"Oh, sure not!" the bartender hastened to cut in. "It'd be a case uh self-defence—the way he's been makin' threats. But—"
"Maybe," hazarded Weary mildly, "you'd kinda like to see—her—a widow?"
"From all accounts," the other retorted, flushing a bit nevertheless, "If yuh make her a widow, yuh won't leave her that way long. I've heard it said you was pretty far gone, there."
Weary considered, the while he struck another match and relighted his cigarette. He had not expected to lay bare any romance in the somewhat tumultuous past of Irish. Irish had not seemed the sort of fellow who had an unhappy love affair to dream of nights; he had seemed a particularly whole-hearted young man.
"Well, yuh see," he said vaguely, "Maybe I've got over it."
The bartender regarded him fixedly and unbelievingly. "You'll have quite a contract making Spikes swallow that," he remarked drily.
"Oh, damn Spikes," murmured Weary, with the fine recklessness of Irish in his tone.
At that moment a cowboy jangled in, caught sight of Weary's back and fell upon him joyously, hailing him as Irish. Weary was very glad to see him, and listened assiduously for something that would give him a clue to the fellow's identity. In the meantime he called him "Say, Old-timer," and "Cully." It had come to be a self-instituted point of honor to play the game through without blundering. He waved his hand hospitably toward the ribbed bottle, and told the stranger to "Throw into yuh, Old-timer—it's on me." And when Old-timer straightway began doing so, Weary leaned against the bar and wiped his forehead, and wondered who the dickens the fellow could be. In Dry Lake, Irish had been—well, hilarious—and not accountable for any little peculiarities. In Sleepy Trail Weary was, perhaps he considered unfortunately, sober and therefore obliged to feel his way carefully.
"Say! yuh want to keep your eyes peeled for Spikes Weber, Irish," remarked the unknown, after two drinks. "He's pawing up the earth whenever he hears your name called. He's sure anxious to see the sod packed down nice on top uh yuh."
"So I heard; his nibs here," indicating the bartender, "has been wising me up, a lot. When's the stage due, tomorrow, Oldtimer?" Weary was getting a bit ashamed of addressing them both impartially in that manner, but it was the best he could do, not knowing the names men called them. In this instance he spoke to the bartender.
"Why, yuh going to pull out while your hide's whole?" bantered the cowboy, with the freedom which long acquaintance breeds.
"I've got business out uh town, and I want to be back time the stage pulls in."
"Well, Limpy's still holding the ribbons over them buckskins uh his, and he ain't varied five minutes in five years," responded the bartender. "So I guess yuh can look for him same old time."
Weary's eyes opened a bit wider, then drooped humorously. "Oh, all right," he murmured, as though thoroughly enlightened rather than being rather more in the dark than before. In the name of Irish he found it expedient to take another modest drink, and then excused himself with a "See yuh later, boys," and went out and mounted Glory.
Ten miles nearer the railroad—which at that was not what even a Montanan would call close—he had that day established headquarters and was holding a bunch of saddle horses pending the arrival of help. He rode out on the trail thoughtfully, a bit surprised that he had not found the situation more amusing. To be taken for Irish was a joke, and to learn thereby of Irish's little romance should be funny. But it wasn't.
Weary wondered how Irish got mixed up in a deal like that, which somehow did not seem to be in line with his character. And he wished, a bit vindictively, that this Spikes Weber could meet Irish. He rather thought that Spikes needed the chastening effects of such a meeting. Weary, while not in the least quarrelsome on his own account, was ever the staunch defender of a friend.
Just where another brown trail branched off and wandered away over a hill to the east, a woman rode out and met him face to face. She pulled up and gave a little cry that brought Weary involuntarily to a halt.
"You!" she exclaimed, in a tone that Weary felt he had no right to hear from any but his little schoolma'am. "But I knew you'd come back when you heard I—Have—have you seen Spikes, Ira?"
Weary flushed embarrassment; this was no joke. "No," he stammered, in some doubt just how to proceed. "The fact is, you've made a little mistake. I'm not—"
"Oh, you needn't go on," she interrupted, and her voice, had Weary known it better, heralded the pouring out of a woman's heart. "I know I've made a mistake, all right; you don't need to tell me that. And I suppose you want to tell me that you've got over—things; that you don't care, any more. Maybe you don't, but it'll take a lot to make me believe it. Because you did care, Ira. You cared, all right enough!" She laughed in the way that makes one very uncomfortable.
"And maybe you'll tell me that I didn't. But I did, and I do yet. I ain't ashamed to say it, if I did marry Spikes Weber just to spite you. That's all it was, and you'd have found it out if you hadn't gone off the way you did. I hate Spikes Weber; and he knows it, Ira. He knows I—care—for you, and he's making my life a hell. Oh, maybe I deserve it—but you won't— Now you've come back, you can have it out with him; and I—I almost hope you'll kill him! I do, and I don't care if it is wicked. I—I don't care for anything much, but—you." She had big, soft brown eyes, and a sweet, weak mouth, and she stopped and looked at Weary in a way that he could easily imagine would be irresistible—to a man who cared.
Weary felt that he was quite helpless. She had hurried out sentences that sealed his lips. He could not tell her now that she had made a mistake; that he was not Ira Mallory, but a perfect stranger. The only thing to do now was to carry the thing through as tactfully as possible, and get away as soon as he could. Playing he was Irish, he found, was not without its disadvantages.
"What particular brand of hell has he been making for you?" he asked her sympathetically.
"I wouldn't think, knowing Spikes as you do, you'd need to ask," she said impatiently. "The same old brand, I guess. He gets drunk, and then—I told him, right out, just after we were married, that I liked you the best, and he don't forget it; and he don't let me. He swears he'll shoot you on sight—as if that would do any good! He hates you, Ira." She laughed again unpleasantly.
Weary, sitting uneasily in the saddle looking at her, wondered if Irish really cared; or if, in Weary's place, he would have sat there so calmly and just looked at her. She was rather pretty, in a pink and white, weak way. He could easily imagine her marrying Spikes Weber for mere spite; what he could not imagine, was Irish in love with her.
It seemed almost as if she caught a glimmer of his thoughts, for she reined closer, and her teeth were digging into her lower lip. "Well, aren't you going to do anything?" she demanded desperately. "You're here, and I've told you I—care. Are you going to leave me to bear Spikes' abuse always?"
"You married him," Weary remarked mildly and a bit defensively. It seemed to him that loyalty to Irish impelled him.
She tossed her head contemptuously. "It's nice to throw that at me. I might get back at you and say you loved me. You did, you know."
"And you married Spikes; what can I do about it?"
"What—can—you—do—about it? Did you come back to ask me that?" There was a well defined, white line around her mouth, and her eyes were growing ominously bright.
Weary did not like the look of her, nor her tone. He felt, somehow, glad that it was not Irish, but himself; Irish might have felt the thrall of old times—whatever they were—and have been tempted. His eyes, also, grew ominous, but his voice was very smooth. (Irish, too, had that trait of being quietest when he was most roused.)
"I came back on business; I will confess I didn't come to see you," he said. "I'm only a bone-headed cowpuncher, but even cowpunchers can play square. They don't, as a rule step in between a man and his wife. You married Spikes, and according to your own tell, you did it to spite me. So I say again, what can I do about it?"
She looked at him dazedly.
"Uh course," he went on gently, "I won't stand to see any man abuse his wife, or bandy her name or mine around the country. If I should happen to meet up with Spikes, there'll likely be some dust raised. And if I was you, and Spikes abused me, I'd quit him cold."
"Oh, I see," she said sharply, with an exaggeration of scorn. "You have got over it, then. There's someone else. I might have known a man can't be trusted to care for the same woman long. You ran after me and acted the fool, and kept on till you made me believe you really meant all you said—"
"And you married Spikes," Weary reiterated—ungenerously, perhaps; but it was the only card he felt sure of. There was no gainsaying that fact, it seemed. She had married Spikes in a fit of pique at Irish. Still, it was not well to remind her of it too often. In the next five minutes of tumultuous recrimination, Weary had cause to remember what Shakespeare has to say about a woman scorned, and he wondered, more than ever, if Irish had really cared. The girl—even now he did not know what name to call her—was showing a strain of coarse temper; the temper that must descend to personalities and the calling of unflattering names. Weary, not being that type of male human who can retort in kind, sat helpless and speechless the while she berated him. When at last he found opportunity for closing the interview and riding on, her anger-sharpened voice followed him shrewishly afar. Weary breathed deep relief when the distance swallowed it, and lifted his gray hat to wipe his beaded forehead.
"Mamma mine!" he said fervently to Glory. "Irish was sure playing big luck when she did marry Spikes; and I don't wonder at the poor devil taking to drink. I would, too, if my little schoolma'am—"
At the ranch, he hastened to make it quite plain that he was not Ira Mallory, but merely his cousin, Will Davidson. He was quite determined to put a stop to all this annoying mixing up of identities. And as for Spikes Weber, since meeting the woman Spikes claimed from him something very like sympathy; only Weary had no mind to stand calmly and hear Irish maligned by anybody.
The next day he rode again to Sleepy Trail to meet the stage, hoping fervently that he would get some word—and that favorable—from Chip. He was thinking, just then, a great deal about his own affairs and not at all about the affairs of Irish. So that he was inside the saloon before he remembered that the bartender knew him for Irish.
The bartender nodded to him in friendly fashion, and jerked his head warningly toward a far corner where two men sat playing seven-up half-heartedly. Weary looked, saw that both were strangers, and puzzled a minute over the mysterious gesture of the bartender. It did not occur to him, just then, that one of the men might be Spikes Weber.
The man who was facing him nipped the corners of the cards idly together and glanced up; saw Weary standing there with an elbow on the bar looking at him, and pushed back his chair with an oath unmistakably warlike. Weary resettled his hat and looked mildly surprised. The bartender moved out of range and watched breathlessly.
"You —— —— ————!" swore Spikes Weber, coming truculently forward, hand to hip. He was of medium height and stockily built, with the bull neck and little, deep-set eyes that go often with a nature quarrelsome.
Weary still leaned his elbow on the bar and smiled at him tolerantly. "Feel bad anywhere?" he wanted to know, when the other was very close.
Spikes Weber, from very surprise, stopped and regarded Weary for a space before he began swearing again. His hand was still at his hip, but the gun it touched remained in his pocket. Plainly, he had not expected just this attitude.
Weary waited, smothering a yawn, until the other finished a particularly pungent paragraph. "A good jolt uh brandy 'll sometimes cure a bad case uh colic," he remarked. "Better have our friend here fix yuh up—but it'll be on you. I ain't paying for drinks just now."
Spikes snorted and began upon the pedigree and general character of Irish. Weary took his elbow off the bar, and his eyes lost their sunniness and became a hard blue, darker than was usual. It took a good deal to rouse Weary to the fighting point, and it is saying much for the tongue of Spikes that Weary was roused thoroughly.
"That'll be about enough," he said sharply, cutting short a sentence from the other. "I kinda hated to start in and take yuh all to pieces—but yuh better saw off right there, or I can't be responsible—"
A gun barrel caught the light menacingly, and Weary sprang like the pounce of a cat, wrested the gun from the hand of Spikes and rapped him smartly over the head with the barrel. "Yuh would, eh?" he snarled, and tossed the gun upon the bar, where the bartender caught it as it slid along the smooth surface and put it out of reach.
After that, chairs went spinning out of the way, and glasses jingled to the impact of a body striking the floor with much force. Came the slapping sound of hammering fists and the scuffling of booted feet, together with the hard breathing of fighting men.
Spikes, on his back, looked up into the blazing eyes he thought were the eyes of Irish and silently acknowledged defeat. But Weary would not let it go at that.
"Are yuh whipped to a finish, so that yuh don't want any more trouble with anybody?" he wanted to know.
Spikes hesitated but the fraction of a second before he growled a reluctant yes.
"Are yuh a low-down, lying sneak of a woman-fighter, that ain't got nerve enough to stand up square to a ten-year-old boy?"
Spikes acknowledged that he was. Before the impromptu catechism was ended, Spikes had acknowledged other and more humiliating things—to the delectation of the bartender, the stage driver and two or three men of leisure who were listening.
When Spikes had owned to being every mean, unknowable thing that Weary could call to mind—and his imagination was never of the barren sort—Weary generously permitted him to get upon his feet and skulk out to where his horse was tied. After that, Weary gave his unruffled attention to the stage driver and discovered the unwelcome fact that there was no letter and no telegram for one William Davidson, who looked a bit glum when he heard it.
So he, too, went out and mounted Glory and rode away to the ranch where waited the horses; and as he went he thought, for perhaps the first time in his life, some hard and unflattering things of Chip Bennett. He had never dreamed Chip would calmly overlook his needs and leave him in the lurch like this.
At the ranch, when he had unsaddled Glory and gone to the bunk-house, he discovered Irish, Pink and Happy Jack wrangling amicably over whom a certain cross-eyed girl on the train had been looking at most of the time. Since each one claimed all the glances for himself, and since there seemed no possible way of settling the dispute, they gave over the attempt gladly when Weary appeared, and wanted to know, first thing, who or what had been gouging the hide off his face.
Weary, not aware until the moment that he was wounded, answered that he had done it shaving; at which the three hooted derision and wanted to know since when he had taken to shaving his nose. Weary smiled inscrutably and began talking of something else until he had weaned them from the subject, and learned that they had bribed the stage driver to let them off at this particular ranch; for the stage driver knew Irish, and knew also that a man he had taken to be Irish was making this place his headquarters. The stage driver was one of those male gossips who know everything.
When he could conveniently do so, Weary took Irish out of hearing of the others and told him about Spikes Weber. Irish merely swore. After that, Weary told him about Spikes Weber's wife, in secret fear and with much tact, but in grim detail. Irish listened with never a word to say.
"I done what looked to me the best thing, under the circumstances," Weary apologized at the last, "and I hope I haven't mixed yuh up a bunch uh trouble. Mamma mine! she's sure on the fight, though, and she's got a large, black opinion of yuh as a constant lover. If yuh want to square yourself with her, Irish, you've got a big contract."
"I don't want to square myself," Irish retorted, grinning a bit. "I did have it bad, I admit; but when she went and got tied up to Spikes, that cured me right off. She's kinda pretty, and girls were scarce, and—oh, hell! you know how it goes with a man. I'd a married her and found out afterwards that her mind was like a little paper windmill stuck up on the gatepost with a shingle nail—only she saved me the trouble. Uh course, I was some sore over the deal for awhile; but I made up my mind long ago that Spikes was the only one in the bunch that had any sympathy coming. If he's been acting up like you say, I change the verdict: there ain't anything coming to him but a big bunch uh trouble. I'm much obliged to yuh, Weary; you done me a good turn and earnt a lot uh gratitude, which is yours for keeps. Wonder if supper ain't about due; I've the appetite of a Billy goat, if anybody should ask yuh."
At supper Irish was uncommonly silent, and did some things without thinking; such as pouring a generous stream of condensed cream into his coffee. Weary, knowing well that Irish drank his coffee without cream, watched him a bit closer than he would otherwise have done; Irish was the sort of man who does not always act by rule.
After supper Weary missed him quite suddenly, and went to the door of the bunk-house to see where he had gone. He did not see Irish, but on a hilltop, in the trail that led to Sleepy Trail, he saw a flurry of dust. Two minutes of watching saw it drift out of sight over the hill, which proved that the maker was traveling rapidly away from the ranch. Weary settled his hat down to his eyebrows and went out to find the foreman.
The foreman, down at the stable, said that Irish had borrowed a horse from him, unsacked his saddle as if he were in a hurry about something, and had pulled out on a high lope. No, he had not told the foreman where he was headed for, and the foreman knew Irish too well to ask. Yes, now Weary spoke of it, Irish did have his gun buckled on him, and he headed for Sleepy Trail.
Weary waited for no further information. He threw his saddle on a horse that he knew could get out and drift, if need came: presently he, too, was chasing a brown dust cloud over the hill toward Sleepy Trail.
That Irish had gone to find Spikes Weber, Weary was positive; that Spikes was not a man who could be trusted to fight fair, he was even more positive. Weary, however, was not afraid for Irish—he was merely a bit uneasy and a bit anxious to be on hand when came the meeting. He spurred along the trail darkening with the afterglow of a sun departed and night creeping down upon the land, and wondered whether he would be able to come up with Irish before he reached town.
At the place where the trail forked—the place where he had met the wife of Spikes, he saw from a distance another rider gallop out of the dusk and follow in the way that Irish had gone. Without other evidence than mere instinct, he knew the horseman for Spikes. When, further along, the horseman left the trail and angled away down a narrow coulee, Weary rode a bit faster. He did not know the country very well, and was not sure of where that coulee led; but he knew the nature of a man like Spikes Weber, and his uneasiness was not lulled at the sight. He meant to overtake Irish, if he could; after that he had no plan whatever.
When, however, he came to the place where Spikes had turned off. Weary turned off also and followed down the coulee; and he did not explain why, even to himself. He only hurried to overtake the other, or at least to keep him in sight.
The darkness lightened to bright starlight, with a moon not yet in its prime to throw shadows black and mysterious against the coulee sides. The coulee itself, Weary observed, was erratic in the matter of height, width and general direction. Places there were where the width dwindled until there was scant room for the cow trail his horse conscientiously followed; places there were where the walls were easy slopes to climb, and others where the rocks hung, a sheer hundred feet, above him.
One of the easy slopes came near throwing him off the trail of Spikes. He climbed the slope, and Weary would have ridden by, only that he caught a brief glimpse of something on the hilltop; something that moved, and that looked like a horseman. Puzzled but persistent, Weary turned back where the slope was easiest, and climbed also. He did not know the country well enough to tell, in that come-and-go light made uncertain by drifting clouds, just where he was or where he would bring up; he only knew instinctively that where Spikes rode, trouble rode also.
Quite suddenly at the last came further knowledge. It was when, still following, he rode along a steeply sloping ridge that narrowed perceptibly, that he looked down, down, and saw, winding brownly in the starlight, a trail that must be the trail he had left at the coulee head.
"Mamma!" he ejaculated softly, and strained eyes under his hatbrim to glimpse the figure he knew rode before. Then, looking down again, he saw a horseman galloping rapidly towards the ridge, and pulled up short when he should have done the opposite—for it was then that seconds counted.
When the second glance showed the horseman to be Irish, Weary drove in his spurs and galloped forward. Ten leaps perhaps he made, when a rifle shot came sharply ahead. He glanced down and saw horse and rider lying, a blotch of indefinable shape, in the trail. Weary drew his own gun and went on, his teeth set tight together. Now, when it was too late, he understood thoroughly the situation.
He came clattering out of the gloom to the very, point of the bluff, just where it was highest and where it crowded closest the trail a long hundred feet below. A man stood there on the very edge, with a rifle in his hands. He may have been crouching, just before, but now he was standing erect, looking fixedly down at the dark heap in the trail below, and his figure, alert yet unwatchful, was silhouetted sharply against the sky.
When Weary, gun at aim, charged furiously down upon him, he whirled, ready to give battle for his life; saw the man he supposed was lying down there dead in the trail, and started backward with a yell of pure terror. "Irish!" He toppled, threw the rifle from him in a single convulsive movement and went backward, down and down.—
Weary got off his horse and, gun still gripped firmly, walked to the edge and looked down. In his face, dimly revealed in the fitful moonlight, there was no pity but a look of baffled vengeance. Down at the foot of the bluff the shadows lay deep and hid all they held, but out in the trail something moved, rose up and stood still a moment, his face turned upward to where stood Weary.
"Are yuh hurt, Irish?" Weary called anxiously down to him.
"Never touched me," came the answer from below. "He got my horse, damn him! and I just laid still and kept cases on what he'd do next. Come on down!"
Weary was already climbing recklessly down to where the shadows reached long arms up to him. It was not safe, in that uncertain light, but Weary was used to taking chances. Irish, standing still beside the dead horse, watched and listened to the rattle of small stones slithering down, and the clink of spur chains upon the rocks.
Together the two went into the shadows and stood over a heap of something that had been a man.
"I never did kill a man," Weary remarked, touching the heap lightly with his foot. "But I sure would have, that time, if he hadn't dropped just before I cut loose on him."
Irish turned and looked at him. Standing so, one would have puzzled long to know them apart. "You've done a lot for me, Weary, this trip," he said gravely. "I'm sure obliged."