"You were following my tracks?" she demanded uncertainly.
Nan's eyes grew grave.
"I certainly was. Though I didn't guess they were yours. Say, you must have crossed the tracks I was following," she added thoughtfully. "Did you see anybody? Four fellers? Mighty tough-looking citizens, an' strangers?"
The frankness of the girl reestablished confidence.
Elvine sat up.
"No," she said. Then the wonder of it possessed her. "But you—you alone were following on the tracks of four tough strangers?" she cried incredulously.
Nan smiled. Her smile was pretty. It was a confident, wise little smile.
"Sure," she said. "I saw them, and it was up to me. You see, Evie, we folks out here kind of need to think diff'rent. A girl can't just help being a girl, but when rustlers are around, raising small Cain with her men-folks' goods, why, she's got to act the way they would when they light on a suspicious trail. I was guessing that track would lead me somewhere. But," she added with a grimace, "I wasn't as smart as I figgered. You must have crossed it, an' I lost 'em."
"But can't you get back to it? Maybe I can help some. I've followed a trail before," Elvine added, in a tone which Nan understood better than the other knew.
But the girl shook her head.
"My plug is tired, and there's the chase back to home. I guess we'll leave 'em, and just—report. But there's something doing. I mean something queer. These folk don't reckon to show themselves in daytime, and I guess they were traveling from the direction of Spruce Crossing."
"That's where the man Sikkem's stationed," said Elvine.
"Sure. But I don't guess they been near his shanty. They wouldn't fancy gettin' around Sikkem's lay-out in daytime. You see, he's—sudden."
Nan's confidence was not without its effect. But Elvine was less sure.
"This Sikkem. I don't like him. But——"
Nan dismissed the matter in her own way.
"Sikkem's been on the ranch nigh three years. He's a cattleman first, and hates rustlers worse than poison. But he's tough. Oh, he's tough, all right. I wouldn't gamble a pea-shuck he hasn't quite a dandy bunch of notches on his gun. But we're used to his sort."
Then she went on in a reflective fashion as though hollowing out a train of thought inspired by the man under discussion:
"Sort o' seems queer the way we see things. Right here on the prairie we mostly take folks on trust, an' treat 'em as we find 'em. Maybe they're wanted for all sorts of crimes. Maybe they done a turn in penitentiary. Maybe they even shot up folk cold. These things don't signify a cent with us so they handle cattle right, and are ready to push lead into any bunch of rustlers lyin' around. Guess it's environment makes us that way. The prairie's so mighty wide it helps us folks to get wide."
Evie was watching the play of the girl's expressive eyes.
"I wonder—if you're right."
"Mostly, I guess."
"It isn't easy to condemn amongst folks on the prairie," she said with a sigh.
Elvine shook her head. Her eyes were turned from the girl. They were staring down into the turbulent stream.
"I don't think I've found it that way."
The interrogation was natural. But it brought Elvine's eyes sharply to the girl's, and, for a moment, they gazed steadily into each other's.
Then the woman's graceful shoulders went up.
"I see you know."
"And—you aren't mad with me for knowing? You aren't mad with Jeff for me knowing? I wanted you to know I knew. I wanted to tell you I knew, only I didn't just know how to tell you. Then I wanted to tell you—something else."
There was simple sincerity in every word the girl spoke. The light in her eyes was shining with truth. Elvine saw it, and knew these things were so, and, in her loneliness of heart, in her brokenness of spirit, she welcomed the chance of leaning for support upon a soul so obviously strong and sympathetic. She yielded now as she would never have believed it possible to yield.
Suddenly she raised her hands to her head and pressed her fingers to her temples.
"Oh, I—I don't know what to do. I sort of feel I just can't—can't stop around. And yet—— Oh, I love him so I can't, daren't leave him altogether. You can't understand, child, no one can. You—oh, you've never known what love is, my dear. I'm mad—mad for him. And—and I can never come into his life again."
She dropped her hands from her head in a movement that to Nan seemed as though she were wringing them. Nan's own heart was thumping in her bosom. She, too, could have cried out. But her eyes steadily, and almost tenderly, regarded the woman who had taken Jeff from her.
"You must stop around," she said in a low, firm tone. "Say, Evie, I don't guess I'm bright, or clever, or anything like that. I don't reckon I know things different to other folk. But just think how it would be if you went away now. You'd never see Jeff again, maybe, and he'd never know just how you love him. You see, men-folk are so queer, too. Maybe Jeff's right, and you and me are wrong. Maybe we're right, and he's all wrong. I can't say. But I tell you Jeff needs you now—more than ever. He don't know it, maybe. But he wants you, and if you love him you'll just—stand by. Oh, I could tell you of a thousand ways you can help him. A thousand ways you can show him your love without telling him. It means a hard fight for you. I know. And maybe you'll think he isn't worth it. But he is—to you. You love him. And any man a woman loves is worth to her every sacrifice she can make. I don't know. Maybe you got to be punished, not by us folk, not for what you done to Jeff. But Someone guesses you got to be punished, and this is the way He's fixed it. Say, Evie, you won't let go of things, will you? Maybe you can't see ahead just now. But you will—later. You love Jeff, and he just loves you, though he's sort of blind to it now. But he loves you, an' no one else. He wouldn't act the way he's doing if it weren't so. I sort of felt I must say all this to you. I—I don't know why—just. But I won't ever talk like this again. I haven't a right, I know. But I don't mean harm. I don't sure. And if you'll let me help you anyway I can I'll—be real glad."
The offer of reward for the rustlers operating in Rainbow Hill Valley was without the desired effect. It was worse. The men against whom it was directed received it with deliberate but secretly expressed contempt. Nor did Chance serve the masters of the Obar, as four years before She had served Dug McFarlane.
Nor was the failure due to lack of effort. Bud left no stone unturned. And Jeff—well, Jeff did all a man could. The hills were scoured, and the deeps and hidden hollows of the greater foothills. The notices of reward were sent broadcast, even penetrating to the Orrville country. They were set up as Jeff had promised, on tree trunks in the remoter hills where any chance eye might discover them. Where undoubtedly the men who constituted the gang must sooner or later discover them.
The only response was a continuation of the raids.
But a distinct change had taken place in the method of these. Whereas, originally, they had been directed against not only the Obar Ranch, but wherever opportunity offered in the district, they now fastened their vampire clutches upon the Obar only, and, finally, on only one section of its territory: the land which belonged to Jeff's side of the partnership.
So marked was this that it could not be missed.
The partners were out at a distant station where they had been urgently summoned. A young "hand" had been wounded, a nasty flesh wound in the arm. He had been bringing in a small bunch of steers which had strayed to a distant hollow in the hills. It had been overnight. He was held up, and shot by three outlaws, and his cattle run off.
It was Bud who voiced the thought of both partners immediately after a close interrogation of the injured man.
"Looks like some low-bred son-of-a-hobo owes you a reckonin' he's yearnin' to git quit of, Jeff," he said, the moment they were alone. "They're workin' this way all the time. They ain't so much as smelt around the old 'T.T.' territory in days. D'you make it that way?"
But he made no attempt to throw enlightenment.
"Guess you signed the reward."
Bud watched the shadowed serious face of his friend.
"Maybe it's that." There was something like indifference in the younger man's manner.
Perhaps it was this manner which stirred Bud's impatience and drove him to resentment.
"Say," he cried, in fiercely vibrant tones, "d'you know what it is I got in my head? It's the 'hands' on our range. Sure. Ther's some lousy guy on the Obar working in with the gang. Cowpunchers are a mongrel lot anyway. Ther' ain't one but 'ud souse the sacrament wine ef the passon wa'an't lookin' on. I guess we'll need to chase up the penitentiary re-cord of every blamed thief on our pay-roll. Maybe the cinch we're lookin' fer lies that way."
"Curious? Gee, it's rotten!"
The old man's patience completely gave way.
"See right here, Jeff. I ain't rattled. Not a thing. But ther's got to be some guts put into this thing, an' you an' me's got to find 'em. See? I'm sick to death. Right here an' now I tell you ther's goin' to be a rotten piece of trouble around this lay-out, an' I'm goin' to be in it—right up to my back teeth."
It was perhaps the first time Bud had displayed impatience with the man who had always been the leading spirit of their enterprise. The truth was, something seemed to have gone out of Jeff. He neglected nothing. He spared himself no pains. His physical efforts seemed even to have become greater as the days passed. Frequently, now, night as well as day found him in the saddle watching over their interests. He had become a sort of restless spirit urging forward the work, and watching, watching with the lynx eyes dreaded so much by the men who served him. But for all that something had certainly gone out of him, and Bud knew and feared its going.
If Bud knew and feared the change, he also knew the cause of it. Neither he nor Nan were blind to the drama silently working out in the other household. It was bitterly plain and almost heart-breaking to the onlookers. The same roof sheltered husband and wife. But no unnecessary word was spoken between them. Their meals were taken apart. They were as completely and coldly separate as though they occupied opposite poles. And the girl who recognized these things, and the man who watched them, only wondered how long it must be before the final disaster came upon them.
