His manner roused the foreman to a soreness he wasn't slow in showing.
"Jest thirty Shorthorn yearlings," he said without any attempt to soften the blow. "Jest thirty—prize stock."
The announcement had an unlooked-for effect. Where Nan expected another furious display Bud remained silent. His eyes were wide as they stared into the foreman's. But no word came. Then, after a few moments, he began to laugh and Nan understood. She felt it was either that, or—her father would break something.
"Well, I go plumb to hell!" he cried at last. And Nan felt relieved at the sound of his voice.
The next moment Lal Hobhouse was pouring out his story with a redundant selection from his choicest vocabulary of abusive epithet, which was impartially divided between the rustlers and the cowhands under his charge. Nan waited patiently, her eyes studying her father's face. But whatever his feelings he permitted them no further display, and, at the conclusion of the story, instead of offering comment, or reverting to his own discoveries, he turned to his daughter with a smile.
"Food on, Nan?" he inquired, in his easy way. "Guess I'm needin' food—pretty bad. Maybe we'll feel better after."
Then he turned to the men who stood around.
"Git on down to the bunkhouse an' feed, boys. One o' you grab my plug. After, we'll get around out with Lal here. I——"
He broke off as Nan darted away down the veranda. The mail man had just clattered up to the front of the house, and she had gone to meet him.
Bud passed his horse on to one of the men, and, with heavy strides, clanking with the rattle of his heavy Mexican spurs, his leather chapps creaking as he moved, he mounted the veranda and made his way into the house.
* * * * * *
Nan entered the parlor with her hands full of mail. The meal was laid ready, and a colored girl was setting the chairs in their places.
"I'll jest get a clean up, Nan," her father said, without a single trace of his recent display. "Guess I'm full of dust."
He passed through the little room like some overwhelming mammoth. He seemed altogether too vast for the small home, which had never grown with his other worldly possessions. Nan watched him go. Then she laid the mail down on a side table and began to sort it out.
There were a number of letters for Jeff. These she set carefully aside in a pile by themselves for redirection. There were several addressed in girlish hands to herself. For Bud there were only a few. She glanced over the superscription of each. One or two were easily recognized business letters. There was a paper, however, addressed in Jeff's hand, and a letter of considerable bulk. These were what she had been looking for. She pushed the bunkhouse mail aside, and regarded reflectively the outer covering of Jeff's letter to her father.
It was not the first he had received from Jeff during the four weeks since their return home. But its bulk this time was out of the ordinary, and the carefully folded news sheet was more than interesting. It awakened every doubt, every fear to which she had been a prey.
The rapid beating of her heart left her with a choking sensation. Vivid imagination was at work, and she was reading in fancy under those covers that which, sooner or later, she knew she must read in fact.
These were bad moments for the girl, moments which found her again struggling with that self which left her little enough peace. Perhaps the struggle lasted five minutes. Perhaps less. At any rate it seemed an eternity to Nan before the hired girl announced the meal.
Nan sighed as she moved from the side table on which the mail was spread out.
"Give father a call," she said, and took up a position at the open French window.
Her back was turned when Bud responded to the summons. The cold sluice he had just indulged in seemed to have entirely restored his equanimity. His voice came cheerily.
"Guess we best set in, little gal," he said, moving to his place at the table. "We'll need to get busy after."
Nan turned. She watched Maimie deposit the hot dishes. Then, when the girl had withdrawn, she took her place opposite her father.
"There's a deal of mail for Jeff," she said, as she sat down. "There's some for you, too, Daddy. There's a letter and—a newspaper. Maybe you'd feel like reading them right away. Guess there won't be time after."
With all her might she struggled for indifference. With all her might she desired that her father should miss the fears which prompted her. But she only succeeded in telling him of them in every word she spoke.
Bud agreed readily. He rose and fetched his letter—and the newspaper which Nan so feared.
Nan went on with her food. Her father tore open the covering of the letter. She was watching him covertly and silently whilst he read page after page. She was searching for confirmation of her worst fears. She was torturing herself.
Bud's dissimulation was never great. Nan watched the play of his expression. There was no smile. As the silent moments passed his brow became heavier. The furrow deepened between his eyes, and once there came that rather helpless raising of his hand to his forehead. Then, too, she observed the compression of his lips, and the occasional dilation of his nostrils. Each observation carried conviction, and the weight upon her heart grew almost insupportable.
Finally he laid the letter down and went on with his meal. But he did not even glance at the wrappered newspaper.
In self-defense Nan was forced to break the silence. If it had remained she felt she must scream. Instead she smiled over at him, and indicated the newspaper.
"The Calthorpe Times, isn't it?" she said without a tremor.
The harsh tone was intended to convey indifference.
"Won't you open it?" she asked. "Maybe Jeff's marked a piece."
Then Bud gave a display such as Nan had never witnessed in him before.
"Say, ain't we never to get food a feller ken eat?" he cried. "That nigger slut needs firin' right away. Guess she couldn't cook a dry hash on a round-up. I'm quittin'. This stew 'ud choke a she-wolf."
His eyes were hot. He thrust his plate away from him and pushed back his chair. But Nan's calmness defeated his almost childlike subterfuge.
"Say, my Daddy, you don't need to quit. Sure," she added, a pathetic smile lighting her brown eyes, "I guess the stew's pretty good to any hungry folks, and Maimie's just the dandiest cook anywhere around."
She paused. Bud stood yearning for five minutes of unrestrained blasphemy as he read the understanding lying behind her words.
"I don't guess it's the food worrying, or Maimie's cooking," Nan went on, almost at once. "It's your letter. Maybe there's a heap of things in it you aren't yearning to hand over to me." A sigh escaped her. "Will I tell you of them? Maybe one'll be sufficient. It's the one worrying you most. It's—it's his marriage. It's fixed. The date—I mean."
Then she pointed at the unopened paper.
"Likely it's in that. And that's why he's sent it. Shall I see?"
She reached out and picked up the offending packet, and, with a swift movement, ripped the fastening open with one finger. Without a word she unfolded the sheet, seeking a marked passage. It was there, as she knew it would be. It was found in a twinkling. No one could have missed it. Heavy ink outlined it in the column of "City Chatter," and she read the paragraph aloud without a tremor of voice. Her deliberateness nearly drove the ranchman to distraction.
"The friends of Mrs. John D. Carruthers will be interested to learn that the marriage of her daughter, Mrs. Elvine van Blooren, widow of the late Robert van Blooren, to Jeffrey Masters, of the celebrated 'Obar' Ranch, and this year's President of the Western Union Cattle Breeders' Association, is to be solemnized at the Church of St. Mary in this city on August 4th next. The Rev. Claude I. Carston, M. A., will——"
There was more of it, much more, referring in the usual local journalistic fashion to the "happy event," and dwelling upon the important "social standing" of the bride and bridegroom. But Nan read no further then. There was no need to. Was not the completeness of her disaster contained in those lines? The courage of the front she displayed before the sympathetic eyes of her father was superlative.
There was just a pause. It was the tragic pause under a staggering blow. Then she forced a smile into the brave eyes, which never for a moment fell before the other's regard.
"There! There, my Daddy," she said, with a studied calm which did not conceal the dry-throated swallow which accompanied the words. "I guess it was how I thought. You were scared. Scared to tell me." She shook her head. "It's—it's not very brave, is it? I wonder why you were scared? You needn't have been. Folks don't need to be scared of—anything. What you need most is just to—to grit your teeth and—die hard."
Her manner was becoming abstracted. It seemed as if she were addressing herself, warning herself, and fighting down a weakness which was threatening to overwhelm her.
Presently she went on, while the man stood by utterly robbed of the power to comfort her:
"August the fourth," she murmured. "August—that's six weeks from now. Six weeks of—sunshine and—and warmth. When the harvest's ripening, and all the world's just—glad. And he'll be glad, and—and happy, too. Yes, Jeff will be very, very happy because—she's going to make him happy."
Quite suddenly she started up from her chair. A dreadful panic had leaped to her eyes. The delicious, healthy color had been swept from her pretty downy cheeks. The corners of her sweet mouth were drooping, and her hands were held out in a gesture of despairing appeal.
"Daddy, Daddy, he will—he will be happy, won't he?" she cried. "I—I just need him to be happy, more—yes, more than anything in the world. Sure, sure, she'll make him happy? Oh, if she doesn't!"
Still the man looked on, a helpless spectator of the girl's suffering. Nor did it seem that his own was any less. But Nan seemed to realize the weakness in her momentary display. Her hands dropped to her side. There was even a visible effort in the manner in which she strove for self-mastery. Her smooth brow puckered in an intense frown, and, to Bud, it almost seemed that she was literally clenching her teeth to hold back the passionate distress which was seeking to find expression.
