HotFreeBooks.com
The Cattle-Baron's Daughter
by Harold Bindloss
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse

"Pull him!" he cried hoarsely. "'Ware badger holes! Swing to the right-wide!"

The girl swerved, but she still held on with loose bridle, until Larry, swaying in his saddle, clutched at it. Then, as he swung upright, half a length ahead, with empty hands, she flung herself a trifle backwards and there was a brief struggle; but it was at a trot they climbed the opposite slope.

"Now," she said, with a happy little laugh, "we are sensible once more; but, while I knew it couldn't last, I wanted to gallop on for ever. Larry, I wonder if we will ever feel just the same again? There are enjoyments that can't come to anyone more than once."

"There are others one can have all the time, and we'll think of them to-night," said the man. "There are bright days before us, and we can wait until they come."

Hetty smiled, almost sadly. "Of course!" she said, "but no bright day can be quite the same as this moonlight to me. It shone down on us when I rode out into the night and darkness without knowing where I was going, and only that you were beside me. You will stay there always now."

They held on across the empty waste while the hours of darkness slipped by, and the sun was rising red above the great levels' rim when the roofs of a wooden town rose in front of them. As the frame houses slowly grew into form, Hetty painfully straightened herself. Her face was white and weary and it was by a strenuous effort she held herself upright, the big horse limped a little, and the mire was spattered thick upon her; but she met the man's eyes, and, though her lips trembled, smiled bravely.

Larry saw and understood, and his face grew grave. "I have a good deal to make up to you, Hetty, and I will try to do it faithfully," he said. "Still, we will look forward with hope and courage now—it is our wedding day."

Hetty glanced away from him across the prairie, and the man fancied he saw her fingers tremble on the bridle.

"It is hard to ask you, Larry—though I know it shouldn't be—but have you a few dollars that you could give me?"

The man smiled happily. "All that is mine is yours, and, as it happens, I have two or three bills in my wallet. Is there anything you wish to buy?"

Hetty glanced down, flushing, at the bedraggled dress. "Larry," she said softly. "I couldn't marry you like this. I haven't one dollar in my pocket—and I am coming to you with nothing, dear."

The smile faded out of Larry's eyes. "I scarcely dare remember all that you have given up for me! And if you had taken Clavering or one of the others you would have ridden to your wedding with a hundred men behind you, as rich as a princess."

Hetty, sitting, jaded and bespattered, on the limping horse, flashed a swift glance at him, and smiled out of slightly misty eyes.

"It happened," she said, "that I was particular, or fanciful, and there was only one man—the one that would take me without a dollar, in borrowed clothes—who seemed good enough for me."

They rode on past a stockyard, and into a rutted street of bare frame houses, and Hetty was glad they scarcely met anybody. Then, Larry helped her down, and, thrusting a wallet into her hands, knocked at the door of a house beside a store. The man who opened it stared at them, and when Larry had drawn him aside called his wife. She took Hetty's chilled hand in both her own, and the storekeeper smiled at Larry.

"You come right along and put some of my things on," he said. "Then, you are going with me to have breakfast at the hotel, and talk to the judge. I guess the women aren't going to have any use for us."

It was some time later when they came back to the store, and for just a minute Grant saw Hetty alone. She was dressed very plainly in new garments, and blushed when he looked gravely down on her.

"That dress is not good enough for you," he said. "It is very different from what you have been accustomed to."

Hetty glanced at him shyly. "You will have very few dollars to spare, Larry, until the trouble's through," she said, "and you will be my husband in an hour or two."



XXX

LARRY'S WEDDING DAY

Hetty was married in haste, without benefit of clergy, while several men, with resolute faces, kept watch outside the judge's door, and two who were mounted sat gazing across the prairie on a rise outside the town. After the declarations were made and signed, the judge turned to Hetty, who stood smiling bravely, though her eyes were a trifle misty, by Larry's side.

"Now I have something to tell your husband, Mrs. Grant," he said. "You will have to spare him for about five minutes."

Hetty's lips quivered, for she recognized the gravity of his tone, and it was not astonishing that for a moment or two she turned her face aside. She had endeavoured to look forward hopefully and banish regrets; but the prosaic sordidness of the little dusty office, and the absence of anything that might have imparted significance or dignity to the hurried ceremony, had not been without their effect. She had seen other weddings in New York as well as in the cattle country, and knew what pomp and festivities would have attended hers had she married with her father's goodwill. After all, it was the greatest day in most women's lives, and she felt the unseemliness of the rite that had made her and Larry man and wife. Still, the fact remained, and, brushing her misgivings away, she glanced up at her husband.