Jeff's moods had become extraordinarily variable. There were moments when his moroseness became threatening. The canker at his heart was communicating itself to his whole outlook, and herein lay the failure in his work.
It was the realization of all this which stirred Bud's impatience. He knew that unless a radical change was quickly brought about, the vaunted Obar had certainly reached and probably passed its zenith.
Finally, he opened his heart to the sure sympathy of Nan. He had purposely taken her with him on a boundary inspection amongst the foothills. They were riding through a silent hollow where quiet seemed to lie on the top of everything. Even their horses' hoofs failed to make an impression upon it. Peace was crowding the woodland slopes, a peace profound and unbreakable.
"The Obar's struck a mighty bad patch, Nan," he said abruptly. "Ef things kep hittin' their present gait, why, I don't jest see wher' we're to strike bottom. The pinch ain't yet, but you can't never kick out a prop without shakin' the whole darned buildin' mighty bad. An' that's how the Obar's fixed. Ther's a mighty big punch gone plumb out o' Jeff's fight, an', well, I guess we're needin' all our punch to fix the things crowdin' around us."
"You mean the rustlers?" Nan drove to the heart things without hesitation.
"Sure. Them an'—other things."
The girl nodded. She knew the other things without asking.
"Jeff's in a heap of—trouble," she said with a sigh.
"An' looks like carryin' us along with him—ef we ain't watchin' around."
"We've always kind of leaned on Jeff."
"Most folks are ready to lean, Nan. It sort o' saves 'em a deal of trouble."
"Yes. Till you kick the prop away."
"Sure. Our prop's been kicked away, an' we've jest got to git right up on to our hind legs an'—git busy. The leanin' racket's played out fer us. We got to hand Jeff a prop now, an' see it don't git kicked away. See?"
For some moments the girl's gaze searched straight ahead of her down the valley. And into her eyes there grew a gentle light of enthusiasm. Suddenly she turned upon the great figure on its horse beside her.
"We've stood up on our own years, Daddy—before Jeff came along. We can stand now, can't we? I guess we're not going to fail Jeff now he's in trouble. Jeff's been all for us. We're going to be all for him. He needs us, Daddy, and—I'm glad in a way. Say, my heart nigh breaks every time I peek into his poor sad an' troubled face. Jeff's just beating his soul dead. And if the Obar gets wrong, it'll sure be the end of everything for him. It mustn't, Daddy. Things mustn't go wrong. 'Deed they mustn't. It's up to us. You must show me how, Daddy. You're wise to it all. You're strong. You know. Show me. Put me wise, an' I'll—take Jeff's place."
The girl's words came full of a passionate sincerity. There were no half measures in this child of the prairie. Her love was given, a wealth of generous feeling and loyal self-sacrifice. Her father read with a rare understanding. And in his big heart, so rough, so warm, he cursed with every forceful epithet of his vocabulary the folly of the man he had marked out for a son.
"We'll make good, or—bust," he said, with a warmth that almost matched the girl's.
Then he pointed ahead where the hollow opened out, and a large clump of trees marked dividing ways.
"I guessed you'd best see this. It's one o' them notions o' Jeff's. That play ain't worth a cent."
They rode up to the bluff in silence. And after a moment's search Bud drew rein before a heavy tree trunk, to which was secured a printed sheet. He pointed at it, and, for a while, neither spoke. Nan was taking in the disfigurements with which it was covered, and she read the words written across it in bold but illiterate characters:
"We're wise to her. She don't git no second chanst."
The rest of the disfigurings were mischievous, and of almost indecent character.
"Does Jeff know?" Nan's question was almost a whisper.
"I ain't told him."
Bud's reply was one of doubt.
"He—he ought to be told."
Then Bud suddenly abandoned the restraint he had been exercising.
"Oh ——! Ther' ain't no use. He can't do a thing. He wouldn't do a thing. I tell you we're jest suckin'-kids in this racket. We got to lie around crazy enough to fancy we're goin' to git the drop on these bums. What a country! What a cuss of a lay-out wher' you got to set around watching a darnation gang o' toughs whittlin' away your work till they got you beat to a mush. Here, I'm goin' to start right in. I'm goin' to get around Calthorpe. The sheriff's got to git busy, an' earn his monthly pay check. We'll hev to raise vigilantes. I tell you they'll break us else. Ef Jeff can't see, why, he'll hev to be made to. Blast their louse-bound souls to hell!"
And Nan welcomed the outburst. Rough, coarse, violent. It did not matter. What mattered to her was the purpose. The purpose which she hoped and prayed would help Jeff. She had no thought for themselves. Their end of the enterprise never came into her considerations. She was thinking of Jeff. Solely of Jeff—the man she loved better than her life.
* * * * * *
The change in Elvine was no less marked than it was in Jeff. But it was a change in a wholly different direction. She was deeply subdued, even submissive in her attitude. But now after the first crisis and its accompanying pain, a general relief was apparent. A relief which anything but indicated the hopelessness which had at the first overwhelmed her. She was not hopeless. Therein lay the key of the matter.
From the time when she had passed through those moments of frenzied despair, after Jeff's return from Orrville, her decision had been taken with lightning celerity. Her back was to the wall, and she meant to fight for all she yearned, desired, by every art she possessed. She knew nothing of the reason which had made her husband return to her. It was sufficient that he had done so. It gave her the vague, wild hope she needed, and with all her might she intended to set herself to the task of winning back her position in his regard.
She was not logical. Had she been, she must have accepted the alternative of freedom offered her, and, on a liberal allowance, betaken herself to some selfish, worldly life which might have appealed to her. No, she was not logical. Had she been, she would never have loved this man as she now knew better than ever she loved him. She was not logical, but she had courage. It was the same courage which had driven her to fight for that which she had desired years ago. She was going to fight now. And again it was for selfish motives. Only this time they took the form of the love of the man she had married.
She set to work from the very start. Her attractions she knew were great. Jeff must be made to realize them. He must be made to realize all a woman could mean in this life which was theirs. She would unobtrusively study his interests to the last degree. His position in the ranching world would give her ample scope in this. Then there was the work of the ranch. Here her earlier experiences would help her materially.
So she laid for herself a deliberate campaign. Always counting that his lightest command was her law, and nothing must be permitted to display her desire to break down the barrier he had set up between them.
Two days of deep consideration showed her her course. And once having marked it out she set about following it.
Her house was her first care. It must be ordered as no other house of its kind was ordered. She thought of every expressed wish of his during their brief engagement and honeymoon, and sorted it into its place in scheme.
Then came her place in the work of the range. This was more difficult to take at once by reason of lack of precedent. But by tactful watchfulness she felt it could be accomplished. Her first step must be to impress on Lal Hobhouse her intention, and, in this, even sooner than she had dared to hope, she managed to secure a footing. Once her mind was set to achieve a purpose her capacity was beyond all question, and in these troublous times of rustlers the foreman was more than content to welcome her aid.
Throughout these days she rarely obtruded herself upon the man she desired most in the world. He might almost have been non-existent. The rare moments in which he spoke to her were met with a cool reserve on her part, which left nothing to be desired, and gave no opportunity for the reopening of those matters which had brought about the position. Indeed, Elvine had more than reason to be satisfied with her work.
She felt at last that the worst was over, and now it remained for her to win back, step by step, the lost ground, until she had restored herself to her position. It could be done. It should be done, she told herself. She admitted no crime against him. Then where was the justice of it? Anyway, that fierce dread was off her mind. She knew the worst now. She no longer stood on the brink of an abyss of doubt——
She was in her bedroom considering these things. It was a golden evening and the setting sun was shining athwart her windows. Quite suddenly the simple sewing in her fingers dropped upon her lap, and her startled eyes turned upon the wide view of the valley bathed in the perfect evening light.
Was she no longer standing upon that brink? The question flashed through her mind as she remembered an incident until then completely lost in the greater issues. It was the threat of that scrawled note which had been flung in at that very window. She even remembered the sensation of the blow which had awakened her on the night of torture during which she had waited for Jeff's return from Orrville.
She sprang to her feet. Every other thought was swept from her mind. And, for a moment, fresh panic stirred her veins. The words of that message. They were unforgettable.
"You sold the lives of men for a price. You had your way then. We're goin' to have our way now. You'll pay for that deal the only way we know."
The only way we know! Her memory flew to the man Sikkem. Oh, she knew him. She had recognized him on the instant of their meeting. She knew he came from Orrville. She had seen him there. But—— Was he one of the original Orrville gang, all unsuspected, or, at least, if not unsuspected, unknown to be?
While she pondered the subject she heard her husband's arrival. She heard him cross the veranda and, pass into the house.
Then again she took up the thread of her thought. This man Sikkem. If he were one of the Orrville gang, what was more likely than that he should have sent that threat? If he sent it, what more likely than that he was one of the gang of rustlers operating here? If he were one of them, then what added significance did it give threat?
