eyes, and have more than a fancy it means trouble for somebody. I suppose he has not told you anything—in fact, he seems to have kept curiously aloof from both of us lately."
Hetty turned towards her with a little spot of colour in her cheek and apprehension in her eyes.
"So you have noticed it, too!" she said very slowly. "Of course, he has been busy and often away, while I know how anxious he must be; but when he is at home he scarcely speaks to me—and then, there is something in his voice that hurts me. I'm 'most afraid he has found out that I have been talking to Larry."
Miss Schuyler smiled. "Well," she said, "that—alone—would not be such a very serious offence."
The crimson showed plainer in Hetty's cheek and there was a faint ring in her voice. "Flo," she said, "don't make me angry—I can't bear it to-night. Something is going to happen—I can feel it is—and you don't know my father even yet. He is so horribly quiet, and I'm afraid of as well as sorry for him. It is a long while ago, but he looked just as he does now—only not quite so grim—during my mother's last illness. Oh, I know there is something worrying him, and he will not tell me—though he was always kind before, even when he was angry. Flo, this horrible trouble can't go on for ever!"
Hetty had commenced bravely, but she faltered as she proceeded, and Miss Schuyler, who saw her distress, had risen and was standing with one hand on her shoulder when the maid came in. She cast a hasty glance at her mistress, and appeared, Flora Schuyler fancied, embarrassed, and desirous of concealing it.
"Mr. Torrance will excuse you coming down again," she said. "He may have some of the Sheriff's men and one or two of the cow-boys in, and would sooner you kept your room. Are you likely to want me in the next half-hour?"
"No," said Hetty. "No doubt you are anxious to find out what is going on."
The maid went out, and Miss Schuyler fixed anxious eyes on her companion. "What is the matter with the girl, Hetty?" she asked.
"I don't know. Did you notice anything?"
"Yes. I think she had something on her mind. Any way, she was unexplainably anxious to get away from you."
Hetty smiled somewhat bitterly. "Then she is only like the rest. Everybody at Cedar is anxious about something now."
Flora Schuyler rose, and, flinging the curtains behind her, looked out at the night. The moon was just showing through a rift in the driving cloud, and she could see the bluff roll blackly down to the white frothing of the river. She also saw a shadowy object slipping through the gloom of the trees, and fancied it was a woman; but when another figure appeared for a moment in the moonlight the first one came flitting back again.
"I believe the girl has gone out to meet somebody in the bluff," she said.
Hetty made a little impatient gesture. "It doesn't concern us, any way."
Miss Schuyler sat down again and made no answer, though she had misgivings, and five or ten minutes passed silently, until there was a tapping at the door, and the maid came in, very white in the face. She clutched at the nearest chair-back, and stood still, apparently incapable of speech, until, with a visible effort, she said: "Somebody must go and send him away. He is waiting in the bluff."
Hetty rose with a little scream, but Flora Schuyler was before her, and laid her hand upon the maid's arm.
"Now, try to be sensible," she said sternly. "Who is in the bluff?"
The girl shivered. "It is not my fault—I didn't know what they wanted until the Sheriff came. I tried to tell him, but Joe saw me. Go right now, and send him away."
Hetty was very white and trembling, but Flora Schuyler nipped the maid's arm.
"Keep quiet, and answer just what we ask you!" she said. "Who is in the bluff?"
"Mr. Grant," said the girl, with a gasp. "But don't ask me anything. Send him away. They'll kill him. Oh, you are hurting me!"
Flora Schuyler shook her. "How did he come there?"
"I took Miss Torrance's letter, and wrote the rest of it. I didn't know they meant to do him any harm, but they made me write. I had to—he said he would marry me."
The maid writhed in an agony of fear, but she stood still shivering when Hetty turned towards her with a blanched face that emphasized the ominous glow in her dark eyes.
"You wicked woman!" she said. "How dare you tell me that?"
"I mean Mr. Clavering. Oh——!"
