The pursued was out of sight when Lambert gained the hilltop, the pursuer just disappearing behind a growth of stunted brushwood in the winding dry valley beyond. He pushed after them, his anxiety increasing, hoping that he might overtake Vesta before she came within range of her enemy. Even should he succeed in this, he was at fault for some way of stopping her in her passionate design.
He could not disarm her without bringing her wrath down on himself, or attempt to persuade her without rousing her suspicion that he was leagued with her destructive neighbors. On the other hand, the fence-cutting girl would believe that he had wittingly joined in an unequal and unmanly pursuit. A man's dilemma between the devil and the deep water would be simple compared to his.
All this he considered as he galloped along, leaving the matter of keeping the trail mainly to his horse. He emerged from the hemming brushwood, entering a stretch of hard tableland where the parched grass was red, the earth so hard that a horse made no hoofprint in passing. Across this he hurried in a ferment of fear that he would come too late, and down a long slope where sage grew again, the earth dry and yielding about its unlovely clumps.
Here he discovered that he had left too much to his horse. The creature had laid a course to suit himself, carrying him off the trail of those whom he sought in such breathless state. He stopped, looking round him to fix his direction, discovering to his deep vexation that Whetstone had veered from the course that he had laid for him into the south, and was heading toward the river.
On again in the right direction, swerving sharply in the hope that he would cut the trail. So for a mile or more, in dusty, headlong race, coming then to the rim of a bowl-like valley and the sound of running shots.
Lambert's heart contracted in a paroxysm of fear for the lives of both those flaming combatants as he rode precipitately into the little valley. The shooting had ceased when he came into the clear and pulled up to look for Vesta.
The next second the two girls swept into sight. Vesta had not only overtaken her enemy, but had ridden round her and cut off her retreat. She was driving her back toward the spot where Lambert stood, shooting at her as she fled, with what seemed to him a cruel and deliberate hand.
"NO HONOR IN HER BLOOD"
Vesta was too far behind the other girl for anything like accurate shooting with a pistol, but Lambert feared that a chance shot might hit, with the most melancholy consequences for both parties concerned. No other plan presenting, he rode down with the intention of placing himself between them.
Now the Kerr girl had her gun out, and had turned, offering battle. She was still a considerable distance beyond him, with what appeared from his situation to be some three or four hundred yards between the combatants, a safe distance for both of them if they would keep it. But Vesta had no intention of making it a long-range duel. She pulled her horse up and reloaded her gun, then spurred ahead, holding her fire.
Lambert saw all this as he swept down between them like an eagle, old Whetstone hardly touching the ground. He cut the line between them not fifty feet from the Kerr girl's position, as Vesta galloped up.
He held up his hand in an appeal for peace between them. Vesta charged up to him as he shifted to keep in the line of their fire, coming as if she would ride him down and go on to make an end of that chapter of the long-growing feud. The Kerr girl waited, her pistol hand crossed on the other, with the deliberate coolness of one who had no fear of the outcome.
Vesta waved him aside, her face white as ash, and attempted to dash by. He caught her rein and whirled her horse sharply, bringing her face to face with him, her revolver lifted not a yard from his breast.
For a moment Lambert read in her eyes an intention that made his heart contract. He held his breath, waiting for the shot. A moment; the film of deadly passion that obscured her eyes like a smoke cleared, the threatening gun faltered, drooped, was lowered. He twisted in his saddle and commanded the Kerr girl with a swing of the arm to go.
She started her horse in a bound, and again the soul-obscuring curtain of murderous hate fell over Vesta's eyes. She lifted her gun as Lambert, with a quick movement, clasped her wrist.
"For God's sake, Vesta, keep your soul clean!" he said.
His voice was vibrant with a deep earnestness that made him as solemn as a priest. She stared at him with widening eyes, something in his manner and voice that struck to reason through the insulation of her anger. Her fingers relaxed on the weapon; she surrendered it into his hand.
A little while she sat staring after the fleeing girl, held by what thoughts he could not guess. Presently the rider whisked behind a point of sage-dotted hill and was gone. Vesta lifted her hands slowly and pressed them to her eyes, shivering as if struck by a chill. Twice or thrice this convulsive shudder shook her. She bowed her head a little, the sound of a sob behind her pressing hands.
Lambert put her pistol back into the holster which dangled on her thigh from the cartridge-studded belt round her pliant, slender waist.
"Let me take you home, Vesta," he said.
She withdrew her hands, discovering tears on her cheeks. Saying nothing, she started to retrace the way of that mad, murderous race. She did not resent his familiar address, if conscious of it at all, for he spoke with the sympathetic tenderness one employs toward a suffering child.
They rode back to the fence without a word between them. When they came to the cut wires he rode through as if he intended to continue on with her to the ranchhouse, six or seven miles away.
"I can go on alone, Mr. Lambert," she said.
"My tools are down here a mile or so. I'll have to get them to fix this hole."
A little way again in silence. Although he rode slowly she made no effort to separate from his company and go her way alone. She seemed very weary and depressed, her sensitive face reflecting the strain of the past hour. It had borne on her with the wearing intensity of sleepless nights.
"I'm tired of this fighting and contending for evermore!" she said.
Lambert offered no comment. There was little, indeed, that he could frame on his tongue to fit the occasion, it seemed to him, still under the shadow of the dreadful thing that he had averted but a little while before. There was a feeling over him that he had seen this warm, breathing woman, with the best of her life before her, standing on the brink of a terrifying chasm into which one little movement would have precipitated her beyond the help of any friendly hand.
She did not realize what it meant to take the life of another, even with full justification at her hand; she never had felt that weight of ashes above the heart, or the presence of the shadow that tinctured all life with its somber gloom. It was one thing for the law to absolve a slayer; another to find absolution in his own conscience. It was a strain that tried a man's mind. A woman like Vesta Philbrook might go mad under the unceasing pressure and chafing of that load.
When they came to where his tools and wire lay beside the fence, she stopped. Lambert dismounted in silence, tied a coil of wire to his saddle, strung the chain of the wire-stretcher on his arm.
"Did you know her before you came here?" she asked, with such abruptness, such lack of preparation for the question, that it seemed a fragment of what had been running through her mind.
"That woman, Grace Kerr."
"No, I never knew her."
"I thought maybe you'd met her, she's been away at school somewhere—Omaha, I think. Were you talking to her long?"
"Only a little while."
"What did you think of her?"
"I thought," said he, slowly, his face turned from her, his eyes on something miles away, "that she was a girl something could be made out of if she was taken hold of the right way. I mean," facing her earnestly, "that she might be reasoned out of this senseless barbarity, this raiding and running away."
Vesta shook her head. "The devil's in her; she was born to make trouble."
"I got her to half agree to a truce," said he reluctantly, his eyes studying the ground, "but I guess it's all off now."
"She wouldn't keep her word with you," she declared with great earnestness, a sad, rather than scornful earnestness, putting out her hand as if to touch his shoulder. Half way her intention seemed to falter; her hand fell in eloquent expression of her heavy thoughts.
"Of course, I don't know."
"There's no honor in the Kerr blood. Kerr was given many a chance by father to come up and be a man, and square things between them, but he didn't have it in him. Neither has she. Her only brother was killed at Glendora after he'd shot a man in the back."
"It ought to have been settled, long ago, without all this fighting. But if people refuse to live by their neighbors and be decent, a good man among them has a hard time. I don't blame you, Vesta, for the way you feel."
"I'd have been willing to let this feud die, but she wouldn't drop it. She began cutting the fence every summer as soon as I came home. She's goaded me out of my senses, she's put murder in my heart!"
"They've tried you almost past endurance, I know. But you've never killed anybody, Vesta. All there is here isn't worth that price."
"I know it now," she said, wearily.
"Go home and hang your gun up, and let it stay there. As long as I'm here I'll do the fighting when there's any to be done."
"You didn't help me a little while ago. All you did was for her."
"It was for both of you," he said, rather indignant that she should take such an unjust view of his interference.
"You didn't ride in front of her and stop her from shooting me!"
"I came to you first—you saw that."
Lambert mounted, turned his horse to go back and mend the fence. She rode after him, impulsively.
"I'm going to stop fighting, I'm going to take my gun off and put it away," she said.
He thought she never had appeared so handsome as at that moment, a soft light in her eyes, the harshness of strain and anger gone out of her face. He offered her his hand, the only expression of his appreciation for her generous decision that came to him in the gratefulness of the moment. She took it as if to seal a compact between them.
"You've come back to be a woman again," he said, hardly realizing how strange his words might seem to her, expressing the one thought that came to the front.
"I suppose I didn't act much like a woman out there a while ago," she admitted, her old expression of sadness darkening in her eyes.
"You were a couple of wildcats," he told her. "Maybe we can get on here now without fighting, but if they come crowding it on let us men-folks take care of it for you; it's no job for a girl."
"I'm going to put the thought of it out of my mind, feud, fences, everything—and turn it all over to you. It's asking a lot of you to assume, but I'm tired to the heart."
"I'll do the best by you I can as long as I'm here," he promised, simply. He started on; she rode forward with him.
"If she comes back again, what will you do?"
"I'll try to show her where she's wrong, and maybe I can get her to hang up her gun, too. You ought to be friends, it seems to me—a couple of neighbor girls like you."
"We couldn't be that," she said, loftily, her old coldness coming over her momentarily, "but if we can live apart in peace it will be something. Don't trust her, Mr. Lambert, don't take her word for anything. There's no honor in the Kerr blood; you'll find that out for yourself. It isn't in one of them to be even a disinterested friend."
