"It 'd been my idea, anyhow, if Stewart hadn't told me to do it," said Florence, her words as swift as her hands. "Don Carlos is after you—you, Miss Madeline Hammond! He wouldn't ambush a trail for any one else. He's not killing cowboys these days. He wants you for some reason. So Gene thought, and now I believe him. Well, we'll know for sure in five minutes. You ride the black; I'll ride Majesty. We'll slip round through the brush, out of sight and sound, till we can break out into the open. Then we'll split. You make straight for the ranch. I'll cut loose for the valley where Gene said positively the cowboys were with the cattle. The vaqueros will take me for you. They all know those striking white things you wear. They'll chase me. They'll never get anywhere near me. And you'll be on a fast horse. He can take you home ahead of any vaqueros. But you won't be chased. I'm staking all on that. Trust me, Madeline. If it were only my calculation, maybe I'd—It's because I remember Stewart. That cowboy knows things. Come, this heah's the safest and smartest way to fool Don Carlos." Madeline felt herself more forced than persuaded into acquiescence. She mounted the black and took up the bridle. In another moment she was guiding her horse off the trail in the tracks of Majesty. Florence led off at right angles, threading a slow passage through the mesquite. She favored sandy patches and open aisles between the trees, and was careful not to break a branch. Often she stopped to listen. This detour of perhaps half a mile brought Madeline to where she could see open ground, the ranch-house only a few miles off, and the cattle dotting the valley. She had not lost her courage, but it was certain that these familiar sights somewhat lightened the pressure upon her breast. Excitement gripped her. The shrill whistle of a horse made both the black and Majesty jump. Florence quickened the gait down the slope. Soon Madeline saw the edge of the brush, the gray-bleached grass and level ground.
Florence waited at the opening between the low trees. She gave Madeline a quick, bright glance.
"All over but the ride! That'll sure be easy. Bolt now and keep your nerve!"
When Florence wheeled the fiery roan and screamed in his ear Madeline seemed suddenly to grow lax and helpless. The big horse leaped into thundering action. This was memorable of Bonita of the flying hair and the wild night ride. Florence's hair streamed on the wind and shone gold in the sunlight. Yet Madeline saw her with the same thrill with which she had seen the wild-riding Bonita. Then hoarse shouts unclamped Madeline's power of movement, and she spurred the black into the open.
He wanted to run and he was swift. Madeline loosened the reins—laid them loose upon his neck. His action was strange to her. He was hard to ride. But he was fast, and she cared for nothing else. Madeline knew horses well enough to realize that the black had found he was free and carrying a light weight. A few times she took up the bridle and pulled to right or left, trying to guide him. He kept a straight course, however, and crashed through small patches of mesquite and jumped the cracks and washes. Uneven ground offered no perceptible obstacle to his running. To Madeline there was now a thrilling difference in the lash of wind and the flash of the gray ground underneath. She was running away from something; what that was she did not know. But she remembered Florence, and she wanted to look back, yet hated to do so for fear of the nameless danger Florence had mentioned.
Madeline listened for the pounding of pursuing hoofs in her rear. Involuntarily she glanced back. On the mile or more of gray level between her and the ridge there was not a horse, a man, or anything living. She wheeled to look back on the other side, down the valley slope.
The sight of Florence riding Majesty in zigzag flight before a whole troop of vaqueros blanched Madeline's cheek and made her grip the pommel of her saddle in terror. That strange gait of her roan was not his wonderful stride. Could Majesty be running wild? Madeline saw one vaquero draw closer, whirling his lasso round his head, but he did not get near enough to throw. So it seemed to Madeline. Another vaquero swept across in front of the first one. Then, when Madeline gasped in breathless expectancy, the roan swerved to elude the attack. It flashed over Madeline that Florence was putting the horse to some such awkward flight as might have been expected of an Eastern girl frightened out of her wits. Madeline made sure of this when, after looking again, she saw that Florence, in spite of the horse's breaking gait and the irregular course, was drawing slowly and surely down the valley.
Madeline had not lost her head to the extent of forgetting her own mount and the nature of the ground in front. When, presently, she turned again to watch Florence, uncertainty ceased in her mind. The strange features of that race between girl and vaqueros were no longer in evidence. Majesty was in his beautiful, wonderful stride, low down along the ground, stretching, with his nose level and straight for the valley. Between him and the lean horses in pursuit lay an ever-increasing space. He was running away from the vaqueros. Florence was indeed "riding the wind," as Stewart had aptly expressed his idea of flight upon the fleet roan.
A dimness came over Madeline's eyes, and it was not all owing to the sting of the wind. She rubbed it away, seeing Florence as a flying dot in a strange blur. What a daring, intrepid girl! This kind of strength—and aye, splendid thought for a weaker sister—was what the West inculcated in a woman.
The next time Madeline looked back Florence was far ahead of her pursuers and going out of sight behind a low knoll. Assured of Florence's safety, Madeline put her mind to her own ride and the possibilities awaiting at the ranch. She remembered the failure to get any of her servants or cowboys on the telephone. To be sure, a wind-storm had once broken the wire. But she had little real hope of such being the case in this instance. She rode on, pulling the black as she neared the ranch. Her approach was from the south and off the usual trail, so that she went up the long slope of the knoll toward the back of the house. Under these circumstances she could not consider it out of the ordinary that she did not see any one about the grounds.
It was perhaps fortunate for her, she thought, that the climb up the slope cut the black's speed so she could manage him. He was not very hard to stop. The moment she dismounted, however, he jumped and trotted off. At the edge of the slope, facing the corrals, he halted to lift his head and shoot up his ears. Then he let out a piercing whistle and dashed down the lane.
Madeline, prepared by that warning whistle, tried to fortify herself for a new and unexpected situation; but as she espied an unfamiliar company of horsemen rapidly riding down a hollow leading from the foothills she felt the return of fears gripping at her like cold hands, and she fled precipitously into the house.
XI. A Band of Guerrillas
Madeline bolted the door, and, flying into the kitchen, she told the scared servants to shut themselves in. Then she ran to her own rooms. It was only a matter of a few moments for her to close and bar the heavy shutters, yet even as she was fastening the last one in the room she used as an office a clattering roar of hoofs seemed to swell up to the front of the house. She caught a glimpse of wild, shaggy horses and ragged, dusty men. She had never seen any vaqueros that resembled these horsemen. Vaqueros had grace and style; they were fond of lace and glitter and fringe; they dressed their horses in silvered trappings. But the riders now trampling into the driveway were uncouth, lean, savage. They were guerrillas, a band of the raiders who had been harassing the border since the beginning of the revolution. A second glimpse assured Madeline that they were not all Mexicans.
The presence of outlaws in that band brought home to Madeline her real danger. She remembered what Stillwell had told her about recent outlaw raids along the Rio Grande. These flying bands, operating under the excitement of the revolution, appeared here and there, everywhere, in remote places, and were gone as quickly as they came. Mostly they wanted money and arms, but they would steal anything, and unprotected women had suffered at their hands.
Madeline, hurriedly collecting her securities and the considerable money she had in her desk, ran out, closed and locked the door, crossed the patio to the opposite side of the house, and, entering again, went down a long corridor, trying to decide which of the many unused rooms would be best to hide in. And before she made up her mind she came to the last room. Just then a battering on door or window in the direction of the kitchen and shrill screams from the servant women increased Madeline's alarm.
She entered the last room. There was no lock or bar upon the door. But the room was large and dark, and it was half full of bales of alfalfa hay. Probably it was the safest place in the house; at least time would be necessary to find any one hidden there. She dropped her valuables in a dark corner and covered them with loose hay. That done, she felt her way down a narrow aisle between the piled-up bales and presently crouched in a niche.
With the necessity of action over for the immediate present, Madeline became conscious that she was quivering and almost breathless. Her skin felt tight and cold. There was a weight on her chest; her mouth was dry, and she had a strange tendency to swallow. Her listening faculty seemed most acute. Dull sounds came from parts of the house remote from her. In the intervals of silence between these sounds she heard the squeaking and rustling of mice in the hay. A mouse ran over her hand.
She listened, waiting, hoping yet dreading to hear the clattering approach of her cowboys. There would be fighting—blood—men injured, perhaps killed. Even the thought of violence of any kind hurt her. But perhaps the guerrillas would run in time to avoid a clash with her men. She hoped for that, prayed for it. Through her mind flitted what she knew of Nels, of Monty, of Nick Steele; and she experienced a sensation that left her somewhat chilled and sick. Then she thought of the dark-browed, fire-eyed Stewart. She felt a thrill drive away the cold nausea. And her excitement augmented.
Waiting, listening increased all her emotions. Nothing appeared to be happening. Yet hours seemed to pass while she crouched there. Had Florence been overtaken? Could any of those lean horses outrun Majesty? She doubted it; she knew it could not be true. Nevertheless, the strain of uncertainty was torturing.
Suddenly the bang of the corridor door pierced her through and through with the dread of uncertainty. Some of the guerrillas had entered the east wing of the house. She heard a babel of jabbering voices, the shuffling of boots and clinking of spurs, the slamming of doors and ransacking of rooms.
Madeline lost faith in her hiding-place. Moreover, she found it impossible to take the chance. The idea of being caught in that dark room by those ruffians filled her with horror. She must get out into the light. Swiftly she rose and went to the window. It was rather more of a door than window, being a large aperture closed by two wooden doors on hinges. The iron hook yielded readily to her grasp, and one door stuck fast, while the other opened a few inches. She looked out upon a green slope covered with flowers and bunches of sage and bushes. Neither man nor horse showed in the narrow field of her vision. She believed she would be safer hidden out there in the shrubbery than in the house. The jump from the window would be easy for her. And with her quick decision came a rush and stir of spirit that warded off her weakness.
