"Better go up and see her in the morning," suggested Wood, the landlord.
"I think I will, thank you."
Wood went in to sell a cowboy a cigar; the partners started out to have a look at Glendora by moonlight. A little way they walked in silence, the light of the barber-shop falling across the road ahead of them.
"See who in the morning, Duke?" Taterleg inquired.
"Lady in the white house on the mesa. Her father died a few weeks ago, and left her alone with a big ranch on her hands. Rustlers are runnin' her cattle off, cuttin' her fences——"
"Yes, forty thousand acres all fenced in, like Texas."
"You don't tell me?"
"Needs men, Wood says. I thought maybe——"
The Duke didn't finish it; just left it swinging that way, expecting Taterleg to read the rest.
"Sure," said Taterleg, taking it right along. "I wouldn't mind stayin' around here a while. Glendora's a nice little place; nicer place than I thought it was."
The Duke said nothing. But as they went on toward the barber-shop he grinned.
THE HOMELIEST MAN
That brilliant beam falling through the barber's open door and uncurtained window came from a new lighting device, procured from a Chicago mail-order house. It was a gasoline lamp that burned with a gas mantle, swinging from the ceiling, flooding the little shop with a greenish light.
It gave a ghastly hue of death to the human face, but it would light up the creases and wrinkles of the most weathered neck that came under the barber's blade. That was the main consideration, for most of the barber's work was done by night, that trade—or profession, as those who pursue it unfailingly hold it to be—being a side line in connection with his duties as station agent. He was a progressive citizen, and no grass grew under his feet, no hair under his hand.
At the moment that the Duke and Taterleg entered the barber's far-reaching beam, some buck of the range was stretched in the chair. The customer was a man of considerable length and many angles, a shorn appearance about his face, especially his big, bony nose, that seemed to tell of a mustache sacrificed in the operation just then drawing to a close.
Taterleg stopped short at sight of the long legs drawn up like a sharp gable to get all of them into the chair, the immense nose raking the ceiling like a double-barreled cannon, the morgue-tinted light giving him the complexion of a man ready for his shroud. He touched Lambert's arm to check him and call his attention.
"Look in there—look at that feller, Duke! There he is; there's the man I've been lookin' for ever since I was old enough to vote. I didn't believe there was any such a feller; but there he is!"
"What feller? Who is he?"
"The feller that's uglier than me. Dang his melts, there he is! I'm going to ask him for his picture, so I'll have the proof to show."
Taterleg was at an unaccountable pitch of spirits. Adventure had taken hold of him like liquor. He made a start for the door as if to carry out his expressed intention in all earnestness. Lambert stopped him.
"He might not see the joke, Taterleg."
"He couldn't refuse a man a friendly turn like that, Duke. Look at him! What's that feller rubbin' on him, do you reckon?"
"Ointment of some kind, I guess."
Taterleg stood with his bow legs so wide apart that a barrel could have been pitched between them, watching the operation within the shop with the greatest enjoyment.
"Goose grease, with pre-fume in it that cuts your breath. Look at that feller shut his eyes and stretch his derned old neck! Just like a calf when you rub him under the chin. Look at him—did you ever see anything to match it?"
"Come on—let the man alone."
"Wrinkle remover, beauty restorer," said Taterleg, not moving forward an inch upon his way. While he seemed to be struck with admiration for the process of renovation, there was an unmistakable jeer in his tone which the barber resented by a fierce look.
"You're goin' to get into trouble if you don't shut up," Lambert cautioned.
"Look at him shut his old eyes and stretch his neck! Ain't it the sweetest——"
The man in the chair lifted himself in sudden grimness, sat up from between the barber's massaging hands, which still held their pose like some sort of brace, turned a threatening look into the road. If half his face was sufficient to raise the declaration from Taterleg that the man was uglier than he, all of it surely proclaimed him the homeliest man in the nation. His eyes were red, as from some long carousal, their lids heavy and slow, his neck was long, and inflamed like an old gobbler's when he inflates himself with his impotent rage.
He looked hard at the two men, so sour in his wrath, so comical in his unmatched ugliness, that Lambert could not restrain a most unusual and generous grin. Taterleg bared his head, bowing low, not a smile, not a ripple of a smile, on his face.
"Mister, I take off my hat to you," he said.
"Yes, and I'll take your fool head off the first time I meet you!" the man returned. He let himself back into the barber's waiting hands, a growl deep in him, surly as an old dog that has been roused out of his place in the middle of the road.
"General, I wouldn't hurt you for a purty, I wouldn't change your looks for a dollar bill," said Taterleg.
"Wait till I git out of this chair!" the customer threatened, voice smothered in the barber's hands.
"I guess he's not a dangerous man—lucky for you," said Lambert. He drew Taterleg away; they went on.
The allurements of Glendora were no more dazzling by night than by day. There was not much business in the saloon, there being few visitors in town, no roistering, no sounds of uncurbed gaiety. Formerly there had been a dance-hall in connection with the saloon, but that branch of the business had failed through lack of patronage long ago. The bar stood in the front of the long, cheerless room, a patch of light over and around it, the melancholy furniture of its prosperous days dim in the gloom beyond.
Lambert and Taterleg had a few drinks to show their respect for the institutions of the country, and went back to the hotel. Somebody had taken Taterleg's place beside Alta on the green bench. It was a man who spoke with rumbling voice like the sound of an empty wagon on a rocky road. Lambert recognized the intonation at once.
"It looks to me like there's trouble ahead for you, Mr. Wilson," he said.
"I'll take that feller by the handle on his face and bust him ag'in' a tree like a gourd," Taterleg said, not in boasting manner, but in the even and untroubled way of a man stating a fact.
"If there was any tree."
"I'll slam him ag'in' a rock; I'll bust him like a oyster."
"I think we'd better go to bed without a fight, if we can."
"I'm willin'; but I'm not goin' around by the back door to miss that feller."
They came up the porch into the light that fell weakly from the office down the steps. There was a movement of feet beside the green bench, an exclamation, a swift advance on the part of the big-nosed man who had afforded amusement for Taterleg in the barber's chair.
"You little bench-leggid fiste, if you've got gall enough to say one word to a man's face, say it!" he challenged.
Alta came after him, quickly, with pacific intent. She was a tall girl, not very well filled out, like an immature bean pod. Her heavy black hair was cut in a waterfall of bangs which came down to her eyebrows, the rest of it done up behind in loops like sausages, and fastened with a large, red ribbon. She had put off her apron, and stood forth in white, her sleeves much shorter than the arms which reached out of them, rings on her fingers which looked as if they would leave their shadows behind.
"Now, Mr. Jedlick, I don't want you to go raisin' no fuss around here with the guests," she said.
"Jedlick!" repeated Taterleg, turning to Lambert with a pained, depressed look on his face. "It sounds like something you blow in to make a noise."
The barber's customer was a taller man standing than he was long lying. There wasn't much clearance between his head and the ceiling of the porch. He stood before Taterleg glowing, his hat off, his short-cut hair glistening with pomatum, showing his teeth like a vicious horse.
"You look like you was cut out with a can-opener," he sneered.
"Maybe I was, and I've got rough edges on me," Taterleg returned, looking up at him with calculative eye.
"Now, Mr. Jedlick"—a hand on his arm, but confident of the force of it, like a lady animal trainer in a cage of lions—"you come on over here and set down and leave that gentleman alone."
"If anybody but you'd 'a' said it, Alta, I'd 'a' told him he was a liar," Jedlick growled. He moved his foot to go with her, stopped, snarled at Taterleg again. "I used to roll 'em in flour and swaller 'em with the feathers on," said he.
"You're a terrible rough feller, ain't you?" Taterleg inquired with cutting sarcasm.
Alta led Jedlick off to his corner; Taterleg and Lambert entered the hotel office.
"Gee, but this is a windy night!" said the Duke, holding his hat on with both hands.
"I'll let some of the wind out of him if he monkeys with me!"
"Looks to me like I know another feller that an operation wouldn't hurt," the Duke remarked, turning a sly eye on his friend.
The landlord appeared with a lamp to light them to their beds, putting an end to these exchanges of threat and banter. As he was leaving them to their double-barreled apartment, Lambert remarked:
"That man Jedlick's an interesting-lookin' feller."
"Ben Jedlick? Yes, Ben's a case; he's quite a case."
"What business does he foller?"
"Ben? Ben's cook on Pat Sullivan's ranch up the river; one of the best camp cooks in the Bad Lands, and I guess the best known, without any doubt."
Taterleg sat down on the side of his bed as if he had been punctured, indeed, lopping forward in mock attitude of utter collapse as the landlord closed the door.
"Cook! That settles it for me; I've turned the last flapjack I'll ever turn for any man but myself."
"How will you manage the oyster parlor?"
"Well, I've just about give up that notion, Duke. I've been thinkin' I'll stick to the range and go in the sheep business."
"I expect it would be a good move, old feller."
"They're goin' into it around here, they tell me."
"Alta tells you."