The maid stopped abruptly, for Flora Schuyler drove her towards the door. "Go and undo your work," she said. "Slip down at the back of the bluff."
"I daren't—I tried," and the girl quivered in Miss Schuyler's grasp. "If I could have warned him I would not have told you; but Joe saw me, and I was afraid. I told him to come at nine."
It was evident that she was capable of doing very little just then, and Flora Schuyler drew her out into the corridor.
"Go straight to your room and stay there," she said, and closing the door, glanced at Hetty. "It is quite simple. This woman has taken your note-paper and written Larry. He is in the bluff now, and I think she is right. Your friends mean to make him prisoner or shoot him."
"Stop, and go away," said Hetty hoarsely. "I am going to him."
Flora Schuyler placed her back to the door, and raised her hand. "No," she said, very quietly. "It would be better if I went in place of you. Sit down, and don't lose your head, Hetty!"
Hetty seized her arm. "You can't—how could I let you? Larry belongs to me. Let me go. Every minute is worth ever so much."
"There are twenty of them yet. He has come too early," said Flora Schuyler, with a glance at the clock. "Any way, you must understand what you are going to do. It was Clavering arranged this, but your father knew what he was doing and I think he knows everything. If you leave this house to-night, Hetty, everybody will know you warned Larry, and it will make a great difference to you. It will gain you the dislike of all your friends and place a barrier between you and your father which, I think, will never be taken away again!"
Hetty laughed a very bitter laugh, and then grew suddenly quiet.
"Stand aside, Flo," she said. "Nobody but Larry wants me now."
Miss Schuyler saw that she was determined, and drew aside. "Then," she said, with a little quiver in her voice, "because I think he is in peril you must go, my dear. But we must be very careful, and I am coming with you as far as I dare."
She closed the door, and then her composure seemed to fail her as they went out into the corridor; and it was Hetty who, treading very softly, took the lead. Flitting like shadows, they reached the head of the stairway, and stopped a moment there, Hetty's heart beating furiously. The passage beneath them was shadowy, but a blaze of light and a jingle of glasses came out of the half-opened door of the hall, where Torrance sat with his guests; and while they waited, they heard his voice and recognized the vindictive ring in it. Hetty trembled as she grasped the bannister.
"Flo," she said, "they may come out in a minute. We have got to slip by somehow."
They went down the stairway with skirts drawn close about them, in swift silence, and Hetty held her breath as she flitted past the door. There was a faint swish of draperies as Flora Schuyler followed her, but the murmur of voices drowned it; and in another minute Hetty had opened a door at the back of the building. Then, she gasped with relief as she felt the cold wind on her face, and, with Miss Schuyler close behind her, crept through the shadow of the house towards the bluff. When the gloom of the trees closed about them, she clutched her companion's shoulder.
"No," she said hoarsely, "not that way. Joe is watching there. We must go right through the bluff and down the opposite side of it."
They floundered forward, sinking ankle-deep in withered leaves and clammy mould, tripping over rotting branches that ripped their dresses, and stumbling into dripping undergrowth. There was no moon now, and it was very dark, and more than once Flora Schuyler valiantly suppressed the scream that would have been a vast relief to her, and struggled on as silently as she could behind her companion; but it seemed to her that anybody a mile away could have heard them. Then, a little trail led them out of the bluff on the opposite side to the house, and the roar of the river grew louder as they hastened on, still in the gloom of the trees, until something a little blacker than the shadows behind it grew into visibility; and when it moved a little, Flora Schuyler touched Hetty's arm.
"Yes," she said. "It is Larry. If I didn't know the kind of man he is, I would not let you go. Kiss me, Hetty."
Hetty stood still a second, for she understood, and then very quietly put both hands on Flora Schuyler's shoulders and kissed her.
"It can't be very wrong; and you have been a good friend, Flo," she said.
She turned, and Flora Schuyler, standing still, saw her slim figure flit across a strip of frost-bleached sod as the moon shone through.