She pulled at the door. It did not budge. It had caught at the bottom. Pulling with all her might proved to be in vain. Pausing, with palms hot and bruised, she heard a louder, closer approach of the invaders of her home. Fear, wrath, and impotence contested for supremacy over her and drove her to desperation. She was alone here, and she must rely on herself. And as she strained every muscle to move that obstinate door and heard the quick, harsh voices of men and the sounds of a hurried search she suddenly felt sure that they were hunting for her. She knew it. She did not wonder at it. But she wondered if she were really Madeline Hammond, and if it were possible that brutal men would harm her. Then the tramping of heavy feet on the floor of the adjoining room lent her the last strength of fear. Pushing with hands and shoulders, she moved the door far enough to permit the passage of her body. Then she stepped up on the sill and slipped through the aperture. She saw no one. Lightly she jumped down and ran in among the bushes. But these did not afford her the cover she needed. She stole from one clump to another, finding too late that she had chosen with poor judgment. The position of the bushes had drawn her closer to the front of the house rather than away from it, and just before her were horses, and beyond a group of excited men. With her heart in her throat Madeline crouched down.
A shrill yell, followed by running and mounting guerrillas, roused her hope. They had sighted the cowboys and were in flight. Rapid thumping of boots on the porch told of men hurrying from the house. Several horses dashed past her, not ten feet distant. One rider saw her, for he turned to shout back. This drove Madeline into a panic. Hardly knowing what she did, she began to run away from the house. Her feet seemed leaden. She felt the same horrible powerlessness that sometimes came over her when she dreamed of being pursued. Horses with shouting riders streaked past her in the shrubbery. There was a thunder of hoofs behind her. She turned aside, but the thundering grew nearer. She was being run down.
As Madeline shut her eyes and, staggering, was about to fall, apparently right under pounding hoofs, a rude, powerful hand clapped round her waist, clutched deep and strong, and swung her aloft. She felt a heavy blow when the shoulder of the horse struck her, and then a wrenching of her arm as she was dragged up. A sudden blighting pain made sight and feeling fade from her.
But she did not become unconscious to the extent that she lost the sense of being rapidly borne away. She seemed to hold that for a long time. When her faculties began to return the motion of the horse was no longer violent. For a few moments she could not determine her position. Apparently she was upside down. Then she saw that she was facing the ground, and must be lying across a saddle with her head hanging down. She could not move a hand; she could not tell where her hands were. Then she felt the touch of soft leather. She saw a high-topped Mexican boot, wearing a huge silver spur, and the reeking flank and legs of a horse, and a dusty, narrow trail. Soon a kind of red darkness veiled her eyes, her head swam, and she felt motion and pain only dully.
After what seemed a thousand weary hours some one lifted her from the horse and laid her upon the ground, where, gradually, as the blood left her head and she could see, she began to get the right relation of things.
She lay in a sparse grove of firs, and the shadows told of late afternoon. She smelled wood smoke, and she heard the sharp crunch of horses' teeth nipping grass. Voices caused her to turn her face. A group of men stood and sat round a camp-fire eating like wolves. The looks of her captors made Madeline close her eyes, and the fascination, the fear they roused in her made her open them again. Mostly they were thin-bodied, thin-bearded Mexicans, black and haggard and starved. Whatever they might be, they surely were hunger-stricken and squalid. Not one had a coat. A few had scarfs. Some wore belts in which were scattered cartridges. Only a few had guns, and these were of diverse patterns. Madeline could see no packs, no blankets, and only a few cooking-utensils, all battered and blackened. Her eyes fastened upon men she believed were white men; but it was from their features and not their color that she judged. Once she had seen a band of nomad robbers in the Sahara, and somehow was reminded of them by this motley outlaw troop.
They divided attention between the satisfying of ravenous appetites and a vigilant watching down the forest aisles. They expected some one, Madeline thought, and, manifestly, if it were a pursuing posse, they did not show anxiety. She could not understand more than a word here and there that they uttered. Presently, however, the name of Don Carlos revived keen curiosity in her and realization of her situation, and then once more dread possessed her breast.
A low exclamation and a sweep of arm from one of the guerrillas caused the whole band to wheel and concentrate their attention in the opposite direction. They heard something. They saw some one. Grimy hands sought weapons, and then every man stiffened. Madeline saw what hunted men looked like at the moment of discovery, and the sight was terrible. She closed her eyes, sick with what she saw, fearful of the moment when the guns would leap out.
There were muttered curses, a short period of silence followed by whisperings, and then a clear voice rang out, "El Capitan!"
A strong shock vibrated through Madeline, and her eyelids swept open. Instantly she associated the name El Capitan with Stewart and experienced a sensation of strange regret. It was not pursuit or rescue she thought of then, but death. These men would kill Stewart. But surely he had not come alone. The lean, dark faces, corded and rigid, told her in what direction to look. She heard the slow, heavy thump of hoofs. Soon into the wide aisle between the trees moved the form of a man, arms flung high over his head. Then Madeline saw the horse, and she recognized Majesty, and she knew it was really Stewart who rode the roan. When doubt was no longer possible she felt a suffocating sense of gladness and fear and wonder.
Many of the guerrillas leaped up with drawn weapons. Still Stewart approached with his hands high, and he rode right into the camp-fire circle. Then a guerrilla, evidently the chief, waved down the threatening men and strode up to Stewart. He greeted him. There was amaze and pleasure and respect in the greeting. Madeline could tell that, though she did not know what was said. At the moment Stewart appeared to her as cool and careless as if he were dismounting at her porch steps. But when he got down she saw that his face was white. He shook hands with the guerrilla, and then his glittering eyes roved over the men and around the glade until they rested upon Madeline. Without moving from his tracks he seemed to leap, as if a powerful current had shocked him. Madeline tried to smile to assure him she was alive and well; but the intent in his eyes, the power of his controlled spirit telling her of her peril and his, froze the smile on her lips.
With that he faced the chief and spoke rapidly in the Mexican jargon Madeline had always found so difficult to translate. The chief answered, spreading wide his hands, one of which indicated Madeline as she lay there. Stewart drew the fellow a little aside and said something for his ear alone. The chief's hands swept up in a gesture of surprise and acquiescence. Again Stewart spoke swiftly. His hearer then turned to address the band. Madeline caught the words "Don Carlos" and "pesos." There was a brief muttering protest which the chief thundered down. Madeline guessed her release had been given by this guerrilla and bought from the others of the band.
Stewart strode to her side, leading the roan. Majesty reared and snorted when he saw his mistress prostrate. Stewart knelt, still holding the bridle.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I think so," she replied, essaying a laugh that was rather a failure. "My feet are tied."
Dark blood blotted out all the white from his face, and lightning shot from his eyes. She felt his hands, like steel tongs, loosening the bonds round her ankles. Without a word he lifted her upright and then upon Majesty. Madeline reeled a little in the saddle, held hard to the pommel with one hand, and tried to lean on Stewart's shoulder with the other.
"Don't give up," he said.
She saw him gaze furtively into the forest on all sides. And it surprised her to see the guerrillas riding away. Putting the two facts together, Madeline formed an idea that neither Stewart nor the others desired to meet with some one evidently due shortly in the glade. Stewart guided the roan off to the right and walked beside Madeline, steadying her in the saddle. At first Madeline was so weak and dizzy that she could scarcely retain her seat. The dizziness left her presently, and then she made an effort to ride without help. Her weakness, however, and a pain in her wrenched arm made the task laborsome.
Stewart had struck off the trail, if there were one, and was keeping to denser parts of the forest. The sun sank low, and the shafts of gold fell with a long slant among the firs. Majesty's hoofs made no sound on the soft ground, and Stewart strode on without speaking. Neither his hurry nor vigilance relaxed until at least two miles had been covered. Then he held to a straighter course and did not send so many glances into the darkening woods. The level of the forest began to be cut up by little hollows, all of which sloped and widened. Presently the soft ground gave place to bare, rocky soil. The horse snorted and tossed his head. A sound of splashing water broke the silence. The hollow opened into a wider one through which a little brook murmured its way over the stones. Majesty snorted again and stopped and bent his head.
"He wants a drink," said Madeline. "I'm thirsty, too, and very tired."
Stewart lifted her out of the saddle, and as their hands parted she felt something moist and warm. Blood was running down her arm and into the palm of her hand.
"I'm—bleeding," she said, a little unsteadily. "Oh, I remember. My arm was hurt."
She held it out, the blood making her conscious of her weakness. Stewart's fingers felt so firm and sure. Swiftly he ripped the wet sleeve. Her forearm had been cut or scratched. He washed off the blood.
"Why, Stewart, it's nothing. I was only a little nervous. I guess that's the first time I ever saw my own blood."
He made no reply as he tore her handkerchief into strips and bound her arm. His swift motions and his silence gave her a hint of how he might meet a more serious emergency. She felt safe. And because of that impression, when he lifted his head and she saw that he was pale and shaking, she was surprised. He stood before her folding his scarf, which was still wet, and from which he made no effort to remove the red stains.
"Miss Hammond," he said, hoarsely, "it was a man's hands—a Greaser's finger-nails—that cut your arm. I know who he was. I could have killed him. But I mightn't have got your freedom. You understand? I didn't dare."
Madeline gazed at Stewart, astounded more by his speech than his excessive emotion.
"My dear boy!" she exclaimed. And then she paused. She could not find words.
He was making an apology to her for not killing a man who had laid a rough hand upon her person. He was ashamed and seemed to be in a torture that she would not understand why he had not killed the man. There seemed to be something of passionate scorn in him that he had not been able to avenge her as well as free her.
"Stewart, I understand. You were being my kind of cowboy. I thank you."
But she did not understand so much as she implied. She had heard many stories of this man's cool indifference to peril and death. He had always seemed as hard as granite. Why should the sight of a little blood upon her arm pale his cheek and shake his hand and thicken his voice? What was there in his nature to make him implore her to see the only reason he could not kill an outlaw? The answer to the first question was that he loved her. It was beyond her to answer the second. But the secret of it lay in the same strength from which his love sprang—an intensity of feeling which seemed characteristic of these Western men of simple, lonely, elemental lives. All at once over Madeline rushed a tide of realization of how greatly it was possible for such a man as Stewart to love her. The thought came to her in all its singular power. All her Eastern lovers who had the graces that made them her equals in the sight of the world were without the only great essential that a lonely, hard life had given to Stewart. Nature here struck a just balance. Something deep and dim in the future, an unknown voice, called to Madeline and disturbed her. And because it was not a voice to her intelligence she deadened the ears of her warm and throbbing life and decided never to listen.