After a moment something of full self-possession seemed to return to her. She smiled. But it was a smile that lacked conviction. A smile that almost broke her father's heart.
"Tell me, Daddy," she pleaded. "Do you think—he'd—he'd have me be a—a bridesmaid? Would it sort of help him any?" she hurried on. "You see, I—I want him to be real happy. I want him to feel that we just love him, and that—that—we're just glad for him, and—and nothing in the world else matters—to anybody. I'm so——"
There was a little catch of breath. The words she would have spoken died upon her lips. She reeled. Every vestige of color left her pretty face, and her eyes half closed. Just for one weak instant her hands groped behind her for the chair. Then, the next, Bud was at her side, and one strong arm was supporting her.
"Don't, Nan!" he cried, in his heavy cumbersome way. And the sound of his deep voice alone served to ward off the encroachment of that final weakness which, in spite of all her courage, the girl was at last compelled to yield to.
Bud drew her to him, and one hand smoothed her pretty brown hair with rough tenderness. For a moment her head rested against his broad bosom. Then a deep sigh came, and Nan looked up, smiling into the steady gray eyes gazing down at her, through a mist of welling tears.
"My dear—dear old Daddy," she murmured, as the tears finally overflowed and slowly rolled down her cheeks.
THE KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
It seemed like the hand of Destiny that Elvine van Blooren should wander across the path of Jeffrey Masters at a moment when all the fruits of his ambition seemed to be falling into his outspread-hands. It was surely the work of Fate that instant recognition of her desirability leaped in his heart, so that some six weeks later they should set out on their life's journey together on the eastward bound mail train, which bore, in its foremost van, the mails for the world outside, gathered in from every district in the region of Calthorpe.
Their happiness was perfect. In six weeks' time the metamorphosis in the woman had been as complete as it was in the case of the man.
For the man it seemed that life had opened out an entirely new vista. He had warmed under the influence of his new passion. The angles in his character seemed to have softened. Achievement had receded into its due proportion in his focus. The world had become peopled with warm living creatures whose strivings were now a source of sympathy to him. Life no longer moved about him detached, unappealing.
So with the woman. Elvine van Blooren's past was her own. Whatever it was she hugged it to herself, and the very process of doing so had helped to harden her.
But she possessed fires she had wilfully hidden, even from herself. For four years she had lived a life of desperate calculation against all those things she most dreaded, till she felt she had converted herself into a machine free from all trammeling emotions, equipped solely to execute the purpose she had set her mind on.
These fires were awakened early. Their awakening had been all unknown to her. Yet she had admitted them when she had warned her mother that she intended to "like" the man she ultimately married. All subconsciously she had "liked" Jeffrey Masters from their first formal meeting. Further acquaintance had deepened her liking. The keen eyes possessed strong qualities of appeal. The decision of his clean-cut face suggested all that strength which appealed to her.
The culmination was reached long before the appointed day of their wedding. It came at the moment he definitely asked her to become his wife. It had been a moment to her than which she had dreamed of nothing more sublime. The flood-gates had been literally forced open before a tide of sudden passion, which left her gasping, and something incredulous. Where was all the result of her years of hard calculation? Where was that machine upon which she had gazed with so much confident pride? It had only served her just so long as was required to realize that Jeffrey Masters was sufficiently desirable to fulfil the purposes of the life she had marked out for herself. Then, the primitive woman in her had abandoned herself to the glowing fires burning deep within her young heart.
Thus the bond held them both through delicious days, which so little time before had seemed impossible to either. Thus the time drew on toward the golden day of consummation. And with each passing day firmer and firmer, more and more irresistible, grew the ties under which they were held.
As the local press had foreshadowed, the event of their marriage proved of primary social importance. All Calthorpe speeded them upon their life's journey, and the east-bound mail bore them away with the echo of cheery farewells, and every other form of speeding, dying pleasantly away behind them. So, too, the snake-like string of coaches bore the burden of Destiny in the great uninteresting, padlocked baskets and bags which contained the mail.
The days of the honeymoon had been carefully thought out by Elvine. Her wishes had been supreme. Toronto was their first destination. A city whose bright, pleasant life appealed to her more, perhaps, even than any of the great cities of the greater world.
Perfect happiness was theirs from the moment of their departure eastward. No cloud drifted in sight during their first day in the great hotel from which they intended to view the life of Toronto. Then came the second morning, and the—mail.
They occupied a suite of rooms upon the first floor of the hotel. It overlooked the wide portico which supported a deep balcony devoted to their sole use. Jeff was alone in the luxurious sitting-room when the mail was brought in by a waiter. He was glancing down the morning paper while he waited for Elvine, who was preparing for a morning round of the stores.
His attention for the news he read was less than scant. It is doubtful if he read more than the head-lines, and these only with partial understanding. His mind was upon the beautiful woman in the adjacent apartment arraying herself with all the arts of a woman in love for the benefit of the man whose regard is alone worth while.
His eyes were smiling unconsciously; something of the keenness of his whole expression had become lost under their new expression. Dressed in the simple garb of civilization he had little about him, beyond the intense sunburn of his face, to remind one of the urgent young ranchman who had first planned the combination which was to develop into the famous Obar Ranch.
At the arrival of the mail he flung his paper aside. Then he picked up each letter in turn, examined the address, and set aside, in a separate pile, those addressed to his wife. Of his own there were only four, and, of these, only the one addressed in Bud's cumbersome handwriting interested him seriously.
Before opening it he pierced and lit a cigar. He felt that from its bulk the letter must contain important reports from the ranch, and, coming at such a time, would need the steadying influence of a cigar to enable him to give them the consideration necessary.
He lounged back in the big chair and leisurely tore open the envelope.
* * * * * *
The door communicating with the principal bedroom opened noiselessly. Elvine entered the sitting-room, accompanied by that delightful rustle of silk which is quite irresistible to male ears. At all times a beautiful woman, just now she was incomparable.
A joy of life lit every feature, endowing her with an animation of expression unrecognizable in her a few short weeks ago. There was a melting lustre in her dark eyes, a gentleness in the smiling corners of her irresistible mouth. Her cheeks, even, seemed to have gained an added softness of contour. While the masses of dark hair revealed beneath her hat shone with the burnish of the raven's wing.
Her husband had turned on the instant. His cigar was flung aside. A moment later he was on his feet, and his arms, full of vital impulse, came near to destroying the perfection of her toilet.
The woman made no protest under the embrace. It told her so many things she wanted to know. It told her of the love she now so frankly desired. It told her, too, that the efforts on her toilet had not been ill-spent.
Presently Jeff stood back, holding her at arm's length, while his hungry eyes devoured every feature of the face that had taught him so much of the real meaning of life.
"Splendid—just splendid!" he exclaimed.
The smile was enticing. The man laughed out of the buoyancy of his heart.
"No—you!" he cried, leaning forward for the embrace she had invited.
A moment later he stood back again, and Elvine's eyes fell upon the mail lying upon the table.
"Some for me?" she inquired, moving toward it.
Jeff nodded. Then his smile died out. His gaze had fallen upon his own open letter. It was lying upon the table near the pile set aside for his wife, just where he had flung it down at the moment of her entrance.
"Quite a few," he said.
The unsmiling nature of his response had caught Elvine's attention. But she picked up her letters and glanced hastily through them.
A moment later her eyes came back to his face.
"Aren't you going to finish yours?" she inquired.
She was seeking the meaning of that suddenly banished smile.
It was almost with eagerness that the man caught at the opportunity.
"It's from Bud, and—I guess it's important. I've only two or three pages more."
He picked the letter up and sorted the sheets into order. Elvine watched him. She wanted to ask a dozen questions. But she put none of them.
"He's your partner," was all she said.
"Yep," he nodded, with his eyes on the pages.
Then Elvine voiced something of her real feelings of the moment.
"I just hate mail," she said, with what seemed unnecessary force, as she began to draw on her gloves. "It always worries me to death. I think it scares me. Makes me think of death, or disaster, or—or bills and things." She laughed. "Maybe it's my pessimistic nature makes me feel that way. When things are all sunshiny and fine, why, it kind of feels to me there are clouds around. Nasty, mean, hateful shadows lurking, full of——"
"Hell for some one, eh?"
There was a wry twist to the man's lips as he smiled his reply.
"Guess that's how it is with mine," he went on. "I'll just read these pages, and then we'll get going. Eh?"
