"Guess it wus most the middle o' the night when Jim Yard comes to my shack an' fetched me out. He told me there wus a racket goin' on in the settlement. That temperator wus down ther' blazin' drunk an' shootin' up the town. Say, I felt kind o' hot at that. Yup, pretty sulphury an' hot, an' I went right out, quiet like, and fetched the boys. Them as had said their prayers wus the first to join me. Wal, we went along an' did things with that.—Ah, guess Jake's comin' this way; likely he wants somethin'."
Arizona turned abruptly to his saddle again, while all eyes looked over at the approaching foreman. Jake strode up. Arizona took no notice of him. It was his way of showing his dislike for the man. Jake permitted one glance—nor was it a friendly one—in his direction, then he went straight over to where Tresler was sitting.
"Get that mare of yours saddled, Tresler," he said, "and ride into Forks. You'll fetch out that skulkin' coyote, Joe Nelson. You'll fetch him out, savee? Maybe he's at the saloon—sure he's drunk, anyway. An' if he ain't handed over that letter to the sheriff, you'll see to it. Say, you'd best shake him up some; don't be too easy."
"I'll bring him out," replied Tresler, quietly.
"Hah, kind o' squeamish," sneered Jake.
"No. I'm not knocking drunken men about. That's all."
"Wal, go and bring him out," snarled the giant. "I'll see to the rest."
Tresler went off to the barn without another word. His going was almost precipitate, but not from any fear of Jake. It was himself he feared. This merciless brute drove him to distraction every time he came into contact with him, and the only way he found it possible to keep the peace with him at all was by avoiding him, by getting out of his way, by shutting him out of mind, whenever it was possible.
In a few minutes he had set out. His uneasy mare was still only half tamed, and very fresh. She left the yards peaceably enough, but jibbed at the river ford. The inevitable thrashing followed, Tresler knowing far too much by now to spare her. Just for one moment she seemed inclined to submit and behave herself, and take to the water kindly. Then her native cussedness asserted itself; she shook her head angrily, and caught the bar of the spade-bit in her great, strong teeth, swung round, and, stretching her long ewe neck, headed south across country as hard as she could lay heels to the ground.
Tresler fought her every foot of the way, but it was useless. The devil possessed her, and she worked her will on him. By the time he should have reached Forks he was ten miles in the opposite direction.
However, he was not the man to take such a display too kindly, and, having at length regained control, he turned her back and pressed her to make up time. And it made him smile, as he rode, to feel the swing of the creature's powerful strides under him. He could not punish her by asking for pace, and he knew it. She seemed to revel in a rapid journey, and the extra run taken on her own account only seemed to have warmed her up to even greater efforts.
It was nearly ten o'clock when he drew near Forks; and the moon had only just risen. The mare was docile enough now, and raced along with her ears pricked and her whole fiery disposition alert.
The trail approached Forks from the west. That is to say, it took a big bend and entered on the western side. Already Tresler could see the houses beyond the trees silhouetted in the moonlight, but the nearer approach was bathed in shadow. The trail came down from a rising ground, cutting its way through the bush, and, passing the lights of the saloon, went on to the market-place.
He checked the mare's impetuosity as he came down the slope. She was too valuable for him to risk her legs. With all her vices, he knew there was not a horse on the ranch that could stand beside the Lady Jezebel on the trail.
She propped jerkily as she descended the hill. Every little rustle of the lank grass startled her, and gave her excuse for frivolity. Her rider was forced to keep a watchful eye and a close seat. A shadowy kit fox worried her with its stealthy movements. It kept pace with her in its silent, ghostly way, now invisible in the long grass, now in full view beside the trail; but always abreast.
Half-way down the trail both horse and rider were startled seriously. A riderless horse, saddled and bridled, dashed out of the darkness and galloped across them. Of her own accord Lady Jezebel swung round, and, before Tresler could check her, had set off in hot pursuit. For once horse and rider were of the same mind, and Tresler bent low in the saddle, ready to grab at the bridle when his mare should overhaul the stranger.
In less than a minute they were abreast of their quarry. The stranger's reins were hanging broken from the bit, and Tresler grabbed at them. Nor could he help a quiet laugh, when, on pulling up, he recognized the buckskin pony and quaint old stock saddle of Joe Nelson. And he at once became alive to the necessity of his journey. What, he wondered, had happened to the little choreman?