"Is it safe to rest a little?" she asked. "I am so tired. Perhaps I'll be stronger if I rest."
"We're all right now," he said. "The horse will be better, too. I ran him out. And uphill, at that."
"Where are we?"
"Up in the mountains, ten miles and more from the ranch. There's a trail just below here. I can get you home by midnight. They'll be some worried down there."
"Nothing much to any one but you. That's the—the hard luck of it. Florence caught us out on the slope. We were returning from the fire. We were dead beat. But we got to the ranch before any damage was done. We sure had trouble in finding a trace of you. Nick spotted the prints of your heels under the window. And then we knew. I had to fight the boys. If they'd come after you we'd never have gotten you without a fight. I didn't want that. Old Bill came out packing a dozen guns. He was crazy. I had to rope Monty. Honest, I tied him to the porch. Nels and Nick promised to stay and hold him till morning. That was the best I could do. I was sure lucky to come up with the band so soon. I had figured right. I knew that guerrilla chief. He's a bandit in Mexico. It's a business with him. But he fought for Madero, and I was with him a good deal. He may be a Greaser, but he's white."
"How did you effect my release?"
"I offered them money. That's what the rebels all want. They need money. They're a lot of poor, hungry devils."
"I gathered that you offered to pay ransom. How much?"
"Two thousand dollars Mex. I gave my word. I'll have to take the money. I told them when and where I'd meet them."
"Certainly. I'm glad I've got the money." Madeline laughed. "What a strange thing to happen to me! I wonder what dad would say to that? Stewart, I'm afraid he'd say two thousand dollars is more than I'm worth. But tell me. That rebel chieftain did not demand money?"
"No. The money is for his men."
"What did you say to him? I saw you whisper in his ear."
Stewart dropped his head, averting her direct gaze.
"We were comrades before Juarez. One day I dragged him out of a ditch. I reminded him. Then I—I told him something I—I thought—"
"Stewart, I know from the way he looked at me that you spoke of me."
Her companion did not offer a reply to this, and Madeline did not press the point.
"I heard Don Carlos's name several times. That interests me. What have Don Carlos and his vaqueros to do with this?"
"That Greaser has all to do with it," replied Stewart, grimly. "He burned his ranch and corrals to keep us from getting them. But he also did it to draw all the boys away from your home. They had a deep plot, all right. I left orders for some one to stay with you. But Al and Stillwell, who're both hot-headed, rode off this morning. Then the guerrillas came down."
"Well, what was the idea—the plot—as you call it?"
"To get you," he said, bluntly.
"Me! Stewart, you do not mean my capture—whatever you call it—was anything more than mere accident?"
"I do mean that. But Stillwell and your brother think the guerrillas wanted money and arms, and they just happened to make off with you because you ran under a horse's nose."
"You do not incline to that point of view?"
"I don't. Neither does Nels nor Nick Steele. And we know Don Carlos and the Greasers. Look how the vaqueros chased Flo for you!"
"What do you think, then?"
"I'd rather not say."
"But, Stewart, I would like to know. If it is about me, surely I ought to know," protested Madeline. "What reason have Nels and Nick to suspect Don Carlos of plotting to abduct me?"
"I suppose they've no reason you'd take. Once I heard Nels say he'd seen the Greaser look at you, and if he ever saw him do it again he'd shoot him."
"Why, Stewart, that is ridiculous. To shoot a man for looking at a woman! This is a civilized country."
"Well, maybe it would be ridiculous in a civilized country. There's some things about civilization I don't care for."
"What, for instance?"
"For one thing, I can't stand for the way men let other men treat women."
"But, Stewart, this is strange talk from you, who, that night I came—"
She broke off, sorry that she had spoken. His shame was not pleasant to see. Suddenly he lifted his head, and she felt scorched by flaming eyes.
"Suppose I was drunk. Suppose I had met some ordinary girl. Suppose I had really made her marry me. Don't you think I would have stopped being a drunkard and have been good to her?"
"Stewart, I do not know what to think about you," replied Madeline.
Then followed a short silence. Madeline saw the last bright rays of the setting sun glide up over a distant crag. Stewart rebridled the horse and looked at the saddle-girths.
"I got off the trail. About Don Carlos I'll say right out, not what Nels and Nick think, but what I know. Don Carlos hoped to make off with you for himself, the same as if you had been a poor peon slave-girl down in Sonora. Maybe he had a deeper plot than my rebel friend told me. Maybe he even went so far as to hope for American troops to chase him. The rebels are trying to stir up the United States. They'd welcome intervention. But, however that may be, the Greaser meant evil to you, and has meant it ever since he saw you first. That's all."
"Stewart, you have done me and my family a service we can never hope to repay."
"I've done the service. Only don't mention pay to me. But there's one thing I'd like you to know, and I find it hard to say. It's prompted, maybe, by what I know you think of me and what I imagine your family and friends would think if they knew. It's not prompted by pride or conceit. And it's this: Such a woman as you should never have come to this God-forsaken country unless she meant to forget herself. But as you did come, and as you were dragged away by those devils, I want you to know that all your wealth and position and influence—all that power behind you—would never have saved you from hell to-night. Only such a man as Nels or Nick Steele or I could have done that."
Madeline Hammond felt the great leveling force of the truth. Whatever the difference between her and Stewart, or whatever the imagined difference set up by false standards of class and culture, the truth was that here on this wild mountain-side she was only a woman and he was simply a man. It was a man that she needed, and if her choice could have been considered in this extremity it would have fallen upon him who had just faced her in quiet, bitter speech. Here was food for thought.
"I reckon we'd better start now," he said, and drew the horse close to a large rock. "Come."
Madeline's will greatly exceeded her strength. For the first time she acknowledged to herself that she had been hurt. Still, she did not feel much pain except when she moved her shoulder. Once in the saddle, where Stewart lifted her, she drooped weakly. The way was rough; every step the horse took hurt her; and the slope of the ground threw her forward on the pommel. Presently, as the slope grew rockier and her discomfort increased, she forgot everything except that she was suffering.
"Here is the trail," said Stewart, at length.
Not far from that point Madeline swayed, and but for Stewart's support would have fallen from the saddle. She heard him swear under his breath.
"Here, this won't do," he said. "Throw your leg over the pommel. The other one—there."
Then, mounting, he slipped behind her and lifted and turned her, and then held her with his left arm so that she lay across the saddle and his knees, her head against his shoulder.
As the horse started into a rapid walk Madeline gradually lost all pain and discomfort when she relaxed her muscles. Presently she let herself go and lay inert, greatly to her relief. For a little while she seemed to be half drunk with the gentle swaying of a hammock. Her mind became at once dreamy and active, as if it thoughtfully recorded the slow, soft impressions pouring in from all her senses.
A red glow faded in the west. She could see out over the foothills, where twilight was settling gray on the crests, dark in the hollows. Cedar and pinyon trees lined the trail, and there were no more firs. At intervals huge drab-colored rocks loomed over her. The sky was clear and steely. A faint star twinkled. And lastly, close to her, she saw Stewart's face, once more dark and impassive, with the inscrutable eyes fixed on the trail.
His arm, like a band of iron, held her, yet it was flexible and yielded her to the motion of the horse. One instant she felt the brawn, the bone, heavy and powerful; the next the stretch and ripple, the elasticity of muscles. He held her as easily as if she were a child. The roughness of his flannel shirt rubbed her cheek, and beneath that she felt the dampness of the scarf he had used to bathe her arm, and deeper still the regular pound of his heart. Against her ear, filling it with strong, vibrant beat, his heart seemed a mighty engine deep within a great cavern. Her head had never before rested on a man's breast, and she had no liking for it there; but she felt more than the physical contact. The position was mysterious and fascinating, and something natural in it made her think of life. Then as the cool wind blew down from the heights, loosening her tumbled hair, she was compelled to see strands of it curl softly into Stewart's face, before his eyes, across his lips. She was unable to reach it with her free hand, and therefore could not refasten it. And when she shut her eyes she felt those loosened strands playing against his cheeks.
In the keener press of such sensations she caught the smell of dust and a faint, wild, sweet tang on the air. There was a low, rustling sigh of wind in the brush along the trail. Suddenly the silence ripped apart to the sharp bark of a coyote, and then, from far away, came a long wail. And then Majesty's metal-rimmed hoof rang on a stone.
These later things lent probability to that ride for Madeline. Otherwise it would have seemed like a dream. Even so it was hard to believe. Again she wondered if this woman who had begun to think and feel so much was Madeline Hammond. Nothing had ever happened to her. And here, playing about her like her hair played about Stewart's face, was adventure, perhaps death, and surely life. She could not believe the evidence of the day's happenings. Would any of her people, her friends, ever believe it? Could she tell it? How impossible to think that a cunning Mexican might have used her to further the interests of a forlorn revolution. She remembered the ghoulish visages of those starved rebels, and marveled at her blessed fortune in escaping them. She was safe, and now self-preservation had some meaning for her. Stewart's arrival in the glade, the courage with which he had faced the outlawed men, grew as real to her now as the iron arm that clasped her. Had it been an instinct which had importuned her to save this man when he lay ill and hopeless in the shack at Chiricahua? In helping him had she hedged round her forces that had just operated to save her life, or if not that, more than life was to her? She believed so.
Madeline opened her eyes after a while and found that night had fallen. The sky was a dark, velvety blue blazing with white stars. The cool wind tugged at her hair, and through waving strands she saw Stewart's profile, bold and sharp against the sky.
Then, as her mind succumbed to her bodily fatigue, again her situation became unreal and wild. A heavy languor, like a blanket, began to steal upon her. She wavered and drifted. With the last half-conscious sense of a muffled throb at her ear, a something intangibly sweet, deep-toned, and strange, like a distant calling bell, she fell asleep with her head on Stewart's breast.
XII. Friends from the East
Three days after her return to the ranch Madeline could not discover any physical discomfort as a reminder of her adventurous experiences. This surprised her, but not nearly so much as the fact that after a few weeks she found she scarcely remembered the adventures at all. If it had not been for the quiet and persistent guardianship of her cowboys she might almost have forgotten Don Carlos and the raiders. Madeline was assured of the splendid physical fitness to which this ranch life had developed her, and that she was assimilating something of the Western disregard of danger. A hard ride, an accident, a day in the sun and dust, an adventure with outlaws—these might once have been matters of large import, but now for Madeline they were in order with all the rest of her changed life.