"Oh, you git out! But I'm a cowman right now, and I'm goin' to stay one for some little time to come. It don't take much intelligence in a man to ride fence."
"No; I guess we could both pass on that."
The Duke blew the lamp out with his hat. There was silence, all but the scuffing sound of disrobing. Taterleg spoke out of bed.
"That girl's got purty eyes, ain't she?"
"Lovely eyes, Taterleg."
"And purty hair, too. Makes a feller want to lean over and pat that little row of bangs."
"I expect there's a feller down there doin' it now."
The spring complained under Taterleg's sudden movement; there was a sound of swishing legs under the sheet. Lambert saw him dimly against the window, sitting with his feet on the floor.
"You mean Jedlick?"
"Why not Jedlick? He's got the field to himself."
Taterleg sat a little while thinking about it. Presently he resumed his repose, chuckling a choppy little laugh.
"Jedlick! Jedlick ain't got no more show than a cow. When a lady steps in and takes a man's part there's only one answer, Duke. And she called me a gentleman, too. Didn't you hear her call me a gentleman, Duke?"
"I seem to remember that somebody else called you that one time."
Taterleg hadn't any reply at once. Lambert lay there grinning in the dark. No matter how sincere Taterleg might have been in this or any other affair, to the Duke it was only a joke. That is the attitude of most men toward the tender vagaries of others. No romance ever is serious but one's own.
"Well, that happened a good while ago," said Taterleg defensively.
But memories didn't trouble him much that night. Very soon he was sleeping, snoring on the G string with unsparing pressure. For Lambert there was no sleep. He lay in a fever of anticipation. Tomorrow he should see her, his quest ended almost as soon as begun.
There was not one stick of fuel for the flame of this conjecture, not one reasonable justification for his more than hope. Only something had flashed to him that the girl in the house on the mesa was she whom his soul sought, whose handkerchief was folded in his pocketbook and carried with his money. He would take no counsel from reason, no denial from fate.
He lay awake seeing visions when he should have been asleep in the midst of legitimate dreams. A score of plans for serving her came up for examination, a hundred hopes for a happy culmination of this green romance budded, bloomed, and fell. But above the race of his hot thoughts the certainty persisted that this girl was the lady of the beckoning hand.
He had no desire to escape from these fevered fancies in sleep, as his companion had put down his homely ambitions. Long he lay awake turning them to view from every hopeful, alluring angle, hearing the small noises of the town's small activities die away to silence and peace.
In the morning he should ride to see her, his quest happily ended, indeed, even on the threshold of its beginning.
THE HOUSE ON THE MESA
Even more bleak than from a distance the house on the mesa appeared as the riders approached it up the winding road. It stood solitary on its desert promontory, the bright sky behind it, not a shrub to ease its lines, not a barn or shed to make a rude background for its amazing proportions. Native grass grew sparsely on the great table where it stood; rains had guttered the soil near its door. There was about it the air of an abandoned place, its long, gaunt porches open to wind and storm.
As they drew nearer the house the scene opened in a more domestic appearance. Beyond it in a little cup of the mesa the stable, cattle sheds, and quarters for the men were located, so hidden in their shelter that they could not be seen from any point in the valley below. To the world that never scaled these crumbling heights, Philbrook's mansion appeared as if it endured independent of those vulgar appendages indeed.
"Looks like they've got the barn where the house ought to be," said Taterleg. "I'll bet the wind takes the hide off of a feller up here in the wintertime."
"It's about as bleak a place for a house as a man could pick," Lambert agreed. He checked his horse a moment to look round on the vast sweep of country presented to view from the height, the river lying as bright as quicksilver in the dun land.
"Not even a wire fence to break it!" Taterleg drew his shoulders up and shivered in the hot morning sun as he contemplated the untrammeled roadway of the northern winds. "Well, sir, it looks to me like a cyclone carried that house from somewheres and slammed it down. No man in his right senses ever built it there."
"People take queer freaks sometimes, even in their senses. I guess we can ride right around to the door."
But for the wide, weathered porch they could have ridden up to it and knocked on its panels from the saddle. Taterleg was for going to the kitchen door, a suggestion which the Duke scorned. He didn't want to meet that girl at a kitchen door, even her own kitchen door. For that he was about to meet her, there was no doubt in him that moment.
He was not in a state of trembling eagerness, but of calm expectation, as a man might be justified in who had made his preparations and felt the outcome sure. He even smiled as he pictured her surprise, like a man returning home unexpectedly, but to a welcome of which he held no doubt.
Taterleg remained mounted while Lambert went to the door. It was a rather inhospitable appearing door of solid oak, heavy and dark. There was a narrow pane of beveled glass set into it near the top, beneath it a knocker that must have been hammered by a hand in some far land centuries before the house on the mesa was planned.
A negro woman, rheumatic, old, came to the door. Miss Philbrook was at the barn, she said. What did they want of her? Were they looking for work? To these questions Lambert made no reply. As he turned back to his horse the old serving woman came to the porch, leaving the door swinging wide, giving a view into the hall, which was furnished with a profusion and luxuriance that Taterleg never had seen before.
The old woman watched the Duke keenly as he swung into the saddle in the suppleness of his youthful grace. She shaded her eyes against the sun, looking after him still as he rode with his companion toward the barn.
Chickens were making the barnyard lots comfortable with their noise, some dairy cows of a breed alien to that range waited in a lot to be turned out to the day's grazing; a burro put its big-eared head round the corner of a shed, eying the strangers with the alert curiosity of a nino of his native land. But the lady of the ranch was not in sight nor sound.
Lambert drew up at the gate cutting the employees' quarters from the barnyard, and sat looking things over. Here was a peace and security, an atmosphere of contentment and comfort, entirely lacking in the surroundings of the house. The buildings were all of far better class than were to be found on the ranches of that country; even the bunkhouse a house, in fact, and not a shed-roofed shack.
"I wonder where she's at?" said Taterleg, leaning and peering. "I don't see her around here nowheres."
"I'll go down to the bunkhouse and see if there's anybody around," Lambert said, for he had a notion, somehow, that he ought to meet her on foot.
Taterleg remained at the gate, because he looked better on a horse than off, and he was not wanting in that vain streak which any man with a backbone and marrow in him possesses. He wanted to appear at his best when the boss of that high-class outfit laid her eyes on him for the first time; and if he had hopes that she might succumb to his charms, they were no more extravagant than most men's are under similar conditions.
Off to one side of a long barn Lambert saw her as he opened the gate. She was trying to coax a young calf to drink out of a bucket that an old negro held under its nose. Perhaps his heart climbed a little, and his eyes grew hot with a sudden surge of blood, after the way of youth, as he went forward.
He could not see her face fully, for she was bending over the calf, and the broad brim of her hat interposed. She looked up at the sound of his approach, a startled expression in her frank, gray eyes. Handsome, in truth, she was, in her riding habit of brown duck, her heavy sombrero, her strong, high boots. Her hair was the color of old honeycomb, her face browned by sun and wind.
She was a maid to gladden a man's heart, with the morning sun upon her, the strength of her great courage in her clear eyes; a girl of breeding, as one could see by her proud carriage.
But she was not the girl whose handkerchief he had won in his reckless race with the train!
The Duke took off his hat, standing before her foolishly dumb between his disappointment and embarrassment. He had counted so fully on finding the girl of his romance that he was reluctant to accept the testimony of his eyes. Here was one charming enough to compensate a man for a hundred fasts and fevers, but she was not the lodestone that had drawn upon his heart with that impelling force which could not be denied.
What a stupid blunder his impetuous conclusion had led him into; what an awkward situation! Pretty as she was, he didn't want to serve this woman, no matter for her embarrassments and distress. He could not remain there a week in the ferment of his longing to be on his way, searching the world for her whom his soul desired. This ran over him like an electric shock as he stood before her, hat in hand, head bent a little, like a culprit, looking rather stupid in his confusion.
"Were you looking for somebody?" she asked, her handsome face sunning over with a smile that invited his confidence and dismissed his qualms.
"I was looking for the boss, ma'am."
"I'm the boss." She spoke encouragingly, as to some timid creature, bending to brush off the milk that the stubborn calf had shaken from its muzzle over her skirt.
"My partner and I are strangers here—he's over there at the gate—passing through the country, and wanted your permission to look around the place a little. They told us about it down at Glendora."
The animation of her face was clouded instantly as by a shadow of disappointment. She turned her head as if to hide this from his eyes, answering carelessly, a little pettishly:
"Go ahead; look around till you're tired."
Lambert hesitated, knowing very well that he had raised expectations which he was in no present mind to fill. She must be sorely in need of help when she would brighten up that way at the mere sight of a common creature like a cow-puncher. He hated to take away what he had seemed to come there offering, what he had, in all earnestness, come to offer.
But she was not the girl. He had followed a false lure that his own unbridled imagination had lit. The only thing to do was back out of it as gracefully as he could, and the poor excuse of "looking around" was the best one he could lay his hand to in a hurry.
"Thank you," said he, rather emptily.