Leading the captive, he rode back to the trail and pushed on toward the village. But his adventures were not over yet. At the bottom of the hill the mare, brought up to a stand, reared and shied violently. Then she stood trembling like an aspen, seizing every opportunity to edge from the trail, and all the while staring with wild, dilated eyes away out toward the bush on the right front. Her rider followed the direction of her gaze to ascertain the cause of the trouble. For some minutes he could distinguish nothing unusual in the darkness. The moon had not as yet attained much power, and gave him very little assistance; but, realizing the wonderful acuteness of a horse's vision, he decided that there nevertheless was something to be investigated. So he dismounted, and adopting the common prairie method of scanning the sky-line, he dropped to the ground.
For some time his search was quite vain, and only the mare's nervous state encouraged him. Then at length, low down in the deep shadow of the bush, something caught and held his attention. Something was moving down there.
He lay quite still, watching intently. Something of the mare's nervous excitement gripped him. The movement was ghostly. It was only a movement. There was nothing distinct to be seen, nothing tangible; just a weird, nameless something. A dozen times he asked himself what it was. But the darkness always baffled him, and he could find no answer. He had an impression of great flapping wings—such wings as might belong to a giant bat. The movement was sufficiently regular to suggest this, but the idea carried no conviction. There, however, his conjectures ended.
At last he sprang up with a sharp ejaculation, and his hand went to his revolver. The thing, or creature, whatever it was, was coming slowly but steadily toward him. Had he not been sure of this, the attitude of the horses would have settled the question for him. Lady Jezebel pulled back in the throes of a wild fear, and the buckskin plunged madly to get free.
He had hardly persuaded them to a temporary calmness, when a mournful cry, rising in a wailing crescendo, split the air and died away abruptly. And he knew that it came from the advancing "movement."
And now it left the shadow and drew out into the moonlight. And the man watching beheld a dark heap distinctly outlined midway toward the bush. The wings seemed to have folded themselves, or, at least, to have lowered, and were trailing on the ground in the creature's wake. Presently the whole thing ceased to move, and sat still like a great loathsome toad—a silent, uncanny heap amidst the lank prairie grass. And somehow he felt glad that it was no longer approaching.
The moments crept by, and the position remained unchanged. Then slowly, with an air of settled purpose, the creature raised itself on its hind legs, and, swaying and shuffling, continued its advance. In an instant Tresler's revolver leapt from its holster, and he was ready to defend himself. The attitude was familiar to him. He had read stories of the bears in the Rockies, and they came home to him now as he saw his adversary rear itself to its full height. His puzzlement was over; he understood now. He was dealing with a large specimen of the Rocky Mountain grizzly.
Yes, there could be no mistaking the swaying gait, the curious, snorting breathing, the sadly lolling head and slow movements. He remembered each detail with an exactness which astonished him, and was thrilled with the bristling sensation which assails every hunter when face to face with big game for the first time in his life.
He raised his gun, and took a long, steady aim, measuring the distance with deliberation, and selecting the animal's breast for his shot. Then, just as he was about to fire, the brute's head turned and caught the cold, sharp moonlight full upon its face. There was a momentary flash of white, and Tresler's gun was lowered as though it had been struck down.
JOE NELSON INDULGES IN A LITTLE MATCH-MAKING
The moonlight had revealed the grotesque features of Joe Nelson!
Tresler returned his gun to its holster precipitately, and his action had in it all the chagrin of a man who has been "had" by a practical joker. His discomfiture, however, quickly gave way before the humor of the situation, and he burst into a roar of laughter.
He laughed while he watched his bear drop again to his hands and knees, and continue to crawl toward him, till the tears rolled down his cheeks. On came the little fellow, enveloped in the full embracing folds of a large brown blanket, and his silent dogged progress warned Tresler that, as yet, his own presence was either unrealized or ignored in the earnestness of his unswerving purpose. And the nature of that purpose—for Tresler had fully realized it—was the most laughable thing of all. Joe was stalking his buckskin pony with the senseless cunning of a drunken man.