There was never a day that something interesting was not brought to her notice. Stillwell, who had ceaselessly reproached himself for riding away the morning Madeline was captured, grew more like an anxious parent than a faithful superintendent. He was never at ease regarding her unless he was near the ranch or had left Stewart there, or else Nels and Nick Steele. Naturally, he trusted more to Stewart than to any one else.
"Miss Majesty, it's sure amazin' strange about Gene," said the old cattleman, as he tramped into Madeline's office.
"What's the matter now?" she inquired.
"Wal, Gene has rustled off into the mountains again."
"Again? I did not know he had gone. I gave him money for that band of guerrillas. Perhaps he went to take it to them."
"No. He took that a day or so after he fetched you back home. Then in about a week he went a second time. An' he packed some stuff with him. Now he's sneaked off, an' Nels, who was down to the lower trail, saw him meet somebody that looked like Padre Marcos. Wal, I went down to the church, and, sure enough, Padre Marcos is gone. What do you think of that, Miss Majesty?"
"Maybe Stewart is getting religious," laughed Madeline. You told me so once.
Stillwell puffed and wiped his red face.
"If you'd heerd him cuss Monty this mawnin' you'd never guess it was religion. Monty an' Nels hev been givin' Gene a lot of trouble lately. They're both sore an' in fightin' mood ever since Don Carlos hed you kidnapped. Sure they're goin' to break soon, an' then we'll hev a couple of wild Texas steers ridin' the range. I've a heap to worry me."
"Let Stewart take his mysterious trips into the mountains. Here, Stillwell, I have news for you that may give you reason for worry. I have letters from home. And my sister, with a party of friends, is coming out to visit me. They are society folk, and one of them is an English lord."
"Wal, Miss Majesty, I reckon we'll all be glad to see them," said Stillwell. "Onless they pack you off back East."
"That isn't likely," replied Madeline, thoughtfully. "I must go back some time, though. Well, let me read you a few extracts from my mail."
Madeline took up her sister's letter with a strange sensation of how easily sight of a crested monogram and scent of delicately perfumed paper could recall the brilliant life she had given up. She scanned the pages of beautiful handwriting. Helen's letter was in turn gay and brilliant and lazy, just as she was herself; but Madeline detected more of curiosity in it than of real longing to see the sister and brother in the Far West. Much of what Helen wrote was enthusiastic anticipation of the fun she expected to have with bashful cowboys. Helen seldom wrote letters, and she never read anything, not even popular novels of the day. She was as absolutely ignorant of the West as the Englishman, who, she said, expected to hunt buffalo and fight Indians. Moreover, there was a satiric note in the letter that Madeline did not like, and which roused her spirit. Manifestly, Helen was reveling in the prospect of new sensation.
When she finished reading aloud a few paragraphs the old cattleman snorted and his face grew redder.
"Did your sister write that?" he asked.
"Wal, I—I beg pawdin, Miss Majesty. But it doesn't seem like you. Does she think we're a lot of wild men from Borneo?"
"Evidently she does. I rather think she is in for a surprise. Now, Stillwell, you are clever and you can see the situation. I want my guests to enjoy their stay here, but I do not want that to be at the expense of the feelings of all of us, or even any one. Helen will bring a lively crowd. They'll crave excitement—the unusual. Let us see that they are not disappointed. You take the boys into your confidence. Tell them what to expect, and tell them how to meet it. I shall help you in that. I want the boys to be on dress-parade when they are off duty. I want them to be on their most elegant behavior. I do not care what they do, what measures they take to protect themselves, what tricks they contrive, so long as they do not overstep the limit of kindness and courtesy. I want them to play their parts seriously, naturally, as if they had lived no other way. My guests expect to have fun. Let us meet them with fun. Now what do you say?"
Stillwell rose, his great bulk towering, his huge face beaming.
"Wal, I say it's the most amazin' fine idee I ever heerd in my life."
"Indeed, I am glad you like it," went on Madeline.
"Come to me again, Stillwell, after you have spoken to the boys. But, now that I have suggested it, I am a little afraid. You know what cowboy fun is. Perhaps—"
"Don't you go back on that idee," interrupted Stillwell. He was assuring and bland, but his hurry to convince Madeline betrayed him. "Leave the boys to me. Why, don't they all swear by you, same as the Mexicans do to the Virgin? They won't disgrace you, Miss Majesty. They'll be simply immense. It'll beat any show you ever seen."
"I believe it will," replied Madeline. She was still doubtful of her plan, but the enthusiasm of the old cattleman was infectious and irresistible. "Very well, we will consider it settled. My guests will arrive on May ninth. Meanwhile let us get Her Majesty's Rancho in shape for this invasion."
* * *
On the afternoon of the ninth of May, perhaps half an hour after Madeline had received a telephone message from Link Stevens announcing the arrival of her guests at El Cajon, Florence called her out upon the porch. Stillwell was there with his face wrinkled by his wonderful smile and his eagle eyes riveted upon the distant valley. Far away, perhaps twenty miles, a thin streak of white dust rose from the valley floor and slanted skyward.
"Look!" said Florence, excitedly.
"What is that?" asked Madeline.
"Link Stevens and the automobile!"
"Oh no! Why, it's only a few minutes since he telephoned saying the party had just arrived."
"Take a look with the glasses," said Florence.
One glance through the powerful binoculars convinced Madeline that Florence was right. And another glance at Stillwell told her that he was speechless with delight. She remembered a little conversation she had had with Link Stevens a short while previous.
"Stevens, I hope the car is in good shape," she had said. "Now, Miss Hammond, she's as right as the best-trained hoss I ever rode," he had replied.
"The valley road is perfect," she had gone on, musingly. "I never saw such a beautiful road, even in France. No fences, no ditches, no rocks, no vehicles. Just a lonely road on the desert."
"Shore, it's lonely," Stevens had answered, with slowly brightening eyes. "An' safe, Miss Hammond."
"My sister used to like fast riding. If I remember correctly, all of my guests were a little afflicted with the speed mania. It is a common disease with New-Yorkers. I hope, Stevens, that you will not give them reason to think we are altogether steeped in the slow, dreamy manana languor of the Southwest."
Link doubtfully eyed her, and then his bronze face changed its dark aspect and seemed to shine.
"Beggin' your pardon, Miss Hammond, thet's shore tall talk fer Link Stevens to savvy. You mean—as long as I drive careful an' safe I can run away from my dust, so to say, an' get here in somethin' less than the Greaser's to-morrow?"
Madeline had laughed her assent. And now, as she watched the thin streak of dust, at that distance moving with snail pace, she reproached herself. She trusted Stevens; she had never known so skilful, daring, and iron-nerved a driver as he was. If she had been in the car herself she would have had no anxiety. But, imagining what Stevens would do on forty miles and more of that desert road, Madeline suffered a prick of conscience.
"Oh, Stillwell!" she exclaimed. "I am afraid I will go back on my wonderful idea. What made me do it?"
"Your sister wanted the real thing, didn't she? Said they all wanted it. Wal, I reckon they've begun gettin' it," replied Stillwell.
That statement from the cattleman allayed Madeline's pangs of conscience. She understood just what she felt, though she could not have put it in words. She was hungry for a sight of well-remembered faces; she longed to hear the soft laughter and gay repartee of old friends; she was eager for gossipy first-hand news of her old world. Nevertheless, something in her sister's letter, in messages from the others who were coming, had touched Madeline's pride. In one sense the expected guests were hostile, inasmuch as they were scornful and curious about the West that had claimed her. She imagined what they would expect in a Western ranch. They would surely get the real thing, too, as Stillwell said; and in that certainty was satisfaction for a small grain of something within Madeline which approached resentment. She wistfully wondered, however, if her sister or friends would come to see the West even a little as she saw it. That, perhaps, would he hoping too much. She resolved once for all to do her best to give them the sensation their senses craved, and equally to show them the sweetness and beauty and wholesomeness and strength of life in the Southwest.
"Wal, as Nels says, I wouldn't be in that there ottomobile right now for a million pesos," remarked Stillwell.
"Why? Is Stevens driving fast?"
"Good Lord! Fast? Miss Majesty, there hain't ever been anythin' except a streak of lightnin' run so fast in this country. I'll bet Link for once is in heaven. I can jest see him now, the grim, crooked-legged little devil, hunchin' down over that wheel as if it was a hoss's neck."
"I told him not to let the ride be hot or dusty," remarked Madeline.
"Haw, haw!" roared Stillwell. "Wal, I'll be goin'. I reckon I'd like to be hyar when Link drives up, but I want to be with the boys down by the bunks. It'll be some fun to see Nels an' Monty when Link comes flyin' along."
"I wish Al had stayed to meet them," said Madeline.
Her brother had rather hurried a shipment of cattle to California: and it was Madeline's supposition that he had welcomed the opportunity to absent himself from the ranch.
"I am sorry he wouldn't stay," replied Florence. "But Al's all business now. And he's doing finely. It's just as well, perhaps."
"Surely. That was my pride speaking. I would like to have all my family and all my old friends see what a man Al has become. Well, Link Stevens is running like the wind. The car will be here before we know it. Florence, we've only a few moments to dress. But first I want to order many and various and exceedingly cold refreshments for that approaching party."
Less than a half-hour later Madeline went again to the porch and found Florence there.
"Oh, you look just lovely!" exclaimed Florence, impulsively, as she gazed wide-eyed up at Madeline. "And somehow so different!"
Madeline smiled a little sadly. Perhaps when she had put on that exquisite white gown something had come to her of the manner which befitted the wearing of it. She could not resist the desire to look fair once more in the eyes of these hypercritical friends. The sad smile had been for the days that were gone. For she knew that what society had once been pleased to call her beauty had trebled since it had last been seen in a drawing-room. Madeline wore no jewels, but at her waist she had pinned two great crimson roses. Against the dead white they had the life and fire and redness of the desert.
"Link's hit the old round-up trail," said Florence, "and oh, isn't he riding that car!"
With Florence, as with most of the cowboys, the car was never driven, but ridden.
