HotFreeBooks.com
The Duke Of Chimney Butte
by G. W. Ogden
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"Don't approach me, I tell you! I'd hit a blind woman as quick as I would a one-armed man!"

Lambert felt that this was the place to interfere. He called Taterleg.

"All right, Duke; I'm a-comin'," Taterleg answered.

The door opened, revealing the one-armed proprietor entering the house; revealing a group of men and women, bare-headed, as they had rushed to the hotel at the sound of the shooting; revealing Taterleg coming down the steps, his box of chewing gum under his arm.

Wood fastened the door back in its accustomed anchorage. His neighbors closed round where he stood explaining the affair, his stump of arm lifting and pointing in the expressionless gestures common to a man thus maimed.

"Are you hurt?" Lambert inquired.

"No, I ain't hurt none, Duke."

Taterleg got aboard of his horse with nothing more asked of him or volunteered on his part. They had not proceeded far when his indignation broke bounds.

"I ain't hurt, but I'm swinged like a fool miller moth in a lamp chimley," he complained.

"Who was that shootin' around so darned careless?"

"Jedlick, dern him!"

"It's a wonder he didn't kill somebody upstairs somewhere."

"First shot he hit a box of t'backer back of Wood's counter. I don't know what he hit the second time, but it wasn't me."

"He hit the side of the store."

Taterleg rode along in silence a little way. "Well, that was purty good for him," he said.

"Who was that hopped a horse like he was goin' for the doctor, and tore off?"

"Jedlick, dern him!"

Lambert allowed the matter to rest at that, knowing that neither of them had been hurt. Taterleg would come to the telling of it before long, not being built so that he could hold a piece of news like that without suffering great discomfort.

"I'm through with that bunch down there," he said in the tone of deep, disgustful renunciation. "I never was led on and soaked that way before in my life. No, I ain't hurt, Duke, but it ain't no fault of that girl I ain't. She done all she could to kill me off."

"Who started it?"

"Well, I'll give it to you straight, Duke, from the first word, and you can judge for yourself what kind of a woman that girl's goin' to turn out to be. I never would 'a' believed she'd 'a' throwed a man that way, but you can't read 'em, Duke; no man can read 'em."

"I guess that's right," Lambert allowed, wondering how far he had read in certain dark eyes which seemed as innocent as a child's.

"It's past the power of any man to do it. Well, you know, I went over there with my fresh box of gum, all of the fruit flavors you can name, and me and her we set out on the porch gabbin' and samplin' that gum. She never was so leanin' and lovin' before, settin' up so clost to me you couldn't 'a' put a sheet of writin' paper between us. Shucks!"

"Rubbin' the paint off, Taterleg. You ought 'a' took the tip that she was about done with you."

"You're right; I would 'a' if I'd 'a' had as much brains as a ant. Well, she told me Jedlick was layin' for me, and begged me not to hurt him, for she didn't want to see me go to jail on account of a feller like him. She talked to me like a Dutch uncle, and put her head so clost I could feel them bangs a ticklin' my ear. But that's done with; she can tickle all the ears she wants to tickle, but she'll never tickle mine no more. And all the time she was talkin' to me like that, where do you reckon that Jedlick feller was at?"

"In the saloon, I guess, firin' up."

"No, he wasn't, Duke. He was settin' right in that ho-tel, with his old flat feet under the table, shovelin' in pie. He come out pickin' his teeth purty soon, standin' there by the door, dern him, like he owned the dump. Well, he may, for all I know. Alta she inched away from me, and she says to him: 'Mr. Jedlick, come over here and shake hands with Mr. Wilson.'

"'Yes,' he says, 'I'll shake insect powder on his grave!'

"'I see you doin' it,' I says, 'you long-hungry and half-full! If you ever make a pass at me you'll swaller wind so fast you'll bust.' Well, he begun to shuffle and prance and cut up like a boy makin' faces, and there's where Alta she ducked in through the parlor winder. 'Don't hurt him, Mr. Jedlick,' she says; 'please don't hurt him!'

"'I'll chaw him up as fine as cat hair and blow him out through my teeth,' Jedlick told her. And there's where I started after that feller. He was standin' in front of the door all the time, where he could duck inside if he saw me comin', and I guess he would 'a' ducked if Wood hadn't 'a' been there. When he saw Wood, old Jedlick pulled his gun.

"I slung down on him time enough to blow him in two, and pulled on my trigger, not aimin' to hurt the old sooner, only to snap a bullet between his toes, but she wouldn't work. Old Jedlick he was so rattled at the sight of that gun in my hand he banged loose, slap through the winder into that box of plug back of the counter. I pulled on her and pulled on her, but she wouldn't snap, and I was yankin' at the hammer to cock her when he tore loose with that second shot. That's when I found out what the matter was with that old gun of mine."

Taterleg was so moved at this passage that he seemed to run out of words. He rode along in silence until they reached the top of the hill, and the house on the mesa stood before them, dark and lonesome. Then he pulled out his gun and handed it across to the Duke.

"Run your thumb over the hammer of that gun, Duke," he said.

"Well! What in the world—it feels like chewin' gum, Taterleg."

"It is chewin' gum, Duke. A wad of it as big as my fist gluin' down the hammer of that gun. That girl put it on there, Duke. She knew Jedlick wouldn't have no more show before me, man to man, than a rabbit. She done me that trick, Duke; she wanted to kill me off."

"There wasn't no joke about that, old feller," the Duke said seriously, grateful that the girl's trick had not resulted in any greater damage to his friend than the shock to his dignity and simple heart.

"Yes, and it was my own gum. That's the worst part of it, Duke; she wasn't even usin' his gum, dang her melts!"

"She must have favored Jedlick pretty strong to go that far."

"Well, if she wants him after what she's saw of him, she can take him. I clinched him before he could waste any more ammunition, and twisted his gun away from him. I jolted him a couple of jolts with my fist, and he broke and run. You seen him hop his horse."

"What did you do with his gun?"

"I walked over to the winder where that girl was lookin' out to see Jedlick wipe up the porch with me, and I handed her the gun, and I says: 'Give this to Mr. Jedlick with my regards,' I says, 'and tell him if he wants any more to send me word.' Well, she come out, and I called her on what she done to my gun. She swore she didn't mean it for nothin' but a joke. I said if that was her idear of a joke, the quicker we parted the sooner. She began to bawl, and the old man and old woman put in, and I'd 'a' slapped that feller, Duke, if he'd 'a' had two arms on him. But you can't slap a half of a man."

"I guess that's right."

"I walked up to that girl, and I said: 'You've chawed the last wad of my gum you'll ever plaster up ag'in' your old lean jawbone. You may be some figger in Glendora,' I says, 'but anywheres else you wouldn't cut no more ice than a cracker.' Wood he took it up ag'in. That's when I come away."

"It looks like it's all off between you and Alta now."

"Broke off, short up to the handle. Serves a feller right for bein' a fool. I might 'a' knowed when she wanted me to shave my mustache off she didn't have no more heart in her than a fish."

"That was askin' a lot of a man, sure as the world."

"No man can look two ways at once without somebody puttin' something down his back, Duke."

"Referrin' to the lady in Wyoming. Sure."

"She was white. She says: 'Mr. Wilson, I'll always think of you as a gentleman.' Them was her last words, Duke."

They were walking their horses past the house, which was dark, careful not to wake Vesta. But their care went for nothing; she was not in bed. Around the turn of the long porch they saw her standing in the moonlight, looking across the river into the lonely night. It seemed as if she stood in communion with distant places, to which she sent her longing out of a bondage that she could not flee.

"She looks lonesome," Taterleg said. "Well, I ain't a-goin' to go and pet and console her. I'm done takin' chances."

Lambert understood as never before how melancholy that life must be for her. She turned as they passed, her face clear in the bright moonlight. Taterleg swept off his hat with the grand air that took him so far with the ladies, Lambert saluting with less extravagance.

Vesta waved her hand in acknowledgment, turning again to her watching over the vast, empty land, as if she waited the coming of somebody who would quicken her life with the cheer that it wanted so sadly that calm summer night.

Lambert felt an unusual restlessness that night—no mood over him for his bed. It seemed, in truth, that a man would be wasting valuable hours of life by locking his senses up in sleep. He put his horse away, sated with the comedy of Taterleg's adventure, and not caring to pursue it further. To get away from the discussion of it that he knew Taterleg would keep going as long as there was an ear open to hear him, he walked to the near-by hilltop to view the land under this translating spell.

This was the hilltop from which he had ridden down to interfere between Vesta and Nick Hargus. With that adventure he had opened his account of trouble in the Bad Lands, an account that was growing day by day, the final balancing of which he could not foresee.

From where he stood, the house was dark and lonely as an abandoned habitation. It seemed, indeed, that bright and full of youthful light as Vesta Philbrook was, she was only one warm candle in the gloom of this great and melancholy monument of her father's misspent hopes. Before she could warm it into life and cheerfulness, it would encroach upon her with its chilling gloom, like an insidious cold drift of sand, smothering her beauty, burying her quick heart away from the world for which it longed, for evermore.

It would need the noise of little feet across those broad, empty, lonesome porches to wake the old house; the shouting and laughter and gleam of merry eyes that childhood brings into this world's gloom, to drive away the shadows that draped it like a mist. Perhaps Vesta stood there tonight sending her soul out in a call to someone for whom she longed, these comfortable, natural, womanly hopes in her own good heart.

He sighed, wishing her well of such hope if she had it, and forgot her in a moment as his eyes picked up a light far across the hills. Now it twinkled brightly, now it wavered and died, as if its beam was all too weak to hold to the continued effort of projecting itself so far. That must be the Kerr ranch; no other habitation lay in that direction. Perhaps in the light of that lamp somebody was sitting, bending a dark head in pensive tenderness with a thought of him.

He stood with his pleasant fancy, his dream around him like a cloak. All the trouble that was in the world for him that hour was near the earth, like the precipitation of settling waters. Over it he gazed, superior to its ugly murk, careless of whether it might rise to befoul the clear current of his hopes, or sink and settle to obscure his dreams no more.