There was nothing for him to say to this, spoken so seriously that it seemed almost a prophecy. He felt as if she had looked into the window of his heart and read his secret and, in her old enmity for this slim girl of the dangling braid of hair, was working subtly to raise a barrier of suspicion and distrust between them.
"I'll go on home and quit bothering you," she said.
"You're no bother to me, Vesta; I like to have you along."
She stopped, looked toward the place where she had lately ridden through the fence in vengeful pursuit of her enemy, her eyes inscrutable, her face sad.
"I never felt it so lonesome out here as it is today," she said, and turned her horse, and left him.
He looked back more than once as he rode slowly along the fence, a mist before his perception that he could not pierce. What had come over Vesta to change her so completely in this little while? He believed she was entering the shadow of some slow-growing illness, which bore down her spirits in an uninterpreted foreboding of evil days to come.
What a pretty figure she made in the saddle, riding away from him in that slow canter; how well she sat, how she swayed at the waist as her nimble animal cut in and out among the clumps of sage. A mighty pretty girl, and as good as they grew them anywhere. It would be a calamity to have her sick. From the shoulder of the slope he looked back again. Pretty as any woman a man ever pictured in his dreams.
She passed out of sight without looking back, and there rose a picture in his thoughts to take her place, a picture of dark, defiant eyes, of telltale hair falling in betrayal of her disguise, as if discovering her secret to him who had a right to know.
The fancy pleased him; as he worked to repair the damage she had wrought, he smiled. How well his memory retained her, in her transition from anger to scorn, scorn to uneasy amazement, amazement to relief. Then she had smiled, and the recognition not owned in words but spoken in her eyes, had come.
Yes, she knew him; she recalled her challenge, his acceptance and victory. Even as she rode swiftly to obey him out of that mad encounter in the valley over there, she had owned in her quick act that she knew him, and trusted him as she sped away.
When he came to the place where she had ridden through, he pieced the wire and hooked the ends together, as he had told her he would do. He handled even the stubborn wire tenderly, as a man might the appurtenances to a rite. Perhaps he was linking their destinies in that simple act, he thought, sentimentally unreasonable; it might be that this spot would mark the second altar of his romance, even as the little station of Misery was lifted up in his heart as the shrine of its beginning.
There was blood on his knuckles where the vicious wire had torn him. He dashed it to the ground as a libation, smiling like one moonstruck, a flood of soft fancies making that bleak spot dear.
NOTICE IS SERVED
Taterleg was finding things easier on his side of the ranch. Nick Hargus was lying still, no hostile acts had been committed. This may have been due to the fierce and bristling appearance of Taterleg, as he humorously declared, or because Hargus was waiting reenforcements from the penal institutions of his own and surrounding states.
Taterleg had a good many nights to himself, as a consequence of the security which his grisly exterior had brought. These he spent at Glendora, mainly on the porch of the hotel in company of Alta Wood, chewing gum together as if they wove a fabric to bind their lives in adhesive amity to the end.
Lambert had a feeling of security for his line of fence, also, as he rode home on the evening of his adventurous day. He had left a note on the pieced wire reminding Grace Kerr of his request that she ease her spite by unhooking it there instead of cutting it in a new place. He also added the information that he would be there on a certain date to see how well she carried out his wish.
He wondered whether she would read his hope that she would be there at the same hour, or whether she might be afraid to risk Vesta Philbrook's fury again. There was an eagerness in him for the hastening of the intervening time, a joyous lightness which tuned him to such harmony with the world that he sang as he rode.
Taterleg was going to Glendora that night. He pressed Lambert to join him.
"A man's got to take a day off sometimes to rest his face and hands," he argued. "Them fellers can't run off any stock tonight, and if they do they can't git very far away with 'em before we'd be on their necks. They know that; they're as safe as if we had 'em where they belong."
"I guess you're right on that, Taterleg. I've got to go to town to buy me a pair of clothes, anyhow, so I'll go you."
Taterleg was as happy as a cricket, humming a tune as he went along. He had made liberal application of perfume to his handkerchief and mustache, and of barber's pomatum to his hair. He had fixed his hat on carefully, for the protection of the cowlick that came down over his left eyebrow, and he could not be stirred beyond a trot all the way to Glendora for fear of damage that might result.
"I had a run-in with that feller the other night," he said.
"What feller do you mean?"
"Jedlick, dern him."
"You did? I didn't notice any of your ears bit off."
"No, we didn't come to licks. He tried to horn in while me and Alta was out on the porch."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't have a show to do anything but hand him a few words. Alta she got me by the arm and drug me in the parlor and slammed the door. No use tryin' to break away from that girl; she could pull a elephant away from his hay if she took a notion."
"Didn't Jedlick try to hang on?"
"No, he stood out in the office rumblin' to the old man, but that didn't bother me no more than the north wind when you're in bed under four blankets. Alta she played me some tunes on her git-tar and sung me some songs. I tell you, Duke, I just laid back and shut my eyes. I felt as easy as if I owned the railroad from here to Omaha."
"How long are you going to keep it up?"
"Which up, Duke?"
"Courtin' Alta. You'll have to show off your tricks pretty regular, I think, if you want to hold your own in that ranch."
Taterleg rode along considering it.
"Ye-es, I guess a feller'll have to act if he wants to hold Alta. She's young, and the young like change. 'Specially the girls. A man to keep Alta on the line'll have to marry her and set her to raisin' children. You know, Duke, there's something new to a girl in every man she sees. She likes to have him around till she leans ag'in' him and rubs the paint off, then she's out shootin' eyes at another one."
"Are there others besides Jedlick?"
"That bartender boards there at the ho-tel. He's got four gold teeth, and he picks 'em with a quill. Sounds like somebody slappin' the crick with a fishin'-pole. But them teeth give him a standin' in society; they look like money in the bank. Nothing to his business, though, Duke; no sentiment or romance or anything."
"Not much. Who else is there sitting in this Alta game?"
"Young feller with a neck like a bottle, off of a ranch somewhere back in the hills."
Taterleg mentioned him as with consideration. Lambert concluded that he was a rival to be reckoned with, but gave Taterleg his own way of coming to that.
"That feller's got a watch with a music box in the back of it, Duke. Ever see one of 'em?"
"No, I never did."
"Well, he's got one of 'em, all right. He starts that thing up about the time he hits the steps, and comes in playin' 'Sweet Vilelets' like he just couldn't help bustin' out in music the minute he comes in sight of Alta. That feller gives me a pain!"
The Duke smiled. To every man his own affair is romance; every other man's a folly or a diverting comedy, indeed.
"She's a little too keen on that feller to suit me, Duke. She sets out there with him, and winds that fool watch and plays them two tunes over till you begin to sag, leanin' her elbow on his shoulder like she had him paid for and didn't care whether he broke or not."
"What is the other tune?"
"It's that one that goes:
A heel an' a toe and a po'ky-o, A heel an' a toe and a po'ky-o
—you know that one."
"I've heard it. She'll get tired of that watch after a while, Taterleg."
"Maybe. If she don't, I guess I'll have to figger some way to beat it."
"What are Jedlick's attractions? Surely not good looks."
"Money, Duke; that's the answer to him—money. He's got a salt barrel full of it; the old man favors him for that money."
"That's harder to beat than a music box in a watch."
"You can't beat it, Duke. What's good looks by the side of money? Or brains? Well, they don't amount to cheese!"
"Are you goin' to sidestep in favor of Jedlick? A man with all your experience and good clothes!"
"Me? I'm a-goin' to lay that feller out on a board!"
They hitched at the hotel rack, that looking more respectable, as Taterleg said, than to leave their horses in front of the saloon. Alta was heard singing in the interior; there were two railroad men belonging to a traveling paint gang on the porch smoking their evening pipes.
Lambert felt that it was his duty to buy cigars in consideration of the use of the hitching-rack. Wood appeared in the office door as they came up the steps, and put his head beyond the jamb, looking this way and that, like a man considering a sortie with enemies lying in wait.
Taterleg went into the parlor to offer the incense of his cigar in the presence of Alta, who was cooing a sentimental ballad to her guitar. It seemed to be of parting, and the hope of reunion, involving one named Irene. There was a run in the chorus accompaniment which Alta had down very neatly.
The tinkling guitar, the simple, plaintive melody, sounded to Lambert as refreshing as the plash of a brook in the heat of the day. He stood listening, his elbow on the show case, thinking vaguely that Alta had a good voice for singing babies to sleep.
Wood stood in the door again, his stump of arm lifted a little with an alertness about it that made Lambert think of a listening ear. He looked up and down the street in that uneasy, inquiring way that Lambert had remarked on his arrival, then came back and got himself a cigar. He stood across the counter from Lambert a little while, smoking, his brows drawn in trouble, his eyes shifting constantly to the door.
"Duke," said he, as if with an effort, "there's a man in town lookin' for you. I thought I'd tell you."
"Lookin' for me? Who is he?"
"You don't mean Nick?"
"No; he's Nick's brother. I don't suppose you ever met him."
"I never heard of him."
"He's only been back from Wyoming a week or two. He was over there some time—several years, I believe."
"In the pen over there?"
Wood took a careful survey of the door before replying, working his cigar over to the other side of his mouth in the way that a one-armed man acquires the trick.
"I—they say he got mixed up in a cattle deal down there."
Lambert smoked in silence a little while, his head bent, his face thoughtful. Wood shifted a little nearer, standing straight and alert behind his counter as if prepared to act in some sudden emergency.