The woman's watchful eye smiled assent and she continued to draw her gloves on. But her observation of him seemed to gather intensity the moment he became absorbed in the clumsy, unskilled handwriting.
The last vestige of his smile had gone. His fair brows had knitted in a troubled frown. He seemed to read eagerly but intently, absorbed to an unusual degree.
She realized the seriousness of that letter. And for some curious reason alarm supervened. He had spoken of it easily, but his manner of reading denied his spoken word.
The silent moments irked her. The rustle of the paper in his hands. A feeling of foreboding grew, a feeling she knew was foolish, but which at the same time was irresistible. She found herself speculating as to the contents of the letter. She strove to review all the possibilities which the great Obar Ranch could offer for disaster. And her mind drifted back over years to a memory that gave her not a shadow of comfort.
The last button of her gloves had been secured when the refolding of the letter came. Jeff deliberately, but abstractedly, returned it to its cover. His smile was scarcely a happy one when he finally looked up.
"I'm through, sweetheart," he said. "Shall we——?"
But Elvine's feelings would no longer be denied.
"Serious as all that?" she demanded. The next moment she would have given worlds to have been able to recall the words.
"I'm afraid it is—in a way."
Elvine had no option but to continue the subject. She spoke with real feeling.
"May I know, dear?" she appealed. "You see, Jeff, things often read worse than they are. Maybe I can help. I've a clearer head than you'd guess."
The man's cheeks flushed. He had distressed her, frightened her, and the thought of it annoyed him. He stepped toward her, his hands outheld. She responded, and her hands were caught in his firm warm clasp.
"Say, I'm just sorry. I surely am. Guess I've no sort of right scaring you. Anyway, there's nothing to be scared about. Just a bunch of rustlers——"
The woman's whole expression had become transformed. The announcement had shocked her out of her self-possession. Her smile had fled. Her eyes were wide, and their dark depths were full of a horror that seemed quite uncalled for. Even her cheeks had lost their delicate bloom. Her gaze was held fast by the man's steady regard. It was almost a fascinated stare held under some powerful hypnotic influence.
The man was at a loss. But he promptly claimed the fault to himself.
"Don't just worry a thing, Evie," he cried, in real distress. "It don't amount to anything. And anyway you don't need to worry. We can deal with it. I best tell you right away. You see, it's their second play since I've been from home. Bud's feeling sore. First it was a great imported bull they shot up while they ran off his cows, and a dandy bunch of yearling prize stock. Now—now it's a swell bunch of fifty beeves that had been fattening for the buyers. The loss don't hurt. Oh, no, it's not that."
He paused. Somehow their hands fell apart, and, to the woman, now recovering herself, it was as though some shadow had thrust itself between them. She waited, vaguely troubled. Somehow speech for the moment had become impossible to her. She was thinking, thinking far back amidst scenes she had no desire to recall.
Her husband went on. His manner had lost all the contrition he had displayed at alarming her. It was abstracted. He too seemed to be thinking deeply, far away amidst scenes which afforded him only the deepest pain.
"I've just thought," he said. Then he raised one strong hand and passed it across his broad forehead. He drew a profound sigh. "Say, I wonder," he went on reflectively. "It's things Bud's said in his yarn. Suspicions. They brought up all sorts of queer things to my mind."
The smile he essayed was a hopeless failure. Then, in a moment, all doubt seemed to pass away and he spoke with quick, keen decision.
"I'll have to tell you, Evie. You'd sort of made me forget. These days have been the happiest I've ever known, and you've made 'em so. That's how I forgot to tell you of things I guess you ought to know."
But the woman before him had no desire for his present mood. She smilingly shook her head in a decided negative. The last thing she desired was anything in the nature of a confidence.
"Is there any need—now?" she asked. Then she smiled. "The stores are waiting."
But she had yet to learn the real character of the man whom she had married. She had yet to understand the meaning of the simple sobriquet "Honest Jeff," which Nan Tristram had long since bestowed upon him. He was not the man to be turned from a decision once taken. The decision on this occasion was arrived at through the depth of the passionate devotion which controlled his every thought. His love for Elvine made his purpose only the more irrevocable.
"I think they had best wait a shade longer," he said with a shadowy smile. "You see, Evie, I kind of figure there's things that matter more than just gathering in the fancy goods money'll buy—even for you. Guess I owe you most everything a man can give, the same as you feel toward me. That's how marriage—marriage like ours—seems to me. As far as I can make it there's not going to be a thing on my conscience toward you. I'd have told you this before, only—only you just drove it right out of my head with the sight of your beautiful face, the sound of your voice, which I just love, and the thought that you—you were to be my wife. You see," he went on simply, "I hadn't room in my head for anything else."
His manner was so firmly gentle that Elvine's protest melted before it. After all it was very sweet, and—and—— She drew a chair forward and sat down. But her smile hid her real feelings. Confidences, confessions, even from a husband, were repugnant to her.
Jeff remained standing. He gazed for a few silent moments in the direction of the open window. The expression of his blue eyes suggested a deep, searching introspection. He might have been searching for an opening. Again, he might simply have been reviewing scenes which stirred his innermost soul with their horror and pain.
At last, however, Elvine made a half impatient movement. Instantly the blue eyes turned in her direction, and their expression startled her. They were full of a stony, passionless regard. Not for her, but inspired by the thought behind them. She shivered under their gaze and their impression upon her was never afterward obliterated.
"It's four years past now," he began, in a voice she scarcely recognized. "These rustlers brought it all back to me. Say, Evie, I had a twin brother, Ronald. Maybe that won't convey much. I sort of loved him—better than myself. That's all. He was a bit queer. I mean he just didn't care a heap for running along the main trail of things. He was apt to get all mussed up running around byways. Well, when Bud and I fixed up the Obar partnership, I was just crazy to hunt Ronny down, and hand him a share. Bud's a great feller, and I told him. I knew whereabouts the boy had staked out, and, figuring we'd earned a vacation, Bud and I set out to round him up, and hand him a piece which I guessed would keep him with me the rest of his life."
He paused. He drew a deep breath, and his eyes, hard as marble, had turned again in the direction of the window.
Elvine was held even against herself. The expression of his eyes, even more than the curious sharpness of his voice, troubled her, alarmed her.
"I'm not going to yarn more than necessary," he went on after a moment. "There isn't any need. I just want to give you the deadly facts. As I said, I knew his layout, where he was—supposed to be trapping pelts. Supposed. Bud had been raised in the district, so he acted scout. He made the location and found him. D'you know how?"
There was a restrained fierceness in the sharp demand.
The woman shook her head. Any word would have seemed out of place.
"Hanging by the neck to the bough of a tree."
"Jeff, don't!" the woman gasped.
But now there was a smile in the man's eyes. It was a terrible smile which drove every vestige of color from his wife's cheeks.
"I had to tell you," he cried harshly. "They hanged him for a cattle thief. He was one. Oh, yes. He was one. That's why I had to tell you."
The woman's eyes were wide with a sudden terror to which the man remained oblivious.
"But you said——"
"I said he was pelt hunting. So he'd told me. So I believed. But he wasn't. Say, he was a cattle rustler running a big gang who'd played hell with the district. He'd been running it for nigh five years. He'd beaten 'em to a mush, all that time, till a reward was offered. A reward of ten thousand dollars. That fixed him. There was some one knew wanted that reward, and—got it."
There was a sudden movement in the room. Elvine had abruptly risen from her chair. She moved away. She crossed to the window, and stood with her back turned, and so had thrust herself into her husband's focus.
"It's—it's a terrible—dreadful story," came her faltering comment.
"Terrible? Dreadful?" The man emitted a sound that might have been a laugh. A shudder passed down the woman's back as it fell upon her ears. "But it's nothing to the reality, Evie. Oh, I've no sympathy for his crimes. I hate rustlers like the poison they are. But he was twin to me, and I loved him. It made no difference to me. You see, he was part of me. Now—now I only hope the good God'll let me come up with the man who took the price of his blood. For four years I've dreamed that way, and I guess it don't matter if it's fifty more. I'll never change. There's some one, somewhere, who's lower down than the worst cattle rustler ever lived."
There was no response as the man ceased speaking. Elvine had not stirred from her place at the window. The moments passed. Swift, poignant moments, in which two people were enduring an agony of recollection.
The man's relentless expression never changed. His eyes were gazing straight ahead. And though his vision was obstructed by the perfect contours of his wife's figure, he was gazing through her, and beyond her, upon a scene which had for its central interest the suspended figure of a man with his head lolling forward and sideways, and his dead eyes bulging from their sockets.