At last the absurdity of the position became too much, and he hailed the little choreman in the midst of his laughter.
"Ho! You, Joe!" he called. "What the blazes d'you think you're doing?"
There was no reply. For all heed the man under the blanket gave, he might have been deaf, dumb and blind. He just came steadily on.
Tresler shouted again, and more sharply. This time his summons had its effect. It brought an answer—an answer that set him off into a fresh burst of laughter.
"Gorl darn it, boys," came a peevish voice, from amidst the blanket, "'tain't smart, neither, playin' around when a feller's kind o' roundin' up his plug. How'm I goin' to cut that all-fired buckskin out o' the bunch wi' you gawkin' around like a reg'ment o' hoboes? Ef you don't reckon to fool any, why, some o' you git around an' head him off from the rest of 'em. I'd do it myself on'y my cussed legs has given out."
"Boys, eh?" Tresler was still laughing, but he checked his mirth sufficiently to answer, "Why, man, it's the whisky that's fooling you. There are no 'boys,' and no 'bunch' of horses here. Just your horse and mine; and I've got them both safe enough. You're drunk, Joe—beastly drunk."
Joe suddenly struggled to his feet and stood swaying uncertainly, but trying hard to steady himself. He focussed his eyes with much effort upon the tall figure before him, and then suddenly moved forward like a man crossing a brook on a single, narrow, and dangerously swaying plank. He all but pitched headlong into the waiting man as he reached him, and would undoubtedly have fallen to the ground but for the aid of a friendly hand thrust out to catch him. And while Tresler turned to pacify the two thoroughly frightened horses, the little man's angry tones snapped out at him in what was intended for a dignified protest. In spite of his drunken condition, his words were distinct enough, though his voice was thick. After all, as he said, it was his legs that had given way.
"Guess you're that blazin' 'tenderfoot' Tresler," he said, with all the sarcasm he was capable of at the moment. "Wal, say, Mr. a'mighty Tresler, ef it wa'n't as you wus a 'tenderfoot,' I'd shoot you fer sayin' I wus drunk. Savee? You bein' a 'tenderfoot,' I'll jest mention you're side-tracked, you're most on the scrap heap, you've left the sheer trail an' you're ditched. You've hit a gait you can't travel, an' don't amount to a decent, full-sized jackass. Savee? I ain't drunk. It's drink; see? Carney's rotgut. I tell you right here I'm sober, but my legs ain't. Mebbe you're that fool-headed you don't savee the difference."
Tresler restrained a further inclination to laugh. He had wasted too much time already, and was anxious to get back to the ranch. He quite realized that Joe knew what he was about, if his legs were hors-de-combat, for, after delivering himself of this, his unvarnished opinion, he wisely sought the safer vantage-ground of a sitting posture.
Tresler grabbed at the blanket and pulled it off his shoulders.
"What's this?" he asked sharply.
Joe looked up, his little eyes sparkling with resentment.
"'Tain't yours, anyway," he said. Then he added with less anger, and some uncertainty, "Guess I slept some down at the bushes. Durned plug got busy 'stead o' waitin' around. The fool hoss ain't got no manners anyways."
"Manners? Don't blither." Tresler seized him by the coat collar and yanked him suddenly upon his feet. "Now, hand over that letter to Sheriff Fyles. I've orders to deliver it myself."
Joe's twisted face turned upward with a comical expression of perplexity. The moonlight caught his eyes, and he blinked. Then he looked over at the horses, and, shaking his head solemnly, began to fumble at his pockets.
"S-Sheriff F-Fyles," he answered doubtfully. He seemed to have forgotten the very name. "F-Fyles?" he repeated again. "Letter? Say, now, I wus kind o' wonderin' what I cum to Forks fer. Y' see I mostly git around Forks fer Carney's rotgut. Course, ther' wus a letter. Jest wher' did I put that now?" He became quite cheerful as he probed his pockets.
Tresler waited until, swaying and even stumbling in the process, he had turned out two pockets; then his impatience getting the better of him, he proceeded to conduct the search himself.
"Now see here," he said firmly, "I'll go through your pockets. If you've lost it, there'll be trouble for you when you get back. If you'd only kept clear of that saloon you would have been all right."
"That's so," said Joe humbly, as he submitted to the other's search.