A wave of sudden excitement replaced the panic of a moment before. "The only way we know." Did that mean raiding her husband's stock and endeavoring so to ruin the Obar? It looked like it. It would account for what was being done. But no. That might be part of what was contained in the threat. But not all. The only way we know! The only way this class of man understood paying off a score was different from that. With these men it was always a life for a life. Whose? Hers? It might be.
The sun had sunk beyond the mountain peaks. In the adjoining living-room she heard the clatter of supper things. Jeff was having his meal in the solitude which had become their habit.
If it were her life they intended it would not much matter. But was it? Would they punish her that way? To her it did not suggest the refinement of cruelty which would appeal to them. No, there were other signs. Their purpose looked to be to ruin the Obar, and then—what then? Rob her of the man she loved? It could be done. It would be easy, and surely the refinement of it would appeal to natures so ruthless.
Her sewing had dropped to the floor. Mechanically she picked it up. Then and there she purposed to break in upon her husband's meal. But she hesitated, and the impulse passed. Instead, she went to a drawer in her bureau and withdrew the folded paper. She read it over and returned to her seat. Decision was lacking. Her interpretation of the threat had taken strong hold upon her, but she could not decide what best to do. Her fine eyes were troubled as she gazed out into the growing dusk. Dared she go to him? Would he listen?
But once more her thoughts were diverted. The sound of a great clatter of hoofs reached her from the other side of the house. Some one had ridden up to the veranda at a great pace. Who? And what could the urgency be at such an hour?
She heard Jeff moving in the living-room. She heard him pass out on to the veranda. Then curiosity, perhaps apprehension, urged her. She passed to the window beyond her bureau, which was near the angle of the building, and leaned out of it. Ordinary tones on the veranda would reach her there.
She waited, breathing lightly lest her hearing should be impaired. A strange voice was talking. She could not place it. It was rough, and the language was rough. No doubt it was one of the "hands" from some outlying point.
"They got him through the chest, an' I guess he's goin' to pass in. He sez to me, 'Ride like hell an' fetch the boss. Tell him I got 'em plumb wher' he wants 'em. I located their lay-out. I ain't got above an hour or so to tell him in. Just hike an' ride like ——!'"
Then came Jeff's voice cold and undisturbed.
"Where is he?"
"Why, by his shack at Spruce Crossing. He jest got in, an' nigh fell plumb in his tracks out o' the saddle. I don't guess any feller but Sikkem could ha' done it. He's tough—mighty tough."
Sikkem! Elvine moved from the window. Sikkem! Her heart was pounding in her bosom, and, for a moment, her brain seemed in a whirl. Sikkem had discovered the raiders and was willing to give them away. In a flash she was back in Orrville, and her mind was searching amongst shadowy memories that had suddenly become acute. Sikkem! Sikkem! No. She must see Jeff. She must tell him of—Sikkem. She must warn him, and show him her note. A sudden, crushing foreboding descended upon her, and she hurried toward the door.
In a few seconds she was on the veranda confronting her husband. For a moment her courage well-nigh failed her. Jeff was standing with his back turned toward the sunset. The ranchman was no longer there. He had gone to the barn to order a fresh saddle horse for the master of the Obar. Apparently Jeff had turned to repass into the house.
His fair strong face, serious and cold, was turned directly upon the beautiful figure of his wife, and it was the coldness of it that daunted her now.
The bitterness of that frigid, surprised inquiry was crushing. Elvine looked into his eyes for one single shadow of softening. She could find none. It shocked the hope she had been steadily building in her heart.
She had no words in which to answer. She stood thus for one uncertain moment. Then she thrust out her hand. It contained the threatening message.
"Will you read that—at once?"
His cold regard dropped from her face. The man noted the dirty paper in her soft white hand. Then he took it. Nor did their hands come into contact.
"Is it a matter of importance?"
Elvine could have cried out with the stab of the question. Only some matter of vital importance justified her action in his eyes. Her gaze was averted to hide her pain.
"I should not have come to you otherwise."
The man moved to the edge of the veranda to obtain more of the dying light. At that moment the ranchman approached with two saddle horses. Elvine scrutinized him carefully. He was a complete stranger to her.
Jeff had read the note. He stood regarding the ranchman. Suddenly his voice broke sharply.
"Leave my horse at the tying post. Wait for me at the barn."
He watched the man secure his horse. Then he watched him return to the barn. Nor did he speak again till he was out of earshot.
At last he turned back to the waiting woman.
"Who sent this? When did you get it? How?" The questions came rapidly.
"It came the night you were at Orrville. It was flung in through the open window late at night. I'd fallen asleep in my chair—waiting. It hit me on the face. They'd made it fast around a grass-tuft."
"Who sent it?"
"It must have been the man, Sikkem, who's just sent in word to you he's—shot up."
Suddenly the restraint Elvine was exercising gave way. Even her husband's deliberate coldness was powerless to stem the tide of conviction which had steadily mounted up within her. The one thought in her mind was that he stood in danger. Her reason was slight enough, but her love accentuated her intuition. She saw in her mind the claiming of the toll these men demanded, and to her swift imagination the picture of her husband's murder was complete before her eyes.
"Sikkem comes from Orrville. He was there—four years ago. There was more than suspicion attached to him. My first day here I met him. Maybe you'll remember. He knew me at once. I don't guess there was any mistake. And I knew him. When he heard I was—married to you he pretended he'd mistaken me for—some one else. And when he explained who, and his feelings against that woman—it was me he was describing—I knew he was, as was suspected, one of the Lightfoot gang at Orrville. Sikkem wrote that note. I could stake my life on it. And—now he's sent for you. He's asking you to go out to Spruce Crossing—at night. A distant, lonely point in the hills. He says he's mortally wounded. He has found the rustlers hiding. Of course he has. He's known all along. Nor do I believe he's wounded. He—and the others—think the only way to get back on me is—through you. They mean to kill you. Who's the boy who brought in word?"
"A new 'hand' we've taken on to replace the boy who was shot up two days back."
"One of the gang."
The woman spoke with a decision she did not realize. But her belief had become conviction. No shadow of doubt remained.
Jeff gazed thoughtfully down at the note. When he raised his eyes his regard had undergone a shadow of change.
There was less coldness in them. He shrugged.
"Guess we'll leave that at present. Why all this now?"
"Because your life's in danger. That's how I figure."
There was a deep note of urgency in the woman's voice. Her eyes were alight with a sudden, unmistakable emotion. But even if the man realized these things he ignored them.
"My life?" There was something cruelly biting in the reflection. "And all this time you knew—Sikkem. You knew we were being raided."
"I——" Elvine broke off.
She had no reply. There could be no reply. Why, she wondered in sudden horror, had she not told of this thing before?
She stood with downcast eyes before the accusing glance of the man. Then, after a moment's pause, a sound escaped his lips. And in it was every thinkable expression of condemnation and contempt.
He turned away and strode across to his horse. The woman's voice came to him low, despairing, appealing.
"For God's sake, Jeff, don't go! You won't go! They'll kill you! Oh, God! Jeff! Oh!"
The final exclamation came in a sort of moan as the man swung himself into the saddle, and, without a word, turned his horse and rode away.
THE HEARTS OF TWO WOMEN
The figure was silent, motionless upon the veranda. The eyes were dull and lifeless. It was as though paralysis held the woman in its grip.
The echo of that fierce expletive remained. It rang through heart and brain. Its sting was hot. It seared its way through the life channels and blasted all hope.
Was there ever such contempt, such scorn, such repulsion, concentrated in one single ejaculation! It told the woman everything. It told of a failure so complete that hope became an emotion driven forever from her heart. It told her that the usury of life was beyond all belief. It told her that the interest demanded for every pledged moment was without pity, or mercy, or justice. Now she knew how she had pawned, and, oh God, the interest which was being torn from her!
Her gaze remained upon the angle of the barn around which her husband had vanished. She was waiting for him to reappear. She was waiting to see if he would ride off in spite of her warning. But she was unaware of the thought prompting her. All she knew, all she felt, was the contempt, the scorn, the distrust he had hurled at her.
The western sky had faded to a pallid yellow. The distance was losing itself in the rising purple shadows. Already the dark patches of woodlands were assuming that ghostly vagueness which belongs to twilight. The ranch was wrapped in a deep repose. A sense of rest had fallen upon the great valley. All life seemed satisfied with its long day's effort and desired only the peace of night.
But the quiet suddenly gave way before a fresh clatter of movement. Hoofs once more beat on the sun-baked soil. Two figures grew out of the twilight from behind the barn, and the woman knew that her warning had gone for naught. She watched them until they were swallowed up by the growing dusk. The last dim outline blurred itself into the pasture. Then she stirred.
A deep sigh was heavily breathed. Then, in a moment, the paralysis fell from her. The dullness of her eyes gave place to a sheen of excitement, and her perfect cheeks assumed a faint, hectic flush.