It was in a pale flash of silvery light that Larry saw the girl against the gloom of the trees. The moaning of the birches and roar of the river drowned the faint sound her footsteps made, and she came upon him so suddenly, statuesque and slender in her trailing evening dress and etherealized by the moonlight, that as he looked down on the blanched whiteness of her upturned face, emphasized by the dusky hair, he almost fancied she had materialized out of the harmonies of the night. For a moment he sat motionless, with the rifle glinting across his saddle, and a tightening grip of the bridle as the big horse flung up its head, and then, with a sudden stirring of his blood, moved his foot in the stirrup and would have swung himself down if Hetty had not checked him.
"No!" she said. "Back into the shadow of the trees!"
Larry, seeing the fear in her face, touched the horse with his heel, and wheeled it with its head towards the house. He could see the warm gleam from the windows between the birches. Then, he turned to the girl, who stood gasping at his stirrup.
"You sent for me, dear, and I have come. Can't you give me just a minute now?" he said.
"No," said Hetty breathlessly, "you must go. The Sheriff is here waiting for you!"
Larry laughed a little scornful laugh, and slackening the bridle, sat still, looking down on her very quietly.
"I don't understand," he said. "You sent for me!"
"No," the girl again gasped. "Oh, Larry, go away! Clavering and the others who are most bitter against you are in the house."
Instinctively Larry moved his hand on the rifle and glanced towards the building. He could see it dimly, but no sound from it reached him, and Hetty, looking up, saw his face grow stern.
"Still," he persisted, with a curious quietness, "somebody sent a note to me!"
"Yes," said Hetty, turning away from him, "it was my wicked maid. Clavering laid the trap for you."
The man sat very still a moment, and then bent with a swift resoluteness towards his companion.
"And you came to warn me?" he said. "Hetty, dear, look up."
Hetty glanced at him and saw the glow in his eyes, but she clenched her hand, and would have struck the horse in an agony of fear if Larry had not touched him with his heel and swung a pace away from her.
"Oh," she gasped, "why will you waste time! Larry, they will kill you if they find you."
Once more the little scornful smile showed upon Grant's lips, but it vanished and Hetty saw only the light in his eyes.
"Listen a moment, dear," he said. "I have tried to do the square thing, but I think to-night's work relieves me of the obligation. Hetty, can't you see that your father would never give you to me, and you must choose between us sooner or later? I have waited a long while, and would try to wait longer if it would relieve you of the difficulty, but you will have to make the decision, and it can't be harder now than it would be in the future. Promise me you will go back to New York with Miss Schuyler, and stay with her until I come for you."
Hetty trembled visibly, and the moonlight showed the crimson in her cheeks; but she looked up at him bravely. "Larry," she said, "you are sure—quite sure—you want me, and will be kind to me?"
The man bent his head solemnly. "My dear, I have longed for you for eight weary years—and I think you could trust me."
"Then," and Hetty's voice was very uneven, though she still met his eyes. "Larry, you can take me now."
Larry set his lips for a moment and his face showed curiously white. "Think, my dear!" he said hoarsely. "It would not be fair to you. Miss Schuyler will take you away in a week or two, and I will come for you. I dare not do anything you may be sorry for; and they may find you are not in the house. You must go home before my strength gives way."
The emotion she had struggled with swept Hetty away. "Go home!" she said passionately. "They wanted to kill you—and I can never go back now. If I did, they would know I had warned you—and believe—Can't you understand, Larry?"
Then, the situation flashed upon Grant, and he recognized, as Hetty had done, that she had cast herself adrift when she left the house to warn him. He knew the cattle-baron's vindictiveness, and that his daughter had committed an offence he could not forgive. That left but one escape from the difficulty, and it was the one his own passions, which he had striven to crush down, urged him to.
"Then," he said in a strained voice, "you must come with me. We can be married to-morrow."
Hetty held up her hands to him. "I am ready. Oh, be quick. They may come any minute!"
Larry swept his glance towards the house, and saw a shaft of radiance stream out as the great door opened. Then, he heard Flora Schuyler's voice, and, leaning downwards from the saddle, grasped both the girl's hands.