Elvine never stirred. Her gaze was upon the crowded thoroughfare beyond. But like her husband, she was gazing through and beyond. She was watching the tongues of flame as they licked up the resinous trunks and foliage of a great pine bluff.
At length it was the woman's voice broke the silence.
"Where—where did this all happen?"
The question was the verbal expression of a despairing hope. The voice, however, was steady.
"In the Cathills."
"The Lightfoot gang?"
"Yes. That's what he called it. You knew of them?"
There was a slight movement of the woman's shoulders. It was the faintest possible shrug.
"Everybody in Calthorpe heard of them."
Then she turned and faced him. The mask with which she confronted him was perfect. Her dark beauty was unimpaired by a sign of emotion. Even her cheeks had returned to their customary delicate bloom. Her eyes shone with a world of sympathy as she came toward him.
"Jeff, don't think of it all—now, dear. It's too, too dreadful. Guess I was wrong to let you tell me. I certainly was. It's past. It's done with. Nothing can ever bring him back to you. To dwell upon it, to think and feel that way, will only serve to embitter your life. Say, try, Jeff. I'll help you, dear. I will. Sure. Sure. Won't you try, for—my sake?"
The man took her hands in his. He drew her toward him. The strained expression of his eyes melted before her perfect beauty.
"I'll try, Evie," he said, without conviction. Then he kissed her.
After a while she looked up.
"And the stores, Jeff?"
The man smiled down in response.
Six weeks of all she had ever hoped for, dreamed of, in the lean years of heart starvation. The complete devotion of a strong man, a man who held a place in the world she knew. Every luxury wealth could purchase at her disposal, even to satiation. Her every whim ministered to, and even anticipated. This was something of the ripe fruit literally heaped into Elvine's lap. She had longed for it, schemed for it, and Providence had permitted all her efforts complete success.
Now, with those six weeks behind her, she gazed upon the balance-sheet. She looked for the balance of happiness. To her horror it was blotted out, smudged out of all recognition. Oh, yes, the figures had been entered, but now they were completely obscured.
It was the last stage of her journey to her new home. It was a journey being made in the saddle. Their baggage, a large number of trunks loaded with the precious gleanings from the great stores during the honeymoon, had been sent on ahead by wagon. There was nothing, so far as could be seen, to rob the home-coming of its proper sense of delight. Yet delight was more than far off. Elvine was a prey to a hopelessness which nothing seemed able to relieve.
Summer was not yet over, although the signs of the coming fall were by no means lacking. The hard trail, like some carefully set out terra-cotta ribbon upon a field of tawny green, took them through a region of busy harvesting. The tractors and threshers were busily engaged in many directions. Great stacks of straw testified to the ample harvest in progress. Fall ploughing had already begun, and high-wheeled wagons bore their burden of produce toward the distant elevators. Then, too, human freight passed them, happy, smiling freight of old and young, whose sun-scorched faces reflected something of the joy of life and general prosperity prevailing.
A radiant sun looked down upon the scenes through which they passed. It was the wonderful ripening God almost worshipped of these people who lived by the fruits of the earth. Jeffrey Masters understood it all, and reveled in the pleasant senses it stirred. For he, too, lived by the fruits of the earth, although his harvest was garnered in the flesh of creature kind.
Elvine looked on with eyes that beheld but saw nothing of that which inspired her husband. Remembrance claimed her. Too well she remembered. And gladly would she have shut out such sights altogether, for more and more surely they crushed her already depressed spirits to a depth from which it seemed impossible to raise them.
Nor was her beautiful face without some reflection of this. Her smile was ready for the man at her side. She laughed and talked in a manner so care-free that he could never have suspected. But in repose, when no eyes were upon her, a lurking, hunted dread peered furtively out of her dark eyes, and the fine-drawn lines gathered about her shapely lips, and seriously marred the serenity of their youthful contours.
She had one purpose now, one only. It was to ward off the blow which she knew might fall at any moment when she reached her new home. The threat of it was with her always. It drove her to panic in the dark of night. It left her watchful and fearful in the light of day. At all times the memory of her husband's words dinned through her brain like the haunt of some sickening melody.
"Now I only hope the good God'll let me come up with the man who took the price of his blood."
It had been spoken coldly. It had been spoken with an intensity of bitterness that left an impression as hard as flint. The tone had set her shuddering. Then the look in those cold blue eyes when at last she had turned confronting them. No, there had been no mercy in them. No mercy, she told herself, for—anybody.
At that moment she had known that the earth could hold no future peace for her. She felt that Fate had passed sentence on her, and she was powerless to stay its execution. Her husband demanded vengeance upon the man who had accepted the price of his brother's blood.
For the moment she had been stunned. Then had risen up in her a desperate courage. She would fight. She would fight for herself, she would fight for the love which all unbidden, all undesired, had come to her. Then, in the end, if defeat should overtake her, she would, yes, she could, submit to the punishment his hand should mete out to her.
Strangely, from that moment her love for this man seemed to increase a thousandfold. He grew in her heart a towering colossus of worship. The primitive in her bowed down before his image ready to yield to his lightest word, while, by every art, she was ready to cajole and foster his love.
It was all she knew, understood. It was the woman in her who possessed no other weapons of defense. She loved him, she desired him, then nothing was too small to cling to with the wild hope of the drowning. When the day came that he should turn and rend her soul she could submit. But until that day she would cling to every straw that offered.
While the scenes through which they were passing preoccupied the man, the silence of the wide plains left Elvine to her fears. The great breadth of the world about her added to her hopelessness. And after a silence which had become unduly protracted, she took refuge in talk for which she had no real desire.
"It's beautiful, but—oppressive," she said, and the words were the inspiration of genuine thought.
But the man was like one who has spent a world of love and devotion upon carving a beautiful setting and is now about to complete his work by securing in place the crowning jewel. He had no room for any feeling of oppression. He shook his head.
"Say, Evie," he cried, "I just can't allow you the word 'oppressive.' I just can't. Look—look right out there toward the hills we're making. Take the colors as they heap up to the distance. Every shade, I guess, from green to purple. It makes me feel good. It gives me room to stretch myself. It sort o' sweeps away a whole heap of fusty city smells, and gives us something a deal more worth breathing. It's a man's place. And it's full of man's work. Guess Providence got busy an' set it all out for us. Providence guessed we'd have to use it. But Providence didn't just guess how far crazy human nature really was. She didn't foresee we'd gather around in the musty dump-holes we call cities. She didn't figure on our tastes for the flesh-pots, and the indulgence of the senses she'd handed us. But then Providence knows her power to fix us right when she feels that way." Then he spread out his arms with an inexpressible suggestion of longing. "Say, I'm crazy—plumb crazy to get the first peek at that dandy home I've had fixed for you."
The woman's eyes sought her husband's with a smile that was a caress.
"You're good to me, Jeff," she said. Then she added: "So good." Her smile deepened. "You'd hand me the world with—with a fence around it, if I asked. Why? Why are you like that?"
It was the love in her seeking reassurance. Nor was she disappointed.
"Why?" The man laughed. And the sound of it was good to hear. It was deep, and seemed to come from the depths of his soul. His blue eyes shone with a world of devotion. "Guess I love you—just that," he said. Then he pointed at the distant hills. "I can't tell you all I feel, Elvie," he said, "but get those hills. See them. There, that peak, sitting right up over its fellows, with a cap of snow on it I don't guess the sun could ever melt. That's thousands of feet up. I'd say man's foot was never set there, nor bird's, nor animal's either. Well, if that peak was a throne it 'ud give you pleasure to occupy, why, I guess I'd just go the limit to have you sit there."
Elvine was gazing at the mountain crest, but she was not thinking of it. She was thinking of the love which the extravagant words expressed, and she was wondering at the bigness of it. She was caught in its power, and it thrilled her with an even greater appreciation of her danger. What would be the result upon such a nature as this man's when—he knew?
"I believe you would," she said, her eyes coming back to the strong, flushed face. Then she added: "Now."
There was a quick lifting in the man's fair brows. There was incredulity in his tone. To him it seemed impossible, the implied doubt in her final word.
"I don't change easy, Elvie," he protested. "I kind of get things hard. It's my way, and it's no doing of mine. Life's a full-sized proposition, and I don't guess we can see far through it. But I can't imagine a thing that could come before you in my thoughts."