For one brief moment she glanced back into the house. Then she glanced down at her own clothing. She was still clad in the riding suit which had become her daily wear. The survey seemed to satisfy her, for she left the veranda at a run, and made her way toward the barn.
Perhaps five minutes later she, too, became lost in the growing twilight, and her horse's hoofs awoke anew the echoes of the place. But her way did not lie in the track of the others. Her horse was racing headlong in the direction of Nan's home.
Bud and Nan were just finishing their supper when Elvine broke in upon them. She came with a rush and a clatter which brought Nan out on to the veranda in hurry of anxious inquiry. Bud was behind her, but his movements lacked her impulse.
Elvine was out of the saddle. She stood on the veranda, a figure of wild-eyed appeal.
"Jeff! Oh, he's gone. Nan, they'll—they'll kill him! I know it. I'm certain. And I warned him. I warned him. But—oh!"
She covered her face with her hands. It was a movement inspired by the memory of his scorn.
Nan's responsive heart was caught by the other's emotion. But above it leaped a fear which she was powerless to deny. Jeff? Jeff in danger? She flung out an arm. Her small hand gripped the other with a force that was incredible.
"What d'you mean?" she cried, almost fiercely. "Don't stand there like a fool. Who is going to harm Jeff?"
The sharp authority, so prompt, so unexpected, dragged the distraught woman into some command of herself. She raised her head. Her eyes were hot with unshed tears. They looked into Nan's, so urgent, yet so full of a steadfast sanity.
"It's Sikkem," she cried, steadying herself. "He's sent in to say he's badly shot up. He says he's located the rustlers' camp and must hand Jeff the news before—while he has time. Jeff's gone out there, and—Sikkem's one of the gang and escaped from Orrville four years ago."
"How d'you know?" It was Bud's heavy voice put the question. It was full of stern command.
"I've seen him. I know him, and—he knows me. He—he wrote this and sent it me."
Elvine thrust the crumpled note at Bud. Her gesture was almost desperate.
"When did he send it?" Again came Bud's command.
"An' Jeff—didn't know till—now?"
"I was afraid to tell him—then."
Bud and Nan read the note by the parlor lamplight. A bitter imprecation broke from the man's lips.
"Guess I don't get it—yet," he said.
But Nan was quicker.
"He's gone to Spruce Crossing—to Sikkem?" she cried, her eyes hot as they dwelt on the shaking woman before her. "Don't wait talking. It don't matter the right of things. You, Daddy, get our horses fixed and round up a bunch of boys from the bunkroom. Jeff's in danger, an' it's up to us. Maybe Evie'll tell me while you go."
Something of the great Bud's feelings was displayed in the celerity of his movements. He was gone before Nan had finished speaking.
The two women were left facing each other.
Seconds passed without a word. The gentle Nan no longer looked out of the brown eyes. They were hot, resentful. Nor would any one have recognized in the anxious-eyed woman before her the beautiful creature who had first stirred Jeffrey Masters out of his years of celibate thought.
Without a word Nan turned back to the parlor. When she reappeared she was buckling a revolver belt about her slim waist. The two heavy holsters it supported were almost incongruous on so slight a figure.
Elvine watched her. The girl's deliberation was in deep contrast to her own emotions. Then, too, the sympathy which had fled from Nan's brown eyes left them full of hard resolve.
"You—are not going?" Elvine said, pointing at the weapons.
Nan's surprise was genuine.
"Jeff's in danger."
"But you—a woman? You can't help. You might even——"
"Jeff's in danger."
Nan repeated the words with an emphasis there could be no mistaking. And as the final syllable escaped her pretty lips became firmly compressed.
Elvine regarded her for a silent moment or two. A strange new sensation was stirring within her. Nan's attitude had brought it into being. Her earlier emotions receded before this new feeling. And, strangely enough, she remembered some words her mother had once spoken to her. It was at a time before she had engaged herself to her husband.
"But Jeff—is nothing to you," she said abruptly.
There was a new ring in the voice in which she spoke.
Nan's eyes looked straight into the wife's. There was no smile in them. There was no emotion lying behind them that Elvine could read. They were steady, unflinching. That was all.
Sounds came up from the ranch buildings. Voices reached them plainly. And among them Bud's dominating tones were raised above all.
Nan's eyes were drawn in the direction, but her gaze only encountered the moonless night.
"What is he—to you?" Elvine's demand was strident. She was roused from her sense of her own sufferings, her own misery. The newly awakened emotion had leaped to proportions which threatened to overwhelm all others.
Nan's eyes came back to her face. There was something almost reckless in their regard. There was even a suggestion of derision in them, a suggestion of triumph. But it was not the triumph over a rival. It was the triumph of one who realizes her conquest over self.
"Everything!" she cried. Then she added almost to herself: "Everything I can think of, have ever dreamed of in life." Then suddenly her voice rose to a ring of ecstasy. It was the abundance, the purity of her love, the certainty of victory over self which inspired it. "Ah, Evie, don't be rattled with what I'm telling you. Ther' surely is no need. You want to be mad with me. Guess you needn't to be. Jeff don't know it. He never will know it. I've never had a hope of him since he met you. He's always been just yours. I don't guess you need to worry a thing that way. The worrying's for me. I've loved him since ever I was a child: since ever he came here. Well, you figure he's in danger—so it's up to those who love him to do. You see, I—well, I just love him with my whole soul."
She turned away. The reception of her confession seemed to concern her not at all.
Out of the darkness loomed her father's great figure. He was leading Nan's horse as well as his own. The girl leaped into the saddle, and he passed his own reins up to her.
"I shan't be haf a minit," he said. "I need my guns. The boys are waitin' by the barn."
He passed into the house. Then Nan observed Elvine. She, too, had leaped into the saddle. Nor could the girl help being struck by the manner of her action.
"You're goin' back home?" she cried.
Elvine shook her head resolutely.
The wife suddenly urged her horse. It came right up to Nan's with an almost spasmodic jump, driven by a vicious jab of the woman's spurred heel.
The dark eyes were lit with an angry fire as she leaned forward in the saddle. Her words came in a voice of passionate jealousy.
"You love him, so you go to him, ready to face anything—for him. Do you think I don't love him? Do you think I'm not ready to dare for him—anything? Your love gives you that right. What of mine? Does mine give me no right? Say, child, your fool conceit runs away with you. I tell you you don't know what love is. You say you love him with your whole soul. And you are content to live without him. Psha! Your soul must be a poor enough thing. I tell you life means nothing to me without him. I can't and won't live without him."
* * * * * *
The black earth sped under the horses' hoofs. The stars shone like dew on the velvet pall of night. Bud led, as he always led in the things practical which belonged to his life.
He needed no thought for guidance on that night journey. Unerring instinct served him across those wide plains. Spruce Crossing might have possessed a beacon light, so straight, so unerring was the lead he offered those behind him.
Now, perhaps, more than ever, all his great skill was put forth. For he had listened to the complete, if halting, story of the man's wife, and shared with her the conviction of treachery. For the time, at least, all consideration for the woman was thrust aside. He offered no words of blame. His concern was simply the succor of his friend.
Nan was ready to follow him whithersoever he led. She was ready to obey his lightest command, for she understood his skill. She had no thought for anything but the man she loved. No possibilities of mischance, no threat to herself could find place in her thought. For her Jeff's well-being was her single concern.
Elvine rode beside her, step for step. She had told her story as they rode. After that silence between them prevailed. It was a silence fraught with an emotion too deep for any words. A fierce jealousy mingled with her passionate longing. Her world was empty of all but two figures. The man she loved, and the girl who had confessed her love with all the strength of a great, simple courage.
Whatever the night might bring forth, whatever tragedy might be in store, she scarcely had thought for anything but her own almost mad resolve. This girl, this child of the plains, should obtain no advantage. She was prepared to yield all for the succor of the husband who had scorned her—even to life itself.
TO SPRUCE CROSSING
The eyes of the night were there alone to see. It was as well. There are moments in men's lives when it is best that it should be so. Passions are not always sane. They are not always human.
So it was with Jeffrey Masters. The change in him had been rapid. It was almost magical. Always one who lacked something of the softer human qualities, he yet must have been counted a man of balance. If sympathy, sentiment, were never his strong points, he was by no means lacking in loyalty, kindliness, rightness of purpose. All his life, achievement, achievement under the strictest canons of honesty, or moral scruple, had been the motive urging him. He had seen neither to the right nor to the left of these things.
Then had come the woman into his life and the lighting of those natural fires which belong to all human life. He yielded to them, and the suddenness of it all seemed to sweep away every cooler method which had always governed him. There had been no thought, no calculation in his yielding, such as might have been expected. He was the victim of his own temperament. His powerful restraint had been suddenly relaxed. And, for the time, he had been completely overwhelmed by the intensity of his passion.