Tresler proceeded systematically. There was nothing but tobacco and pipe in the outside pockets of his coat. His trousers revealed a ten-cent piece and a dollar bill, which the choreman thanked him profusely for finding, assuring him, regretfully, that he wouldn't have left the saloon if he had known he had it. The inside pocket of the coat was drawn blank of all but a piece of newspaper, and Tresler pronounced his verdict in no measured terms.
"You drunken little fool, you've lost it," he said, as he held out the unfolded newspaper.
Joe seemed past resentment with his fresh trouble. He squinted hard to get the newspaper into proper focus.
"Say," he observed meekly, "I guess it wus in that, sure. Sure, yes," he nodded emphatically, "I planted it that a-ways to kep it from the dirt. I 'member readin' the headin' o' that paper. Et wus 'bout some high-soundin' female in New Yo——"
"Confound it!" Tresler was more distressed for the little man than angry with him. He knew Jake would be furious, and cast about in his mind for excuses that might save him. The only one he could think of was feeble enough, but he suggested it.
"Well, there's only one thing to do; we must ride back, and you can say you lost the letter on the way out, and have spent the day looking for it."
Joe seemed utterly dejected. "Sure, yes. There's on'y one thing to do," he murmured disconsolately. "We must ride back. Say, you're sure, plumb sure it ain't in one of my pockets? Dead sure I must 'a' lost it?"
"No doubt of it. Damn it, Joe, I'm sorry. You'll be in a deuce of a scrape with Jake. It's all that cursed drink."
"That's so," murmured the culprit mournfully. His face was turned away. Now it suddenly brightened as though a fresh and more hopeful view of the matter had presented itself, and his twisted features slowly wreathed themselves into a smile. His deep-set eyes twinkled with an odd sort of mischievous humor as he raised them abruptly to the troubled face of his companion.
"Guess I kind o' forgot to tell you. I gave the sheriff that letter this mornin' 'fore I called on Carney. Mebbe, ef I'd told you 'fore I'd 'a' saved you——"
Tresler could find no words to express his exasperation. He made a grab at the now grinning man's coat collar, seized him, and, lifting him bodily, literally threw him on to the back of his buckskin pony.
"You little old devil!" he at last burst out; "you stay there, and back you go to the ranch. I'll shake the liquor out of you before we get home."
Tresler sprang into his saddle, and, turning his mare's head homeward, led the buckskin and its drunken freight at a rattling pace. And Joe kept silence for a while. He felt it was best so. But, in the end, he was the first to speak, and when he did so there was a quiet dryness in his tone that pointed all he said.
"Say, Tresler, I'm kind o' sorry you wus put to all that figgerin' an' argyment," he said, shaking up his old pony to bring him alongside the speedy mare. "Y' see ye never ast me 'bout that letter. Kind o' jumped me fer a fool-head at oncet. Which is most gener'ly the nature o' boys o' your years. Conclusions is mostly hasty, but I 'lows they're reas'nable in their places—which is last. An' I sez it wi'out offense, ther' ain't a blazin' thing born in this world that don't reckon to con-clude fer itself 'fore it's rightly begun. Everything needs teachin', from a 'tenderfoot' to a New York babby."
Joe's homily banished the last shadow of Tresler's ill-humor. The little man had had the best of him in his quiet, half-drunken manner; a manner which, though rough, was still irresistible.
"That's all right, Joe. I'm no match for you," he said with a laugh. "But, setting jokes on one side, I think you're in for trouble with Jake. I saw it in his eye before I started out."
"I don't think. Guess I'm plumb sure," Joe replied quietly.
"Then why on earth did you do it?"
Joe humped his back with a movement expressive of unconcern.
"It don't matter why. Jake's nigh killed me ha'f a dozen times. One o' these days he'll fix me sure. He'll lace hell out o' me to-morrow, I'm guessin', an' when it's done it won't alter nothin' anyways. I've jest two things in this world, I notion, an'—one of 'em's drink. 'Tain't no use in sayin' it ain't, 'cos I guess my legs is most unnateral truthful 'bout drink. Say, I don't worrit no folk when I'm drunk; guess I don't interfere wi' no one's consarns when I'm drunk; I'm jest kind o' happy when I'm drunk. Which bein' so, makes it no one's bizness but my own. I do it 'cos I gits a heap o' pleasure out o' it. I know I ain't worth hell room. But I got my notions, an' I ain't goin' ter budge fer no one." Joe's slantwise mouth was set obstinately; his little eyes flashed angrily in the moonlight, and his whole attitude was one of a man combating an argument which his soul is set against.