"I'd like to think that. I'd like to feel that," Elvine returned. She was smiling up into his eyes. "You see, Jeff, I was kind of thinking. We're young now. We've been together just six weeks. Maybe you'll get used to me later. Men do get used to women till they become sort of part of the furniture. Oh, I guess their love goes right on, but—but they wouldn't feel like starting in to fence in the North Pole, or—or hitch up Niagara to their wife's buggy just because she fancied that way. Say, Jeff, when I lose your love I just lose everything in the world. You—you won't ever let me lose it, will you?"
Jeff shook his head, and smiled in the confidence of feelings.
"Don't ever talk that way. Don't ever think like that," he urged her. Then, as their horses ambled side by side up the last gentle incline before they dropped down to the great plain of the Rainbow Hill Valley, which was the setting of the Obar Ranch, he drew nearer and reached out one arm and gently encircled her waist. "Guess you're feeling like me just now, Evie. Do you know what I mean? We're getting home. Home—yours and mine. Well, say, that home is in my mind now, and it's full to the brim of thoughts of you. You're in it—everywhere. You're part of it. You're just part of me. I can't see any future without you. It don't seem to me there could be any. I don't doubt. I guess the thought of it don't scare me a thing. Maybe with you it's different. Maybe you're scared such happiness can't last. But I tell you it can—it will. You're with me now and always, and I can't see a shadow that could come between us."
"None? No, none, none!"
The woman forced conviction into her final denial, and, for a moment, she permitted herself to yield to the reassuring embrace. Then she started up and released herself.
"Oh, Jeff!" she cried. "I just pray all the time that nothing shall ever rob me of your love. Night and day I pray that way. If I were to lose you, I—I think nothing else would much matter."
The man smiled with supreme confidence. They had reached the top of the hill, and he set his horse into a canter.
"You're just going to live right on—for me, sweetheart," he cried. "Be yourself. Just yourself. The frank, honest woman I know and love. If ever the shadows you fear come to worry us, they'll have to be of your own creating. We have nothing to fear from the future, nothing at all. We'll just drive right on down the clear trail of life. It's only in the byways there's any ugly dumps. Look!" He suddenly flung out one arm, pointing ahead where the great Obar plains rolled away toward the hills below them. "That's the ranch. There. That one there is Bud's homestead, and the other to the right's your—our home. Say, it's good to see—mighty good!"
* * * * * *
Nan gazed upon the result of her labors and decided that it was good. Bud was observing her in his unobtrusive way. They were together in the new parlor of the home which Jeff had had reconstructed under Nan's most careful supervision.
The girl had put forth her greatest effort, greater even than she herself realized, for it had been inspired by a desire that Jeff and his wife should never realize the pain and bitter disappointment she had endured.
Now, as she surveyed each detail in her final tour of inspection, she convinced herself that nothing, nothing she could think of had been forgotten. Even the city-bred Elvine could find no fault with any detail of it.
She and Bud were standing side by side rather like two children gazing in awed wonder at some undreamed of splendor suddenly discovered in a familiar playground, every square foot of which they had believed themselves familiar with.
"I—don't think I've forgotten a thing," Nan said, in a tone subdued by her weight of responsibility.
"Not a thing," agreed Bud, with a perfect disregard for any consequences his statement might have.
He was utterly unchanged. He had made no preparation to receive the bride and bridegroom in their home. He was just the cattleman nothing could change him from. His gray flannel shirt was agape over his sunburned chest. His leather chapps creaked as he moved, his vicious spurs clanked. Then, too, the curling iron-gray hair of his bared head was innocent of all extra combing. With Nan it was different. She had striven to rid herself of every sign of the prairie to which she belonged. She was dressed with consummate care. Every jealous feeling of the woman in her had cried out for her rights, and those rights were that her successful rival should be unable to sneer at or pity her.
The result was a delightful picture that filled Bud's heart with admiration. And for perhaps the thousandth time he silently anathematized the blind folly of the man who had wilfully cast his eyes in another direction.
Nan seated herself in one of the luxuriously inviting armchairs, while Bud insinuated his huge form on to the polished surface of a large central table.
"You know, Daddy, I sort of feel like a feller who's guessed the right answer to a question he hadn't a notion of. Maybe you won't get just how I mean." The smile in her pretty eyes changed to a deep seriousness. "You know when I was a little teeny girl all mud and overall, that never could keep me within measurable distance of being clean, you used to talk to me just as if you were speaking your thoughts aloud. Guess it was about the time poor Momma died, or maybe soon after. I kind of remember you were squatting Indian fashion on the veranda of our shack, I'd been busy in the hopes of drowning myself in a half dry mud hole, and had mostly succeeded in absorbing more of the dirt than seemed good for a single meal. Guess I must have started to cry, and you'd reached out and grabbed me, and fetched me up on your lap, and were handing me a few words you reckoned to cheer me up with. Do you remember them, my Daddy? I don't guess you do. I didn't till a while later, and then I didn't figure out their meaning till I went to school. You said, 'Tears is only for kiddies an' grown women. Kiddies mostly cry because they don't understand, an' grown women because they do. Anyway, neither of 'em need to cry, if they only get busy an' think a while. Ther' ain't a thing in this life calls for a tear from a living soul, not even a stomachful of moist mud, 'cos, you see, ther's Someone who fixes everything the way it should go, an' it's the right way. So we'll jest give you a dose of physic to help boost the show along.'" She glanced round her with smiling eyes at the tastefully arrayed furnishings of the parlor. "This has been the dose of physic I gave myself, and—and I feel better for it. I had the mud, and, why, the tears came just as they did before. Maybe if I'd been able to think right I wouldn't have shed them. But I just couldn't think right then. But I've thought since, and the physic's helped me. Do—do you think he'll like it all?"
The contemplative gaze of her father was full of gentle amusement.
"Sure he will—if he ain't changed any."
Nan shook her head.
"Jeff couldn't change. Even marriage couldn't change Jeff. You see, Jeff's got notions of life which are just part of him. Maybe he'll soften some in ways and things, but his notions'll remain, and they'll stand right out in all he does."
But Bud remained without conviction.
"A good woman can set a big man hunting a halo," he said. "An' I allow he's li'ble to find it, if she don't weaken in her play. But a bad woman—why, I guess a bad woman can send him down quicker than most things in life, once she tucks herself into a corner of his life depot."
"But Jeff would never fall in love with a bad woman." Nan protested swiftly, an odd little pucker of anxiety gathering between her brows. "I—I'm sure his wife's a good woman."
"An' I ain't any sort o' reason to think diff'rent."
"But you do think—that way."
Nan's understanding of her father was wide. It could scarcely have been otherwise, since he had been her sole companion for so many years.
But Bud was to be drawn no further.
"Ther' ain't no accounting fer how folks think when they ain't out on a joy trip," he grumbled, as he moved across to the open window, and stood gazing out over the trail from the northeast. Then all further discussion was abandoned in a small wave of excitement. He was pointing down the trail.
"Say, they're coming right along now. An'——"
But Nan was at his side. Something of the color had faded out of her cheeks, and she clung to her father's arm as she gazed along the narrow winding road. Her breath was coming rapidly. For all her courage, now that the moment of great trial had arrived, she felt very weak, very helpless.
Bud understood. He released his arm from her nervous clasp, and placed it gently about her shoulders. "It's Jeff setting the gait," he said. "I'd say he's crazy to get home." Then he added as though to himself: "Guess I'd as lief seen her on the lead."
But Nan gave no heed to his words. The soul of the girl was in her eyes, which were full of a deep terror and yearning. She had schooled herself for this meeting How she had schooled herself! And now it seemed beyond her powers to live up to that schooling.
Never for a moment did she withdraw her gaze. It was held fascinated, perhaps against her will. They came on, riding at an almost racing gallop, and finally drew up with their horses fighting against the restraining bits.
Bud and Nan were on the veranda. Bud's attitude was one of almost shy reserve. Nan was smiling a welcome such as a moment before would have seemed quite impossible. But her schooling had finally triumphed in the crisis, and her loyalty to her generous love had vanquished every baser feeling. It was her hands which clasped those of the city woman before she sprang lightly from the saddle. It was her steady voice spoke the first words of welcome.
"Say, you sure must be tired with your journey," she said. "Come right in to—your new home."
Bud had averted his eyes the moment she began to speak. He could not witness that greeting. His courage was unequal to it. Instead he greeted Jeff in his own fashion, as though nothing unusual had occurred.
"Nan's got everything through for you same as you asked. After you've eaten, why, I guess we'll need to make some talk. Things have been moving, boy. Guess we'll need to get busy."