But this passion for the woman who had so suddenly entered his life was merely the opening of vials of emotion hitherto held sealed. It was no radical transformation. All that had been his before still remained, buried perhaps for the moment under the avalanche of feeling, but nevertheless still occupying its place. These things could not be swept away. They could not be destroyed. They would remain when the passionate fires had completely burned themselves out.
But the unlooked-for had happened. These fires had not been permitted to burn themselves out. They had been extinguished, deluged out of existence when the idol of his worship was flung headlong from its pedestal by the complete revolt of his moral being. His prejudices, his instincts, matured through years of effort, were the stronger part of him, and the conflict was decided before it began. The shock of discovery had brought a terrible reaction. His love was killed under the blow. And though for a while the sense of overwhelming disaster had been crushing, the measure of that disaster was taken swiftly. It left him disillusioned, it left him harder, colder. But it left him sane.
These things were not all, however. On this night he had approached far nearer the hell which only a woman can create for a man than his first discovery had borne him. The irony of it was perfect. Out of her great love for him, solely in his interest, in a great desire to shield him from a danger she saw threatening him, she had contrived to convince him that she had been as ready to sacrifice him, his interests, the interests of his friends, as she had been to accept the price offered for the blood of his twin brother.
So the eyes of the night looked down upon the haunting figure of a man who knew neither mercy, nor pity, nor hope. The world of human happiness had closed its doors upon him, and his whole spirit and body demanded a fierce retaliation.
That was the mood which looked out of his coldly shining eyes. That was the mood which drove the horse under him at a headlong gait, and left his spurs blood-stained upon his heels. That was the mood that left him caring nothing for any danger that might lurk under cover of the starlit dark of night. The fierceness of his temper demanded outlet. Bodily outlet. Active conflict. Anything, so that a burning lust for hurt should be satisfied. He cared nothing at all for himself. No bodily suffering could compare with the anguish of mind he had passed through, was still passing through. And so he rode headlong till the youth accompanying him was hard put to it to keep pace with him.
The hammering of the horses' hoofs upon the sun-baked earth was a fitting accompaniment to his mood. The sigh of the night breezes through the trees was no less desolate than his heart. Nor was the darkness one whit more dark than the stream of thought which flowed through his hot brain.
Not one word did he exchange with the man behind him. In truth the youth who had brought the summons had no part in the thing that was happening, at least not in Jeffrey Masters' mind. There was no one besides himself in this. There was just himself and his goal—whatever that might bring forth—with a wild, almost insane desire to act fiercely and without mercy should opportunity offer.
The land rose and fell, from hill to valley, from valley to hill. The way lay through avenues of bluff-lined grass, or across hollows of virgin pasture. Trickling mountain streams barred the way, only to be passed without a thought of their depth, or the dangers of their treacherous, sodden banks. The mountain barrier ahead, looming darkly forbidding in the starlight, with its mazing hollows and woodland crowns, was incapable of inspiration at the moment. There are moments when Nature's profoundest awe is powerless to affect the mind of man. These were such moments. The whole mind of Jeffrey Masters was absorbed till there was no room for any influence which did not arise out of the burden of his bitterness.
But if he were indifferent to his surroundings, the man riding hard behind him moved with eyes and ears fully alert. That which he was seeking would have been impossible to tell. Nevertheless every shadow seemed to possess interest, every night sound to possess some quality worth remarking. Not for an instant, after the hills had been entered, did his vigilance relax.
Spruce Crossing lay deep in the hills, a clearing to the south of the junction of converging mountain streams. It was a mere cattle station, neither better nor worse than several others lying on the outskirts of the Obar territory. Yet it was important that it headed a valley running north and south amongst the hills, where the grass was sweet, and rich, and fattening, one of those surprise natural pastures which the hills love to yield occasionally to those who seek out their wealth.
A glimmer of light, like some distant star fallen to earth from its velvet setting above, marked the station, house. It was visible at a great distance down the flat stretch of the valley. The ranchman's horse was headed directly for it, and the animal moved readily, eagerly now, nor were the spurs needed to urge him further. The instinct of its journey's end was sufficient to encourage its flagging spirits.
The distant light grew brighter. It took on the rectangular form of a window opening in a log-built hut.
Jeffrey Masters had fixed his gaze upon it, and so the shadowy scene about him passed all unnoticed. He saw nothing of the darker objects lying on the ground adjacent to his way. The slumbering kine which bore his brand remained all unheeded. He had no thought for them. His course took him over a track which passed down a land between two fenced pastures. These, too, were stocked with fattening steers, or with the brood cows and their attendant calves. At another time, under other conditions, these things would have held for him an absorbing interest. Now they concerned him not at all.
The dark pastures gave place to a number of corrals, also lost in the summer night. A dog barked. Then, in a moment, its sharp yelps became silent, and the stillness became once more unbroken except for the hard pounding hoofs of the two horsemen approaching.
A few moments later these sounds ceased as the dark outline of the station house itself took shape.
For a few seconds Jeff gazed at the window opening where the light from within was still shining. A sound had caught and held his attention. It came from within the hut, and there was no mistaking it. It was the sound inspired by physical suffering, and the voice that uttered it was a man's. He sprang out of the saddle and turned to hand his horse to the man who had accompanied him. But he found himself standing alone.
With a shrug of the shoulders he left his horse and turned at once to the hut. Just for an instant he hesitated once more. It was his thought to look in through the window. The hesitation passed. The next moment he passed along the lateral log walls to the far end of the building where he knew the door to be situated.
The door was closed. He placed his hand on the heavy wooden latch. A second passed. He glanced over his shoulder. It had occurred to him to wonder at the sudden going of the youth who had accompanied him.
But there was neither sight nor sound of the vanished youth. He raised the latch and swung the door open.
AN EPIC BATTLE
The station house was extensive. It was a bunkhouse of lesser dimensions.
Jeff's eyes moved swiftly over the dim interior. The remoter corners of the place were shadowed. But the light was sufficient to yield him a view of four squalid bunks on which the many-hued blankets were tumbled. The walls bore signs of personal effort at decoration. There were photographs over each bunk, tacked up and disfigured by flies. There were odd prints pasted on the rough log walls, the seams of which were more or less adequately filled with mud to keep the weather out.
There were two rough window openings, one in each side wall. The only entrance or exit was the door at the northern end, through which he had approached. At the other end, directly opposite this, an oil lamp was shedding its feeble rays through a well-smoked chimney glass. It was standing on a small improvised table which divided two bunks set on wooden trestles. The whole interior was perhaps thirty feet in length and twelve feet wide, a roomy, unkempt shanty, which served its simple purpose as a shelter for men unused to any of the comforts of life.
The object which caught and held Jeff's instant attention was the figure of the man seated on the side of one of the bunks, beside the table on which the lamp stood. It was the figure of Sikkem Bruce, bearing no trace whatever of any mortal injury, and with a look of wide-eyed surprise upon his evil countenance.
Jeff moved up the room. He approached without haste. His eyes were steady, and his expression one of tight-lipped determination. There was something coldly commanding in his attitude. His fair, bronzed features, keen, set, displayed no weakening. His body seemed poised ready for everything that could possibly happen. The latent power and vigor of his movements were tremendous. He carried no weapons of defense in view, and his dress was a simple loose jacket over a cotton shirt, and, for nether garments, a pair of loose riding breeches which terminated in soft leather top-boots.
Sikkem's eyes were on him the whole time. There was even some slight apprehension in them at the sight of that swift, voiceless approach. Jeff came to a halt before him, and it was the ranch hand who found speech most necessary.
"Say, I didn't guess you was gettin' around to-night, boss," he said with some show of ease.
"I sure didn't."
Jeff's retort flashed out.
"Then what did you send that youngster in for with mouthful of durned lies?"
Sikkem stared. But his look was unconvincing. Moments passed before his reply came, and in those moments the keen eyes of his employer were busy. The man was still in the working kit of a cowpuncher. Even to the chapps, and the prairie hat crushed down on his ugly bullet head. Then, too, his pair of guns were still strapped about his waist. None of these things escaped Jeff, any more than did the fellow's clumsy regard. He wondered how much truth—if any—lay behind that mask of wicked eyes and brutish features.
Jeff's demand came with a rasp. The man's delay in reply had conveyed all he wanted to know of the truth in him.
"Wot youngster? I tell you I didn't send no one in." There was truculence in the denial. "Wot's the lies?"
The ranchman was no match for the keen mind of his employer. In brute force he might have been more than his equal. But even that was doubtful. While he was speaking Jeff moved. Up to that moment he had been facing the foreman with his back turned toward the distant door. Now his movement placed him against the table with his back to the other empty bunk, and his focus took in not only the man before him, but the shadowy outline of the distant half-open door.
"It's the boy we took on the other day at—your recommendation. Your recommendation. Get me? Guess he came with the yarn you were shot to death. You'd located the rustlers' camp. You needed to see me quick." Jeff's words came swiftly. Then after a pause he added: "You didn't send him along? Who did?"