"Yes," he said, very quietly, "they are coming now. Spring when I lift you. Your foot on my foot—I have you!"
It was done. Hetty was active and slender, the man muscular, and both had been taught, not only to ride, but master the half-wild broncho by a superior daring and an equal agility, in a land where the horse is not infrequently roped and thrown before it is mounted. But Larry breathed hard as, with his arm about her waist, he held the girl in front of him, and felt her cheek hot against his lips. The next moment he pressed his heels home and the big horse swung forward under its double burden.
A shout rang out behind them, and there was a crackling in the bluff. Then, a rifle flashed, and just as a cloud drove across the moon, another cry rose up:
"Quit firing. He has the girl with him!"
Larry fancied he could hear men floundering behind him amidst the trees, and a trampling of hoofs about the house, but as he listened another rifle flashed away to the right of them on the prairie, and a beat of hoofs followed it that for a moment puzzled him. He laughed huskily.
"Breckenridge! He'll draw them off," he said. "Hold fast! We have got to face the river."
It was very evident that he had not a second to lose. Mounted men were crashing recklessly through the bluff and more of them riding at a gallop across the grassy slope; but the darkness hid them as it hid the fugitives, and the big horse held on, until there was a plunge and a splashing, and they were in the river. Larry slipped from the saddle, and Hetty saw him floundering by the horse's head as she thrust her foot into the stirrup.
"Slack your bridle," he said sharply. "The beast will bring us through."
The command came when it was needed, for Hetty was almost dismayed, and its curtness was bracing. There was no moon now, but she could dimly see the white swirling of the flood, and the gurgling roar of it throbbed about her hoarse and threatening, suggesting the perils the darkness hid. Her light skirt trailed in the water, and a shock of icy cold ran through her as one shoe dipped under. Larry was on his feet yet, but there was a fierce white frothing about him, and when in another pace or two he slipped down she broke into a stifled scream. The next moment she saw his face again faintly white beneath her amidst the sliding foam, and fancied that he was swimming or being dragged along. The horse, she felt, had lost its footing, and had its head up stream. How long this lasted she did not know, but it seemed an interminable time, and the dull roar of the water grew louder and deafened her, while the blackness that closed in became insupportable.
"Larry!" she gasped. "Larry, are you there!"
A faintly heard voice made answer, and Grant appeared again, shoulder-deep in the flood, while the dipping and floundering of the beast beneath her showed that the hoofs had found uncertain hold; but that relief only lasted a moment, and they were once more sliding down-stream, until, when they swung round in an eddy, the head that showed now and then dimly beside her stirrup was lost altogether, and in an agony of terror the girl cried aloud.
There was no answer, but after a horrible moment or two had passed a half-seen arm and shoulder rose out of the flood, and the sudden drag on the bridle that slipped from her fingers was very reassuring. The horse plunged and floundered, and once more Hetty felt her dragging skirt was clear of the water.
"Through the worst!" a voice that reached her faintly said, and they were splashing on again, the water growing shallower all the time until they scrambled out upon the opposite bank. Then, the man checking the horse, stood by her stirrup, pressing the water from the hem of her skirt, rubbing the little open shoe with his handkerchief, which was saturated. Even in that hour of horror Hetty laughed.
"Larry," she said, "don't be ridiculous. You couldn't dry it that way in a week. Lift me down instead."
Larry held up his hands to her, for on that side of the river the slope to the level was steep, and when he swung her down the girl kissed him lightly on either cheek.
"That was because of what we have been through, dear," she said. "There was a horrible moment, when I could not see you anywhere."
She stopped and held up her hand as though listening, and Larry laughed softly as a faint drumming of hoofs came back to them through the roar of the flood.
"Breckenridge! He must have Muller or somebody with him, and they are chasing him," he said. "I didn't know he was following me, but he is gaining us valuable time, and we will push on again. Your friends will find out they are following the wrong man very soon, but we should get another horse at Muller's before they can ride round by the bridge."