There was a sound of falling shale on the slope, following the disturbance of a quick foot. Vesta was coming. Unseen and unheard through the insulation of his thoughts, she had approached within ten rods of him before he saw her, the moonlight on her fair face, glorious in her uncovered hair.



CHAPTER XX

BUSINESS, AND MORE

"You stand out like an Indian water monument up here," she said reprovingly, as she came scrambling up, taking the hand that he hastened forward to offer and boost her over the last sharp face of crumbling shale.

"I expect Hargus could pick me off from below there anywhere, but I didn't think of that," he said.

"It wouldn't be above him," seriously, discounting the light way in which he spoke of it; "he's done things just as cowardly, and so have others you've met."

"I haven't got much opinion of the valor of men who hunt in packs, Vesta. Some of them might be skulking around, glad to take a shot at us. Don't you think we'd better go down?"

"We can sit over there and be off the sky-line. It's always the safe thing to do around here."

She indicated a point where an inequality in the hill would be above their heads sitting, and there they composed themselves—the sheltering swell of hilltop at their backs.

"It's not a very complimentary reflection on a civilized community that one has to take such a precaution, but it's necessary, Duke."

"It's enough to make you want to leave it, Vesta. It's bad enough to have to dodge danger in a city, but out here, with all this lonesomeness around you, it's worse."

"Do you feel it lonesome here?" She asked it with a curious soft slowness, a speculative detachment, as if she only half thought of what she said.

"I'm never lonesome where I can see the sun rise and set. There's a lot of company in cattle, more than in any amount of people you don't know."

"I find it the same way, Duke. I never was so lonesome as when I was away from here at school."

"Everybody feels that way about home, I guess. But I thought maybe you'd like it better away among people like yourself."

"No. If it wasn't for this endless straining and watching, quarreling and contending, I wouldn't change this for any place in the world. On nights like this, when it whispers in a thousand inaudible voices, and beckons and holds one close, I feel that I never can go away. There's a call in it that is so subtle and tender, so full of sympathy, that I answer it with tears."

"I wish things could be cleared up so you could live here in peace and enjoy it, but I don't know how it's going to come out. It looks to me like I've made it worse."

"It was wrong of me to draw you into it, Duke; I should have let you go your way."

"There's no regrets on my side, Vesta. I guess it was planned for me to come this far and stop."

"They'll never rest till they've drawn you into a quarrel that will give them an excuse for killing you, Duke. They're doubly sure to do it since you got away from them that night. I shouldn't have stopped you; I should have let you go on that day."

"I had to stop somewhere, Vesta," he laughed. "Anyway, I've found here what I started out to find. This was the end of my road."

"What you started to find, Duke?"

"A man-sized job, I guess." He laughed again, but with a colorless artificiality, sweating over the habit of solitude that leads a man into thinking aloud.

"You've found it, all right, Duke, and you're filling it. That's some satisfaction to you, I know. But it's a man-using job, a life-wasting job," she said sadly.

"I've only got myself to blame for anything that's happened to me here, Vesta. It's not the fault of the job."

"Well, if you'll stay with me till I sell the cattle, Duke, I'll think of you as the next best friend I ever had."

"I've got no intention of leaving you, Vesta."

"Thank you, Duke."

Lambert sat turning over in his mind something that he wanted to say to her, but which he could not yet shape to his tongue. She was looking in the direction of the light that he had been watching, a gleam of which showed faintly now and then, as if between moving boughs.

"I don't like the notion of your leaving this country whipped, Vesta," he said, coming to it at last.

"I don't like to leave it whipped, Duke."

"That's the way they'll look at it if you go."

Silence again, both watching the far-distant, twinkling light.

"I laid out the job for myself of bringing these outlaws around here up to your fence with their hats in their hands, and I hate to give it up before I've made good on my word."

"Let it go, Duke; it isn't worth the fight."

"A man's word is either good for all he intends it to be, or worth no more than the lowest scoundrel's, Vesta. If I don't put up works to equal what I've promised, I'll have to sneak out of this country between two suns."

"I threw off too much on the shoulders of a willing and gallant stranger," she sighed. "Let it go, Duke; I've made up my mind to sell out and leave."

He made no immediate return to this declaration, but after a while he said:

"This will be a mighty bleak spot with the house abandoned and dark on winter nights and no stock around the barns."

"Yes, Duke."

"There's no place so lonesome as one where somebody's lived, and put his hopes and ambitions into it, and gone away and left it empty. I can hear the winter wind cuttin' around the house down yonder, mournin' like a widow woman in the night."

A sob broke from her, a sudden, sharp, struggling expression of her sorrow for the desolation that he pictured in his simple words. She bent her head into her hands and cried. Lambert was sorry for the pain that he had unwittingly stirred in her breast, but glad in a glowing tenderness to see that she had this human strain so near the surface that it could be touched by a sentiment so common, and yet so precious, as the love of home. He laid his hand on her head, stroking her soft, wavy hair.

"Never mind, Vesta," he petted, as if comforting a child. "Maybe we can fix things up here so there'll be somebody to take care of it. Never mind—don't you grieve and cry."

"It's home—the only home I ever knew. There's no place in the world that can be to me what it has been, and is."

"That's so, that's so. I remember, I know. The wind don't blow as soft, the sun don't shine as bright, anywhere else as it does at home. It's been a good while since I had one, and it wasn't much to see, but I've got the recollection of it by me always—I can see every log in the walls."

He felt her shiver with the sobs she struggled to repress as his hand rested on her hair. His heart went out to her in a surge of tenderness when he thought of all she had staked in that land—her youth and the promise of life—of all she had seen planned in hope, built in expectation, and all that lay buried now on the bleak mesa marked by two white stones.

And he caressed her with gentle hand, looking away the while at the spark of light that came and went, came and went, as if through blowing leaves. So it flashed and fell, flashed and fell, like a slow, slow pulse, and died out, as a spark in tinder dies, leaving the far night blank.

Vesta sat up, pushed her hair back from her forehead, her white hand lingering there. He touched it, pressed it comfortingly.

"But I'll have to go," she said, calm in voice, "to end this trouble and strife."

"I've been wondering, since I'm kind of pledged to clean things up here, whether you'd consider a business proposal from me in regard to taking charge of the ranch for you while you're gone, Vesta."

She looked up with a quick start of eagerness.

"You mean I oughtn't sell the cattle, Duke?"

"Yes, I think you ought to clean them out. The bulk of them are in as high condition as they'll ever be, and the market's better right now that it's been in years."

"Well, what sort of a proposal were you going to make, Duke?"

"Sheep."

"Father used to consider turning around to sheep. The country would come to it, he said."

"Coming to it more and more every day. The sheep business is the big future thing in here. Inside of five years everybody will be in the sheep business, and that will mean the end of these rustler camps that go under the name of cattle ranches."

"I'm willing to consider sheep, Duke. Go ahead with the plan."

"There's twice the money in them, and not half the expense. One man can take care of two or three thousand, and you can get sheepherders any day. There can't be any possible objection to them inside your own fence, and you've got range for ten or fifteen thousand. I'd suggest about a thousand to begin with, though."

"I'd do it in a minute, Duke—I'll do it whenever you say the word. Then I could leave Ananias and Myrtle here, and I could come back in the summer for a little while, maybe."

She spoke with such eagerness, such appeal of loneliness, that he knew it would break her heart ever to go at all. So there on the hilltop they planned and agreed on the change from cattle to sheep, Lambert to have half the increase, according to the custom, with herder's wages for two years. She would have been more generous in the matter of pay, but that was the basis upon which he had made his plans, and he would admit no change.

Vesta was as enthusiastic over it as a child, all eagerness to begin, seeing in the change a promise of the peace for which she had so ardently longed. She appeared to have come suddenly from under a cloud of oppression and to sparkle in the sun of this new hope. It was only when they came to parting at the porch that the ghost of her old trouble came to take its place at her side again.

"Has she cut the fence lately over there, Duke?" she asked.

"Not since I caught her at it. I don't think she'll do it again."

"Did she promise you she wouldn't cut it, Duke?"

She did not look at him as she spoke, but stood with her face averted, as if she would avoid prying into his secret too directly. Her voice was low, a note of weary sadness in it that seemed a confession of the uselessness of turning her back upon the strife that she would forget.

"No, she didn't promise."

"If she doesn't cut the fence she'll plan to hurt me in some other way. It isn't in her to be honest; she couldn't be honest if she tried."

"I don't like to condemn anybody without a trial, Vesta. Maybe she's changed."

"You can't change a rattlesnake. You seem to forget that she's a Kerr."

"Even at that, she might be different from the rest."

"She never has been. You've had a taste of the Kerr methods, but you're not satisfied yet that they're absolutely base and dishonorable in every thought and deed. You'll find it out to your cost, Duke, if you let that girl lead you. She's a will-o'-the-wisp sent to lure you from the trail."

Lambert laughed a bit foolishly, as a man does when the intuition of a woman uncovers the thing that he prided himself was so skilfully concealed that mortal eyes could not find it. Vesta was reading through him like a piece of greased parchment before a lamp.

"I guess it will all come out right," he said weakly.

"You'll meet Kerr one of these days with your old score between you, and he'll kill you or you'll kill him. She knows it as well as I do. Do you suppose she can be sincere with you and keep this thing covered up in her heart? You seem to have forgotten what she remembers and plots on every minute of her life."

"I don't think she knows anything about what happened to me that night, Vesta."

"She knows all about it," said Vesta coldly.

"I don't know her very well, of course; I've only passed a few words with her," he excused.

"And a few notes hung on the fence!" she said, not able to hide her scorn. "She's gone away laughing at you every time."

"I thought maybe peace and quiet could be established through her if she could be made to see things in a civilized way."

Vesta made no rejoinder at once. She put her foot on the step as if to leave him, withdrew it, faced him gravely.

"It's nothing to me, Duke, only I don't want to see her lead you into another fire. Keep your eyes open and your hand close to your gun when you're visiting with her."

She left him with that advice, given so gravely and honestly that it amounted to more than a warning. He felt that there was something more for him to say to make his position clear, but could not marshal his words. Vesta entered the house without looking back to where he stood, hat in hand, the moonlight in his fair hair.