She did not reply, but bent again to her task of teaching the little black calf to take its breakfast out of the pail instead of the fashion in which nature intended it to refresh itself. Lambert backed off a little, for the way of the range had indeed become his way in that year of his apprenticeship, and its crudities were over him painfully. When off what he considered a respectful distance he put on his hat, turning a look at her as if to further assure her that his invasion of her premises was not a trespass.
She gave him no further notice, engrossed as she appeared to be with the calf, but when he reached the gate and looked back, he saw her standing straight, the bucket at her feet, looking after him as if she resented the fact that two free-footed men should come there and flaunt their leisure before her in the hour of her need.
Taterleg was looking over the gate, trying to bring himself into the range of her eyes. He swept off his hat when she looked that way, to be rewarded by an immediate presentation of her back. Such cow-punchers as these were altogether too fine and grand in their independent airs, her attitude seemed to say.
"Did you take the job?" Taterleg inquired.
"I didn't ask her about it."
"You didn't ask her? Well, what in the name of snakes did you come up here for?"
The Duke led his horse away from the gate, back where she could not see him, and stood fiddling with his cinch a bit, although it required no attention at all.
"I got to thinkin' maybe I'd better go on west a piece. If you want to stay, don't let me lead you off. Go on over and strike her for a job; she needs men, I know, by the way she looked."
"No, I guess I'll go on with you till our roads fork. But I was kind of thinkin' I'd like to stay around Glendora a while." Taterleg sighed as he seemed to relinquish the thought of it, tried the gate to see that it was latched, turned his horse about. "Well, where're we headin' for now?"
"I want to ride up there on that bench in front of the house and look around a little at the view; then I guess we'll go back to town."
They rode to the top of the bench the Duke indicated, where the view broadened in every direction, that being the last barrier between the river and the distant hills. The ranchhouse appeared big even in that setting of immensities, and perilously near the edge of the crumbling bluff which presented a face almost sheer on the river more than three hundred feet below.
"It must 'a' been a job to haul the lumber for that house up here."
That was Taterleg's only comment. The rugged grandeur of nature presented to him only its obstacles; its beauties did not move him any more than they would have affected a cow.
The Duke did not seem to hear him. He was stretching his gaze into the dim south up the river, where leaden hills rolled billow upon billow, engarnitured with their sad gray sage. Whatever his thoughts were, they bound him in a spell which the creaking of Taterleg's saddle, as he shifted in it impatiently, did not disturb.
"Couple of fellers just rode up to the gate in the cross-fence back of the bunkhouse," Taterleg reported.
The Duke grunted, to let it be known that he heard, but was not interested. He was a thousand miles away from the Bad Lands in his fast-running dreams.
"That old nigger seems to be havin' some trouble with them fellers," came Taterleg's further report. "There goes that girl on her horse up to the gate—say, look at 'em, Duke! Them fellers is tryin' to make her let 'em through."
Lambert turned, indifferently, to see. There appeared to be a controversy under way at the gate, to be sure. But rows between employees and employer were common; that wasn't his fuss. Perhaps it wasn't an argument, as it seemed to be from that distance, anyhow.
"Did you see that?" Taterleg started his horse forward in a jump as he spoke, reining up stiffly at Lambert's side. "One of them fellers pulled his gun on that old nigger—did you see him, Duke?"
"Ye-es, I saw him," said the Duke speculatively, watching the squabble at the distant gate keenly, turning his horse to head that way by a pressure of his knee.
"Knocked him flat!" Taterleg set off in a gallop as he spoke, the Duke right after him, soon ahead of him, old Whetstone a yellow streak across the mesa.
It wasn't his quarrel, but nobody could come flashing a gun in the face of a lady when he was around. That was the argument that rose in the Duke's thoughts as he rode down the slope and up the fenced passage between the barns.
The gate at which the two horsemen were disputing the way with the girl and her old black helper was a hundred yards or more beyond the one at which Taterleg and the Duke had stopped a little while before. It was in a cross-fence which appeared to cut the house and other buildings from the range beyond.
As the Duke bent to open this first gate he saw that the girl had dismounted and was bending over the old negro, who was lying stretched on the ground. He had fallen against the gate, on which one of the ruffians was now pushing, trying to open it against the weight of his body. The girl spoke sharply to the fellow, bracing her shoulder against the gate. Lambert heard the scoundrel laugh as he swung to the ground and set his shoulder against the other side.
The man who remained mounted leaned over and added his strength to the struggle, together forcing the gate open, pushing the resisting girl with it, dragging the old negro, who clutched the bottom plank and was hauled brutally along. All concerned in the struggle were so deeply engrossed in their own affair that none noted the approach of the Duke and Taterleg. The fellow on the ground was leading his horse through as Lambert galloped up.
At the sound of Lambert's approach the dismounted man leaped into his saddle. The two trespassers sat scowling inside the gate, watching him closely for the first hostile sign. Vesta Philbrook was trying to help the old negro to his feet. Blood was streaming down his face from a cut on his forehead; he sank down again when she let go of him to welcome this unexpected help.
"These men cut my fence; they're trespassing on me, trying to defy and humiliate me because they know I'm alone!" she said. She stretched out her hand toward Lambert as if in appeal to a judge, her face flushed from the struggle and sense of outrage, her hat pushed back on her amber hair, the fire of righteous anger in her eyes. The realization of her beauty seemed to sweep Lambert like a flood of sudden music, lifting his heart in a great surge, making him recklessly glad.
"Where do you fellers think you're goin'?" he asked, following the speech of the range.
"We're goin' where we started to go," the man who had just remounted replied, glaring at Lambert with insulting sneer.
This was a stocky man with bushy red-gray eyebrows, a stubble of roan beard over his blunt, common face. One foot was short in his boot, as if he had lost his toes in a blizzard, a mark not uncommonly set by unfriendly nature on the men who defied its force in that country. He wore a duck shooting-jacket, the pockets of it bulging as if with game.
His companion was a much younger man, slender, graceful in the saddle, rather handsome in a swarthy, defiant way. He ranged up beside the spokesman as if to take full share in whatever was to come. Both of them were armed with revolvers, the elder of the two with a rifle in addition, which he carried in a leather scabbard black and slick with age, slung on his saddle under his thigh.
"You'll have to get permission from this lady before you go through here," Lambert told him calmly.
Vesta Philbrook had stepped back, as if she had presented her case and waited adjudication. She stood by the old negro where he sat in the dust, her hand on his head, not a word more to add to her case, seeming to have passed it on to this slim, confident, soft-spoken stranger with his clear eyes and steady hand, who took hold of it so competently.
"I've been cuttin' this purty little fence for ten years, and I'll keep on cuttin' it and goin' through whenever I feel like it. I don't have to git no woman's permission, and no man's, neither, to go where I want to go, kid."
The man dropped his hand to his revolver as he spoke the last word with a twisting of the lip, a showing of his scorbutic teeth, a sneer that was at once an insult and a goad. The next moment he was straining his arms above his head as if trying to pull them out of their sockets, and his companion was displaying himself in like manner, Lambert's gun down on them, Taterleg coming in deliberately a second or two behind.
"Keep them right there," was the Duke's caution, jerking his head to Taterleg in the manner of a signal understood.
Taterleg rode up to the fence-cutters and disarmed them, holding his gun comfortably in their ribs as he worked with swift hand. The rifle he handed down to the old negro, who was now on his feet, and who took it with a bow and a grave face across which a gleam of satisfaction flashed. The holsters with the revolvers in them he passed to the Duke, who hung them on his saddle-horn.
"Pile off," Taterleg ordered.
They obeyed, wrathful but impotent. Taterleg sat by, chewing gum, calm and steady as if the thing had been rehearsed a hundred times. The Duke pointed to the old negro's hat.
"Pick it up," he ordered the younger man; "dust it off and give it to him."
The fellow did as directed, with evil face, for it hurt his high pride, just as the Duke intended that it should hurt. Lambert nodded to the man who had knocked the old fellow down with a blow of his heavy revolver.
"Dust off his clothes," he said.
Vesta Philbrook smiled as she witnessed this swift humbling of her ancient enemy. The old negro turned himself arrogantly, presenting the rear of his broad and dusty pantaloons; but the bristling, red-faced rancher balked. He looked up at Lambert, half choked on the bone of his rage.
"I'll die before I'll do it!" he declared with a curse.
Lambert beat down the defiant, red-balled glowering eyes with one brief, straight look. The fence-cutter broke a tip of sage and set to work, the old man lifting his arms like a strutting gobbler, his head held high, the pain of his hurt forgotten in the triumphant moment of his revenge.
"Have you got some wire and tools around here handy, Miss Philbrook?" Lambert inquired. "These men are going to do a little fence fixin' this morning for a change."
The old negro pranced off to get the required tools, throwing a look back at the two prisoners now and then, covering his mouth with his hand to keep back the explosion of his mirth. Badly as he was hurt, his enjoyment of this unprecedented situation seemed to cure him completely. His mistress went after him, doubtful of his strength, with nothing but a quick look into Lambert's eyes as she passed to tell him how deeply she felt.