"Does he live around here?" Lambert asked.
"He's workin' for Berry Kerr, foreman over there. That's the job he used to have before he—left."
Lambert grunted, expressing that he understood the situation. He stood in his leaning, careless posture, arm on the show case, thumb hooked in his belt near his gun.
"I thought I'd tell you," said Wood uneasily.
Wood came a step nearer along the counter, leaned his good arm on it, watching the door without a break.
"He's one of the old gang that used to give Philbrook so much trouble—he's carryin' lead that Philbrook shot into him now. So he's got it in for that ranch, and everybody on it. I thought I'd tell you."
"I'm much obliged to you, Mr. Wood," said Lambert heartily.
"He's one of these kind of men you want to watch out for when your back's turned, Duke."
"Thanks, old feller; I'll keep in mind what you say."
"I don't want it to look like I was on one side or the other, you understand, Duke; but I thought I'd tell you. Sim Hargus is one of them kind of men that a woman don't dare to show her face around where he is without the risk of bein' insulted. He's a foul-mouthed, foul-minded man, the kind of a feller that ought to be treated like a rattlesnake in the road."
Lambert thanked him again for his friendly information, understanding at once his watchful uneasiness and the absence of Alta from the front of the house. He was familiar with that type of man such as Wood had described Hargus as being; he had met some of them in the Bad Lands. There was nothing holy to them in the heavens or the earth. They did not believe there was any such thing as a virtuous woman, and honor was a word they never had heard defined.
"I'll go out and look him up," Lambert said. "If he happens to come in here askin' about me, I'll be in either the store or the saloon."
"There's where he is, Duke—in the saloon."
"I supposed he was."
"You'll kind of run into him natural, won't you, Duke, and not let him think I tipped you off?"
"Just as natural as the wind."
Lambert went out. From the hitching-rack he saw Wood at his post of vigil in the door, watching the road with anxious mien. It was a Saturday night; the town was full of visitors. Lambert went on to the saloon, hitching at the long rack in front where twenty or thirty horses stood.
The custom of the country made it almost an obligatory courtesy to go in and spend money when one hitched in front of a saloon, an excuse for entering that Lambert accepted with a grim feeling of satisfaction. While he didn't want it to appear that he was crowding a quarrel with any man, the best way to meet a fellow who had gone spreading it abroad that he was out looking for one was to go where he was to be found. It wouldn't look right to leave town without giving Hargus a chance to state his business; it would be a move subject to misinterpretation, and damaging to a man's good name.
There was a crowd in the saloon, which had a smoky, blurred look through the open door. Some of the old gambling gear had been uncovered and pushed out from the wall. A faro game was running, with a dozen or more players, at the end of the bar; several poker tables stretched across the gloomy front of what had been the ballroom of more hilarious days. These players were a noisy outfit. Little money was being risked, but it was going with enough profanity to melt it.
Lambert stood at the end of the bar near the door, his liquor in his hand, lounging in his careless attitude of abstraction. But there was not a lax fiber in his body; every faculty was alert, every nerve set for any sudden development. The scene before him was disgusting, rather than diverting, in its squalid imitation of the rough-and-ready times which had passed before many of these men were old enough to carry the weight of a gun. It was just a sporadic outburst, a pustule come to a sudden head that would burst before morning and clear away.
Lambert ran his eye among the twenty-five or thirty men in the place. All appeared to be strangers to him. He began to assort their faces, as one searches for something in a heap, trying to fix on one that looked mean enough to belong to a Hargus. A mechanical banjo suddenly added its metallic noise to the din, fit music, it seemed, for such obscene company. Some started to dance lumberingly, with high-lifted legs and ludicrous turkey struts.
Among these Lambert recognized Tom Hargus, the young man who had made the ungallant attempt to pass Vesta Philbrook's gate with his father. He had more whisky under his dark skin than he could take care of. As he jigged on limber legs he threw his hat down with a whoop, his long black hair falling around his ears and down to his eyes, bringing out the Indian that slept in him sharper than the liquor had done it.
His face was flushed, his eyes were heavy, as if he had been under headway a good while. Lambert watched him as he pranced about, chopping his steps with feet jerked up straight like a string-halt horse. The Indian was working, trying to express itself in him through this exaggerated imitation of his ancestral dances. His companions fell back in admiration, giving him the floor.
A cowboy was feeding money into the music box to keep it going, giving it a coin, together with certain grave, drunken advice, whenever it showed symptom of a pause. Young Hargus circled about in the middle of the room, barking in little short yelps. Every time he passed his hat he kicked at it, sometimes hitting, oftener missing it, at last driving it over against Lambert's foot, where it lodged.
Lambert pushed it away. A man beside him gave it a kick that sent it spinning back into the trodden circle. Tom was at that moment rounding his beat at the farther end. He came face about just as the hat skimmed across the floor, stopped, jerked himself up stiffly, looked at Lambert with a leap of anger across his drunken face.
Immediately there was silence in the crowd that had been assisting on the side lines of his performance. They saw that Tom resented this treatment of his hat by any foot save his own. The man who had kicked it had fallen back with shoulders to the bar, where he stood presenting the face of innocence. Tom walked out to the hat, kicked it back within a few feet of Lambert, his hand on his gun.
He was all Indian now; the streak of smoky white man was engulfed. His handsome face was black with the surge of his lawless blood as he stopped a little way in front of Lambert.
"Pick up that hat!" he commanded, smothering his words in an avalanche of profanity.
Lambert scarcely changed his position, save to draw himself erect and stand clear of the bar. To those in front of him he seemed to be carelessly lounging, like a man with time on his hands, peace before him.
"Who was your nigger last year, young feller?" he asked, with good-humor in his words. He was reading Tom's eyes as a prize fighter reads his opponent's, watching every change of feature, every strain of facial muscle. Before young Hargus had put tension on his sinews to draw his weapon, Lambert had read his intention.
The muzzle of the pistol was scarcely free of the scabbard when Lambert cleared the two yards between them in one stride. A grip of the wrist, a twist of the arm, and the gun was flung across the room. Tom struggled desperately, not a word out of him, striking with his free hand. Sinewy as he was, he was only a toy in Lambert's hands.
"I don't want to have any trouble with you, kid," said Lambert, capturing Tom's other hand and holding him as he would have held a boy. "Put on your hat and go home."
Lambert released him, and turned as if he considered the matter ended. At his elbow a man stood, staring at him with insolent, threatening eyes. He was somewhat lower of stature than Lambert, thick in the shoulders, firmly set on the feet, with small mustache, almost colorless and harsh as hog bristles. His thin eyebrows were white, his hair but a shade darker, his skin light for an outdoors man. This, taken with his pale eyes, gave him an appearance of bloodless cruelty which the sneer on his lip seemed to deepen and express.
Behind Lambert men were holding Tom Hargus, who had made a lunge to recover his gun. He heard them trying to quiet him, while he growled and whined like a wolf in a trap. Lambert returned the stranger's stare, withholding anything from his eyes that the other could read, as some men born with a certain cold courage are able to do. He went back to the bar, the man going with him shoulder to shoulder, turning his malevolent eyes to continue his unbroken stare.
"Put up that gun!" the fellow said, turning sharply to Tom Hargus, who had wrenched free and recovered his weapon. Tom obeyed him in silence, picked up his hat, beat it against his leg, put it on.
"You're the Duke of Chimney Butte, are you?" the stranger inquired, turning again with his sneer and cold, insulting eyes to Lambert, who knew him now for Sim Hargus, foreman for Berry Kerr.
"If you know me, there's no need for us to be introduced," Lambert returned.
"Duke of Chimney Butte!" said Hargus with immeasurable scorn. He grunted his words with such an intonation of insult that it would have been pardonable to shoot him on the spot. Lambert was slow to kindle. He put a curb now on even his naturally deliberate vehicle of wrath, looking the man through his shallow eyes down to the roots of his mean soul.
"You're the feller that's come here to teach us fellers to take off our hats when we see a fence," Hargus said, looking meaner with every breath.
"You've got it right, pardner," Lambert calmly replied.
"Duke of Chimney Butte! Well, pardner, I'm the King of Hotfoot Valley, and I've got travelin' papers for you right here!"
"You seem to be a little sudden about it," Lambert said, a lazy drawl to his words that inflamed Hargus like a blow.
"Not half as sudden as you'll be, kid. This country ain't no place for you, young feller; you're too fresh to keep in this hot climate, and the longer you stay the hotter it gits. I'll give you just two days to make your gitaway in."
"Consider the two days up," said Lambert with such calm and such coolness of head that men who heard him felt a thrill of admiration.
"This ain't no joke!" Hargus corrected him.
"I believe you, Hargus. As far as it concerns me, I'm just as far from this country right now as I'll be in two days, or maybe two years. Consider your limit up."
It was so still in the barroom that one could have heard a match burn. Lambert had drawn himself up stiff and straight before Hargus, and stood facing him with defiance in every line of his stern, strong face.
"I've give you your rope," Hargus said, feeling that he had been called to show his hand in an open manner that was not his style, and playing for a footing to save his face. "If you ain't gone in two days you'll settle with me."
"That goes with me, Hargus. It's your move."
Lambert turned, contempt in his courageous bearing, and walked out of the place, scorning to throw a glance behind to see whether Hargus came after him, or whether he laid hand to his weapon in the treachery that Lambert had read in his eyes.