"It must concern us both now," she said. "May I hear?"

"Well," said the judge, who looked a trifle embarrassed, "I guess you are right, and Larry would have to tell you; but it's not a pleasant task to me. It is just this—we can't keep you and your husband any longer in this town."

"Are you against us, too?" Hetty asked, with a flash in her eyes. "I am not afraid."

The judge made her a little respectful inclination. "You are Torrance of Cedar's daughter, and everyone knows the kind of grit there is in that family. While I knew the cattle-men would raise a good deal of unpleasantness when I married you, I did it out of friendliness for Larry; but it is my duty to uphold the law, and I can't have your husband's friends and your father's cow-boys making trouble here."

"Larry," said the girl tremulously, "we must go on again."

Grant's face grew stern. "No," he said. "You shall stay here in spite of them until you feel fit to ride for the railroad."

Just then a man came in. "Battersly saw Torrance with the Sheriff and Clavering and quite a band of cow-boys ride by the trail forks an hour ago," he said. "They were heading for Hamlin's, but they'd make this place in two hours when they didn't find Larry there."

There was an impressive silence. Hetty shuddered, and the fear in her eyes was unmistakable when she laid her hand on her husband's arm.

"We must go," she said. "It would be too horrible if you should meet him."

"Mrs. Grant is right," said the storekeeper. "We know Torrance of Cedar, and if you stayed here, Larry, you and she might be sorry all your lives. Now, you could, by riding hard, make Canada to-morrow."

Grant stifled a groan, and though his face was grim his voice was compassionate as he turned to Hetty.

"Are you very tired?" he said gently. "It must be the saddle again."

Hetty said nothing, but she pressed his arm, and her eyes shone mistily when they went out together. Half an hour later they rode out of the town, and Grant turned to her when the clustering houses dipped behind a billowy rise, and they were once more alone in the empty prairie, with their faces towards Canada.

"I am 'most ashamed to look at you, but you will forgive me, little girl," he said. "There are brighter days before us than your wedding one, and by and by I hope you will not be sorry you have borne so much for me."

Hetty's lips quivered a little, but the pride of the cattle-barons shone in her eyes. "I have nothing to forgive and am only very tired," she said. "I shall never be sorry while you are kind to me, and I would have ridden to Canada if I had known that it would have killed me. The one thing I am afraid of is that you and he should meet."

They rode on, speaking but seldom as the leagues went by, for Grant had much to think of and Hetty was very weary. Indeed, she swayed unevenly in her saddle, while the long, billowy levels shining in the sunlight rolled back, as it were, interminably to them, and now and then only saved herself from a fall by a clutch at the bridle. There were times when a drowsiness that would scarcely be shaken off crept upon her, and she roused herself with a strenuous effort and a horrible fear at her heart, knowing that if her strength failed her the blood of husband or father might be upon her head.

The sky was blue above them, the white sod warm below, and already chequered here and there with green; and, advancing in long battalion, crane and goose and mallard came up from the south to follow the sun towards the Pole. The iron winter had fled before it, and all nature smiled; but Hetty, who had often swept the prairie at a wild gallop, with her blood responding to the thrill of reawakening life that was in everything, rode with a set white face and drooping head, and Larry groaned as he glanced at her.

Late in the afternoon they dismounted, and Hetty lay with her head upon his shoulder while they rested amidst the grass. The provisions the storekeeper had given them were scattered about, but Hetty had tasted nothing, and Grant had only forced himself to swallow a few mouthfuls with difficulty. He had thrown an arm about her, and she lay with eyes closed, motionless.

Suddenly he raised his head and looked about him. Save for the sighing of the warm wind, the prairie was very still, and a low, white rise cut off from sight the leagues they had left behind, but, though a man from the cities would have heard nothing at all, Larry, straining his ears to listen, heard a sound just audible creep out of the silence. For a moment he sat rigid and intent, wondering if it was made by a flight of cranes; but he could see no dusky stain on the blue beyond the rise, and his fingers closed upon the rifle as the sound grew plainer. It rose and fell with a staccato rhythm in it, and he recognized the beat of hoofs. Turning, he gently touched the girl.

"Hetty, you must rouse yourself," he said, with a pitiful quiver in his voice.

The girl slowly lifted her head, and glanced about her in a half-dazed fashion. Then, with an effort, she drew one foot under her, and again the fear shadowed her face.