It was a remarkable procession for the Bad Lands that set out from the cross-line fence a few minutes later, the two free rangers starting under escort to repair the damage done to a despised fence-man's barrier. One of them carried a wire-stretcher, the chain of it wound round his saddle-horn, the other a coil of barbed wire and such tools as were required. After they had proceeded a little way, Taterleg thought of something.
"Don't you reckon we might need a couple of posts, Duke?" he asked.
The Duke thought perhaps they might come in handy. They turned back, accordingly, and each of the trespassers was compelled to shoulder an oak post, with much blasphemy and threatening of future adjustment. In that manner of marching, each free ranger carrying his cross as none of his kind ever had carried it before, they rode to the scene of their late depredations.
Vesta Philbrook stood at the gate and watched them go, reproaching herself for her silence in the presence of this man who had come to her assistance with such sure and determined hand. She never had found it difficult before to thank anybody who had done her a generous turn; but here her tongue had lain as still as a hare in its covert, and her heart had gone trembling in the gratitude which it could not voice.
A strong man he was, and full of commanding courage, but neither so strong nor so mighty that she had need to keep as quiet in his presence as a kitchen maid before a king. But he would have to pass that way coming back, and she could make amends. The old negro stood by, chuckling his pleasure at the sight drawing away into the distance of the pasture where his mistress' cattle fed.
"Ananias, do you know who that man is," she asked.
"Laws, Miss Vesta, co'se I do. Didn't you hear his hoss-wrangler call him Duke?"
"I heard him call him Duke."
"He's that man they call Duke of Chimley Butte—I know that hoss he's a-ridin'; that hoss used to be Jim Wilder's ole outlaw. That Duke man killed Jim and took that hoss away from him; that's what he done. That was while you was gone; you didn't hear 'bout it."
"Killed him and took his horse? Surely, he must have had some good reason, Ananias."
"I don' know, and I ain't a-carin'. That's him, and that's what he done."
"Did you ever hear of him killing anybody else?"
"Oh, plenty, plenty," said the old man with easy generosity. "I bet he's killed a hun'ed men—maybe mo'n a hun'ed."
"But you don't know," she said, smiling at the old man's extravagant recommendation of his hero.
"I don' know, but I bet he is," said he. "Look at 'em!" he chuckled; "look at old Nick Ha'gus and his onery, low-down Injun-blood boy!"
GUESTS OF THE BOSS LADY
Vesta rode out to meet them as they were coming back, to make sure of her thanks. She was radiant with gratitude, and at no loss any longer for words to express it. Before they had ridden together on the return journey half a mile, Taterleg felt that he had known her all her life, and was ready to cast his fortunes with her, win or lose.
Lambert was leaving the conversation between her and Taterleg, for the greater part. He rode in gloomy isolation, like a man with something on his mind, speaking only when spoken to, and then as shortly as politeness would permit. Taterleg, who had words enough for a book, appeared to feel the responsibility of holding them up to the level of gentlemen and citizens of the world. Not if talk could prevent it would Taterleg allow them to be classed as a pair of boors who could not go beyond the ordinary cow-puncher's range in word and thought.
"It'll be some time, ma'am, before that feller Hargus and his boy'll try to make a short cut to Glendora through your ranch ag'in," said he.
"It was the first time they were ever caught, after old man Hargus had been cutting our fence for years, Mr. Wilson. I can't tell you how much I owe you for humiliating them where they thought the humiliation would be on my side."
"Don't you mention it, ma'am; it's the greatest pleasure in the world."
"He thought he'd come by the house and look in the window and defy me because I was alone."
"He's got a mean eye; he's got a eye like a wolf."
"He's got a wolf's habits, too, in more ways than one, Mr. Wilson."
"Yes, that man'd steal calves, all right."
"We've never been able to prove it on him, Mr. Wilson, but you've put your finger on Mr. Hargus' weakness like a phrenologist."
Taterleg felt his oats at this compliment. He sat up like a major, his chest out, his mustache as big on his thin face as a Mameluke's. It always made Lambert think of the handlebars on that long-horn safety bicycle that he came riding into the Bad Lands.
"The worst part of it is, Mr. Wilson, that he's not the only one."
"Neighbors livin' off of you, are they? Yes, that's the way it was down in Texas when the big ranches begun to fence, they tell me—I never was there, ma'am, and I don't know of my own knowledge and belief, as the lawyers say. Fence-ridin' down there in them days was a job where a man took his life in both hands and held it up to be shot at."
"There's been an endless fight on this ranch, too. It's been a strain and a struggle from the first day, not worth it, not worth half of it. But father put the best years of his life into it, and established it where men boasted it couldn't be done. I'm not going to let them whip me now."
Lambert looked at her with a quick gleam of admiration in his eyes. She was riding between him and Taterleg, as easy in their company, and as natural as if she had known them for years. There had been no heights of false pride or consequence for her to descend to the comradeship of these men, for she was as unaffected and ingenuous as they. Lambert seemed to wake to a sudden realization of this. His interest in her began to grow, his reserve to fall away.
"They told us at Glendora that rustlers were running your cattle off," said he. "Are they taking the stragglers that get through where the fence is cut, or coming after them?"
"They're coming in and running them off almost under our eyes. I've only got one man on the ranch beside Ananias; nobody riding fence at all but myself. It takes me a good while to ride nearly seventy miles of fence."
"Yes, that's so," Lambert seemed to reflect. "How many head have you got in this pasture?"
"I ought to have about four thousand, but they're melting away like snow, Mr. Lambert."
"We saw a bunch of 'em up there where them fellers cut the fence," Taterleg put in, not to be left out of the game which he had started and kept going single-handed so long; "white-faced cattle, like they've got in Kansas."
"Ours—mine are all white-faced. They stand this climate better than any other."
"It must have been a bunch of strays we saw—none of them was branded," Lambert said.
"Father never would brand his calves, for various reasons, the humane above all others. I never blamed him after seeing it done once, and I'm not going to take up the barbarous practice now. All other considerations aside, it ruins a hide, you know, Mr. Lambert."
"It seems to me you'd better lose the hide than the calf, Miss Philbrook."
"It does make it easy for thieves, and that's the only argument in favor of branding. While we've—I've got the only white-faced herd in this country, I can't go into court and prove my property without a brand, once the cattle are run outside of this fence. So they come in and take them, knowing they're safe unless they're caught."
Lambert fell silent again. The ranchhouse was in sight, high on its peninsula of prairie, like a lighthouse seen from sea.
"It's a shame to let that fine herd waste away like that," he said, ruminatively, as if speaking to himself.
"It's always been hard to get help here; cowboys seem to think it's a disgrace to ride fence. Such as we've been able to get nearly always turned out thieves on their own account in the end. The one out with the cattle now is a farm boy from Iowa, afraid of his shadow."
"They didn't want no fence in here in the first place—that's what set their teeth ag'in' you," Taterleg said.
"If I could only get some real men once," she sighed; "men who could handle them like you boys did this morning. Even father never seemed to understand where to take hold of them to hurt them, the way you do."
They were near the house now. Lambert rode on a little way in silence. Then:
"It's a shame to let that herd go to pieces," he said.
"It's a sin!" Taterleg declared.
She dropped her reins, looking from one to the other, an eager appeal in her hopeful face.
"Why can't you boys stop here a while and help me out?" she asked, saying at last in a burst of hopeful eagerness what had been in her heart to say from the first. She held out her hand to each of them in a pretty way of appeal, turning from one to the other, her gray eyes pleading.
"I hate to see a herd like that broken up by thieves, and all of your investment wasted," said the Duke, thoughtfully, as if considering it deeply.
"It's a sin and a shame!" said Taterleg.
"I guess we'll stay and give you a hand," said the Duke.
She pulled her horse up short, and gave him, not a figurative hand, but a warm, a soft and material one, from which she pulled her buckskin glove as if to level all thought or suggestion of a barrier between them. She turned then and shook hands with Taterleg, warming him so with her glowing eyes that he patted her hand a little before he let it go, in manner truly patriarchal.
"You're all right, you're all right," he said.
Once pledged to it, the Duke was anxious to set his hand to the work that he saw cut out for him on that big ranch. He was like a physician who had entered reluctantly into a case after other practitioners had left the patient in desperate condition. Every moment must be employed if disaster to that valuable herd was to be averted.
Vesta would hear of nothing but that they come first to the house for dinner. So the guests did the best they could at improving their appearance at the bunkhouse after turning their horses over to the obsequious Ananias, who appeared with a large bandage, and a strong smell of turpentine, on his bruised head.
Beyond brushing off the dust of the morning's ride there was little to be done. Taterleg brought out his brightest necktie from the portable possessions rolled up in his slicker; the Duke produced his calfskin vest. There was not a coat between them to save the dignity of their profession at the boss lady's board. Taterleg's green-velvet waistcoat had suffered damage during the winter when a spark from his pipe burned a hole in it as big as a dollar. He held it up and looked at it, concluding in the end that it would not serve.