As Tresler had no idea of arguing the question and remained silent, the choreman went on in a modified tone of morbid self-sympathy sympathy—
"When the time comes around I'll hand over my checks wi'out no fuss nor botheration; guess I'll cash in wi' as much grit as George Washington. I don't calc'late as life is wuth worritin' over anyways. We don't ast to be born, an', comin' into the world wi'out no by-your-leave, I don't figger as folks has a right to say we've got to take a hand in any bluff we don't notion."
"Perhaps you've a certain amount of right on your side." Tresler felt that this hopeless pessimism was rather the result of drink than natural to him. "But you said you had two things that you considered worth living for?"
"That's so. I ain't goin' back on what I said. It's jest that other what set me yarnin'. Say, guess you're mostly a pretty decent feller, Tresler, though I 'lows you has failin's. You're kind o' young. Now I guess you ain't never pumped lead into the other feller, which the same he's doin' satisfact'ry by you? You kind o' like most fellers?"
"Jest so. But I've noticed you don't fancy folks as gits gay wi' you. You kind o' make things uneasy. Wal, that's a fault you'll git over. Mebbe, later on, when a feller gits rilin' you you'll work your gun, instead of trying to thump savee into his head. Heads is mighty cur'us out west here. They're so chock full o' savee, ther' ain't no use in thumpin' more into 'em. Et's a heap easier to let it out. But that's on the side. I most gener'ly see things, an' kind o' notice fellers, an' that's how I sized you up. Y' see I've done a heap o' settin' around M'skeeter Bend fer nigh on ten years, mostly watchin'. Now, mebbe, y' ain't never sot no plant, an' bedded it gentle wi' sifted mould, an' watered it careful, an' sot right ther' on a box, an' watched it grow in a spot wher' ther' wa'n't no bizness fer anythin' but weeds?"
Tresler shook his head, wonderingly.
"No; guess not," Joe went on. "Say," he added, turning and looking earnestly into his companion's face, "I'm settin' on that box right now. Yes, sir, I've watched that plant grow. I've picked the stones out so the young shoots could git through nice an' easy-like. I've watered it. I've washened the leaves when the blights come along. I've sticked it against the winds. I've done most everythin' I could, usin' soap-suds and soot waters, an' all them tasty liquids to coax it on. I've sot ther' a-smilin' to see the lovesome buds come along an' open out, an' make the air sweet wi' perfumes an' color an' things. I've sot right ther' an' tho't an' tho't a heap o' tho'ts around that flower, an' felt all crinkly up the back wi' pleasure. An' I ain't never wanted ter leave that box. No, sir, an' the days wus bright, an' nothin' seemed amiss wi' life nor nothin'. But I tell you it ain't no good. No, sir, 'tain't no good, 'cos I ain't got the guts to git up an' dig hard. I've reached out an' pulled a weed or two, but them weeds had got a holt on that bed 'fore I sot the seedlin', an' they've growed till my pore flower is nigh to be choked. 'Tain't no use watchin' when weeds is growin'. It wants a feller as can dig; an' I guess I ain't that feller. Say, ther's mighty hard diggin' to be done right now, an' the feller as does it has got to do it standin' right up to the job. Savee? I'm sayin' right now to you, Tresler, them weeds is chokin' the life out o' her. She's mazed up wi' 'em. Ther' ain't no escape. None. Her life's bound to be hell anyways."
"Her? Whom?" Tresler asked the question, but he knew that Joe was referring to Diane; Diane's welfare was his other interest in life.
The little man turned with a start "Eh? Miss Dianny—o' course."
"And the weeds?"
"Jake—an' her father."
And the two men became silent, while their horses ambled leisurely on toward home. It was Tresler who broke the silence at last.
"And this is the reason you've stayed so long on the ranch?" he asked.