As Jeff watched the man's deliberate shake of the head he became aware of a muffled sound, somewhere away beyond the door. It was faint, but, to him, unmistakable. He gave no sign.
"Where are the other boys?" he demanded.
"Out on cattle guard."
The movement beyond the door again penetrated the silence of the hut. Now it was that the ranchman made his mistake. Only for an instant did he turn his head and eyes in the direction of the sound. But it was sufficient.
Jeff's voice rasped again.
"Stand up, darn you! Stand up!"
Sikkem's gaze came back abruptly, and on the instant his right hand flew to his waist for his guns. But the muzzle of Jeff's revolver was within a foot of his head, and behind it his coldly shining eyes.
Sikkem's hand dropped from his waist. He stood up. The law of the gun was powerfully ingrained upon his mind.
"Loose those guns at your waist—quick! Let 'em drop on the bunk! Quick, or I'll pump you full of lead!"
The deadliness of Jeff's command was irresistible. The power of that leveled gun indisputable. The buckle was loosened, and the weapons fell on the blankets behind the ranchman.
"Now push your hands up! Right up!"
The command was obeyed on the instant, but the look which accompanied the movement was as deadly as human passion could make it.
"Back away! Back to the far end! Sharp!"
Sikkem moved. But his movement was not rapid enough. Jeff urged him.
In the pause Jeff's straining ears caught again the sound of movement, and he wondered why development was not precipitated. Perhaps—— But Sikkem had nearly reached the distant wall, and, at that instant, a whistle shrilled through the building.
Jeff knew he was trapped. But, with a wonderful sense of detachment, mind and body worked almost electrically. His revolver spat out its vicious report. For the fraction of a second he held the smoking lamp poised in his other hand. Then, like a shooting star, it flew through the adjacent window and fell extinguished amidst the crash of its own glass. It was at the complete fall of darkness that the door slammed closed, and half a dozen shots rang out through the building, followed by the "plonk" of the bullets embedding themselves in the solid logs immediately behind where the rancher had been standing.
But Jeff was no longer there. There had been a simultaneous clatter of falling bunk boards. There was the rustling of straw. Then a sound of scrambling, and, after that, a dead silence. The darkness was complete except for the faint silhouette of the windows against the dim starlight beyond them.
Jeff had taken the big chance. What remained now must be met as circumstance permitted. The blood in him was fired. The savage delight of battle. He would sell the last breath in his body at the highest price he could make his enemies pay. He had walked into a trap laid by the rustlers, headed, perhaps, by Sikkem Bruce, with his eyes wide open, and some almost insane yearning made him glad.
Now he crouched down against the wall beside the table. He had flung up a barrier of straw palliasse before him. It was not as a protection against gun-fire, but to screen his movements should his opponents produce a light. Then, too, there was another thought in his mind.
The place became alive with sounds, voiceless, muffled sounds of cautious movement. It was the movement of men who know that death is lurking at every turn. Nor could they tell whence it was most likely to come. It was a moment of tense and straining nerves wherein the wit of one man had discounted the elaborate plan to murder of those whose indifference to death only shrank from the contemplation of their own.
Jeff's eyes strained against the darkness. The windows stood out in silhouette. From these he had no fear. He knew, and he knew that these ruffians would know, the dangers attending themselves from any attack upon him from such a direction. The advantage would be entirely his, since he had possessed himself of Sikkem's complete arsenal. He knew it was for him to await the fire of these men, every shot of which would yield him a sure target.
A flash broke the blackness ahead of him. The bullet sank into the woodwork just above his head with a vicious splash. But he refrained from reply. Another crack split the silence, and the wall to the left of him flung back its response. Still he offered no reply.
His eyes were searching, searching. And a surge of excitement suddenly thrilled him.
Two shots came on the same instant. One slithered hotly in the flesh of his shoulder, but the other struck wide of him.
The wound gave him no concern. Every sense, every faculty was concentrated on one thought, on one object. A dim, fine-drawn but uneven line of shadowy light had grown out of the darkness to his now accustomed eyes. It was vague, so vague that it required the greatest concentration to detect. But he recognized it for what it was, and a savage delight possessed him as he observed that there were breaks in its continuity. The line was waist high, and lateral, and he interpreted it to suit himself.
He raised his gun and took steady aim at one of the breaks. His shot was deliberate, careful, since the sight of his weapon, even the weapon itself, remained invisible in the dark. He fired, and dropped himself prone behind his barrier.
A bitter curse followed by a groan of pain was the answer to his shot. Then, where that break in the shadowy line of light had been, now the line was unbroken.
A fierce glee permeated him. The curse, the moan had been music to him. But it only required a second before he had the enemy's retort.
It came with a fusillade. And every shot seemed to find practically the same spot on the wall. He knew that the flash of his gun had been the target. He knew he had only escaped by a fraction of time.
His shoulder stung him. But his will, his savage yearning for the continuance of the fight, left him disregarding. There was more to come, and he knew it. Nor did he care how much. The blood was hot in his brain. No pain, nothing mattered. Again he searched along that lateral line of light.
He was reaching out far beyond his retreat. He had stealthily crawled to the left of the table. Again his weapon was raised against another break in that telltale line of light, this time at a point where the angle of the building must be. A moment passed while he judged his aim. It was by no means easy. Instinct was his only guide. That instinct which belongs to the man accustomed to the constant use of a revolver.
His shot rang out. Again came a cry, inarticulate, fierce. Then followed the sound of a falling body. Then he let loose a second shot. But even as it sped he had his answer. Four tongues of flame leaped out at him in the darkness, and four bullets smote viciously into the wood behind him.
His second shot had cost him a sharp penalty. The flesh of his forearm had been ripped by one of those four bullets and he felt the trickle of warm blood over the unscored flesh.
He crouched behind his barrier. The joy of battle for the highest stakes for which a man can play was undiminished in him. The wounds he had received left him all unconcerned. In the thrill of the moment he had no time for them. The desire to kill was strong, and he knew he could already count two victims.
But the general in him was foremost, even in the excitement of battle. The number of his opponents, their next move. These things concerned him seriously.
He searched the line of light with eager eyes. He listened to the sound of movement. These things were all he had to rely on, and on their accurate reading depended his chances of victory or defeat, with its certainty of swift death.
In two places there ware still definite breaks in the line. He knew he had accounted for two of the enemy. Originally a volley of six shots had come at him. There were two unaccounted for. Where were these? They were not standing.
He looked for no depths of subtlety in the methods of these men. He understood their ruffianism too well. Therefore the sound of movement that reached him suggested the obvious result of their first failure. It was the presage of an attack at close quarters.
He listened intently. The sounds were of shuffling bodies, moving uncertainly, possibly fearful of contact with obstruction which might betray them. And he calculated they were approaching low down along the side walls, thus hoping to offer the least target possible. If they reached him the chances would be all against him. They must not reach him. His decision was promptly taken.
He raised one of Sikkem's guns. It was heavy, and a sense of pleasure filled him as he felt the enormous bore of the muzzle with one finger. Stealthily he raised himself to his full height behind his barrier. He leveled his gun at a spot just below the right hand window, where the wall rose up out of the floor. There was no obstacle intervening.
A moment later the crack of the gun burst through the silence. Then, on the instant, he flung himself prone across the table. His answer came like lightning. Four shots. And three of them harmlessly tore their way into the bowels of the woodwork. The fourth had come from the direction in which he had aimed.
A fierce spasm of pain through his chest blinded him mentally and physically for the moment. But, by an almost superhuman effort, he recovered himself. He knew he was hit, and hit badly. Something seemed to have broken inside him, just under his left armpit.
He forced himself to an upright position and flung out his gun arm. His eyes were again on the line of light. A fury of recklessness was urging him. There were the breaks, and he blazed at each in turn, carefully, deliberately. A moment later two shots came from the right and left of him, and he dropped down behind his barrier, but not before he had heard the death-cries of fierce blasphemy at the far end of the room.
He lay behind his shelter breathing hard and suffering an agony of physical pain. The sweat poured down his forehead. It seemed to him that everything was somehow receding from him, even the sense of his own danger. In these feelings he realized how near he was to defeat, and with all his will he set himself to conquer his weakness. A few moments passed. His pain eased. Then, with all the recklessness of the gambler, he prepared for his final throw.
He was certain he had accounted for four of the enemy. Four. He calculated there were still two remaining. He shifted his position, moving himself clear of his shelter. A hell of suffering was endured in the process, and the sweat poured out afresh upon his forehead. He gritted his teeth with superlative determination and flung back the dreadful faintness seeking to smother his powers.
He raised himself to a sitting posture. He sought support from the wall behind him. Then, with unbroken nerve, he raised both Sikkem's guns, one in each hand. Without a tremor he held them, and his aim took in the two points at which he felt the remaining foe were advancing upon him. Oh, for one moment of light wherein to assure himself! But the thought passed as it came, followed by a wild, simple hope that one of his shots might find its billet.