They scrambled up the slope, and after Hetty mounted Larry ran with his hand on the stirrup for a while, until once more he made the staunch beast carry a double load. He was running again when they came clattering up to Muller's homestead and the fraeulein, who was apparently alone, stared at them in astonishment when she opened the door. The water still dripped from Larry, and Hetty's light, bedraggled dress clung about her, while the moisture trickled from her little open-fronted shoes. She was hatless, and loosened wisps of dusky hair hung low about her face, which turned faintly crimson under the fraeulein's gaze.
"Miss Torrance!" exclaimed the girl.
"Well," said Larry quietly, "she will be Mrs. Grant to-morrow if you will lend me a horse and not mention the fact that you have seen us when Torrance's boys come round. Where is your father?"
Miss Muller nodded with comprehending sympathy. "He two hours since with Mr. Breckenridge go," she said. "There is new horse in the stable, and you on the rack a saddle for lady find."
Larry was outside in a moment, and a smile crept into the fraeulein's blue eyes. "He is of the one thing at the time alone enabled to think," she said. "It is so with the man, but a dress with the water soaked is not convenient to ride at night in."
She led Hetty into her own room, and when Larry, who had spent some time changing one of the saddles, came back, he stared in astonishment at Hetty, who sat at the table. She now wore, among other garments that were too big for her, a fur cap and coarse, serge skirt. There was a steaming cup of coffee in front of her.
"Now, that shows how foolish one can be," he said. "I was clean forgetting about the clothes; but we must start again."
Hetty rose up, and with a little blush held out the cup. "You are wet to the neck, Larry, and it will do you good," she said. "If you don't mind—we needn't wait until Miss Muller gets another cup."
Larry's eyes gleamed. "I have run over most of Europe, but they grow no wine there that was half as nice as the tea we made in the black can back there in the bluff. Quite often in those days we hadn't a cup at all."
He drank, and forthwith turned his head away, while a quiver seemed to run through him; but when Hetty moved towards him the fraeulein laughed.
"It nothing is," she said. "It is, perhaps, the effect tobacco have, but the mouth is soft in a man."
Then, as Larry turned towards them she laid her hands on Hetty's shoulders, and kissed her gravely. "You have trust in him," she said. "It is of no use afraid to be. I quick take a man like Mr. Grant when he ask me."
The next moment they were outside, and when he helped her to the saddle, Hetty glanced shyly at her companion. "The fraeulein is right," she said. "But, Larry, will you tell me—where we are going?"
"To Windsor. I have still good friends there. That is the prosaic fact, but there is ever so much behind it. We can't see the trail just now, dear, but we are riding out into the future that has all kinds of brightness in store."
A silvery gleam fell on the girl as a billow of cloud rolled slowly from a rift of blue, and she laughed almost exultantly.
"Larry," she said, "it is coming true. Of course, it's a portent. There's the darkness going and the moon shining through. Oh, I have done with misgiving now!"
She shook the bridle, and swept from him at a gallop, and the thaw-softened sod was whirling in clods behind them when Larry drew level with her. He knew it was not prudent, but the fever in his blood mastered his reason, and he sent the stockrider's cry ringing across the levels as they sped on through the night. The damp wind screamed by them, lashing their hot cheeks, the beat of hoofs swelled into a roar as they swept through a shadowy bluff, and driving cloud and rift of indigo flitted past above. Beneath, the long, frost-bleached levels, gleaming silvery grey now under the moon, flitted back to the drumming hoofs, while willow clump and straggling birches rose up, and rushed by, blurred and shadowy.
They were young, and the cares that must be faced again on the morrow had, for a brief space, fallen from them. They had bent to the strain to the breaking point, and now it had gone, everything was forgotten but the love each bore the other. All senses were merged in it, and while the exaltation lasted there was no room for thought or fear. It was, however, the man who remembered first, for a few dark patches caught his eye when they went at a headlong gallop down the slope.