"Oh," she said, "they're coming! Lift me, dear."

Larry gently raised her to her feet, but it was a minute or two before she could stand upright, and the man's face was haggard when he lifted her to the saddle.

"I think the end has come," he said. "You can ride no farther."

Hetty swayed a little; but she clutched the bridle, and a faint sparkle showed in her half-closed eyes.

"They want to take you from me. We will go on until we drop," she said.

Larry got into the saddle, though he did not know how he accomplished it, and looked ahead anxiously as he shook the bridle. Away on the rim of the prairie there was a dusky smear, and he knew it was a birch-bluff, which would, if they could reach it, afford them shelter. In the open he would be at the cow-boys' mercy; but a desperate man might at least check some of the pursuers among the trees, and he was not sure that Torrance, whose years must tell, would be among them. There was a very faint hope yet.

They went on at a gallop, though the horses obtained at Windsor were already jaded, and very slowly the bluff grew higher. Glancing over his shoulder, Grant saw a few moving objects straggle across the crest of the rise. They seemed to grow plainer while he watched them, and more appeared behind.

"We will make the bluff before them," he said hoarsely. "Ride!"

He drove his heels home; but the beast he rode was flagging fast when, knowing how Torrance's cow-boys were mounted, he glanced behind again. He could see them distinctly now, straggling, with wide hats bent by the wind and jackets fluttering, across the prairie. Here and there a rifle-barrel glinted, and the beat of their horses' hoofs reached him plainly. One, riding furiously a few lengths ahead of the foremost, he guessed was Clavering, and he fancied he recognized the Sheriff in another; but he could not discern Torrance anywhere. He turned his eyes ahead and watched the bluff rise higher, though the white levels seemed to flit back to him with an exasperating slowness. Beyond it a faint grey smear rose towards the blue; but the jaded horse demanded most of his attention, for the sod was slippery here and there where the snow had lain in a hollow, and the beast stumbled now and then.

Still, the birches were drawing nearer, and Hetty holding ahead of him, though the roar of hoofs behind him told that the pursuers were coming up fast. He was not certain yet that he could reach the trees before they came upon him, and was clawing with one hand at his rifle when Hetty cried out faintly:

"There are more of them in front."

Grant set his lips as a band of horsemen swung out of the shadows of the bluff. His eyes caught and recognized the glint of sunlight on metal; but in another moment his heart leaped, for through the drumming of their hoofs there came the musical jingle of steel, and he saw the men were dressed in blue uniform. He swung up his hat exultantly, and his voice reached the girl, hoarse and strained with relief.

"We are through. They are United States cavalry!"

The horsemen came on at a trot, until Grant and the girl rode up to them. Then, they pulled up, and when Grant had helped Hetty down their officer, who wheeled his horse, sat gazing at them curiously. Grant did not at once recognize him, but Hetty gasped.

"Larry," she said faintly, "it's Jack Cheyne."

Grant drew her hand within his arm, and walked slowly forward past the wondering troopers. Then he raised his broad hat.

"I claim your protection for my wife, Captain Cheyne," he said.

Cheyne sat very still a moment, looking down on him with a strained expression in his face; and Grant, who saw it, glanced at Hetty. She was leaning heavily upon him, her garments spattered with mire, but he could not see her eyes. Then Cheyne nodded gravely.

"Mrs. Grant can count upon it," he said. "Those men were chasing you?"

"Yes," said Grant. "One of them is the Sheriff. I believe he intends to arrest me."

"Sheriff Slocane?"

"Yes. I shall resist capture by him; but I heard that the civil law would be suspended in this district, and if that has been done, I will give myself up to you."

Cheyne nodded again. "Give one of the boys your rifle, and step back with Mrs. Grant in the meanwhile. You are on parole."

He said something sharply, and there was a trample of hoofs and jingle of steel as the troopers swung into changed formation. They sat still as the cattle-men rode up, and when Clavering reined his horse in a few lengths away from them Cheyne acknowledged his salute.

"We have come after a notorious disturber of this district who has, I notice, taken refuge with you," he said. "I must ask you to give him up."

"I'm sorry," said Cheyne firmly. "It can't be done just yet."

Clavering glanced at the men behind him—and there were a good many of them, all without fear, and irresponsible; then he looked at the little handful of troopers, and Cheyne's face hardened as he saw the insolent significance of his glance.

"Hadn't you better think it over? The boys are a little difficult to hold in hand, and we can't go back without our man," he said.