He pressed the trigger in each hand. He fired rapidly. He fired until both guns were empty. Then he flung them to the ground with a clatter. For an instant he thrilled at the sound of a cry of pain, and the fierce accompanying blasphemy. Then he flung himself down and crawled to his retreat behind the palliasse, convinced that the cry was in the voice of Sikkem Bruce.
His sufferings were well-nigh unendurable. His very breathing caused him an exquisite pain. He even found himself wondering how much longer he could endure.
But his work was not yet finished. If he must die he would die fighting.
Now, blending with fresh sounds of movement along the side walls, another sound added its threat to the quiet of the room. It came from behind the straw palliasse. There was heavy breathing, almost gasping. There was a distinct gritting of teeth. But there was also a sound of the effort which caused these things in the wounded man. There was a sharp ripping and tearing, the rustle of straw and—something else. The movements were hasty, desperately hasty. Movements which suggested the defender's realization of the narrow limits of time before his powers would become completely exhausted.
These things lasted a matter of seconds only. Then the threat broke. The quiet was shocked into desperate action. There was the shout of human voices. There was the rush and scramble of feet. Then, in the midst of the tumult, a great tongue of flame leaped up from the heart of the straw palliasse.
Its fierce, ruddy light revealed the faces of two men leaping to the attack of the wounded defender. They were within a yard of their goal. But even as they were closing upon him they reeled back before the new terror whose dread was overwhelming even in face of their murderous lust.
The flame shot up toward the roof. Jeff staggered to his feet bearing in his arms the blazing bundle. Higher he raised it. Higher and higher, till the devouring flame licked at the parched thatch of grass roof above. It caught in a second. The flames swept up along the rough rafters till they reached the pitch of the roof. In a moment great billows of smoke were rolling out of the dry crevices.
Just for one instant, before the fog closed down upon the whole interior, Jeff beheld the result of his work. The men had fled toward the closed door, and, on the ground, against the far wall, he had a glimpse of five bodies lying crumpled up where his guns had laid them.
Suddenly a great shout reached him from without.
"Ho, Jeff! Ho, boy!"
It was a deep-throated roar which drowned the hiss and crackle of the blazing straw.
Jeff's answer rang through the burning structure with all the power of his lungs.
"The door! Bust it! Quick, Bud! Bust it, an' stand clear!"
For answer there was a crash on the woodwork outside. He waited for no more. With a wild rush through the blinding, choking fog of smoke he charged down the room. With all his might he flung the blazing palliasse from his scorched hands. He had no idea of the direction in which it went. His one desire now was to reach the door as it gave under the sledge-hammer attacks of the men outside.
He heard a crash and rending of woodwork. He could see nothing. He was incapable of further effort. The end had come all too soon. He staggered blindly, helplessly. His tottering limbs gave under him. Suffocation gripped him by the throat. He was conscious of the rush of a figure toward him. The sound of his name shrieked in a woman's voice. Then there were shots fired. He heard them. And it seemed there were many of them, and the sound was blurred, and vague, and distant from his ears. He fell. He knew he fell. For hours it seemed to him he continued to fall in an abyss of blackness that was wholly horrifying. It was a blackness peopled with hideous invisible shadows. So impenetrable was the inky void that even sound had no place in it.
UNDER THE VEIL
There was no moon. Only a starry sheen lit the night. A wonderful peace had descended upon the hills. The quiet was the hush of the still prairie night. Teeming maybe with restless life; but it was a life invisible, and rarely audible. Nevertheless the hush was merely a veil. A veil which concealed, but had no power to sweep away the garnered harvest of violent human passions.
The figure of a man lay stretched upon his back on the bank of the river. His head was carefully pillowed. A covering had been spread over the upper body, as though to hide that which lay beneath, rather than yield warmth and comfort on the summer night. The covering was a coat, a woman's coat, and the owner of it sat crouching over her charge.
Nan stirred. She reached out and tucked the long skirts of the coat under the man's shoulders with that mother instinct at once so solicitous, so tender. She shifted her position which had become cramped with her long vigil. These were moments of darkness, literal and mental. Her anxiety and dread were almost overwhelming. The waiting seemed interminable.
She raised her eyes from her yearning regard of the still, bandaged head with its pale features. She sighed, as she turned them in another direction, toward an object lying beneath the shadow of a great red willow near by. It was a dark object, huddled and, like the other, quite still. A curious sort of fascination held her for some moments, then, almost reluctantly, as though impelled by the trend of her feelings, her gaze wandered in the direction whence was wafted toward her a pungent reek of burning. It was the dimly outlined skeleton of the station house, roofless and partly fallen, white-ashed and still faintly smoking.
For long moments she regarded this sign of the destruction which had been wrought. Nor was the sigh which escaped her wholly of regret. A deep stirring was in her heart. She was thinking of the heroic battle which the station home had witnessed. She was thinking of the desperate odds one man had faced within those four walls. She was thinking, too, of the victory which ultimately had been his. But the cost. She shuddered. And her eyes came back to the white upturned features of the man before her.
She started. The man's eyes were open. Tenderly she raised a hand and smoothed the cold forehead with its soft palm. Tears of emotion had gathered in her eyes on the instant. But they did not overflow down her cheeks.
The eyes closed again. The lids moved slowly, as though reluctant to perform their office. The girl literally held her breath. Would they open again? Or—— Her question was answered almost on the instant. They reopened. This time even more widely. They were staring straight up at the starlit sky, quite unmoving. There was no consciousness in them, and barely life.
Nan waited for some long apprehensive moments. Her heart was full of a wild, new-born hope. But fear held her, too. At last she moved. She withdrew herself gently but swiftly. Then she stood up, a picture of dapper womanhood in the white shirt-waist and loose riding breeches which the coat spread over the man's body should have held concealed. A moment later the darkness swallowed her up as she sped down the trail which passed near by.
With her going there crept into the man's vacant eyes the first real sign of life.
Five minutes later the girl was back at his side. But she had not returned alone. Bud was with her, and together they bent over the prostrate form. The girl was kneeling. She had gently taken possession of one of the bandaged hands lying inert at the man's side. Tenderly enough she held it between her own soft palms and chafed it, while her shining eyes, yielding all the secrets of her devoted heart, gazed yearningly down into his.
"Jeff!" she murmured, in a low, eager tone. "Jeff!"
There was no response. The eyes were fixed and staring.
Bud had less scruples in his anxious impatience.
"Say, that ain't no sort o' way to wake him, Nan," he whispered hoarsely. Then in his deep gruff voice he displayed his better understanding. "Say, Jeff! You ken hear me, boy. You're jest foolin'. Say, hark to this. You beat 'em. You beat 'em single-handed, an' shot 'em plumb down."
Curiously enough there was almost instant result, and Bud's satisfaction became evident. The staring eyes relaxed their regard of the starry heavens. The lids flickered, then the eyes themselves turned in the direction whence came those sonorous tones.
"You ken hear?"
Bud's words came on the instant, and were full of triumph. Then he turned to the girl who had promptly relinquished Jeff's hand.
"We ain't got a thing to hand him, 'cep' it's water," he said half-angrily. "We can't jest move him, not nothin', till the boys git along with the wagon, an' that blamed dope merchant gits around. What in hell ken we do?"
Nan's finality robbed her father of his complaint.
"Guess we'll hev to. Say——"
"Do you guess he ken talk if he feels that way?"
But Nan was no longer giving him any attention. All her thoughts, all her being was for the man before them.
A faint tinge of color was creeping under his skin, up to the soft white wrapping fastened about his fire-scorched forehead. Even in the starlight it was plainly visible to the girl's eager eyes. There was something else, too. The look in his eyes had completely changed. To Nan there was something approaching the shadow of a smile.
She moved close to his side so that she could reach out and give him support. Then she gave the father at her side his orders.
"Get water, Dad—quick!" she demanded.
"I only got my hat," he said helplessly.
"It'll do. But get it."
Bud moved away, with the heavy haste of two hundred and ten pounds of mental disturbance.
The moment he had gone a faint sigh escaped the injured man. Nan held her breath. Would he—speak? She would give worlds to hear the sound of his voice, She had believed him dying. Now a wild hope surged. If he would—could speak, it seemed to her simple logic that he must—live.
The word was distinct, but, oh, the weakness of voice. The girl thrilled.
"Yes, Jeff. I'm here. I'm right beside you."
The girl's heart sank. In a flash she remembered all there was to tell. Why had his first thoughts on returning life been of these—things? Yet it was like him—so like him. She drew a deep breath and resorted to subterfuge.
"It's as Dad shouted at you just now, Jeff. You beat them all—lone-handed. But you mustn't talk. Don't worry about them. Guess they're not worth it. You've been shot up, Jeff, an' Dad an' I we've just fixed you the best we know, an' the boys have gone right in for a wagon, an' a doctor. The doc's got to get in from Moose Creek, twenty miles away. That's what scares me."
The smile in the man's eyes had deepened.