With his hairy chaps off, Taterleg did not appear so bow-legged, but he waddled like a crab as they went toward the house to join the companion of their ride. The Duke stopped on the high ground near the house, turned, looked off over the great pasture that had been Philbrook's battle ground for so many years.
"One farmer from Iowa out there to watch four thousand cattle, and thieves all around him! Eatin' looks like burnin' daylight to me."
"She'd 'a' felt hurt if we'd 'a' shied off from her dinner, Duke. You know a man's got to eat when he ain't hungry and drink when he ain't dry sometimes in this world to keep up appearances."
"Appearances!" The Duke looked him over with humorous eye, from his somewhat clean sombrero to his capacious corduroy trousers gathered into his boot tops. "Oh, well, I guess it's all right."
Vesta was in excellent spirits, due to the broadening of her prospects, which had appeared so narrow and unpromising but a few hours before. One of this pair, she believed, was worth three ordinary men. She asked them about their adventures, and the Duke solemnly assured her that they never had experienced any.
Taterleg, loquacious as he might be on occasion, knew when to hold his tongue. Lambert led her away from that ground into a discussion of her own affairs, and conditions as they stood between her neighbors and herself.
"Nick Hargus is one of the most persistent offenders, and we might as well dispose of him first, since you've met the old wretch and know what he's like on the outside," she explained. "Hargus was in the cattle business in a hand-to-mouth way when we came here, and he raised a bigger noise than anybody else about our fences, claiming we'd cut him off from water, which wasn't true. We didn't cut anybody off from the river.
"Hargus is married to an Indian squaw, a little old squat, black-faced thing as mean as a snake. They've got a big brood of children, that boy you saw this morning is the senior of the gang. Old Hargus usually harbors two or three cattle thieves, horse thieves or other crooks of that kind, some of them just out of the pen, some preparing their way to it. He does a sort of general rustling business, with this ranch as his main source of supply. We've had a standing fight on with him ever since we came here, but today was the first time, as I told you, that he ever was caught.
"You heard what he said about cutting the fence this morning. That's the attitude of the country all around. You couldn't convict a man for cutting a fence in this country. So all a person can do is shoot them if you catch them at it. I don't know what Hargus will do to get even with this morning's humiliation."
"I think he'll leave that fence alone like it was charged with lightnin'," Taterleg said.
"He'll try to turn something; he's wily and vindictive."
"He needs a chunk of lead about the middle of his appetite," Taterleg declared.
"Who comes next?" Lambert inquired.
"There's a man they call Walleye Bostian—his regular name is Jesse—on the farther end of this place that's troubled with a case of incurable resentment against a barbed-wire fence. He's a sheepman, one of the last that would do a lawless deed, you'd think, from the look of him, but he's mean to the roots of his hair."
"All sheepmen's onery, ma'am, they tell me," said Taterleg, a cowman now from core to rind, and loyal to his calling accordingly.
"I don't know about the rest of them, but Walleye Bostian is a mighty mean sheepman. Well, I know I got a shot at him once that he'll remember."
"You did?" Taterleg's face was as bright as a dishpan with admiration. He chuckled in his throat, eying the Duke slantingly to see how he took that piece of news.
The Duke sat up a little stiffer, his face grew a shade more serious, and that was all the change in him that Taterleg could see.
"I hope we can take that kind of work off your hands in the future, Miss Philbrook," he said, his voice slow and grave.
She lifted her grateful eyes with a look of appreciation that seemed to him overpayment for a service proposed, rather than done. She went on, then, with a description of her interesting neighbors.
"This ranch is a long, narrow strip, only about three miles wide by twenty deep, the river at this end of it, Walleye Bostian at the other. Along the sides there are various kinds of reptiles in human skin, none of them living within four or five miles of our fences, the average being much farther than that, for people are not very plentiful right around here.
"On the north of us Hargus is the worst, on the south a man named Kerr. Kerr is the biggest single-handed cattleman around here. His one grievance against us is that we shut a creek that he formerly used along inside our fences that forced him to range down to the river for water. As the creek begins and ends on our land—it empties into the river about a mile above here—it's hard for an unbiased mind to grasp Kerr's point of objection."
"Have you ever taken a shot at him?" the Duke asked, smiling a little dry smile.
"No-o," said she reflectively, "not at Kerr himself. Kerr is what is usually termed a gentleman; that is, he's a man of education and wears his beard cut like a banker's, but his methods of carrying on a feud are extremely low. Fighting is beneath his dignity, I guess; he hires it done."
"You've seen some fightin' in your time, ma'am," Taterleg said.
"Too much of it," she sighed wearily. "I've had a shot at his men more than once, but there are one or two in that Kerr family I'd like to sling a gun down on!"
It was strange to hear that gentle-mannered, refined girl talk of fighting as if it were the commonest of everyday business. There was no note of boasting, no color of exaggeration in her manner. She was as natural and sincere as the calm breeze, coming in through the open window, and as wholesome and pure. There was not a doubt of that in the mind of either of the men at the table with her. Their admiration spoke out of their eyes.
"When you've had to fight all your life," she said, looking up earnestly into Lambert's face, "it makes you old before your time, and quick-tempered and savage, I suppose, even when you fight in self-defense. I used to ride fence when I was fourteen, with a rifle across my saddle, and I wouldn't have thought any more of shooting a man I saw cutting our fence or running off our cattle than I would a rabbit."
She did not say what her state of mind on that question was at present, but it was so plainly expressed in her flushed cheeks and defiant eyes that it needed no words.
"If you'd 'a' had your gun on you this morning when them fellers knocked that old coon down I bet there'd 'a' been a funeral due over at old Hargus' ranch," said Taterleg.
"I'd saddled up to go to the post office; I never carry a gun with me when I go to Glendora," she said.
"A country where a lady has to carry a gun at all ain't no country to speak of. It needs cleanin' up, ma'am, that's what it needs."
"It surely does, Mr. Wilson: you've got it sized up just right."
"Well, Taterleg, I guess we'd better be hittin' the breeze," the Duke suggested, plainly uneasy between the duty of courtesy and the long lines of unguarded fence.
Taterleg could not accustom himself to that extraordinary bunkhouse when they returned to it, on such short time. He walked about in it, necktie in his hand, looking into its wonders, marveling over its conveniences.
"It's just like a regular human house," said he.
There was a bureau with a glass to it in every room, and there were rooms for several men. The Duke and Taterleg stowed away their slender belongings in the drawers and soon were ready for the saddle. As he put the calfskin vest away, the Duke took out the little handkerchief, from which the perfume of faint violet had faded long ago, and pressed it tenderly against his cheek.
"You'll wait on me a little while longer, won't you?" he asked.
Then he laid it away between the folds of his remarkable garment very carefully, and went out, his slicker across his arm, to take up his life in that strip of contention and strife between Vesta Philbrook's far-reaching wire fences.
ALARMS AND EXCURSIONS
The news quickly ran over the country that Vesta Philbrook had hired the notorious Duke of Chimney Butte and his gun-slinging side partner to ride fence. What had happened to Nick Hargus and his boy, Tom, seemed to prove that they were men of the old school, quite a different type from any who had been employed on that ranch previously.
Lambert was troubled to learn that his notoriety had run ahead of him, increasing as it spread. It was said that his encounter with Jim Wilder was only one of his milder exploits; that he was a grim and bloody man from Oklahoma who had marked his miles with tombstones as he traveled.
His first business on taking charge of the Philbrook ranch had been to do a piece of fence-cutting on his own account opposite Nick Hargus' ranch, through which he had ridden and driven home thirty head of cattle lately stolen by that enterprising citizen from Vesta Philbrook's herd. This act of open-handed restoration, carried out in broad daylight alone, and in the face of Hargus, his large family of sons, and the skulking refugees from the law who chanced to be hiding there at the time, added greatly to the Duke's fame.
It did not serve as a recommendation among the neighbors who had preyed so long and notoriously on the Philbrook herd, and no doubt nothing would have been said about it by Hargus to even the most intimate of his ruffianly associates. But Taterleg and old Ananias took great pains to spread the story in Glendora, where it passed along, with additions as it moved. Hargus explained that the cattle were strays which had broken out.
While this reputation of the Duke was highly gratifying to Taterleg, who found his own glory increased thereby, it was extremely distasteful to Lambert, who had no means of preventing its spread or opportunity of correcting its falsity. He knew himself to be an inoffensive, rather backward and timid man, or at least this was his own measure of himself. That fight with Jim Wilder always had been a cloud over his spirits, although his conscience was clear. It had sobered him and made him feel old, as Vesta Philbrook had said fighting made a person feel. He could understand her better, perhaps, than one whom violence had passed undisturbed.
There was nothing farther from his desire than strife and turmoil, gun-slinging and a fearful notoriety. But there he was, set up against his will, against his record, as a man to whom it was wise to give the road. That was a dangerous distinction, as he well understood, for a time would come, even opportunities would be created, when he would be called upon to defend it. That was the discomfort of a fighting name. It was a continual liability, bound sooner or later to draw upon a man to the full extent of his resources.