Cheyne eyed him steadily. "Mr. Grant has given himself up to me. If there is any charge against him it shall be gone into. In the meanwhile, draw your men off and dismount if you wish to talk to me."

Clavering sat perfectly still, with an ironical smile on his lips. "Be wise, and don't thrust yourself into this affair, which does not concern you, or you may regret it," he said. "Here is a gentleman who will convince you."

He backed his horse as another man rode forward and with an assumption of importance addressed Cheyne. "Now," he said, "we don't want any unpleasantness, but I have come for the person of Larry Grant, and I mean to take him."

"Will you tell me who I have the honour of addressing?" said Cheyne.

"Sheriff Slocane. I have a warrant for Larry Grant, and you will put me to any inconvenience in carrying it out at your peril."

Cheyne smiled drily. "Then, as it is evidently some days since you left home, I am afraid I have bad news for you. You are superseded, Mr. Slocane."

The Sheriff's face flushed darkly, Clavering's grew set, and there was an angry murmur from the men behind them.

"Boys," said Clavering, "are you going to be beaten by Larry again?"

There was a trampling of hoofs as some of the cow-boys edged their horses closer, and the murmurs grew louder; but Cheyne flung up one hand.

"Another word, and I'll arrest you, Mr. Clavering," he said. "Sling those rifles, all of you! I have another troop with horses picketed behind the bluff."

There was sudden silence until the Sheriff spoke. "Boys," he said, "don't be blamed fools when it isn't any use. Larry has come out on top again. But I don't know that I am sorry I have done with him and the cattle-men."

The men made no further sign of hostility, and Cheyne turned to the Sheriff. "Thank you," he said. "Now, I have to inform you that this district is under martial law, and I have been entrusted, within limits, with jurisdiction. If you and Mr. Clavering have any offences to urge against Grant, I shall be pleased to hear you. In that case you can tell your men to picket their horses, and follow me to our bivouac."

The two men dismounted, and while Hetty sat trembling amidst the birches talked for half an hour in Cheyne's tent. Then, Clavering, who saw that they were gaining little, lost his head, and stood up white with anger.

"We are wasting time," he said. "Still, I warn you that the State will hold you responsible if you turn that man loose again. Our wishes can still command a certain attention in high places."

Cheyne smiled coldly. "I shall be quite prepared to account for whatever I do. The State, I fancy, is not to be dictated to by the cattle-men's committees. It is, of course, no affair of mine, but I can't help thinking that it will prove a trifle unfortunate for one or two of you that, when you asked for more cavalry, you were listened to."

"Well," said the Sheriff dejectedly, "I quite fancy it will be; but I'm not going to worry. The cattle-men made it blamed unpleasant for me. What was I superseded for, any way?"

"Incapacity and corruption, I believe," Cheyne said drily.

Clavering stood still a moment, with an unpleasant look in his eyes, but the Sheriff, who seemed the least disconcerted, touched his arm.

"You come along before you do something you will be sorry for," he said. "I'm not anxious for any unnecessary trouble, and it would have been considerably more sensible if I had stood in with the homestead-boys."

They went away, and Cheyne led Larry, who had been confronted with them, back to where Hetty was sitting.

"I understand the men left your father behind, some distance back," he said. "He was more fatigued than the rest and his horse went lame. Your husband's case will have consideration, but I scarcely fancy he need have any great apprehension, and I must try to make you comfortable in the meanwhile."

Hetty glanced up at him with her eyes shining and quivering lips. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Larry, I am so tired."

Cheyne called an orderly, and ten minutes later led her to a tent. "Your husband placed you in my charge, and I must ask for obedience," he said. "You will eat and drink what you see there, and then go to sleep. I will take good care of Mr. Grant."

He drew Larry away and sat talking with him for a while, then bade an orderly find him a waterproof sheet and rug. Larry was asleep within ten minutes, and the moon was shining above the bluff when he awakened and moved to the tent where Hetty lay. Drawing back the canvas, he crept in softly and dropped almost reverently on one knee beside her. He could hear her faint, restful breathing, and the little hand he felt for was pleasantly cool. As he stooped and touched her forehead with his lips, the fingers closed a trifle on his own, and the girl moved in her sleep. "Larry," she said drowsily, "Larry, dear!"

Grant drew his hand away very softly, and went out with his heart throbbing furiously, to find Cheyne waiting in the vicinity. His face showed plain in the moonlight, and it was quietly grave; but Grant once more saw the expression in it that had astonished him. Now, however, he understood it, and Cheyne knew that he did so. They stood quite still a moment, looking into each other's eyes.