WOLVES OF THE RANGE
Lambert left his horse at the saloon hitching-rack while he went to the store. Business was brisk in that place, also, requiring a wait of half an hour before his turn came. In a short time thereafter he completed his purchases, tied his package to his saddle, and was ready to go home.
The sound of revelry was going forward again in the saloon, the mechanical banjo plugging away on its tiresome tune. There was a gap here and there at the rack where horses had been taken away, but most of them seemed to be anchored there for the night, standing dejectedly with drooping heads.
The tinkle of Alta's guitar sounded through the open window of the hotel parlor as he passed, indicating that Taterleg was still in that harbor. It would be selfish to call him, making the most as he was of a clear field. Lambert smiled as he recalled the three-cornered rivalry for Alta's bony hand.
There was a lemon-rind slice of new moon low in the southwest, giving a dusky light, the huddling sage clumps at the roadside blotches of deepest shadow. Lambert ruminated on the trouble that had been laid out for him that night as he rode away from town, going slowly, in no hurry to put walls between him and the soft, pleasant night.
He was confronted by the disadvantage of an unsought notoriety, or reputation, or whatever his local fame might be called. A man with a fighting name must live up to it, however distasteful the strife and turmoil, or move beyond the circle of his fame. Move he would not, could not, although it seemed a foolish thing, on reflection, to hang on there in the lure of Grace Kerr's dark eyes.
What could a man reasonably expect of a girl with such people as Sim Hargus as her daily associates? Surely she had been schooled in their warped view of justice, as her act that day proved. No matter for Omaha and its refinements, she must be a savage under the skin. But gentle or savage, he had a tender regard for her, a feeling of romantic sympathy that had been groping out to find her as a plant in a pit strains toward the light. Now, in the sunshine of her presence, would it flourish and grow green, or wither in its mistaken worship and die?
Vesta had warned him, not knowing anything of the peculiar circumstances which brought him to that place, or of his discovery, which seemed a revelation of fate, the conjunction of events shaped before his entry upon the stage, indeed. She had warned him, but in the face of things as they had taken place, what would it avail a man to turn his back on the arrangements of destiny? As it was written, so it must be lived. It was not in his hand or his heart to change it.
Turning these things in his mind, flavoring the bitter in the prospect with the sweet of romance, he was drawn out of his wanderings by the sudden starting of his horse. It was not a shying start, but a stiffening of attitude, a leap out of laxity into alertness, with a lifting of the head, a fixing of the ears as if on some object ahead, of which it was at once curious and afraid.
Lambert was all tension in a breath. Ahead a little way the road branched at the point of the hill leading to the Philbrook house. His road lay to the right of the jutting plowshare of hill which seemed shaped for the mere purpose of splitting the highway. The other branch led to Kerr's ranch, and beyond. The horse was plainly scenting something in this latter branch of the road, still hidden by the bushes which grew as tall there as the head of a man on horseback.
As the horse trotted on, Lambert made out something lying in the road which looked, at that distance, like the body of a man. Closer approach proved this to be the case, indeed. Whether the man was alive or dead, it was impossible to determine from the saddle, but he lay in a huddled heap as if he had been thrown from a horse, his hat in the road some feet beyond.
Whetstone would not approach nearer than ten or twelve feet. There he stood, swelling his sides with long-drawn breaths, snorting his warning, it seemed, expressing his suspicion in the best manner that he could command. Lambert spoke to him, but could not quiet his fear. He could feel the sensitive creature tremble under him, and took it as certain that the man must be dead.
Dismounting, he led the horse and bent over the man in the road. He could see the fellow's shoulder move as he breathed, and straightened up with a creeping of apprehension that this might be a trap to draw him into just such a situation as he found himself that moment. The nervousness of his horse rather increased than quieted, also, adding color to his fear.
His foot was in the stirrup when a quick rush sounded behind him. He saw the man on the ground spring to his feet, and quick on the consciousness of that fact there came a blow that stretched him as stiff as a dead man.
Lambert came to himself with a half-drowned sense of suffocation. Water was falling on his head, pouring over his face, and there was the confused sound of human voices around him. As he cleared he realized that somebody was standing over him, pouring water on his head. He struggled to get from under the drowning stream. A man laughed, shook him, cursed him vilely close to his ear.
"Wake up, little feller, somebody's a-cuttin' your fence!" said another, taking hold of him from the other side.
"Don't hurt him, boys," admonished a third voice, which he knew for Berry Kerr's—"this is the young man who has come to the Bad Lands with a mission. He's going to teach people to take off their hats to barbed-wire fences. I wouldn't have him hurt for a keg of nails."
He came near Lambert now, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked him with a gentle kindness how he felt.
Lambert did not answer him, for he had no words adequate to describe his feelings at that moment to a friend, much less an enemy whose intentions were unknown. He sat, fallen forward, in a limp and miserable heap, drenched with water, clusters of fire gathering and breaking like showers of a rocket before his eyes. His head throbbed and ached in maddening pain. This was so great that it seemed to submerge every faculty save that of hearing, to paralyze him so entirely that he could not lift a hand. That blow had all but killed him.
"Let him alone—he'll be all right in a minute," said Kerr's voice, sounding close to his ear as if he stooped to examine him.
One was standing behind Lambert, knees against his back to prevent his entire collapse. The others drew off a little way. There followed the sound of horses, as if they prepared to ride. It seemed as if the great pain in Lambert's head attended the return of consciousness, as it attends the return of circulation. It soon began to grow easier, settling down to a throb with each heartbeat, as if all his life forces rushed to that spot and clamored against his skull to be released. He stiffened, and sat straight.
"I guess you can stick on your horse now," said the man behind him.
The fellow left him at that. Lambert could see the heads and shoulders of men, the heads of horses, against the sky, as if they were below the river bank. He felt for his gun. No surprise was in store for him there; it was gone.
He was unable to mount when they brought his horse. He attempted it, in confusion of senses that made it seem the struggle of somebody whom he watched and wanted to help, but could not. They lifted him, tied his feet under the horse, his hands to the saddle-horn. In this fashion they started away with him, one riding ahead, one on either hand. He believed that one or more came following, but of this he was not sure.
He knew it would be useless to make inquiry of their intentions. That would bring down on him derision, after their savage way. Stolidly as an Indian he rode among them to what end he could not imagine; but at the worst, he believed they would not go beyond some further torture of him to give him an initiation into what he must expect unless he accepted their decree that he quit the country forthwith.
As his senses cleared Lambert recognized the men beside him as Sim Hargus and the half-Indian, Tom. Behind him he believed Nick Hargus rode, making it a family party. In such hands, with such preliminary usage, it began to look very grave for him.
When they saw there was no danger of his collapse, they began to increase their pace. Bound as he was, every step of the horse was increased torture to Lambert. He appealed to Sim Hargus to release his hands.
"You can tie them behind me if you're afraid," he suggested.
Hargus cursed him, refusing to ease his situation. Kerr turned on hearing this outburst and inquired what it meant. Hargus repeated the prisoner's request with obscene embellishment. They made no secret of each other's identity, speaking familiarly, as if in the presence of one who would make no future charges. Kerr found the request reasonable, and ordered Hargus to tie Lambert's hands at his back.
"I guess you might as well take your last ride comfortable, kid," Hargus commented, as he shifted the bonds.
They proceeded at a trot, keeping it up for two hours or more. Lambert knew it was about ten o'clock when he stopped to investigate the man in the road. There was a feel in the air now that told him it was far past the turn of night. He knew about where they were in relation to the ranch by this time, for a man who lives in the open places develops his sense of direction until it serves him as a mole's in its underground tunneling.
There was no talking among his conductors, no sound but the tramp of the horses in unceasing trot, the scraping of the bushes on the stirrups as they passed. Lambert's legs were drawn close to his horse's belly, his feet not in the stirrups, and tied so tightly that he rode in painful rigidity. The brush caught the loose stirrups and flung them against Whetstone's sides, treatment that he resented with all the indignation of a genuine range horse. The twisting and jumping made Lambert's situation doubly uncomfortable. He longed for the end of the journey, no matter what awaited him at its conclusion.
For some time Lambert had noticed a glow as of a fire directly ahead of them. It grew and sank as if being fed irregularly, or as if smoke blew before it from time to time. Presently they rounded the base of a hill and came suddenly upon the fire, burning in a gulch, as it seemed, covering a large area, sending up a vast volume of smoke.
Lambert had seen smoke in this direction many times while riding fence, but could not account for it then any more than he could now for a little while as he stood facing its origin. Then he understood that this was a burning vein of lignite, such as he had seen traces of in the gorgeously colored soil in other parts of the Bad Lands where the fires had died out and cooled long ago.
These fires are peculiar to the Bad Lands, and not uncommon there, owing their origin to forest or prairie blazes which spread to the exposed veins of coal. As these broad, deep deposits of lignite lie near the surface, the fire can be seen through crevasses and fallen sections of crust. Sometimes they burn for years.
At the foot of the steep bank on which Lambert and his captors stood the crust had caved, giving the fire air to hasten its ravages. The mass of slow-moving fire glowed red and intense, covered in places by its own ashes, now sending up sudden clouds of smoke as an indraft of air livened the combustion, now smoldering in sullen dullness, throwing off a heat that made the horses draw back.
Kerr drew aside on arriving at the fire, and sat his horse looking at it, the light on his face. Sim Hargus pointed to the glowing pit.
"That's our little private hell. What do you think of it, kid?" he said, with his grunting, insulting sneer.