This reputation lost nothing in the result of his first meeting with Berry Kerr, the rancher who wore his beard like a banker and passed for a gentleman in that country, where a gentleman was defined, at that time, as a man who didn't swear. This meeting took place on the south line of the fence on a day when Lambert had been on the ranch a little more than a week.
Kerr was out looking for strays, he said, although he seemed to overlook the joke that he made in neglecting to state from whose herd. Lambert gave him the benefit of the doubt and construed him to mean his own. He rode up to the fence, affable as a man who never had an evil intention in his life, and made inquiry concerning Lambert's connection with the ranch, making a pretense of not having heard that Vesta had hired new men.
"Well, she needs a couple of good men that will stand by her steady," he said, with all the generosity of one who had her interests close to his heart. "She's a good girl, and she's been havin' a hard time of it. But if you want to do her the biggest favor that a man ever did do under circumstances of similar nature, persuade her to tear this fence out, all around, and throw the range open like it used to be. Then all this fool quarreling and shooting will stop, and everybody in here will be on good terms again. That's the best way out of it for her, and it will be the best way out of it for you if you intend to stay here and run this ranch."
While Kerr's manner seemed to be patriarchal and kindly advisory, there was a certain hardness beneath his words, a certain coldness in his eyes which made his proposal nothing short of a threat. It made all the resentful indignation which Lambert had mastered and chained down in himself rise up and bristle. He took it as a personal affront, as a threat against his own safety, and the answer that he gave to it was quick and to the point.
"There'll never be a yard of this fence torn down on my advice, Mr. Kerr," he said. "You people around here will have to learn to give it a good deal more respect from now on than you have in the past. I'm going to teach this crowd around here to take off their hats when they come to a fence."
Kerr was a slender, dry man, the native meanness of his crafty face largely masked by his beard, which was beginning to show streaks of gray in its brown. He was wearing a coat that day, although it was hot, and had no weapon in sight. He sat looking Lambert straight in the eyes for a moment upon the delivery of this bill of intentions, his brows drawn a bit, a cast of concentrated hardness in his gray-blue eyes.
"I'm afraid you've bit off more than you can chew, much less swallow, young man," he said. With that he rode away, knowing that he had failed in what he probably had some hope of accomplishing in his sly and unworthy way.
Things went along quietly after that for a few weeks. Hargus did not attempt any retaliatory move; on the side of Kerr's ranch all was quiet. The Iowa boy, under Taterleg's tutelage, was developing into a trustworthy and capable hand, the cattle were fattening in the grassy valleys. All counted, it was the most peaceful spell that Philbrook's ranch ever had known, and the tranquility was reflected in the owner, and her house, and all within its walls.
Lambert did not see much of Vesta in those first weeks of his employment, for he lived afield, close beside the fences which he guarded as his own honor. Taterleg had a great pride in the matter also. He cruised up and down his section with a long-range rifle across his saddle, putting in more hours sometimes, he said, than there were in a day. Taterleg knew very well that slinking eyes were watching him from the covert of the sage-gray hills. Unceasing vigilance was the price of reputation in that place, and Taterleg was jealous of his.
Lambert was beginning to grow restless under the urge of his spirit to continue his journey westward in quest of the girl who had left her favor in his hand. The romance of it, the improbability of ever finding her along the thousand miles between him and the sea, among the multitudes of women in the cities and hamlets along the way, appealed to him with a compelling lure.
He had considered many schemes for getting trace of her, among the most favored being that of finding the brakeman who stood on the end of the train that day among those who watched him ride and overtake it, and learning from him to what point her ticket read. That was the simplest plan. But he knew that conductors and brakemen changed every few hundred miles, and that this plan might not lead to anything in the end. But it was too simple to put by without trying; when he set out again this would be his first care.
He smiled sometimes as he rode his lonely beat inside the fence and recalled the thrill that had animated him with the certainty that Vesta Philbrook would turn out to be the girl, his girl. The disappointment had been so keen that he had almost disliked Vesta that first day. She was a fine girl, modest and unaffected, honest as the middle of the day, but there was no appeal but the appeal of the weak to the strong from her to him. They were drawn into a common sympathy of determination; he had paused there to help her because she was outmatched, fighting a brave battle against unscrupulous forces. He was taking pay from her, and there could not be admitted any thought of romance under such conditions.
But the girl whose challenge he had accepted at Misery that day was to be considered in a different light. There was a pledge between them, a bond. He believed that she was expecting him out there somewhere, waiting for him to come. Often he would halt on a hilltop and look away into the west, playing with a thousand fancies as to whom she might be, and where.
He was riding in one of these dreams one mid-afternoon of a hot day about six weeks after taking charge of affairs on the ranch, thinking that he would tell Vesta in a day or two that he must go. Taterleg might stay with her, other men could be hired if she would look about her. He wanted to get out of the business anyway; there was no offering for a man in it without capital. So he was thinking, his head bent, as he rode up a long slope of grassy hill. At the top he stopped to blow old Whetstone a little, turning in the saddle, running his eyes casually along the fence.
He started, his dreams gone from him like a covey of frightened quail. The fence was cut. For a hundred yards or more along the hilltop it was cut at every post, making it impossible to piece.
Lambert could not have felt his resentment burn any hotter if it had been his own fence. It was a fence under his charge; the defiance was directed at him. He rode along to see if any cattle had escaped, and drew his breath again with relief when he found that none had passed.
There was the track of but one horse; the fence-cutter had been alone, probably not more than an hour ahead of him. The job finished, he had gone boldly in the direction of Kerr's ranch, on whose side the depredation had been committed. Lambert followed the trail some distance. It led on toward Kerr's ranch, defiance in its very boldness. Kerr himself must have done that job.
One man had little chance of stopping such assaults, now they had begun, on a front of twenty miles. But Lambert vowed that if he ever did have the good fortune to come up on one of these sneaks while he was at work, he'd fill his hide so full of lead they'd have to get a derrick to load him into a wagon.
It didn't matter so much about the fence, so long as they didn't get any of the stock. But stragglers from the main herd would find a big gap like that in a few hours, and the rustlers lying in wait would hurry them away. One such loss as that and he would be a disgraced man in the eyes of Vesta Philbrook, and the laughing-stock of the rascals who put it through. He rode in search of the Iowa boy who was with the cattle, his job being to ride among them continually to keep them accustomed to a man on horseback. Luckily he found him before sundown and sent him for wire. Then he stood guard at the cut until the damage was repaired.
After that fence-cutting became a regular prank on Kerr's side of the ranch. Watch as he might, Lambert could not prevent the stealthy excursions, the vindictive destruction of the hated barrier. All these breaches were made within a mile on either side of the first cut, sometimes in a single place, again along a stretch, as if the person using the nippers knew when to deliberate and when to hasten.
Always there was the trace of but one rider, who never dismounted to cut even the bottom wire. That it was the work of the same person each time Lambert was convinced, for he always rode the same horse, as betrayed by a broken hind hoof.
Lambert tried various expedients for trapping this skulker during a period of two weeks. He lay in wait by day and made stealthy excursions by night, all to no avail. Whoever was doing it had some way of keeping informed on his movements with exasperating closeness.
The matter of discovering and punishing the culprit devolved on Lambert alone. He could not withdraw Taterleg to help him; the other man could not be spared from the cattle. And now came the crowning insult of all.
It was early morning, after an all-night watch along the three miles of fence where the wire-cutter always worked, when Lambert rode to the top of the ridge where the first breach in his line had been made. Below that point, not more than half a mile, he had stopped to boil his breakfast coffee. His first discovery on mounting the ridge was a panel of fence cut, his next a piece of white paper twisted to the end of one of the curling wires.
This he disengaged and unfolded. It was a page torn from a medicine memorandum book such as cow-punchers usually carry their time in, and the addresses of friends.
Why don't you come and get me, Mr. Duke?
This was the message it bore.
The writing was better, the spelling more exact than the output of the ordinary cow-puncher. Kerr himself, Lambert thought again. He stood with the taunting message in his fingers, looking toward the Kerr ranchhouse, some seven or eight miles to the south, and stood so quite a while, his eyes drawn small as if he looked into the wind.
"All right; I'll take you up on that," he said.
He rode slowly out through the gap, following the fresh trail. As before, it was made by the horse with the notch in its left hind hoof. It led to a hill three-quarters of a mile beyond the fence. From this point it struck a line for the distant ranchhouse.
Lambert did not go beyond the hill. Dismounting, he stood surveying the country about him, struck for the first time by the view that this vantage-point afforded of the domain under his care. Especially the line of fence was plainly marked for a long distance on either side of the little ridge where the last cut had been made. Evidently the skulker concealed himself at this very point and watched his opening, playing entirely safe. That accounted for all the cutting having been done by daylight, as he was sure had been the case.
He looked about for trace of where the fellow had lain behind the fringe of sage, but the ground was so hard that it would not take a human footprint. As he looked he formulated a plan of his own. Half a mile or more beyond this hill, in the direction of the Kerr place, a small butte stood, its steep sides grassless, its flat top bare. That would be his watchtower from that day forward until he had his hand on this defiant rascal who had time, in his security, to stop and write a note.