A white spot with a long trail of dust showed low down in the valley. It was now headed almost straight for the ranch. Madeline watched it growing larger moment by moment, and her pleasurable emotion grew accordingly. Then the rapid beat of a horse's hoofs caused her to turn.
Stewart was riding in on his black horse. He had been absent on an important mission, and his duty had taken him to the international boundary-line. His presence home long before he was expected was particularly gratifying to Madeline, for it meant that his mission had been brought to a successful issue. Once more, for the hundredth time, the man's reliability struck Madeline. He was a doer of things. The black horse halted wearily without the usual pound of hoofs on the gravel, and the dusty rider dismounted wearily. Both horse and rider showed the heat and dust and wind of many miles.
Madeline advanced to the porch steps. And Stewart, after taking a parcel of papers from a saddle-bag, turned toward her.
"Stewart, you are the best of couriers," she said. "I am pleased."
Dust streamed from his sombrero as he doffed it. His dark face seemed to rise as he straightened weary shoulders.
"Here are the reports, Miss Hammond," he replied.
As he looked up to see her standing there, dressed to receive her Eastern guests, he checked his advance with a violent action which recalled to Madeline the one he had made on the night she had met him, when she disclosed her identity. It was not fear nor embarrassment nor awkwardness. And it was only momentary. Yet, slight as had been his pause, Madeline received from it an impression of some strong halting force. A man struck by a bullet might have had an instant jerk of muscular control such as convulsed Stewart. In that instant, as her keen gaze searched his dust-caked face, she met the full, free look of his eyes. Her own did not fall, though she felt a warmth steal to her cheeks. Madeline very seldom blushed. And now, conscious of her sudden color a genuine blush flamed on her face. It was irritating because it was incomprehensible. She received the papers from Stewart and thanked him. He bowed, then led the black down the path toward the corrals.
"When Stewart looks like that he's been riding," said Florence. "But when his horse looks like that he's sure been burning the wind."
Madeline watched the weary horse and rider limp down the path. What had made her thoughtful? Mostly it was something new or sudden or inexplicable that stirred her mind to quick analysis. In this instance the thing that had struck Madeline was Stewart's glance. He had looked at her, and the old burning, inscrutable fire, the darkness, had left his eyes. Suddenly they had been beautiful. The look had not been one of surprise or admiration; nor had it been one of love. She was familiar, too familiar with all three. It had not been a gaze of passion, for there was nothing beautiful in that. Madeline pondered. And presently she realized that Stewart's eyes had expressed a strange joy of pride. That expression Madeline had never before encountered in the look of any man. Probably its strangeness had made her notice it and accounted for her blushing. The longer she lived among these outdoor men the more they surprised her. Particularly, how incomprehensible was this cowboy Stewart! Why should he have pride or joy at sight of her?
Florence's exclamation made Madeline once more attend to the approaching automobile. It was on the slope now, some miles down the long gradual slant. Two yellow funnel-shaped clouds of dust seemed to shoot out from behind the car and roll aloft to join the column that stretched down the valley.
"I wonder what riding a mile a minute would be like," said Florence. "I'll sure make Link take me. Oh, but look at him come!"
The giant car resembled a white demon, and but for the dust would have appeared to be sailing in the air. Its motion was steadily forward, holding to the road as if on rails. And its velocity was astounding. Long, gray veils, like pennants, streamed in the wind. A low rushing sound became perceptible, and it grew louder, became a roar. The car shot like an arrow past the alfalfa-field, by the bunk-houses, where the cowboys waved and cheered. The horses and burros in the corrals began to snort and tramp and race in fright. At the base of the long slope of the foothill Link cut the speed more than half. Yet the car roared up, rolling the dust, flying capes and veils and ulsters, and crashed and cracked to a halt in the yard before the porch.
Madeline descried a gray, disheveled mass of humanity packed inside the car. Besides the driver there were seven occupants, and for a moment they appeared to be coming to life, moving and exclaiming under the veils and wraps and dust-shields.
Link Stevens stepped out and, removing helmet and goggles, coolly looked at his watch.
"An hour an' a quarter, Miss Hammond," he said. "It's sixty-three miles by the valley road, an' you know there's a couple of bad hills. I reckon we made fair time, considerin' you wanted me to drive slow an' safe."
From the mass of dusty-veiled humanity in the car came low exclamations and plaintive feminine wails.
Madeline stepped to the front of the porch. Then the deep voices of men and softer voices of women united in one glad outburst, as much a thanksgiving as a greeting, "MAJESTY!"
Helen Hammond was three years younger than Madeline, and a slender, pretty girl. She did not resemble her sister, except in whiteness and fineness of skin, being more of a brown-eyed, brown-haired type. Having recovered her breath soon after Madeline took her to her room, she began to talk.
"Majesty, old girl, I'm here; but you can bet I would never have gotten here if I had known about that ride from the railroad. You never wrote that you had a car. I thought this was out West—stage-coach, and all that sort of thing. Such a tremendous car! And the road! And that terrible little man with the leather trousers! What kind of a chauffeur is he?"
"He's a cowboy. He was crippled by falling under his horse, so I had him instructed to run the car. He can drive, don't you think?"
"Drive? Good gracious! He scared us to death, except Castleton. Nothing could scare that cold-blooded little Englishman. I am dizzy yet. Do you know, Majesty, I was delighted when I saw the car. Then your cowboy driver met us at the platform. What a queer-looking individual! He had a big pistol strapped to those leather trousers. That made me nervous. When he piled us all in with our grips, he put me in the seat beside him, whether I liked it or not. I was fool enough to tell him I loved to travel fast. What do you think he said? Well, he eyed me in a rather cool and speculative way and said, with a smile, 'Miss, I reckon anything you love an' want bad will be coming to you out here!' I didn't know whether it was delightful candor or impudence. Then he said to all of us: 'Shore you had better wrap up in the veils an' dusters. It's a long, slow, hot, dusty ride to the ranch, an' Miss Hammond's order was to drive safe.' He got our baggage checks and gave them to a man with a huge wagon and a four-horse team. Then he cranked the car, jumped in, wrapped his arms round the wheel, and sank down low in his seat. There was a crack, a jerk, a kind of flash around us, and that dirty little town was somewhere on the map behind. For about five minutes I had a lovely time. Then the wind began to tear me to pieces. I couldn't hear anything but the rush of wind and roar of the car. I could see only straight ahead. What a road! I never saw a road in my life till to-day. Miles and miles and miles ahead, with not even a post or tree. That big car seemed to leap at the miles. It hummed and sang. I was fascinated, then terrified. We went so fast I couldn't catch my breath. The wind went through me, and I expected to be disrobed by it any minute. I was afraid I couldn't hold any clothes on. Presently all I could see was a flashing gray wall with a white line in the middle. Then my eyes blurred. My face burned. My ears grew full of a hundred thousand howling devils. I was about ready to die when the car stopped. I looked and looked, and when I could see, there you stood!"
"Helen, I thought you were fond of speeding," said Madeline, with a laugh.
"I was. But I assure you I never before was in a fast car; I never saw a road; I never met a driver."
"Perhaps I may have a few surprises for you out here in the wild and woolly West."
Helen's dark eyes showed a sister's memory of possibilities.
"You've started well," she said. "I am simply stunned. I expected to find you old and dowdy. Majesty, you're the handsomest thing I ever laid eyes on. You're so splendid and strong, and your skin is like white gold. What's happened to you? What's changed you? This beautiful room, those glorious roses out there, the cool, dark sweetness of this wonderful house! I know you, Majesty, and, though you never wrote it, I believe you have made a home out here. That's the most stunning surprise of all. Come, confess. I know I've always been selfish and not much of a sister; but if you are happy out here I am glad. You were not happy at home. Tell me about yourself and about Alfred. Then I shall give you all the messages and news from the East."
It afforded Madeline exceeding pleasure to have from one and all of her guests varied encomiums of her beautiful home, and a real and warm interest in what promised to be a delightful and memorable visit.
Of them all Castleton was the only one who failed to show surprise. He greeted her precisely as he had when he had last seen her in London. Madeline, rather to her astonishment, found meeting him again pleasurable. She discovered she liked this imperturbable Englishman. Manifestly her capacity for liking any one had immeasurably enlarged. Quite unexpectedly her old girlish love for her younger sister sprang into life, and with it interest in these half-forgotten friends, and a warm regard for Edith Wayne, a chum of college days.
Helen's party was smaller than Madeline had expected it to be. Helen had been careful to select a company of good friends, all of whom were well known to Madeline. Edith Wayne was a patrician brunette, a serious, soft-voiced woman, sweet and kindly, despite a rather bitter experience that had left her worldly wise. Mrs. Carrollton Beck, a plain, lively person, had chaperoned the party. The fourth and last of the feminine contingent was Miss Dorothy Coombs—Dot, as they called her—a young woman of attractive blond prettiness.
For a man Castleton was of very small stature. He had a pink-and-white complexion, a small golden mustache, and his heavy eyelids, always drooping, made him look dull. His attire, cut to what appeared to be an exaggerated English style, attracted attention to his diminutive size. He was immaculate and fastidious. Robert Weede was a rather large florid young man, remarkable only for his good nature. Counting Boyd Harvey, a handsome, pale-faced fellow, with the careless smile of the man for whom life had been easy and pleasant, the party was complete.
Dinner was a happy hour, especially for the Mexican women who served it and who could not fail to note its success. The mingling of low voices and laughter, the old, gay, superficial talk, the graciousness of a class which lived for the pleasure of things and to make time pass pleasurably for others—all took Madeline far back into the past. She did not care to return to it, but she saw that it was well she had not wholly cut herself off from her people and friends.
When the party adjourned to the porch the heat had markedly decreased and the red sun was sinking over the red desert. An absence of spoken praise, a gradually deepening silence, attested to the impression on the visitors of that noble sunset. Just as the last curve of red rim vanished beyond the dim Sierra Madres and the golden lightning began to flare brighter Helen broke the silence with an exclamation.
"It wants only life. Ah, there's a horse climbing the hill! See, he's up! He has a rider!"
Madeline knew before she looked the identity of the man riding up the mesa. But she did not know until that moment how the habit of watching for him at this hour had grown upon her. He rode along the rim of the mesa and out to the point, where, against the golden background, horse and rider stood silhouetted in bold relief.