The fire was visible only in front of them, in a jagged, irregular strip marking the cave-in of the crust. It ranged from a yard to ten yards across, and appeared to extend on either hand a long distance. The bank on which Lambert's horse stood formed one shore of this fiery stream, which he estimated to be four yards or more across at that point. On the other side a recent settling of earth had exposed the coal, which was burning brightly in a fringe of red flame. Whether the fire underlay the ground beyond that point Lambert could not tell.
"Quite a sight by night, isn't it?" said Kerr. "It covers several acres," he explained, as if answering the speculation that rose, irrelevantly in the face of his pain, humiliation and anxiety, in Lambert's mind. What did it matter to him how much ground it covered, or when it began, or when it would die, when his own life was as uncertain that minute as a match-flame in the wind.
Why had they brought him there to show him that burning coal-pit? Not out of any desire to display the natural wonders of the land. The answer was in the fact itself. Only the diabolism of a savage mind could contrive or countenance such barbarity as they had come to submit him to.
"I lost several head of stock down below here a little way last winter," said Kerr. "They crowded out over the fire in a blizzard and broke through. If a man was to ride in there through ignorance I doubt if he'd ever be able to get out."
Kerr sat looking speculatively into the glowing pit below, the firelight red over him in strong contrast of gleam and shadow. Sim Hargus leaned to look Lambert in the face.
"You said I was to consider the two days I give you was up," said he.
"You understood it right," Lambert told him.
Hargus drew back his fist. Kerr interposed, speaking sharply.
"You'll not hit a man with his arms tied while I'm around, Sim," he said.
"Let him loose, then—put him down before me on his feet!"
"Leave the kid alone," said Kerr, in his even, provoking voice. "I think he's the kind of a boy that will take friendly advice if you come up on the right side of him."
"Don't be all night about it," said Nick Hargus from his place behind Lambert, breaking silence in sullen voice.
Kerr rode up to Lambert and took hold of his reins, stroking old Whetstone's neck as if he didn't harbor an unkind thought for either man or beast.
"It's this way, Duke," he said. "You're a stranger here; the customs of this country are not the customs you're familiar with, and it's foolish, very foolish, and maybe dangerous, for you to try to change things around single-handed and alone. We've used you a little rougher than I intended the boys to handle you, but you'll get over it in a little while, and we're going to let you go this time.
"But we're going to turn you loose with the warning once more to clear out of this country in as straight a line as you can draw, starting right now, and keeping on till you're out of the state. You'll excuse us if we keep your gun; you can send me your address when you land, and I'll ship it to you. We'll have to start you off tied up, too, much as I hate to do it. You'll find some way to get loose in a little while, I guess, a man that's as resourceful and original as you."
Tom Hargus had not said a word since they left the river. Now he leaned over and peered into Lambert's face with an expression of excited malevolence, his eyes glittering in the firelight, his nostrils flaring as if he drew exhilaration with every breath. He betrayed more of their intentions than Kerr had discovered in his words; so much, indeed, that Lambert's heart seemed to gush its blood and fall empty and cold.
Lambert forgot his throbbing head and tortured feet, and hands gorged with blood to the strain of bursting below his tight-drawn bonds. The realization of his hopeless situation rushed on him; he looked round him to seize even the most doubtful opening that might lead him out of their hands.
There was no chance. He could not wheel his horse without hand on rein, no matter how well the willing beast obeyed the pressure of his knees while galloping in the open field.
He believed they intended to kill him and throw his body in the fire. Old Nick Hargus and his son had it in their power at last to take satisfaction for the humiliation to which he had bent them. A thousand regrets for his simplicity in falling into their trap came prickling him with their momentary torture, succeeded by wild gropings, frantic seekings, for some plan to get away.
He had no thought of making an appeal to them, no consideration of a surrender of his manhood by giving his promise to leave the country if they would set him free. He was afraid, as any healthy human is afraid when he stands before a danger that he can neither defend against nor assail. Sweat burst out on him; his heart labored and heaved in heavy strokes.
Whatever was passing in his mind, no trace of it was betrayed in his bearing. He sat stiff and erect, the red glow of the intense fire on his face. His hat-brim was pressed back as the wind had held it in his ride, the scar of Jim Wilder's knife a shadow adding to the grim strength of his lean face. His bound arms drew his shoulders back, giving him a defiant pose.
"Take him out there and head him the right way, boys," Kerr directed.
Tom Hargus rode ahead, leading Whetstone by the reins. Kerr was not following. At Lambert's last sight of him he was still looking into the fire, as if fascinated by the sight of it.
A hundred yards or less from the fire they stopped. Tom Hargus turned Whetstone to face back the way they had come, threw the reins over the saddle-horn, rode up so close Lambert could feel his breath in his face.
"You made me brush off a nigger's hat when you had the drop on me, and carry a post five miles. That's the shoulder I carried it on!"
He drove his knife into Lambert's right shoulder with the words. The steel grated on bone.
"I brushed a nigger off under your gun one time," said old Nick Hargus, spurring up on the other side. "Now I'll brush you a little!"
Lambert felt the hot streak of a knife-blade in the thick muscle of his back. Almost at the same moment his horse leaped forward so suddenly that it wrenched every joint in his bound, stiff body, squealing in pain. He knew that one of them had plunged a knife in the animal's haunch. There was loud laughter, the sudden rushing of hooves, yells, and curses as they came after him.
But no shots. For a moment Lambert hoped that they were to content themselves with the tortures already inflicted and let him go, to find his way out to help or perish in his bonds, as it might fall. For a moment only, this hope. They came pressing after him, heading his horse directly toward the fire. He struggled to bring pressure to old Whetstone's ribs in the signal that he had answered a thousand times, but he was bound so rigidly that his muscles only twitched on the bone.
Whetstone galloped on, mad in the pain of his wound, heading straight toward the fire.
Lambert believed, as those who urged him on toward it believed, that no horseman ever rode could jump that fiery gorge. On the brink of it his pursuers would stop, while he, powerless to check or turn his horse, would plunge over to perish in his bonds, smothered under his struggling beast, pierced by the transcendent agonies of fire.
This was the last thought that rose coherently out of the turmoil of his senses as the firepit opened before his eyes. He heard his horse squeal again in the pain of another knife thrust to madden it to its destructive leap. Then a swirl of the confused senses as of released waters, the lift of his horse as it sprang, the heat of the fire in his face.
The healthy human mind recoils from death, and there is no agency among the destructive forces of nature which threatens with so much terror as fire. The senses disband in panic before it, reason flees, the voice appeals in its distress with a note that vibrates horror. In the threat of death by fire, man descends to his primal levels; his tongue speaks again the universal language, its note lending its horrified thrill to the lowest thing that moves by the divine force of life.
As Lambert hung over the fire in that mighty leap, his soul recoiled. His strength rushed into one great cry, which still tore at his throat as his horse struck, racking him with a force that seemed to tear him joint from joint.
The shock of this landing gathered his dispersed faculties. There was fire around him, there was smoke in his nostrils, but he was alive. His horse was on its feet, struggling to scramble up the bank on which it had landed, the earth breaking under its hinder hoofs, threatening to precipitate it back into the fire that its tremendous leap had cleared.
WHETSTONE COMES HOME
Lambert saw the fire leaping around him, but felt no sting of its touch, keyed as he was in that swift moment of adjustment. From a man as dead he was transformed in a breath back to a living, panting, hoping, struggling being, strong in the tenacious purpose of life. He leaned over his horse's neck, shouting encouragement, speaking endearments to it as to a woman in travail.
There was silence on the bank behind him. Amazement over the leap that had carried Whetstone across the place which they had designed for the grave of both man and horse, held the four scoundrels breathless for a spell. Fascinated by the heroic animal's fight to draw himself clear of the fire which wrapped his hinder quarters, they forgot to shoot.
A heave, a lurching struggle, a groan as if his heart burst in the terrific strain, and Whetstone lunged up the bank, staggered from his knees, snorted the smoke out of his nostrils, gathered his feet under him, and was away like a bullet. The sound of shots broke from the bank across the fiery crevasse; bullets came so close to Lambert that he lay flat against his horse's neck.
As the gallant creature ran, sensible of his responsibilities for his master's life, it seemed, Lambert spoke to him encouragingly, proud of the tremendous thing that he had done. There was no sound of pursuit, but the shooting had stopped. Lambert knew they would follow as quickly as they could ride round the field of fire.
After going to this length, they could not allow him to escape. There would have been nothing to explain to any living man with him and all trace of him obliterated in the fire, but with him alive and fleeing, saved by the winged leap of his splendid horse, they would be called to answer, man by man.
Whetstone did not appear to be badly hurt. He was stretching away like a hare, shaping his course toward the ranch as true as a pigeon. If they overtook him they would have to ride harder than they ever rode in their profitless lives before.
Lambert estimated the distance between the place where they had trapped him and the fire as fifteen miles. It must be nine or ten miles across to the Philbrook ranch, in the straightest line that a horse could follow, and from that point many miles more to the ranchhouse and release from his stifling ropes. The fence would be no security against his pursuing enemies, but it would look like the boundary of hope.
Whether they lost so much time in getting around the fire that they missed him, or whether they gave it up after a trial of speed against Whetstone, Lambert never knew. He supposed that their belief was that neither man nor horse would live to come into the sight of men again. However it fell, they did not approach within hearing if they followed, and were not in sight as dawn broke and broadened into day.
