It was impossible not to like Boyd Harvey. The thought of that, and why she could not marry him, concentrated her never-satisfied mind upon the man. She looked at him, and she thought of him.
He was handsome, young, rich, well born, pleasant, cultivated—he was all that made a gentleman of his class. If he had any vices she had not heard of them. She knew he had no thirst for drink or craze for gambling. He was considered a very desirable and eligible young man. Madeline admitted all this.
Then she thought of things that were perhaps exclusively her own strange ideas. Boyd Harvey's white skin did not tan even in this southwestern sun and wind. His hands were whiter than her own, and as soft. They were really beautiful, and she remembered what care he took of them. They were a proof that he never worked. His frame was tall, graceful, elegant. It did not bear evidence of ruggedness. He had never indulged in a sport more strenuous than yachting. He hated effort and activity. He rode horseback very little, disliked any but moderate motoring, spent much time in Newport and Europe, never walked when he could help it, and had no ambition unless it were to pass the days pleasantly. If he ever had any sons they would be like him, only a generation more toward the inevitable extinction of his race.
Madeline returned to camp in just the mood to make a sharp, deciding contrast. It happened—fatefully, perhaps—that the first man she saw was Stewart. He had just ridden into camp, and as she came up he explained that he had gone down to the ranch for the important mail about which she had expressed anxiety.
"Down and back in one day!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," he replied. "It wasn't so bad."
"But why did you not send one of the boys, and let him make the regular two-day trip?"
"You were worried about your mail," he answered, briefly, as he delivered it. Then he bent to examine the fetlocks of his weary horse.
It was midsummer now, Madeline reflected and exceedingly hot and dusty on the lower trail. Stewart had ridden down the mountain and back again in twelve hours. Probably no horse in the outfit, except his big black or Majesty, could have stood that trip. And his horse showed the effects of a grueling day. He was caked with dust and lame and weary.
Stewart looked as if he had spared the horse his weight on many a mile of that rough ascent. His boots were evidence of it. His heavy flannel shirt, wet through with perspiration, adhered closely to his shoulders and arms, so that every ripple of muscle plainly showed. His face was black, except round the temples and forehead, where it was bright red. Drops of sweat, running off his blackened hands dripped to the ground. He got up from examining the lame foot, and then threw off the saddle. The black horse snorted and lunged for the watering-pool. Stewart let him drink a little, then with iron arms dragged him away. In this action the man's lithe, powerful form impressed Madeline with a wonderful sense of muscular force. His brawny wrist was bare; his big, strong hand, first clutching the horse's mane, then patting his neck, had a bruised knuckle, and one finger was bound up. That hand expressed as much gentleness and thoughtfulness for the horse as it had strength to drag him back from too much drinking at a dangerous moment.
Stewart was a combination of fire, strength, and action. These attributes seemed to cling about him. There was something vital and compelling in his presence. Worn and spent and drawn as he was from the long ride, he thrilled Madeline with his potential youth and unused vitality and promise of things to be, red-blooded deeds, both of flesh and spirit. In him she saw the strength of his forefathers unimpaired. The life in him was marvelously significant. The dust, the dirt, the sweat, the soiled clothes, the bruised and bandaged hand, the brawn and bone—these had not been despised by the knights of ancient days, nor by modern women whose eyes shed soft light upon coarse and bloody toilers.
Madeline Hammond compared the man of the East with the man of the West; and that comparison was the last parting regret for her old standards.
XVII. The Lost Mine of the Padres
In the cool, starry evenings the campers sat around a blazing fire and told and listened to stories thrillingly fitted to the dark crags and the wild solitude.
Monty Price had come to shine brilliantly as a storyteller. He was an atrocious liar, but this fact would not have been evident to his enthralled listeners if his cowboy comrades, in base jealousy, had not betrayed him. The truth about his remarkable fabrications, however, had not become known to Castleton, solely because of the Englishman's obtuseness. And there was another thing much stranger than this and quite as amusing. Dorothy Coombs knew Monty was a liar; but she was so fascinated by the glittering, basilisk eyes he riveted upon her, so taken in by his horrible tales of blood, that despite her knowledge she could not help believing them.
Manifestly Monty was very proud of his suddenly acquired gift. Formerly he had hardly been known to open his lips in the presence of strangers. Monty had developed more than one singular and hitherto unknown trait since his supremacy at golf had revealed his possibilities. He was as sober and vain and pompous about his capacity for lying as about anything else. Some of the cowboys were jealous of him because he held the attention and, apparently, the admiration of the ladies; and Nels was jealous, not because Monty made himself out to be a wonderful gun-man, but because Monty could tell a story. Nels really had been the hero of a hundred fights; he had never been known to talk about them; but Dorothy's eyes and Helen's smile had somehow upset his modesty. Whenever Monty would begin to talk Nels would growl and knock his pipe on a log, and make it appear he could not stay and listen, though he never really left the charmed circle of the camp-fire. Wild horses could not have dragged him away.
One evening at twilight, as Madeline was leaving her tent, she encountered Monty. Evidently, he had way-laid her. With the most mysterious of signs and whispers he led her a little aside.
"Miss Hammond, I'm makin' bold to ask a favor of you," he said.
Madeline smiled her willingness.
"To-night, when they've all shot off their chins an' it's quiet-like, I want you to ask me, jest this way, 'Monty, seein' as you've hed more adventures than all them cow-punchers put together, tell us about the most turrible time you ever hed.' Will you ask me, Miss Hammond, jest kinda sincere like?"
"Certainly I will, Monty," she replied.
His dark, seared face had no more warmth than a piece of cold, volcanic rock, which it resembled. Madeline appreciated how monstrous Dorothy found this burned and distorted visage, how deformed the little man looked to a woman of refined sensibilities. It was difficult for Madeline to look into his face. But she saw behind the blackened mask. And now she saw in Monty's deep eyes a spirit of pure fun.
So, true to her word, Madeline remembered at an opportune moment, when conversation had hushed and only the long, dismal wail of coyotes broke the silence, to turn toward the little cowboy.
"Monty," she said, and paused for effect—"Monty, seeing that you have had more adventures than all the cowboys together, tell us about the most terrible time you ever had."
Monty appeared startled at the question that fastened all eyes upon him. He waved a deprecatory hand.
"Aw, Miss Hammond, thankin' you all modest-like fer the compliment, I'll hev to refuse," replied Monty, laboring in distress. "It's too harrowin' fer tender-hearted gurls to listen to."
"Go on?" cried everybody except the cowboys. Nels began to nod his head as if he, as well as Monty, understood human nature. Dorothy hugged her knees with a kind of shudder. Monty had fastened the hypnotic eyes upon her. Castleton ceased smoking, adjusted his eyeglass, and prepared to listen in great earnestness.
Monty changed his seat to one where the light from the blazing logs fell upon his face; and he appeared plunged into melancholy and profound thought.
"Now I tax myself, I can't jest decide which was the orfulest time I ever hed," he said, reflectively.
Here Nels blew forth an immense cloud of smoke, as if he desired to hide himself from sight. Monty pondered, and then when the smoke rolled away he turned to Nels.
"See hyar, old pard, me an' you seen somethin' of each other in the Panhandle, more 'n thirty years ago—"
"Which we didn't," interrupted Nels, bluntly. "Shore you can't make me out an ole man."
"Mebbe it wasn't so darn long. Anyhow, Nels, you recollect them three hoss-thieves I hung all on one cottonwood-tree, an' likewise thet boo-tiful blond gurl I rescooed from a band of cutthroats who murdered her paw, ole Bill Warren, the buffalo-hunter? Now, which of them two scraps was the turriblest, in your idee?"
"Monty, my memory's shore bad," replied the unimpeachable Nels.
"Tell us about the beautiful blonde," cried at least three of the ladies. Dorothy, who had suffered from nightmare because of a former story of hanging men on trees, had voicelessly appealed to Monty to spare her more of that.
"All right, we'll hev the blond gurl," said Monty, settling back, "though I ain't thinkin' her story is most turrible of the two, an' it'll rake over tender affections long slumberin' in my breast."
As he paused there came a sharp, rapping sound. This appeared to be Nels knocking the ashes out of his pipe on a stump—a true indication of the passing of content from that jealous cowboy.
"It was down in the Panhandle, 'way over in the west end of thet Comanche huntin'-ground, an' all the redskins an' outlaws in thet country were hidin' in the river-bottoms, an' chasin' some of the last buffalo herds thet hed wintered in there. I was a young buck them days, an' purty much of a desperado, I'm thinkin'. Though of all the seventeen notches on my gun—an' each notch meant a man killed face to face—there was only one thet I was ashamed of. Thet one was fer an express messenger who I hit on the head most unprofessional like, jest because he wouldn't hand over a leetle package. I hed the kind of a reputashun thet made all the fellers in saloons smile an' buy drinks.
"Well, I dropped into a place named Taylor's Bend, an' was peaceful standin' to the bar when three cow-punchers come in, an', me bein' with my back turned, they didn't recognize me an' got playful. I didn't stop drinkin', an' I didn't turn square round; but when I stopped shootin' under my arm the saloon-keeper hed to go over to the sawmill an' fetch a heap of sawdust to cover up what was left of them three cow-punchers, after they was hauled out. You see, I was rough them days, an' would shoot ears off an' noses off an' hands off; when in later days I'd jest kill a man quick, same as Wild Bill.
"News drifts into town thet night thet a gang of cut-throats hed murdered ole Bill Warren an' carried off his gurl. I gathers up a few good gun-men, an' we rid out an' down the river-bottom, to an ole log cabin, where the outlaws hed a rondevoo. We rid up boldlike, an' made a hell of a racket. Then the gang began to throw lead from the cabin, an' we all hunted cover. Fightin' went on all night. In the mornin' all my outfit was killed but two, an' they was shot up bad. We fought all day without eatin' or drinkin', except some whisky I hed, an' at night I was on the job by my lonesome.