"Mrs. Grant is resting well?" Cheyne asked.

"Yes," said Larry. "I owe a good deal to you."

It did not express what they felt, but they understood each other, and Cheyne smiled a little. "You need not thank me yet. Your case will require consideration, and if the new Sheriff urges his predecessor's charge, I shall pass it on. In the meantime I have sent to Windsor for a buggy, in which you can take Mrs. Grant away to-morrow."

It was early next morning when the buggy arrived, and Cheyne, who ordered two troopers to lead the hired horses, had a hasty breakfast served. When the plates had been removed he turned to Hetty with a smile.

"I have decided to release your husband—on condition that he drives straight back to his homestead and stays there with you," he said. "The State has undertaken to keep order and give every man what he is entitled to now; and if we find Mr. Grant has a finger in any further trouble, I shall blame you."

He handed Hetty into the buggy, passed the reins to Larry, and stood alone looking after them as they drove away. Hetty turned to her husband, with a blush in her cheek.

"Larry," she said softly, "I have something to tell you."

Grant checked her with a smile. "I have guessed it already; and it means a new responsibility."

"I don't understand," said Hetty.

Again the little twinkle showed in Larry's eyes. "Well," he said quietly, "that you should have taken me when you had men of his kind to choose from means a good deal. I wouldn't like you to find out that you had been mistaken, Hetty."



XXXI

TORRANCE RIDES AWAY

It was late at night, and Miss Schuyler, sitting alone in Hetty's room, found the time pass very heavily. She had raised her voice in warning when the cow-boys mounted the night Grant had ridden away with Hetty, and had seen the fugitives vanish into the darkness, but since then she had had no news of them, for while Breckenridge had arrived at Cedar the next day, in custody of two mounted men, nobody would tell him what had really happened. Her first impulse had been to ask for an escort to the depot and take the cars for New York, but she was intensely anxious to discover whether Hetty had evaded pursuit, and her pride forbade her slipping away without announcing her intention to Torrance, who had not yet come back to the Range. She felt that something was due to him, especially as she had not regained the house unnoticed when the pursuit commenced.

Rising, she moved restlessly up and down the room; but that in no way lessened the suspense, and sitting down again she resolutely took up a book, but she listened instead of reading it. There was, however, no sound from the prairie, and the house seemed exasperatingly still.

"You will have to shake this nervousness off or you will make a fool of yourself before that man," she muttered.

She felt that she had sat there a very long while, though the clock showed that scarcely an hour had passed, when at last there was a rattle of wheels and a trampling of hoofs outside. The great door opened, and after that there was an apparently interminable silence, until Hetty's maid came in.

"If it is convenient, Mr. Torrance would like to speak to you," she said.

Flora Schuyler rose and followed the girl down the corridor; but her heart beat faster than usual when the door of Torrance's room closed behind her. The stove was no longer lighted, and Torrance stood beside the hearth, which was littered with half-consumed papers, and Miss Schuyler, who knew his precision in dress, noticed that he still wore the bespattered garments he had ridden in. But it was the grimness of his face, and the weariness in his pose, which seized her attention and aroused a curious sympathy for him. He glanced at her sharply, with stern, dark eyes.

"I have to thank you for coming, but I am going to talk plainly," he said. "You connived at the meetings between my daughter and the rascally adventurer who has married her?"

"They are married?" exclaimed Miss Schuyler in her eagerness, and the next moment felt the blood rise to her face as she realized that she had blundered in admitting any doubt upon the subject. "I mean, of course, that I wondered whether Mr. Grant could have arranged it so soon."

"You seem to attach a good deal of importance to the ceremony," Torrance said, with a bitter smile. "Marriage is quite easy in this country."

Miss Schuyler was not deficient in courage of one kind, and she looked at him steadily. "I came down to speak to you because it seemed your due," she said, "but I have no intention of listening to any jibes at my friends."

Torrance made her a little half-respectful and half-ironical inclination. "Then will you be good enough to answer my question?"

"Though most of the few meetings were accidental, I went with Hetty intentionally on two occasions because it seemed fitting."

"It seemed fitting that a girl should betray her father to the man who wanted to ruin him, supply him with the dollars that helped him in his scheme, and, more than all, warn him of each move we made! Well, my standard is not very high, but the most cruel blow I have had to bear was the discovery that my daughter had fallen so far."