Nan had taken Elvine into the house, and one of the barn-hands was waiting to take the horses. Jeff leaped from the saddle. Once in the company of his partner, with all the atmosphere of the world to which he belonged about him, all the excitement of his home-coming seemed to drop from him. He even seemed to have forgotten that this was the final great event of his new life—the bringing of his bride to the home he had prepared for her. But Nan's estimate of him was right. Jeff's was a nature that could not be changed, even by his marriage. His love, his marriage, Elvine; these things were, in reality, merely episodes. Delightful episodes. Before all things his work claimed him.
"You mean the—rustlers?"
The two men were facing each other on the wide veranda. The trailing wild cucumber vines tempered the blaze of sunlight and left the atmosphere of the veranda cool. Jeff mopped the beads of perspiration from his forehead under his wide hat, which had been thrust back on his head.
"That's so." Bud's eyes were following the horses as they moved away in the wake of the barn-hand.
"It's pretty bad?"
"An' gettin' worse."
Bud's eyes came back to his partner's face. They gazed steadily into it.
"Can't you tell me—now? Evie's in there with Nan," he added significantly.
Bud shook his head.
"It's a big yarn, an' needs time. But——" He paused, searching the other's face.
"Go right on."
Jeff read through the pause. He waited, his lips firmly set.
Bud cleared his throat.
"I've got to say these things later if I don't say 'em now, Jeff, boy. What I need to tell 'll make you sore, an' I don't guess it's the best sort o' welcome making you sore at your home-comin'. It's the worst of the yarn anyway, an' I kind o' feel it's best spitting out the worst right away. We're up against a gang, a slick gang, organized right, same as——"
He hesitated. But the younger man seemed to have no similar scruples.
"The gang my brother ran."
"Some of 'em got clear away—that time."
"And you figure after giving things time to get forgotten they've gathered up a crowd of toughs and started in on this district?"
"It seems that way."
"System," Bud declared sharply. "They're takin' a steady toll of us, an' other folks in the district. We trailed 'em to the hills, an'—lost 'em. Say, if we don't handle 'em it means——"
"Something like ruin for the—Obar."
Jeff's manner was shorn of any equivocation. He spoke with almost ruthless force, but the coldness of tone was incomparable with the steely light in his blue eyes.
After a moment's silence he turned away. He stood looking back over the trail he had just left, and Bud regarded his keen profile, waiting. He felt there was nothing more for him to say at the moment.
At last the other turned in his quick, decided fashion as the sound of the women's voices reached them from within the parlor.
"Will you stop and eat with us?" he asked bluntly.
Bud shook his head.
"Not now, Jeff, boy. This is your home-coming."
"Yes. Well, I'll get around your place to-morrow morning, Bud. We can make big talk then."
The cool night breeze died out under the increasing heat of the early sun. Away to the west gossamer melted upon the hillsides. The mountain tops stood out under their eternal snows, above the lower cloud belts. The summer dews on thirsty foliage dried up before their mission was completed. But the wide prairie world stood up refreshed to withstand the day's heat yet to come.
Elvine Masters was on the veranda of her new home gazing after the receding figure of her husband, who had just left her to discuss with his partner those vital things which they had touched upon at the moment of his arrival yesterday.
Everywhere about her the busy life of the ranch was stirring. Inside the house the maids were at work garnishing the home which Nan had already left spotless. The corrals, which stood out from the shelter of a wood bluff, were claiming attention from several cow-hands. Sounds reached her from the region of the bunkhouse, away to the right. Then at the barns, and other ranch buildings, the voices of men implied the work that was going forward in their region. Away in the distance isolated horsemen were moving about in the apparently aimless fashion of all fence riders, while, dotted about, small bands of cattle proceeded leisurely with the endless task of endeavoring to satisfy the craving of insatiable appetites.
The woman's farewell smile had left her eyes cold as she surveyed the scene. There was no sign of the expressed delight with which she had followed Nan at her first inspection of her new home. The recollection of it had even left her. Only a certain sense of the irony of it all occupied her. That, and a painful wonder as to when the dread under which she labored would materialize into the shattering of every hope within her heart.
Presently a "hand" appeared leading a saddle horse. He was a youngster, a "barn-hand" who only worked around cattle in times of pressure. But he possessed all the air of a cowpuncher, which he ultimately purposed to become. Elvine watched his leisurely approach, and remembered the days when she would have saddled her own pony.
The boy displayed no sign of deference. He stood before her chewing a straw with all the unconcern of his kind, his arm linked through the reins, and his hands thrust into the tops of his trousers. He was probably not more than thirteen years of age, but he possessed all the independence bred in the calling of the cattle world.
Elvine broke in upon his meditative curiosity as he surveyed the new mistress of the ranch.
"What's your name, boy?" she demanded, in a tone of authority.
But the youngster was not to be startled out of his leisurely regard. An amiable smile upon his unclean face was the preliminary result of the question.
"Pete, ma'am," he replied after a moment. "An' around this bum lay-out I mostly reckon to have to do the stunts other folks don't notion."
"Wal, mebbe that's how I figger on the pay roll. I allow I ain't allus called that way."
The smile had left his eyes. He was talking with the frank candor of one unused to being taken notice of. There was a deep curiosity in the look with which he surveyed her. He had already been told that the boss's wife was a "swell piece," and his youthful mind was eager to verify the opinion.
"How do they call you then?" Elvine took the reins and threw them back over the horse's head, and examined the cinching of the saddle with the touch of experience.
"Mostly a 'mule-headed bussock,' ma'am. Sometimes I allow they change it to 'slap-sided hoboe,' or somethin' more fancy. But that's jest the ignorant bums that ain't got no more learnin' than'll let 'em lose their cents reg'lar at 'draw.' Ther's others who don't jest use langwidge—only their feet. Then ther's the foreman, Lal Hobhouse. Mebbe you ain't acquainted yet—you bein' new around these parts. He's a fine bully feller till he gits mad. Then he's mean, ma'am. Guess he's most as mean as a skunk. He needs watching if you want to get on a racket. I don't guess he ever laffed in his life. Not even at a cirkis. Yep. He's a holy terror when he's mad. He cowhided me t'other day so I ain't sat right in a week. If he was to start in to fix you that way, why——"
"I don't guess he'll cowhide me," said Elvine quickly, as she swung herself into the saddle. "I'm not likely go on a racket." Then she leaned forward over the horn of the saddle, and smiled down into the unclean face gawking up at her. "How'd you fancy looking after my horses and saddle and things? I mean just look after them for me, and nothing else?"
The boy's eyes lit.
"Bully!" he cried eagerly. "That way I wouldn't have to wash lousy clothes for the bunkhouse. Would I? Then they wouldn't be able to fire rocks at me when I sassed 'em. Bully!"
"I'll speak to Lal Hobhouse about it."
The hope died out of the boy's eyes.
"You won't tell him wot I said, ma'am?" he pleaded. "You see, I was jest settin' you wise, you bein' new around here. It ain't friendly not to put folks wise, is it? He's a bully feller sure, ma'am, an' I ain't got a word agin him. I hain't reely. I wouldn't 'a' sed a word if I'd tho't——"
"Don't you worry, boy," Elvine cried, as she turned her horse about. "I wouldn't give you away. I wouldn't give anybody away—now. You see, you never know how things of that sort can come back on you."
The obvious relief in the boy's dirty face was more than sufficient to bring back the smile to Elvine's eyes, which, for the moment, had become almost painfully serious. But as she rode away leaving the boy gawking after her she quickly returned to the mood which had only been broken by the interlude.
It was an interlude not easily forgotten, however. It had brought home to her a fresh revelation. And it had come in the boy's final appeal not to give him away. A fierce sense of shame surged through her heart. It communicated itself to her eyes, and displayed itself further in the deep flush on her beautiful cheeks. Yet its reason must have remained obscure to any observer.
She rode on urging her pony to a gait which set him reaching at his bit. She sat her saddle in a fashion which belonged solely to the prairie. The long stirrups and straight limb. The lightness, and that indescribable something which suggests the single personality of horse and rider.
She had no intention of returning to the ranch house until the noonday meal, and meanwhile it was her purpose to explore something of the vast domain which her husband controlled.
It was curious that her purpose should lead her thus. For somehow all sense of delight in these possessions had passed from her. At one time the thought of his thousands upon thousands of acres had filled her with a world of desire, and pride that she was to share in them. But not now. With every furlong she covered her mood depressed, and her sense of dread increased. She felt as though she were surveying from a great distance the details of the prize she had coveted, but the possession of which was denied her. This—this was the wealth her husband had bestowed upon her, she told herself bitterly, and some greater power, some fatalistic power, purposed to snatch it from her before it reached her hands.