That night he scaled the little butte after mending the fence behind him, leaving his horse concealed among the huge blocks of rock at its foot. Next day, and the one following, he passed in the blazing sun, but nobody came to cut the fence. At night he went down, rode his horse to water, turned him to graze, and went back to his perch among the ants and lizards on top of the butte.
The third day was cloudy and uneventful; on the fourth, a little before nine, just when the sun was squaring off to shrivel him in his skin, Lambert saw somebody coming from the direction of Kerr's ranch.
The rider made straight for the hill below Lambert's butte, where he reined up before reaching the top, dismounted and went crawling to the fringe of sage at the farther rim of the bare summit. Lambert waited until the fellow mounted and rode toward the fence, then he slid down the shale, starting Whetstone from his doze.
Lambert calculated that he was more than a mile from the fence. He wanted to get over there near enough to catch the fellow at work, so there would be full justification for what he intended to do.
Whetstone stretched himself to the task, coming out of the broken ground and up the hill from which the fence-cutter had ridden but a few minutes before while the marauder was still a considerable distance from his objective. The man was riding slowly, as if saving his horse for a chance surprise.
Lambert cut down the distance between them rapidly, and was not more than three hundred yards behind when the fellow began snipping the wire with a pair of nippers that glittered in the sun.
Lambert held his horse back, approaching with little noise. The fence-cutter was rising back to the saddle after cutting the bottom wire of the second panel when he saw that he was trapped.
Plainly unnerved by this coup of the despised fence-guard, he sat clutching his reins as if calculating his chance of dashing past the man who blocked his retreat. Lambert slowed down, not more than fifty yards between them, waiting for the first move toward a gun. He wanted as much of the law on his side, even though there was no witness to it, as he could have, for the sake of his conscience and his peace.
Just a moment the fence-cutter hesitated, making no movement to pull a gun, then he seemed to decide in a flash that he could not escape the way that he had come. He leaned low over his horse's neck, as if he expected Lambert to begin shooting, rode through the gap that he had cut in the fence, and galloped swiftly into the pasture.
Lambert followed, sensing the scheme at a glance. The rascal intended to either ride across the pasture, hoping to outrun his pursuer in the three miles of up-and-down country, or turn when he had a safe lead and go back. As the chase led away, it became plain that the plan was to make a run for the farther fence, cut it and get away before Lambert could come up. That arrangement suited Lambert admirably; it would seem to give him all the law on his side that any man could ask.
There was a scrubby growth of brush on the hillsides, and tall red willows along the streams, making a covert here and there for a horse. The fleeing man took advantage of every offering of this nature, as if he rode in constant fear of the bullet that he knew was his due. Added to this cunning, he was well mounted, his horse being almost equal in speed to Whetstone, it seemed, at the beginning of the race.
Lambert pushed him as hard as he thought wise, conserving his horse for the advantage that he knew he would have while the fence-cutter stopped to make himself an outlet. The fellow rode hard, unsparing of his quirt, jumping his long-legged horse over rocks and across ravines.
It was in one of these leaps that Lambert saw something fall from the saddle holster. He found it to be the nippers with which the fence had been cut, lying in the bottom of the deep arroyo. He rode down and recovered the tool, in no hurry now, for he was quite certain that the fence-cutter would not have another. He would discover his loss when he came to the fence, and then, if he was not entirely the coward and sneak that his actions seemed to brand him, he would have recourse to another tool.
It did not take them long to finish the three-mile race across the pasture, and it turned out in the end exactly as Lambert thought it would. When the fugitive came within a few rods of the fence he put his hand down to the holster for his nippers, discovering his loss. Then he looked back to see how closely he was pressed, which was very close indeed.
Lambert felt that he did not want to be the aggressor, even on his own land, in spite of the determination he had reached for such a contingency as this. He recalled what Vesta had said about the impossibility of securing a conviction for cutting a fence. Surely if a man could not be held responsible for this act in the courts of the country, it would fare hard with one who might kill him in the commission of the outrage. Let him draw first, and then——
The fellow rode at the fence as if he intended to try to jump it. His horse balked at the barrier, turned, raced along it, Lambert in close pursuit, coming alongside him as he was reaching to draw his pistol from the holster at his saddle bow. And in that instant, as the fleeing rider bent tugging at the gun which seemed to be strapped in the holster, Lambert saw that it was not a man.
A strand of dark hair had fallen from under the white sombrero; it was dropping lower and lower as it uncoiled from its anchorage. Lambert pressed his horse forward a few feet, leaned far over and snatched away the hand that struggled to unbuckle the weapon.
She turned on him, her face scarlet in its fury, their horses racing side by side, their stirrups clashing. Distorted as her features were by anger and scorn at the touch of one so despised, Lambert felt his heart leap and fall, and seem to stand still in his bosom. It was not only a girl; it was his girl, the girl of the beckoning hand.
THE FURY OF DOVES
Lambert released her the moment that he made his double discovery, foolishly shaken, foolishly hurt, to realize that she had been afraid to have him know it was a woman he pursued. He caught her rein and checked her horse along with his own.
"There's no use to run away from me," he said, meaning to quiet her fear. She faced him scornfully, seemingly to understand it as a boast.
"You wouldn't say that to a man, you coward!"
Again he felt a pang, like a blow from an ungrateful hand. She was breathing fast, her dark eyes spiteful, defiant, her face eloquent of the scorn that her words had only feebly expressed. He turned his head, as if considering her case and revolving in his mind what punishment to apply.
She was dressed in riding breeches, with Mexican goatskin chaps, a heavy gray shirt such as was common to cowboys, a costly white sombrero, its crown pinched to a peak in the Mexican fashion. With the big handkerchief on her neck flying as she rode, and the crouching posture that she had assumed in the saddle every time her pursuer began to close up on her in the race just ended, Lambert's failure to identify her sex was not so inexcusable as might appear. And he was thinking that she had been afraid to have him know she was a girl.
His discovery had left him dumb, his mind confused by a cross-current of emotions. He was unable to relate her with the present situation, although she was unmistakably before his eyes, her disguise ineffectual to change one line of her body as he recalled her leaning over the railing of the car, her anger unable to efface one feature as pictured in his memory.
"What are you going to do about it?" she asked him defiantly, not a hint in her bearing of shame for her discovery, or contrition for her crime.
"I guess you'd better go home."
He spoke in gentle reproof, as to a child caught in some trespass well-nigh unforgivable, but to whose offense he had closed his eyes out of considerations which only the forgiving understand. He looked her full in the eyes as he spoke, the disappointment and pain of his discovery in his face. The color blanched out of her cheeks, she stared at him a moment in waking astonishment, her eyes just as he remembered them when they drew him on in his perilous race after the train.
Such a flame rose in him that he felt it must make him transparent, and lay his deepest sentiments bare before her gaze. So she looked at him a moment, eye to eye, the anger gone out of her face, the flash of scorn no longer glinting in the dark well of her eye. But if she recognized him she did not speak of it. Almost at once she turned away, as from the face of a stranger, looking back over the way that she had ridden in such headlong flight.
He believed she was ashamed to have him know she recognized him. It was not for him to speak of the straining little act that romance had cast them for at their first meeting. Perhaps under happier circumstances she would have recalled it, and smiled, and given him her hand. Embarrassment must attend her here, no matter how well she believed herself to be justified in her destructive raids against the fence.
"I'll have to go back the way I came," she said.
"There is no other way."
They started back in silence, riding side by side. Wonder filled the door of his mind; he had only disconnected, fragmentary thoughts, upon the current of which there rose continually the realization, only half understood, that he started out to search the world for this woman, and he had found her.
That he had discovered her in the part of a petty, spiteful lawbreaker, dressed in an outlandish and unbecoming garb, did not trouble him. If he was conscious of it at all, indeed, the hurrying turmoil of his thoughts pushed it aside like drifted leaves by the way. The wonderful thing was that he had found her, and at the end of a pursuit so hot it might have been a continuation of his first race for the trophy of white linen in her hand.
Presently this fog cleared; he came back to the starting-point of it, to the coldness of his disappointment. More than once in that chase across the pasture his hand had dropped to his pistol in the sober intention of shooting the fugitive, despised as one lower than a thief. She seemed to sound his troubled thoughts, riding there by his side like a friend.
"It was our range, and they fenced it!" she said, with all the feeling of a feudist.
"I understand that Philbrook bought the land; he had a right to fence it."
"He didn't have any right to buy it; they didn't have any right to sell it to him! This was our range; it was the best range in the country. Look at the grass here, and look at it outside of that fence."
"I think it's better here because it's been fenced and grazed lightly so long."
"Well, they didn't have any right to fence it."
"Cutting it won't make it any better now."
"I don't care, I'll cut it again! If I had my way about it I'd drive our cattle in here where they've got a right to be."
"I don't understand the feeling of you people in this country against fences; I came from a place where everybody's got them. But I suppose it's natural, if you could get down to the bottom of it."
"If there's one thing unnatural, it's a fence," she said.