The hoarseness of his voice, and the sight of the damp upon his forehead, had a calming effect upon Miss Schuyler. Her anger against the old man had given place to pity, for she decided that what had passed would have excited most men's suspicions, and it was not in Hetty's defence alone she made an effort to undeceive him.

"I am going to answer you plainly, and I think an examination of Hetty's cheque-book and the money she left behind will bear me out," she said. "Once only did Hetty give Mr. Grant any dollars—fifty of them, I think, to feed some hungry children. He would not take them until she assured him that they were a part of a small annuity left her by her mother, and that not one of them came from you. I also know that Mr. Grant allowed his friends to suspect him of being bribed by you sooner than tell them where he obtained the dollars in question. The adventurer dealt most honourably with you. Your daughter twice disclosed your plans, once when Clavering had plotted Grant's arrest, and again when had she not done so it would most assuredly have led to the destruction of the cattle-train. Mr. Clavering came near making a horrible blunder on that occasion, and but for Hetty's warning not a head of your stock would have reached Omaha."

Her tone carried conviction with it, as did the flash in her eyes, but Torrance's smile was sardonic. "You would try to persuade me Larry saved the train out of goodwill to us?"

"He did it, knowing what it was going to cost him, to prevent the men he led starting on a course of outrage and lawlessness."

"And they have paid him for it!"

"I fancy that is outside the question," said Miss Schuyler. "Twice, when every good impulse that is in our kind laid her under compulsion, Hetty warned the man she loved, but at no other time did a word to your prejudice pass her lips; and if she had spoken it Grant would not have listened. Hetty was loyal, and he treated you with a fairness that none of you merited. You sent the Sheriff a bribe and an order for his arrest, and by inadvertence it fell into his hands. He brought it back here unopened at his peril."

Torrance looked at her in astonishment. "He brought back my letter to the Sheriff?"

"Yes. There was nothing else a man of that kind could have done."

Torrance stood silent for a space, and then, stooping, picked up a half-burnt paper from the hearth, glanced at it with a curious expression, and flung it into the embers. When it had charred away he turned to Miss Schuyler.

"You have shown yourself a good friend," he said gravely. "Still, you may understand the other side of the question if you listen to me."

He turned and pointed to an empty tin case, and the charred papers in the hearth. "That is the end of the plans of half a lifetime—and they were all for Hetty. I had no one else after her mother was taken from me, and I scraped the dollars together for her, that she should have what her heart could wish for, and the enjoyments her parents had never known; and while I did so I and the others built up the prosperity of the cattle country. We fed the railroads and built the towns, and when we would have rested, Larry and his friends took hold. You see what they have made of it—a great industry ruined, the country under martial law, its commerce crippled, and the proclamation that can only mean disaster to us hung out everywhere. My daughter turned against me—and nothing left me but to go out, a wanderer! Larry has done his work thoroughly, and you would have me make friends with him?"

Miss Schuyler made a little sympathetic gesture, for he seemed very jaded and weary. "No," she said. "One could not expect too much, but Hetty is your daughter, the only one you have, and for her mother's sake you will at least do nothing that would embitter her life."

Torrance looked at her with a curious smile. "There is nothing I could do. Larry and the rabble are our masters now; but I will see her once before I go away. Is there any other thing—that would be a little easier—I could do to please you?"

"Yes. You could release Mr. Breckenridge."

Torrance turned and struck a bell. "I had almost forgotten him. Will you wait and see me do what you have asked me?"

In a few minutes more Breckenridge was ushered in. He smiled at Miss Schuyler, and made Torrance a slight, dignified salutation. Torrance acknowledged it courteously.

"You have yourself to blame for any inconvenience you have been put to, Mr. Breckenridge," he said. "You conspired to assist your partner in an undertaking you could not expect me to forgive."

"No," said Breckenridge. "I offered to ride with Larry, and he would not have me. I went without him knowing it and made my plans myself?"

"This is the truth?"

Breckenridge straightened himself and looked at Torrance with a little flash in his eye. "You must take my word—I shall not substantiate it. If you had had an army corps of cut-throats ready to do what you told them that night, Larry would have gone alone."

Torrance nodded gravely. "It is taken. At least, you bluffed us into following you."

"Yes," and Breckenridge smiled, "I did. I also prevented my companion shooting one of your friends, as he seemed quite anxious to do. I don't wish to hurt your feelings, sir, but I have not the least regret for anything I did that night."

"Then, you are still very bitter against me?"