CHAPTER XXI

A TEST OF LOYALTY

Lambert rode to his rendezvous with Grace Kerr on the appointed day, believing that she would keep it, although her promise had been inconclusive. She had only "expected" she would be there, but he more than expected she would come.

He was in a pleasant mood that morning, sentimentally softened to such extent that he believed he might even call accounts off with Sim Hargus and the rest of them if Grace could arrange a peace. Vesta was a little rough on her, he believed. Grace was showing a spirit that seemed to prove she wanted only gentle guiding to abandon the practices of violence to which she had been bred.

Certainly, compared to Vesta, she seemed of coarser ware, even though she was as handsome as heart could desire. This he admitted without prejudice, not being yet wholly blind. But there was no bond of romance between Vesta and him. There was no place for romance between a man and his boss. Romance bound him to Grace Kerr; sentiment enchained him. It was a sweet enslavement, and one to be prolonged in his desire.

Grace was not in sight when he reached their meeting-place. He let down the wire and rode to meet her, troubled as before by that feeling of disloyalty to the Philbrook interests which caused him to stop more than once and debate whether he should turn back and wait inside the fence.

The desire to hasten the meeting with Grace was stronger than this question of his loyalty. He went on, over the hill from which she used to spy on his passing, into the valley where he had interfered between the two girls on the day that he found Grace hidden away in this unexpected place. There he met her coming down the farther slope.

Grace was quite a different figure that day from any she had presented before, wearing a perky little highland bonnet with an eagle feather in it, and a skirt and blouse of the same plaid. His eyes announced his approval as they met, leaning to shake hands from the saddle.

Immediately he brought himself to task for his late admission that she was inferior in the eyes to Vesta. That misappraisement was due to the disadvantage under which he had seen Grace heretofore. This morning she was as dainty as a fresh-blown pink, and as delicately sweet. He swung from the saddle and stood off admiring her with so much speaking from his eyes that she grew rosy in their fire.

"Will you get down, Grace? I've never had a chance to see how tall you are—I couldn't tell that day on the train."

The eagle feather came even with his ear when she stood beside him, slender and strong, health in her eyes, her womanhood ripening in her lips. Not as tall as Vesta, not as full of figure, he began in mental measurement, burning with self-reproof when he caught himself at it. Why should he always be drawing comparisons between her and Vesta, to her disadvantage in all things? It was unwarranted, it was absurd!

They sat on the hillside, their horses nipping each other in introductory preliminaries, then settling down to immediate friendship. They were far beyond sight of the fence. Lambert hoped, with an uneasy return of that feeling of disloyalty and guilt, that Vesta would not come riding up that way and find the open strands of wire.

This thought passed away and troubled him no more as they sat talking of the strange way of their "meeting on the run," as she said.

"There isn't a horse in a thousand that could have caught up with me that day."

"Not one in thousands," he amended, with due gratitude to Whetstone.

"I expected you'd be riding him today, Duke."

"He backed into a fire," said he uneasily, "and burned off most of his tail. He's no sight for a lady in his present shape."

She laughed, looking at him shrewdly, as if she believed it to be a joke to cover something that he didn't want her to know.

"But you promised to give him to me, Duke, when he rested up a little."

"I will," he declared earnestly, getting hold of her hand where it lay in the grass between them. "I'll give you anything I've got, Grace, from the breath in my body to the blood in my heart!"

She bent her head, her face rosy with her mounting blood.

"Would you, Duke?" said she, so softly that it was not much more than the flutter of the wings of words.

He leaned a little nearer, his heart climbing, as if it meant to smother him and cut him short in that crowning moment of his dream.

"I'd have gone to the end of the world to find you, Grace," he said, his voice shaking as if he had a chill, his hands cold, his face hot, a tingling in his body, a sound in his ears like bells. "I want to tell you how——"

"Wait, Duke—I want to hear it all—but wait a minute. There's something I want to ask you to do for me. Will you do me a favor, Duke, a simple favor, but one that means the world and all to me?"

"Try me," said he, with boundless confidence.

"It's more than giving me your horse, Duke; a whole lot more than that, but it'll not hurt you—you can do it, if you will."

"I know you wouldn't ask me to do anything that would reflect on my honesty or honor," he said, beginning to do a little thinking as his nervous chill passed.

"A man doesn't—when a man cares—" She stopped, looking away, a little constriction in her throat.

"What is it, Grace?" pressing her hand encouragingly, master of the situation now, as he believed.

"Duke"—she turned to him suddenly, her eyes wide and luminous, her heart going so he could see the tremor of its vibrations in the lace at her throat—"I want you to lend me tomorrow morning, for one day, just one day, Duke—five hundred head of Vesta Philbrook's cattle."

"That's a funny thing to ask, Grace," said he uneasily.

"I want you to meet me over there where I cut the fence before sunup in the morning, and have everybody out of the way, so we can cut them out and drive them over here. You can manage it, if you want to, Duke. You will, if you—if you care."

"If they were my cattle, Grace, I wouldn't hesitate a second."

"You'll do it, anyhow, won't you, Duke, for me?"

"What in the world do you want them for, just for one day?"

"I can't explain that to you now, Duke, but I pledge you my honor, I pledge you everything, that they'll be returned to you before night, not a head missing, nothing wrong."

"Does your father know—does he——"

"It's for myself that I'm asking this of you, Duke; nobody else. It means—it means—everything to me."

"If they were my cattle, Grace, if they were my cattle," said he aimlessly, amazed by the request, groping for the answer that lay behind it. What could a girl want to borrow five hundred head of cattle for? What in the world would she get out of holding them in her possession one day and then turning them back into the pasture? There was something back of it; she was the innocent emissary of a crafty hand that had a trick to play.

"We could run them over here, just you and I, and nobody would know anything about it," she tempted, the color back in her cheeks, her eyes bright as in the pleasure of a request already granted.

"I don't like to refuse you even that, Grace."

"You'll do it, you'll do it, Duke?" Her hand was on his arm in beguiling caress, her eyes were pleading into his.

"I'm afraid not, Grace."

Perhaps she felt a shading of coldness in his denial, for distrust and suspicion were rising in his cautious mind. It did not seem to him a thing that could be asked with any honest purpose, but for what dishonest one he had no conjecture to fit.

"Are you going to turn me down on the first request I ever made of you, Duke?" She watched him keenly as she spoke, making her eyes small, an inflection of sorrowful injury in her tone.

"If there's anything of my own you want, if there's anything you can name for me to do, personally, all you've got to do is hint at it once."

"It's easy to say that when there's nothing else I want!" she said, snapping it at him as sharp as the crack of a little whip.

"If there was anything——"

"There'll never be anything!"

She got up, flashing him an indignant look. He stood beside her, despising the poverty of his condition which would not allow him to deliver over to her, out of hand, the small matter of five hundred beeves.

She went to her horse, mightily put out and impatient with him, as he could see, threw the reins over her pommel, as if she intended to leave him at once. She delayed mounting, suddenly putting out her hands in supplication, tears springing in her eyes.

"Oh, Duke! If you knew how much it means to me," she said.

"Why don't you tell me, Grace?"

"Even if you stayed back there on the hills somewhere and watched them you wouldn't do it, Duke?" she appealed, evading his request.

He shook his head slowly, while the thoughts within it ran like wildfire, seeking the thing that she covered.

"It can't be done."

"I give you my word, Duke, that if you'll do it nobody will ever lift a hand against this ranch again."

"It's almost worth it," said he.

She quickened at this, enlarging her guarantee.

"We'll drop all of the old feud and let Vesta alone. I give you my word for all of them, and I'll see that they carry it out. You can do Vesta as big a favor as you'll be doing me, Duke."

"It couldn't be done without her consent, Grace. If you want to go to her with this same proposal, putting it plainly like you have to me, I think she'll let you have the cattle, if you can show her any good reason for it."

"Just as if I'd be fool enough to ask her!"

"That's the only way."

"Duke," said she coaxingly, "wouldn't it be worth something to you, personally, to have your troubles settled without a fight? I'll promise you nobody will ever lift a hand against you again if you'll do this for me."

He started, looked at her sternly, approaching her a step.

"What do you know about anything that's happened to me?" he demanded.

"I don't know anything about what's happened, but I know what's due to happen if it isn't headed off."

Lambert did some hard thinking for a little while, so hard that it wrenched him to the marrow. If he had had suspicion of her entire innocence in the solicitation of this unusual favor before, it had sprung in a moment into distrust. Such a quick reversion cannot take place in the sentiment without a shock. It seemed to Lambert that something valuable had been snatched away from him, and that he stood in bewilderment, unable to reach out and retrieve his loss.

"Then there's no use in discussing it any more," he said, groping back, trying to answer her.

"You'd do it for her!"

"Not for her any quicker than for you."

"I know it looks crooked to you, Duke—I don't blame you for your suspicions," she said with a frankness that seemed more like herself, he thought. She even seemed to be coming back to him in that approach. It made him glad.

"Tell me all about it, Grace," he urged.

She came close to him, put her arm about his neck, drew his head down as if to whisper her confidence in his ear. Her breath was on his cheek, his heart was afire in one foolish leap. She put up her lips as if to kiss him, and he, reeling in the ecstasy of his proximity to her radiant body, bent nearer to take what she seemed to offer.

She drew back, her hand interposed before his eager lips, shaking her head, denying him prettily.

"In the morning, I'll tell you all in the morning when I meet you to drive the cattle over," she said. "Don't say a word—I'll not take no for my answer." She turned quickly to her horse and swung lightly into the saddle. From this perch she leaned toward him, her hand on his shoulder, her lips drawing him in their fiery lure again. "In the morning—in the morning—you can kiss me, Duke!"

With that word, that promise, she turned and galloped away.

It was late afternoon, and Lambert had faced back toward the ranchhouse, troubled by all that he could not understand in that morning's meeting, thrilled and fired by all that was sweet to remember, when he met a man who came riding in the haste of one who had business ahead of him that could not wait. He was riding one of Vesta Philbrook's horses, a circumstance that sharpened Lambert's interest in him at once.

As they closed the distance between them, Lambert keeping his hand in the easy neighborhood of his gun, the man raised his hand, palm forward, in the Indian sign of peace. Lambert saw that he wore a shoulder holster which supported two heavy revolvers. He was a solemn-looking man with a narrow face, a mustache that crowded Taterleg's for the championship, a buckskin vest with pearl buttons. His coat was tied on the saddle at his back.