She rode straight for the rising land of the foothills. It almost seemed as though she were drawn thither by some magnetic influence. She had formed no definite decision to travel that way. Perhaps it was the result of a subconscious realization of the monotony of the rolling tawny grass-land on the flat. The distant view of grazing cattle failed to break it. The occasional station shack and corral. The hills rose up in sharp contrast and great variety. There were the woodland bluffs. There were little trickling streams. There was that sense of the wild beyond. Perhaps it was all this. Or perhaps it was the call of a memory, which drew her beyond her power of resistance.
She had long since left all beaten trails, and her way took her over the wiry growth of seeding grass. She had arrived at the bank of a narrow reed-grown creek, which meandered placidly in the deeps of a trough between two waves of grass-land. It had been her intention to cross it, but the marshy nature of its bed deterred her. So she rode on until the rising ground abruptly mounted and merged into the two great hills which formed the portals through which the stream had found an outlet from its mountain prison to the freedom of the plains beyond.
For a moment she paused at the edge of a woodland bluff which mounted the slope to her right, and crowned the hillock with a thatch of dark green pine foliage. She gazed up with questioning eyes. And the familiarity of the tattered foliage left her without enthusiasm for its beauty. Then she gazed ahead along the course of the stream. And it was obvious that she was in some doubt as to whether she should still proceed.
After a moment of deep consideration she lifted her reins and her horse moved forward. Then, suddenly, he was still again, held with a tightened rein. The soft but rapid plod of galloping hoofs came out of the distance. It was coming toward her from the hills, and an unaccountable but overwhelming desire to beat a hasty retreat took possession of her.
But the action never matured. She was still facing the hills when a horseman emerged from a narrow pathway which split up converging bluffs. He was riding at a great pace, and was heading straight for the bank of the river where she had paused.
Elvine remained where she was. She made no effort either to proceed or retreat. Somehow curiosity had caught her up and left her with no other emotion. She regarded the stranger with searching eyes. At the moment his features were too indistinct to obtain an impression. But his general appearance left nothing to question. He was a cow-hand without a doubt. His open shirt and loose waistcoat, his chapps, and the plaited rawhide rope which hung from the horn of his saddle. These were sufficient evidence. But for the rest, the wide flapping brim of his hat left her no estimate of the face beneath it.
He came on. He even swerved his horse on one side as though to pass her without pausing. Elvine's pony stirred restlessly in a desire to join the stranger. Then, in a flash, the whole position was changed. The man reined up his horse with a heavy "yank" which almost flung it on its haunches, and a pair of fierce black eyes were staring into the woman's face with a light of startled recognition shining in their depths.
"You!" he cried, without any other form of greeting. And into the word he flung a world of harsh meaning.
Elvine's reply was a blank stare, which had in it not a fraction of the recognition he displayed. Not for an instant did her regard waver. It was full of a haughty displeasure at the nature of the greeting. Nor did she deign reply.
The man sat for a moment as though incredulous. Then he thrust his hat back from his head, displaying the brutal ugliness of his face. Elvine observed the coarse moustache, the lean cheeks, the low forehead and vicious eyes. The lips were hidden behind their curtain of hair.
"Say, kind o' fergotten—ain't yer?" he demanded. Then the woman's perfectly fitting riding suit seemed to attract his attention. "Gee," he exclaimed, "wher' you get that dandy rig?" But even as he spoke a change in his expression came when he recognized the horse Elvine was riding. Suddenly he raised one hand and smoothed the tangle of moustache with a downward gesture. It was a gesture implying complete lack of comprehension. "Well, I'm darned!"
"You'll be more than that if you don't pass on to your work, whatever that may be."
The coldness of the woman's tone matched the light in her dark eyes. Every ounce of her courage had been summoned to meet the situation.
But the man displayed not the slightest regard for the threat. The incredulity of his expression changed. And the change was subtle. It was perfectly apparent, however, to the woman. And she nerved herself for what was to come. An evil smile grew in the piercing black eyes, as the man regarded the beauty which, with him, was a long stored up memory.
"Say, when d'you quit Orrville way?" he cried derisively. "Maybe you hadn't a heap o' use for it when your man, Bob, got shot up. Maybe you didn't need to stop around after you got your hands on the dollars I guess he left lying around. Say, it beats hell meetin' you this way."
But Elvine was no longer laboring under the shock of the encounter. She had no longer any thought of the remoteness of the spot, or the obviously brutish man with whom she was confronted. She set about dealing with the situation with a desperate courage. "I don't know if you're mad, or only—drunk," she said, with icy sharpness. "But you're on my husband's land, and I suppose you work for him. What's your name? I need to know it so I can tell him of your insolence. Jeffrey Masters is not the man to allow his wife to be insulted with impunity by one of his cattlemen. It will be my business to see to it that he is told—everything. You were riding that way." She pointed the way she had come. "I s'pose toward the ranch house. Let me pass!"
She moved her horse as though to proceed. There was no sign of fear in her. No haste. At that moment her dignity was superb. Every word she had spoken had been calculated, and the sting she had conveyed with her information had not been overdone. She looked for its effect, which came with a dramatic change in the man's whole demeanor. His evil face lost its smile, and, in a moment, he had bared his bristling head. But even as Elvine beheld these things she understood the curious expression which he seemed powerless to banish from his ferretty eyes.
"You're Mrs. Masters, ma'am?" the fellow cried. "Say, ma'am, I'm just kind o' knocked all of a mush. I hadn't a notion. I truly hadn't. Guess I took you for a leddy I kind o' remember up Orrville way. An' the likeness is jest that o' two beans. I'm beat, ma'am, beat sore. I wouldn't have offered you insult for a farm. I'm sorry. I'd heerd the boss's wife was around, but I didn't figger I——" Then he replaced his hat, and made as though to pass on. But he remained where he was. "Y'see, I was ridin' in about last night. We lost another bunch. On'y ten cows and their calves, but I had to make a report."
In a moment the woman caught him up. And her attitude had taken on a calculated change.
The man observed her interest, and took prompt advantage of it.
"Yep. An' things are lookin' pretty bad. This gang's jest workin' how, an' when, an' wher' they fancy. If the boss 'ud on'y listen to me he'd leave no stock around the outstations. It's devilish luck, ma'am, that's what it is—devilish."
Elvine remained lost in thought, and the man's narrow eyes never left the profile she presented to him. When she turned to him again, however, his whole attitude was one of bland humility.
"You can ride back to your station," she declared, with perfect authority. "I'll convey your report. What's your name? You didn't give it me."
"Sikkem. Sikkem Bruce. I'm out at Spruce Crossing, back ther' in the hills. It's jest a piece. Mebbe three miles, wher' this stream makes a joining with the Gophir Creek. Say——"
"Well?" Elvine inquired as he paused.
"You ain't makin' no complaint to the boss, ma'am? It was jest a darn fool mistake of mine. It surely was. I ken see it was. I can't figger how I mistook you fer the lady I was thinkin' of. Y'see, she was no account anyway. She was jest one o' them vampire sorts who'd sell her soul fer a price, yep, and sell any man's life that way, too. Y'see, that's how I come to know her. She handed over a bunch o' guys, scallawags, sure, who didn't need nothin' better, fer the price o' ten thousand dollars. She corralled the information, an' drove her weak-livered man to do the lousy work. I tell you, ma'am, a woman who gits that low is pretty mean. You was sure right to figger on an insult when I guessed you was that 'piece.' But I didn't mean it that way, I sure didn't."
The marble coldness of Elvine's face as she listened to the man's words gave no indication of any feeling behind it. At the end, however, she forced a smile to her lips.
"You can forget it," she said. Then she added deliberately: "I shall not inform my husband."
"Thank you, ma'am. Then I guess I'll get right on back—if you'll carry in the report. Y'see, we're huntin' the trail. That-a-way I'll be able to join up with the boys."
The man hesitated as though waiting for her to depart first, but as she made no movement, and offered no further word, he was forced to the initiative. With an astonishing deference, which, perhaps, was even too elaborate, he wheeled his horse about and rode off.
Elvine watched him until he was swallowed up by the narrow pathway between the bluffs, then she turned back and rode slowly homeward.
But the face which was now turned down the river was no longer the face which had confronted Sikkem Bruce. It was ghastly. It was the face of a soul-tortured woman.
"She was jest one of them vampire sorts who'd sell her soul fer a price, yes, an' sell any man's life that way, too."
The words, even the tones of the man's voice dinned in her brain, and she knew that the legions of Fate had appeared upon a fresh horizon.