They rode on a little way, saying nothing more. Then she:
"I thought the man they call the Duke of Chimney Butte was working on this side of the ranch?"
"That's a nickname they gave me over at the Syndicate when I first struck this country. It doesn't mean anything at all."
"I thought you were his partner," she said.
"No, I'm the monster himself."
She looked at him quickly, very close to smiling.
"Well, you don't look so terrible, after all. I think a man like you would be ashamed to have a woman boss over him."
"I hadn't noticed it, Miss Kerr."
"She told you about me," she charged, with resentful stress.
So they rode on, their thoughts between them, a word, a silence, nothing worth while said on either side, coming presently to the gap she had made in the wire.
"I thought you'd hand me over to the sheriff," she told him, between banter and defiance.
"They say you couldn't get a conviction on anything short of cattle stealing in this part of the country, and doubtful on that. But I wouldn't give you over to the sheriff, Miss Kerr, even if I caught you driving off a cow."
"What would you do?" she asked, her head bent, her voice low.
"I'd try to argue you out of the cow first, and then teach you better," he said, with such evident seriousness that she turned her face away, he thought to hide a smile.
She stopped her horse between the dangling ends of wire. Her long braid of black hair was swinging down her back to her cantle, her hard ride having disarranged its cunning deceit beneath her hat until it drooped over her ears and blew in loose strands over her dark, wildly piquant face, out of which the hard lines of defiance had not quite melted.
She was not as handsome as Vesta Philbrook, he admitted, but there was something about her that moved emotions in him which slept in the other's presence. Perhaps it was the romance of their first meeting; perhaps it was the power of her dark, expressive eyes. Certainly Lambert had seen many prettier women in his short experience, but none that ever made his soul vibrate with such exquisite, sweet pain.
"If you owned this ranch, Mr.——"
"Lambert is my name, Miss Kerr."
"If you owned it, Mr. Lambert, I believe we could live in peace, even if you kept the fence. But with that girl—it can't be done."
"Here are your nippers, Miss Kerr; you lost them when you jumped that arroyo. Won't you please leave the fence-cutting to the men of the family, if it has to be done, after this?"
"We have to use them on the range since Philbrook cut us off from water," she explained, "and hired men don't take much interest in a person's family quarrels. They're afraid of Vesta Philbrook, anyhow. She can pick a man off a mile with her rifle, they believe, but she can't. I'm not afraid of her; I never was afraid of old Philbrook, the old devil."
Even though she concluded with that spiteful little stab, she gave the explanation as if she believed it due Lambert's generous leniency and courteous behavior.
"And there being no men of the family who will undertake it, and no hired men who can be interested, you have to cut the fence yourself," he said.
"I know you think I ought to be ashamed of cutting her fence," she said, her head bent, her eyes veiled, "but I'm not."
"I expect I'd feel it that way if it was my quarrel, too."
"Any man like you would. I've been where they have fences, too, and signs to keep off the grass. It's different here."
"Can't we patch up a truce between us for the time I'm here?"
He put out his hand in entreaty, his lean face earnest, his clear eyes pleading. She colored quickly at the suggestion, and framed a hot reply. He could see it forming, and went on hurriedly to forestall it.
"I don't expect to be here always! I didn't come here looking for a job. I was going West with a friend; we stopped off on the way through."
"Riding fence for a woman boss is a low-down job."
"There's not much to it for a man that likes to change around. Maybe I'll not stay very long. We'd just as well have peace while I'm here."
"You haven't got anything to do with it—you're only a fence-rider! The fight's between me and that girl, and I'll cut her fence—I'll cut her heart out if she gets in my road!"
"Well, I'm going to hook up this panel," he said, leaning and taking hold of the wire end, "so you can come here and let it down any time you feel like you have to cut the fence. That will do us about the same damage, and you every bit as much good."
She was moved out of her sullen humor by this proposal for giving vent to her passion against Vesta Philbrook. It seemed as if he regarded her as a child, and her part in this fence-feud a piece of irresponsible folly. It was so absurd in her eyes that she laughed.
"I suppose you're in earnest, but if you knew how foolish it sounds!"
"That's what I'm going to do, anyway. You know I'll just keep on fixing the fence when you cut it, and this arrangement will save both of us trouble. I'll put a can or something on one of the posts to mark the spot for you."
"This fence isn't any joke with us, Mr. Lambert, funny as you seem to think it. It's more than a fence, it's a symbol of all that stands between us, all the wrongs we've suffered, and the losses, on account of it. I know it makes her rave to cut it, and I expect you'll have a good deal of fixing to do right along."
She started away, stopped a few rods beyond the fence, came back.
"There's always a place for a good man over at our ranch," she said.
He watched her braid of hair swinging from side to side as she galloped away, with no regret for his rejected truce of the fence. She would come back to cut it again, and again he would see her. Disloyal as it might be to his employer, he hoped she would not delay the next excursion long.
He had found her. No matter for the conditions under which the discovery had been made, his quest was at an end, his long flights of fancy were done. It was a marvelous thing for him, more wonderful than the realization of his first expectations would have been. This wild spirit of the girl was well in accord with the character he had given her in his imagination. When he watched her away that day at Misery he knew she was the kind of woman who would exact much of a man; as he looked after her anew he realized that she would require more.
The man who found his way to her heart would have to take up her hatreds, champion her feuds, ride in her forays, follow her wild will against her enemies. He would have to sink the refinements of his civilization, in a measure, discard all preconceived ideas of justice and honor. He would have to hate a fence.
The thought made him smile. He was so happy that he had found her that he could have absolved her of a deeper blame than this. He felt, indeed, as if he had come to the end of vast wanderings, a peace as of the cessation of turmoils in his heart. Perhaps this was because of the immensity of the undertaking which so lately had lain before him, its resumption put off from day to day, its proportions increasing with each deferment.
He made no movement to dismount and hook up the cut wires, but sat looking after her as she grew smaller between him and the hill. He was so wrapped in his new and pleasant fancies that he did not hear the approach of a horse on the slope of the rise until its quickened pace as it reached the top brought Vesta Philbrook suddenly into his view.
"Who is that?" she asked, ignoring his salutation in her excitement.
"I think it must be Miss Kerr; she belongs to that family, at least."
"You caught her cutting the fence?"
"Yes, I caught her at it."
"And you let her get away?"
"There wasn't much else that I could do," he returned, with thoughtful gravity.
Vesta sat in her saddle as rigid and erect as a statue, looking after the disappearing rider. Lambert contrasted the two women in mental comparison, struck by the difference in which rage manifested itself in their bearing. This one seemed as cold as marble; the other had flashed and glowed like hot iron. The cold rigidity before his eyes must be the slow wrath against which men are warned.
The distant rider had reached the top of the hill from which she had spied out the land. Here she pulled up and looked back, turning her horse to face them when she saw that Lambert's employer had joined him. A little while she gazed back at them, then waved her hat as in exultant challenge, whirled her horse, and galloped over the hill.
That was the one taunt needed to set off the slow magazine of Vesta Philbrook's wrath. She cut her horse a sharp blow with her quirt and took up the pursuit so quickly that Lambert could not interpose either objection or entreaty.
Lambert felt like an intruder who had witnessed something not intended for his eyes. He had no thought at that moment of following and attempting to prevent what might turn out a regretful tragedy, but sat there reviling the land that nursed women on such a rough breast as to inspire these savage passions of reprisal and revenge.
Vesta was riding a big brown gelding, long-necked, deep-chested, slim of hindquarters as a hound. Unless rough ground came between them she would overhaul that Kerr girl inside of four miles, for her horse lacked the wind for a long race, as the chase across the pasture had shown. In case that Vesta overtook her, what would she do? The answer to that was in Vesta's eyes when she saw the cut wire, the raider riding free across the range. It was such an answer that it shot through Lambert like a lightning-stroke.
Yet, it was not his quarrel; he could not interfere on one side or the other without drawing down the displeasure of somebody, nor as a neutral without incurring the wrath of both. This view of it did not relieve him of anxiety to know how the matter was going to terminate.
He gave Whetstone the reins and galloped after Vesta, who was already over the hill. As he rode he began to realize as never before the smallness of this fence-cutting feud, the really worthless bone at the bottom of the contention. Here Philbrook had fenced in certain lands which all men agreed he had been cheated in buying, and here uprose those who scorned him for his gullibility, and lay in wait to murder him for shutting them out of his admittedly worthless domain. It was a quarrel beyond reason to a thinking man.
Nobody could blame Philbrook for defending his rights, but they seemed such worthless possessions to stake one's life against day by day, year after year. The feud of the fence was like a cancerous infection. It spread to and poisoned all that the wind blew on around the borders of that melancholy ranch.
Here were these two women riding break-neck and bloody-eyed to pull guns and fight after the code of the roughest. Both of them were primed by the accumulated hatred of their young lives to deeds of violence with no thought of consequences. It was a hard and bitter land that could foster and feed such passions in bosoms of so much native excellence; a rough and boisterous land, unworthy the labor that men lavished on it to make therein their refuge and their home.