"I didn't steal this horse," he explained with a sorrowful grin as he drew up within arm's length of Lambert, "I requisitioned it. I'm the sheriff."

"Yes, sir?" said Lambert, not quite taking him for granted, no intention of letting him pass on with that explanation.

"Miss Philbrook said I'd run across you up this way."

The officer produced his badge, his commission, his card, his letterhead, his credentials of undoubted strength. On the proof thus supplied, Lambert shook hands with him.

"I guess everybody else in the county knows me—this is my second term, and I never was taken for a horse thief before," the sheriff said, solemn as a crow, as he put his papers away.

"I'm a stranger in this country, I don't know anybody, nobody knows me, so you'll not take it as a slight that I didn't recognize you, Mr. Sheriff."

"No harm done, Duke, no harm done. Well, I guess you're a little wider known than you make out. I didn't bring a man along with me because I knew you were up here at Philbrook's. Hold up your hand and be sworn."

"What's the occasion?" Lambert inquired, making no move to comply with the order.

"I've got a warrant for this man Kerr over south of here, and I want you to go with me. Kerr's a bad egg, in a nest of bad eggs. There's likely to be too much trouble for one man to handle alone. You do solemnly swear to support the constitution of the——"

"Wait a minute, Mr. Sheriff," Lambert demurred; "I don't know that I want to mix up in——"

"It's not for you to say what you want to do—that's my business," the sheriff said sharply. He forthwith deputized Lambert, and gave him a duplicate of the warrant. "You don't need it, but it'll clear your mind of all doubt of your power," he explained. "Can we get through this fence?"

"Up here six or seven miles, about opposite Kerr's place. But I'd like to go on to the house and change horses; I've rode this one over forty miles today already."

The sheriff agreed. "Where's that outlaw you won from Jim Wilder?" he inquired, turning his eyes on Lambert in friendly appreciation.

"I'll ride him," Lambert returned briefly. "What's Kerr been up to?"

"Mortgaged a bunch of cattle he's got over there to three different banks. He was down a couple of days ago tryin' to put through another loan. The investigation that banker started laid him bare. He promised Kerr to come up tomorrow and look over his security, and passed the word on to the county attorney. Kerr said he'd just bought five hundred head of stock. He wanted to raise the loan on them."

"Five hundred," said Lambert, mechanically repeating the sheriff's words, doing some calculating of his own.

"He ain't got any that ain't blanketed with mortgage paper so thick already they'd go through a blizzard and never know it. His scheme was to raise five or six thousand dollars more on that outfit and skip the country."

And Grace Kerr had relied on his infatuation for her to work on him for the loan of the necessary cattle. Lambert could not believe that it was all her scheme, but it seemed incredible that a man as shrewdly dishonest as Kerr would entertain a plan that promised so little outlook of success. They must have believed over at Kerr's that they had him pretty well on the line.

But Kerr had figured too surely on having his neighbor's cattle to show the banker to stake all on the chance of Grace being able to wheedle him into the scheme. If he couldn't get them by seduction, he meant to take them in a raid. Grace never intended to come to meet him in the morning alone.

One crime more would amount to little in addition to what Kerr had done already, and it would be a trick on which he would pride himself and laugh over all the rest of his life. It seemed certain now that Grace's friendliness all along had been laid on a false pretense, with the one intention of beguiling him to his disgrace, his destruction, if disgrace could not be accomplished without it.

As he rode Whetstone—now quite recovered from his scorching, save for the hair of his once fine tail—beside the sheriff, Lambert had some uneasy cogitations on his sentimental blindness of the past; on the good, honest advice that Vesta Philbrook had given him. Blood was blood, after all. If the source of it was base, it was too much to hope that a little removal, a little dilution, would ennoble it. She had lived there all her life the associate of thieves and rascals; her way of looking on men and property must naturally be that of the depredator, the pillager, and thief.

"And yet," thought he, thumb in the pocket of his hairy vest where the little handkerchief lay, "and yet——"



CHAPTER XXII

THE WILL-O'-THE-WISP

The Kerr ranch buildings were more than a mile away from the point where Lambert and the sheriff halted to look down on them. The ranchhouse was a structure of logs from which the bark had been stripped, and which had weathered white as bones. It was long and low, suggesting spaciousness and comfort, and enclosed about by a white picket fence.

A winding trace of trees and brushwood marked the course of the stream that ran behind it. On the brink of this little water, where it flashed free of the tangled willows, there was a corral and stables, but no sign of either animal or human life about the place.

"He may be out with the cattle," Lambert suggested.

"We'll wait for him to come back, if he is. He's sure to be home between now and tomorrow."

So that was her home, that was the roof that had sheltered her while she grew in her loveliness. The soft call of his romance came whispering to him again. Surely there was no attainder of blood to rise up against her and make her unclean; he would have sworn that moment, if put to the test, that she was innocent of any knowing attempt to involve him to his disgrace. The gate of the world stood open to them to go away from that harsh land and forget all that had gone before, as the gate of his heart was open for all the love that it contained to rush out and embrace her, and purge her of the unfortunate accident of her birth.

After this, poor child, she would need a friend, as never before, with only her step-mother, as she had told him, in the world to befriend her. A man's hand, a man's heart——

"I'll take the front door," said the sheriff. "You watch the back."

Lambert came out of his softening dream, down to the hard facts in the case before him with a jolt. They were within half a mile of the house, approaching it from the front. He saw that it was built in the shape of an L, the base of the letter to the left of them, shutting off a view of the angle.

"He may see us in time to duck," the sheriff said, "and you can bank on it he's got a horse saddled around there at the back door. If he comes your way, don't fool with him; let him have it where he lives."

They had not closed up half the distance between them and the house when two horsemen rode suddenly round the corner of the L and through the wide gate in the picket fence. Outside the fence they separated with the suddenness of a preconcerted plan, darting away in opposite directions. Each wore a white hat, and from that distance they appeared as much alike in size and bearing as a man and his reflection.

The sheriff swore a surprised oath at sight of them, and their cunning plan to confuse and divide the pursuing force.

"Which one of 'em's Kerr?" he shouted as he leaned in his saddle, urging his horse on for all that it could do.

"I don't know," Lambert returned.

"I'll chance this one," said the sheriff, pointing. "Take the other feller."

Lambert knew that one of them was Grace Kerr. That he could not tell which, he upbraided himself, not willing that she should be subjected to the indignity of pursuit. It was a clever trick, but the preparation for it and the readiness with which it was put into play seemed to reflect a doubt of her entire innocence in her father's dishonest transactions. Still, it was no more than natural that she should bend every faculty to the assistance of her father in escaping the penalty of his crimes. He would do it himself under like conditions; the unnatural would be the other course.

These things he thought as he rode into the setting sun in pursuit of the fugitive designated by the sheriff. Whetstone was fresh and eager after his long rest, in spite of the twelve or fifteen miles which he had covered already between the two ranches. Lambert held him in, doubtful whether he would be able to overtake the fleeing rider before dark with the advantage of distance and a fresh horse that he or she had.

If Kerr rode ahead of him, then he must be overtaken before night gave him sanctuary; if Grace, it was only necessary to come close enough to her to make sure, then let her go her way untroubled. He held the distance pretty well between them till sundown, when he felt the time had come to close in and settle the doubt. Whetstone was still mainly in reserve, tireless, deep-winded creature that he was.

Lambert leaned over his neck, caressed him, spoke into the ear that tipped watchfully back. They were in fairly smooth country, stretches of thin grasslands and broken barrens, but beyond them, a few miles, the hills rose, treeless and dun, offering refuge for the one who fled. Pursuit there would be difficult by day, impossible by night.

Whetstone quickened at his master's encouragement, pushing the race hard for the one who led, cutting down the distance so rapidly that it seemed the other must be purposely delaying. Half an hour more of daylight and it would be over.

The rider in the lead had driven his or her horse too hard in the beginning, leaving no recovery of wind. Lambert remarked its weariness as it took the next hill, laboring on in short, stiff jumps. At the top the rider held in, as if to let the animal blow. It stood with nose close to the ground, weariness in every line.

The sky was bright beyond horse and rider, cut sharply by the line of the hill. Against it the picture stood, black as a shadow, but with an unmistakable pose in the rider that made Lambert's heart jump and grow glad.

It was Grace; chance had been kind to him again, leading him in the way his heart would have gone if it had been given the choice. She looked back, turning with a hand on the cantle of her saddle. He waved his hand, to assure her, but she did not seem to read the friendly signal, for she rode on again, disappearing over the hill before he reached the crest.

He plunged down after her, not sparing his horse where he should have spared him, urging him on when they struck the level again. There was no thought in him of Whetstone now—only of Grace.

He must overtake her in the quickest possible time, and convince her of his friendly sympathy; he must console and comfort her in this hour of her need. Brave little thing, to draw him off that way, to keep on running into the very edge of night, that wild country ahead of her, for fear he would come close enough to recognize her and turn back to help the sheriff on the true trail. That's what was in her mind; she thought he hadn't recognized her, and was still fleeing to draw him as far away as possible by dark. When he could come within shouting distance of her, he could make his intention plain. To that end he pushed on. Her horse had shown a fresh impulse of speed, carrying her a little farther ahead. They were drawing close to the hills now, with a growth of harsh and thorny brushwood in the low places along the runlets of dry streams.

Poor little bird, fleeing from him, luring him on like a trembling quail that flutters before one's feet in the wheat to draw him away from her nest. She didn't know the compassion of his heart, the tenderness in which it strained to her over the intervening space. He forgot all, he forgave all, in the soft pleading of romance which came back to him like a well-loved melody.

He fretted that dusk was falling so fast. In the little strips of valley, growing narrower as he proceeded between the abrupt hills, it was so nearly dark already that she appeared only dimly ahead of him, urging her horse on with unsparing hand. It seemed that she must have some objective ahead of her, some refuge which she strained to make, some help that she hoped to summon.