"Don't—get—scared, Nan. I'm—not dying."
The girl thrilled at the assurance in the tired voice. But the thrill passed as swiftly as it came. She knew what would follow when Jeff had gathered sufficient strength.
Sure enough he went on presently:
"I remember everything—till—I dropped," he said haltingly. "What happened—after—that? Y'see—I—heard—firing."
Nan glanced helplessly about her. If only her father would return with the water! It might help her. She felt that she could not, could not tell him the things he was demanding of her.
But again came his demand, and in the tone of it was a sound of peevish impatience.
"What—happened—after—Nan? I need—to know."
"It all came of a rush. I can't just tell it right."
The man's eyes closed again. He remained silent so long that Nan's apprehensions reawakened. She even forgot her panic at his persistence.
Her call to him was almost a whisper. But the man heard. His eyes opened at once.
The girl laughed a little hysterically.
"You thought I——"
"Yes, yes. But you are—better? Sure?"
The man's head turned deliberately toward her. There was astonishing vigor in the movement.
"Ther's things broke inside me, Nan," he said, in a voice that was growing stronger. "A rib, I guess. Maybe it's my shoulder. The others—guess they're just nothing. Now tell me—the things I asked. How did you happen to git around? Start that way."
A sense of relief helped the girl. He had given her an opportunity which she seized upon.
"Oh, Jeff, it was just thanks to Evie. I guess she saved your life."
The girl's enthusiasm received a set-back in his tone.
"She came right along over to us, and told us—everything—the moment you'd gone. We followed you just as hard as the horses could lay foot to the ground. Dad an' me, and six of the boys."
"What did Evie do?"
"She came along—too."
"Wher' is she?"
Nan made no answer. The question was repeated more sharply.
"Wher' is she?"
"She's under that red willow—yonder."
The girl's voice was low. Her words were little more than a whisper.
At that moment Bud reappeared bearing a hat full clear river water.
Nan looked up.
"How can we give it him?" she questioned. Somehow the importance of the water had lessened in her mind.
Jeff answered the question himself.
"I don't need it, Bud," he said. Then he added as an afterthought: "Thanks."
Nan looked up at her father who stood doubtfully by.
"Set it down, Daddy. Then get right along an' look out for the doc, an' the wagon. Hustle 'em along."
Bud obeyed unquestioningly. He felt that Nan's understanding of the situation was better than any ideas of his. He set the hat down for the water to percolate through the soft felt at its leisure. Then he moved on.
The moment he was out of earshot Jeff's voice broke the silence once more.
"Wher's the red willow? How far away?"
"A few yards."
"Can you help me up?" The question came after a long considering pause. It came with a certain eagerness.
But Nan remonstrated with all her might.
"No, no, Jeff," she cried, in serious alarm. "You mustn't. True you mustn't. It'll kill you to move now."
Her appeal was quite without effect.
"Then I'll have to do it myself."
Jeff's obstinate decision was immovable, and in the end the girl was forced to give way.
The sick man endured five minutes of the intensest agony in the effort required. Twice he nearly fainted, but, in the end, he stood beside the somewhat huddled figure under the red willow, gasping under the excruciation of internal pains.
"I can lie here, Nan," he said. "Will you—help me?"
Exerting all her strength the girl helped him to the ground. The position he had chosen was close to the still form of his dead wife. Once he was safely resting again, Nan breathed her relief.
He looked up at her, and something like a smile was in his blue eyes.
"Thanks, Nan. Say—I'll need that coat of yours—later. Will you go along—and get it?"
Nan moved away. She needed no second bidding. Nor did she return until the man's voice summoned her.
"Nan!" he called.
She came to him at once bearing her coat in her hands. For a second, surprise widened her eyes. He was no longer where she had left him. He had moved a few yards away. And she wondered how he had been capable of the unassisted effort. Then she glanced swiftly at the dead woman. The covering over the body had been moved. She was certain. It had been replaced differently from the way she had arranged it. She offered no comment, but busied herself spreading her coat over the man's bared chest, where the rough bandages had been fastened with her father's aid.
Again she seated herself on the ground beside him, but now his face was turned from her. It was toward the still figure a few yards away.
"Tell me the rest now, Nan," he said. "She did her—best—to—save me."
"More than her best. Say, Jeff, she loved you better than life. That's why she's—there."
A new note had crept into his demand. There was a hush in his voice which gave his words a curious tenderness, reverence even for the woman they were speaking of.
"Guess it must have been over in a minute. Oh, say, it was just the biggest, blindest, most tremendous thing. It was too awful. She was so beautiful, too. And then the love in it. I kind of shiver when I think of it. We heard your shout, Jeff. Evie came right along with us. She insisted. You see, I'd made her mad. I'd blamed her to her face. I—I'm sorry now. But, my, she was brave, and how she loved you! Well, when Bud heard your shout I guess it didn't take him more than a minute to beat in the door they'd fastened. Him an' the boys. The rest took seconds. We stood clear, as you said, guessing you meant a run for it. The place was ablaze. When the door fell we saw it all. You were near it. Beyond you were two men. Sikkem was one. They were against the far wall, sideways from the door. They had guns in their hands. They meant finishing you anyway, whatever happened after. But there was a bundle of blazing stuff in front of them, an' it seemed to worry them quite a deal. You started for the door. They got busy to use their guns right away. Then something happened. We'd forgot Evie. Guess we were plumb staggered. Something rushed past us, into that blazing hut. It was Evie, an' she managed to get between you and them just as you dropped. She fell where she stood. It was the shots they'd meant for you. Then Bud opened on 'em, the boys did too, and after that we dragged you and Evie out. Oh, Jeff, she just didn't want to live without you."
A great sob broke from the girl, and it found an echo deep down in the man's heart. Nan buried her face in her hands, and the sound of her sobs alone broke the stillness.
The man offered no comment. He made no movement. He lay there with his clear eyes gazing at the silhouette of that still dark figure against the mysterious sheen of night. His look gave no key to his thoughts or emotions. His own physical sufferings even found no expression in them. But thoughts were stirring, deep thoughts and emotions which were his alone, and would remain his alone until the end.
Bud's great bulk blocked the window opening on to the veranda. It was his favorite vantage point in leisure. The after breakfast pipe usually found him there. His evening pipe, when the sun was dipping toward the glistening, fretted peaks of the hills, rarely found him elsewhere. It was the point from which, in a way, he was able to view the whole setting of the life that was his.
The winter had come and gone, vanishing amidst the howling gales of snow and sleet which never fail to herald the approach of the open season. It is almost like the last furious onslaught of a despairing and defeated foe. Now the world was abeat with swift pulsations in fibre and nerve. The wide valley of Rainbow Hill was stirring with the vigor of renewed life. Man, beast, fowl, foliage. It was the same. Spring was in the blood. Spring was in the sap. And all the world was fresh and ready for the call of the coming year.
The spring round-up was in full swing with all its ceaseless toil for the ranching world. Already the pastures were crowded with stock brought in from distant valleys and grazings. Numberless calves answered their mothers' calls, and hung to their sides in panic at the commotion in the midst of which they found themselves. Already hundreds of them had endured the terrors of the searing irons which left them indelibly marked as the property of the great Obar Ranch, while hundreds more were awaiting the same process.
And the irons and forges were kept going all day. Just as was the largely augmented band of cattlemen. In ones and twos these hardy ruffians, many of them "toughs" who worked at no other time of the year, scoured every hill, and valley, and plain, however remote in the vast region. Theirs it was to locate the strays to whatever ranch they belonged, and bring them in to home pastures. The sorting would be made after and the distribution. For the whole of the round-up was a commonwealth amongst the growers, and each and everybody was called upon to do his adequate share in the work.
Bud was glad. Nor was it without good reason. The busy life was the life he lived for. And the busy life had been made possible and complete by the events of the previous summer.
He was physically weary and yearning for the supper which was still awaiting Nan's return. But if he were physically tired the feeling did not extend beyond his muscles. His thoughts were busy as his eyes gazed out upon the scenes of life and movement which were going on.
Just now he was thinking of the girl, impatient at the delay of her return from the pastures, where she was superintending the sorting for the morrow's branding. Thinking of her quickly carried him to thoughts of his partner and friend, and thus, by degrees, his mind went back to the events of the last summer which had left the present operations free from the threat which had then overshadowed all their efforts.
It had been a bad time, a bad time for them all. But for Jeff—ah, it had been touch and go. How near, perhaps, it was only now, after long months had passed, and a proper perspective had been obtained, that the full extent of his narrow escape could be estimated.
It had been Christmas before Jeff was completely out of the hands of the surgeon they had had to obtain from Calthorpe. For three months of that time he had hovered between life and death. Nor had his trouble been confined solely to his physical hurts. No, these had been sore: they had been grievous in the extreme. Three times wounded, and his face, and hands, and arms badly burned. But half of his trouble had been the mental sufferings he had endured as a result of his marriage, and the final tragedy of Evie's death.