Whetstone made the fence without slackening his speed. There Lambert checked him with a word and looked back for his enemies. Finding that they were not near, he proceeded along the fence at easier gait, holding the animal's strength for the final heat, if they should make a sudden appearance. Somewhere along that miserable ride, after daylight had broken and the pieced wire that Grace Kerr had cut had been passed, Lambert fell unconscious across the horn of his saddle from the drain of blood from his wounds and the unendurable pain of his bonds.
In this manner the horse came bearing him home at sunrise. Taterleg was away on his beat, not uneasy over Lambert's absence. It was the exception for him to spend a night in the bunkhouse in that summer weather. So old Whetstone, jaded, scorched, bloody from his own and his master's wounds, was obliged to stand at the gate and whinny for help when he arrived.
It was hours afterward that the fence rider opened his eyes and saw Vesta Philbrook, and closed them again, believing it was a delirium of his pain. Then Taterleg spoke on the other side of the bed, and he knew that he had come through his perils into gentle hands.
"How're you feelin', old sport?" Taterleg inquired with anxious tenderness.
Lambert turned his head toward the voice and grinned a little, in the teeth-baring, hard-pulling way of a man who has withstood a great deal more than the human body and mind ever were designed to undergo. He thought he spoke to Taterleg; the words shaped on his tongue, his throat moved. But there was such a roaring in his ears, like the sound of a train crossing a trestle, that he could not hear his own voice.
"Sure," said Taterleg, hopefully, "you're all right, ain't you, old sport?"
"Fine," said Lambert, hearing his voice small and dry, strange as the voice of a man to him unknown.
Vesta put her arm under his head, lifted him a little, gave him a swallow of water. It helped, or something helped. Perhaps it was the sympathetic tenderness of her good, honest eyes. He paid her with another little grin, which hurt her more to see than him to give, wrenched even though it was from the bottom of his soul.
"How's old Whetstone?" he asked, his voice coming clearer.
"He's all right," she told him.
"His tail's burnt off of him, mostly, and he's cut in the hams in a couple of places, but he ain't hurt any, as I can see," Taterleg said, with more truth than diplomacy.
Lambert struggled to his elbow, the consciousness of what seemed his ingratitude to this dumb savior of his life smiting him with shame.
"I must go and attend to him," he said.
Vesta and Taterleg laid hands on him at once.
"You'll bust them stitches I took in your back if you don't keep still, young feller," Taterleg warned. "Whetstone ain't as bad off as you, nor half as bad."
Lambert noticed then that his hands were wrapped in wet towels.
"Burned?" he inquired, lifting his eyes to Vesta's face.
"No, just swollen and inflamed. They'll be all right in a little while."
"I blundered into their hands like a blind kitten," said he, reproachfully.
"They'll eat lead for it!" said Taterleg.
"It was Kerr and that gang," Lambert explained, not wanting to leave any doubt behind if he should have to go.
"You can tell us after a while," she said, with compassionate tenderness.
"Sure," said Taterleg, cheerfully, "you lay back there and take it easy. I'll keep my eye on things."
That evening, when the pain had eased out of his head, Lambert told Vesta what he had gone through, sparing nothing of the curiosity that had led him, like a calf, into their hands. He passed briefly over their attempt to herd him into the fire, except to give Whetstone the hero's part, as he so well deserved.
Vesta sat beside him, hearing him to the end of the brief recital that he made of it in silence, her face white, her figure erect. When he finished she laid her hand on his forehead, as if in tribute to the manhood that had borne him through such inhuman torture, and the loyalty that had been the cause of its visitation. Then she went to the window, where she stood a long time looking over the sad sweep of broken country, the fringe of twilight on it in somber shadow.
It was not so dark when she returned to her place at his bedside, but he could see that she had been weeping in the silent pain that rises like a poison distillation from the heart.
"It draws the best into it and breaks them," she said in great bitterness, speaking as to herself. "It isn't worth the price!"
"Never mind it, Vesta," he soothed, putting out his hand. She took it between her own, and held it, and a great comfort came to him in her touch.
"I'm going to sell the cattle as fast as I can move them, and give it up, Duke," she said, calling him by that name with the easy unconsciousness of a familiar habit, although she never had addressed him so before.
"You're not going away from here whipped, Vesta," he said with a firmness that gave new hope and courage to her sad heart. "I'll be out of this in a day or two, then we'll see about it—about several things. You're not going to leave this country whipped; neither am I."
She sat in meditation, her face to the window, presenting the soft turn of her cheek and chin to Lambert's view. She was too fine and good for that country, he thought, too good for the best that it ever could offer or give, no matter how generously the future might atone for the hardships of the past. It would be better for her to leave it, he wanted her to leave it, but not with her handsome head bowed in defeat.
"I think if you were to sift the earth and screen out its meanest, they wouldn't be a match for the people around here," she said. "There wouldn't be a bit of use taking this outrage up with the authorities; Kerr and his gang would say it was a joke, and get away with it, too."
"I wouldn't go squealing to the county authorities, Vesta, even if I knew I'd get results. This is something a man has to square for himself. Maybe they intended it for a joke, too, but it was a little rougher than I'm used to."
"There's no doubt what their intention was. You can understand my feelings toward them now, Duke; maybe I'll not seem such a savage."
"I've got a case with you against them all, Vesta."
He made no mental reservation as he spoke; there was no pleading for exception in Grace Kerr's dark eyes that he could grant. Long as he had nestled the romance between them in his breast, long as he had looked into the West and sent his dream out after her, he could not, in this sore hour, forgive her the taint of her blood.
He felt that all tenderness in him toward any of her name was dead. It had been a pretty fancy to hold, that thought of finding her, but she was only swamp-fire that had lured him to the door of hell. Still the marvel of his meeting her, the violet scent of his old dream, lingered sweetly with him like the perfume that remains after a beautiful woman whose presence has illuminated a room. So hard does romance die.
"I think I'll have to break my word to you and buckle on my gun again for a little while," she said. "Mr. Wilson can't ride the fence alone, capable and willing as he is, and ready to go day and night."
"Leave it to him till I'm out again, Vesta; that will only be a day or two——"
"A day or two! Three or four weeks, if you do well."
"No, not that long, not anything like that long," he denied with certainty. "They didn't hurt me very much."
"Well, if they didn't hurt you much they damaged you considerably."
He grinned over the serious distinction that she made between the words. Then he thought, pleasantly, that Vesta's voice seemed fitted to her lips like the tone of some beautiful instrument. It was even and soft, slow and soothing, as her manner was deliberate and well calculated, her presence a comfort to the eye and the mind alike.
An exceptional combination of a girl, he reflected, speculating on what sort of man would marry her. Whoever he was, whatever he might be, he would be only secondary to her all through the compact. That chap would come walking a little way behind her all the time, with a contented eye and a certain pride in his situation. It was a diverting fancy as he lay there in the darkening room, Vesta coming down the years a strong, handsome, proud figure in the foreground, that man just far enough behind her to give the impression as he passed that he belonged to her entourage, but never quite overtaking her.
Even so, the world might well envy the man his position. Still, if a man should happen along who could take the lead—but Vesta wouldn't have him; she wouldn't surrender. It might cost her pain to go her way with her pretty head up, her eyes on the road far beyond, but she would go alone and hide her pain rather than surrender. That would be Vesta Philbrook's way.
Myrtle, the negro woman, came in with chicken broth. Vesta made a light for him to sup by, protesting when he would sit up to help himself, the spoon impalpable in his numb fingers, still swollen and purple from the long constriction of his bonds.
Next morning Vesta came in arrayed in her riding habit, her sombrero on, as she had appeared the first time he saw her. Only she was so much lovelier now, with the light of friendship and tender concern in her face, that he was gladdened by her presence in the door. It was as of a sudden burst of music, or the voice of someone for whom the heart is sick.
He was perfectly fine, he told her, although he was as sore as a burn. In about two days he would be in the saddle again; she didn't need to bother about riding fence, it would be all right, he knew. His declaration didn't carry assurance. He could see that by the changing cast of her face, as sensitive as still water to a breathing wind.
She was wearing her pistol, and appeared very competent with it on her hip, and very high-bred and above that station of contention and strife. He was troubled not a little at sight of her thus prepared to take up the battles which she had renounced and surrendered into his hands only yesterday. She must have read it in his eyes.
"I'm only going to watch the fence and repair it to keep the cattle in if they cut it," she said. "I'll not take the offensive, even if I see her—them cutting it; I'll only act on the defensive, in any case. I promise you that, Duke."
She left him with that promise, before he could commend her on the wisdom of her resolution, or set her right on the matter of Grace Kerr. From the way Vesta spoke, a man would think she believed he had some tender feeling for that wild girl, and the idea of it was so preposterous that he felt his face grow hot.
He was uneasy for Vesta that day, in spite of her promise to avoid trouble, and fretted a good deal over his incapacitated state. His shoulder burned where Tom Hargus' knife had scraped the bone, his wounded back was stiff.
Without this bodily suffering he would have been miserable, for he had the sweat of his humiliation to wallow in, the black cloud of his contemplated vengeance across his mind in ever-deepening shadow. On his day of reckoning he cogitated long, planning how he was to bring it about. The law would not justify him in going out to seek these men and shooting them down where overtaken. Time and circumstance must be ready to his hand before he could strike and wipe out that disgraceful score.
It was not to be believed that they would allow the matter to stand where it was; that was a comforting thought. They would seek occasion to renew the trouble, and push it to their desired conclusion. That was the day to which he looked forward in hot eagerness. Never again would he be taken like a rabbit in a trap. He felt that, to stand clear before the law, he would have to wait for them to push their fight on him, but he vowed they never would find him unprepared, asleep or awake, under roof or under sky.