He wondered if it might be the cow-camp, and felt a cold indraft on the hot tenderness of his heart for a moment. But, no; it could not be the cow-camp. There was no sign that grazing herds had been there lately. She was running because she was afraid to have him overtake her in the dusk, running to prolong the race until she could elude him in the dark, afraid of him, who loved her so!

They were entering the desolation of the hills. On the sides of the thin strip of valley, down which he pursued her, there were great, dark rocks, as big as cottages along a village street. He shouted, calling her name, fearful that he should lose her in this broken country in the fast-deepening night. Although she was not more than two hundred yards ahead of him now, she did not seem to hear. In a moment she turned the base of a great rock, and there he lost her.

The valley split a few rods beyond that point, broadening a little, still set with its fantastic black monuments of splintered rock. It was impossible to see among them in either direction as far as Grace had been in the lead when she passed out of his sight. He pulled up and shouted again, an appeal of tender concern in her name. There was no reply, no sound of her fleeing horse.

He leaned to look at the ground for tracks. No trace of her passing on the hard earth with its mangy growth of grass. On a little way, stopping to call her once more. His voice went echoing in that quiet place, but there was no reply.

He turned back, thinking she must have gone down the other branch of the valley. Whetstone came to a sudden stop, lifted his head with a jerk, his ears set forward, snorting an alarm. Quick on his action there came a shot, close at hand. Whetstone started with a quivering bound, stumbled to his knees, struggled to rise, then floundered with piteous groans.



CHAPTER XXIII

UNMASKED

Lambert was out of the saddle at the sound of the shot. He sprang to the shelter of the nearest rock, gun in hand, thinking with a sweep of bitterness that Grace Kerr had led him into a trap. Whetstone was lying still, his chin on the ground, one foreleg bent and gathered under him, not in the posture of a dead horse, although Lambert knew that he was dead. It was as if the brave beast struggled even after life to picture the quality of his unconquerable will, and would not lie in death as other horses lay, cold and inexpressive of anything but death, with stiff limbs straight.

Lambert was incautious of his own safety in his great concern for his horse. He stepped clear of his shelter to look at him, hoping against his conviction that he would rise. Somebody laughed behind the rock on his right, a laugh that plucked his heart up and cast it down, as a drunken hand shatters a goblet upon the floor.

"I guess you'll never race me on that horse again, fence-rider!"

There was the sound of movement behind the rock; in a moment Grace Kerr rode out from her concealment, not more than four rods beyond the place where his horse lay. She rode out boldly and indifferently before his eyes, turned and looked back at him, her face white as an evening primrose in the dusk, as if to tell him that she knew she was safe, even within the distance of his arm, much as she despised his calling and his kind.

Lambert put his gun back in its sheath, and she rode on, disappearing again from his sight around the rock where the blasted valley of stones branched upon its arid way. He took the saddle from his dead horse and hid it behind a rock, not caring much whether he ever found it again, his heart so heavy that it seemed to bow him to the ground.

So at last he knew her for what Vesta Philbrook had told him she was—bad to the core of her heart. Kindness could not regenerate her, love could not purge away the vicious strain of blood. She might have scorned him, and he would have bent his head and loved her more; struck him, and he would have chided her with a look of love. But when she sent her bullet into poor old Whetstone's brain, she placed herself beyond any absolution that even his soft heart could yield.

He bent over Whetstone, caressing his head, speaking to him in his old terms of endearment, thinking of the many fruitless races he had run, believing that his own race in the Bad Lands had come to an end.

If he had but turned back from the foot of the hill where he recognized her, as duty demanded of him that he turn, and not pressed on with his simple intention of friendliness which she was too shallow to appreciate or understand, this heavy loss would have been spared him. For this dead animal was more to him than comrade and friend; more than any man who has not shared the good and evil times with his horse in the silent places can comprehend.

He could not fight a woman; there was no measure of revenge that he could take against her, but he prayed that she might suffer for this deed of treachery to him with a pang intensified a thousand times greater than his that hour. Will-o'-the-wisp she had been to him, indeed, leading him a fool's race since she first came twinkling into his life.

Bitter were his reflections, somber was his heart, as he turned to walk the thirty miles or more that lay between him and the ranch, leaving old Whetstone to the wolves.

* * * * *

Lambert was loading cattle nearly a week later when the sheriff returned Vesta's horse, with apologies for its footsore and beaten state. He had followed Kerr far beyond his jurisdiction, pushing him a hard race through the hills, but the wily cattleman had evaded him in the end.

The sheriff advised Lambert to put in a bill against the county for the loss of his horse, a proposal which Lambert considered with grave face and in silence.

"No," he said at last, "I'll not put in a bill. I'll collect in my own way from the one that owes me the debt."



CHAPTER XXIV

USE FOR AN OLD PAPER

Lambert was a busy man for several weeks after his last race with the will-o'-the-wisp, traveling between Glendora and Chicago, disposing of the Philbrook herd. On this day he was jolting along with the last of the cattle that were of marketable condition and age, twenty cars of them, glad that the wind-up of it was in sight.

Taterleg had not come this time on account of the Iowa boy having quit his job. There remained several hundred calves and thin cows in the Philbrook pasture, too much of a temptation to old Nick Hargus and his precious brother Sim to be left unguarded.

Sitting there on top of a car, his prod-pole between his knees, in his high-heeled boots and old dusty hat, the Duke was a typical figure of the old-time cow-puncher such as one never meets in these times around the stockyards of the Middle West. There are still cow-punchers, but they are mainly mail-order ones who would shy from a gun such as pulled down on Lambert's belt that day.

He sat there with the wind slamming the brim of his old hat up against the side of his head, a sober, serious man, such as one would choose for a business like this intrusted to him by Vesta Philbrook and never make a mistake. Already he had sold more than eighty thousand dollars' worth of cattle for her, and carried home to her the drafts. This time he was to take back the money, so they would have the cash to buy out Walleye, the sheepman, who was making a failure of the business and was anxious to quit.

The Duke wondered, with a lonesome sort of pleasure, how things were going on the ranch that afternoon, and whether Taterleg was riding the south fence now and then, as he had suggested, or sticking with the cattle. That was a pleasant country which he was traveling through, green fields and rich pastures as far as the eye could reach, a land such as he had spent the greater part of his life in, such as some people who are provincial and untraveled call "God's country," and are fully satisfied with in their way.

But there seemed something lacking out of it to Lambert as he looked across the verdant flatness with pensive eyes, that great, gray something that took hold of a man and drew him into its larger life, smoothed the wrinkles out of him, and stood him upright on his feet with the breath deeper in him than it ever had gone before. He felt that he never would be content to remain amongst the visible plentitude of that fat, complacent, finished land again.

Give him some place that called for a fight, a place where the wind blew with a different flavor than these domestic scents of hay and fresh-turned furrows in the wheatlands by the road. In his vision he pictured the place that he liked best—a rough, untrammeled country leading back to the purple hills, a long line of fence diminishing in its distance to a thread. He sighed, thinking of it. Dog-gone his melts, he was lonesome—lonesome for a fence!

He rolled a cigarette and felt about himself abstractedly for a match, in this pocket, where Grace Kerr's little handkerchief still lay, with no explanation or defense for its presence contrived or attempted; in that pocket, where his thumb encountered a folded paper.

Still abstracted, his head turned to save his cigarette from the wind, he drew out this paper, wondering curiously when he had put it there and forgotten it. It was the warrant for the arrest of Berry Kerr. He remembered now having folded the paper and put it there the day the sheriff gave it to him, never having read a word of it from that day to this. Now he repaired that omission. It gave him quite a feeling of importance to have a paper about him with that severe legal phraseology in it. He folded it and put it back in his pocket, wondering what had become of Berry Kerr, and from him transferring his thoughts to Grace.

She was still there on the ranch, he knew, although Kerr's creditors had cleaned out the cattle, and doubtless were at law among themselves over the proceeds by now. How she would live, what she would do, he wondered. Perhaps Kerr had left some of the money he had made out of his multimortgage transactions, or perhaps he would send for Grace and his wife when he had struck a gait in some other place.

It didn't matter one way or another. His interest in her was finished, his last gentle thought of her was dead. Only he hoped that she might live to be as hungry for a friendly word as his heart had been hungry of longing after her in its day; that she might moan in contrition and burn in shame for the cruelty in which she broke the vessel of his friendship and threw the fragments in his face. Poor old Whetstone! his bones all scattered by the wolves by now over in that lonely gorge.

Vesta Philbrook would not have been capable of a vengeance so mean. Strange how she had grown so gentle and so good under the constant persecution of this thieving gang! Her conscience was as clear as a windowpane; a man could look through her soul and see the world undisturbed by a flaw beyond it. A good girl; she sure was a good girl. And as pretty a figure on a horse as man's eye ever followed.

She had said once that she felt it lonesome out there by the fence. Not half as lonesome, he'd gamble, as he was that minute to be back there riding her miles and miles of wire. Not lonesome on account of Vesta; sure not. Just lonesome for that dang old fence.

Simple he was, sitting there on top of that hammering old cattle car that sunny afternoon, the dust of the road in his three-day-old beard, his barked willow prod-pole between his knees; simple as a ballad that children sing, simple as a homely tune.

Well, of course he had kept Grace Kerr's little handkerchief, for reasons that he could not quite define. Maybe because it seemed to represent her as he would have had her; maybe because it was the poor little trophy of his first tenderness, his first yearning for a woman's love. But he had kept it with the dim intention of giving it back to her, opportunity presenting.

"Yes, I'll give it back to her," he nodded; "when the time comes I'll hand it to her. She can wipe her eyes on it when she opens them and repents."

Then he fell to thinking of business, and what was best for Vesta's interests, and of how he probably would take up Pat Sullivan's offer for the calves, thus cleaning up her troubles and making an end of her expenses. Pat Sullivan, the rancher for whom Ben Jedlick was cook; he was the man. The Duke smiled through his grime and dust when he remembered Jedlick lying back in the barber's chair.

And old Taterleg, as good as gold and honest as a horse, was itching to be hitting the breeze for Wyoming. Selling the calves would give him the excuse that he had been casting about after for a month. He was writing letters to Nettie; she had sent her picture. A large-breasted, calf-faced girl with a crooked mouth. Taterleg might wait a year, or even four years more, with perfect safety. Nettie would not move very fast on the market, even in Wyoming, where ladies were said to be scarce.