Breckenridge considered. "No, sir. The one man I am bitter against is Clavering. Now, it may sound presumptuous, and not come very well from me, but I believe that Clavering, for his own purposes, forced your hand, and I had a certain respect for you, if only because of your thoroughness. You see, one can't help realizing that you can look at every question quite differently."

Torrance smiled drily. "Then if you are not too proud to be my guest to-night, I should be glad of your company and will find you a horse to take you back to Fremont when it suits you."

Breckenridge, for some reason that was not very apparent, seemed pleased to agree, but a faint smile just showed in Torrance's eyes when he went out again. Then, he turned to Miss Schuyler.

"I wonder what Mr. Clavering has done to win everybody's dislike," he said. "You do not seem anxious to plead for him."

Flora Schuyler's face grew almost vindictive. "No," she said, "I don't. I can, however, mention one thing I find it difficult to forgive him. When you promised him Hetty he had found favour with her maid, and made the most of the fact. It was not flattering to your daughter or my friend. He may not have told you that he promised to marry her."

Torrance stared at her a moment, a dark flush rising to his forehead. "You are quite sure?"

"Ask the girl," said Flora Schuyler.

Torrance struck the bell again, and waited until the maid came in. "I understand Mr. Clavering promised to marry you," he said very quietly. "You would be willing to take him?"

The girl's face grew a trifle pale, and she glanced at Miss Schuyler who nodded encouragingly.

"Yes," she said.

Torrance smiled, but Miss Schuyler did not like the glint in his eyes. "Then," he said with incisive distinctness, "if you are in the same mind in another week, he shall."

The girl went out, and Torrance, who had watched her face, turned to Miss Schuyler. "I guess that young woman will be quite equal to him," he said. "Well, I am putting my house in order, and I will ride over once and see Hetty before I leave Cedar. You will stay here until she comes back to Fremont, any way."

Miss Schuyler promised to do so, and stayed two days, as did Breckenridge, who eventually rode to Fremont with her. He was very quiet during the journey, and somewhat astonished his companion by gravely swinging off his broad hat when they pulled upon the crest of a rise.

"I wonder if you would listen to something I wish to tell you," he said. "The trouble is that it requires an explanation."

Flora Schuyler glanced at him thoughtfully, for she recognized the symptoms now. Breckenridge appeared unusually grave, and there was a little flush on his forehead, and a diffidence she had not hitherto seen there, in his eyes.

"I can decide about the rest when I have heard the explanation," she answered.

"Well," said Breckenridge slowly, "I came out West, so to speak, because I was under a cloud. Now, I had never done anything distinctly bad, but my one ability seemed to consist in spending money, and when I had got through a good deal of it my friends sent me here, which was perhaps a little rough on your country. Well, as it happened, I fell in with men and women of the right kind—Larry, and somebody else who did more for me. That made a difference; and while I was realizing how very little I had got for the time and dollars I had wasted, affairs began to happen in the old country, and I should have the responsibility of handling a good many of them if I went back there now. It sounds abominably egotistical, but you see what it is leading to?"

Miss Schuyler, who had no difficulty on that point, regarded him thoughtfully. Breckenridge was a handsome young Englishman and she had liked him from the first. Larry had fallen to another, and that perhaps counted for more than a little to Breckenridge; but she had seen more than one friend of hers contented with the second best. Still, she sighed before she met his gaze.

"I think you must make it a little plainer," she said.

"Well," said Breckenridge quietly, "it is just this. You have done a good deal for me already, and I almost dare to fancy I could be a credit to you if you would do a little more, while it would carry conviction to my most doubting relatives if you went back to the old country with me. They would only have to see you."

Flora Schuyler smiled. "This is serious, Mr. Breckenridge?"

Breckenridge made her a little inclination, and while in a curious fashion it increased Flora Schuyler's liking for him she recognized that he was no longer the light-hearted and irresponsible young Englishman she had met a few months ago. He, too, had borne the burden, and there was a gravity in his eyes and a slight hardening of his lips that had its meaning.

"I never was more serious in my life, madam," he said. "I know that I might have spoken—not more respectfully, but differently—but when I am too solemn everybody laughs at me."

"Does it not strike you that you have only regarded the affair from one point of view so far?"

Breckenridge nodded. "I understand. But one feels very diffident when he knows the slight value of what he has to offer. I should always love you, whether you say yes or no. For the rest, there is a little land in the old country, and an income which I believe should be enough for two. It seems more becoming to throw myself on your charity."

"And what would Larry do without you?" asked Miss Schuyler.