He would get Taterleg to oil up a pair of pistols from among the number around the bunkhouse and leave them with him that night. There was satisfaction in the anticipation of these preparations. Dwelling on them he fell asleep. He woke late in the afternoon, when the sun was yellow on the wall, the shadow of the cottonwood leaves quivering like dragonflies' wings.
On the little table beside his bed, near his glass, a bit of white paper lay. He looked at it curiously. It bore writing in ink and marks as of a pin.
Just to say hello, Duke.
That was the message, unsigned, folded as it had been pinned to the wire. Vesta had brought it and left it there while he slept.
He drew himself up with stiff carefulness and read it again, holding it in his fingers then and gazing in abstraction out of the window, through which he could pick up the landscape across the river, missing the brink of the mesa entirely.
A softness, as of the rebirth of his old romance, swept him, submerging the bitter thoughts and vengeful plans which had been his but a few hours before, the lees of which were still heavy in him. This little piece of writing proved that Grace was innocent of anything that had befallen him. In the friendly good-will of her heart she thought him, as she doubtless wished him, unharmed and well.
There was something in that girl better than her connections would seem to guarantee; she was not intractable, she was not beyond the influence of generosity, nor deaf to the argument of honor. It would be unfair to hold her birth and relationship against her. Nobility had sprung out of baseness many times in the painful history of human progress. If she was vengeful and vindictive, it was what the country had made her. She should not be judged for this in measure harsher than Vesta Philbrook should be judged. The acts of both were controlled by what they believed to be the right.
Perhaps, and who knows, and why not? So, a train of dreams starting and blowing from him, like smoke from a censer, perfumed smoke, purging the place of demons which confuse the lines of men's and women's lives and set them counter where they should go in amity, warm hand in warm hand, side by side.
HOW THICK IS BLOOD?
No sterner figure ever rode the Bad Lands than Jeremiah Lambert appeared eight days after his escape out of his enemies' hands. The last five days of his internment he had spent in his own quarters, protesting to Vesta that he was no longer an invalid, and that further receipt of her tender ministrations would amount to obtaining a valuable consideration by false pretense.
This morning as he rode about his duty the scar left by Jim Wilder's knife in his cheek never had appeared so prominent. It cast over all his face a shadow of grimness, and imparted to it an aged and seasoned appearance not warranted by either his experience or his years. Although he had not carried any superfluous flesh before his night of torture, he was lighter now by many pounds.
Not a handsome man that day, not much about him to recall the red-faced, full-blooded agent of the All-in-One who had pushed his bicycle into the Syndicate camp that night, guided by Taterleg's song. But there was a look of confidence in his eyes that had not been his in those days, which he considered now as far distant and embryonic; there was a certainty in his hand that made him a man in a man's place anywhere in the extreme exactions of that land.
Vesta was firm in her intention of giving up the ranch and leaving the Bad Lands as soon as she could sell the cattle. With that program ahead of him, Lambert was going this morning to look over the herd and estimate the number of cattle ready for market, that he might place his order for cars.
He didn't question the wisdom of reducing the herd, for that was good business; but it hurt him to have Vesta leave there with drooping feathers, acknowledging to the brutal forces which had opposed the ranch so long that she was beaten. He would have her go after victory over them, for it was no place for Vesta. But he would like for her to stay until he had broken their opposition, and compelled them to take off their hats to her fence.
He swore as he rode this morning that he would do it. Vesta should not clean out the cattle, lock the lonesome ranchhouse, abandon the barns and that vast investment of money to the skulking wolves who waited only such a retreat to sneak in and despoil the place. He had fixed in his mind the intention, firm as a rock in the desert that defied storm and disintegration, to bring every man of that gang up to the wire fence in his turn and bend him before it, or break him if he would not bend.
This accomplished, the right of the fence established on such terms that it would be respected evermore, Vesta might go, if she desired. Surely it would be better for her, a pearl in those dark waters where her beauty would corrode and her soul would suffer in the isolation too hard for one of her fine harmony to bear. Perhaps she would turn the ranch over to him to run, with a band of sheep which he could handle and increase on shares, after the custom of that business, to the profit of both.
He had speculated on this eventuality not a little during the days of his enforced idleness. This morning the thought was so strong in him that it amounted almost to a plan. Maybe there was a face in these calculations, a face illumined by clear, dark eyes, which seemed to strain over the brink of the future and beckon him on. Blood might stand between them, and differences almost irreconcilable, but the face withdrew never.
It was evening before he worked through the herd and made it round to the place where Grace Kerr had cut the fence. There was no message for him. Without foundation for his disappointment, he was disappointed. He wondered if she had been there, and bent in his saddle to examine the ground across the fence.
There were tracks of a horse, but whether old or new he was not educated enough yet in range-craft to tell. He looked toward the hill from which he had watched her ride to cut the fence, hoping she might appear. He knew that this hope was traitorous to his employer, he felt that his desire toward this girl was unworthy, but he wanted to see her and hear her speak.
Foolish, also, to yield to that desire to let down the fence where he had hooked the wire and ride out to see if he could find her. Still, there was so little probability of seeing her that he was not ashamed, only for the twinge of a disloyal act, as he rode toward the hill, his long shadow ambling beside him, a giant horseman on a mammoth steed.
He returned from this little sentimental excursion feeling somewhat like a sneak. The country was empty of Grace Kerr. In going out to seek her in the folly of a romance too trivial for a man of his serious mien, he was guilty of an indiscretion deserving Vesta Philbrook's deepest scorn. He burned with his own shame as he dismounted to adjust the wire, like one caught in a reprehensible deed, and rode home feeling foolishly small. Kerr! He should hate the name.
But when he came to shaving by lamplight that night, and lifted out his pied calfskin vest to find his strop, the little handkerchief brought all the old remembrances, the old tenderness, back in a sentimental flood. He fancied there was still a fragrance of violet perfume about it as he held it tenderly and pressed it to his cheek after a furtive glance around. He folded it small, put it in a pocket of the garment, which he hung on the foot of his bed.
An inspiration directed the act. Tomorrow he would ride forth clothed in the calfskin vest, with the bright handkerchief that he had worn on the Sunday at Misery when he won Grace Kerr's scented trophy. For sentimental reasons only; purely sentimental reasons.
No, he was not a handsome man any longer, he confessed, grinning at the admission, rather pleased to have it as it was. That scar gave him a cast of ferocity which his heart did not warrant, for, inwardly, he said, he knew he was as gentle as a dove. But if there was any doubt in her mind, granted that he had changed a good deal since she first saw him, the calfskin vest and the handkerchief would settle it. By those signs she would know him, if she had doubted before.
Not that she had doubted. As her anger and fear of him had passed that morning, recognition had come, and with recognition, confidence. He would take a look out that way in the morning. Surely a man had a right to go into the enemy's country and get a line on what was going on against him. So as he shaved he planned, arguing loudly for himself to drown the cry of treason that his conscience raised.
Tomorrow he would take a further look through the herd and conclude his estimate. Then he'd have to go to Glendora and order cars for the first shipment. Vesta wouldn't be able to get all of them off for many weeks. It would mean several trips to Chicago for him, with a crew of men to take care of the cattle along the road. It might be well along into the early fall before he had them thinned down to calves and cows not ready for market.
He shaved and smoothed his weathered face, turning his eyes now and again to his hairy vest with a feeling of affection in him for the garment that neither its worth nor its beauty warranted. Sentimental reasons always outweigh sensible ones as long as a man is young.
He rode along the fence next morning on his way to the herd, debating whether he should leave a note on the wire. He was not in such a soft and sentimental mood this morning, for sense had rallied to him and pointed out the impossibility of harmony between himself and one so nearly related to a man who had attempted to burn him alive. It seemed to him now that the recollection of those poignant moments would rise to stand between them, no matter how gentle or far removed from the source of her being she might appear.
These gloomy speculations rose and left him like a flock of somber birds as he lifted the slope. Grace Kerr herself was riding homeward, just mounting the hill over which she must pass in a moment and disappear. He unhooked the wire and rode after her. At the hilltop she stopped, unaware of his coming, and looked back. He waved his hat; she waited.
"Have you been sick, Duke?" she inquired, after greetings, looking him over with concern.
"My horse bit me," said he, passing it off with that old stock pleasantry of the range, which covered anything and everything that a man didn't want to explain.
"I missed you along here," she said. She swept him again with that slow, puzzled look of inquiry, her eyes coming back to his face in a frank, unembarrassed stare. "Oh, I know what it is now! You're dressed like you were that day at Misery. I couldn't make it out for a minute."
She was not wearing her mannish garb this morning, but divided skirts of corduroy and a white waist with a bit of bright color at the neck. Her white sombrero was the only masculine touch about her, and that rather added to her quick, dark prettiness.
"You were wearing a white waist the first time I saw you," he said.
"This one," she replied, touching it with simple motion of full identification.
Neither of them mentioned the mutual recognition on the day she had been caught cutting the fence. They talked of commonplace things, as youth is constrained to do when its heart and mind are centered on something else which burns within it, the flame of which it cannot cover from any eyes but its own. Life on the range, its social disadvantages, its rough diversions, these they spoke of, Lambert's lips dry with his eagerness to tell her more.
How quickly it had laid hold of him again at sight of her, this unreasonable longing! The perfume of his romance suffused her, purging away all that was unworthy.