And so, pounding along, mile after mile through the vast green land where the bread of a nation grew, arriving at midnight among squeals and moans, trembling bleat of sheep, pitiful, hungry crying of calves, high, lonesome tenor notes of bewildered steers. That was the end of the journey for him, the beginning of the great adventure for the creatures under his care.

By eleven o'clock next morning, Lambert had a check for the cattle in his pocket, and bay rum on his face where the dust, the cinders and the beard had been but a little while before. He bought a little hand satchel in a second-hand store to carry the money home in, cashed his check and took a turn looking around, his big gun on his leg, his high-heeled boots making him toddle along in a rather ridiculous gait for an able-bodied cow-puncher from the Bad Lands.

There was a train for home at six, that same flier he once had raced. There would be time enough for a man to look into the progress of the fine arts as represented in the pawn-shop windows of the stockyards neighborhood, before striking a line for the Union Station to nail down a seat in the flier. It was while engaged in this elevating pursuit that Lambert glimpsed for an instant in the passing stream of people a figure that made him start with the prickling alertness of recognition.

He had caught but a flash of the hurrying figure but, with that eye for singling a certain object from a moving mass that experience with cattle sharpens, he recognized the carriage of the head, the set of the shoulders. He hurried after, overtaking the man as he was entering a hotel.

"Mr. Kerr, I've got a warrant for you," he said, detaining the fugitive with a hand laid on his shoulder.

Kerr was taken so unexpectedly that he had no chance to sling a gun, even if he carried one. He was completely changed in appearance, even to the sacrifice of his prized beard, so long his aristocratic distinction in the Bad Lands. He was dressed in the city fashion, with a little straw hat in place of the eighteen-inch sombrero that he had worn for years. Confident of this disguise, he affected astonished indignation.

"I guess you've made a mistake in your man," said he.

Lambert told him with polite firmness that there was no mistake.

"I'd know your voice in the dark—I've got reason to remember it," he said.

He got the warrant out with one hand, keeping the other comfortably near his gun, the little hand bag with its riches between his feet. Kerr was so vehemently indignant that attention was drawn to them, which probably was the fugitive cattleman's design, seeing in numbers a chance to make a dash.

Lambert had not forgotten the experience of his years at the Kansas City Stockyards, where he had seen confidence men and card sharpers play the same scheme on policemen, clamoring their innocence until a crowd had been attracted in which the officer would not dare risk a shot. He kept Kerr within reaching distance, flashed the warrant before his eyes, passed it up and down in front of his nose, and put it away again.

"There's no mistake, not by a thousand miles. You'll come along back to Glendora with me."

A policeman appeared by this time, and Kerr appealed to him, protesting mistaken identity. The officer was a heavy-headed man of the slaughter-house school, and Lambert thought for a while that Kerr's argument was going to prevail with him. To forestall the policeman's decision, which he could see forming behind his clouded countenance, Lambert said:

"There's a reward of nine hundred dollars standing for this man. If you've got any doubt of who he is, or my right to arrest him, take us both to headquarters."

That seemed to be a worthy suggestion to the officer. He acted on it without more drain on his intellectual reserve. There, after a little course of sprouts by the chief of detectives, Kerr admitted his identity, but refused to leave the state without requisition. They locked him up, and Lambert telegraphed the sheriff for the necessary papers.

Going home was off for perhaps several days. Lambert gave his little satchel to the police to lock in the safe. The sheriff's reply came back like a pitched ball. Hold Kerr, he requested the police; requisition would be made for him. He instructed Lambert to wait till the papers came, and bring the fugitive home.

Kerr got in telegraphic touch with a lawyer in the home county. Morning showed a considerable change of temperature in the frontier financier. He announced that, acting on legal advice, he would waive extradition. Lambert telegraphed the sheriff the news, requesting that he meet him at Glendora and relieve him of his charge.

Lambert prepared for the home-going by buying another revolver, and a pair of handcuffs for attaching his prisoner comfortably and securely to the arm of the seat. The little black bag gave him no worry. It wasn't half the trouble to watch money, when you didn't look as if you had any, as a man who had swindled people out of it and wanted to hide his face.

The police joked Lambert about the size of his bag when they gave it back to him as he was starting with his prisoner for the train.

"What have you got in that alligator, Sheriff, that you're so careful not to set it down and forget it?" the chief asked him.

"Sixteen thousand dollars," said Lambert, modestly, opening it and flashing its contents before their eyes.



CHAPTER XXV

"WHEN SHE WAKES UP"

It was mid-afternoon of a bright autumn day when Lambert approached Glendora with Kerr chained to the seat beside him. As the train rapidly cut down the last few miles, Lambert noted a change in his prisoner's demeanor. Up to that time his carriage had been melancholy and morose, as that of a man who saw no gleam of hope ahead of him. He had spoken but seldom during the journey, asking no favors except that of being allowed to send a telegram to Grace from Omaha.

Lambert had granted that request readily, seeing nothing amiss in Kerr's desire to have his daughter meet him and lighten as much as she could his load of disgrace. Kerr said he wanted her to go with him to the county seat and arrange bond.

"I'll never look through the bars of a jail in my home county," he said. That was his one burst of rebellion, his one boast, his one approach to a discussion of his serious situation, all the way.

Now as they drew almost within sight of Glendora, Kerr became fidgety and nervous. His face was strained and anxious, as if he dreaded stepping off the train into sight of the people who had known him so long as a man of consequence in that community.

Lambert began to have his own worries about this time. He regretted the kindness he had shown Kerr in permitting him to send that telegram to Grace. She might try to deliver him on bail of another kind. Kerr's nervous anxiety would seem to indicate that he expected something to happen at Glendora. It hadn't occurred to Lambert before that this might be possible. It seemed a foolish oversight.

His apprehension, as well as Kerr's evident expectation, seemed groundless as he stepped off the train almost directly in front of the waiting-room door, giving Kerr a hand down the steps. There was nobody in sight but the postmaster with the mail sack, the station agent, and the few citizens who always stood around the station for the thrill of seeing the flier stop to take water.

Few, if any, of these recognized Kerr as Lambert hurried him across the platform and into the station, his hands manacled at his back. Kerr held back for one quick look up and down the station platform, then stumbled hastily ahead under the force of Lambert's hand. The door of the telegraph office stood open; Lambert pushed his prisoner within and closed it.

The station agent came in as the train pulled away, and Lambert made inquiry of him concerning the sheriff. The agent had not seen him there that day. He turned away with sullen countenance, looking with disfavor on this intrusion upon his sacred precincts. He stood in front of his chattering instruments in the bow window, looking up and down the platform with anxious face out of which his natural human color had gone, leaving even his lips white.

"You don't have to keep him in here, I guess, do you?" he said, still sweeping the platform up and down with his uneasy eyes.

"No. I just stepped in to ask you to put this satchel in your safe and keep it for me a while."

Lambert's calm and confident manner seemed to assure the agent, and mollify him, and repair his injured dignity. He beckoned with a jerk of his head, not for one moment quitting his leaning, watchful pose, or taking his eyes from their watch on the platform. Lambert crossed the little room in two strides and looked out. Not seeing anything more alarming than a knot of townsmen around the postmaster, who stood with the lean mail sack across his shoulder, talking excitedly, he inquired what was up.

"They're layin' for you out there," the agent whispered.

"I kind of expected they would be," Lambert told him.

"They're liable to cut loose any minute," said the agent, "and I tell you, Duke, I've got a wife and children dependin' on me!"

"I'll take him outside. I didn't intend to stay here only a minute. Here, lock this up. It belongs to Vesta Philbrook. If I have to go with the sheriff, or anything, send her word it's here."

As Lambert appeared in the door with his prisoner the little bunch of excited gossips scattered hurriedly. He stood near the door a little while, considering the situation. The station agent was not to blame for his desire to preserve his valuable services for the railroad and his family; Lambert had no wish to shelter himself and retain his hold on the prisoner at the trembling fellow's peril.

It was unaccountable that the sheriff was not there to relieve him of this responsibility; he must have received the telegram two days ago. Pending his arrival, or, if not his arrival, the coming of the local train that would carry himself and prisoner to the county seat, Lambert cast about him for some means of securing his man in such manner that he could watch him and defend against any attempted rescue without being hampered.

A telegraph pole stood beside the platform some sixty or seventy feet from the depot, the wires slanting down from it into the building's gable end. To this Lambert marched his prisoner, the eyes of the town on him. He freed one of Kerr's hands, passed his arms round the pole so he stood embracing it, and locked him there.

It was a pole of only medium thickness, allowing Kerr ample room to encircle it with his chained arms, even to sit on the edge of the platform when he should weary of his standing embrace. Lambert stood back a pace and looked at him, thus ignominiously anchored in public view.

"Let 'em come and take you," he said.

He laid out a little beat up and down the platform at Kerr's back, rolled a cigarette, settled down to wait for the sheriff, the train, the rush of Kerr's friends, or whatever the day might have in store.

Slowly, thoughtfully, he paced that beat of a rod behind his surly prisoner's back, watching the town, watching the road leading into it. People stood in the doors, but none approached him to make inquiry, no voice was lifted in pitch that reached him where he stood. If anybody else in town besides the agent knew of the contemplated rescue, he kept it selfishly to himself.

Lambert did not see any of Kerr's men about. Five horses were hitched in front of the saloon; now and then he could see the top of a hat above the latticed half-door, but nobody entered, nobody left. The station agent still stood in his window, working the telegraph key as if reporting the clearing of the flier, watching anxiously up and down the platform.

Lambert hoped that Sim Hargus and young Tom, and the old stub-footed scoundrel who was the meanest of them all who had lashed him into the fire that night, would swing the doors of the saloon and come out with a declaration of their intentions. He knew that some of them, if not all, were there. He had tied Kerr out before their eyes like wolf bait. Let them come and get him if they were men.

This seemed the opportunity which he had been waiting for time to bring him. If they flashed a gun on him now he could clean them down to the ground with all legal justification, no questions asked.