THE CALL TO ORRVILLE
The windows were wide open. Voices from within the parlor reached Nan. She was waiting on the veranda. Waiting for the long council of men-folk to reach its conclusion. She had elected to remain outside. She knew that the future well-being of the Obar Ranch was being considered by men whose sole regard that well-being was. And somehow the woman in her demanded that in all the vital affairs of life it was the will of the men-folk which should rule.
But her self-denial was strained to breaking as the interminable minutes grew, and, at last, she abandoned her principles to her woman's curiosity, and slipped into the room. She knew well enough that none of those present would resent her intrusion. And, anyway, it was hard to stand by when her whole interest was absorbed in the decisions to be arrived at.
She passed round the room and took up a position on the arm of her father's chair. No one spoke to her. Scarcely an eye turned in her direction. And something of the impressiveness of it all caught the girl's imagination.
There was the dear familiar room with its simple furnishing, and its poignant associations. It was part of her life. It was certainly part of her father's and Jeff's. Then there was the warm sunlight pouring in through the open windows. It lit the tanned, strong faces of the men, and searched the weak spots in their toil-worn equipment. There was not a weak face among them. And Nan felt comfort in the thought that theirs was the decision.
The face of Jay Pendick, their own headman, with its small, alert dark eyes reflected the intentness of his mind. His capacity had been tried over and over again in his long years of service. Then Lal Hobhouse, the best-hated man on the countryside for his ruthless genius in obtaining work from those under him, and the driving force of Jeff's side of the partnership. Her father, wise and silent, except for his heavy breathing. And lastly Jeff, full of a hard determination to beat the game in which he was engaged.
So keen was the interest of the gathering that Bud alone was smoking. But then Bud regarded tobacco as a necessary adjunct to soundness of judgment.
He slipped an arm about Nan's waist as she took up her position at his side.
Jeff was seated at the centre table, a position strongly reminiscent to the girl of a smaller gathering some four years back, when he had occupied the position of leadership in the enterprise which had had such successful results for them all. Jay was poised upon the edge of a small chair which suggested immediate peril under his forceful and scarcely elegant methods when discussing the doings of rustlers, and imparting his opinion upon all and sundry of their class. Lal disdained all parlor attitude. He was squatting against the edge of the table without the least consideration for its somewhat trifling powers of endurance. But Jeff was talking, and Nan's whole attention was swiftly caught and held by the man whose words and actions were at all times irresistible to her.
He was talking slowly and clearly with that shadow of a drawl which was his way when his decision was arrived at.
"Say, it's as clear as don't matter we're up against an experienced and organized proposition," he said. "I don't guess this is any kind of scallawag outfit of toughs which just get around and duff a bunch, and hit the trail for safety till the froth they've raised dies down again. It's Orrville repeating itself." He paused thoughtfully. His eyes were regarding the table before him. When he raised them again they were full of a peculiar light which shone in Bud's direction. "Ther's features in the game carry a parallel to that play, and I guess they point the fact that the fellers of that gang who got away at their round-up have got around this region now, and figure to carry on the same play right here. You'll get that, Bud—sure." Bud nodded. "Well, it's up to us," Jeff went on, as though the other's agreement had left his course of action clear. "Maybe ther's States Marshalls around, and a pretty bunch of deputies lying behind Sheriff Hank Killick, but there never was an official gang these folk couldn't beat a mile. Guess they're not duffing the private property of Hank Killick, or any of his boys. We best get busy our own way, which is the way Dug McFarlane took nearly five years to dream out."
His blue eyes had grown colder and harder while he talked. There was a bite, too, in the manner in which he referred to the doings in Orrville of four years ago. There was a curious curl to his firm lips, which, to Nan's mind, suggested a painful smile. And she disliked it. She disliked his whole manner, which, just now, was none of the Jeff she had always known. Bud read deeper. And that which he read carried him back to an unforgettable scene in the Cathills, when a twin stood gazing upon its other half, hanging by the neck dead under the shade of a wide-spreading tree.
"It's up to us to set up a reward, Bud," Jeff went on, in the same passionless fashion. "A big reward. We've got to make it so some amateur Judas is ready to sell his friends. It'll cost us a piece, but it's the way to fix things. And anyway it's going to be worth it, sure. I allow we'll need to hand out the story of reward good. It's got to reach this gang itself. An' if I guess right, and there's toughs from Orrville way running this lay-out, why, they aren't li'ble to have forgotten what happened that time. We'll break the gang, or—we'll get 'em."
There was something unrelenting, and even vicious, in the manner in which he gripped the pencil in his hand and dug the pointed lead and crushed it against the surface of the table. Nan drew a deep sigh of relief as he finished speaking, and turned gladly as her father removed his pipe and cleared his throat.
"An' the reward. How much?" he questioned.
The answer flashed back at him like the slash of a knife.
"Ten thousand dollars!"
In that answer Jeff's voice was unrecognizable to Nan. His whole expression, too, seemed to have undergone some subtle change. She sat groping for the meaning of it all, and somehow regretted she had not remained out on the veranda.
Bud inclined his head and replaced his pipe in corner of his mouth.
"It goes," he declared. Then he lumbered out of his chair. "That all?" he inquired. And by his manner and tone Nan knew that he, too, had been affected by the things which had troubled her.
Jeff turned on his own foreman. He had lost none his intensity.
"That reward goes," he said sharply. "Get the exact amount. Ten thousand dollars. Not a cent more or less. Hand it out everywhere. Meanwhile I'll see to it the notices are printed, and we'll have 'em set up wherever the eyes of these scum are likely to get peeking around." Then he emitted a sound like a laugh, but there was no mirth in his eyes. Nor in his manner. "We'll locate the best trees for a hanging, and we'll set 'em up there."
Nan moved over to an open window as the two headmen took their departure. Bud had taken up a position against the cold iron stove. Jeff alone retained his seat, during the few silent moments which followed.
With the departure of the men, however, he looked up from a letter he had withdrawn from his pocket.
"Say, Bud," he said without emotion, "guess the Presidency of the Western Union's going to claim me right away. I'll need to make Orrville right off."
"Orrville?" Bud's eyes were sharply scrutinizing.
"Sure." Jeff's indifference was obviously assumed. Nan's questioning eyes passed uncertainly from Jeff to her father. There was something between these two she did not understand. Orrville? It was when he had been speaking of Orrville all that intensity of bitterness had been so apparent in Jeff. She received no enlightenment, however.
"What's the play at—Orrville?"
Bud's question had a suggestion of anxiety in it.
Jeff rose from his chair. He passed one hand wearily across his brow and smoothed back his lank fair hair.
"Oh, it's just arbitration," he said. "The parties agree to take my decision in some grazing rights instead of handing good dollars over to the law. It's Dug. Dug McFarlane, and a feller called Peters. Peters figgers he's got rights on Dug's land, and—well, Dug just guesses he hasn't."
"When are you starting?" Nan inquired, from her place at the window.
"I'll need to get off early to-morrow." Jeff's eyes were on the girl. The change in them had become pronounced. Warmth had replaced frigidity, and the smile in them was real now. "It's tough on top of my home-coming, eh, Nan? Maybe Evie'll feel lonesome too—when I tell her. Still, these things are part of the game, and I can't weaken on 'em. It's these toughs around I'm worrying 'll scare her. I was kind of wondering if you'd——"
"You don't need to worry a thing." Nan's smile was full of a staunch reassurance. And her readiness came with a spontaneity which had nothing to do with Jeff's wife. It was the result of her delight and pride in this man himself who was called upon, and looked to, for leadership, in this little world of theirs.
"I'll handle things here for you, Jeff." Nan gave him no chance to make his appeal. "Elvine shall be as safe as we can make her. She can come right over here till you get back, or I'll sleep at your place. It shall be just as she feels. She shan't be lonesome, and I guess my Daddy an' me we're equal to any crowd of rustlers."
The genuineness, even enthusiasm of the girl was quite transparent. Nor was the man insensible to it. For all his preoccupation he realized something of his debt to these people, to Nan. It was a debt he had never attempted to pay, and now its rapid mounting made even ultimate payment seem doubtful.
"You're pretty good to me, Nan," was all he trusted himself to say.
Nan shook her head in smiling denial.
"Women need to help each other in—these parts."
But Jeff did not accept her excuse.
"Maybe that's so," he said thoughtfully. "But it don't alter things a little bit. I'd just like to feel I deserved it. But I don't and can't feel that way. Some day——" He laughed and made a helpless gesture. "But why talk? It's too easy, and it's mighty cheap anyway. I——"