The quick enthusiasm in Breckenridge's face pleased her. "Larry's work is splendidly done already," he said. "He asked nothing for himself—and got no more; but now the State is offering every man the rights he fought for. The proclamations are out, and any citizen who wants it can take up his homestead grant. It will be something to remember that I carried his shield; but Larry has no more need of an armour-bearer."

"I am older than you are."

"Ten years in wisdom, and fifty in goodness, but I scarcely fancy that more than six months separate our birthdays. Now, I know I am not expressing myself very nicely, but, you see, we can't all be eloquent, and perhaps it should count for a little when I tell you that I never made an attempt of the kind before. I am, however, most painfully anxious to convince you."

Miss Schuyler recognized it, and liked him the more for the diffidence which he wrapped in hasty speech. "Then," she said softly, "if in six months from now——"

Breckenridge swayed in his saddle; but the girl's heel was quicker, and as her horse plunged the hand he would have laid on her bridle fell to his side.

"No!" she said. "If in six months you are still in the same mind, you can come to Hastings-on-the-Hudson, and speak to me again. Then, you may find me disposed to listen; but we will go on to Fremont in the meanwhile."

Breckenridge's response was unpremeditated, but the half-broken horse, provoked by his sudden movement, rose with fore hoofs in the air, and then whirled round in a circle. Its rider laughed exultantly, swaying lithely, with the big hat still in one hand that disdained the bridle; but his face grew grave when there was quietness again, and he turned towards the girl.

"I shall be in the same mind," he said, "for ever and ever."

They rode on to Fremont, and the next day Breckenridge drove Miss Schuyler, who was going back to New York, the first stage of her journey to the depot. A month had passed when one evening Torrance rode that way. The prairie, lying still and silent with a flush of saffron upon its western rim, was tinged with softest green, but broad across the foreground stretched the broken, chocolate-tinted clods of the ploughing, and the man's face grew grimmer as he glanced at them. He turned and watched the long lines of crawling cattle that stretched half-way across the vast sweep of green; and Larry and his wife, who stood waiting him outside the homestead, understood his feelings. Raw soil, rent by the harrows and seamed by the seeder, and creeping bands of stock, were tokens of the downfall of the old regime. Then Torrance, drawing bridle, sat still in his saddle while Hetty and her husband stood by his stirrup.

"I promised your friend, Hetty, that I would see you before I went away," he said. "I left Cedar for the last time a few hours ago, and I am riding in to the railroad now. The stock you see there are mine and Allonby's, and the cars are waiting to take them to Omaha. I shall spend the years that may be left me on the Pacific slope."

Hetty's lips quivered, and it was Larry who spoke.

"Was it necessary, sir?"

Torrance smiled grimly. "Yes. The State offered me a few paltry concessions, and a little of what was all mine by right. It didn't seem a fit thing to accept their charity. Well, you have beaten us, Larry."

Grant's face flushed a little. "Only that the rest will gain more than the few will lose I could almost be sorry, sir."

Torrance swung himself down from the saddle and laid his hand on Hetty's shoulder.

"You have chosen your husband among the men who pulled us down, and nothing can be quite the same between you and me," he said. "But I am getting an old man, and may never see you again."

Hetty looked up at him with a faint trace of pride in her misty eyes. "There was nobody among our friends fit to stand beside him," she said. "If you kiss me you will shake hands with Larry."

"I can do both," and Torrance held out his hand when he turned to Grant. "Larry, I believe now you tried to do the square thing, and there might have been less trouble between us but for Clavering. I hope you will bear me no ill will, and while we can't quite wipe out the bitterness yet, by and by we may be friends again."

"I hope so, sir," said Larry.

Torrance said nothing further, but, moving stiffly, swung himself into the saddle and slowly rode away. Hetty watched him with a curious wistfulness in her eyes until he wheeled his horse on the crest of the rise, and sat still a moment looking back on them, a lonely, dusky object silhouetted against the paling sky. Then he turned again, and sank into the shadowy prairie. Hetty clung a little more tightly to her husband's arm, and for a time they stood watching the crawling cattle and dim shapes of the stockriders slowly fade, until the last pale flicker of saffron died out and man and beast sank into the night. A little cold wind came sighing out of the emptiness and emphasized its silence.

Hetty shivered. "Larry," she said, "they will never come back."

Grant drew her closer to him. "It had to be, my dear," he said. "They blocked the way, and nothing can stop the people you and I—and they—belong to, moving on. Well, we will look forward and do what we can, for we must be ready to step out when our turn comes and watch the rest go by."

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
Home - Random Browse