Two appeared far down the road, riding for Glendora in a swinging gallop. The sheriff, Lambert thought; missed the train, and had ridden the forty and more miles across. No; one was Grace Kerr. Even at a quarter of a mile he never could mistake her again. The other was Sim Hargus. They had miscalculated in their intention of meeting the train, and were coming in a panic of anxiety.

They dismounted at the hotel, and started across. Lambert stood near his prisoner, waiting. Kerr had been sitting on the edge of the platform. Now he got up, moving around the pole to show them that he was not to be counted on to take a hand in whatever they expected to start.

Lambert moved a little nearer his prisoner, where he stood waiting. He had not shaved during the two days between Chicago and Glendora; the dust of the road was on his face. His hat was tipped forward to shelter his eyes against the afternoon glare, the leather thong at the back rumpling his close-cut hair. He stood lean and long-limbed, easy and indifferent in his pose, as it would seem to look at him as one might glance in passing, the smoke of his cigarette rising straight from its fresh-lit tip in the calm air of the somnolent day.

As Hargus and Grace advanced, coming in the haste and heat of indignation that Kerr's humiliating situation inflamed, two men left the saloon. They stopped at the hitching-rack as if debating whether to take their horses, and so stood, watching the progress of the two who were cutting the long diagonal across the road. When Grace, who came a little ahead of her companion in her eagerness, was within thirty feet of him, Lambert lifted his hand in forbidding signal.

"Stop there," he said.

She halted, her face flaming with fury. Hargus stopped beside her, his arm crooked to bring his hand up to his belt, sawing back and forth as if in indecision between drawing his gun and waiting for the wordy preliminaries to pass. Kerr stood embracing the pole in a pose of ridiculous supplication, the bright chain of the new handcuffs glistening in the sun.

"I want to talk to my father," said Grace, lashing Lambert with a look of scornful hate.

"Say it from there," Lambert returned, inflexible, cool; watching every movement of Sim Hargus' sawing arm.

"You've got no right to chain him up like a dog!" she said.

"You ain't got no authority, that anybody ever heard of, to arrest him in the first place," Hargus added, his swinging, indecisive arm for a moment still.

Lambert made no reply. He seemed to be looking over their heads, back along the road they had come, from the lift of his chin and the set of his close-gathered brows. He seemed carelessly indifferent to Hargus' legal opinion and presence, a little fresh plume of smoke going up from his cigarette as if he breathed into it gently.

Grace started forward with impatient exclamation, tossing her head in disdainful defiance of this fence-rider's authority.

"Go back!" Kerr commanded, his voice hoarse with the fear of something that she, in her unreasoning anger, had not seen behind the calm front of the man she faced.

She stopped, turning back again to where Hargus waited. Along the street men were drawing away from their doors, in cautious curiosity, silent suspense. Women put their heads out for a moment, plucked curtains aside for one swift survey, vanished behind the safety of walls. At the hitching-rack the two men—one of them Tom Hargus, the other unknown—stood beside their horses, as if in position according to a previous plan.

"We want that man," said Hargus, his hand hovering over his gun.

"Come and take him," Lambert invited.

Hargus spoke in a low voice to Grace; she turned and ran toward her horse. The two at the hitching-rack swung into their saddles as Hargus, watching Grace over his shoulder as she sped away, began to back off, his hand stealing to his gun as if moved by some slow, precise machinery which was set to time it according to the fleeing girl's speed.

Lambert stood without shifting a foot, his nostrils dilating in the slow, deep breath that he drew. Yard by yard Hargus drew away, his intention not quite clear, as if he watched his chance to break away like a prisoner. Grace was in front of the hotel door when he snapped his revolver from its sheath.

Lambert had been waiting this. He fired before Hargus touched the trigger, his elbow to his side as he had seen Jim Wilder shoot on the day when tragedy first came into his life. Hargus spun on his heel as if he had been roped, spread his arms, his gun falling from his hand; pitched to his face, lay still. The two on horses galloped out and opened fire.

Lambert shifted to keep them guessing, but kept away from the pole where Kerr was chained, behind which he might have found shelter. They had separated to flank him, Tom Hargus over near the corner of the depot, the other ranging down toward the hotel, not more than fifty yards between Lambert and either of them.

Intent on drawing Tom Hargus from the shelter of the depot, Lambert ran along the platform, stopping well beyond Kerr. Until that moment he had not returned their fire. Now he opened on Tom Hargus, bringing his horse down at the third shot, swung about and emptied his first gun ineffectually at the other man.

This fellow charged down on him as Lambert drew his other gun, Tom Hargus, free of his fallen horse, shooting from the shelter of the rain barrel at the corner of the depot. Lambert felt something strike his left arm, with no more apparent force, no more pain, than the flip of a branch when one rides through the woods. But it swung useless at his side.

Through the smoke of his own gun, and the dust raised by the man on horseback, Lambert had a flash of Grace Kerr riding across the middle background between him and the saloon. He had no thought of her intention. It was not a moment for speculation with the bullets hitting his hat.

The man on horseback had come within ten yards of him. Lambert could see his teeth as he drew back his lips when he fired. Lambert centered his attention on this stranger, dark, meager-faced, marked by the unmistakable Mexican taint. His hat flew off at Lambert's first shot as if it had been jerked by a string; at his second, the fellow threw himself back in the saddle with a jerk. He fell limply over the high cantle and lay thus a moment, his frantic horse running wildly away. Lambert saw him tumble into the road as a man came spurring past the hotel, slinging his gun as he rode.

Nearer approach identified the belated sheriff. He shouted a warning to Lambert as he jerked his gun down and fired. Tom Hargus rose from behind the rain barrel, staggered into the road, going like a drunken man, his hat in one hand, the other pressed to his side, his head hanging, his long black hair falling over his bloody face.

In a second Lambert saw this, and the shouting, shooting officer bearing down toward him. He had the peculiar impression that the sheriff was submerged in water, enlarging grotesquely as he approached. The slap of another bullet on his back, and he turned to see Grace Kerr firing at him with only the width of the platform between them.

It was all smoke, dust, confusion around him, a sickness in his body, a dimness in his mind, but he was conscious of her horse rearing, lifting its feet high—one of them a white-stockinged foot, as he marked with painful precision—and falling backward in a clatter of shod hoofs on the railroad.

When it cleared a little, Lambert found the sheriff was on the ground beside him, supporting him with his arm, looking into his face with concern almost comical, speaking in anxious inquiry.

"Lay down over there on the platform, Duke, you're shot all to pieces," he said.

Lambert sat on the edge of the platform, and the world receded. When he felt himself sweep back to consciousness there were people about him, and he was stretched on his back, a feeling in his nostrils as if he breathed fire. Somebody was lying across from him a little way; he struggled with painful effort to lift himself and see.

It was Grace Kerr. Her face was white in the midst of her dark hair, and she was dead.

It was not right for her to be lying there, with dead face to the sky, he thought. They should do something, they should carry her away from the stare of curious, shocked eyes, they should—He felt in the pocket of his vest and found the little handkerchief, and crept painfully across to her, heedless of the sheriff's protest, defiant of his restraining, kindly hand.

With his numb left arm trailing by his side, a burning pain in his breast, as if a hot rod had been driven through him, the track of her treacherous bullet, he knew, he fumbled to unfold the bit of soft white linen, refusing the help of many sympathetic hands that were out-stretched.

When he had it right, he spread it over her face, white again as an evening primrose, as he once had seen it through the dusk of another night. But out of this night that she had entered she would ride no more. There was a thought in his heart as tender as his deed as he thus masked her face from the white stare of day:

"She can wipe her eyes on it when she wakes up and repents."



CHAPTER XXVI

OYSTERS AND AMBITIONS

"If you'd come on and go to Wyoming with me, Duke, I think it'd be better for you than California. That low country ain't good for a feller with a tender place in his lights."

"Oh, I think I'm all right and as good as ever now, Taterleg."

"Yes, it looks all right to you, but if you git dampness on that lung you'll take the consumption and die. I knew a feller once that got shot that way through the lights in a fight down on the Cimarron. Him and another feller fell out over——"

"Have you heard from Nettie lately?" Lambert broke in, not caring to hear the story of the man who was shot on the Cimarron, or his subsequent miscalculations on the state of his lights.

Taterleg rolled his eyes to look at him, not turning his head, reproach in the glance, mild reproof. But he let it pass in his good-natured way, brightening to the subject nearest his heart.

"Four or five days ago."

"All right, is she?"

"Up and a-comin', fine as a fiddle."

"You'll be holdin' hands with her before the preacher in a little while now."

"Inside of a week, Duke. My troubles is nearly all over."

"I don't know about that, but I hope it'll turn out that way."

They were on their way home from delivering the calves and the clean-up of the herd to Pat Sullivan, some weeks after Lambert's fight at Glendora. Lambert still showed the effects of his long confinement and drain of his wounds in the paleness of his face. But he sat his saddle as straight as ever, not much thinner, as far as the eye could weigh him, nothing missing from him but the brown of his skin and the blood they had drawn from him that day.

There was frost on the grass that morning, a foretaste of winter in the sharp wind. The sky was gray with the threat of snow, the somber season of hardship on the range was at hand. Lambert thought, as he read these signs, that it would be a hard winter on livestock in that unsheltered country, and was comfortable in mind over the profitable outcome of his dealings for his employer.

As for himself, his great plans were at an end on the Bad Lands range. The fight at Glendora had changed all that. The doctor had warned him that he must not attempt another winter in the saddle with that tender spot in his lung, his blood thinned down that way, his flesh soft from being housebound for nearly six weeks. He advised a milder climate for several months of recuperation, and was very grave in his advice.

So the sheep scheme was put aside. The cattle being sold, there was nothing about the ranch that old Ananias could not do, and Lambert had planned to turn his face again toward the West. He could not lie around there in the bunkhouse and grow strong at Vesta's expense, although that was what she expected him to do.

He had said nothing to her of his determination to go, for he had wavered in it from day to day, finding it hard to tear himself away from that bleak land that he had come to love, as he never had loved the country which claimed him by birth. He had been called on in this place to fight for a man's station in it; he had trampled a refuge of safety for the defenseless among its thorns.

Vesta had said nothing further of her own plans, but they took it for granted that she would be leaving, now that the last of the cattle were sold. Ananias had told them that she was putting things away in the house, getting ready to close most of it up.