"Bein' bunged up some myself, I laid off an' went down to the river to wash the blood off, tie up my wounds, an' drink a leetle. While I was down there along comes one of the cutthroats with a bucket. Instead of gettin' water he got lead, an' as he was about to croak he tells me a whole bunch of outlaws was headin' in there, doo to-morrer. An' if I wanted to rescoo the gurl I hed to be hurryin'. There was five fellers left in the cabin.
"I went back to the thicket where I hed left my hoss, an' loaded up with two more guns an' another belt, an' busted a fresh box of shells. If I recollect proper, I got some cigarettes, too. Well, I mozied back to the cabin. It was a boo-tiful moonshiny night, an' I wondered if ole Bill's gun was as purty as I'd heerd. The grass growed long round the cabin, an' I crawled up to the door without startin' anythin'. Then I figgered. There was only one door in thet cabin, an' it was black dark inside. I jest grabbed open the door an' slipped in quick. It worked all right. They heerd me, but hedn't been quick enough to ketch me in the light of the door. Of course there was some shots, but I ducked too quick, an' changed my position.
"Ladies an' gentlemen, thet there was some dool by night. An' I wasn't often in the place where they shot. I was most wonderful patient, an' jest waited until one of them darned ruffians would get so nervous he'd hev to hunt me up. When mornin' come there they was all piled up on the floor, all shot to pieces. I found the gurl. Purty! Say, she was boo-tiful. We went down to the river, where she begun to bathe my wounds. I'd collected a dozen more or so, an' the sight of tears in her lovely eyes, an' my blood a-stainin' of her little hands, jest nat'rally wakened a trembly spell in my heart. I seen she was took the same way, an' thet settled it.
"We was comin' up from the river, an' I hed jest straddled my hoss, with the gurl behind, when we run right into thet cutthroat gang thet was doo about then. Bein' some handicapped, I couldn't drop more 'n one gun-round of them, an' then I hed to slope. The whole gang follered me, an' some miles out chased me over a ridge right into a big herd of buffalo. Before I knowed what was what thet herd broke into a stampede, with me in the middle. Purty soon the buffalo closed in tight. I knowed I was in some peril then. But the gurl trusted me somethin' pitiful. I seen again thet she hed fell in love with me. I could tell from the way she hugged me an' yelled. Before long I was some put to it to keep my hoss on his feet. Far as I could see was dusty, black, bobbin', shaggy humps. A huge cloud of dust went along over our heads. The roar of tramplin' hoofs was turrible. My hoss weakened, went down, an' was carried along a leetle while I slipped off with the gurl on to the backs of the buffalo.
"Ladies, I ain't denyin' that then Monty Price was some scairt. Fust time in my life! But the trustin' face of thet boo-tiful gurl, as she lay in my arms an' hugged me an' yelled, made my spirit leap like a shootin' star. I just began to jump from buffalo to buffalo. I must hev jumped a mile of them bobbin' backs before I come to open places. An' here's where I performed the greatest stunts of my life. I hed on my big spurs, an' I jest sit down an' rid an' spurred till thet pertickler buffalo I was on got near another, an' then I'd flop over. Thusly I got to the edge of the herd, tumbled off'n the last one, an' rescooed the gurl.
"Well, as my memory takes me back, thet was a most affectin' walk home to the little town where she lived. But she wasn't troo to me, an' married another feller. I was too much a sport to kill him. But thet low-down trick rankled in my breast. Gurls is strange. I've never stopped wonderin' how any gurl who has been hugged an' kissed by one man could marry another. But matoor experience teaches me thet sich is the case."
The cowboys roared; Helen and Mrs. Beck and Edith laughed till they cried; Madeline found repression absolutely impossible; Dorothy sat hugging her knees, her horror at the story no greater than at Monty's unmistakable reference to her and to the fickleness of women; and Castleton for the first time appeared to be moved out of his imperturbability, though not in any sense by humor. Indeed, when he came to notice it, he was dumfounded by the mirth.
"By Jove! you Americans are an extraordinary people," he said. "I don't see anything blooming funny in Mr. Price's story of his adventure. By Jove! that was a bally warm occasion. Mr. Price, when you speak of being frightened for the only time in your life, I appreciate what you mean. I have experienced that. I was frightened once."
"Dook, I wouldn't hev thought it of you," replied Monty. "I'm sure tolerable curious to hear about it."
Madeline and her friends dared not break the spell, for fear that the Englishman might hold to his usual modest reticence. He had explored in Brazil, seen service in the Boer War, hunted in India and Africa—matters of experience of which he never spoke. Upon this occasion, however, evidently taking Monty's recital word for word as literal truth, and excited by it into a Homeric mood, he might tell a story. The cowboys almost fell upon their knees in their importunity. There was a suppressed eagerness in their solicitations, a hint of something that meant more than desire, great as it was, to hear a story told by an English lord. Madeline divined instantly that the cowboys had suddenly fancied that Castleton was not the dense and easily fooled person they had made such game of; that he had played his part well; that he was having fun at their expense; that he meant to tell a story, a lie which would simply dwarf Monty's. Nels's keen, bright expectation suggested how he would welcome the joke turned upon Monty. The slow closing of Monty's cavernous smile, the gradual sinking of his proud bearing, the doubt with which he began to regard Castleton—these were proofs of his fears.
"I have faced charging tigers and elephants in India, and charging rhinos and lions in Africa," began Castleton, his quick and fluent speech so different from the drawl of his ordinary conversation; "but I never was frightened but once. It will not do to hunt those wild beasts if you are easily balled up. This adventure I have in mind happened in British East Africa, in Uganda. I was out with safari, and we were in a native district much infested by man-eating lions. Perhaps I may as well state that man-eaters are very different from ordinary lions. They are always matured beasts, and sometimes—indeed, mostly—are old. They become man-eaters most likely by accident or necessity. When old they find it more difficult to make a kill, being slower, probably, and with poorer teeth. Driven by hunger, they stalk and kill a native, and, once having tasted human blood, they want no other. They become absolutely fearless and terrible in their attacks.
"The natives of this village near where we camped were in a terrorized state owing to depredations of two or more man-eaters. The night of our arrival a lion leaped a stockade fence, seized a native from among others sitting round a fire, and leaped out again, carrying the screaming fellow away into the darkness. I determined to kill these lions, and made a permanent camp in the village for that purpose. By day I sent beaters into the brush and rocks of the river-valley, and by night I watched. Every night the lions visited us, but I did not see one. I discovered that when they roared around the camp they were not so liable to attack as when they were silent. It was indeed remarkable how silently they could stalk a man. They could creep through a thicket so dense you would not believe a rabbit could get through, and do it without the slightest sound. Then, when ready to charge, they did so with terrible onslaught and roar. They leaped right into a circle of fires, tore down huts, even dragged natives from the low trees. There was no way to tell at which point they would make an attack.
"After ten days or more of this I was worn out by loss of sleep. And one night, when tired out with watching, I fell asleep. My gun-bearer was alone in the tent with me. A terrible roar awakened me, then an unearthly scream pierced right into my ears. I always slept with my rifle in my hands, and, grasping it, I tried to rise. But I could not for the reason that a lion was standing over me. Then I lay still. The screams of my gun-bearer told me that the lion had him. I was fond of this fellow and wanted to save him. I thought it best, however, not to move while the lion stood over me. Suddenly he stepped, and I felt poor Luki's feet dragging across me. He screamed, 'Save me, master!' And instinctively I grasped at him and caught his foot. The lion walked out of the tent dragging me as I held to Luki's foot. The night was bright moonlight. I could see the lion distinctly. He was a huge, black-maned brute, and he held Luki by the shoulder. The poor lad kept screaming frightfully. The man-eater must have dragged me forty yards before he became aware of a double incumbrance to his progress. Then he halted and turned. By Jove! he made a devilish fierce object with his shaggy, massive head, his green-fire eyes, and his huge jaws holding Luki. I let go of Luki's foot and bethought myself of the gun. But as I lay there on my side, before attempting to rise, I made a horrible discovery. I did not have my rifle at all. I had Luki's iron spear, which he always had near him. My rifle had slipped out of the hollow of my arm, and when the lion awakened me, in my confusion I picked up Luki's spear instead. The bloody brute dropped Luki and uttered a roar that shook the ground. It was then I felt frightened. For an instant I was almost paralyzed. The lion meant to charge, and in one spring he could reach me. Under circumstances like those a man can think many things in little time. I knew to try to run would be fatal. I remembered how strangely lions had been known to act upon occasion. One had been frightened by an umbrella; one had been frightened by a blast from a cow-horn; another had been frightened by a native who in running from one lion ran right at the other which he had not seen. Accordingly, I wondered if I could frighten the lion that meant to leap at me. Acting upon wild impulse, I prodded him in the hind quarters with the spear. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a blooming idiot if that lion did not cower like a whipped dog, put his tail down, and begin to slink away. Quick to see my chance, I jumped up yelling, and made after him, prodding him again. He let out a bellow such as you could imagine would come from an outraged king of beasts. I prodded again, and then he loped off. I found Luki not badly hurt. In fact, he got well. But I've never forgotten that scare."
When Castleton finished his narrative there was a trenchant silence. All eyes were upon Monty. He looked beaten, disgraced, a disgusted man. Yet there shone from his face a wonderful admiration for Castleton.
"Dook, you win!" he said; and, dropping his head, he left the camp-fire circle with the manner of a deposed emperor.
Then the cowboys exploded. The quiet, serene, low-voiced Nels yelled like a madman and he stood upon his head. All the other cowboys went through marvelous contortions. Mere noise was insufficient to relieve their joy at what they considered the fall and humiliation of the tyrant Monty.
The Englishman stood there and watched them in amused consternation. They baffled his understanding. Plain it was to Madeline and her friends that Castleton had told the simple truth. But never on the earth, or anywhere else, could Nels and his comrades have been persuaded that Castleton had not lied deliberately to humble their great exponent of Ananias.
Everybody seemed reluctant to break the camp-fire spell. The logs had burned out to a great heap of opal and gold and red coals, in the heart of which quivered a glow alluring to the spirit of dreams. As the blaze subsided the shadows of the pines encroached darker and darker upon the circle of fading light. A cool wind fanned the embers, whipped up flakes of white ashes, and moaned through the trees. The wild yelps of coyotes were dying in the distance, and the sky was a wonderful dark-blue dome spangled with white stars.
"What a perfect night!" said Madeline. "This is a night to understand the dream, the mystery, the wonder of the Southwest. Florence, for long you have promised to tell us the story of the lost mine of the padres. It will give us all pleasure, make us understand something of the thrall in which this land held the Spaniards who discovered it so many years ago. It will be especially interesting now, because this mountain hides somewhere under its crags the treasures of the lost mine of the padres."
"In the sixteenth century," Florence began, in her soft, slow voice so suited to the nature of the legend, "a poor young padre of New Spain was shepherding his goats upon a hill when the Virgin appeared before him. He prostrated himself at her feet, and when he looked up she was gone. But upon the maguey plant near where she had stood there were golden ashes of a strange and wonderful substance. He took the incident as a good omen and went again to the hilltop. Under the maguey had sprung up slender stalks of white, bearing delicate gold flowers, and as these flowers waved in the wind a fine golden dust, as fine as powdered ashes, blew away toward the north. Padre Juan was mystified, but believed that great fortune attended upon him and his poor people. So he went again and again to the hilltop in hope that the Virgin would appear to him.
"One morning, as the sun rose gloriously, he looked across the windy hill toward the waving grass and golden flowers under the maguey, and he saw the Virgin beckoning to him. Again he fell upon his knees; but she lifted him and gave him of the golden flowers, and bade him leave his home and people to follow where these blowing golden ashes led. There he would find gold—pure gold—wonderful fortune to bring back to his poor people to build a church for them, and a city.
"Padre Juan took the flowers and left his home, promising to return, and he traveled northward over the hot and dusty desert, through the mountain passes, to a new country where fierce and warlike Indians menaced his life. He was gentle and good, and of a persuasive speech. Moreover, he was young and handsome of person. The Indians were Apaches, and among them he became a missionary, while always he was searching for the flowers of gold. He heard of gold lying in pebbles upon the mountain slopes, but he never found any. A few of the Apaches he converted; the most of them, however, were prone to be hostile to him and his religion. But Padre Juan prayed and worked on.
"There came a time when the old Apache chief, imagining the padre had designs upon his influence with the tribe, sought to put him to death by fire. The chief's daughter, a beautiful, dark-eyed maiden, secretly loved Juan and believed in his mission, and she interceded for his life and saved him. Juan fell in love with her. One day she came to him wearing golden flowers in her dark hair, and as the wind blew the flowers a golden dust blew upon it. Juan asked her where to find such flowers, and she told him that upon a certain day she would take him to the mountain to look for them. And upon the day she led up to the mountain-top from which they could see beautiful valleys and great trees and cool waters. There at the top of a wonderful slope that looked down upon the world, she showed Juan the flowers. And Juan found gold in such abundance that he thought he would go out of his mind. Dust of gold! Grains of gold! Pebbles of gold! Rocks of gold! He was rich beyond all dreams. He remembered the Virgin and her words. He must return to his people and build their church, and the great city that would bear his name.
"But Juan tarried. Always he was going manana. He loved the dark-eyed Apache girl so well that he could not leave her. He hated himself for his infidelity to his Virgin, to his people. He was weak and false, a sinner. But he could not go, and he gave himself up to love of the Indian maiden.
"The old Apache chief discovered the secret love of his daughter and the padre. And, fierce in his anger, he took her up into the mountains and burned her alive and cast her ashes upon the wind. He did not kill Padre Juan. He was too wise, and perhaps too cruel, for he saw the strength of Juan's love. Besides, many of his tribe had learned much from the Spaniard.
"Padre Juan fell into despair. He had no desire to live. He faded and wasted away. But before he died he went to the old Indians who had burned the maiden, and he begged them, when he was dead, to burn his body and to cast his ashes to the wind from that wonderful slope, where they would blow away to mingle forever with those of his Indian sweetheart.
"The Indians promised, and when Padre Juan died they burned his body and took his ashes to the mountain heights and cast them to the wind, where they drifted and fell to mix with the ashes of the Indian girl he had loved.
"Years passed. More padres traveled across the desert to the home of the Apaches, and they heard the story of Juan. Among their number was a padre who in his youth had been one of Juan's people. He set forth to find Juan's grave, where he believed he would also find the gold. And he came back with pebbles of gold and flowers that shed a golden dust, and he told a wonderful story. He had climbed and climbed into the mountains, and he had come to a wonderful slope under the crags. That slope was yellow with golden flowers. When he touched them golden ashes drifted from them and blew down among the rocks. There the padre found dust of gold, grains of gold, pebbles of gold, rocks of gold.
"Then all the padres went into the mountains. But the discoverer of the mine lost his way. They searched and searched until they were old and gray, but never found the wonderful slope and flowers that marked the grave and the mine of Padre Juan.
"In the succeeding years the story was handed down from father to son. But of the many who hunted for the lost mine of the padres there was never a Mexican or an Apache. For the Apache the mountain slopes were haunted by the spirit of an Indian maiden who had been false to her tribe and forever accursed. For the Mexican the mountain slopes were haunted by the spirit of the false padre who rolled stones upon the heads of those adventurers who sought to find his grave and his accursed gold."
Florence's story of the lost mine fired Madeline's guests with the fever for gold-hunting. But after they had tried it a few times and the glamour of the thing wore off they gave up and remained in camp. Having exhausted all the resources of the mountain, such that had interest for them, they settled quietly down for a rest, which Madeline knew would soon end in a desire for civilized comforts. They were almost tired of roughing it. Helen's discontent manifested itself in her remark, "I guess nothing is going to happen, after all."
Madeline awaited their pleasure in regard to the breaking of camp; and meanwhile, as none of them cared for more exertion, she took her walks without them, sometimes accompanied by one of the cowboys, always by the stag-hounds. These walks furnished her exceeding pleasure. And, now that the cowboys would talk to her without reserve, she grew fonder of listening to their simple stories. The more she knew of them the more she doubted the wisdom of shut-in lives. Companionship with Nels and most of the cowboys was in its effect like that of the rugged pines and crags and the untainted wind. Humor, their predominant trait when a person grew to know them, saved Madeline from finding their hardness trying. They were dreamers, as all men who lived lonely lives in the wilds were dreamers.
The cowboys all had secrets. Madeline learned some of them. She marveled most at the strange way in which they hid emotions, except of violence of mirth and temper so easily aroused. It was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that they felt intensely over little things to which men of the world were blind and dead. Madeline had to believe that a hard and perilous life in a barren and wild country developed great principles in men. Living close to earth, under the cold, bleak peaks, on the dust-veiled desert, men grew like the nature that developed them—hard, fierce, terrible, perhaps, but big—big with elemental force.
But one day, while out walking alone, before she realized it she had gone a long way down a dim trail winding among the rocks. It was the middle of a summer afternoon, and all about her were shadows of the crags crossing the sunlit patches. The quiet was undisturbed. She went on and on, not blind to the fact that she was perhaps going too far from camp, but risking it because she was sure of her way back, and enjoying the wild, craggy recesses that were new to her. Finally she came out upon a bank that broke abruptly into a beautiful little glade. Here she sat down to rest before undertaking the return trip.
Suddenly Russ, the keener of the stag-hounds, raised his head and growled. Madeline feared he might have scented a mountain-lion or wildcat. She quieted him and carefully looked around. To each side was an irregular line of massive blocks of stone that had weathered from the crags. The little glade was open and grassy, with here a pine-tree, there a boulder. The outlet seemed to go down into a wilderness of canyons and ridges. Looking in this direction, Madeline saw the slight, dark figure of a woman coming stealthily along under the pines. Madeline was amazed, then a little frightened, for that stealthy walk from tree to tree was suggestive of secrecy, if nothing worse.
Presently the woman was joined by a tall man who carried a package, which he gave to her. They came on up the glade and appeared to be talking earnestly. In another moment Madeline recognized Stewart. She had no greater feeling of surprise than had at first been hers. But for the next moment she scarcely thought at all—merely watched the couple approaching. In a flash came back her former curiosity as to Stewart's strange absences from camp, and then with the return of her doubt of him the recognition of the woman. The small, dark head, the brown face, the big eyes—Madeline now saw distinctly—belonged to the Mexican girl Bonita. Stewart had met her there. This was the secret of his lonely trips, taken ever since he had come to work for Madeline. This secluded glade was a rendezvous. He had her hidden there.
Quietly Madeline arose, with a gesture to the dogs, and went back along the trail toward camp. Succeeding her surprise was a feeling of sorrow that Stewart's regeneration had not been complete. Sorrow gave place to insufferable distrust that while she had been romancing about this cowboy, dreaming of her good influence over him, he had been merely base. Somehow it stung her. Stewart had been nothing to her, she thought, yet she had been proud of him. She tried to revolve the thing, to be fair to him, when every instinctive tendency was to expel him, and all pertaining to him, from her thoughts. And her effort at sympathy, at extenuation, failed utterly before her pride. Exerting her will-power, she dismissed Stewart from her mind.
Madeline did not think of him again till late that afternoon, when, as she was leaving her tent to join several of her guests, Stewart appeared suddenly in her path.
"Miss Hammond, I saw your tracks down the trail," he began, eagerly, but his tone was easy and natural. "I'm thinking—well, maybe you sure got the idea—"
"I do not wish for an explanation," interrupted Madeline.
Stewart gave a slight start. His manner had a semblance of the old, cool audacity. As he looked down at her it subtly changed.
What effrontery, Madeline thought, to face her before her guests with an explanation of his conduct! Suddenly she felt an inward flash of fire that was pain, so strange, so incomprehensible, that her mind whirled. Then anger possessed her, not at Stewart, but at herself, that anything could rouse in her a raw emotion. She stood there, outwardly cold, serene, with level, haughty eyes upon Stewart; but inwardly she was burning with rage and shame.
"I'm sure not going to have you think—" He began passionately, but he broke off, and a slow, dull crimson blotted over the healthy red-brown of his neck and cheeks.
"What you do or think, Stewart, is no concern of mine."
"Miss—Miss Hammond! You don't believe—" faltered Stewart.
The crimson receded from his face, leaving it pale. His eyes were appealing. They had a kind of timid look that struck Madeline even in her anger. There was something boyish about him then. He took a step forward and reached out with his hand open-palmed in a gesture that was humble, yet held a certain dignity.
"But listen. Never mind now what you—you think about me. There's a good reason—"
"I have no wish to hear your reason."
"But you ought to," he persisted.
Stewart underwent another swift change. He started violently. A dark tide shaded his face and a glitter leaped to his eyes. He took two long strides—loomed over her.
"I'm not thinking about myself," he thundered. "Will you listen?"
"No," she replied; and there was freezing hauteur in her voice. With a slight gesture of dismissal, unmistakable in its finality, she turned her back upon him. Then she joined her guests.
Stewart stood perfectly motionless. Then slowly he began to lift his right hand in which he held his sombrero. He swept it up and up high over his head. His tall form towered. With fierce suddenness he flung his sombrero down. He leaped at his black horse and dragged him to where his saddle lay. With one pitch he tossed the saddle upon the horse's back. His strong hands flashed at girths and straps. Every action was swift, decisive, fierce. Bounding for his bridle, which hung over a bush, he ran against a cowboy who awkwardly tried to avoid the onslaught.
"Get out of my way!" he yelled.
Then with the same savage haste he adjusted the bridle on his horse.
"Mebbe you better hold on a minnit, Gene, ole feller," said Monty Price.
"Monty, do you want me to brain you?" said Stewart, with the short, hard ring in his voice.
"Now, considerin' the high class of my brains, I oughter be real careful to keep 'em," replied Monty. "You can betcher life, Gene, I ain't goin' to git in front of you. But I jest says—Listen!"
Stewart raised his dark face. Everybody listened. And everybody heard the rapid beat of a horse's hoofs. The sun had set, but the park was light. Nels appeared down the trail, and his horse was running. In another moment he was in the circle, pulling his bay back to a sliding halt. He leaped off abreast of Stewart.
Madeline saw and felt a difference in Nels's presence.
"What's up, Gene?" he queried, sharply.
"I'm leaving camp," replied Stewart, thickly. His black horse began to stamp as Stewart grasped bridle and mane and kicked the stirrup round.
Nels's long arm shot out, and his hand fell upon Stewart, holding him down.
"Shore I'm sorry," said Nels, slowly. "Then you was goin' to hit the trail?"
"I am going to. Let go, Nels."
"Shore you ain't goin', Gene?"
"Let go, damn you!" cried Stewart, as he wrestled free.
"What's wrong?" asked Nels, lifting his hand again.
"Man! Don't touch me!"
Nels stepped back instantly. He seemed to become aware of Stewart's white, wild passion. Again Stewart moved to mount.
"Nels, don't make me forget we've been friends," he said.
"Shore I ain't fergettin'," replied Nels. "An' I resign my job right here an' now!"
His strange speech checked the mounting cowboy. Stewart stepped down from the stirrup. Then their hard faces were still and cold while their eyes locked glances.
Madeline was as much startled by Nels's speech as Stewart. Quick to note a change in these men, she now sensed one that was unfathomable.
"Resign?" questioned Stewart.
"Shore. What 'd you think I'd do under circumstances sich as has come up?"
"But see here, Nels, I won't stand for it."
"You're not my boss no more, an' I ain't beholdin' to Miss Hammond, neither. I'm my own boss, an' I'll do as I please. Sabe, senor?"
Nels's words were at variance with the meaning in his face.
"Gene, you sent me on a little scout down in the mountains, didn't you?" he continued.
"Yes, I did," replied Stewart, with a new sharpness in his voice.
"Wal, shore you was so good an' right in your figgerin', as opposed to mine, that I'm sick with admirin' of you. If you hedn't sent me—wal, I'm reckonin' somethin' might hev happened. As it is we're shore up against a hell of a proposition!"
How significant was the effect of his words upon all the cowboys! Stewart made a fierce and violent motion, terrible where his other motions had been but passionate. Monty leaped straight up into the air in a singular action as suggestive of surprise as it was of wild acceptance of menace. Like a stalking giant Nick Steele strode over to Nels and Stewart. The other cowboys rose silently, without a word.
Madeline and her guests, in a little group, watched and listened, unable to divine what all this strange talk and action meant.
"Hold on, Nels, they don't need to hear it," said Stewart, hoarsely, as he waved a hand toward Madeline's silent group.
"Wal, I'm sorry, but I reckon they'd as well know fust as last. Mebbe thet yearnin' wish of Miss Helen's fer somethin' to happen will come true. Shore I—"
"Cut out the joshin'," rang out Monty's strident voice.
It had as decided an effect as any preceding words or action. Perhaps it was the last thing needed to transform these men, doing unaccustomed duty as escorts of beautiful women, to their natural state as men of the wild.
"Tell us what's what," said Stewart, cool and grim.
"Don Carlos an' his guerrillas are campin' on the trails thet lead up here. They've got them trails blocked. By to-morrer they'd hed us corralled. Mebbe they meant to surprise us. He's got a lot of Greasers an' outlaws. They're well armed. Now what do they mean? You-all can figger it out to suit yourselves. Mebbe the Don wants to pay a sociable call on our ladies. Mebbe his gang is some hungry, as usual. Mebbe they want to steal a few hosses, or anythin' they can lay hands on. Mebbe they mean wuss, too. Now my idee is this, an' mebbe it's wrong. I long since separated from love with Greasers. Thet black-faced Don Carlos has got a deep game. Thet two-bit of a revolution is hevin' hard times. The rebels want American intervention. They'd stretch any point to make trouble. We're only ten miles from the border. Suppose them guerrillas got our crowd across thet border? The U. S. cavalry would foller. You-all know what thet'd mean. Mebbe Don Carlos's mind works thet way. Mebbe it don't. I reckon we'll know soon. An' now, Stewart, whatever the Don's game is, shore you're the man to outfigger him. Mebbe it's just as well you're good an' mad about somethin'. An' I resign my job because I want to feel unbeholdin' to anybody. Shore it struck me long since thet the old days hed come back fer a little spell, an' there I was trailin' a promise not to hurt any Greaser."
XIX. Don Carlos
Stewart took Nels, Monty, and Nick Steele aside out of earshot, and they evidently entered upon an earnest colloquy. Presently the other cowboys were called. They all talked more or less, but the deep voice of Stewart predominated over the others. Then the consultation broke up, and the cowboys scattered.
"Rustle, you Indians!" ordered Stewart.
The ensuing scene of action was not reassuring to Madeline and her friends. They were quiet, awaiting some one to tell them what to do. At the offset the cowboys appeared to have forgotten Madeline. Some of them ran off into the woods, others into the open, grassy places, where they rounded up the horses and burros. Several cowboys spread tarpaulins upon the ground and began to select and roll small packs, evidently for hurried travel. Nels mounted his horse to ride down the trail. Monty and Nick Steele went off into the grove, leading their horses. Stewart climbed up a steep jumble of stone between two sections of low, cracked cliff back of the camp.
Castleton offered to help the packers, and was curtly told he would be in the way. Madeline's friends all importuned her: Was there real danger? Were the guerrillas coming? Would a start be made at once for the ranch? Why had the cowboys suddenly become so different? Madeline answered as best she could; but her replies were only conjecture, and modified to allay the fears of her guests. Helen was in a white glow of excitement.
Soon cowboys appeared riding barebacked horses, driving in others and the burros. Some of these horses were taken away and evidently hidden in deep recesses between the crags. The string of burros were packed and sent off down the trail in charge of a cowboy. Nick Steele and Monty returned. Then Stewart appeared, clambering down the break between the cliffs.
His next move was to order all the baggage belonging to Madeline and her guests taken up the cliff. This was strenuous toil, requiring the need of lassoes to haul up the effects.
"Get ready to climb," said Stewart, turning to Madelines party.
"Where?" asked Helen.
He waved his hand at the ascent to be made. Exclamations of dismay followed his gesture.
"Mr. Stewart, is there danger?" asked Dorothy; and her voice trembled.
This was the question Madeline had upon her lips to ask Stewart, but she could not speak it.
"No, there's no danger," replied Stewart, "but we're taking precautions we all agreed on as best."
Dorothy whispered that she believed Stewart lied. Castleton asked another question, and then Harvey followed suit. Mrs. Beck made a timid query.
"Please keep quiet and do as you're told," said Stewart, bluntly.
At this juncture, when the last of the baggage was being hauled up the cliff, Monty approached Madeline and removed his sombrero. His black face seemed the same, yet this was a vastly changed Monty.
"Miss Hammond, I'm givin' notice I resign my job," he said.
"Monty! What do you mean? What does Nels mean now, when danger threatens?"
"We jest quit. Thet's all," replied Monty, tersely. He was stern and somber; he could not stand still; his eyes roved everywhere.
Castleton jumped up from the log where he had been sitting, and his face was very red.
"Mr. Price, does all this blooming fuss mean we are to be robbed or attacked or abducted by a lot of ragamuffin guerrillas?"
"You've called the bet."
Dorothy turned a very pale face toward Monty.
"Mr. Price, you wouldn't—you couldn't desert us now? You and Mr. Nels—"
"Desert you?" asked Monty, blankly.
"Yes, desert us. Leave us when we may need you so much, with something dreadful coming."
Monty uttered a short, hard laugh as he bent a strange look upon the girl.
"Me an' Nels is purty much scared, an' we're goin' to slope. Miss Dorothy, bein' as we've rustled round so much; it sorta hurts us to see nice young girls dragged off by the hair."
Dorothy uttered a little cry and then became hysterical. Castleton for once was fully aroused.
"By Gad! You and your partner are a couple of blooming cowards. Where now is that courage you boasted of?"
Monty's dark face expressed extreme sarcasm.
"Dook, in my time I've seen some bright fellers, but you take the cake. It's most marvelous how bright you are. Figger'n' me an' Nels so correct. Say, Dook, if you don't git rustled off to Mexico an' roped to a cactus-bush you'll hev a swell story fer your English chums. Bah Jove! You'll tell 'em how you seen two old-time gun-men run like scared jack-rabbits from a lot of Greasers. Like hell you will! Unless you lie like the time you told about proddin' the lion. That there story allus—"
"Monty, shut up!" yelled Stewart, as he came hurriedly up. Then Monty slouched away, cursing to himself.
Madeline and Helen, assisted by Castleton, worked over Dorothy, and with some difficulty quieted her. Stewart passed several times without noticing them, and Monty, who had been so ridiculously eager to pay every little attention to Dorothy, did not see her at all. Rude it seemed; in Monty's ease more than that. Madeline hardly knew what to make of it.
Stewart directed cowboys to go to the head of the open place in the cliff and let down lassoes. Then, with little waste of words, he urged the women toward this rough ladder of stones.
"We want to hide you," he said, when they demurred. "If the guerrillas come we'll tell them you've all gone down to the ranch. If we have to fight you'll be safe up there."
Helen stepped boldly forward and let Stewart put the loop of a lasso round her and tighten it. He waved his hand to the cowboys above.
"Just walk up, now," he directed Helen.
It proved to the watchers to be an easy, safe, and rapid means of scaling the steep passage. The men climbed up without assistance. Mrs. Beck, as usual, had hysteria; she half walked and was half dragged up. Stewart supported Dorothy with one arm, while with the other he held to the lasso. Ambrose had to carry Christine. The Mexican women required no assistance. Edith Wayne and Madeline climbed last; and, once up, Madeline saw a narrow bench, thick with shrubs, and overshadowed by huge, leaning crags. There were holes in the rock, and dark fissures leading back. It was a rough, wild place. Tarpaulins and bedding were then hauled up, and food and water. The cowboys spread comfortable beds in several of the caves, and told Madeline and her friends to be as quiet as possible, not to make a light, and to sleep dressed, ready for travel at a moment's notice.
After the cowboys had gone down it was not a cheerful group left there in the darkening twilight. Castleton prevailed upon them to eat.
"This is simply great," whispered Helen.
"Oh, it's awful!" moaned Dorothy. "It's your fault, Helen. You prayed for something to happen."
"I believe it's a horrid trick those cowboys are playing," said Mrs. Beck.
Madeline assured her friends that no trick was being played upon them, and that she deplored the discomfort and distress, but felt no real alarm. She was more inclined to evasive kindness here than to sincerity, for she had a decided uneasiness. The swift change in the manner and looks of her cowboys had been a shock to her. The last glance she had of Stewart's face, then stern, almost sad, and haggard with worry, remained to augment her foreboding.
Darkness appeared to drop swiftly down; the coyotes began their haunting, mournful howls; the stars showed and grew brighter; the wind moaned through the tips of the pines. Castleton was restless. He walked to and fro before the overhanging shelf of rock, where his companions sat lamenting, and presently he went out to the ledge of the bench. The cowboys below had built a fire, and the light from it rose in a huge, fan-shaped glow. Castleton's little figure stood out black against this light. Curious and anxious also, Madeline joined him and peered down from the cliff. The distance was short, and occasionally she could distinguish a word spoken by the cowboys. They were unconcernedly cooking and eating. She marked the absence of Stewart, and mentioned it to Castleton. Silently Castleton pointed almost straight down, and there in the gloom stood Stewart, with the two stag-hounds at his feet.
Presently Nick Steele silenced the camp-fire circle by raising a warning hand. The cowboys bent their heads, listening. Madeline listened with all her might. She heard one of the hounds whine, then the faint beat of horse's hoofs. Nick spoke again and turned to his supper, and the other men seemed to slacken in attention. The beat of hoofs grew louder, entered the grove, then the circle of light. The rider was Nels. He dismounted, and the sound of his low voice just reached Madeline.
"Gene, it's Nels. Somethin' doin'," Madeline heard one of the cowboys call, softly.
"Send him over," replied Stewart.
Nels stalked away from the fire.
"See here, Nels, the boys are all right, but I don't want them to know everything about this mix-up," said Stewart, as Nels came up. "Did you find the girl?"
Madeline guessed that Stewart referred to the Mexican girl Bonita.
"No. But I met"—Madeline did not catch the name—"an' he was wild. He was with a forest-ranger. An' they said Pat Hawe had trailed her an' was takin' her down under arrest."
Stewart muttered deep under his breath, evidently cursing.
"Wonder why he didn't come on up here?" he queried, presently. "He can see a trail."
"Wal, Gene, Pat knowed you was here all right, fer thet ranger said Pat hed wind of the guerrillas, an' Pat said if Don Carlos didn't kill you—which he hoped he'd do—then it 'd be time enough to put you in jail when you come down."
"He's dead set to arrest me, Nels."
"An' he'll do it, like the old lady who kept tavern out West. Gene, the reason thet red-faced coyote didn't trail you up here is because he's scared. He allus was scared of you. But I reckon he's shore scared to death of me an' Monty."
"Well, we'll take Pat in his turn. The thing now is, when will that Greaser stalk us, and what'll we do when he comes?"
"My boy, there's only one way to handle a Greaser. I shore told you thet. He means rough toward us. He'll come smilin' up, all soci'ble like, insinuatin' an' sweeter 'n a woman. But he's treacherous; he's wuss than an Indian. An', Gene, we know for a positive fact how his gang hev been operatin' between these hills an' Agua Prieta. They're no nervy gang of outlaws like we used to hev. But they're plumb bad. They've raided and murdered through the San Luis Pass an' Guadalupe Canyon. They've murdered women, an' wuss than thet, both north an' south of Agua Prieta. Mebbe the U. S. cavalry don't know it, an' the good old States; but we, you an' me an' Monty an' Nick, we know it. We know jest about what thet rebel war down there amounts to. It's guerrilla war, an' shore some harvest-time fer a lot of cheap thieves an' outcasts."
"Oh, you're right, Nels. I'm not disputing that," replied Stewart. "If it wasn't for Miss Hammond and the other women, I'd rather enjoy seeing you and Monty open up on that bunch. I'm thinking I'd be glad to meet Don Carlos. But Miss Hammond! Why, Nels, such a woman as she is would never recover from the sight of real gun-play, let alone any stunts with a rope. These Eastern women are different. I'm not belittling our Western women. It's in the blood. Miss Hammond is—is—"
"Shore she is," interrupted Nels; "but she's got a damn sight more spunk than you think she has, Gene Stewart. I'm no thick-skulled cow. I'd hate somethin' powerful to hev Miss Hammond see any rough work, let alone me an' Monty startin' somethin'. An' me an' Monty'll stick to you, Gene, as long as seems reasonable. Mind, ole feller, beggin' your pardon, you're shore stuck on Miss Hammond, an' over-tender not to hurt her feelin's or make her sick by lettin' some blood. We're in bad here, an' mebbe we'll hev to fight. Sabe, senor? Wal, we do you can jest gamble thet Miss Hammond'll be game. An' I'll bet you a million pesos thet if you got goin' onct, an' she seen you as I've seen you—wal, I know what she'd think of you. This old world ain't changed much. Some women may be white-skinned an' soft-eyed an' sweet-voiced an' high-souled, but they all like to see a man! Gene, here's your game. Let Don Carlos come along. Be civil. If he an' his gang are hungry, feed 'em. Take even a little overbearin' Greaser talk. Be blind if he wants his gang to steal somethin'. Let him think the women hev mosied down to the ranch. But if he says you're lyin'—if he as much as looks round to see the women—jest jump him same as you jumped Pat Hawe. Me an' Monty'll hang back fer thet, an' if your strong bluff don't go through, if the Don's gang even thinks of flashin' guns, then we'll open up. An' all I got to say is if them Greasers stand fer real gun-play they'll be the fust I ever seen."
"Nels, there are white men in that gang," said Stewart.
"Shore. But me an' Monty'll be thinkin' of thet. If they start anythin' it'll hev to be shore quick."
"All right, Nels, old friend, and thanks," replied Stewart. Nels returned to the camp-fire, and Stewart resumed his silent guard.
Madeline led Castleton away from the brink of the wall.
"By Jove! Cowboys are blooming strange folk!" he exclaimed. "They are not what they pretend to be."
"Indeed, you are right," replied Madeline. "I cannot understand them. Come, let us tell the others that Nels and Monty were only talking and do not intend to leave us. Dorothy, at least, will be less frightened if she knows."
Dorothy was somewhat comforted. The others, however, complained of the cowboys' singular behavior. More than once the idea was advanced that an elaborate trick had been concocted. Upon general discussion this idea gained ground. Madeline did not combat it, because she saw it tended to a less perturbed condition of mind among her guests. Castleton for once proved that he was not absolutely obtuse, and helped along the idea.
They sat talking in low voices until a late hour. The incident now began to take on the nature of Helen's long-yearned-for adventure. Some of the party even grew merry in a subdued way. Then, gradually, one by one they tired and went to bed. Helen vowed she could not sleep in a place where there were bats and crawling things. Madeline fancied, however, that they all went to sleep while she lay wide-eyed, staring up at the black bulge of overhanging rock and beyond the starry sky.
To keep from thinking of Stewart and the burning anger he had caused her to feel for herself, Madeline tried to keep her mind on other things. But thought of him recurred, and each time there was a hot commotion in her breast hard to stifle. Intelligent reasoning seemed out of her power. In the daylight it had been possible for her to be oblivious to Stewart's deceit after the moment of its realization. At night, however, in the strange silence and hovering shadows of gloom, with the speaking stars seeming to call to her, with the moan of the wind in the pines, and the melancholy mourn of coyotes in the distance, she was not able to govern her thought and emotion. The day was practical, cold; the night was strange and tense. In the darkness she had fancies wholly unknown to her in the bright light of the sun. She battled with a haunting thought. She had inadvertently heard Nels's conversation with Stewart; she had listened, hoping to hear some good news or to hear the worst; she had learned both, and, moreover, enlightenment on one point of Stewart's complex motives. He wished to spare her any sight that might offend, frighten, or disgust her. Yet this Stewart, who showed a fineness of feeling that might have been wanting even in Boyd Harvey, maintained a secret rendezvous with that pretty, abandoned Bonita. Here always the hot shame, like a live, stinging, internal fire, abruptly ended Madeline's thought. It was intolerable, and it was the more so because she could neither control nor understand it. The hours wore on, and at length, as the stars began to pale and there was no sound whatever, she fell asleep.
She was called out of her slumber. Day had broken bright and cool. The sun was still below the eastern crags. Ambrose, with several other cowboys, had brought up buckets of spring-water, and hot coffee and cakes. Madeline's party appeared to be none the worse for the night's experience. Indeed, the meager breakfast might have been as merrily partaken of as it was hungrily had not Ambrose enjoined silence.
"They're expectin' company down below," he said.
This information and the summary manner in which the cowboys soon led the party higher up among the ruined shelves of rock caused a recurrence of anxiety. Madeline insisted on not going beyond a projection of cliff from which she could see directly down into the camp. As the vantage-point was one affording concealment, Ambrose consented, but he placed the frightened Christine near Madeline and remained there himself.
"Ambrose, do you really think the guerrillas will come?" asked Madeline.
"Sure. We know. Nels just rode in and said they were on their way up. Miss Hammond, can I trust you? You won't let out a squeal if there's a fight down there? Stewart told me to hide you out of sight or keep you from lookin'."
"I promise not to make any noise," replied Madeline. Madeline arranged her coat so that she could lie upon it, and settled down to wait developments. There came a slight rattling of stones in the rear. She turned to see Helen sliding down a bank with a perplexed and troubled cowboy. Helen came stooping low to where Madeline lay and said: "I am going to see what happens, if I die in the attempt! I can stand it if you can." She was pale and big-eyed. Ambrose promptly swore at the cowboy who had let her get away from him. "Take a half-hitch on her yourself an' see where you end up," replied the fellow, and disappeared in the jumble of rocks. Ambrose, finding words useless, sternly and heroically prepared to carry Helen back to the others. He laid hold of her. In a fury, with eyes blazing, Helen whispered:
"Let go of me! Majesty, what does this fool mean?"
Madeline laughed. She knew Helen, and had marked the whisper, when ordinarily Helen would have spoken imperiously, and not low. Madeline explained to her the exigency of the situation. "I might run, but I'll never scream," said Helen. With that Ambrose had to be content to let her stay. However, he found her a place somewhat farther back from Madeline's position, where he said there was less danger of her being seen. Then he sternly bound her to silence, tarried a moment to comfort Christine, and returned to where Madeline lay concealed. He had been there scarcely a moment when he whispered:
"I hear hosses. The guerrillas are comin'."
Madeline's hiding-place was well protected from possible discovery from below. She could peep over a kind of parapet, through an opening in the tips of the pines that reached up to the cliff, and obtain a commanding view of the camp circle and its immediate surroundings. She could not, however, see far either to right or left of the camp, owing to the obstructing foliage. Presently the sound of horses' hoofs quickened the beat of her pulse and caused her to turn keener gaze upon the cowboys below.
Although she had some inkling of the course Stewart and his men were to pursue, she was not by any means prepared for the indifference she saw. Frank was asleep, or pretended to be. Three cowboys were lazily and unconcernedly attending to camp-fire duties, such as baking biscuits, watching the ovens, and washing tins and pots. The elaborate set of aluminum plates, cups, etc., together with the other camp fixtures that had done service for Madeline's party, had disappeared. Nick Steele sat with his back to a log, smoking his pipe. Another cowboy had just brought the horses closer into camp, where they stood waiting to be saddled. Nels appeared to be fussing over a pack. Stewart was rolling a cigarette. Monty had apparently nothing to do for the present except whistle, which he was doing much more loudly than melodiously. The whole ensemble gave an impression of careless indifference.
The sound of horses' hoofs grew louder and slowed its beat. One of the cowboys pointed down the trail, toward which several of his comrades turned their heads for a moment, then went on with their occupations.
Presently a shaggy, dusty horse bearing a lean, ragged, dark rider rode into camp and halted. Another followed, and another. Horses with Mexican riders came in single file and stopped behind the leader.
The cowboys looked up, and the guerrillas looked down. "Buenos dias, senor," ceremoniously said the foremost guerrilla.
By straining her ears Madeline heard that voice, and she recognized it as belonging to Don Carlos. His graceful bow to Stewart was also familiar. Otherwise she would never have recognized the former elegant vaquero in this uncouth, roughly dressed Mexican.
Stewart answered the greeting in Spanish, and, waving his hand toward the camp-fire, added in English, "Get down and eat."
The guerrillas were anything but slow in complying. They crowded to the fire, then spread in a little circle and squatted upon the ground, laying their weapons beside them. In appearance they tallied with the band of guerrillas that had carried Madeline up into the foothills, only this band was larger and better armed. The men, moreover, were just as hungry and as wild and beggarly. The cowboys were not cordial in their reception of this visit, but they were hospitable. The law of the desert had always been to give food and drink to wayfaring men, whether lost or hunted or hunting.
"There's twenty-three in that outfit," whispered Ambrose, "includin' four white men. Pretty rummy outfit."
"They appear to be friendly enough," whispered Madeline.
"Things down there ain't what they seem," replied Ambrose.
"Ambrose, tell me—explain to me. This is my opportunity. As long as you will let me watch them, please let me know the—the real thing."
"Sure. But recollect, Miss Hammond, that Gene'll give it to me good if he ever knows I let you look and told you what's what. Well, decent-like Gene is seen' them poor devils get a square meal. They're only a lot of calf-thieves in this country. Across the border they're bandits, some of them, the others just riffraff outlaws. That rebel bluff doesn't go down with us. I'd have to see first before I'd believe them Greasers would fight. They're a lot of hard-ridin' thieves, and they'd steal a fellow's blanket or tobacco. Gene thinks they're after you ladies—to carry you off. But Gene—Oh, Gene's some highfalutin in his ideas lately. Most of us boys think the guerrillas are out to rob—that's all."
Whatever might have been the secret motive of Don Carlos and his men, they did not allow it to interfere with a hearty appreciation of a generous amount of food. Plainly, each individual ate all that he was able to eat at the time. They jabbered like a flock of parrots; some were even merry, in a kind of wild way. Then, as each and every one began to roll and smoke the inevitable cigarette of the Mexican, there was a subtle change in manner. They smoked and looked about the camp, off into the woods, up at the crags, and back at the leisurely cowboys. They had the air of men waiting for something.
"Senor," began Don Carlos, addressing Stewart. As he spoke he swept his sombrero to indicate the camp circle.
Madeline could not distinguish his words, but his gesture plainly indicated a question in regard to the rest of the camping party. Stewart's reply and the wave of his hand down the trail meant that his party had gone home. Stewart turned to some task, and the guerrilla leader quietly smoked. He looked cunning and thoughtful. His men gradually began to manifest a restlessness, noticeable in the absence of former languor and slow puffing of cigarette smoke. Presently a big-boned man with a bullet head and a blistered red face of evil coarseness got up and threw away his cigarette. He was an American.
"Hey, cull," he called in loud voice, "ain't ye goin' to cough up a drink?"
"My boys don't carry liquor on the trail," replied Stewart. He turned now to face the guerrillas.
"Haw, haw! I heerd over in Rodeo thet ye was gittin' to be shore some fer temperance," said this fellow. "I hate to drink water, but I guess I've gotter do it."
He went to the spring, sprawled down to drink, and all of a sudden he thrust his arm down in the water to bring forth a basket. The cowboys in the hurry of packing had neglected to remove this basket; and it contained bottles of wine and liquors for Madeline's guests. They had been submerged in the spring to keep them cold. The guerrilla fumbled with the lid, opened it, and then got up, uttering a loud roar of delight.
Stewart made an almost imperceptible motion, as if to leap forward; but he checked the impulse, and after a quick glance at Nels he said to the guerrilla:
"Guess my party forgot that. You're welcome to it." Like bees the guerrillas swarmed around the lucky finder of the bottles. There was a babel of voices. The drink did not last long, and it served only to liberate the spirit of recklessness. The several white outlaws began to prowl around the camp; some of the Mexicans did likewise; others waited, showing by their ill-concealed expectancy the nature of their thoughts.
It was the demeanor of Stewart and his comrades that puzzled Madeline. Apparently they felt no anxiety or even particular interest. Don Carlos, who had been covertly watching them, now made his scrutiny open, even aggressive. He looked from Stewart to Nels and Monty, and then to the other cowboys. While some of his men prowled around the others watched him, and the waiting attitude had taken on something sinister. The guerrilla leader seemed undecided, but not in any sense puzzled. When he turned his cunning face upon Nels and Monty he had the manner of a man in whom decision was lacking.
In her growing excitement Madeline had not clearly heard Ambrose's low whispers and she made an effort to distract some of her attention from those below to the cowboy crouching beside her.
The quality, the note of Ambrose's whisper had changed. It had a slight sibilant sound.
"Don't be mad if sudden-like I clap my hands over your eyes, Miss Hammond," he was saying. "Somethin's brewin' below. I never seen Gene so cool. That's a dangerous sign in him. And look, see how the boys are workin' together! Oh, it's slow and accident-like, but I know it's sure not accident. That foxy Greaser knows, too. But maybe his men don't. If they are wise they haven't sense enough to care. The Don, though—he's worried. He's not payin' so much attention to Gene, either. It's Nels and Monty he's watchin'. And well he need do it! There, Nick and Frank have settled down on that log with Booly. They don't seem to be packin' guns. But look how heavy their vests hang. A gun in each side! Those boys can pull a gun and flop over that log quicker than you can think. Do you notice how Nels and Monty and Gene are square between them guerrillas and the trail up here? It doesn't seem on purpose, but it is. Look at Nels and Monty. How quiet they are confabbin' together, payin' no attention to the guerrillas. I see Monty look at Gene, then I see Nels look at Gene. Well, it's up to Gene. And they're goin' to back him. I reckon, Miss Hammond, there'd be dead Greasers round that camp long ago if Nels and Monty were foot-loose. They're beholdin' to Gene. That's plain. And, Lord! how it tickles me to watch them! Both packin' two forty-fives, butts swingin' clear. There's twenty-four shots in them four guns. And there's twenty-three guerrillas. If Nels and Monty ever throw guns at that close range, why, before you'd know what was up there'd be a pile of Greasers. There! Stewart said something to the Don. I wonder what. I'll gamble it was something to get the Don's outfit all close together. Sure! Greasers have no sense. But them white guerrillas, they're lookin' some dubious. Whatever's comin' off will come soon, you can bet. I wish I was down there. But maybe it won't come to a scrap. Stewart's set on avoidin' that. He's a wonderful chap to get his way. Lord, though, I'd like to see him go after that overbearin' Greaser! See! the Don can't stand prosperity. All this strange behavior of cowboys is beyond his pulque-soaked brains. Then he's a Greaser. If Gene doesn't knock him on the head presently he'll begin to get over his scare, even of Nels and Monty. But Gene'll pick out the right time. And I'm gettin' nervous. I want somethin' to start. Never saw Nels in but one fight, then he just shot a Greaser's arm off for tryin' to draw on him. But I've heard all about him. And Monty! Monty's the real old-fashioned gun-man. Why, none of them stories, them lies he told to entertain the Englishman, was a marker to what Monty has done. What I don't understand is how Monty keeps so quiet and easy and peaceful-like. That's not his way, with such an outfit lookin' for trouble. O-ha! Now for the grand bluff. Looks like no fight at all!"
The guerrilla leader had ceased his restless steps and glances, and turned to Stewart with something of bold resolution in his aspect.
"Gracias, senor," he said. "Adios." He swept his sombrero in the direction of the trail leading down the mountain to the ranch; and as he completed the gesture a smile, crafty and jeering, crossed his swarthy face.
Ambrose whispered so low that Madeline scarcely heard him. "If the Greaser goes that way he'll find our horses and get wise to the trick. Oh, he's wise now! But I'll gamble he never even starts on that trail."
Neither hurriedly nor guardedly Stewart rose out of his leaning posture and took a couple of long strides toward Don Carlos.
"Go back the way you came," he fairly yelled; and his voice had the ring of a bugle.
Ambrose nudged Madeline; his whisper was tense and rapid: "Don't miss nothin'. Gene's called him. Whatever's comin' off will be here quick as lightnin'. See! I guess maybe that Greaser don't savvy good U. S. lingo. Look at that dirty yaller face turn green. Put one eye on Nels and Monty! That's great—just to see 'em. Just as quiet and easy. But oh, the difference! Bent and stiff—that means every muscle is like a rawhide riata. They're watchin' with eyes that can see the workin's of them Greasers' minds. Now there ain't a hoss-hair between them Greasers and hell!"
Don Carlos gave Stewart one long malignant stare; then he threw back his head, swept up the sombrero, and his evil smile showed gleaming teeth.
"Senor—" he began.
With magnificent bound Stewart was upon him. The guerrilla's cry was throttled in his throat. A fierce wrestling ensued, too swift to see clearly; then heavy, sodden blows, and Don Carlos was beaten to the ground. Stewart leaped back. Then, crouching with his hands on the butts of guns at his hips, he yelled, he thundered at the guerrillas. He had been quicker than a panther, and now his voice was so terrible that it curdled Madeline's blood, and the menace of deadly violence in his crouching position made her shut her eyes. But she had to open them. In that single instant Nels and Monty had leaped to Stewart's side. Both were bent down, with hands on the butts of guns at their hips. Nels's piercing yell seemed to divide Monty's roar of rage. Then they ceased, and echoes clapped from the crags. The silence of those three men crouching like tigers about to leap was more menacing than the nerve-racking yells.
Then the guerrillas wavered and broke and ran for their horses. Don Carlos rolled over, rose, and staggered away, to be helped upon his mount. He looked back, his pale and bloody face that of a thwarted demon. The whole band got into action and were gone in a moment.
"I knew it," declared Ambrose. "Never seen a Greaser who could face gun-play. That was some warm. And Monty Price never flashed a gun! He'll never get over that. I reckon, Miss Harnmond, we're some lucky to avoid trouble. Gene had his way, as you seen. We'll be makin' tracks for the ranch in about two shakes."
"Why?" whispered Madeline, breathlessly. She became conscious that she was weak and shaken.
"Because the guerrillas sure will get their nerve back, and come sneakin' on our trail or try to head us off by ambushin'," replied Ambrose. "That's their way. Otherwise three cowboys couldn't bluff a whole gang like that. Gene knows the nature of Greasers. They're white-livered. But I reckon we're in more danger now than before, unless we get a good start down the mountain. There! Gene's callin'. Come! Hurry!"
Helen had slipped down from her vantage-point, and therefore had not seen the last act in that little camp-fire drama. It seemed, however, that her desire for excitement was satisfied, for her face was pale and she trembled when she asked if the guerrillas were gone.
"I didn't see the finish, but those horrible yells were enough for me."
Ambrose hurried the three women over the rough rocks, down the cliff. The cowboys below were saddling horses in haste. Evidently all the horses had been brought out of hiding. Swiftly, with regard only for life and limb, Madeline, Helen, and Christine were lowered by lassoes and half carried down to the level. By the time they were safely down the other members of the party appeared on the cliff above. They were in excellent spirits, appearing to treat the matter as a huge joke.
Ambrose put Christine on a horse and rode away through the pines; Frankie Slade did likewise with Helen. Stewart led Madeline's horse up to her, helped her to mount, and spoke one stern word, "Wait!" Then as fast as one of the women reached the level she was put upon a horse and taken away by a cowboy escort. Few words were spoken. Haste seemed to be the great essential. The horses were urged, and, once in the trail, spurred and led into a swift trot. One cowboy drove up four pack-horses, and these were hurriedly loaded with the party's baggage. Castleton and his companions mounted, and galloped off to catch the others in the lead. This left Madeline behind with Stewart and Nels and Monty.
"They're goin' to switch off at the holler thet heads near the trail a few miles down," Nels was saying, as he tightened his saddle-girth. "Thet holler heads into a big canyon. Once in thet, it'll be every man fer hisself. I reckon there won't be anythin' wuss than a rough ride."
Nels smiled reassuringly at Madeline, but he did not speak to her. Monty took her canteen and filled it at the spring and hung it over the pommel of her saddle. He put a couple of biscuits in the saddle-bag.
"Don't fergit to take a drink an' a bite as you're ridin' along," he said. "An' don't worry, Miss Majesty. Stewart'll be with you, an' me an' Nels hangin' on the back-trail."
His somber and sullen face did not change in its strange intensity, but the look in his eyes Madeline felt she would never forget. Left alone with these three men, now stripped of all pretense, she realized how fortune had favored her and what peril still hung in the balance. Stewart swung astride his big black, spurred him, and whistled. At the whistle Majesty jumped, and with swift canter followed Stewart. Madeline looked back to see Nels already up and Monty handing him a rifle. Then the pines hid her view.
Once in the trail, Stewart's horse broke into a gallop. Majesty changed his gait and kept at the black's heels. Stewart called back a warning. The low, wide-spreading branches of trees might brush Madeline out of the saddle. Fast riding through the forest along a crooked, obstructed trail called forth all her alertness. Likewise the stirring of her blood, always susceptible to the spirit and motion of a ride, let alone one of peril, now began to throb and burn away the worry, the dread, the coldness that had weighted her down.
Before long Stewart wheeled at right angles off the trail and entered a hollow between two low bluffs. Madeline saw tracks in the open patches of ground. Here Stewart's horse took to a brisk walk. The hollow deepened, narrowed, became rocky, full of logs and brush. Madeline exerted all her keenness, and needed it, to keep close to Stewart. She did not think of him, nor her own safety, but of keeping Majesty close in the tracks of the black, of eluding the sharp spikes in the dead brush, of avoiding the treacherous loose stones.
At last Madeline was brought to a dead halt by Stewart and his horse blocking the trail. Looking up, she saw they were at the head of a canyon that yawned beneath and widened its gray-walled, green-patched slopes down to a black forest of fir. The drab monotony of the foothills made contrast below the forest, and away in the distance, rosy and smoky, lay the desert. Retracting her gaze, Madeline saw pack-horses cross an open space a mile below, and she thought she saw the stag-hounds. Stewart's dark eyes searched the slopes high up along the craggy escarpments. Then he put the black to the descent.
If there had been a trail left by the leading cowboys, Stewart did not follow it. He led off to the right, zigzagging an intricate course through the roughest ground Madeline had ever ridden over. He crashed through cedars, threaded a tortuous way among boulders, made his horse slide down slanting banks of soft earth, picked a slow and cautious progress across weathered slopes of loose rock. Madeline followed, finding in this ride a tax on strength and judgment. On an ordinary horse she never could have kept in Stewart's trail. It was dust and heat, a parching throat, that caused Madeline to think of time; and she was amazed to see the sun sloping to the west. Stewart never stopped; he never looked back; he never spoke. He must have heard the horse close behind him. Madeline remembered Monty's advice about drinking and eating as she rode along. The worst of that rough travel came at the bottom of the canyon. Dead cedars and brush and logs were easy to pass compared with the miles, it seemed, of loose boulders. The horses slipped and stumbled. Stewart proceeded here with exceeding care. At last, when the canyon opened into a level forest of firs, the sun was setting red in the west.
Stewart quickened the gait of his horse. After a mile or so of easy travel the ground again began to fall decidedly, sloping in numerous ridges, with draws between. Soon night shadowed the deeper gullies. Madeline was refreshed by the cooling of the air.
Stewart traveled slowly now. The barks of coyotes seemed to startle him. Often he stopped to listen. And during one of those intervals the silence was broken by sharp rifle-shots. Madeline could not tell whether they were near or far, to right or left, behind or before. Evidently Stewart was both alarmed and baffled. He dismounted. He went cautiously forward to listen. Madeline fancied she heard a cry, low and far away. It was only that of a coyote, she convinced herself, yet it was so wailing, so human, that she shuddered. Stewart came back. He slipped the bridles of both horses, and he led them. Every few paces he stopped to listen. He changed his direction several times, and the last time he got among rough, rocky ridges. The iron shoes of the horses cracked on the rocks. That sound must have penetrated far into the forest. It perturbed Stewart, for he searched for softer ground. Meanwhile the shadows merged into darkness. The stars shone. The wind rose. Madeline believed hours passed.
Stewart halted again. In the gloom Madeline discerned a log cabin, and beyond it pear-pointed dark trees piercing the sky-line. She could just make out Stewart's tall form as he leaned against his horse. Either he was listening or debating what to do—perhaps both. Presently he went inside the cabin. Madeline heard the scratching of a match; then she saw a faint light. The cabin appeared to be deserted. Probably it was one of the many habitations belonging to prospectors and foresters who lived in the mountains. Stewart came out again. He walked around the horses, out into the gloom, then back to Madeline. For a long moment he stood as still as a statue and listened. Then she heard him mutter, "If we have to start quick I can ride bareback." With that he took the saddle and blanket off his horse and carried them into the cabin.
"Get off," he said, in a low voice, as he stepped out of the door.
He helped her down and led her inside, where again he struck a match. Madeline caught a glimpse of a rude fireplace and rough-hewn logs. Stewart's blanket and saddle lay on the hard-packed earthen floor.
"Rest a little," he said. "I'm going into the woods a piece to listen. Gone only a minute or so."
Madeline had to feel round in the dark to locate the saddle and blanket. When she lay down it was with a grateful sense of ease and relief. As her body rested, however, her mind became the old thronging maze for sensation and thought. All day she had attended to the alert business of helping her horse. Now, what had already happened, the night, the silence, the proximity of Stewart and his strange, stern caution, the possible happenings to her friends—all claimed their due share of her feeling. She went over them all with lightning swiftness of thought. She believed, and she was sure Stewart believed, that her friends, owing to their quicker start down the mountain, had not been headed off in their travel by any of the things which had delayed Stewart. This conviction lifted the suddenly returning dread from her breast; and as for herself, somehow she had no fear. But she could not sleep; she did not try to.
Stewart's soft steps sounded outside. His dark form loomed in the door. As he sat down Madeline heard the thump of a gun that he laid beside him on the sill; then the thump of another as he put that down, too. The sounds thrilled her. Stewart's wide shoulders filled the door; his finely shaped head and strong, stern profile showed clearly in outline against the sky; the wind waved his hair. He turned his ear to that wind and listened. Motionless he sat for what to her seemed hours.
Then the stirring memory of the day's adventure, the feeling of the beauty of the night, and a strange, deep-seated, sweetly vague consciousness of happiness portending, were all burned out in hot, pressing pain at the remembrance of Stewart's disgrace in her eyes. Something had changed within her so that what had been anger at herself was sorrow for him. He was such a splendid man. She could not feel the same; she knew her debt to him, yet she could not thank him, could not speak to him. She fought an unintelligible bitterness.
Then she rested with closed eyes, and time seemed neither short nor long. When Stewart called her she opened her eyes to see the gray of dawn. She rose and stepped outside. The horses whinnied. In a moment she was in the saddle, aware of cramped muscles and a weariness of limbs. Stewart led off at a sharp trot into the fir forest. They came to a trail into which he turned. The horses traveled steadily; the descent grew less steep; the firs thinned out; the gray gloom brightened.
When Madeline rode out of the firs the sun had arisen and the foothills rolled beneath her; and at their edge, where the gray of valley began, she saw a dark patch that she knew was the ranch-house.
XX. The Sheriff of El Cajon
About the middle of the forenoon of that day Madeline reached the ranch. Her guests had all arrived there late the night before, and wanted only her presence and the assurance of her well-being to consider the last of the camping trip a rare adventure. Likewise, they voted it the cowboys' masterpiece of a trick. Madeline's delay, they averred, had been only a clever coup to give a final effect. She did not correct their impression, nor think it needful to state that she had been escorted home by only one cowboy.
Her guests reported an arduous ride down the mountain, with only one incident to lend excitement. On the descent they had fallen in with Sheriff Hawe and several of his deputies, who were considerably under the influence of drink and very greatly enraged by the escape of the Mexican girl Bonita. Hawe had used insulting language to the ladies and, according to Ambrose, would have inconvenienced the party on some pretext or other if he had not been sharply silenced by the cowboys.
Madeline's guests were two days in recovering from the hard ride. On the third day they leisurely began to prepare for departure. This period was doubly trying for Madeline. She had her own physical need of rest, and, moreover, had to face a mental conflict that could scarcely be postponed further. Her sister and friends were kindly and earnestly persistent in their entreaties that she go back East with them. She desired to go. It was not going that mattered; it was how and when and under what circumstances she was to return that roused in her disturbing emotion. Before she went East she wanted to have fixed in mind her future relation to the ranch and the West. When the crucial hour arrived she found that the West had not claimed her yet. These old friends had warmed cold ties.
It turned out, however, that there need be no hurry about making the decision. Madeline would have welcomed any excuse to procrastinate; but, as it happened, a letter from Alfred made her departure out of the question for the present. He wrote that his trip to California had been very profitable, that he had a proposition for Madeline from a large cattle company, and, particularly, that he wanted to marry Florence soon after his arrival home and would bring a minister from Douglas for that purpose.
Madeline went so far, however, as to promise Helen and her friends that she would go East soon, at the very latest by Thanksgiving. With that promise they were reluctantly content to say good-by to the ranch and to her. At the last moment there seemed a great likelihood of a hitch in plans for the first stage of that homeward journey. All of Madeline's guests held up their hands, Western fashion, when Link Stevens appeared with the big white car. Link protested innocently, solemnly, that he would drive slowly and safely; but it was necessary for Madeline to guarantee Link's word and to accompany them before they would enter the car. At the station good-bys were spoken and repeated, and Madeline's promise was exacted for the hundredth time.
Dorothy Coombs's last words were: "Give my love to Monty Price. Tell him I'm—I'm glad he kissed me!"
Helen's eyes had a sweet, grave, yet mocking light as she said:
"Majesty, bring Stewart with you when you come. He'll be the rage."
Madeline treated the remark with the same merry lightness with which it was received by the others; but after the train had pulled out and she was on her way home she remembered Helen's words and looks with something almost amounting to a shock. Any mention of Stewart, any thought of him, displeased her.
"What did Helen mean?" mused Madeline. And she pondered. That mocking light in Helen's eyes had been simply an ironical glint, a cynical gleam from that worldly experience so suspicious and tolerant in its wisdom. The sweet gravity of Helen's look had been a deeper and more subtle thing. Madeline wanted to understand it, to divine in it a new relation between Helen and herself, something fine and sisterly that might lead to love. The thought, however, revolving around a strange suggestion of Stewart, was poisoned at its inception, and she dismissed it.
Upon the drive in to the ranch, as she was passing the lower lake, she saw Stewart walking listlessly along the shore. When he became aware of the approach of the car he suddenly awakened from his aimless sauntering and disappeared quickly in the shade of the shrubbery. This was not by any means the first time Madeline had seen him avoid a possible meeting with her. Somehow the act had pained her, though affording her a relief. She did not want to meet him face to face.
It was annoying for her to guess that Stillwell had something to say in Stewart's defense. The old cattleman was evidently distressed. Several times he had tried to open a conversation with Madeline relating to Stewart; she had evaded him until the last time, when his persistence had brought a cold and final refusal to hear another word about the foreman. Stillwell had been crushed.
As days passed Stewart remained at the ranch without his old faithfulness to his work. Madeline was not moved to a kinder frame of mind to see him wandering dejectedly around. It hurt her, and because it hurt her she grew all the harder. Then she could not help hearing snatches of conversation which strengthened her suspicions that Stewart was losing his grip on himself, that he would soon take the downward course again. Verification of her own suspicion made it a belief, and belief brought about a sharp conflict between her generosity and some feeling that she could not name. It was not a question of justice or mercy or sympathy. If a single word could have saved Stewart from sinking his splendid manhood into the brute she had recoiled from at Chiricahua, she would not have spoken it. She could not restore him to his former place in her regard; she really did not want him at the ranch at all. Once, considering in wonder her knowledge of men, she interrogated herself to see just why she could not overlook Stewart's transgression. She never wanted to speak to him again, or see him, or think of him. In some way, through her interest in Stewart, she had come to feel for herself an inexplicable thing close to scorn.
A telegram from Douglas, heralding the coming of Alfred and a minister, put an end to Madeline's brooding, and she shared something of Florence Kingsley's excitement. The cowboys were as eager and gossipy as girls. It was arranged to have the wedding ceremony performed in Madeline's great hall-chamber, and the dinner in the cool, flower-scented patio.
Alfred and his minister arrived at the ranch in the big white car. They appeared considerably wind-blown. In fact, the minister was breathless, almost sightless, and certainly hatless. Alfred, used as he was to wind and speed, remarked that he did not wonder at Nels's aversion to riding a fleeting cannon-ball. The imperturbable Link took off his cap and goggles and, consulting his watch, made his usual apologetic report to Madeline, deploring the fact that a teamster and a few stray cattle on the road had held him down to the manana time of only a mile a minute.
Arrangements for the wedding brought Alfred's delighted approval. When he had learned all Florence and Madeline would tell him he expressed a desire to have the cowboys attend; and then he went on to talk about California, where he was going take Florence on a short trip. He was curiously interested to find out all about Madeline's guests and what had happened to them. His keen glance at Madeline grew softer as she talked.