"What's he doing there? Who is he?" inquired the curious Helen.
"That is Stewart, my right-hand man," replied Madeline. "Every day when he is at the ranch he rides up there at sunset. I think he likes the ride and the scene; but he goes to take a look at the cattle in the valley."
"Is he a cowboy?" asked Helen.
"Indeed yes!" replied Madeline, with a little laugh. "You will think so when Stillwell gets hold of you and begins to talk."
Madeline found it necessary to explain who Stillwell was, and what he thought of Stewart, and, while she was about it, of her own accord she added a few details of Stewart's fame.
"El Capitan. How interesting!" mused Helen. "What does he look like?"
"He is superb."
Florence handed the field-glass to Helen and bade her look.
"Oh, thank you!" said Helen, as she complied. "There. I see him. Indeed, he is superb. What a magnificent horse! How still he stands! Why, he seems carved in stone."
"Let me look?" said Dorothy Coombs, eagerly.
Helen gave her the glass.
"You can look, Dot, but that's all. He's mine. I saw him first."
Whereupon Madeline's feminine guests held a spirited contest over the field-glass, and three of them made gay, bantering boasts not to consider Helen's self-asserted rights. Madeline laughed with the others while she watched the dark figure of Stewart and his black outline against the sky. There came over her a thought not by any means new or strange—she wondered what was in Stewart's mind as he stood there in the solitude and faced the desert and the darkening west. Some day she meant to ask him. Presently he turned the horse and rode down into the shadow creeping up the mesa.
"Majesty, have you planned any fun, any excitement for us?" asked Helen. She was restless, nervous, and did not seem to be able to sit still a moment.
"You will think so when I get through with you," replied Madeline.
"What, for instance?" inquired Helen and Dot and Mrs. Beck, in unison. Edith Wayne smiled her interest.
"Well, I am not counting rides and climbs and golf; but these are necessary to train you for trips over into Arizona. I want to show you the desert and the Aravaipa Canyon. We have to go on horseback and pack our outfit. If any of you are alive after those trips and want more we shall go up into the mountains. I should like very much to know what you each want particularly."
"I'll tell you," replied Helen, promptly. "Dot will be the same out here as she was in the East. She wants to look bashfully down at her hand—a hand imprisoned in another, by the way—and listen to a man talk poetry about her eyes. If cowboys don't make love that way Dot's visit will be a failure. Now Elsie Beck wants solely to be revenged upon us for dragging her out here. She wants some dreadful thing to happen to us. I don't know what's in Edith's head, but it isn't fun. Bobby wants to be near Elsie, and no more. Boyd wants what he has always wanted—the only thing he ever wanted that he didn't get. Castleton has a horrible bloodthirsty desire to kill something."
"I declare now, I want to ride and camp out, also," protested Castleton.
"As for myself," went on Helen, "I want—Oh, if I only knew what it is that I want! Well, I know I want to be outdoors, to get into the open, to feel sun and wind, to burn some color into my white face. I want some flesh and blood and life. I am tired out. Beyond all that I don't know very well. I'll try to keep Dot from attaching all the cowboys to her train."
"What a diversity of wants!" said Madeline.
"Above all, Majesty, we want something to happen," concluded Helen, with passionate finality.
"My dear sister, maybe you will have your wish fulfilled," replied Madeline, soberly. "Edith, Helen has made me curious about your especial yearning."
"Majesty, it is only that I wanted to be with you for a while," replied this old friend.
There was in the wistful reply, accompanied by a dark and eloquent glance of eyes, what told Madeline of Edith's understanding, of her sympathy, and perhaps a betrayal of her own unquiet soul. It saddened Madeline. How many women might there not be who had the longing to break down the bars of their cage, but had not the spirit!
XIII. Cowboy Golf
In the whirl of the succeeding days it was a mooted question whether Madeline's guests or her cowboys or herself got the keenest enjoyment out of the flying time. Considering the sameness of the cowboys' ordinary life, she was inclined to think they made the most of the present. Stillwell and Stewart, however, had found the situation trying. The work of the ranch had to go on, and some of it got sadly neglected. Stillwell could not resist the ladies any more than he could resist the fun in the extraordinary goings-on of the cowboys. Stewart alone kept the business of cattle-raising from a serious setback. Early and late he was in the saddle, driving the lazy Mexicans whom he had hired to relieve the cowboys.
One morning in June Madeline was sitting on the porch with her merry friends when Stillwell appeared on the corral path. He had not come to consult Madeline for several days—an omission so unusual as to be remarked.
"Here comes Bill—in trouble," laughed Florence.
Indeed, he bore some faint resemblance to a thundercloud as he approached the porch; but the greetings he got from Madeline's party, especially from Helen and Dorothy, chased away the blackness from his face and brought the wonderful wrinkling smile.
"Miss Majesty, sure I'm a sad demoralized old cattleman," he said, presently. "An' I'm in need of a heap of help."
"What's wrong now?" asked Madeline, with her encouraging smile.
"Wal, it's so amazin' strange what cowboys will do. I jest am about to give up. Why, you might say my cowboys were all on strike for vacations. What do you think of that? We've changed the shifts, shortened hours, let one an' another off duty, hired Greasers, an', in fact, done everythin' that could be thought of. But this vacation idee growed worse. When Stewart set his foot down, then the boys begin to get sick. Never in my born days as a cattleman have I heerd of so many diseases. An' you ought to see how lame an' crippled an' weak many of the boys have got all of a sudden. The idee of a cowboy comin' to me with a sore finger an' askin' to be let off for a day! There's Booly. Now I've knowed a hoss to fall all over him, an' onct he rolled down a canyon. Never bothered him at all. He's got a blister on his heel, a ridin' blister, an' he says it's goin' to blood-poisonin' if he doesn't rest. There's Jim Bell. He's developed what he says is spinal mengalootis, or some such like. There's Frankie Slade. He swore he had scarlet fever because his face burnt so red, I guess, an' when I hollered that scarlet fever was contagious an' he must be put away somewhere, he up an' says he guessed it wasn't that. But he was sure awful sick an' needed to loaf around an' be amused. Why, even Nels doesn't want to work these days. If it wasn't for Stewart, who's had Greasers with the cattle, I don't know what I'd do."
"Why all this sudden illness and idleness?" asked Madeline.
"Wal, you see, the truth is every blamed cowboy on the range except Stewart thinks it's his bounden duty to entertain the ladies."
"I think that is just fine!" exclaimed Dorothy Coombs; and she joined in the general laugh.
"Stewart, then, doesn't care to help entertain us?" inquired Helen, in curious interest. "Wal, Miss Helen, Stewart is sure different from the other cowboys," replied Stillwell. "Yet he used to be like them. There never was a cowboy fuller of the devil than Gene. But he's changed. He's foreman here, an' that must be it. All the responsibility rests on him. He sure has no time for amusin' the ladies."
"I imagine that is our loss," said Edith Wayne, in her earnest way. "I admire him."
"Stillwell, you need not be so distressed with what is only gallantry in the boys, even if it does make a temporary confusion in the work," said Madeline.
"Miss Majesty, all I said is not the half, nor the quarter, nor nuthin' of what's troublin' me," answered he, sadly.
"Very well; unburden yourself."
"Wal, the cowboys, exceptin' Gene, have gone plumb batty, jest plain crazy over this heah game of gol-lof."
A merry peal of mirth greeted Stillwell's solemn assertion.
"Oh, Stillwell, you are in fun," replied Madeline.
"I hope to die if I'm not in daid earnest," declared the cattleman. "It's an amazin' strange fact. Ask Flo. She'll tell you. She knows cowboys, an' how if they ever start on somethin' they ride it as they ride a hoss."
Florence being appealed to, and evidently feeling all eyes upon her, modestly replied that Stillwell had scarcely misstated the situation.
"Cowboys play like they work or fight," she added. "They give their whole souls to it. They are great big simple boys."
"Indeed they are," said Madeline. "Oh, I'm glad if they like the game of golf. They have so little play."
"Wal, somethin's got to be did if we're to go on raisin' cattle at Her Majesty's Rancho," replied Stillwell. He appeared both deliberate and resigned.
Madeline remembered that despite Stillwell's simplicity he was as deep as any of his cowboys, and there was absolutely no gaging him where possibilities of fun were concerned. Madeline fancied that his exaggerated talk about the cowboys' sudden craze for golf was in line with certain other remarkable tales that had lately emanated from him. Some very strange things had occurred of late, and it was impossible to tell whether or not they were accidents, mere coincidents, or deep-laid, skilfully worked-out designs of the fun-loving cowboys. Certainly there had been great fun, and at the expense of her guests, particularly Castleton. So Madeline was at a loss to know what to think about Stillwell's latest elaboration. From mere force of habit she sympathized with him and found difficulty in doubting his apparent sincerity.
"To go back a ways," went on Stillwell, as Madeline looked up expectantly, "you recollect what pride the boys took in fixin' up that gol-lof course out on the mesa? Wal, they worked on that job, an' though I never seen any other course, I'll gamble yours can't be beat. The boys was sure curious about that game. You recollect also how they all wanted to see you an' your brother play, an' be caddies for you? Wal, whenever you'd quit they'd go to work tryin' to play the game. Monty Price, he was the leadin' spirit. Old as I am, Miss Majesty, an' used as I am to cowboy excentrikities, I nearly dropped daid when I heered that little hobble-footed, burned-up Montana cow-puncher say there wasn't any game too swell for him, an' gol-lof was just his speed. Serious as a preacher, mind you, he was. An' he was always practisin'. When Stewart gave him charge of the course an' the club-house an' all them funny sticks, why, Monty was tickled to death. You see, Monty is sensitive that he ain't much good any more for cowboy work. He was glad to have a job that he didn't feel he was hangin' to by kindness. Wal, he practised the game, an' he read the books in the club-house, an' he got the boys to doin' the same. That wasn't very hard, I reckon. They played early an' late an' in the moonlight. For a while Monty was coach, an' the boys stood it. But pretty soon Frankie Slade got puffed on his game, an' he had to have it out with Monty. Wal, Monty beat him bad. Then one after another the other boys tackled Monty. He beat them all. After that they split up an' begin to play matches, two on a side. For a spell this worked fine. But cowboys can't never be satisfied long onless they win all the time. Monty an' Link Stevens, both cripples, you might say, joined forces an' elected to beat all comers. Wal, they did, an' that's the trouble. Long an' patient the other cowboys tried to beat them two game legs, an' hevn't done it. Mebbe if Monty an' Link was perfectly sound in their legs like the other cowboys there wouldn't hev been such a holler. But no sound cowboys'll ever stand for a disgrace like that. Why, down at the bunks in the evenin's it's some mortifyin' the way Monty an' Link crow over the rest of the outfit. They've taken on superior airs. You couldn't reach up to Monty with a trimmed spruce pole. An' Link—wal, he's just amazin' scornful.
"'It's a swell game, ain't it?' says Link, powerful sarcastic. 'Wal, what's hurtin' you low-down common cowmen? You keep harpin' on Monty's game leg an' on my game leg. If we hed good legs we'd beat you all the wuss. It's brains that wins in gol-lof. Brains an' airstoocratik blood, which of the same you fellers sure hev little.'
"An' then Monty he blows smoke powerful careless an' superior, an' he says:
"'Sure it's a swell game. You cow-headed gents think beef an' brawn ought to hev the call over skill an' gray matter. You'll all hev to back up an' get down. Go out an' learn the game. You don't know a baffy from a Chinee sandwich. All you can do is waggle with a club an' fozzle the ball.'
"Whenever Monty gets to usin' them queer names the boys go round kind of dotty. Monty an' Link hev got the books an' directions of the game, an' they won't let the other boys see them. They show the rules, but that's all. An', of course, every game ends in a row almost before it's started. The boys are all turrible in earnest about this gol-lof. An' I want to say, for the good of ranchin', not to mention a possible fight, that Monty an' Link hev got to be beat. There'll be no peace round this ranch till that's done."
Madeline's guests were much amused. As for herself, in spite of her scarcely considered doubt, Stillwell's tale of woe occasioned her anxiety. However, she could hardly control her mirth.
"What in the world can I do?"
"Wal, I reckon I couldn't say. I only come to you for advice. It seems that a queer kind of game has locoed my cowboys, an' for the time bein' ranchin' is at a standstill. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but cowboys are as strange as wild cattle. All I'm sure of is that the conceit has got to be taken out of Monty an' Link. Onct, just onct, will square it, an' then we can resoome our work."
"Stillwell, listen," said Madeline, brightly. "We'll arrange a match game, a foursome, between Monty and Link and your best picked team. Castleton, who is an expert golfer, will umpire. My sister, and friends, and I will take turns as caddies for your team. That will be fair, considering yours is the weaker. Caddies may coach, and perhaps expert advice is all that is necessary for your team to defeat Monty's."
"A grand idee," declared Stillwell, with instant decision. "When can we have this match game?"
"Why, to-day—this afternoon. We'll all ride out to the links."
"Wal, I reckon I'll be some indebted to you, Miss Majesty, an' all your guests," replied Stillwell, warmly. He rose with sombrero in hand, and a twinkle in his eye that again prompted Madeline to wonder. "An' now I'll be goin' to fix up for the game of cowboy gol-lof. Adios."
The idea was as enthusiastically received by Madeline's guests as it had been by Stillwell. They were highly amused and speculative to the point of taking sides and making wagers on their choice. Moreover, this situation so frankly revealed by Stillwell had completed their deep mystification. They were now absolutely nonplussed by the singular character of American cowboys. Madeline was pleased to note how seriously they had taken the old cattleman's story. She had a little throb of wild expectancy that made her both fear and delight in the afternoon's prospect.
The June days had set in warm; in fact, hot during the noon hours: and this had inculcated in her insatiable visitors a tendency to profit by the experience of those used to the Southwest. They indulged in the restful siesta during the heated term of the day.
Madeline was awakened by Majesty's well-known whistle and pounding on the gravel. Then she heard the other horses. When she went out she found her party assembled in gala golf attire, and with spirits to match their costumes. Castleton, especially, appeared resplendent in a golf coat that beggared description. Madeline had faint misgivings when she reflected on what Monty and Nels and Nick might do under the influence of that blazing garment.
"Oh. Majesty," cried Helen, as Madeline went up to her horse, "don't make him kneel! Try that flying mount. We all want to see it. It's so stunning."
"But that way, too, I must have him kneel," said Madeline, "or I can't reach the stirrup. He's so tremendously high."
Madeline had to yield to the laughing insistence of her friends, and after all of them except Florence were up she made Majesty go down on one knee. Then she stood on his left side, facing back, and took a good firm grip on the bridle and pommel and his mane. After she had slipped the toe of her boot firmly into the stirrup she called to Majesty. He jumped and swung her up into the saddle.
"Now just to see how it ought to be done watch Florence," said Madeline.
The Western girl was at her best in riding-habit and with her horse. It was beautiful to see the ease and grace with which she accomplished the cowboys' flying mount. Then she led the party down the slope and across the flat to climb the mesa.
Madeline never saw a group of her cowboys without looking them over, almost unconsciously, for her foreman, Gene Stewart. This afternoon, as usual, he was not present. However, she now had a sense—of which she was wholly conscious—that she was both disappointed and irritated. He had really not been attentive to her guests, and he, of all her cowboys, was the one of whom they wanted most to see something. Helen, particularly, had asked to have him attend the match. But Stewart was with the cattle. Madeline thought of his faithfulness, and was ashamed of her momentary lapse into that old imperious habit of desiring things irrespective of reason.
Stewart, however, immediately slipped out of her mind as she surveyed the group of cowboys on the links. By actual count there were sixteen, not including Stillwell. And the same number of splendid horses, all shiny and clean, grazed on the rim in the care of Mexican lads. The cowboys were on dress-parade, looking very different in Madeline's eyes, at least, from the way cowboys usually appeared. But they were real and natural to her guests; and they were so picturesque that they might have been stage cowboys instead of real ones. Sombreros with silver buckles and horsehair bands were in evidence; and bright silk scarfs, embroidered vests, fringed and ornamented chaps, huge swinging guns, and clinking silver spurs lent a festive appearance.
Madeline and her party were at once eagerly surrounded by the cowboys, and she found it difficult to repress a smile. If these cowboys were still remarkable to her, what must they be to her guests?
"Wal, you-all raced over, I seen," said Stillwell, taking Madeline's bridle. "Get down—get down. We're sure amazin' glad an' proud. An', Miss Majesty, I'm offerin' to beg pawdin for the way the boys are packin' guns. Mebbe it ain't polite. But it's Stewart's orders."
"Stewart's orders!" echoed Madeline. Her friends were suddenly silent.
"I reckon he won't take no chances on the boys bein' surprised sudden by raiders. An' there's raiders operatin' in from the Guadalupes. That's all. Nothin' to worry over. I was just explainin'."
Madeline, with several of her party, expressed relief, but Helen showed excitement and then disappointment.
"Oh, I want something to happen!" she cried.
Sixteen pairs of keen cowboy eyes fastened intently upon her pretty, petulant face; and Madeline divined, if Helen did not, that the desired consummation was not far off.
"So do I," said Dot Coombs. "It would be perfectly lovely to have a real adventure."
The gaze of the sixteen cowboys shifted and sought the demure face of this other discontented girl. Madeline laughed, and Stillwell wore his strange, moving smile.
"Wal, I reckon you ladies sure won't have to go home unhappy," he said. "Why, as boss of this heah outfit I'd feel myself disgraced forever if you didn't have your wish. Just wait. An' now, ladies, the matter on hand may not be amusin' or excitin' to you; but to this heah cowboy outfit it's powerful important. An' all the help you can give us will sure be thankfully received. Take a look across the links. Do you-all see them two apologies for human bein's prancin' like a couple of hobbled broncs? Wal, you're gazin' at Monty Price an' Link Stevens, who have of a sudden got too swell to associate with their old bunkies. They're practisin' for the toornament. They don't want my boys to see how they handle them crooked clubs."
"Have you picked your team?" inquired Madeline.
Stillwell mopped his red face with an immense bandana, and showed something of confusion and perplexity.
"I've sixteen boys, an' they all want to play," he replied. "Pickin' the team ain't goin' to be an easy job. Mebbe it won't be healthy, either. There's Nels and Nick. They just stated cheerful-like that if they didn't play we won't have any game at all. Nick never tried before, an' Nels, all he wants is to get a crack at Monty with one of them crooked clubs."
"I suggest you let all your boys drive from the tee and choose the two who drive the farthest," said Madeline.
Stillwell's perplexed face lighted up.
"Wal, that's a plumb good idee. The boys'll stand for that."
Wherewith he broke up the admiring circle of cowboys round the ladies.
"Grap a rope—I mean a club—all you cow-punchers, an' march over hyar an' take a swipe at this little white bean."
The cowboys obeyed with alacrity. There was considerable difficulty over the choice of clubs and who should try first. The latter question had to be adjusted by lot. However, after Frankie Slade made several ineffectual attempts to hit the ball from the teeing-ground, at last to send it only a few yards, the other players were not so eager to follow. Stillwell had to push Booly forward, and Booly executed a most miserable shot and retired to the laughing comments of his comrades. The efforts of several succeeding cowboys attested to the extreme difficulty of making a good drive.
"Wal, Nick, it's your turn," said Stillwell.
"Bill, I ain't so all-fired particular about playin'," replied Nick.
"Why? You was roarin' about it a little while ago. Afraid to show how bad you'll play?"
"Nope, jest plain consideration for my feller cow-punchers," answered Nick, with spirit. "I'm appreciatin' how bad they play, an' I'm not mean enough to show them up."
"Wal, you've got to show me," said Stillwell. "I know you never seen a gol-lof stick in your life. What's more, I'll bet you can't hit that little ball square—not in a dozen cracks at it."
"Bill, I'm also too much of a gent to take your money. But you know I'm from Missouri. Gimme a club."
Nick's angry confidence seemed to evaporate as one after another he took up and handled the clubs. It was plain that he had never before wielded one. But, also, it was plain that he was not the kind of a man to give in. Finally he selected a driver, looked doubtfully at the small knob, and then stepped into position on the teeing-ground.
Nick Steele stood six feet four inches in height. He had the rider's wiry slenderness, yet he was broad of shoulder. His arms were long. Manifestly he was an exceedingly powerful man. He swung the driver aloft and whirled it down with a tremendous swing. Crack! The white ball disappeared, and from where it had been rose a tiny cloud of dust.
Madeline's quick sight caught the ball as it lined somewhat to the right. It was shooting low and level with the speed of a bullet. It went up and up in swift, beautiful flight, then lost its speed and began to sail, to curve, to drop; and it fell out of sight beyond the rim of the mesa. Madeline had never seen a drive that approached this one. It was magnificent, beyond belief except for actual evidence of her own eyes.
The yelling of the cowboys probably brought Nick Steele out of the astounding spell with which he beheld his shot. Then Nick, suddenly alive to the situation, recovered from his trance and, resting nonchalantly upon his club, he surveyed Stillwell and the boys. After their first surprised outburst they were dumb.
"You-all seen thet?" Nick grandly waved his hand. "Thaught I was joshin', didn't you? Why, I used to go to St. Louis an' Kansas City to play this here game. There was some talk of the golf clubs takin' me down East to play the champions. But I never cared fer the game. Too easy fer me! Them fellers back in Missouri were a lot of cheap dubs, anyhow, always kickin' because whenever I hit a ball hard I always lost it. Why, I hed to hit sort of left-handed to let 'em stay in my class. Now you-all can go ahead an' play Monty an' Link. I could beat 'em both, playin' with one hand, if I wanted to. But I ain't interested. I jest hit thet ball off the mesa to show you. I sure wouldn't be seen playin' on your team."
With that Nick sauntered away toward the horses. Stillwell appeared crushed. And not a scornful word was hurled after Nick, which fact proved the nature of his victory. Then Nels strode into the limelight. As far as it was possible for this iron-faced cowboy to be so, he was bland and suave. He remarked to Stillwell and the other cowboys that sometimes it was painful for them to judge of the gifts of superior cowboys such as belonged to Nick and himself. He picked up the club Nick had used and called for a new ball. Stillwell carefully built up a little mound of sand and, placing the ball upon it, squared away to watch. He looked grim and expectant.
Nels was not so large a man as Nick, and did not look so formidable as he waved his club at the gaping cowboys. Still he was lithe, tough, strong. Briskly, with a debonair manner, he stepped up and then delivered a mighty swing at the ball. He missed. The power and momentum of his swing flung him off his feet, and he actually turned upside down and spun round on his head. The cowboys howled. Stillwell's stentorian laugh rolled across the mesa. Madeline and her guests found it impossible to restrain their mirth. And when Nels got up he cast a reproachful glance at Madeline. His feelings were hurt.
His second attempt, not by any means so violent, resulted in as clean a miss as the first, and brought jeers from the cowboys. Nels's red face flamed redder. Angrily he swung again. The mound of sand spread over the teeing-ground and the exasperating little ball rolled a few inches. This time he had to build up the sand mound and replace the ball himself. Stillwell stood scornfully by, and the boys addressed remarks to Nels.
"Take off them blinders," said one.
"Nels, your eyes are shore bad," said another.
"You don't hit where you look."
"Nels, your left eye has sprung a limp."
"Why, you dog-goned old fule, you cain't hit thet bawl."
Nels essayed again, only to meet ignominious failure. Then carefully he gathered himself together, gaged distance, balanced the club, swung cautiously. And the head of the club made a beautiful curve round the ball.
"Shore it's jest thet crooked club," he declared.
He changed clubs and made another signal failure. Rage suddenly possessing him, he began to swing wildly. Always, it appeared, the illusive little ball was not where he aimed. Stillwell hunched his huge bulk, leaned hands on knees, and roared his riotous mirth. The cowboys leaped up and down in glee.
"You cain't hit thet bawl," sang out one of the noisiest. A few more whirling, desperate lunges on the part of Nels, all as futile as if the ball had been thin air, finally brought to the dogged cowboy a realization that golf was beyond him.
Stillwell bawled: "Oh, haw, haw, haw! Nels, you're—too old—eyes no good!"
Nels slammed down the club, and when he straightened up with the red leaving his face, then the real pride and fire of the man showed. Deliberately he stepped off ten paces and turned toward the little mound upon which rested the ball. His arm shot down, elbow crooked, hand like a claw.
"Aw, Nels, this is fun!" yelled Stillwell.
But swift as a gleam of light Nels flashed his gun, and the report came with the action. Chips flew from the golf-ball as it tumbled from the mound. Nels had hit it without raising the dust. Then he dropped the gun back in its sheath and faced the cowboys.
"Mebbe my eyes ain't so orful bad," he said, coolly, and started to walk off.
"But look ah-heah, Nels," yelled Stillwell, "we come out to play gol-lof! We can't let you knock the ball around with your gun. What'd you want to get mad for? It's only fun. Now you an' Nick hang round heah an' be sociable. We ain't depreciatin' your company none, nor your usefulness on occasions. An' if you just hain't got inborn politeness sufficient to do the gallant before the ladies, why, remember Stewart's orders."
"Stewart's orders?" queried Nels, coming to a sudden halt.
"That's what I said," replied Stillwell, with asperity. "His orders. Are you forgettin' orders? Wal, you're a fine cowboy. You an' Nick an' Monty, 'specially, are to obey orders."
Nels took off his sombrero and scratched his head. "Bill, I reckon I'm some forgetful. But I was mad. I'd 'a' remembered pretty soon, an' mebbe my manners."
"Sure you would," replied Stillwell. "Wal, now, we don't seem to be proceedin' much with my gol-lof team. Next ambitious player step up."
In Ambrose, who showed some skill in driving, Stillwell found one of his team. The succeeding players, however, were so poor and so evenly matched that the earnest Stillwell was in despair. He lost his temper just as speedily as Nels had. Finally Ed Linton's wife appeared riding up with Ambrose's wife, and perhaps this helped, for Ed suddenly disclosed ability that made Stillwell single him out.
"Let me coach you a little," said Bill.
"Sure, if you like," replied Ed. "But I know more about this game than you do."
"Wal, then, let's see you hit a ball straight. Seems to me you got good all-fired quick. It's amazin' strange." ere Bill looked around to discover the two young wives modestly casting eyes of admiration upon their husbands. "Haw, haw! It ain't so darned strange. Mebbe that'll help some. Now, Ed, stand up and don't sling your club as if you was ropin' a steer. Come round easy-like an' hit straight."
Ed made several attempts which, although better than those of his predecessors, were rather discouraging to the exacting coach. Presently, after a particularly atrocious shot, Stillwell strode in distress here and there, and finally stopped a dozen paces or more in front of the teeing-ground. Ed, who for a cowboy was somewhat phlegmatic, calmly made ready for another attempt.
"Fore!" he called.
"Fore!" yelled Ed.
"Why're you hollerin' that way at me?" demanded Bill.
"I mean for you to lope off the horizon. Get back from in front."
"Oh, that was one of them durned crazy words Monty is always hollerin'. Wal, I reckon I'm safe enough hyar. You couldn't hit me in a million years."
"Bill, ooze away," urged Ed.
"Didn't I say you couldn't hit me? What am I coachin' you for? It's because you hit crooked, ain't it? Wal, go ahaid an' break your back."
Ed Linton was a short, heavy man, and his stocky build gave evidence of considerable strength. His former strokes had not been made at the expense of exertion, but now he got ready for a supreme effort. A sudden silence clamped down upon the exuberant cowboys. It was one of those fateful moments when the air was charged with disaster. As Ed swung the club it fairly whistled.
Crack! Instantly came a thump. But no one saw the ball until it dropped from Stillwell's shrinking body. His big hands went spasmodically to the place that hurt, and a terrible groan rumbled from him.
Then the cowboys broke into a frenzy of mirth that seemed to find adequate expression only in dancing and rolling accompaniment to their howls. Stillwell recovered his dignity as soon as he caught his breath, and he advanced with a rueful face.
"Wal, boys, it's on Bill," he said. "I'm a livin' proof of the pig-headedness of mankind. Ed, you win. You're captain of the team. You hit straight, an' if I hadn't been obstructin' the general atmosphere that ball would sure have gone clear to the Chiricahuas."
Then making a megaphone of his huge hands, he yelled a loud blast of defiance at Monty and Link.
"Hey, you swell gol-lofers! We're waitin'. Come on if you ain't scared."
Instantly Monty and Link quit practising, and like two emperors came stalking across the links.
"Guess my bluff didn't work much," said Stillwell. Then he turned to Madeline and her friends. "Sure I hope, Miss Majesty, that you-all won't weaken an' go over to the enemy. Monty is some eloquent, an', besides, he has a way of gettin' people to agree with him. He'll be plumb wild when he heahs what he an' Link are up against. But it's a square deal, because he wouldn't help us or lend the book that shows how to play. An', besides, it's policy for us to beat him. Now, if you'll elect who's to be caddies an' umpire I'll be powerful obliged."
Madeline's friends were hugely amused over the prospective match; but, except for Dorothy and Castleton, they disclaimed any ambition for active participation. Accordingly, Madeline appointed Castleton to judge the play, Dorothy to act as caddie for Ed Linton, and she herself to be caddie for Ambrose. While Stillwell beamingly announced this momentous news to his team and supporters Monty and Link were striding up.
Both were diminutive in size, bow-legged, lame in one foot, and altogether unprepossessing. Link was young, and Monty's years, more than twice Link's, had left their mark. But it would have been impossible to tell Monty's age. As Stillwell said, Monty was burned to the color and hardness of a cinder. He never minded the heat, and always wore heavy sheepskin chaps with the wool outside. This made him look broader than he was long. Link, partial to leather, had, since he became Madeline's chauffeur, taken to leather altogether. He carried no weapon, but Monty wore a huge gun-sheath and gun. Link smoked a cigarette and looked coolly impudent. Monty was dark-faced, swaggering, for all the world like a barbarian chief.
"That Monty makes my flesh creep," said Helen, low-voiced. "Really, Mr. Stillwell, is he so bad—desperate—as I've heard? Did he ever kill anybody?"