"I don't blame you for leavin'," said Taterleg, returning to the original thread of discussion, "it'll be as lonesome as sin up there at the ranch with Vesta gone away. When she's there she fills that place up like the music of a band."

"She sure does, Taterleg."

"Old Ananias'll have a soft time of it, eatin' chicken and rabbit all winter, nothing to do but milk them couple of cows, no boss to keep her eye on him in a thousand miles."

"He's one that'll never want to leave."

"Well, it's a good place for a man," Taterleg sighed, "if he ain't got nothin' else to look ahead to. I kind o' hate to leave myself, but at my age, you know, Duke, a man's got to begin to think of marryin' and settlin' down and fixin' him up a home, as I've said before."

"Many a time before, old feller, so many times I've got it down by heart."

Taterleg looked at him again with that queer turning of the eyes, which he could accomplish with the facility of a fish, and rode on in silence a little way after chiding him in that manner.

"Well, it won't do you no harm," he said.

"No," sighed the Duke, "not a bit of harm."

Taterleg chuckled as he rode along, hummed a tune, laughed again in his dry, clicking way, deep down in his throat.

"I met Alta the other day when I was down in Glendora," he said.

"Did you make up?"

"Make up! That girl looks to me like a tin cup by the side of a silver shavin' mug now, Duke. Compare that girl to Nettie, and she wouldn't take the leather medal. She says: 'Good morning, Mr. Wilson,' she says, and I turned my head quick, like I was lookin' around for him, and never kep' a-lettin' on like I knew she meant me."

"That was kind of rough treatment for a lady, Taterleg."

"It would be for a lady, but for that girl it ain't. It's what's comin' to her, and what I'll hand her ag'in, if she ever's got the gall to speak to me."

The Duke had no further comment on Taterleg's rules of conduct. They went along in silence a little way, but that was a state that Taterleg could not long endure.

"Well, I'll soon be in the oyster parlor up to the bellyband," he said, full of the cheer of his prospect. "Nettie's got the place picked out and nailed down—I sent her the money to pay the rent. I'll be handin' out stews with a slice of pickle on the side of the dish before another week goes by, Duke."

"What are you goin' to make oysters out of in Wyoming?" the Duke inquired wonderingly.

"Make 'em out of? Oysters, of course. What do you reckon?"

"There never was an oyster within a thousand miles of Wyoming, Taterleg. They wouldn't keep to ship that far, much less till you'd used 'em up."

"Cove oysters, Duke, cove oysters," corrected Taterleg gently. "You couldn't hire a cowman to eat any other kind, you couldn't put one of them slick fresh fellers down him with a pair of tongs."

"Well, I guess you know, old feller."

Taterleg fell into a reverie, from which he started presently with a vehement exclamation of profanity.

"If she's got bangs, I'll make her cut 'em off!" he said.

"Who cut 'em off?" Lambert asked, viewing this outburst of feeling in surprise.

"Nettie! I don't want no bangs around me to remind me of that snipe-legged Alta Wood. Bangs may be all right for fellers with music boxes in their watches, but they don't go with me no more."

"I didn't see Jedlick around the ranch up there; what do you suppose become of him?"

"Well, from what the boys told me, if he's still a-goin' like he was when they seen him last, he must be up around Medicine Hat by now."

"It was a sin the way you threw a scare into that man, Taterleg."

"I'm sorry I didn't lay him out on a board, dern him!"

"Yes, but you might as well let him have Alta."

"He can come back and take her any time he wants her, Duke."

The Duke seemed to reflect this simple exposition of Jedlick's present case.

"Yes, I guess that's so," he said.

For a mile or more there was no sound but the even swing of their horses' hoofs as they beat in the long, easy gallop which they could hold for a day without a break. Then Lambert:

"Plannin' to leave tonight, are you Taterleg?"

"All set for leavin', Duke."

On again, the frost-powdered grass brittle under the horses' feet.

"I think I'll pull out tonight, too."

"Why, I thought you was goin' to stay till Vesta left, Duke?"

"Changed my mind."

"Don't you reckon Vesta she'll be a little put out if you leave the ranch after she'd figgered on you to stay and pick up and gain and be stout and hearty to go in the sheep business next spring?"

"I hope not."

"Yeh, but I bet she will. Do you reckon she'll ever come back to the ranch any more when she goes away?"

"What?" said Lambert, starting as if he had been asleep.

"Vesta; do you reckon she'll ever come back any more?"

"Well," slowly, thoughtfully, "there's no tellin', Taterleg."

"She's got a stockin' full of money now, and nobody dependin' on her. She's just as likely as not to marry some lawyer or some other shark that's after her dough."

"Yes, she may."

"No, I don't reckon much she'll ever come back. She ain't got nothing to look back to here but hard times and shootin' scrapes—nobody to 'sociate with and wear low-neckid dresses like women with money want to."

"Not much chance for it here—you're right."

"You'd 'a' had it nice and quiet there with them sheep if you'd 'a' been able to go pardners with Vesta like you planned, old Nick Hargus in the pen and the rest of them fellers cleaned out."

"Yes, I guess there'll be peace around the ranch for some time to come."

"Well, you made the peace around there, Duke; if it hadn't 'a' been for you they'd 'a' broke Vesta up and run her out by now."

"You had as much to do with bringin' them to time as I did, Taterleg."

"Me? Look me over, Duke; feel of my hide. Do you see any knife scars in me, or feel any bullet holes anywhere? I never done nothing but ride along that fence, hopin' for a somebody to start something. They never done it."

"They knew you too well, old feller."

"Knowed me!" said Taterleg. "Huh!"

On again in quiet, Glendora in sight when they topped a hill. Taterleg seemed to be thinking deeply; his face was sentimentally serious.

"Purty girl," he said in a pleasant vein of musing.

"Which one?"

"Vesta. I like 'em with a little more of a figger, a little thicker in some places and wider in others, but she's trim and she's tasty, and her heart's pure gold."

"You're right it is, Taterleg," Lambert agreed, keeping his eyes straight ahead as they rode on.

"You're aimin' to come back in the spring and go pardners with her on the sheep deal, ain't you, Duke?"

"I don't expect I'll ever come back, Taterleg."

"Well," said Taterleg abstractedly, "I don't know."

They rode past the station, the bullet-scarred rain barrel behind which Tom Hargus took shelter in the great battle still standing in its place, and past the saloon, the hitching-rack empty before it, for this was the round-up season—nobody was in town.

"There's that slab-sided, spider-legged Alta Wood standin' out on the porch," said Taterleg disgustedly, falling behind Lambert, reining around on the other side to put him between the lady and himself.

"You'd better stop and bid her good-bye," Lambert suggested.

Taterleg pulled his hat over his eyes to shut out the sight of her, turned his head, ignoring her greeting. When they were safely past he cast a cautious look behind.

"I guess that settled her hash!" he said. "Yes, and I'd like to wad a handful of chewin' gum in them old bangs before I leave this man's town!"

"You've broken her chance for a happy married life with Jedlick, Taterleg. Your heart's as hard as a bone."

"The worst luck I can wish her is that Jedlick'll come back," he said, turning to look at her as he spoke. Alta waved her hand.

"She's a forgivin' little soul, anyway," Lambert said.

"Forgivin'! 'Don't hurt him, Mr. Jedlick,' she says, 'don't hurt him!' Huh! I had to build a fire under that old gun of mine to melt the chawin' wax off of her. I wouldn't give that girl a job washin' dishes in the oyster parlor if she was to travel from here to Wyoming on her knees."

So they arrived at the ranch from their last expedition together. Lambert gave Taterleg his horse to take to the barn, while he stopped in to deliver Pat Sullivan's check to Vesta and straighten up the final business, and tell her good-bye.



CHAPTER XXVII

EMOLUMENTS AND REWARDS

Lambert took off his hat at the door and smoothed his hair with his palm, tightened up his necktie, looked himself over from chest to toes. He drew a deep breath then, like a man fortifying himself for a trial that called for the best that was in him to come forward. He knocked on the door.

He was wearing a brown duck coat with a sheepskin collar, the wool of which had been dyed a mottled saffron, and corduroy breeches as roomy of leg as Taterleg's state pair. These were laced within the tall boots which he had bought in Chicago, and in which he took a singular pride on account of their novelty on the range.

It was not a very handsome outfit, but there was a rugged picturesqueness in it that the pistol belt and chafed scabbard enhanced, and he carried it like a man who was not ashamed of it, and graced it by the worth that it contained.

The Duke's hair had grown long; shears had not touched his head since his fight with Kerr's men. Jim Wilder's old scar was blue on his thin cheek that day, for the wind had been cold to face. He was so solemn and severe as he stood waiting at the door that it would seem to be a triumph to make him smile.

Vesta came to the door herself, with such promptness that seemed to tell she must have been near it from the moment his foot fell on the porch.

"I've come to settle up with you on our last deal, Vesta," he said.

She took him to the room in which they always transacted business, which was a library in fact as well as name. It had been Philbrook's office in his day. Lambert once had expressed his admiration for the room, a long and narrow chamber with antlers on the walls above the bookcases, a broad fireplace flanked by leaded casement windows. It was furnished with deep leather chairs and a great, dark oak table, which looked as if it had stood in some English manor in the days of other kings. The windows looked out upon the river.

A pleasant place on a winter night, Lambert thought, with a log fire on the dogs, somebody sitting near enough that one could reach out and find her hand without turning his eyes from the book, the last warm touch to crown the comfort of his happy hour.

"You mean our latest deal, not our last, I hope, Duke," she said, sitting at the table, with him at the head of it like a baron returned to his fireside after a foray in the field.

"I'm afraid it will be our last; there's nothing left to sell but the fence."

She glanced at him with relief in her eyes, a quick smile coming happily to her lips. He was busy with the account of calves and grown stock which he had drawn from his wallet, the check lying by his hand. His face taken as an index to it, there was not much lightness in his heart. Soon he had acquitted himself of his stewardship and given the check into her hand. Then he rose to leave her. For a moment he stood silent, as if turning his thoughts.

"I'm going away," he said, looking out of the window down upon the tops of the naked cottonwoods along the river.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse