Spurred heels clanked on the threshold, stopped there, and the door shut with a slam. But she did not look up; she did not dare.
Steps came down the room toward her—long, hurrying steps, determined steps. Close beside her they stopped, and for a space that seemed to her long minutes there was no sound.
"Say hello to me—won't you, Girlie?" said a wistful voice that thrilled to the tips of the schoolma'am's shaking fingers. She dropped her hands then, reluctantly. Her lips quivered as Weary had never before seen them do.
"Hello," she obeyed, faintly.
He stood for a moment, studying her face.
"Look up here, Schoolma'am," he commanded at last. "I hate to have my feet get so much attention. I've come back to fight it out—to a finish, this time. Yuh can't stampede me again—look up here. I've been plumb sick for a sight of those big eyes of yours."
Miss Satterly persisted in gazing at the boots of Weary.
"Well, are yuh going to?" There was a new, masterful note in Weary's voice, that the schoolma'am felt but did not quite understand—then. She did not, perhaps, realize how plainly her whole attitude spoke surrender.
Weary waited what seemed to him a reasonable time, but her lashes drooped lower, if anything. Then he made one of the quick, unlooked-for moves which made him a master of horses. Before she quite knew what was occurring, the schoolma'am was upon her feet and snuggled close in Weary's eager arms. More, he had a hand under her chin, her face was tilted back and he was smiling down into her wide, startled eyes.
"I didn't burn a streak a thousand miles long in the atmosphere, getting back here, to be scared out now by a little woman like you," he remarked, and tucked a stray, brown lock solicitously behind her ear. Then he bent and kissed her deliberately upon the mouth.
"Now, say you're my little schoolma'am. Quick, before I do it again." He threatened with his lips, and he looked as if he were quite anxious to carry out his threat.
"I'm your—" the schoolma'am hid her face from him. "Oh, Will! Whatever made you go off like that, and I—I nearly died wanting to see you—"
Weary laid his cheek very tenderly against hers, and held her close. No words came to either, just then.
"What if I'd kept on being a fool—and hadn't come back at all, Girlie?" he asked softly, after a while.
The schoolma'am shuddered eloquently in his arms.
"It was sure lonesome—it was hell out there alone," he observed, reminiscently.
"It was sure—h-hell back here alone, too," murmured a smothered voice which did not sound much like the clear, self-assertive tones of Miss Satterly.
"Well, it come near serving you right," Weary told her, relishfully grinning over the word she used.
"What made yuh chase me off?"
"I—don't know; I—"
"I guess yuh don't, all right," agreed Weary, giving a little squeeze by way of making quite sure he had her there. "Say, what was that yarn Myrt Forsyth told yuh about me?"
"I—I don't know. She—she hinted a lot—"
"I expect she did—that's Myrt, every rattle uh the box," Weary cut in dryly.
"And she—she said you had to leave home—in the night—"
"Oh, she did, eh? Well, Girlie, if the time-table hasn't changed, Miss Myrt Forsyth sneaked off the same way. The train west leaves—or did leave—Chadville along about midnight, so—Say, it feels good to be back, little schoolma'am. You don't know how good—"
"I guess I do," cried the schoolma'am very emphatically. "I just guess I know something about that, myself. Oh you dear, great, tall—"
Something happened just then to the schoolma'am's lips, so that she could not finish the sentence.
FIRST AID TO CUPID
The floor manager had just called out that it was "ladies' choice," and Happy Jack, his eyes glued in rapturous apprehension upon the thin, expressionless face of Annie Pilgreen, backed diffidently into a corner. He hoped and he feared that she would discover him and lead him out to dance; she had done that once, at the Labor Day ball, and he had not slept soundly for several nights after.
Someone laid proprietary hand upon his cinnamon-brown coat sleeve, and he jumped and blushed; it was only the schoolma'am, however, smiling up at him ingratiatingly in a manner wholly bewildering to a simple minded fellow like Happy Jack. She led him into another corner, plumped gracefully and with much decision down upon a bench, drew her skirts aside to make room for him and announced that she was tired and wanted a nice long talk with him. Happy Jack, sending a troubled glance after Annie, who was leading Joe Meeker out to dance, sighed a bit and sat down obediently—and thereby walked straight into the loop which the schoolma'am had spread for his unwary feet.
The schoolma'am was sitting out an astonishing number of dances—for a girl who could dance from dark to dawn and never turn a hair—and the women were wondering why. If she had sat them out with Weary Davidson they would have smiled knowingly and thought no more of it; but she did not. For every dance she had a different companion, and in every case it ended in that particular young man looking rather scared and unhappy. After five minutes of low-toned monologue on the part of the schoolma'am, Happy Jack went the way of his predecessors and also became scared and unhappy.
"Aw, say! Miss Satterly, I can't act," he protested in a panic.
"Oh, yes, you could," declared the schoolma'am, with sweet assurance, "if you only thought so."
"Aw, I couldn't get up before a crowd and say a piece, not if—"
"I'm not sure I want you to. There are other things to an entertainment besides reciting things. I only want you to promise that you will help me out. You will, won't you?" The schoolma'am's eyes, besides being pretty, were often disconcertingly direct in their gaze.
Happy Jack wriggled and looked toward the door, which suddenly seemed a very long way off. "I—I've got to go up to the Falls, along about Christmas," he stuttered feebly, avoiding her eyes. "I—I can't get off any other time, and I've—I've got a tooth—"
"You're the fifth Flying-U man who has 'a tooth,'" the schoolma'am interrupted impatiently. "A dentist ought to locate in Dry Lake; from what I have heard confidentially to-night, there's a fortune to be made off the teeth of the Happy Family alone."
Every drop of blood in Happy's body seemed to stand then in his face. "I—I'll pull the curtain for yuh," he volunteered, meekly.
"You're the seventh applicant for that place." The schoolma'am was crushingly calm. "Every fellow I've spoken to has evinced a morbid craving for curtain-pulling."
Happy Jack crumpled under her sarcasm and perspired, and tried to think of something, with his brain quite paralyzed and useless.
The schoolma'am continued inexorably; plainly, her brain was not paralyzed. "I've promised the neighborhood that I would give a Christmas tree and entertainment—and when a school-teacher promises anything to a neighborhood, nothing short of death or smallpox will be accepted as an excuse for failing to keep the promise; and I've seven tongue-tied kids to work with!" (The schoolma'am was only spasmodically given to irreproachable English.) "Of course, I relied upon my friends to help me out. But when I come to calling the roll, I—I don't seem to have any friends." The schoolma'am was twirling the Montana sapphire ring which Weary had given her last spring, and her voice was trembly and made Happy Jack feel vaguely that he was a low-down cur and ought to be killed.
He swallowed twice. "Aw, yuh don't want to go and feel bad about it; I never meant—I'll do anything yuh ask me to."
"Thank you. I knew I could count upon you, Jack."
The schoolma'am recovered her spirits with a promptness that was suspicious; patted his arm and called him an awfully good fellow, which reduced Happy Jack to a state just this side imbecility. Also, she drew a little memorandum book from somewhere, and wrote Happy Jack's name in clear, convincing characters that made him shiver. He saw other names above his own on the page; quite a lot of them; seven in fact. Miss Satterly, evidently, was not quite as destitute of friends as her voice, awhile back, would lead one to believe. Happy Jack wondered.
"I haven't quite decided what we will have," she remarked briskly. "When I do, we'll all meet some evening in the school-house and talk it over. There's lots of fun getting up an entertainment; you'll like it, once you get started."
Happy did not agree with her, but he did not tell her so; he managed to contort his face into something resembling a grin, and retreated to the hotel, where he swallowed two glasses of whiskey to start his blood moving again, and then sat down and played poker disasterously until daylight made the lamps grow a sickly yellow and the air of the room seem suddenly stale and dead. But Happy never thought of blaming the schoolma'am for the eighteen dollars he lost.
Neither did he blame her for the nightmares which tormented his sleep during the week that followed or the vague uneasiness that filled his waking hour, even when he was not thinking directly of the ghost that dogged him. For wherever he went, or whatever he did, Happy Jack was conscious of the fact that his name was down on the schoolma'am's list and he was definitely committed to do anything she asked him to do, even to "speaking a piece"—which was in his eyes the acme of mental torture.
When Cal Emmett, probably thinking of Miss Satterly's little book, pensively warbled in his ear:
Is your name written there, On the page white and fair?
Happy Jack made no reply, though he suddenly felt chilly along the spinal column. It was.
"Schoolma'am wants us all to go over to the schoolhouse tonight—seven-thirty, sharp—to help make medicine over this Santa Claus round-up. Slim, she says you've got to be Santy and come down the stovepipe and give the kids fits and popcorn strung on a string. She says you've got the figure." Weary splashed into the wash basin like a startled muskrat.
The Happy Family looked at one another distressfully.
"By golly," Slim gulped, "you can just tell the schoolma'am to go plumb—" (Weary faced him suddenly, his brown hair running rivulets) "and ask the Old Man," finished Slim hurriedly. "He's fifteen pounds fatter'n I be."
"Go tell her yourself," said Weary, appeased. "I promised her you'd all be there on time, if I had to hog-tie the whole bunch and haul yuh over in the hayrack." He dried his face and hands leisurely and regarded the solemn group. "Oh, mamma! you're sure a nervy-looking bunch uh dogies. Yuh look like—"
"Maybe you'll hog-tie the whole bunch," Jack Bates observed irritably, "but if yuh do, you'll sure be late to meeting, sonny!"
The Happy Family laughed feeble acquiescence.
"I won't need to," Weary told them blandly. "You all gave the schoolma'am leave to put down your names, and its up to you to make good. If yuh haven't got nerve enough to stay in the game till the deck's shuffled yuh hadn't any right to buy a stack uh chips."
"Yeah—that's right," Cal Emmett admitted frankly, because shyness and Cal were strangers. "The Happy Family sure ought to put this thing through a-whirling. We'll give 'em vaudeville till their eyes water and their hands are plumb blistered applauding the show. Happy, you're it. You've got to do a toe dance."
Happy Jack grinned in sickly fashion and sought out his red necktie.
"Say, Weary," spoke up Jack Bates, "ain't there going to be any female girls in this opera troupe?"
"Sure. The Little Doctor's going to help run the thing, and Rena Jackson and Lea Adams are in it—and Annie Pilgreen. Her and Happy are down on the program for 'Under the Mistletoe', a tableau—the red fire, kiss-me-quick brand."
"Aw gwan!" cried Happy Jack, much distressed and not observing Weary's lowered eyelid.
His perturbed face and manner gave the Happy Family an idea. An idea, when entertained by the Happy Family, was a synonym for great mental agony on the part of the object of the thought, and great enjoyment on the part of the Family.
"That's right," Weary assured him sweetly, urged to further deceit by the manifest approval of his friends. "Annie's ready and willing to do her part, but she's afraid you haven't got the nerve to go through with it; but the schoolma'am says you'll have to anyhow, because your name's down and you told her distinct you'd do anything she asked yuh to. Annie likes yuh a heap, Happy; she said so. Only she don't like the way yuh hang back on the halter. She told me, private, that she wished yuh wasn't so bashful."
"Aw, gwan!" adjured Happy Jack again, because that was his only form of repartee.
"If I had a girl like Annie—"
"Aw, I never said I had a girl!"
"It wouldn't take me more than two minutes to convince her I wasn't as scared as I looked. You can gamble I'd go through with that living picture, and I'd sure kiss—"
"Aw, gwan! I ain't stampeding clear to salt water 'cause she said 'Boo!' at me—and I don't need no cayuse t' show me the trail to a girl's house—"
At this point, Weary succeeded in getting a strangle-hold and the discussion ended rather abruptly—as they had a way of doing in the Flying U bunk-house.
Over at the school-house that night, when Miss Satterly's little, gold watch told her it was seven-thirty, she came out of the corner where she had been whispering with the Little Doctor and faced a select, anxious-eyed audience. Even Weary was not as much at ease as he would have one believe, and for the others—they were limp and miserable.
She went straight at her subject. They all knew what they were there for, she told them, and her audience looked her unwinkingly in the eye. They did not know what they were there for, but they felt that they were prepared for the worst. Cal Emmett went mentally over the only "piece" he knew, which he thought he might be called upon to speak. It was the one beginning, according to Cal's version:
Twinkle, Twinkle little star, What in thunder are you at?
There were thirteen verses, and it was not particularly adapted to a Christmas entertainment.
The schoolma'am went on explaining. There would be tableaux, she said (whereat Happy Jack came near swallowing his tongue) and the Jarley Wax-works.
"What're them?" Slim, leaning awkwardly forward and blinking up at her, interrupted stolidly. Everyone took advantage of the break and breathed deeply.
The schoolma'am told them what were the Jarley Wax-works, and even reverted to Dickens and gave a vivid sketch of the original Mrs. Jarley. The audience finally understood that they would represent wax figures of noted characters, would stand still and let Mrs. Jarley talk about them—without the satisfaction of talking back—and that they would be wound up at the psychological moment, when they would be expected to go through a certain set of motions alleged to portray the last conscious acts of the characters they represented.
The schoolma'am sat down sidewise upon a desk, swung a neat little foot unconventionally and grew confidential, and the Happy Family knew they were in for it.
"Will Davidson" (which was Weary) "is the tallest fellow in the lot, so he must be the Japanese Dwarf and eat poisoned rice out of a chopping bowl, with a wooden spoon—the biggest we can find," she announced authoritatively, and they grinned at Weary.
"Mr. Bennett," (which was Chip) "you can assume a most murderous expression, so we'll allow you to be Captain Kidd and threaten to slay your Little Doctor with a wooden sword—if we can't get hold of a real one."
"Thanks," said Chip, with doubtful gratitude.
"Mr. Emmett, we'll ask you to be Mrs. Jarley and deliver the lectures."
When they heard that the Happy Family howled derision at Cal, who got red in the face in spite of himself. The worst was over. The victims scented fun in the thing and perked up, and the schoolma'am breathed relief, for she knew the crowd. Things would go with a swing, after this, and success was, barring accidents, a foregone conclusion.
Through all the clatter and cross-fire of jibes Happy Jack sat, nervous and distrait, in the seat nearest the door and farthest from Annie Pilgreen. The pot-bellied stove yawned red-mouthed at him, a scant three feet away. Someone coming in chilled with the nipping night air had shoveled in coal with lavish hand, so that the stove door had to be thrown open as the readiest method of keeping the stove from melting where it stood. Its body, swelling out corpulently below the iron belt, glowed red; and Happy Jack's wolf-skin overcoat was beginning to exhale a rank, animal odor. It never occurred to him that he might change his seat; he unbuttoned the coat absently and perspired.
He was waiting to see if the schoolma'am said anything about "Under the Mistletoe" with red fire—and Annie Pilgreen. If she did, Happy Jack meant to get out of the house with the least possible delay, for he knew well that no man might face the schoolma'am's direct gaze and refuse to do her bidding,
So far the Jarley Wax-works held the undivided attention of all save Happy Jack; to him there were other things more important. Even when he was informed that he must be the Chinese Giant and stand upon a coal-oil box for added height, arrayed in one of the big-flowered calico curtains which Annie Pilgreen said she could bring, he was apathetic. He would be required to swing his head slowly from side to side when wound up—very well, it looked easy enough. He would not have to say a word, and he supposed he might shut his eyes if he felt like it.
"As for the tableaux"—Happy Jack felt a prickling of the scalp and measured mentally the distance to the door—"We can arrange them later, for they will not require any rehearsing. The Wax-works we must get to work on as soon as possible. How often can you come and rehearse?"
"Every night and all day Sundays," Weary drawled.
Miss Satterly frowned him into good behavior and said twice a week would do.
Happy Jack slipped out and went home feeling like a reprieved criminal; he even tried to argue himself into the belief that Weary was only loading him and didn't mean a word he said. Still, the schoolma'am had said there would be tableaux, and it was a cinch she would tell Weary all about it—seeing they were engaged. Weary was the kind that found out things, anyway.
What worried Happy Jack most was trying to discover how the dickens Weary found out he liked Annie Pilgreen; that was a secret which Happy Jack had almost succeeded in keeping from himself, even. He would have bet money no one else suspected it—and yet here was Weary grinning and telling him he and Annie were cut out for a tableau together. Happy Jack pondered till he got a headache, and he did not come to any satisfactory conclusion with himself, even then.
The rest of the Happy Family stayed late at the school-house, and Weary and Chip discussed something enthusiastically in a corner with the Little Doctor and the schoolma'am. The Little Doctor said that something was a shame, and that it was mean, to tease a fellow as bashful as Happy Jack.
Weary urged that sometimes Cupid needed a helping hand, and that it would really be doing Happy a big favor, even if he didn't appreciate it at the time. So in the end the girls agreed and the thing was settled.
The Happy Family rode home in the crisp starlight gurgling and leaning over their saddle-horns in spasmodic fits of laughter. But when they trooped into the bunk-house they might have been deacons returning from prayer meeting so far as their decorous behavior was concerned. Happy Jack was in bed, covered to his ears and he had his face to the wall. They cast covert glances at his carroty top-knot and went silently to bed—which was contrary to habit.
At the third rehearsal, just as the Chinese Giant stepped off the coal-oil box—thereby robbing himself miraculously of two feet of stature—the schoolma'am approached him with a look in her big eyes that set him shivering. When she laid a finger mysteriously upon his arm and drew him into the corner sacred to secret consultations, the forehead of Happy Jack resembled the outside of a stone water-jar in hot weather. He knew beforehand just about what she would say. It was the tableau that had tormented his sleep and made his days a misery for the last ten days—the tableau with red fire and Annie Pilgreen.
Miss Satterly told him that she had already spoken to Annie, and that Annie was willing if Happy Jack had no objections. Happy Jack had, but he could not bring himself to mention the fact.
The schoolma'am had not quoted Annie's reply verbatim, but that was mere detail. When she had asked Annie if she would take part in a tableau with Happy Jack, Annie had dropped her pale eyelids and said: "Yes, ma'am." Still it was as much as the schoolma'am, knowing Annie, could justly expect.
Annie Pilgreen was an anaemic sort of creature with pale eyes, ash-colored hair that clung damply to her head, and a colorless complexion; her conversational powers were limited to "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" (or Ma'am if sex demanded and Annie remembered in time). But Happy Jack loved her; and when a woman loves and is loved, her existence surely is justified for all time.
Happy Jack sent a despairing glance of appeal at the Happy Family; but the Family was very much engaged, down by the stove. Cal Emmett was fanning himself with Mrs. Jarley's poppy-loaded bonnet and refreshing his halting memory of the lecture with sundry promptings from Len Adams who held the book. Chip Bennett was whittling his sword into shape and Weary was drumming a tattoo in the great wooden bowl with the spoon he used to devour poisoned rice upon the stage. The others were variously engaged; not one of them appeared conscious of the fact that Happy Jack was facing the tragedy of his bashful life.
Before he realized it, Miss Satterly had somehow managed to worm from him a promise, and after that nothing mattered. The Wax-works, the tree, the whole entertainment dissolved into a blurred background, against which he was to stand with Annie Pilgreen, for the amusement of his neighbors, who would stamp their feet and shout derisive things at him. Very likely he would be subjected to the agony of an encore, and he knew, beyond all doubt, that he would never be permitted to forget the figure he should cut; for Happy Jack knew he was as unbeautiful as a hippopotamus and as awkward. He wondered why he, of all the fellows who were to take part, should be chosen for that tableau; it seemed to him they ought to pick out someone who was at least passably good-looking and hadn't such big, red hands and such immense feet. His plodding brain revolved the mystery slowly and persistently.
When he remounted his wooden pedestal, thereby transforming himself into a Chinese Giant of wax, he looked the part. Where the other statues broke into giggles, to the detriment of their mechanical perfection, or squirmed visibly when the broken alarm clock whirred its signal against the small of their backs, Happy Jack stood immovably upright, a gigantic figure with features inhumanly stolid. The schoolma'am pointed him out as an example to the others, and pronounced him enthusiastically the best actor in the lot.
"Happy's swallowed his medicine—that's what ails him," the Japanese Dwarf whispered to Captain Kidd, and grinned.
The Captain turned his head and studied the brooding features of the giant. "He's doing some thinking," he decided. "When he gets the thing figured out, in six months or a year, and savvies it was a put-up job from the start, somebody'll have it coming."
"He can't pulverize the whole bunch, and he'll never wise up to who's the real sinner," Weary comforted himself.
"Don't you believe it. Happy doesn't think very often; when he does though, he can ring the bell—give him time enough."
"Here, you statues over there want to let up on the chin-whacking or I'll hand yuh a few with this," commanded Mrs. Jarley, and shook the stove-poker threateningly.
The Japanese Dwarf returned to his poisoned rice and Captain Kidd apologized to his victim, who was frowning reproof at him, and the rehearsal proceeded haltingly.
That night, Weary rode home beside Happy Jack and tried to lift him out of the slough of despond. But Happy refused to budge, mentally, an inch. He rode humped in the saddle like a calf in its first blizzard, and he was discouragingly unresponsive; except once, when Weary reminded him that the tableau would need no rehearsing and that it would only last a minute, anyway, and wouldn't hurt. Whereupon Happy Jack straightened and eyed him meditatively and finally growled, "Aw gwan; I betche you put her up to it, yuh darned chump."
After that Weary galloped ahead and overtook the others and told them Happy Jack was thinking and mustn't be disturbed, and that he thought it would not be fatal to anyone, though it was kinda hard on Happy.
From that night till Christmas eve, Happy Jack continued to think. It was not, however, till the night of the entertainment, when he was riding gloomily alone on his way to the school-house, that Happy Jack really felt that his brain had struck pay dirt. He took off his hat, slapped his horse affectionately over the ears with it and grinned for the first time since the Thanksgiving dance. "Yes sir," he said emphatically aloud, "I betche that's how it is, all right and I betche—"
The schoolma'am, her cheeks becomingly pink from excitement, fluttered behind the curtain for a last, flurried survey of stage properties and actors. "Isn't Johnny here, yet?" she asked of Annie Pilgreen who had just come and still bore about her a whiff of frosty, night air. Johnny was first upon the program, with a ready-made address beginning, "Kind friends, we bid you welcome on this gladsome day," and the time for its delivery was overdue.
Out beyond the curtain the Kind Friends were waxing impatient and the juvenile contingent was showing violent symptoms of descending prematurely upon the glittering little fir tree which stood in a corner next the stage. Back near the door, feet were scuffling audibly upon the bare floor and a suppressed whistle occasionally cut into the hum of subdued voices. Miss Satterly was growing nervous at the delay, and she repeated her question impatiently to Annie, who was staring at nothing very intently, as she had a fashion of doing.
"Yes, ma'am," she answered absently. Then, as an afterthought, "He's outside, talking to Happy Jack."
Annie was mistaken; Happy Jack was talking to Johnny. The schoolma'am tried to look through a frosted window.
"I do wish they'd hurry in; it's getting late, and everybody's here and waiting." She looked at her watch. The suppressed whistle back near the door was gaining volume and insistence.
"Can't we turn her loose, Girlie?" Weary came up and laid a hand caressingly upon her shoulder.
"Johnny isn't here, yet, and he's to give the address of welcome. Why must people whistle and make a fuss like that, Will?"
"They're just mad because they aren't in the show," said Weary. "Say, can't we cut out the welcome and sail in anyway? I'm getting kinda shaky, dreading it."
The schoolma'am shook her head. It would not do to leave out Johnny—and besides, country entertainments demanded the usual Address of Welcome. It is never pleasant to trifle with an unwritten law like that. She looked again at her watch and waited; the audience, being perfectly helpless, waited also.
Weary, listening to the whistling and the shuffling of feet, felt a queer, qualmy feeling in the region of his diaphragm, and he yielded to a hunger for consolation and company in his misery. He edged over to where Chip and Cal were amusing themselves by peeping at the audience from behind the tree.
"Say, how do yuh stack up, Cal?" he whispered, forlornly.
"Pretty lucky," Cal told him inattentively, and the cheerfulness of his whole aspect grieved Weary sorely. But then, he explained to himself, Cal always did have the nerve of a mule.
Weary sighed and wondered what in thunder ailed him, anyway; he was uncertain whether he was sick, or just plain scared. "Feel all right, Chip?" he pursued; anxiously.
"Sure," said Chip, with characteristic brevity. "I wonder who those silver-mounted spurs are for, there on the tree? They've been put on since this afternoon—can't yuh stretch your neck enough to read the name, Cal? They're the real thing, all right."
Weary's dejection became more pronounced. "Oh, mamma! am I the only knock-kneed son-of-a-gun in this crowd?" he murmured, and turned disconsolately away. His spine was creepy cold with stage fright; he listened to the sounds beyond the shielding curtain and shivered.
Just then Johnny and Happy Jack appeared looking rather red and guilty, and Johnny was thrust unceremoniously forward to welcome his kind friends and still the rising clamor.
Things went smoothly after that. It is true that Weary, as the Japanese Dwarf, halted the Wax-works and glared glassily at the faces staring back at him while the alarm clock buzzed unheeded against his spine. Mrs. Jarley, however, was equal to the emergency. She proceeded calmly to wind him up the second time, gave Weary an admonitory kick and whispered, "Come alive, yuh chump," and turned to the audience.
"This here Japanese Dwarf I got second-handed at a bargain sale for three-forty-nine, marked down for one week only," she explained blandly. "I got cheated like h—like I always do at them bargain sales, for it's about wore out. I guess I can make the thing work well enough to show yuh what it's meant to represent, though." She gave Weary another kick, commanded him again to "Come out of it and get busy," and the Dwarf obediently ate its allotted portion of poison. And every one applauded Weary more enthusiastically than they had the others, for they thought it was all his part. So much for justice.
"Our last selection will be a tableau entitled, 'Under the Mistletoe,'" announced the schoolma'am's clear tones. Then she took up her guitar and went down from the stage to where the Little Doctor waited with her mandolin. While the tableau was being arranged they meant to play together in lieu of a regular orchestra. The schoolma'am's brow was smooth, for the entertainment had been a success so far; and the tableau would be all right, she was sure—for Weary had charge of that. She hoped that Happy Jack would not hate it so very much, and that it would help to break the ice between him and Annie Pilgreen. So she plucked the guitar strings tentatively and began to play.
Behind the curtain, Annie Pilgreen stood simpering in her place and Happy Jack went reluctantly forward, resigned and deplorably inefficient. Weary, himself again now that his torment was over, posed him cheerfully. But Happy Jack did not get the idea. He stood, as Weary told him disgustedly, looking like a hitching-post. Weary labored with him desperately, his ear strained to keep in touch with the music which would, at the proper time, die to a murmur which would be a signal for the red fire and the tableau. Already the lamps were being turned low, out there beyond the curtain.
Though it was primarily a scheme of torture for Happy Jack, Weary was anxious that it should be technically perfect. He became impatient. "Say, don't stand there like a kink-necked horse, Happy!" he implored under his breath. "Ain't there any joints in your arms?"
"I ain't never practised it," Happy Jack protested in a hoarse whisper. "I never even seen a tableau in my life, even. If somebody'd show me once, so's I could get the hang of it—"
"Oh, mamma! you're a peach, all right. Here, give me that sage brush! Now, watch. We haven't got all night to make medicine over it. See? Yuh want to hold it over her head and kinda bend down, like yuh were daring yourself to kiss—"
Happy Jack backed off to get the effect; incidentally, he took the curtain back with him; also incidentally—, Johnny dropped a match into the red fire, which glowed beautifully. Weary caught his breath, but he was game and never moved any eyelash.
The red glow faded and left an abominable smell behind it, and some merciful hand drew the curtain—but it was not the hand of Happy Jack. He had gone out through the window and was crouching beneath it drinking in greedily the hand-clapping and the stamping of feet and the whistling, with occasional shouts of mirth which he recognized as coming from the rest of the Happy Family. It all sounded very sweet to the great, red ears of Happy Jack.
When the clatter showed signs of abatement he stole away to where his horse was tied, his sorrel coat gleaming with frost sparkles in the moonlight. "It's you and me to hit the trail, Spider," he croaked to the horse, and with his bare hand scraped the frost from the saddle.
A tall figure crept up from behind and grappled with him. Spider danced away as far as the rope would permit and snorted, and two struggling forms squirmed away from his untrustworthy heels.
"Aw, leggo!" cried Happy Jack when he could breathe again.
"I won't. You've got to come back and square yourself with Annie. How do yuh reckon she's feeling at the trick yuh played on her, yuh lop-eared—"
Happy Jack jerked loose and stood grinning in the moonlight. "Aw, gwan. Annie knowed I was goin' to do it," he retorted, loftily. "Annie and me's engaged." He got into the saddle and rode off, shouting back taunts.
Weary stood bareheaded in the cold and stared after him blankly.
WHEN THE COOK FELL ILL
It was four o'clock, and there was consternation in the round-up camp of the Flying U; when one eats breakfast before dawn—July dawn at that—covers thirty miles of rough country before eleven o'clock dinner and as many more after, supper seems, for the time being, the most important thing in the life of a cowboy.
Men stood about in various dejected attitudes, their thumbs tucked inside their chap-belts, blank helplessness writ large upon their perturbed countenances—they were the aliens, hired but to make a full crew during round-up. Long-legged fellows with spurs a-jingle hurried in and out of the cook-tent, colliding often, shouting futile questions, commands and maledictions—they were the Happy Family: loyal, first and last to the Flying U, feeling a certain degree of proprietorship and a good deal of responsibility.
Happy Jack was fanning an incipient blaze in the sheet-iron stove with his hat, his face red and gloomy at the prospect of having to satisfy fifteen outdoor appetites with his amateur attempts at cooking. Behind the stove, writhing bulkily upon a hastily unrolled bed, lay Patsy, groaning most pitiably.
"What the devil's the matter with that hot water?" Cal Emmett yelled at Happy Jack from the bedside, where he was kneeling sympathetically.
Happy Jack removed his somber gaze from the licking tongue of flame which showed in the stove-front. "Fire ain't going good, yet," he said in a matter-of-fact tone which contrasted sharply with Cal's excitement. "Teakettle's dry, too. I sent a man to the crick for a bucket uh water; he'll be back in a minute."
"Well, move! If it was you tied in a knot with cramp, yuh wouldn't take it so serene."
"Aw, gwan. I got troubles enough, cooking chuck for this here layout. I got to have some help—and lots of it. Patsy ain't got enough stuff cooked up to feed a jack-rabbit. Somebody's got to mosey in here and peel the spuds."
"That's your funeral," said Cal, unfeelingly.
Chip stuck his head under the lifted tent-flap. "Say, I can't find that cussed Three-H bottle," he complained. "What went with it, Cal?"
"Ask Slim; he had it last. Ain't Shorty here, yet?" Cal turned again to Patsy, whose outcries were not nice to listen to, "Stay with it, old-timer; we'll have something hot to pour down yuh in a minute."
Patsy replied, but pain made him incoherent. Cal caught the word "poison", and then "corn"; the rest of the sentence was merely a succession of groans.
The face of Cal lengthened perceptibly. He got up and went out to where the others were wrangling with Slim over the missing bottle of liniment.
"I guess the old boy's up against it good and plenty," he announced gravely. "He says he's poisoned; he says it was the corn."
"Well he had it coming to him," declared Jack Pates. "He's stuck that darned canned corn under our noses every meal since round-up started. He—"
"Oh, shut up," snarled Cal. "I guess it won't be so funny if he cashes in on the strength of it. I've known two or three fellows that was laid out cold with tin-can poison. It's sure fierce."
The Happy Family shifted uneasily before the impending tragedy, and their faces paled a little; for nearly every man of the range dreads ptomaine poisoning more than the bite of a rattler. One can kill a rattler, and one is always warned of its presence; but one never can tell what dire suffering may lurk beneath the gay labels of canned goods. But since one must eat, and since canned vegetables are far and away better than no vegetables at all, the Happy Family ate and took their chance—only they did not eat canned corn, and they had discussed the matter profanely and often with Patsy.
Patsy was a slave of precedent. Many seasons had he cooked beneath a round-up tent, and never had he stocked the mess-wagon for a long trip and left canned corn off the list. It was good to his palate and it was easy to prepare, and no argument could wean him from imperturbably opening can after can, eating plentifully of it himself and throwing the rest to feed the gophers.
"Ain't there anything to give him?" asked Jack, relenting. "That Three-H would fix him up all right—"
"Dig it up, then," snapped Cal. "There's sure something got to be done, or we'll have a dead cook on our hands."
"Not even a drop uh whisky in camp!" mourned Weary. "Slim, you ought to be killed for getting away with that liniment."
Slim was too downhearted to resent the tone. "By golly, I can't think what I done with it after I used it on Banjo. Seems like I stood it on that rock—"
"Oh, hell!" snorted Cal. "That's forty miles back."
"Say, it's sure a fright!" sympathized Jack Bates as a muffled shriek came through the cloth wall of the tent. "What's good for tincaneetis, I wonder?"
"A rattling good doctor," retorted Chip, throwing things recklessly about, still searching. "There goes the damn butter—pick it up, Cal."
"If old Dock was sober, he could do something," suggested Weary. "I guess I'd better go after him; what do yuh think?"
"He could send out some stuff—if he was sober enough; he's sure wise on medicine."
Weary made him a cigarette. "Well, it's me for Dry Lake," he said, crisply. "I reckon Patsy can hang on till I get back; can poison doesn't do the business inside several hours, and he hasn't been sick long. He was all right when Happy Jack hit camp about two o'clock. I'll be back by dark—I'll ride Glory." He swung up on the nearest horse, which happened to be Chip's and raced out to the saddle bunch a quarter of a mile away. The Happy Family watched him go and called after him, urging him unnecessarily to speed.
Weary did not waste time having the bunch corralled but rode in among the horses, his rope down and ready for business. Glory stared curiously, tossed his crimpled, silver mane, dodged a second too late and found himself caught.
It was unusual, this interruption just when he was busy cropping sweet grasses and taking his ease, but he supposed there was some good reason for it; at any rate he submitted quietly to being saddled and merely nipped Weary's shoulder once and struck out twice with an ivory-white, daintily rounded hoof—and Weary was grateful for the docile mood he showed.
He mounted hurriedly without a word of praise or condemnation, and his silence was to Glory more unusual than being roped and saddled on the range. He seemed to understand that the stress was great, and fairly bolted up the long, western slope of the creek bottom straight toward the slant of the sun.
For two miles he kept the pace unbroken, though the way was not of the smoothest and there was no trail to follow. Straight away to the west, with fifteen miles of hills and coulees between, lay Dry Lake; and in Dry Lake lived the one man in the country who might save Patsy.
"Old Dock" was a land-mark among old-timers. The oldest pioneer found Dock before him among the Indians and buffalo that ran riot over the wind-brushed prairie where now the nation's beef feeds quietly. Why he was there no man could tell; he was a fresh-faced young Frenchman with much knowledge of medicine and many theories, and a reticence un-French. From the Indians he learned to use strange herbs that healed almost magically the ills of man; from the rough out-croppings of civilization he learned to swallow vile whiskey in great gulps, and to thirst always for more.
So he grew old while the West was yet young, until Dry Lake, which grew up around him, could not remember him as any but a white-bearded, stooped, shuffling old man who spoke a queer jargon and was always just getting drunk or sober. When he was sober his medicines never failed to cure; when he was drunk he could not be induced to prescribe, so that men trusted his wisdom at all times and tolerated his infirmities, and looked upon him with amused proprietorship.
When Weary galloped up the trail which, because a few habitations are strewn with fine contempt of regularity upon either side, is called by courtesy a street, his eyes sought impatiently for the familiar, patriarchal figure of Old Dock. He felt that minutes were worth much and that if he would save Patsy he must cut out all superfluities, so he resolutely declined to remember that cold, foamy beer refreshes one amazingly after a long, hot ride in the dust and the wind.
Upon the porch of Rusty Brown's place men were gathered, and it was evident even at a distance that they were mightily amused. Weary headed for the spot and stopped beside the hitching pole. Old Dock stood in the center of the group and his bent old figure was trembling with rage. With both hands he waved aloft his coat, on which was plastered a sheet of "tangle-foot" fly-paper.
"Das wass de mean treeck!" he was shouting. "I don'd do de harm wis no mans. I tend mine business, I buy me mine clothes. De mans wass do dees treeck, he buy me new clothes—you bet you! Dass wass de mean—"
"Say, Dock," broke in Weary, towering over him, "you dig up some dope for tin-can poison, and do it quick. Patsy's took bad."
Old Dock looked up at him and shook his shaggy, white beard. "Das wass de mean treeck," he repeated, waving the coat at Weary. "You see dass? Mine coat, she ruint; dass was new coat!"
"All right—I'll take your word for it, Dock. Tell me what's good for tin—"
"Aw, I knows you fellers. You t'inke Ole Dock, she Dock, she don'd know nothings! You t'ink—"
Weary sighed and turned to the crowd. "Which end of a jag is this?" he wanted to know. "I've got to get some uh that dope-wisdom out uh him, somehow. Patsy's a goner, sure, if I don't connect with some medicine."
The men crowded close and asked questions which Weary felt bound to answer; everyone knew Patsy, who was almost as much a part of Dry Lake scenery as was Old Dock, and it was gratifying to a Flying-U man to see the sympathy in their faces. But Patsy needed something more potent than sympathy, and the minutes were passing.
Old Dock still discoursed whimperingly upon the subject of his ruined coat and the meanness of mankind, and there was no weaning his interest for a moment, try as Weary would. And fifteen miles away in a picturesque creek-bottom a man lay dying in great pain for want of one little part of the wisdom stored uselessly away in the brain of this drunken, doddering old man.
Weary's gloved hand dropped in despair from Old Dock's bent shoulder. "Damn a drunkard!" he said bitterly, and got into the saddle. "Rusty, I'll want to borrow that calico cayuse uh yours. Have him saddled up right away, will yuh? I'll be back in a little bit."
He jerked his hat down to his eyebrows and struck Glory with the quirt; but the trail he took was strange to Glory and he felt impelled to stop and argue—as only Glory could argue—with his master. Minutes passed tumultuously, with nothing accomplished save some weird hoof-prints in the sod. Eventually, however, Glory gave over trying to stand upon his head and his hind feet at one and the same instant, and permitted himself to be guided toward a certain tiny, low-eaved cabin in a meadow just over the hill from the town.
Weary was not by nature given to burglary, but he wrenched open the door of the cabin and went in with not a whisper of conscience to say him nay. It was close and ill-smelling and very dirty inside, but after the first whiff Weary did not notice it. He went over and stopped before a little, old-fashioned chest; it was padlocked, so he left that as a last resort and searched elsewhere for what he wanted—medicine. Under the bed he found a flat, black case, such as old-fashioned doctors carried. He drew it out and examined if critically. This, also, was locked, but he shook it tentatively and heard the faintest possible jingle inside.
"Bottles," he said briefly, and grinned satisfaction. Something brushed against his hat and he looked up into a very dusty bunch of herbs. "You too," he told them, breaking the string with one yank. "For all I know, yuh might stand ace-high in this game. Lord! if I could trade brains with the old devil, just for to-night!"
He took a last look around, decided that he had found all he wanted, and went out and pulled the door shut. Then he tied the black medicine case to the saddle in a way that would give it the least jar, stuffed the bunch of dried herbs into his pocket and mounted for the homeward race. As he did so the sun threw a red beam into his eyes as though reminding him of the passing hours, and ducked behind the ridge which bounds Lonesome Prairie on the east.
The afterglow filled sky and earth with a soft, departing radiance when he stopped again in front of the saloon. Old Doc was still gesticulating wildly, and the sheet of fly-paper still clung to the back of his coat. The crowd had thinned somewhat and displayed less interest; otherwise the situation had not changed, except that a pinto pony stood meekly, with head drooping, at the hitching-pole.
"There's your horse," Rusty Brown called to Weary. "Yours played out?"
"Not on your life," Weary denied proudly. "When yuh see Glory played out, you'll see him with four feet in the air."
"I seen him that way half an hour ago, all right," bantered Bert Rogers.
Weary passed over the joke. "Mamma! Has it been that long?" he cried uneasily. "I've got to be moving some. Here, Dock, you put on that coat—and never mind the label; it's got to go—and so have you."
"Aw, he's no good to yuh, Weary," they protested. "He's too drunk to tell chloroform from dried apricots."
"That'll be all right," Weary assured them confidently. "I guess he'll be some sober by the time we hit camp. I went and dug up his dope-box, so he can get right to work when he arrives. Send him out here."
"Say, he can't never top off Powderface, Weary. I thought yuh was going to ride him yourself. It's plumb wicked to put that old centurion on him. He wouldn't be able to stay with him a mile."
"That's a heap farther than he could get with Glory," said Weary, unmoved. "Yuh don't seem to realize that Patsy's just next thing to a dead man, and Dock has got the name of what'll cure him sloshing around amongst all that whiskey in his head. I can't wait for him to sober up—I'm just plumb obliged to take him along, jag and all. Come on, Dock; this is a lovely evening for a ride."
Dock objected emphatically with head, arms, legs and much mixed dialect. But Weary climbed down and, with the help of Bert Rogers, carried him bodily and lifted him into the saddle. When the pinto began to offer some objections, strong hands seized his bridle and held him angrily submissive.
"He'll tumble off, sure as yuh live," predicted Bert; but Weary never did things by halves; he shook his head and untied his coiled rope.
"By the Lord! I hate to see a man ride into town and pack off the only heirloom we got," complained Rusty Brown. "Dock's been handed down from generation to Genesis, and there ain't hardly a scratch on him. If yuh don't bring him back in good order Weary Davidson, there'll be things doing."
Weary looked up from taking the last half-hitch around the saddle horn. "Yuh needn't worry," he said. "This medical monstrosity is more valuable to me than he is to you, right now. I'll handle him careful."
"Das wass de mean treeck!" cried Dock, for all the world like a parrot.
"It sure is, old boy," assented Weary cheerfully, and tied the pinto's bridle-reins into a hard knot at the end. With the reins in his hand he mounted Glory. "Your pinto'll lead, won't he?" he asked Rusty then. It was like Weary to take a thing for granted first, and ask questions about it afterward.
"Maybe he will—he never did, so far," grinned Rusty. "It's plumb insulting to a self-respecting cow-pony to make a pack-horse out uh him. I wouldn't be none surprised if yuh heard his views on the subjects before yuh git there."
"It's an honor to pack heirlooms," retorted Weary. "So-long, boys."
Old Dock made a last, futile effort to free himself and then settled down in the saddle and eyed the world sullenly from under frost-white eyebrows heavy as a military mustache. He did not at that time look particularly patriarchal; more nearly he resembled a humbled, entrapped Santa Claus.
They started off quite tamely. The pinto leaned far back upon the bridle-reins and trotted with stiff, reluctant legs that did not promise speed; but still h went, and Weary drew a relieved breath. His arm was like to ache frightfully before they covered a quarter of the fifteen miles, but he did not mind that much; besides, he guessed shrewdly that the pinto would travel better once they were well out of town.
The soft, warm dusk of a July evening crept over the land and a few stars winked at them facetiously. Over by the reedy creek, frogs cr-ek-ek-ekked in a tuneless medley and night-hawks flapped silently through the still air, swooping suddenly with a queer, whooing rush like wind blowing through a cavern. Familiar sounds they were to Weary—so familiar that he scarce heard them; though he would have felt a vague, uneasy sense of something lost had they stilled unexpectedly. Out in the lane which leads to the open range-land between wide reaches of rank, blue-joint meadows, a new sound met them—the faint, insistent humming of millions of mosquitoes. Weary dug Glory with his spurs and came near having his arm jerked from its socket before he could pull him in again. He swore a little and swung round in the saddle.
"Can't yuh dig a little speed into that cayuse with your heels, Dock?" he cried to the resentful heirloom. "We're going to be naturally chewed up if we don't fan the breeze along here."
"Ah don'd care—das wass de mean treeck!" growled Dock into his beard.
Weary opened his mouth, came near swallowing a dozen mosquitoes alive, and closed it again. What would it profit him to argue with a drunken man? He slowed till the pinto, still moving with stiff, reluctant knees, came alongside, and struck him sharply with his quirt; the pinto sidled and Dock lurched over as far as Weary's rope would permit.
"Come along, then!" admonished Weary, under his breath.
The pinto snorted and ran backward until Weary wished he had been content with the pace of a snail. Then the mosquitoes swooped down upon them in a cloud and Glory struck out, fighting and kicking viciously. Presently Weary found himself with part of the pinto's bridle-rein in his hand, and the memory of a pale object disappearing into the darkness ahead.
For the time being he was wholly occupied with his own horse; but when Glory was minded to go straight ahead instead of in a circle, he gave thought to his mission and thanked the Lord that Dock was headed in the right direction. He gave chase joyfully; for every mile covered in that fleet fashion meant an added chance for Patsy's life. Even the mosquitoes found themselves hopelessly out of the race and beat up harmlessly in the rear. So he galloped steadily upon the homeward trail; and a new discomfort forced itself upon his consciousness—the discomfort of swift riding while a sharp-cornered medicine-case of generous proportions thumped regularly against his leg. At first he did not mind it so much, but after ten minutes of riding so, the thing grew monotonously painful and disquieting to the nerves.
Five miles from the town he sighted the pinto; it was just disappearing up a coulee which led nowhere—much less to camp. Weary's self-congratulatory mood changed to impatience; he followed after. Two miles, and he reached the unclimbable head of the coulee—and no pinto. He pulled up and gazed incredulously at the blank, sandstone walls; searched long for some hidden pathway to the top and gave it up.
He rode back slowly under the stars, a much disheartened Weary. He thought of Patsy's agony and gritted his teeth at his own impotence. After awhile he thought of Old Dock lashed to the pinto's saddle, and his conscience awoke and badgered him unmercifully for the thing he had done and the risk he had taken with one man's life that he might save the life of another.
Down near the mouth of the coulee he came upon a cattle trail winding up toward the stars. For the lack of a better clue he turned into it and urged Glory faster than was wise if he would save the strength of his horse; but Glory was game as long as he could stand, and took the hill at a lope with never a protest against the pace.
Up on the top the prairie stretched mysteriously away to the sky-line, with no sound to mar the broody silence, and with never a movement to disturb the deep sleep of the grass-land. All day had the hills been buffeted by a sweeping West wind; but the breeze had dropped with the sun, as though tired with roistering and slept without so much as a dream-puff to shake the dew from the grasses.
Weary stopped to wind his horse and to listen, but not a hoof-beat came to guide him in his search. He leaned and shifted the medicine case a bit to ease his bruised leg, and wished he might unlock the healing mysteries and the magic stored within. It seemed to him a cruel world and unjust that knowledge must be gleaned slowly, laboriously, while men died miserably for want of it. Worse, that men who had gleaned should be permitted to smother such precious knowledge in the stupefying fumes of whiskey.
If he could only have appropriated Dock's brain along with his medicines, he might have been in camp by now, ministering to Patsy before it was too late to do anything. Without a doubt the boys were scanning anxiously the ridge, confident that he would not fail them though impatient for his coming. And here he sat helplessly upon a hilltop under the stars, many miles from camp, with much medicine just under his knee and a pocket crammed with an unknown, healing herb, as useless after all his effort as he had been in camp when they could not find the Three-H liniment.
Glory turned his head and regarded him gravely out of eyes near human in their questioning, and Weary laid caressing hand upon his silvery mane, grateful for the sense of companionship which it gave.
"You're sure a wise little nag." he said wistfully, and his voice sounded strange in the great silence. "Maybe you can find 'em—and it you can, I'll sure be grateful; you can paw the stars out uh high heaven and I won't take my quirt off my saddle-horn; hope I may die if I do!"
Glory stamped one white hoof and pointed both ears straight forward, threw up his head and whinnied a shrill question into the night. Weary hopefully urged him with his knees. Glory challenged once again and struck out eagerly, galloping lightly in spite of the miles he had covered. Far back on the bench-land came faint answer to his call, and Weary laughed from sheer relief. By the stars the night was yet young, and he grew hopeful—almost complacent.
Glory planted both forefeet deep in the prairie sod and skidded on the brink of a deep cut-bank. It was a close shave, such as comes often to those who ride the range by night. Weary looked down into blackness and then across into gloom. The place was too deep and sheer to ride into, and too wide to jump; clearly, they must go around it.
Going around a gulley is not always the simple thing it sounds, especially when one is not sure as to the direction it takes. To find the head under such conditions requires time.
Weary thought he knew the place and turned north secure in the belief that the gulley ran south into the coulee he had that evening fruitlessly explored. As a matter of fact it opened into a coulee north of them, and in that direction it grew always deeper and more impassable even by daylight.
On a dark night, with only the stars to guide one and to accentuate the darkness, such a discovery brings with it confusion of locality. Weary drew up when he could go no farther without plunging headlong into blackness, and mentally sketched a map of that particular portion of the globe and tried to find in it a place where the gulch might consistently lie. After a minute he gave over the attempt and admitted to himself that, according to his mental map, it could not consistently lie anywhere at all. Even Glory seemed to have lost interest in the quest and stood listlessly with his head down. His attitude irritated Weary very much.
"Yuh damn', taffy colored cayuse!" he said fretfully. "This is as much your funeral as mine—seeing yuh started out all so brisk to find that pinto. Do yah suppose yuh could find a horse if he was staked ten feet in front of your nose? Chances are, yuh couldn't. I reckon you'd have trouble finding your way around the little pasture at the ranch—unless the sun shone real bright and yuh had somebody to lead yuh!"
This was manifestly unjust and it was not like Weary; but this night's mission was getting on his nerves. He leaned and shifted the medicine-case again, and felt ruefully of his bruised leg. That also was getting upon his nerves.
"Oh, Mamma!" he muttered disgustedly. "This is sure a sarcastic layout; dope enough here to cure all the sickness in Montana—if a fellow knew enough to use it—battering a hole in my leg you could throw a yearling calf into, and me wandering wild over the hills like a locoed sheepherder! Glory, you get a move on yuh, you knock-kneed, buzzard-headed—" He subsided into incoherent grumbling and rode back whence he came, up the gully's brim.
When the night was far gone and the slant of the Great Dipper told him that day-dawn was near, he heard a horse nicker wistfully, away to the right. Wheeling sharply, his spurs raking the roughened sides of Glory, he rode recklessly toward the sound, not daring to hope that it might be the pinto and yet holding his mind back from despair.
When he was near the place—so near that he could see a dim, formless shape outlined against the sky-line,—Glory stumbled over a sunken rock and fell heavily upon his knees. When he picked himself up he hobbled and Weary cursed him unpityingly.
When, limping painfully, Glory came up with the object, the heart of Weary rose up and stuck in his throat; for the object was a pinto horse and above it bulked the squat figure of an irate old man.
"Hello, Dock," greeted Weary. "How do yuh stack up?"
"Mon Dieu, Weary Davitson, I feex yous plandy. What for do you dees t'ing? I not do de harrm wis you. I not got de mooney wort' all dees troubles what you makes. Dees horse, she lak for keel me also. She buck, en keeck, en roon—mon Dieu, I not like dees t'ing."
"Sober, by thunder!" ejaculated Weary in an ecstatic half-whisper. "Dock, you've got a chance to make a record for yourself to-night—if we ain't too late," he added bodefully. "Do yuh know where we're headed for?"
"I t'ink for de devil," retorted Old Dock peevishly.
"No sir, we aren't. We're going straight to camp, and you're going to save old Patsy—you like Patsy, you know; many's the time you've tanked up together and then fell on each other's necks and wept because the good old times won't come again. He got poisoned on canned corn; the Lord send he ain't too dead for you to cure him. Come on—we better hit the breeze. We've lost a heap uh time."
"I not like dees rope; she not comforte. I have ride de bad horse when you wass in cradle."
Weary got down and went over to him. "All right, I'll unwind yuh. When we started, yuh know, yuh couldn't uh rode a rocking chair. I was plumb obliged to tie yuh on. Think we'll be in time to help Patsy? He was taken sick about four o'clock."
Old Dock waited till he was untied and the remnant of bridle-rein was placed in his hand, before he answered ironically: "I not do de mageec, mon cher Weary. I mos' have de medicine or I can do nottings, I not wave de fingaire an' say de vord."
"That's all right—I've got the whole works. I broke into your shack and made a clean haul uh dope. And I want to tell yuh that for a doctor you've got blame poor ventilation to your house. But I found the medicine."
"Mon Dieu!" was the astonished comment, and after that they rode in silence and such haste as Glory's lameness would permit.
The first beams of the sun were touching redly the hilltops and the birds were singing from swaying weeds when they rode down the last slope into the valley where camped the Flying-U.
The night-hawk had driven the horses into the rope-corral and men were inside watching, with spread loop, for a chance to throw. Happy Jack, with the cook's apron tied tightly around his lank middle, stood despondently in the doorway of the mess-tent and said no word as they approached. In his silence—in his very presence there—Weary read disaster.
"I guess we're too late," he told Dock, in hushed tones; for the minute he hated the white-bearded old man whose drunkenness had cost the Flying-U so dear. He slipped wearily from the saddle and let the reins drop to the ground. Happy Jack still eyed them silently.
"Well?" asked Weary, when his nerves would bear no more.
"When I git sick," said Happy Jack, his voice heavy with reproach, "I'll send you for help—if I want to die."
"Is he dead?" questioned Weary, in hopeless fashion.
"Well," said Happy Jack deliberately, "no, he ain't dead yet—but it's no thanks to you. Was it poker, or billiards? and who won?"
Weary looked at him dully a moment before he comprehended. He had not had any supper or any deep, and he had ridden many miles in the long hours he had been away. He walked, with a pronounced limp on the leg which had been next the medicine-case, to where Dock stood leaning shakily against the pinto.
"Maybe we're in time, after all," he said slowly. "Here's some kind uh dried stuff I got off the ceiling; I thought maybe yuh might need it—you're great on Indian weeds." He pulled a crumpled, faintly aromatic bundle of herbs from his pocket.
Dock took it and sniffed disgustedly, and dropped the herbs contemptuously to the ground. "Dat not wort' notting—she what you call—de—catneep." He smiled sourly.
Weary cast a furtive glance at Happy Jack, and hoped he had not overheard. Catnip! Still, how could he be expected to know what the blamed stuff was? He untied the black medicine-case and brought it and put it at the feet of Old Dock. "Well, here's the joker, anyhow," he said. "It like to wore a hole clear through my leg, but I was careful and I don't believe any uh the bottles are busted."
Dock looked at it and sat heavily down upon a box. He looked at the case queerly, then lifted his shaggy head to gaze up at Weary. And behind the bleared gravity of his eyes was something very like a twinkle. "Dis, she not cure seek mans, neider. She—" He pressed a tiny spring which Weary had not discovered and laid the case open upon the ground. "You see?" he said plaintively. "She not good for Patsy—she tree-dossen can-openaire."
Weary stared blankly. Happy Jack came up, looked and doubled convulsively. Can-openers! Three dozen of them. Old Dock was explaining in his best English, and he was courteously refraining from the faintest smile.
"Dey de new, bettaire kind. I send for dem, I t'ink maybe I sell. I put her in de grip—so—I carry dem all togedder. My mediceen, she in de beeg ches'."
Weary had sat down and his head was dropped dejectedly into his hands. He had bungled the whole thing, after all. "Well," he said apathetically. "The chest was locked; I never opened it."
Old Dock nodded his head gravely. "She lock," he assented, gently. "She mooch mediceen—she wort' mooch mooney. De key, she in mine pocket—" "Oh, I don't give a damn where the key is—now," flared Weary. "I guess Patsy'll have to cash in; that's all."
"Aw, gwan!" cried Happy Jack. "A sheepman come along just after you left, and he had a quart uh whisky. We begged it off him and give Patsy a good bit jolt. That eased him up some, and we give him another—and he got to hollerin' so loud for more uh the same, so we just set the bottle in easy reach and let him alone. He's in there now, drunk as a biled owl—the lazy old devil. I had to get supper and breakfast too—and looks like I'd have to cook dinner. Poison—hell! I betche he never had nothing but a plain old belly-ache!"
Weary got up and went to the mess-tent, lifted the flap and looked in upon Patsy lying on the flat of his back, snoring comfortably. He regarded him silently a moment, then looked over his shoulder to where Old Dock huddled over the three dozen can-openers.
"Oh, mamma!" he whispered, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
When came the famine in stock-cars on the Montana Central, and the Flying U herd had grazed for two days within five miles of Dry Lake, waiting for the promised train of empties, Chip Bennett, lately promoted foreman, felt that he had trouble a-plenty. When, short-handed as he was, two of his cowboys went a-spreeing and a-leisuring in town, with their faces turned from honest toil and their hands manipulating pairs and flushes and face-cards, rather than good "grass" ropes, he was positive that his cup was dripping trouble all round the rim.
The delinquents were not "top hands," it is true. They—the Happy Family, of which Jim Whitmore was inordinately proud—would sooner forswear their country than the Flying U. But even two transients of very ordinary ability are missed when they suddenly vanish in shipping time, and Chip, feeling keenly his responsibilities, rode disgustedly into town to reclaim the recreants or pay them off and hire others in their places.
With his temper somewhat roughened by the agent's report that no cars were yet on the way, he clanked into Rusty Brown's place after his deserters. One was laid blissfully out in the little back room, breathing loudly, dead to the world and the exigencies of life; him Chip passed up with a snort of disgust. The other was sitting in a corner, with his hat balanced precariously over his left ear, gazing superciliously upon his fellows and, incidentally, winning everything in sight. He leered up at Chip and fingered ostentatiously his three stacks of blues.
"What'n thunder do I want to go t' camp for?" he demanded, in answer to Chip's suggestion. "Forty dollars a month following your trail don't look good t' me no more. I'm four hundred dollars t' the good sence last night, and takin' all comers. Good money's just fallin' my way. I don't guess I hanker after any more night guardin', thank ye."
"Suit yourself," said Chip coldly, and turned away.
Argument was useless and never to his liking. The problem now was to find two men who could take their places, and that was not so easily solved. A golden-haired, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed young fellow in dainty silk negligee, gray trousers, and russet leather belt, with a panama hat and absurdly small tan shoes, followed him outside.
"If you're looking for men," he announced musically, "I'm open for engagements."
Chip looked down at him tolerantly. "Much obliged, but I'm not getting up a garden-party," he informed him politely, and took a step. He was not in the mood to find amusement in the situation.
The immaculate one showed some dimples that would have been distracting in the face of a woman. "And I ain't looking for a job leading cows to water," he retorted. "Yuh shouldn't judge a man by his clothes, old-timer."
"I don't—a man!" said Chip pointedly. "Run away and play. I'll tell you what, sonny, I'm not running a kindergarten. Every man I hire has got man's work to do. Wait till you're grown up; as it is, you'd last quick on round-up, and that's a fact."
"Oh! it is, eh? Say, did yuh ever hear uh old Eagle Creek Smith, of the Cross L, or Rowdy Vaughan, or a fellow up on Milk River they call Pink?"
"I'd tell a man!" Chip turned toward him again. "At least I've heard of Eagle Creek Smith, and of Pink—bronco-fighter, they say, and a little devil. Why?"
The immaculate one lifted his panama, ran his fingers through his curls, and smiled demurely. "Nothing in particular—only, I'm Pink!"
Chip stared frankly, and measured the slender figure from accurately dented hat-crown to tiny shoe-tips. "Well, yuh sure don't look it," he said bluntly, at length. "Why that elaborate disguise of respectability?"
Pink sat him down on an empty beer case in the shade of the saloon and daintily rolled a cigarette.
"Yuh see, it's like this," he began, in his soft voice. "When the Cross L moved their stock across the line Rowdy Vaughan had charge uh the outfit; and, seeing we're pretty good friends, uh course I went along. I hadn't been over there a month till I had occasion t' thump the daylights out uh one uh them bone-headed grangers that vitiates the atmosphere up there; and I put him all to the bad. So a bunch uh them gaudy buck-policemen rose up and fogged me back across the line; a man has sure got t' turn the other cheek up there, or languish in ga-ol."
Pink brought the last word out as if it did not taste good.
"I hit for the home range, which is Upper Milk River. But it was cussed lonesome with all the old bunch gone; so I sold my outfit and quit cow-punching for good. I wonder if the puncher lives that didn't sell his saddle and bed, and reform at least once in his checkered career!
"I had a fair-sized roll so I took the home trail back to Minnesota, and chewed on the fatted calf all last winter and this summer. It wasn't bad, only the girls run in bunches and are dead anxious to tie up to some male human. I dubbed around and dodged the loop long as I could stand it, and then I drifted.
"I kinda got hungry for the feel of a good horse between m' legs once more. It made me mad to see houses on every decent bed-ground, and fences so thick yuh couldn't get out and fan the breeze if yuh tried. I tell yuh straight, old-timer, last month I was home I plumb wore out mother's clothes-line roping the gate-post. For the Lord's sake, stake me to a string! and I don't give a damn how rough a one it is!"
Chip sat down on a neighboring case and regarded the dapper little figure curiously. Such words, coming from those girlishly rosy lips, with the dimples dodging in and out of his pink cheeks, had an odd effect of unreality. But Pink plainly was in earnest. His eyes behind the dancing light of harmless deviltry, were pleading and wistful as a child.
"You're it!" said Chip relievedly. "You can go right to work. Seems you're the man I've been looking for, only I will say I didn't recognize yuh on sight. We've got a heap of work ahead, and only five decent men in the outfit. It's the Flying U; and these five have worked for the outfit for years."
"I sure savvy that bunch," Pink declared sweetly. "I've heard uh the Happy Family before. Ain't you one uh them?"
Chip grinned reminiscently. "I was," he admitted, a shade of regret in his voice. "Maybe I am yet; only I went up a notch last spring. Got married, and settled down. I'm one of the firm now, so I had to reform and cut out the foolishness. Folks have got to calling the rest the Frivolous Five. They're a pretty nifty bunch, but you'll get on, all right, seeing you're not the pilgrim you look to be. If you were, I'd say: 'The Lord help you!' Got an outfit?"
"Sure. Bought one, brand new, in the Falls. It's over at the hotel now, with a haughty, buckskin-colored suitcase that fair squeals with style and newness." Pink pulled his silver belt-buckle straight and patted his pink-and-blue tie approvingly.
"Well, if you're ready, I'll get the horses these two hoboes rode in, and we'll drift. By the way, how shall I write you on the book?"
Pink stooped and with his handkerchief carefully, wiped the last speck of Dry Lake dust from his shiny toes. "Yuh won't crawfish on me, if I tell yuh?" he inquired anxiously, standing up and adjusting his belt again.
"Of course not." Chip looked his surprise at the question.
"Well, it ain't my fault, but my lawful, legal name is Percival Cadwallader Perkins."
"Percival Cad-wall-ader Perkins. Shall I get yuh something to take with it?"
Chip, with his pencil poised in air, grinned sympathetically. "It's sure a heavy load to carry," he observed solemnly. "How do you spell that second shift?"
Pink told him, spelling the word slowly, syllable by syllable. "Ain't it fierce?" he wanted to know. "My mother must have sure been frivolous and light-minded when I was born. I'm the only boy she ever had, and there was two grandfathers that wanted a kid named after 'em; they sure make a hot combination. Yuh know what Cadwallader means, in the dictionary?"
"Lord, no!" said Chip, putting away his book.
"Battle arranger," Pink told him sadly. "Now, wouldn't that jostle yuh? It's true, too; it has sure arranged a lot uh battles for me. It caused me to lick about six kids a day, and to get licked by a dozen, when I went to school. So, seeing the name was mine, and I couldn't chuck it, I went and throwed in with an ex-pugilist and learned the trade thorough. Since then things come easier. Folks don't open up the subject more'n a dozen times before they take the hint. And this summer I fell in with a ju-jutsu sharp—a college-fed Jap that sure savvied things a white man never dreams except in nightmares. I set at his feet all summer learning wisdom. I ain't afraid now to wear my name on my hatband."
"Still, I wouldn't," said Chip dryly. "Hike over and get the haughty new war-bag, and we'll hit the sod. I've got to be in camp by dinner-time."
A mile out Pink looked down at his festal garments and smiled. "I expect I'll be pickings for your Happy Family when they see me in these war-togs," he remarked.
Chip turned and regarded him meditatively for a minute. "I was just wondering," he said slowly, "if the Happy Family wouldn't be pickings for you."
Pink dimpled wickedly and said nothing.
The Happy Family were at dinner when Chip and Pink rode up and dismounted by the bed-tent. Chip and Pink went over to where the others were sitting in various places and attitudes, and the Happy Family received them, not with the nudges and winks one might justly expect, but with decorous silence.
Chip got plate, knife, fork, and spoon and started for the stove.
"Help yourself to the tools, and then come over here and fill up," he invited Pink, over his shoulder. "We don't stand on ceremony here. May look queer to you at first, but you'll get used to it."
The Happy Family pricked up its ears and looked guardedly at one another. This wasn't a chance visitor, then; he was going to work!
Weary, sitting cross-legged in the shade of a wagon-wheel looked up at Pink, fumbling shyly among the knives and forks, and with deceitful innocence he whistled absently:
Oh, tell me, pretty maiden, Are there any more at home like you?
Pink glanced at him quickly, then at the solemn faces of the others, and retreated hastily inside the tent, where was Chip; and every man of them knew the stranger had caught Weary's meaning. They smiled discreetly at their plates and said nothing.
Pink came out with heaped plate and brimming cup, and retired diffidently to the farthest bit of shade he could find, which brought him close to Cal Emmett. He sat down gingerly so as not to spill anything.
"Going to work for the outfit?" asked Cal politely.
"Yes, sir; the overseer gave me a position," answered Pink sweetly, in his soft treble. "I just came to town this morning. Is it very hard work?"
"Yeah, it sure is," said Cal plaintively, between bites. "What with taming wild broncos and trying to keep the cattle from stampeding, our shining hours are sure improved a lot. It's a hard, hard life." He sighed deeply and emptied his cup of coffee.
"I—I thought I'd like it," ventured Pink wistfully.
"It's dead safe to prognosticate yuh won't a little bit. None of us like it. I never saw a man with soul so vile that he did."
"Why don't you give it up, then, and get a position at something else?" Pink's eyes looked wide and wistful over the rim of his cup.
"Can't. We're most of us escaped desperadoes with a price on our heads." Cal shook his own lugubriously. "We're safer here than we would be anywhere else. If a posse showed up, or we got wind of one coming, there's plenty uh horses and saddles to make a getaway. We'd just pick out a drifter and split the breeze. We can keep on the dodge a long time, working on round-up, and earn a little money at the same time, so when we do have to fly we won't be dead broke."
"Oh!" Pink looked properly impressed. "If it isn't too personal—er—is there a—that is, are you——"
"An outlaw?" Cal assisted. "I sure am—and then some. I'm wanted for perjury in South Dakota, manslaughter in Texas, and bigamy in Utah. I'm all bad."
"Oh, I hope not!" Pink looked distressed. "I'm very sorry," he added simply, "and I hope the posses won't chase you."
Cal shook his head very, very gravely. "You can't most always tell," he declared gloomily. "I expect I'll have an invite to a necktie-party some day."
"I've been to necktie-parties myself." Pink brightened visibly. "I don't like them; you always get the wrong girl."
"I don't like 'em, either," agreed Cal. "I'm always afraid the wrong necktie will be mine. Were you ever lynched?"
Pink moved uneasily. "I—I don't remember that I ever was," he answered guardedly.
"I was. My gang come along and cut me down just as I was about all in. I was leading a gang——"
"Excuse me a minute," Pink interrupted hurriedly. "I think the overseer is motioning for me."
He hastened over to where Chip was standing alone, and asked if he should change his clothes and get ready to go to work.
Chip told him it wouldn't be a bad idea, and Pink, carrying his haughty suit-case and another bulky bundle, disappeared precipitately into the bed-tent.
"By golly!" spoke up Slim, "it looks good enough to eat."
"Where did yuh pluck that modest flower, Chip?" Jack Bates wanted to know.
Chip calmly sifted some tobacco in a paper. "I picked it in town," he told them. "I hired it to punch cows, and its name is—wait a minute." He put away the tobacco sack, got out his book, and turned the leaves. "Its name is Percival Cadwallader Perkins."
"Oh, mamma! Percival Cadwolloper—what?" Weary looked utterly at sea.
"Perkins," supplied Chip.
"Percival—Cad-wolloper—Perkins," Weary mused aloud. "Yuh want to double the guard to-night, Chip; that name'll sure stampede the bunch."
"He's sure a sweet young thing—mamma's precious lamb broke out uh the home corral!" said Jack Bates. "I'll bet yuh a tall, yellow-haired mamma with flowing widow's weeds'll be out here hunting him up inside a week. We got to be gentle with him, and not rub none uh the bloom uh innocence off his rosy cheek. Mamma had a little lamb, his cheeks were red and rosy. And everywhere that mamma went—er—everywhere—that mamma—went——"
"The lamb was sure to mosey," supplied Weary.
"By golly! yuh got that backward," Slim objected. "It ought uh be: Everywhere the lambie went; his mamma was sure to mosey."
The reappearance of Pink cut short the discussion. Pink as he had looked before was pretty as a poster. Pink as he reappeared would have driven a matinee crowd wild with enthusiasm. On the stage he would be in danger of being Hobsonized; in the Flying U camp the Happy Family looked at him and drew a long breath. When his back was turned, they shaded their eyes ostentatiously from the blaze of his splendor.
He still wore his panama, and the dainty pink-and-white striped silk shirt, the gray trousers, and russet-leather belt with silver buckle. But around his neck, nestling under his rounded chin, was a gorgeous rose-pink silk handkerchief, of the hue that he always wore, and that had given him the nickname of "Pink."
His white hands were hidden in a pair of wonderful silk-embroidered buckskin gauntlets. His gray trousers were tucked into number four tan riding-boots, high as to heel—so high that they looked two sizes smaller—and gorgeous as to silk-stitched tops. A shiny, new pair of silver-mounted spurs jingled from his heels.
He smiled trustfully at Chip, and leaned, with the studiously graceful pose of the stage, against a hind wheel of the mess-wagon. Then he got papers and tobacco from a pocket of the silk shirt and began to roll a cigarette. Inwardly he hoped that the act would not give him away to the Happy Family, whom he felt in honor bound to deceive, and bewailed the smoke-hunger that drove him to take the risk.
The Happy Family, however, was unsuspicious. His pink-and-white prettiness, his clothes, and the baby innocence of his dimples and his long-lashed blue eyes branded him unequivocally in their eyes as the tenderest sort of tenderfoot.
"Get onto the way he rolls 'em—backward!" murmured Weary into Cal's ear.
"If there's anything I hate," Cal remarked irrelevantly to the crowd, "it's to see a girl chewing a tutti-frutti cud—or smoking a cigarette!"
Pink looked up from under his thick lashes and opened his lips to speak, then thought better of it. The jingling of the cavvy coming in cut short the incipient banter, and Pink turned and watched intently the corralling process. To him the jangling bells were sweetest music, for which ears and heart had hungered long, and which had come to him often in dreams. His blood tingled as might a lover's when his sweetheart approaches.
"Weary, you and Cal better relieve the boys on herd," Chip called. "I'll get you a horse, P—Perkins"—he had almost said "Pink"—"and you can go along. Then to-night you'll go on guard with Cal."
"Yes, sir," said Pink, with a docility that would have amazed any who knew him well, and followed Chip out to the corral, where Cal and Weary were already inside with their ropes, among the circling mass.
Chip led out a gentle little cow-pony that could almost day-herd without a rider of any sort, and Pink bridled him before the covertly watching crew. He did not do it as quickly as he might have done, for he "played to the gallery" and deliberately fumbled the buckle and pinned one ear of the pony down flat with the head-stall.
A new saddle, stiff and unbroken, is ever a vexation unto its proud owner, and its proper adjustment requires time and much language. Pink omitted the language, so that the process took longer than it would naturally have done; but Cal and Weary, upon their mounts, made cigarettes and waited, with an air of endurance, and gave Pink much advice. Then he got somehow into the saddle and flapped elbows beside them, looking like a gorgeous-hued canary with wings a-flutter.