"I trembled every second that day for fear your horse would break through the platform and throw you," she said, suddenly coming back to the subject that he wanted most to discuss.
"I didn't think of it till a good while afterward," he said in slow reflection.
"I didn't suppose I'd ever see you again, and, of course, I never once thought you were the famous Duke of Chimney Butte I heard so much about when I got home."
"More notorious than famous, I'm afraid, Miss Kerr."
"Jim Wilder used to work for us; I knew him well."
Lambert bent his head, a shadow of deepest gravity falling like a cloud over the animation which had brightened his features but a moment before. He sat in contemplative silence a little while, his voice low when he spoke.
"Even though he deserved it, I've always been sorry it happened."
"Well, if you're sorry, I guess you're the only one. Jim was a bad kid. Where's that horse you raced the train on?"
"I'm resting him up a little."
"You had him out here the other day."
"Yes. I crippled him up a little since then."
"I'd like to have that horse. Do you want to sell him, Duke?"
"There's not money enough made to buy him!" Lambert returned, lifting his head quickly, looking her in the eyes so directly that she colored, and turned her head to cover her confusion.
"You must think a lot of him when you talk like that."
"He's done me more than one good turn, Miss Kerr," he explained, feeling that she must have read his harsh thoughts. "He saved my life only a week ago. But that's likely to happen to any man," he added quickly, making light of it.
"Saved your life?" said she, turning her clear, inquiring eyes on him again in that expression of wonder that was so vast in them. "How did he save your life, Duke?"
"I guess I was just talking," said he, wishing he had kept a better hold on his tongue. "You know we have a fool way of saying a man's life was saved in very trivial things. I've known people to declare that a drink of whisky did that for them."
She lifted her brows as she studied his face openly and with such a directness that he flushed in confusion, then turned her eyes away slowly.
"I liked him that day he outran the flier; I've often thought of him since then."
Lambert looked off over the wild landscape, the distant buttes softened in the haze that seemed to presage the advance of autumn, considering much. When he looked into her face again it was with the harshness gone out of his eyes.
"I wouldn't sell that horse to any man, but I'd give him to you, Grace."
She started a little when he pronounced her name, wondering, perhaps, how he knew it, her eyes growing great in the pleasure of his generous declaration. She urged her horse nearer with an impetuous movement and gave him her hand.
"I didn't mean for you to take it that way, Duke, but I appreciate it more than I can tell you."
Her eyes were earnest and soft with a mist of gratitude that seemed to rise out of her heart. He held her hand a moment, feeling that he was being drawn nearer to her lips, as if he must touch them, and rise refreshed to face the labors of his life.
"I started out on him to look for you, expecting to ride him to the Pacific, and maybe double back. I didn't know where I'd have to go, but I intended to go on till I found you."
"It seemed almost a joke," she said, "that we were so near each other and you didn't know it."
She laughed, not seeming to feel the seriousness of it as he felt it. It is the woman who laughs always in these little life-comedies of ours.
"I'll give him to you, Grace, when he picks up again. Any other horse will do me now. He carried me to the end of my road; he brought me to you."
She turned her head, and he hadn't the courage in him to look and see whether it was to hide a smile.
"You don't know me, Duke; maybe you wouldn't—maybe you'll regret you ever started out to find me at all."
His courage came up again; he leaned a little nearer, laying his hand on hers where it rested on her saddle-horn.
"You wanted me to come, didn't you, Grace?"
"I hoped you might come sometime, Duke."
He rode with her when she set out to return home to the little valley where he had interposed to prevent a tragedy between her and Vesta Philbrook. Neither of them spoke of that encounter. It was avoided in silence as a thing of which both were ashamed.
"Will you be over this way again, Grace?" he asked when he stopped to part.
"I expect I will, Duke."
"Tomorrow, do you think?"
"Not tomorrow," shaking her head in the pretty way she had of doing it when she spoke in negation, like an earnest child.
"Maybe the next day?"
"I expect I may come then, Duke—or what is your real name?"
"Jeremiah. Jerry, if you like it better."
She pursed her lips in comical seriousness, frowning a little as if considering it weightily. Then she looked at him in frank comradeship, her dark eyes serious, nodding her head.
"I'll just call you Duke."
He left her with the feeling that he had known her many years. Blood between them? What was blood? Thicker than water? Nay, impalpable as smoke.
THE RIVALRY OF COOKS
Taterleg said that he would go to Glendora that night with Lambert, when the latter announced he was going down to order cars for the first shipment of cattle.
"I've been layin' off to go quite a while," Taterleg said, "but that scrape you run into kind of held me around nights. You know, that feller he put a letter in the post office for me, servin' notice I was to keep away from that girl. I guess he thinks he's got me buffaloed and on the run."
"Which one of them sent you a letter?"
"Jedlick, dern him. I'm goin' down there from now on every chance I get and set up to that girl like a Dutch uncle."
"What do you suppose Jedlick intends to do to you?"
"I don't care what he aims to do. If he makes a break at me, I'll lay him on a board, if they can find one in the Bad Lands long enough to hold him."
"He's got a bad eye, a regular mule eye. You'd better step easy around him and not stir him up too quick."
Lambert had no faith in the valor of Jedlick at all, but Taterleg would fight, as he very well knew. But he doubted whether there was any great chance of the two coming together with Alta Wood on the watch between them. She'd pat one and she'd rub the other, soothing them and drawing them off until they forgot their wrath. Still, he did not want Taterleg to be running any chance at all of making trouble.
"You'd better let me take your gun," he suggested as they approached the hotel.
"I can take care of it," Taterleg returned, a bit hurt by the suggestion, lofty and distant in his declaration.
"No harm intended, old feller. I just didn't want you to go pepperin' old Jedlick over a girl that's as fickle as you say Alta Wood is."
"I ain't a-goin' to pull a gun on no man till he gives me a good reason, Duke, but if he gives me the reason, I want to be heeled. I guess I was a little hard on Alta that time, because I was a little sore. She's not so foolish fickle as some."
"When she's trying to hold three men in line at once it looks to me she must be playin' two of 'em for suckers. But go to it, go to it, old feller; don't let me scare you off."
"I never had but one little fallin' out with Alta, and that was the time I was sore. She wanted me to cut off my mustache, and I told her I wouldn't do that for no girl that ever punched a piller."
"What did she want you to do that for, do you reckon?"
"Curiosity, Duke, plain curiosity. She worked old Jedlick that way, but she couldn't throw me. Wanted to see how it'd change me, she said. Well, I know, without no experimentin'."
"I don't know that it'd hurt you much to lose it, Taterleg."
"Hurt me? I'd look like one of them flat Christmas toys they make out of tin without that mustache, Duke. I'd be so sharp in the face I'd whistle in the wind every time my horse went out of a walk. I'm a-goin' to wear that mustache to my grave, and no woman that ever hung her stockin's out of the winder to dry's goin' to fool me into cuttin' it off."
"You know when you're comfortable, old feller. Stick to it, if that's the way you feel about it."
They hitched at the hotel rack. Taterleg said he'd go on to the depot with Lambert.
"I'm lookin' for a package of express goods I sent away to Chicago for," he explained.
The package was on hand, according to expectation. It proved to be a five-pound box of chewing gum, "All kinds and all flavors," Taterleg said.
"You've got enough there to stick you to her so tight that even death can't part you," Lambert told him.
Taterleg winked as he worked undoing the cords.
"Only thing can beat it, Duke—money. Money can beat it, but a man's got to have a lick or two of common sense to go with it, and some good looks on the side, if he picks off a girl as wise as Alta. When Jedlick was weak enough to cut off his mustache, he killed his chance."
"Is he in town tonight, do you reckon?"
"I seen his horse in front of the saloon. Well, no girl can say I ever went and set down by her smellin' like a bunghole on a hot day. I don't travel that road. I'll go over there smellin' like a fruit-store, and I'll put that box in her hand and tell her to chaw till she goes to sleep, an then I'll pull her head over on my shoulder and pat them bangs. Hursh, oh, hursh!"
It seemed that the effervescent fellow could not be wholly serious about anything. Lambert was not certain that he was serious in his attitude toward Jedlick as he went away with his sweet-scented box under his arm.
By the time Lambert had finished his arrangements for a special train to carry the first heavy shipment of the Philbrook herd to market it was long after dark. He was in the post office when he heard the shot that, he feared, opened hostilities between Taterleg and Jedlick. He hurried out with the rest of the customers and went toward the hotel.
There was some commotion on the hotel porch, which it was too dark to follow, but he heard Alta scream, after which there came another shot. The bullet struck the side of the store, high above Lambert's head.
There appeared in the light of the hotel door for a moment the figures of struggling men, followed by the sound of feet in flight down the steps, and somebody mounting a horse in haste at the hotel hitching-rack. Whoever this was rode away at a hard gallop.
Lambert knew that the battle was over, and as he came to the hitching-rack he saw that Taterleg's horse was still there. So he had not fled. Several voices sounded from the porch in excited talk, among them Taterleg's, proving that he was sound and untouched.
His uneasiness gone, Lambert stood a little while in front, well out in the dark, trying to pick up what was being said, but with little result, for people were arriving with noise of heavy boots to learn the cause of the disturbance.
Taterleg held the floor for a little while, his voice severe as if he laid down the law. Alta replied in what appeared to be indignant protest, then fell to crying. There was a picture of her in the door a moment being led inside by her mother, blubbering into her hands. The door slammed after them, and Taterleg was heard to say in loud, firm voice: