But Tresler detained him. "Just one moment, Arizona," he said, imitating the other's impressive manner. "I'd just like to say one thing to you, being a new hand around these parts myself, and that's this. You being about my size, I wonder if you could sell me a pair of pants, such as you fellows ordinarily wear?"
The cowpuncher smiled a pallid, shadowy smile, and went over to his kit-bag. He returned a moment later with a pair of new moleskin trousers and threw them on the bunk.
"You ken have them, I guess. Kind o' remembrancer fer talkin' straight to Jake. Say, that did me a power o' good."
"Thanks, but I'll pay——"
"Not on your life, mister."
"Then I'll remember your advice."
Tresler had not the smallest inclination for sleep. He was tired enough physically, but his brain was still much too active. Besides, the bunkhouse was uninviting to him as yet. The two lines of trestle-beds, with their unkempt occupants, were suggestive of—well, anything but congenial sleeping companions. The atmosphere was close and stuffy, and the yellow glimmer of the two oil-lamps, one stationed at each end of the room, gave the place a distasteful suggestion of squalor.
He was not unduly squeamish—far from it; but, be it remembered, he had only just left a world of ease and luxury, where snow-white linen and tasteful surroundings were necessary adjuncts to existence. Therefore these things came to him in the nature of a shock.
He looked at his blankets spread over the straw palliasse that disguised the loose bed-boards underneath, and this drew his attention to the mattress itself. It was well-worn and dusty, and as he moved it he felt that the straw inside was crushed to the smallest chaff. He laid it back carefully so as not to disturb the dust, and rearranged the blankets over it. Then he sat on the foot of it and pondered.
He gazed about him at the other beds. Some of the men were already sleeping, announcing the fact more or less loudly. Others were swathed in their blankets smoking in solemn silence. One was deep in the blood-curdling pages of a dime novel, straining his eyes in the fitful light of the lamps. The scene had novelty for him, but it was not altogether enthralling, so he filled his pipe and lit it, and passed out into the fresh night air. It was only ten o'clock, and he felt that a smoke and a comfortable think would be pleasant before facing the charms of his dusty couch.
The moon had not yet risen, but the starry sheen of the sky dimly outlined everything. He was gazing upon the peaceful scene of a ranch when night has spread her soft, velvety wings. There were few sounds to distract his thoughts. The air still hummed with the busy insect life; one of the prowling ranch dogs occasionally gave tongue, its fiercely suspicious temper no doubt aroused by some vague shadow which surely no other eyes than his could possibly have detected in the darkness; sometimes the distressful plaint of a hungry coyote, hunting for what it never seems to find—for he is always prowling and hunting—would rouse the echoes and startle the "tenderfoot" with the suddenness and nearness of its uncanny call. But for the rest all was still. And he paced to and fro before the bunkhouse, thinking.
And, strangely enough, of all the scenes he had witnessed that day, and of all the people he had met, it was the scene in which Diane Marbolt had taken part, and of her he mostly thought. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of meeting a girl so charming that held him interested. Perhaps it was the eager desire she had displayed in warning him of his personal danger. Perhaps, even, it was the recollection of the soft, brown eyes, the charming little sun-tanned face that had first looked up at him from beneath the broad-brimmed straw hat. Certain it was her sad face haunted him as no woman's face had ever haunted him before as he looked out on the vast, dark world about him. He felt that he would like to know something of her story; not out of idle curiosity, but that he might discover some means of banishing the look of sadness so out of place upon her beautiful features.
His pipe burned out, and he recharged and lit it afresh; then he extended his peregrinations. He moved out of the deeper shadows of the bunkhouse and turned the corner in the direction of the western group of corrals.
Now he saw the foreman's hut beyond the dark outline of the great implement shed, and a light was still shining in the window. Turning away he passed to the left of the shed, and strolled leisurely on to the corrals. He had no desire in the world to meet Jake Harnach; not that he thought such a contingency likely, but still there was always the chance if the man had not yet gone to bed. He had already decided that the less he saw of Jake the better it would be for both of them. He remained for some minutes seated on the top of the corral fence, but the mosquitoes were too thick, and drove him to further wanderings.
Just as he was about to move away, he saw the door of the foreman's hut open, and in the light that shone behind, the small figure of the choreman, Joe Nelson, come out. Then the light was shut out as the great figure of Jake blocked the doorway. Now he distinctly heard them speaking.
"I shall want it first thing in the morning," said the foreman, in his great hoarse voice.
"Guess I'll see to it," replied Joe; "but 'tain't the saddle fer anybody who ain't used to it."
"That's o' no consequence. Your business is to have it there."
Then Jake retired, and the door was shut. A moment later the waiting man saw Joe emerge from the shadow and stump off in the direction of the bunkhouse. A few yards from the foreman's hut he halted and turned about. Then Tresler witnessed something that made him smile, while it raised a lively feeling of satisfaction in his heart. Joe slowly raised one arm in the direction of the hut, and, although the light was insufficient for him to see it, and he could hear no words, he felt sure that the fist was clenched, and a string of blasphemous invective was desecrating the purity of the night air. A moment later Joe passed leisurely on his way, and the light went out in Jake's dwelling.
And now, without concerning himself with his direction, Tresler continued his walk. He moved toward an open shed crowded with wagons. This he skirted, intending to avoid the foreman's hut, but just as he moved out from the shadow, he became aware that Jake's door had opened again and some one was coming out. He waited for a moment listening. He fancied he recognized the foreman's heavy tread. Curiosity prompted him to inquire further, but he checked the impulse. After all, the bully's doings were no concern of his. So he waited until the sound of receding footsteps had died out, and then passed round the back of the shed and strolled on.
There was nothing now in front of him but the dense black line of the boundary pinewoods. These stretched away to the right and left as far as the darkness permitted him to see. The blackness of their depths was like a solid barrier, and he had neither time nor inclination to explore them at that hour. Therefore he skirted away to the right, intending to leave the forest edge before he came to the rancher's house, and so make his way back to his quarters.
He was approaching the house, and it loomed dark and rigid before him. Gazing upon it, his mind at once reverted to its blind owner, and he found himself wondering if he were in bed yet, if Diane had retired, and in which portion of the house she slept.
His pipe had gone out again, and he paused to relight it. He had his matches in his hand, and was about to strike one, when suddenly a light flashed out in front of him. It came and was gone in a second. Yet it lasted long enough for him to realize that it came from a window, and the window, he knew, from its position, must be the window of Julian Marbolt's bedroom.
He waited for it to reappear, but the house remained in darkness; and, after a moment's deliberation, he realized its meaning. The door of the blind man's room must be opposite the window, and probably it was the opening of it that had revealed the lamplight in the hall. The thought suggested the fact that the rancher had just gone to bed.
He turned his attention again to his pipe; but he seemed destined not to finish his smoke. Just as he had the match poised for a second time, his ears, now painfully acute in the stillness about him, caught the sound of horses' hoofs moving through the forest.
They sounded quite near; he even heard the gush of the animals' nostrils. He peered into the depths. Then, suddenly realizing the strangeness of his own position lurking so near the house and under cover of the forest at that hour of the night, he dropped down in the shadow of a low bush. Nor was it any too soon, for, a moment or two later, he beheld two horsemen moving slowly toward him out of the black depths. They came on until they were within half a dozen yards of him, and almost at the edge of the woods. Then they drew up and sat gazing out over the ranch in silent contemplation.
Tresler strained his eyes to obtain a knowledge of their appearance, but the darkness thwarted him. He could see the vague outline of the man nearest him, but it was so uncertain that he could make little of it. One thing only he ascertained, and that was because the figure was silhouetted against the starlit sky. The man seemed to have his face covered with something that completely concealed his profile.
The whole scene passed almost before he realized it. The horsemen had appeared so suddenly, and were gone so swiftly, returning through the forest the way they had come, that he was not sure but that the whole apparition had been a mere trick of imagination. Rising swiftly, he gazed after the vanished riders, and the crunching of the pine cones under the horses' hoofs, dying slowly away as they retreated, warned him that the stealthy, nocturnal visit was no illusion, but a curious fact that needed explanation.
Just for an instant it occurred to him that it might be two of the hands out on night work around the cattle, then he remembered that the full complement were even now slumbering in the bunkhouse. Puzzled and somewhat disquieted, he turned his steps in the direction of his quarters, fully intending to go to bed; but his adventures were not over yet.
As he drew near his destination he observed the figure of a man, bearing something on his back, coming slowly toward him. A moment later he was looking down upon the diminutive person of Joe Nelson in the act of carrying a saddle upon his shoulder.
"Hello, Nelson, where are you going at this hour of the night?" he asked, as he came face to face with the little man.
The choreman deposited the saddle on the ground, and looked his man up and down before he answered.
"Wher' am I goin'?" he said, as though he were thinking of other things. "I guess I'm doin' a job in case I git fergittin' by the mornin'. Jake reckons to want my saddle in the mornin' over at the hoss corrals. But, say, why ain't you abed, Mr. Tresler?"
"Never mind the 'mister,' Joe," Tresler said amiably.
"If you're going to the horse corrals now I'll go with you. I'm so beastly wide awake that I can't turn in yet."
"Come right along, then. Guess I ain't feelin' that ways, sure."
Joe jerked his saddle up and slung it across his back again, and the two men walked off in silence.
And as they walked, Joe, under cover of the darkness, eyed his companion with occasional sidelong glances, speculating as to what he wanted with him. He quite understood that his companion was not walking with him for the pleasure of his company. On his part Tresler was wondering how much he ought to tell this man—almost a stranger—of what he had seen. He felt that some one ought to know—some one with more experience than himself. He felt certain that the stealthy visit of the two horsemen was not wholesome. Such espionage pointed to something that was not quite open and aboveboard.
They reached the corrals, and Joe deposited his burden upon the wooden wall. Then he turned sharply on his companion.
"Wal, out wi' it, man," he demanded. "Guess you got something you're wantin' to git off'n your chest."
Tresler laughed softly. "You're pretty sharp, Joe."
"Pretty sharp, eh?" returned the little man. "Say, it don't need no razor to cut through the meanin' of a 'tenderfoot.' Wal?"
Tresler was looking up at the saddle. It was a small, almost skeleton saddle, such as, at one time, was largely used in Texas; that was before the heavier and more picturesque Mexican saddles came into vogue among the ranchmen.
"What does Jake want that for?" he asked.
His question was an idle one, and merely put for the sake of gaining time while he arrived at a definite decision upon the other matter.
"Guess it's fer some feller to ride to-morrow—eh? Whew!"
The choreman broke off and whistled softly. Something had just occurred to him. He measured Tresler with his eye, and then looked at the short-seated saddle with its high cantle and tall, abrupt horn in front. He shook his head.
Tresler was not heeding him. Suddenly he stopped and sat on the ground, propping his back against the corral wall, while he looked up at Joe.
"Sit down," he said seriously; "I've got something rather particular I want to talk about. At least, I think it's particular, being a stranger to the country."
Without replying, Joe deposited himself on the ground beside his new acquaintance. His face was screwed up into the expression Tresler had begun to recognize as a smile. He took a chew of tobacco and prepared to give his best attention.
"Git goin'," he observed easily.
"Well, look here, have we any near neighbors?"
"None nigher than Forks—'cep' the Breeds, an' they're nigh on six mile south, out toward the hills. How?"
Then Tresler told him what he had seen at the edge of the pinewoods, and the choreman listened with careful attention. At the end of his story Tresler added—
"You see, it's probably nothing. Of course, I know nothing as yet of prairie ways and doings. No doubt it can be explained. But I argued the matter out from my own point of view, and it struck me that two horsemen, approaching the ranch under cover of the forest and a dark night, and not venturing into the open after having arrived, simply didn't want to be seen. And their not wishing to be seen meant that their object in coming wasn't—well, just above suspicion."
"Tol'ble reasonin'," nodded Joe, chewing his cud reflectively.
"What do you make of it?"
"A whole heap," Joe said, spitting emphatically. "What do I make of it? Yes, that's it, a whole heap. Guess that feller you see most of had his face covered. Was that cover a mask?"
"It might have been."
"A red mask?"
"I couldn't see the color. It was too dark. Might have been."
Joe turned and faced his companion, and, hunching his bent knees into his arms, looked squarely into his eyes.
"See here, pard, guess you never heard o' hoss thieves? They ain't likely to mean much to you," he said, with some slight contempt. Then he added, by way of rubbing it in, "You bein' a 'tenderfoot.' Guess you ain't heard tell of Red Mask an' his gang, neither?"
"Wrong twice," observed Tresler, with a quiet smile. "I've heard of both horse thieves and Red Mask."
"You've heard tell of hoss thieves an' Red Mask? Wal, I'm figgerin' you've seen both to-night, anyway; an' I'll further tell you this—if you'd got the drop on him this night an' brought him down, you'd 'a' done what most every feller fer two hundred miles around has been layin' to do fer years, an' you'd 'a' been the biggest pot in Montana by sundown to-morrow." He spoke with an accent of triumph, and paused for effect. "Say, ther' wouldn't 'a' been a feller around as wouldn't 'a' taken his hat off to you," he went on, to accentuate the situation. "Say, it was a dandy chance. But ther', you're a 'tenderfoot,'" he added, with a sigh of profound regret.
Tresler was inclined to laugh, but checked himself as he realized the serious side of the matter.
"Well, if he were here to-night, what does it portend?" he asked.
"If he was here to-night it portends a deal," said Joe, sharply. "It portends that the biggest 'tough,' the biggest man-killer an' hoss thief in the country, is on the war-path, an' ther'll be trouble around 'fore we're weeks older."
"Who is he?"
"Who is he? Wal, I 'lows that's a big question. Guess ther' ain't no real sayin'. Some sez he's from across the border, some sez he's a Breed, some sez he's the feller called Duncan, as used to run a bum saloon in Whitewater, an' shot a man in his own bar an' skipped. No one rightly knows, 'cep' he's real 'bad,' an' duffs nigh on to a thousand head o' stock most every year."
"Then what's to be done?" Tresler asked, watching the little man's twisted face as he munched his tobacco.
"What's to be done? Wal, I don't rightly know. Say, what wus you doin' around that house? I ain't askin' fer cur'osity. Ye see, if you got tellin' Jake as you wus round ther', it's likely he'd git real mad. Y' see, Jake's dead sweet on Miss Dianny. It gives him the needle that I'm around that house. O' course, ther' ain't nuthin' wi' me an' Miss Dianny, 'cep' we're kind o' friendly. But Jake's that mean-sperrited an' jealous. She hates him like pizen. I know, 'cos I'm kind o' friendly wi' her, so to speak, meanin' nuthin', o' course. But that ain't the point. If you wus to tell him he'd make your head swim."
"Oh, hang Jake!" exclaimed Tresler, impatiently; "I'm sick to death of hearing of his terrorizing. He can't eat me——"
"No, but he'll make you wish he could," put in the choreman, quietly.
"He'd find me a tough mouthful," Tresler laughed.
"Mebbe. How came you around that house?"
"I simply wandered there by chance. I was smoking and taking a stroll. I'd been all round the ranch."
"That wouldn't suit Jake. No." Joe was silent for a moment.
Tresler waited. At last the little man made a move and spat out his chew.
"That's it," he said, slapping his thigh triumphantly—"that's it, sure. Say, we needn't to tell Jake nuthin'. I'll git around among the boys, an' let 'em know as I heerd tell of Red Mask bein' in the region o' the Bend, an' how a Breed give me warnin', bein' scared to come along to the ranch lest Red Mask got wind of it an' shut his head lights fer him. Ther' ain't no use in rilin' Jake. Meanin' for you. He's layin' fer you anyways, as I'm guessin' you'll likely know. Savee? Lie low, most as low as a dead cat in a well. I'll play this hand, wi'out you figgerin' in it; which, fer you, I guess is best."
Tresler got up and dusted his clothes. There was a slight pause while he fingered the leather-capped stirrups of the stock saddle on the wall.
Joe grew impatient. "Wal?" he said at last; "y' ain't bustin' wi' 'preciation."
"On the contrary, I appreciate your shrewdness and kindly interest on my behalf most cordially," Tresler replied, dropping the stirrup and turning to his companion; "but, you see, there's one little weakness in the arrangement. Jake's liable to underestimate the importance of the nocturnal visits unless he knows the real facts. Besides——"
"Besides," broke in Joe, with an impatience bred of his reading through Tresler's lame objection, "you jest notion to rile Jake some. Wal, you're a fool, Tresler—a dog-gone fool! Guess you'll strike a snag, an' snags mostly hurts. Howsum, I ain't no wet-nurse, an' ef you think to bluff Jake Harnach, get right ahead an' bluff. An' when you bluff, bluff hard, an' back it, or you'll drop your wad sudden. Guess I'll turn in."
Joe moved off and Tresler followed. At the door of the bunkhouse they parted, for Joe slept in a lean-to against the kitchen of the rancher's house. They had said "good-night," and Joe was moving away when he suddenly changed his mind and came back again.
"Say, ther' ain't nothin' like a 'tenderfoot' fer bein' a fool, 'less it's a settin' hen," he said, with profound contempt but with evident good-will. "You're kind o' gritty, Tresler, I guess, but mebbe you'll be ast to git across a tol'ble broncho in the mornin'. That's as may be. But ef it's so, jest take two thinks 'fore settin' your six foot o' body on a saddle built fer a feller o' five foot one. It ain't reason'ble, an' it's dangerous. It's most like tryin' to do that as isn't, never wus, and ain't like to be, an' if it did, wouldn't amount to a heap anyway, 'cep' it's a heap o' foolishness."
Tresler laughed. "All right. Two into one won't go without leaving a lot over. Good-night, Joe."
"So long. Them fellers as gits figgerin' mostly gits crazed fer doin' what's impossible. Guess I ain't stuck on figgers nohow."
And the man vanished into the night, while Tresler passed into the bunkhouse to get what little sleep his first night as a ranchman might afford him.
TRESLER BEGINS HIS EDUCATION
But the story of the nocturnal visit of the horse thieves did not reach the foreman next morning. Jake hailed Tresler down to the corrals directly after breakfast. He was to have a horse told off to him, and this matter, and the presence of others, made him postpone his purpose to a more favorable time.
When he arrived at the corrals, three of the boys, under Jake's superintendence, were cutting out a big, raw-boned, mud-brown mare from a bunch of about sixty colts.
She stood well over sixteen hands—a clumsy, big-footed, mean-looking, clean-limbed lady, rough-coated, and scored all over with marks of "savaging." She was fiddle-headed and as lean as a hay-rake, but in build she was every inch a grand piece of horse-flesh. And Tresler was sufficient horseman to appreciate her lines, as well as the vicious, roving eye which displayed the flashing whites at every turn.
Jacob Smith was after her with a rope, and the onlookers watched his lithe, active movements as he followed her, wildly racing round and round the corral seeking a means of escape.
Suddenly the man made a dart in to head her off. She turned to retreat, but the other two were there to frustrate her purpose. Just for a second she paused irresolutely; then, lowering her head and setting her ears back, she came open-mouthed for Jacob. But he anticipated her intention, and, as she came, sprang lightly aside, while she swept on, lashing out her heels at him as she went. It was the opportunity the man sought, and, in the cloud of dust that rose in her wake, his lariat shot out low over the ground. The next moment she fell headlong, roped by the two forefeet, and all three men sprang in to the task of securing her.
It was done so quickly that Tresler had hardly realized her capture when Jake's harsh voice rang out—
"That's your mare, Tresler!" he cried; "guess that plug of yours'll do for fancy ridin'. You'll break this one to handlin' cattle. You're a tolerable weight, but she's equal to it." He laughed, and his laugh sent an angry flush into the other's face. "Say," he went on, in calmly contemptuous tones; "she's wild some. But she's been saddled before. Oh, yes, she ain't raw off the grass. You, comin' from down east, can mebbe ride. They mostly reckon to be able to ride till they come along to these parts."
Tresler understood the man's game; he also understood and fully appreciated Joe Nelson's warning. He glanced at the saddle still hanging on the corral wall. It would be simple suicide for him to attempt to ride an outlaw with a saddle fit for a boy of fifteen. And it was Jake's purpose, trading on his ignorance of such matters, to fool him into using a saddle that would probably rupture him.
"I presume she's the worst outlaw on the ranch," he replied quietly, though his blue eyes shone dangerously. "She must be," he went on, as Jake made no answer, "or you wouldn't give her to me, and point out that she's been saddled before."
"Kind o' weakenin'?" Jake asked with a sneer.
"No. I was just thinking of my saddle. It will be no use on her; she'd burst the girths."
"That needn't worry you any. There's a stock saddle there, on the fence."
"Thank you, I'll ride on a saddle that fits a man of my size, or you can ride the mare yourself."
Tresler was round and facing his man, and his words came in a tone the other was unaccustomed to. But Jake kept quite cool while he seemed to be debating with himself. Then he abruptly turned away with a short, vicious laugh.
"Guess the 'tenderfoot's' plumb scared to ride her, boys," he called out to the men, relapsing into the vernacular as he addressed them. "Any o' you boys lendin' a saddle, or shall we find him a rockin'-hoss to run around on?"
Tresler fell headlong into the trap. Jake had drawn him with a skill worthy of a better object.
"If there is anybody scared, I don't think it is I, boys," he said with a laugh as harsh as Jake's had been. "If one of you will lend me a man's saddle, I'll break that mare or she'll break me."
Now, Tresler was a very ordinary horseman. He had never in his life sat a horse that knew the first rudiments of bucking; but at that moment he would have mounted to the back of any horse, even if his life were to pay the forfeit next moment. Besides, even in his blind anger, he realized that this sort of experience must come sooner or later. "Broncho-busting" would be part of his training. Therefore, when some one suggested Arizona's saddle—since Arizona was on the sick list—he jumped at the chance, for that individual was about his size.
The mare was now on her legs again, and stood ready bridled, while two men held her with the lariat drawn tight over her windpipe. She stood as still as a rock, and to judge by the flashing of her eyes, inwardly raging. They led her out of the corral, and Arizona's saddle was brought and the stirrups adjusted to Tresler's requirements. She was taken well clear of the buildings into the open, and Jacob, with the subtlety and art acquired by long practice in breaking horses, proceeded to saddle her. Lew and Raw Harris choked her quiet with the lariat, and though she physically attempted to resent the indignity of being saddled, the cinchas were drawn tight.
Tresler had come over by himself, leaving Jake to watch the proceedings from the vantage ground of the rise toward the house. He was quite quiet, and the boys stole occasional apprehensive glances at him. They knew this mare; they knew that she was a hopeless outlaw and fit only for the knacker's yard. At last Jacob beckoned him over.
"Say, ther' ain't no need fer you to ride her, mister," he said, feeling that it was his duty as a man to warn him. "She's the worstest devil on the range, an' she'll break your neck an' jump on you with her maulin' great hoofs, sure. I guess ther' ain't a 'buster' in the country 'ud tackle her fer less 'an a fi' dollar wager, she's that mean."
"And she looks all you say of her, Jacob," replied Tresler, with a grim smile. "Thanks for your warning, but I'm going to try and ride her," he went on with quiet decision. "Not because I think I can, but because that bully up there"—with a nod in Jake's direction—"would only be too glad of the chance of taunting me with 'weakening.' She shall throw me till she makes it a physical impossibility for me to mount her again. All I ask is that you fellows stand by to keep her off when I'm on the ground."
By this time Jacob had secured the saddle, and now Tresler walked round the great beast, patting her gently and speaking to her. And she watched him with an evil, staring eye that boded nothing good. Then he took a rawhide quirt from Jacob and, twisting it on his wrist, mounted her, while the men kept the choking rope taut about her throat, and she stood like a statue, except for the heaving of her sides as she gasped for breath.
He gathered the reins up, which had been passed through the noose of the lariat, and sat ready. Jacob drew off, and held the end of the rope. Tresler gave the word. The two men left her, while, with a shake and a swift jerk, Jacob flung the lariat clear of the mare's head. In an instant the battle had begun.
Down went the lady's head (the boys called her by a less complimentary name), and she shot into the air with her back humped till she shaped like an inverted U with its extremities narrowed and almost touching. There was no seesaw bucking about her. It was stiff-legged, with her four feet bunched together and her great fiddle-head lost in their midst. And at the first jump Tresler shot a foot out of the saddle, lurched forward and then back, and finally came down where he had started from. And as he fell heavily into the saddle his hand struck against a coiled blanket strap behind the cantle, and he instinctively grabbed hold of it and clung to it for dear life.
Up she shot again, and deliberately swung round in the air and came down with her head where her tail had been. It was a marvelous, cat-like spring, calculated to unseat the best of horsemen. Tresler was half out of the saddle again, but the blanket strap saved him, and the next buck threw him back into his seat. Now her jumps came like the shots from a gatling gun, and the man on her back was dazed, and his head swam, and he felt the blood rushing to his ear-drums. But with desperate resolve he clung to his strap, and so retained his seat. But it couldn't last, and he knew it, although those looking on began to have hopes that he would tire the vixen out. But they didn't know the demon that possessed her.
Suddenly it seemed as though an accident had happened to her. Her legs absolutely shot from under her as she landed from one terrific buck, and she plunged to the ground. Then her intention became apparent. But luckily the antic had defeated its own end, for Tresler was flung wide, and, as she rolled on the ground, he scrambled clear of her body.
He struggled to his feet, but not before she had realized his escape, and, with the savage instinct of a man-eater, had sprung to her feet and was making for him open-mouthed. It was Jacob's readiness and wonderful skill that saved him. The rope whistled through the air and caught her, the noose falling over her head with scarcely room between her nose and her victim's back for the rawhide to pass. In a flash the strands strung tight, and her head swung round with such a jolt that she was almost thrown from her feet.
Again she was choked down, and Tresler, breathing desperately, but with his blood fairly up, was on top of her almost before the man holding her realized his intention. The mare was foaming at the mouth, and a lather of sweat dripped from her tuckered flanks. The whites of her eyes were flaming scarlet now, and when she was let loose again she tried to savage her rider's legs. Failing this, she threw her head up violently, and, all unprepared for it, Tresler received the blow square in the mouth. Then she was up on her hind legs, fighting the air with her front feet, and a moment later crashed over backward. And again it seemed like a miracle that he escaped; he slid out of the saddle, not of his own intention, and rolled clear as she came down.
This time she was caught before she could struggle to her feet, and when at last she stood up she was dazed and shaken, though still unconquered.
Again Tresler mounted. He was bruised and bleeding, and shaking as with an ague. And now the mare tried a new move. She bucked; but it was a running buck, her body twisting and writhing with curious serpentine undulations, and her body seemed to shrink under his legs as though the brute were drawing in her whole frame of a settled purpose. Then, having done enough in this direction, she suddenly stood, and began to kick violently, with her head stretched low between her forelegs. And Tresler felt himself sliding, saddle and all, over her withers! Suddenly the blanket strap failed him. It cracked and gave, and he shot from the saddle like a new-fired rocket.
And when the mare had been caught again she was without the saddle, which was now lying close to where her rider had fallen. She had bucked and kicked herself clean through the still-fastened cinchas.
Tresler was bleeding from nose and ears when he mounted again. The saddle was cinched up very tight, and the mare herself was so blown that she was unable to distend herself to resist the pressure. But, nevertheless, she fought as though a devil possessed her, and, exhausted, and without the help of the blanket strap, he was thrown again and again. Five times he fell; and each time, as no bones were broken, he remounted her. But he was growing helpless.
But the men looking on realized that which was lost upon the rider himself. The mare was done; she was fairly beaten. The fifth time he climbed into the saddle her bucks wouldn't have thrown a babe; and when they beheld this, they, with one accord, shouted to him.
"Say, thrash her, boy! Lace h—— out of her!" roared Jacob.
"Cut her liver out wi' that quirt!" cried Lew.
"Ay, run her till she can't see," added Raw.
And Tresler obeyed mechanically. He was too exhausted to do much; but he managed to bring the quirt down over her shoulders, until, maddened with pain, she rose up on her hind legs, gave a mighty bound forward, and raced away down the trail like a creature possessed.
It was dinner-time when Tresler saw the ranch again. He returned with the mare jaded and docile. He had recovered from the battle, while she had scarcely energy enough to put one foot before the other. She was conquered. To use Arizona's expression, when, from the doorway of the bunkhouse, he saw the mare crawling up the trail toward the ranch—
"Guess she's loaded down till her springs is nigh busted."
And Tresler laughed outright in Jake's face when that individual came into the barn, while he was rubbing her down, and generally returning good for evil, and found fault with his work.
"Where, I'd like to know, have you been all this time?" he asked angrily. Then, as his eyes took in the pitiful sight of the exhausted mare, "Say, you've ruined that mare, and you'll have to make it good. We don't keep horses for the hands to founder. D'you see what you've done? You've broke her heart."
"And if I'd had the chance I'd have broken her neck too," Tresler retorted, with so much heat, that, in self-defense, the foreman was forced to leave him alone.
That afternoon the real business of ranching began. Lew Cawley was sent out with Tresler to instruct him in mending barbed-wire fences. A distant pasture had been broken into by the roving cattle outside. Lew remained with him long enough to show him how to strain the wires up and splice them, then he rode off to other work.
Tresler was glad to find himself out on the prairie away from the unbearable influence of the ranch foreman. The afternoon was hot, but it was bright with the sunshine, which, in the shadow of the mountains, is so bracing. The pastures he was working in were different from the lank weedy-grown prairie, although of the same origin. They were irrigated, and had been sown and re-sown with timothy grass and clover. The grass rose high up to the horse's knees as he rode, and the quiet, hard-working animal, his own property, reveled in the sweet-scented fodder which he could nip at as he moved leisurely along.
And Tresler worked very easily that afternoon. Not out of indolence, not out of any ill-feeling toward his foreman. He was weary after his morning's exertions, and, besides, the joy of being out in the pure, bright air, on that wondrous sea of rolling green grass with its illimitable suggestion of freedom and its gracious odors, seduced him to an indolence quite foreign to him. He was beyond the view of the ranch, with two miles of prairie rollers intervening, so he did his work without concern for time.
It was well after four o'clock when the last strand of wire was strung tight. Then, for want of a shady tree to lean his back against, he sat down by a fence post and smoked, while his horse, with girths loosened, and bit removed from its mouth, grazed joyfully near by.
And then he slept. The peace of the prairie world got hold of him; the profound silence lulled his fagged nerves, his pipe went out, and he slept.
He awoke with a start. Nor, for the moment, did he know where he was. His pipe had fallen from his mouth, and he found himself stretched full length upon the ground. But something unusual had awakened him, and when he had gathered his scattered senses he looked about him to ascertain what the nature of the disturbance had been. The next moment a laughing voice hailed him.
"Is this the way you learn ranching, Mr. Tresler? Oh, shame! Sleeping the glorious hours of sunshine away."
It was the rich, gentle voice of Diane Marbolt, and its tone was one of quiet raillery. She was gazing down at him from the back of her sturdy broncho mare, Bessie, with eyes from which, for the moment at least, all sadness had vanished.
Just now her lips were wreathed in a bright smile, and her soft brown eyes were dancing with a joyous light, which, when Tresler had first seen her, had seemed impossible to them. She was out on the prairie, on the back of her favorite, Bessie; she was away from the ranch, from the home that possessed so many cares for her. She was out in her world, the world she loved, the world that was the only world for her, breathing the pure, delicious air which, even in moments of profound unhappiness, had still power to carry her back to the days of happy, careless childhood; had still power to banish all but pleasant thoughts, and to bestow upon her that wild sense of freedom such as is only given to those who have made their home on its virgin bosom.
Tresler beheld this girl now in her native mood. He saw before him the true child of the prairie such as she really was. She was clad in a blue dungaree habit and straw sun-hat, and he marveled at the ravishing picture she made. He raised himself upon his elbow and stared at her, and a sensation of delight swept over him as he devoured each detail of face and figure. Then, suddenly, he was recalled to his senses by the abrupt fading of the smile from the face before him; and he flushed with a rueful sense of guiltiness.
"Fairly caught napping, Miss Marbolt," he said, in confusion. "I acknowledge the sloth, but not the implied laxness anent ranching. Believe me, I have learned an ample lesson to-day. I now have a fuller appreciation of our worthy foreman; a fair knowledge of the horse, most accurately termed 'outlaw', as the bruised condition of my body can testify; and, as for barbed-wire fencing, I really believe I have discovered every point in its construction worthy of consideration."
He raised a pair of lacerated hands for the girl's inspection, and rose, smiling, to his feet.
"I apologize." Diane was smiling again now as she noted the network of scratches upon his outstretched palms. "You certainly have not been idle," she added, significantly.
Then she became serious with a suddenness that showed how very near the surface, how strongly marked was that quiet, thoughtful nature her companion had first realized in her.
"But I saw you on that mare, and I thought you would surely be killed. Do you know they've tried to break her for two seasons, and failed hopelessly. What happened after she bolted?"
"Oh, nothing much. I rode her to Forks and back twice."
"Forty miles! Good gracious! What is she like now?"
"Done up, of course. Jake assures me I've broken her heart; but I haven't. My Lady Jezebel has a heart of stone that would take something in the nature of a sledge-hammer to break. She'll buck like the mischief again to-morrow."
The girl nodded. She had witnessed the battle between the "tenderfoot" and the mare; and, now that it was all over, she felt pleased that he had won. And there was no mistaking the approval in the glance she gave him. She understood the spirit that had moved him to drive the mare that forty miles; nor, in spite of a certain sympathy for the jaded creature, did she condemn him for it. She was too much a child of the prairie to morbidly sentimentalize over the matter. The mare was a savage of the worst type, and she knew that prairie horses in their breaking often require drastic treatment. It was the stubborn, purposeful character of the man that she admired, and thought most of. He had carried out a task that the best horse-breaker in the country might reasonably have shrunk from, and all to please the brutal nature of Jake Harnach.
"And you've christened her 'Lady Jezebel'?" she asked.
Tresler laughed. "Why, yes, it seems to suit her," he said indifferently.
Then a slight pause followed which amounted almost to awkwardness. The girl had come to find him. Her visit was not a matter of chance. She wanted to talk to this man from the East. And, somehow, Tresler understood that this was so. For some moments she sat stroking Bessie's shoulder with her rawhide riding-switch. The mare grew restive. She, too, seemed to understand something of the awkwardness, and did her best to break it up by one or two of her frivolous gambols. When she had been pacified, the girl leaned forward in her saddle and looked straight into her companion's eyes.
"Tell me," she said, abruptly; "why did you ride that animal?"
The man laughed a little harshly. "Because—well, because I hadn't sense enough to refuse, I suppose."
"Ah, I understand. Jake Harnach."
"I came out purposely to speak to you," the girl went on, in a quiet, direct manner. There was not the least embarrassment now. She had made up her mind to avoid all chance of misunderstanding. "I want to put matters quite plainly before you. This morning's business was only a sequel to your meeting with Jake, or rather a beginning of the sequel."
Tresler shook his head and smiled. "Not the beginning of the sequel. That occurred last evening, after I left you."
Diane looked a swift inquiry.
"Yes, Jake is not an easy man. But believe me, Miss Marbolt, you need have no fear. I see what it is; you, in the kindness of your heart, dread that I, a stranger here in your land, in your home, may be maltreated, or even worse by that unconscionable ruffian. Knowing your father's affliction, you fear that I have no protection from Jake's murderous savagery, and you are endeavoring bravely to thrust your frail self between us, and so stave off a catastrophe. Have no fear. I do not anticipate a collision. He is only an atrocious bully."
"He is more than that. You underestimate him."
The girl's face had darkened. Her lips were firmly compressed, and an angry fire burned in her usually soft eyes.
Tresler, watching, read the hatred for Jake; read the hatred, and saw that which seemed so out of place in the reliant little face. A pronounced fear was also expressed, and the two were so marked that it was hard to say which feeling predominated. Hatred had stirred depths of fire in her beautiful eyes, but fear had paled her features, had set drawn lines about her mouth and brows. He wondered.
"You are right, Mr. Tresler, in that you think I dread for your safety," she went on presently. "It was certainly that dread that brought me out here to-day. You do not anticipate a collision because you are a brave man. You have no fear, therefore you give no thought to possibilities. I am weak and a woman, and I see with eyes of understanding and knowledge of Jake, and I know that the collision will be forced upon you; and, further, when the trouble comes, Jake will take no chances. But you must not think too well of me. Believe me, there is selfishness at the root of my anxiety. Do you not see what trouble it will cause to us; my father, me?"
Tresler looked away. The girl had a strange insistence. It seemed to him folly to consider the matter so seriously. He was convinced that she was holding something back; that she was concealing her real reason—perhaps the reason of her own fear of Jake—for thus importuning him. It did not take him long to make up his mind with those lovely, appealing eyes upon him. He turned back to her with a frank smile, and held out his hand. Diane responded, and they shook hands like two friends making a bargain.
"You are right, Miss Marbolt," he said. "I promise you to do all in my power to keep the peace with Jake. But," and here he held up a finger in mock warning, "anything in the nature of a physical attack will be resented—to the last."
Diane nodded. She had obtained all the assurance he would give, she knew, and wisely refrained from further pressure.
Now a silence fell. The sun was dropping low in the west, and already the shadows on the grass were lengthening. Tresler brought his grazing horse back. When he returned Diane reverted to something he had said before.
"This 'sequel' you spoke of. You didn't tell me it." Her manner had changed, and she spoke almost lightly.
"The matter of the sequel was a trivial affair, and only took the form of Jake's spleen in endeavoring to make my quarters as uncomfortable for me as possible. No, the incident I had chiefly in mind was something altogether different. It was all so strange—so very strange," he went on reflectively. "One adventure on top of another ever since my arrival. The last, and strangest of all, did not occur until nearly midnight."
He looked up with a smile, but only to find that Diane's attention was apparently wandering.
The girl was gazing out over the waving grass-land with deep, brooding, dreamy eyes. There was no anger in them now, only her features looked a little more drawn and hard. The man waited for a moment, then as she did not turn he went on.
"You have strange visitors at the ranch, Miss Marbolt—very strange. They come stealthily in the dead of night; they come through the shelter of the pinewoods, where it is dark, almost black, at night. They come with faces masked—at least one face——"
He got no further. There was no lack of effect now. Diane was round upon him, gazing at him with frightened eyes.
"You saw them?" she cried; and a strident ring had replaced her usually soft tones.
For a moment they stared into each other's eyes. He inquiringly; she with fear and mingled horror.
"These—these visitors." The words came almost in a whisper.
"And what were they like?"
The girl spoke apprehensively.
Then Tresler told his story as he had told it to Joe Nelson. And Diane hung on every word he uttered, searching him through and through with her troubled eyes.
"What are you going to do about it?" she asked as he finished.
Tresler was struck with the peculiarity of the question. She expressed no surprise, no wonder. It seemed as though the matter was in nowise new to her. Her whole solicitude was in her anticipation of what he would do about it.
"I am not sure," he said, concealing his surprise under a leisurely manner. "I had intended to tell Jake," he went on a moment later, "only the Lady Jezebel put it out of my head. I told Joe Nelson last night. He told me I had seen Red Mask, the cattle thief, and one of his men. He also tried to get me to promise that I would say nothing about it to Jake. I refused to give that promise. He gave me no sufficient reasons, you see, and—well, I failed to see the necessity for silence."
"But there is a necessity, Mr. Tresler. The greatest." Diane's tone was thrilling with an almost fierce earnestness. "Joe was right. Jake is the last person to whom you should tell your story."
"Why?" Diane echoed, with a mirthless laugh. "Pshaw!"
"Yes, why? I have a right to know, Miss Marbolt."
"You shall know all I can tell you." The girl seemed on the verge of making an impulsive statement, but suddenly stopped; and when at last she did proceed her tone was more calm and so low as to be little above a whisper. "Visitors such as you have seen have been seen by others before. The story, as you have told it, has in each case been told to Jake by the unfortunate who witnessed these strange movements at night——"
"Yes. The informant has always met with misfortune, accident—whatever you like to call it. Listen; it is a long story, but I will merely outline the details I wish to impress on you. Some years ago this Red Mask appeared from no one knows where. Curiously enough his appearance was in the vicinity of this ranch. We were robbed, and he vanished. Some time later he was seen again, much the same as you saw him last night. One of our boys gave the warning to Jake. Two days later the poor fellow who informed upon him was found shot on the trail into Forks. Later, again, another hand witnessed a somewhat similar scene and gave information. His end was by drowning in a shallow part of the river. Folks attributed his end to drink, but——Again Red Mask showed up—always at night—again he was seen, and Jake was warned. The victim this time met his death by the falling of a rock in the foot-hills. The rock killed horse and rider. And so it has gone on at varying intervals. Eight men have been similarly treated. The ninth, Arizona, barely escaped with his life a little while ago. I've no doubt but that some accident will happen to him yet. And, mark this, in each case the warning has gone first to Jake. I may be altogether wrong; certainly other folks do not look upon the death of these various men with suspicion, but I have watched, and reasoned out all I have seen. And——"
"Why, Jake must——"
Diane gazed round her apprehensively.
"No, no, Mr. Tresler," she went on hurriedly, "I do not say that; I dare not think of it. Jake has been with us so long; he cares for father's interest as for his own. In spite of his terrible nature he is father's—friend."
"And the man who intends to marry you," Tresler added to himself. Aloud he asked, "Then how do you account for it?"
"That's just it. I—I don't account for it. I only warn you not to take your story to Jake."
Tresler drew a step nearer, and stood so close to her that her dungaree skirt was almost touching him. He looked up in a manner that compelled her gaze.
"You do account for it, Miss Marbolt," he said emphatically.
Nor did the girl attempt denial. Just for a moment there was a breathless silence. Then Bessie pawed the ground, and thrust her nose into the face of Tresler's horse in friendly, caressing fashion; and the movement broke the spell.
"Urge me no further, Mr. Tresler," Diane exclaimed appealingly. "Do not make me say something I have no right to say; something I might have cause to regret all my life. Believe me, I hardly know what to believe, and what not to believe; I hardly know what to think. I can only speak as my instinct guides me. Oh, Mr. Tresler, I—I can trust you. Yes—I know I can."
The girl's appeal had its effect. Tresler reached up and caught the little outstretched hands.
"Yes, you can trust me, Miss Marbolt," he said with infinite kindness. "You have done the very best thing you could have done. You have given me your confidence—a trouble that I can see has caused you ages of unhappiness. I confess you have opened up suspicions that seem almost preposterous, but you——" He broke off, and stood gazing down thoughtfully at the two hands he still held clasped within his. Then he seemed to become suddenly aware of the position, and, with a slight laugh, released them. "Pardon me," he said, glancing up into the troubled eyes with a kindly smile. "I was dreaming. Come, let us return to the ranch. It is time. It will be pleasant riding in the cool. By Jove, I begin to think that it is more than possible I owe Jake considerable gratitude after all."
"You owe him nothing," answered Diane, with angry emphasis. "You owe him nothing but obedience as a ranch hand, and that you will have to pay him. For the rest, avoid him as you would a pest."
Tresler sprang into the saddle, and the horses ambled leisurely off in the direction of the ranch. And, as he rode, he set aside all thoughts of Jake and of Red Mask. He thought only of the girl herself, of her delightful companionship.
His steady-going horse, with due regard for the sex of his companion, allowed Bess to lead him by a neck. He traveled amiably by her side, every now and then raising his nose as though to bite his spirited little companion, but it was only pretense. Nor did Tresler urge him faster. He preferred that they should travel thus. He could gaze to his heart's content upon Diane without displaying rudeness. He could watch the trim, erect figure, poised so easily and gracefully upon the saddle. She rode like one born to the saddle, and by the gait of her mare, he could see that her hands were of the lightest, yet firm and convincing to the high-mettled animal they controlled.
The girl was a perfect picture as she rode; her rich, dark hair was loosely coiled, and several waving ringlets had fluffed loose with the breeze and motion of riding, and strayed from the shadow of her wide hat. Tresler's thoughts went back to his home; and, he told himself, none of the horsewomen he had known could have displayed such an abundant grace in the saddle with their rigid habits and smart hats. There was nothing of the riding-school here; just the horsemanship that is so much a natural instinct.
And so they rode on to the ranch.
THE KILLING OF MANSON ORR
All was still and drowsy about the ranch. Every available hand was out at work upon some set task, part of the daily routine of the cattle world. Mosquito Bend was a splendid example of discipline, for Jake was never the man to let his men remain idle. Even Arizona had been set to herd the milch cows and generally tend the horses remaining in the barn; and Tresler, too, was further acquainting himself with the cantankerous nature of barbed-wire fencing.
On this particular afternoon there was nothing about the ranch to indicate the undercurrent of trouble Tresler had so quickly discovered to be flowing beneath its calm surface. The sun was pouring down upon the wiltering foliage with a fierceness which had set the insect world droning its drowsy melody; the earth was already parching; the sloughs were already dry, and the tall grass therein was rapidly ripening against the season of haying. But in spite of the seeming peace; in spite of the cloudless sky, the pastoral beauty of the scene, the almost inaudible murmur of the distant river, the tide was flowing swiftly and surely. It was leaping with the roar of a torrent.
A clatter of horse's hoofs broke up the quiet, and came rattling over the river trail. The noise reached Jake's ears and set him alert. He recognized the eager haste, the terrific speed, of the animal approaching. He rose from his bunk and stood ready, and a look of deep interest was in his bold black eyes. Suddenly a horseman came into view. He was leaning well over his horse's neck, urging to a race with whip and spur. Jake saw him sweep by and breast the rise to the rancher's house.
At the verandah the man flung off his horse, and left the drooping beast standing while he hammered at the door. There was some delay, and he repeated his summons still more forcibly, adding his voice to his demand.
"Hello there!" he called. "Any one in?"
"Archie Orr," Jake muttered to himself, as he stepped out of his hut.
The next moment the man at the verandah was caught up in the full blast of the foreman's half-savage and wholly hectoring protest.
"What blazin' racket are you raisin' ther'?" he roared, charging up the hill with heavy, hurried strides. "This ain't Skitter Reach, you dog-gone coyote, nor that ain't your pap's shanty. What's itchin' you, blast you?"
Archie swung round at the first shout. There was a wild expression on his somewhat weak face. It was the face of a weak nature suddenly worked up into the last pitch of frenzy. But even so the approach of Jake was not without its effect. His very presence was full of threat to the weaker man. Archie was no physical coward, but, in that first moment of meeting, he felt as if he had been suddenly taken by the collar, lifted up and shaken, and forcibly set down on his feet again. And his reply came in a tone that voiced the mental process he had passed through.
"I've come for help. I was in Forks last night, and only got home this afternoon," he answered, with unnatural calmness. Then the check gave way before his hysterical condition, and Jake's momentary influence was lost upon him. "I tell you it's Red Mask! It's him and his gang! They've shot my father down; they've burned us out, and driven off our stock! God's curse on the man! But I'll have him. I'll hunt him down. Ha! ha!" The young man's blue eyes flashed and his face worked as his hysteria rose and threatened to overwhelm him. "You hear?" he shouted on—"what does it say? Blood for blood. I'll have it! Give me some help. Give me horses, and I'll have it! I'll——" His voice had risen to a shriek.
"You'll shut off that damned noise, or"—Jake's ferocious face was thrust forward, and his fierce eyes glared furiously into the other's—"or git."
Archie shrank back silenced at once. The effect suited the foreman, and he went on with a sardonic leer—
"An' you'll have 'blood for blood' o' Red Mask? You? You who was away boozin' in Forks when you'd a right to ha' been around lookin' to see that old skinflint of a father o' yours didn't git no hurt. You're goin' to round up Red Mask; you who ain't got guts enough but to crawl round here fer help to do it. You!"
A hot reply sprang to the youngster's lips in spite of his fear of this man, but it died suddenly as a voice from within the doorway broke in upon them.
"And a right purpose too, Archie."
Diane stepped out on to the verandah and ranged herself at his side, while her scornful brown eyes sought the foreman's face. There was a moment's pause, then she looked up into the boy's troubled face.
"You want to see my father?"
Archie was only eighteen, and though well grown and muscular, he was still only a boy.
"Yes, Miss Diane; I do want to see him. I want to borrow a couple of horses from him, and to ask his advice."
Archie's recent heat and hysteria had soothed under the influence of the girl's presence. He now stood bowed and dejected; he appeared to have suddenly grown old. Jake watched the scene with a sneer on his brutal face, but remained silent now that Diane was present.
"I will rouse him myself," she said quietly, moving toward the door. "Yes, you shall see him, Archie. I heard what you said just now, and I'll tell him. But——" She broke off, hesitating. Then she came back to him. "Is—is your father dead, or—only wounded?"
The boy's head dropped forward, and two great tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. Diane turned away, and a far-off look came into her steady brown eyes. There was a silence for a moment, then a deep, heart-broken sob came from the lad at her side. She flashed one hard glance in Jake's direction and turned to her companion, gently gripping his arm in a manner that expressed a world of womanly sympathy. Her touch, her quiet, strong helpfulness, did more for him than any formal words of condolence could have done. He lifted his head and dashed the tears from his face; and the girl smiled encouragement upon him.
"Wait here," she said; "I will go and fetch father."
She slipped away, leaving the two men alone. And when she had gone, the foreman's raucous voice sounded harshly on the still air.
"Say, you ain't smart, neither. We got one of your kidney around here now. Kind o' reckons to fix the old man through the girl. Most weak-kneed fellers gamble a pile on petticoats. Wal, I guess you're right out. Marbolt ain't easy that way. You'll be sorry you fetched him from his bed, or I don't know him."
Archie made no reply. Nor was any more talk possible, for at that moment there came the steady tap, tap, of the blind man's stick down the passage, and the two men faced the door expectantly. The rancher shuffled out on to the verandah. Diane was at his side, and led him straight over to young Orr. The old man's head was poised alertly for a second; then he turned swiftly in the foreman's direction.
"Hah! that you, Jake?" He nodded as he spoke, and then turned back to the other. The blind man's instinct seemed something more than human.
"Eh? Your father murdered, boy?" Marbolt questioned, without the least softening of tone. "Murdered?"
Archie gulped down his rising emotion. But there was no life in his answer—his words came in a tone of utter hopelessness.
"Yes, sir; shot down, I gather, in defense of our homestead."
The steady stare of the rancher's red eyes was hard to support. Archie felt himself weaken before the personality of this man he had come to see.
The hardness of his greeting had now changed to the gentleness of tone in which the blind man usually spoke. But the boy drew no confidence from it while confronted by those unseeing eyes. It was Diane who understood and replied for him.
"Yes; Archie was in Forks last night, on business, father. He only learned what had happened on returning home this afternoon. He—he wants some help."
"Yes, sir," Archie went on quickly; "only a little help. I came home to find our homestead burned clean out. Not a roof left to shelter my mother and sister, and not one living beast left upon the place, except the dogs. Oh, my God, it is awful! Mother and Alice were sitting beside the corral gate weeping fit to break their hearts over the dead body of father when I found them. And the story, as I learned it, sir, was simple—horribly, terribly simple. They were roused at about two in the morning by the dogs barking. Father, thinking timber wolves were around, went out with a gun. He saw nothing till he got to the corrals. Then mother, watching from her window, saw the flash of several guns, and heard the rattle of their reports. Father dropped. Then the gang of murderers roused out the stock, and some drove it off, while others wantonly fired the buildings. It was Red Mask, sir, for he came up to the house and ordered mother out before the place was fired. She is sure it was him because of his mask. She begged him not to burn her home, but the devil had no remorse; he vouchsafed only one reply. Maybe she forced him to an answer with her appeal; maybe he only spoke to intimidate others who might hear of his words from her. Anyway, he said, 'Your man and you open your mouths too wide around this place. Manson Orr wrote in to the police, and asked for protection. You won't need it now, neither will he.'" He paused, while the horror of his story sank deeply into the heart of at least one of his hearers. Then he went on with that eager, nervous fire he had at first displayed: "Mr. Marbolt, I look to you to help me. I've got nothing to keep me now from following this devil of a man. I want to borrow horses, and I'll hunt him down. I'll hunt him down while I've a breath left in my body, sir," he went on, with rising passion. "I'll pay him if it takes me my lifetime! Only lend me the horses, sir. It is as much to your interest as mine, for he has robbed you before now; your property is no more safe than any other man's. Let us combine to fight him, to bring him down, to measure him his full measure, to send him to hell, where he belongs. I'll do this——"
"Yes, while your mother and sister starve," put in the blind man, drily. Then, as the fire of Archie's passion suddenly sank at the cold, incisive words, and he remained silent and abashed, he went on, in quiet, even tones, while his red eyes were focussed upon his visitor's face with disconcerting directness, "No, no; go you—I won't say 'home,' but go you to your mother and sister: look after them, care for them, work for them. You owe that to them before any act of vengeance be made. When you have achieved their comfort, you are at liberty to plunge into any rashness you choose. I am no youngster, Archie Orr, I am a man of years, who has seen, all my life, only through a brain rendered doubly acute by lack of sight, and my advice is worthy of your consideration. You have nothing more to fear from Red Mask at present, but if you continue your headlong course you will have; and, as far as I can make out, his hand is heavy and swift in falling. Go back to your women-folk, I say. You can get no horses from me for such a foolhardy purpose as you meditate."
Diane had watched her father closely, and as he finished speaking, she moved toward the bereaved man and laid a hand upon his arm in gentle appeal.
"Father is right, Archie. Go back to them, those two lonely, broken-hearted women. You can do all for them if you will. They need all that your kind, honest heart can bestow. It is now that you must show the stuff you are made of."
Archie had turned away; but he looked round and mechanically glanced down at the brown hand still resting upon his arm. The sight of it held him for some moments, and when he raised his head a new look was in his eyes. The sympathy in her tones, the gentle encouragement of the few words she had spoken, had completed that which the sound but unsympathetic advice of her father had begun.
His purpose had been the wild impulse of unstable youth; there was no strength to it, no real resolution. Besides, he was a gentle-hearted lad, to whom Diane's appeal for his mother and sister was irresistible.
"Thank you, Miss Diane," he said, with a profound sigh. "Your kind heart has seen where my anger has been blind. Yes, I will return and help my mother. And I thank you, sir," he went on, turning reluctantly to face the stare of the rancher's eyes again. "You, too, have plainly shown me my duty, and I shall follow it, but—if ever——"
"And you'll do well," broke in Jake, with a rough laugh that jarred terribly. "Your father's paid his pound. If his son's wise, he'll hunt his hole."
Archie's eyes flashed ominously. Diane saw the look, and, in an instant, drew his attention to his horse, which was moving off toward the barn.
"See, Archie," she said, with a gentle smile, "your horse is weary, and is looking for rest."
The boy read her meaning. He held out his hand impulsively, and the girl placed hers into it. In a moment his other had closed over it, and he shook it tenderly. Then, without a word, he made off after his horse.
The blind man's face was turned in his direction as he went, and when the sound of his footsteps had died away, he turned abruptly and tapped his way back to the door. At the threshold he turned upon the foreman.
"Two days in succession I have been disturbed," he gritted out. "You are getting past your work, Jake Harnach."
"Father——" Diane started forward in alarm, but he cut her short.
"And as for you, miss, remember your place in my house. Go, look to your duties. Sweep, wash, cook, sew. Those are the things your sex is made for. What interest have you, dare you have, in that brainless boy? Let him fight his own battles. It may make a man of him; though I doubt it. He is nothing to you."
Diane shrank before the scathing blast of that sightless fury. But she rallied to protest.
"It is the women-folk, father."
He threw up his hands in ineffable scorn, and shuffled away into the house.
Jake, still smarting under the attack, stood leaning against the verandah post. He was looking away down at the bunkhouse, where a group of the men were gathered about Archie Orr, who, seated on his horse, was evidently telling his tale afresh.
Diane approached him. He did not even turn to meet her.
"Jake, I want Bess at once. Hitch her to the buckboard, and have her sent round to the kitchen door."
"What are you goin' to do, my girl?" he asked, without shifting his gaze.
"Maybe I shall drive over to see those poor women."
"You can't have her."
Jake turned, and looked down at her from his great height. Archie Orr had just ridden off.
Diane returned his look fearlessly, and there was something in the directness of her gaze that made the giant look away.
"I think I can," she said quietly. "Go and see to it now."
The man started. It seemed as if he were about to bluster. His bold, black eyes flashed ominously, and it was plain from his attitude that a flat and harsh refusal was on his lips. But somehow he didn't say it. The brutality of his expression slowly changed as he looked at her. A gentle light stole slowly, and it seemed with difficulty, into his eyes, where it looked as out of place as the love-light in the eyes of a tiger. But there was no mistaking it. However incongruous it was there, and the lips that had been framing a cruel retort merely gave utterance to a quiet acquiescence.
"All right. I'll send her round in five minutes."
And Diane went into the house at once.
Meanwhile, a great discussion of young Orr's affairs was going on at the bunkhouse. Arizona had vacated his favorite seat, and was now holding the floor. His pale face was flushed with a hectic glow of excitement. He was taxing his little stock of strength to the uttermost, and, at least, some of those looking on listening to him knew it.
"I tell you ther' ain't nothin' fer it but to roll up to old blind hulks an' ast him to send us out. Ef this dog-gone skunk's let be, ther' ain't no stock safe. Guess I've had my med'cine from 'em, and I'm jest crazy fer more. I've had to do wi' fellers o' their kidney 'fore, I guess. We strung six of 'em up in a day on the same tree down Arizona way, as that gray-headed possum, Joe Nelson, well remembers. Say, we jest cleaned our part o' that country right quick. Guess ther' wa'n't a 'bad man' wuth two plugs o' nickel chawin' around when we'd finished gettin' 'em. Say, this feller's played it long enough, an' I'm goin' right now to see the boss. He's around. Who's comin'?"
"Yes, an' Archie Orr's a pore sort o' crittur to git left wi' two women-folk," said Raw Harris, rising from his upturned bucket and putting forth his argument, regardless of its irrelevance. "Not a stick to shelter him—which I mean 'them.' An' not a dog-gone cent among 'em. By G——, Arizona's right."
"That's it," put in Joe Nelson; "you've hit it. Not a dog-gone cent among 'em, an', what's more, owin' blind hulks a whole heap o' bills on mortgage. Say, that was mostly a weak move him askin' the boss fer help. Why, I guess old Marbolt hates hisself on'y one shade wuss'n he hated Manson Orr. Say, boys, ef we're askin' to lynch Red Mask, we ain't askin' in any fancy name like 'Orr.' Savee?"
There was silence for a moment while they digested the wisdom of the suggestion. Then Jacob Smith nodded, and Lew Cawley murmured—
"Dead gut every time, is Joe."
This loosened their tongues again until Tresler spoke.
"See here, boys, you're talking of lynching, and haven't a notion of how you're going to get your man. Don't even know where to lay hands on him. Do you think Marbolt's going to turn us all loose on the war-path? Not he. And how are two or three of us going to get a gang of ten or twelve? Besides, I believe it'll be easier to get him without a lynching party. Remember he's no ordinary cattle-rustler. I say lie low, he'll come our way, and then——"
"That's it, lie low," broke in Joe Nelson, shaking his gray head over a pannikin of tea, and softly blowing a clearing among the dead flies floating on its surface. "Maybe y' ain't heard as the sheriff's come around Forks. Guess he's fixed a station ther'."
"He's already done so?" asked Tresler.
"By Jove! The very thing, boys. Don't roll up. Don't do any lynching. The sheriff's the boy for Red Mask."
But Arizona, backed by Raw Harris, would have none of it. They were of the old-time stock who understood only old-time methods, and cordially resented any peaceful solution to the difficulty. They wanted a lynching, and no argument would dissuade them. And after much discussion it was Arizona's final word that carried the day.
"Now, you see, Tresler," he said huskily, for his voice was tired with sustained effort. "You're the remarkablest smart 'tenderfoot' that ever I see. Say, you're a right smart daddy—an' I ain't given to latherin' soap-suds neither. But ther's suthin's I calc'late that no 'tenderfoot,' smart as he may be, is goin' to locate right. Hoss thieves is hoss thieves, an' needs stringin'. Ther' ain't nuthin' for it but a rawhide rope fer them fellers. Guess I've seen more'n you've heerd tell of. Say, boys, who's goin' to see the boss? Guess he's right ther' on the verandah."
Though there was no verbal reply as the wild American turned to move off, there was a general movement to follow him. Raw Harris started it. Pannikins were set down upon the ground, and, to a man, the rest followed in their leader's wake. Tresler went too, but he went only because he knew it would be useless—even dangerous—to hold back. The general inclination was to follow the lead of this volcanic man. Besides, he had only voiced that which appealed to them all. The gospel of restraint was not in their natures. Only Joe Nelson really endorsed Tresler's opinion. But then Joe was a man who had lived his youth out, and had acquired that level-headedness from experience which Tresler possessed instinctively. Besides, he was in touch with Diane. He had lived more than ten years on that ranch, during which time he had stood by watching with keenly observant eyes the doings of the cattle world about him. But he, too, in spite of his own good reason, moved on to the verandah with the rest.
And Jake saw the movement and understood, and he reached the verandah first and warned the blind man of their coming.
And Tresler's prophecy was more than fulfilled. As they came they saw the rancher rise from his seat. He faced them, a tall, awesome figure in his long, full dressing-gown. His large, clean-cut head, his gray, clipped beard, the long aquiline nose, and, overshadowing all, his staring, red eyes; even on Arizona he had a damping effect.
"Well?" he questioned, as the men halted before him. Then, as no answer was forthcoming, he repeated his inquiry. "Well?"
And Arizona stepped to the front. "Wal, boss, it's this a-ways," he began. "These rustlers, I guess——"
But the blind man cut him short. The frowning brows drew closer over the sightless eyes, which were focussed upon the cowpuncher with a concentration more overpowering than if their vision had been unimpaired.
"Eh? So you've been listening to young Orr," he said, with a quietness in marked contrast to the expression of his face. "And you want to get after them?" Then he shook his head, and the curious depression of his brows relaxed, and a smile hovered round his mouth. "No, no, boys; it's useless coming to me. Worse than useless. You, Arizona, should know better. There are not enough ranches round here to form a lynching party, if one were advisable. And I can't spare men from here. Why, to send enough men from here to deal with this gang would leave my place at their mercy. Tut, tut, it is impossible. You must see it yourselves."
"But you've been robbed before, sir," Arizona broke out in protest.
"Yes, yes." There was a grating of impatience in the blind man's voice, and the smile had vanished. "And I prefer to be robbed of a few beeves again rather than run the chance of being burned out by those scoundrels. I'll have no argument about the matter. I can spare no hand among you. I'll not police this district for anybody. You understand—for anybody. I will not stop you—any of you"—his words came with a subtle fierceness now, and were directed at Arizona—"but of this I assure you, any man who leaves this ranch to set out on any wild-goose chase after these rustlers leaves it for good. That's all I have to say."
Arizona was about to retort hotly, but Tresler, who was standing close up to him, plucked at his shirt-sleeve, and, strangely enough, his interference had its effect. The man glared round, but when he saw who it was that had interrupted him, he made no further effort to speak. The wild man of the prairie was feeling the influence of a stronger, or, at least, a steadier nature than his own. And Jake's lynx eyes watching saw the movement, and he understood.
The men moved reluctantly away. Their moody looks and slouching gait loudly voiced their feelings. No words passed between them until they were well out of ear-shot. And Tresler realized now the wonderful power of brain behind the sightless eyes of the rancher. Now, he understood something of the strength which had fought the battle, sightless though he was, of those early days; now he comprehended the man who could employ a man of Jake's character, and have strength enough to control him. That afternoon's exhibition made a profound impression on him.
Their supper was finished before they set out for the house, and now the men, murmuring, discontented, and filled with resentment against the rancher, loafed idly around the bunkhouse. They smoked and chewed and discussed the matter as angry men who are thwarted in their plans will ever do. Tresler and Joe alone remained quiet. Tresler, for the reason that a definite plan was gradually forming in his brain out of the chaos of events, and Joe because he was watching the other for his own obscure reasons.
The sun had set when Tresler separated himself from his companions. Making his way down past the lower corrals he took himself to the ford. Joe thoughtfully watched him go.
Seated on a fallen tree-trunk Tresler pondered long and deeply. He was thinking of Joe's information that the sheriff had at last set up a station at Forks. Why should he not carry his story to him? Why should he not take this man into his confidence, and so work out the trapping of the gang? And, if Jake were——
He had no time to proceed further. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of wheels, followed, a moment later, by the splash of a horse crossing the ford. He turned in the direction whence the sound came, and beheld Bessie hauling a buckboard up the bank of the river; at the same instant he recognized the only occupant of the vehicle. It was Diane returning from her errand of mercy.
Tresler sprang to his feet. He doffed his prairie hat as the buckboard drew abreast of him. Nor was he unmindful of the sudden flush that surged to the girl's cheeks as she recognized him. Without any intention Diane checked the mare, and, a moment later, realizing what she had done, she urged her on with unnecessary energy. But Tresler had no desire that she should pass him in that casual fashion, and, with a disarming smile, hailed her.
"Don't change a good mind, Miss Marbolt," he cried.
Whereat the blush returned to the girl's cheek intensified, for she knew that he had seen her intention. This time, however, she pulled up decidedly, and turned a smiling face to him.
"This is better than I bargained for," he went on. "I came here to think the afternoon's events out, and—I meet you. I had no idea you were out."
"I felt that Bess wanted exercise," the girl answered evasively.
Without asking herself why, Diane felt pleased at meeting this man. Their first encounter had been no ordinary one. From the beginning he seemed to link himself with her life. For her their hours of acquaintance might have been years; years of mutual help and confidence. However, she gathered her reins up as though to drive on. Tresler promptly stayed her.
"No, don't go yet, Miss Marbolt, please. Pleasures that come unexpectedly are pleasures indeed. I feel sure you will not cast me back upon my gloomy thoughts."
Diane let the reins fall into her lap.
"So your thoughts were gloomy; well, I don't wonder at it. There are gloomy things happening. I was out driving, and thought I would look in at Mosquito Reach. It has been razed to the ground."
"You have been to see—and help—young Orr's mother and sister? I know it. It was like you, Miss Marbolt," Tresler said, with a genuine look of admiration at the dark little face so overshadowed by the sun-hat.
"Don't be so ready to credit me with virtues I do not possess. We women are curious. Curiosity is one of our most pronounced features. Poor souls—their home is gone. Utterly—utterly gone. Oh, Mr. Tresler, what are we to do? We cannot remain silent, and yet—we don't know. We can prove nothing."
"And what has become of them—I mean Mrs. Orr and her daughter?" Tresler asked, for the moment ignoring the girl's question.
"They have gone into Forks."
"And food and money?"
"I have seen to that." Diane shrugged her shoulders to make light of what she had done, but Tresler would not be put off.
"Bless you for that," he said, with simple earnestness. "I knew I was right." Then he reverted abruptly to her question. "But we can do something; the sheriff has come to Forks."
"Yes, I know." Diane's tone suddenly became eager, almost hopeful. "And father knows, and he is going to send in a letter to Fyles—Sheriff Fyles is the great prairie detective, and is in charge of Forks—welcoming him, and inviting him out here. He is going to tell him all he knows of these rustlers, and so endeavor to set him on their track. Father laughs at the idea of the sheriff catching these men. He says that they—the rustlers—are no ordinary gang, but clever men, and well organized. But he thinks that if he gets Fyles around it will save his property."
"And your father is wise. Yes, it will certainly have that effect; but I, too, have a little idea that I have been working at, and—Miss Marbolt, forgive the seeming impertinence, but I want to discuss Jake again; this time from a personal point of view. You dislike Jake; more, you have shown me that you fear him."
The girl hesitated before replying. This man's almost brusque manner of driving straight to his point was somewhat alarming. He gave her no loophole. If she discussed the matter with him at all it must be fully, or she must refuse to answer him.
"I suppose I do fear him," she said at last with a sigh. Then her face suddenly lit up with an angry glow. "I fear him as any girl would fear the man who, in defiance of her expressed hatred, thrusts his attentions upon her. I fear him because of father's blindness. I fear him because he hopes in his secret heart some day to own this ranch, these lands, all these splendid cattle, our fortune. Father will be gone then. How? I don't know. And I—I shall be Jake's slave. These are the reasons why I fear Jake, Mr. Tresler, since you insist on knowing."
"I thank you, Miss Marbolt." The gentle tone at once dispelled the girl's resentment. "You have suspicions which may prove to be right. It was for this reason I asked you to discuss Jake. One thing more and I'll have done. This Joe Nelson, he is very shrewd, he is in close contact with you. How far is he to be trusted?"
"To any length; with your life, Mr. Tresler," the girl said with enthusiasm. "Joe is nobody's enemy but his own, poor fellow. I am ashamed to admit it, but I have long since realized that when things bother me so that I cannot bear them all alone, it is Joe that I look to for help. He is so kind. Oh, Mr. Tresler, you cannot understand the gentleness, the sympathy of his honest old heart. I am very, very fond of Joe."
The man abruptly moved from his stand at the side of the buckboard, and looked along the trail in the direction of the ranch. His action was partly to check an impulse which the girl's manner had roused in him, and partly because his quick ears had caught the sound of some one approaching. He was master of himself in a moment, however, and, returning, smiled up into the serious eyes before him.
"Well, Joe shall help me," he said. "He shall help me as he has helped you. If——" he broke off, listening. Then with great deliberation he came close up to the buckboard. "Miss—Diane," he said, and the girl's lids lowered before the earnestness of his gaze, "you shall never—while I live—be the slave of Jake Harnach."
Nor had Tresler time to move away before a tall figure rounded the bend of the trail. In the dusk he mistook the newcomer for Jake, then, as he saw how slim he was, he realized his mistake.
The man came right up to the buckboard with swift, almost stealthy strides. The dark olive of his complexion, the high cheek-bones, the delicately chiseled, aquiline nose, the perfectly penciled eyebrows surmounting the quick, keen, handsome black eyes; these things combined with the lithe, sinuous grace of an admirably poised body made him a figure of much attraction.
The man ignored Tresler, and addressed the girl in the buckboard in a tone that made the former's blood boil.
"The boss, him raise hell. Him say, 'I mak' her wish she not been born any more.' Him say, 'Go you, Anton, an' find her, an' you not leave her but bring her back.' Ho, the boss, your father, he mad. Hah?" The half-breed grinned, and displayed a flashing set of teeth. "So I go," he went on, still smiling in his impudent manner. "I look out. I see the buckboard come down to the river. I know you come. I see from there back"—he pointed away to the bush—"you talk with this man, an' I wait. So!"
Diane was furious. Her gentle brown eyes flashed, and two bright patches of color burned on her cheeks. The half-breed watched her carelessly. Turning to Tresler she held out her hand abruptly.
"Good-night, Mr. Tresler," she said quietly. Then she chirruped to her light-hearted mare and drove off.
Anton looked after her. "Sacre!" he cried, with a light shrug. "She is so mad—so mad. Voila!" and he leisurely followed in the wake of the buckboard.
And Tresler looked after him. Then it was that his thoughts reverted to the scene in the saloon at Forks. So this was Anton—"Black" Anton—the man who had slid into the country without any one knowing it. He remembered Slum Ranks's words and description. This was the man who had the great Jake's measure.
WHICH DEALS WITH THE MATTER OF DRINK
Although the murder of Manson Orr caused a wide-spread outcry, it ended at that in so far as the inhabitants of the district were concerned. There were one or two individuals who pondered deeply on the matter, and went quietly about a careful investigation, and of these Tresler was the most prominent. He found excuse to visit the scene of the outrage; he took interest in the half-breed settlement six miles out from Mosquito Bend. He hunted among the foot-hills, even into the obscurer confines of the mountains; and these doings of his were the result of much thought, and the work of much time and ingenuity; for everything had to be done without raising the suspicion of anybody on the ranch, or for that matter, off it. Being a "green" hand helped him. It was really astonishing how easily an intelligent man like Tresler could get lost; and yet such was the deplorable fact. Even Arizona's opinion of him sank to zero, while Jake found a wide scope for his sneering brutality.
As the days lengthened out into a week, and then a fortnight passed and nothing more was heard of Red Mask, the whole matter began to pass out of mind, and gradually became relegated to the lore of the country. It was added to the already long list of barroom stories, to be narrated, with embellishments, by such men as Slum or the worthy Forks carpenter.
The only thing that stuck in people's minds, and that only because it added fuel to an already deep, abiding, personal hatred, was the story of Julian Marbolt's treatment of young Archie Orr, and his refusal to inaugurate a vigilance party. The blind man's name, always one to rouse the roughest side of men's tongues, was now cursed more bitterly than ever.
And during these days the bunkhouse at Mosquito Bend seethed with revolt. But though this was so, underneath all their most bitter reflections the men were not without a faint hope of seeing the career of these desperadoes cut short; and this hope sprang from the knowledge of the coming of the sheriff to Forks. The faith of Arizona and the older hands in the official capacity for dealing with these people was a frail thing, but the younger set were less sceptical.
And at last Julian Marbolt's tardy invitation to Fyles was despatched. Tresler had watched and waited for the sending of that letter; he had hoped to be the bearer of it himself. It would have given him the opportunity of making this Fyles's acquaintance, which was a matter he desired to accomplish as soon as possible, without drawing public attention to the fact. But in this he was disappointed, for Jake sent Nelson. Nor did he know of the little man's going until he saw him astride of his buckskin "shag-an-appy," with the letter safely bestowed in his wallet.
This was not the only disappointment he experienced during that fortnight. He saw little or nothing of Diane. To Tresler, at least, their meeting at the ford was something more than a recollection. Every tone of the girl's voice, every look, every word she had spoken remained with him, as these things will at the dawn of love. Many times he tried to see her, but failed. Then he learned the meaning of their separation. One day Joe brought him a note from Diane, in which she told him how Black Anton had returned to her father and poured into his only too willing ears a wilfully garbled story of their meeting at the ford. She told him of her father's anger, and how he had forbidden her to leave the house unattended by at least one of his two police—Anton and Jake. This letter made its recipient furious, but it also started a secret correspondence between them, Joe Nelson proving himself perfectly willing to act as go-between. And this correspondence was infinitely pleasant to Tresler. He treasured Diane's letters with a jealous care, making no attempt to disguise the truth from himself. He knew that he was falling hopelessly in love—had fallen hopelessly in love.
This was the position when the evening of the day came on which the rancher's invitation to Fyles had been despatched. The supper hash had been devoured by healthy men with healthy appetites. Work was practically over, there was nothing more to be done but feed, water, and bed down the horses. And Joe Nelson had not yet returned from Forks; he was at least five hours overdue.
Arizona, practically recovered from his wound, was carefully soaping his saddle, and generally preparing his accoutrements for return to full work on the morrow. He had grown particularly sour and irritable with being kept so long out of the saddle. His volcanic temper had become even more than usually uncertain.
His convalescence threw him a good deal into Tresler's company, and a sort of uncertain friendship had sprung up between them. Arizona at first tolerated him, protested scathingly at his failures in the craft, and ended by liking him; while the other cordially appreciated the open, boisterous honesty of the cowpuncher. He was equally ready to do a kindly action, or smite the man hip and thigh who chanced to run foul of him. Tresler often told him that his nationality was a mistake, that instead of being an American he should have been born in Ireland.
Just now the prospect of once more getting to work had put Arizona in high good temper, and he took his comrades' rough chaff good-naturedly, giving as good as he got, and often a little better.
Jacob Smith had been watching him for some time, and a thoughtful grin had quietly taken possession of his features.
"Soapin' yer saddle," he observed at last, as the lean man happened to look up and see the grinning face in the doorway of the bunkhouse. "Guess saddles do git kind o' slippery when you ain't slung a leg over one fer a whiles. Say, best soap the knees o' yer pants too, Arizona. Mebbe y'll sit tighter."
"Wal," retorted Arizona, bending to his work again, "I do allow ther's more savee in that tip than most gener'ly slobbers off'n your tongue. I'll kind o' turn it over some."
Jacob's grin broadened. "Guess I should. Your plug ain't been saddled sence you wus sent sick. Soft soap ain't gener'ly in your line; makes me laff to see you handlin' it."
"That's so," observed the other, imperturbably. "I 'lows it has its uses. 'Tain't bad fer washin'. Guess you ain't tried it any?"
At that moment Raw Harris came across from the barn. He lounged over to an upturned box and sat down.
"Any o' you fellers seen Joe Nelson along yet?" he asked as he leisurely filled his pipe.
"Five hours overdue," said Tresler, who was cleaning out the chambers of his revolver.
"Joe ain't likely to git back this night," observed Arizona. "He's a terror when he gits alongside a saloon. Guess he's drank out one ranch of his own down Texas way. He's the all-firedest bag o' tricks I've ever see. Soft as a babby is Joe. Honest? Wal, I'd smile. Joe's that honest he'd give up his socks ef the old sheep came along an' claimed the wool. Him an' me's worked together 'fore. He's gittin' kind o' old, an' ain't as handy as he used to be. Say, he never told you 'bout that temperator feller, Tresler, did he?"
Tresler shook his head, and paused in his work to relight his pipe.
"It kind o' minds me to tell you sence we're talkin' o' Joe. It likely shows my meanin' when I sez he's that soft an' honest, an' yet crazy fer drink. You see, it wus this a-ways. I wus kind o' foreman o' the 'U bar U's' in Canada, an' Joe wus punchin' cows then. The boys wus sheer grit; good hands, mind you, but sudden-like."
Arizona ceased plastering the soap on his saddle and stood erect. His gaunt figure looked leaner than ever, but his face was alight with interest in the story he was about to narrate, and his great wild eyes were shining with a look that suggested a sort of fierce amusement. Teddy Jinks lounged into view and stood propped against an angle of the building.
"Git on," said Lew, between the puffs at his pipe.
Arizona shot a quick, disdainful glance at the powerful figure of the parson's progeny, and went on in his own peculiar fashion fashion—
"Wal, it so happened that the records o' the 'U bar U's' kind o' got noised abroad some, as they say in the gospel. Them coyotes as reckoned they wus smart 'lowed as even the cattle found a shortage o' liquid by reason of an onnatural thirst on that ranch. Howsum, mebbe ther' wus reason. Old Joe, he wus the daddy o' the lot. Jim Marlin used to say as Joe most gener'ly used a black lead when he writ his letters; didn't fancy wastin' ink. Mebbe that's kind o' zaggerated, but I guess he wus the next thing to a fact'ry o' blottin' paper, sure.
"Wal, I reckon some bald-faced galoot got yappin', leastways there wus a temperance outfit come right along an' lay hold o' the boss. Say, flannel-mouthed orators! I guess that feller could roll out more juicy notions on the subject o' drink in five minutes than a high-pressure locomotive could blow off steam through a five-inch leak in ha'f a year. He wus an eddication in langwidge, sir, sech as 'ud per-suade a wall-eyed mule to do what he didn't want, and wa'n't goin' to do anyways.
"I corralled the boys up in the yard, an' the feller got good an' goin'. He spotted Joe right off; fixed him wi' his eye an' focussed him dead centre, an' talked right at him. An' Joe wus iled—that iled he couldn't keep a straight trail fer slippin'. Say, speakin' metaphoric, that feller got the drop on pore Joe. He give him a dose o' syllables in the pit o' the stummick that made him curl, then he follered it right up wi' a couple o' slugs o' his choicest, 'fore he could straighten up. Then he sort o' picked him up an' shook him with a power o' langwidge, an' sot him down like a spanked kid. Then he clouted him over both lugs with a shower o' words wi' capitals, clumped him over the head wi' a bunch o' texts, an' thrashed him wi' a fact'ry o' trac' papers. Say, I guess pore Joe wouldn't 'a' rec'nized the flavor o' whisky from blue pizen when that feller had done; an' we jest looked on, feelin' 'bout as happy as a lot o' old hens worritin' to hatch out a batch o' Easter eggs. Say, pore Joe wus weepin' over his sins, an' I guess we wus all 'most ready to cry. Then the feller up an' sez, 'Fetch out the pernicious sperrit, the nectar o' the devil, the waters o' the Styx, the vile filth as robs homes o' their support, an' drives whole races to perdition!' an' a lot o' other big talk. An', say, we fetched! Yes, sir, we fetched like a lot o' silly, skippin' lambs. We brought out six bottles o' the worstest rotgut ever faked in a settlement saloon, an' handed it over. After that I guess we wus feelin' better. Sez we, feelin' kind o' mumsy over the whole racket, it ain't right, we sez, to harbor no sperrit-soaked, liver-pickled tag of a decent citizen's life around this layout; an' so we took Joe Nelson to the river and diluted him. After that I 'lows we lay low. I did hear as some o' the boys said their prayers that night, which goes to show as they wus feelin' kind o' thin an' mean. Ther' wa'n't a feller ther' but wus dead swore off fer a week.