"Mebbe. I don't reckon as I could 'a' done much," Joe answered hopelessly. "What could a drunken choreman do anyways? Leastways the pore kid hadn't got no mother, an' I guess ther' wa'n't a blazin' soul around as she could yarn her troubles to. When she got fixed, I guess ther' wa'n't no one to put her right. And when things was hatchin', ther' wa'n't no one to give her warnin' but me. 'What is the trouble?' you ast," the little man went on gloomily. "Trouble? Wal, I'd smile. Ther' ain't nothin' but trouble around M'skeeter Bend, sure. Trouble for her—trouble all round. Her trouble's her father, an' Jake. Jake's set on marryin' her. Jake," in a tone of withering scorn, "who's only fit to mate wi' a bitch wolf. An' her father—say, he hates her. Hates her like a neche hates a rattler. An' fer why? Gawd only knows; I ain't never found out. Say, that gal is his slave, sure. Ef she raises her voice, she gits it. Not, I guess, as Jake handles me, but wi' the sneakin' way of a devil. Say, the things he does makes me most ready to cry like a kid. An' all the time he threatens her wi' Jake fer a husband. An' she don't never complain. Not she; no sir. You don't know the blind hulks, Tresler; but ther', it ain't no use in gassin'. He don't never mean her fer Jake, an' I guess she knows it. But she's plumb scared, anyways."
Tresler contemplated the speaker earnestly in the moonlight. He marveled at the quaint outward form of the chivalrous spirit within. He was trying to reconcile the antagonistic natures of which this strange little bundle of humanity was made up. For ten years Joe had put up with the bullying and physical brutality of Jake Harnach, so that, in however small a way, he might help to make easy the rough life-path of a lonely girl. And his motives were all unselfish. A latent chivalry held him which no depths of drunkenness could drown. He leant over and held out his hand.
"Joe," he said, "I want to shake hands with you and call you my friend."
The choreman held back for a moment in some confusion. Then, as though moved by sudden impulse, he gripped the hand so cordially offered.
"But I ain't done yet," he said a moment later. He had no wish to advertise his own good deeds. He was pleading for another. Some one who could not plead for herself. His tone had assumed a roughness hardly in keeping with the gentle, reflective manner in which he had talked of his "flower." "Tresler," he went on, "y're good stuff, but y' ain't good 'nough to dust that gal's boots, no—not by a sight. Meanin' no offense. But she needs the help o' some one as'll dig at them weeds standin'. See? Which means you. I can't tell you all I know, I can't tell you all I've seed. One o' them things—I guess on'y one—is that Jake's goin' to best blind hulks an' force him into givin' him his daughter in marriage, and Gawd help that pore gal. But I swar to Gawd ef I'm pollutin' this airth on the day as sees Jake worritin' Miss Dianny, I'll perf'rate him till y' can't tell his dog-gone carkis from a parlor cinder-sifter."
"Tell me how I can help, and count me in to the limit," said Tresler, catching, in his eagerness, something of the other's manner of expression.
It was evident by the way the choreman's face lit up at his friend's words that he had hoped for such support, but feared that he should not get it. Joe Nelson was distinctly worldly wise, but with a heart of gold deep down beneath his wisdom. He had made no mistake in this man whose sympathies he had succeeded in enlisting. He fully understood that he was dealing with just a plain, honest man, otherwise he would have kept silence.
"Wal, I guess ther' ain't a deal to tell." The little man looked straight ahead toward the dark streak which marked the drop from the prairie land to the bed of the Mosquito River. "Still, it's li'ble to come along right smart."
The man's suggestion puzzled Tresler, but he waited. His own mind was clear as to what he personally intended, but it seemed to him that Joe was troubled with other thoughts besides the main object of his discourse. And it was these very side issues that he was keen to learn. However, whatever Joe thought, whatever confusion or perplexity he might have been in, he suddenly returned to his main theme with great warmth of feeling.
"But when it comes, Tresler, you'll stand by? You'll plug hard fer her, jest as ef it was you he was tryin' to do up? You'll stop him? Say, you'll jest round that gal up into your own corrals, an' set your own brand on her quick, eh? That's what I'm askin'."
"I see. Marry her, eh?"
"An' why not?" asked Joe quickly. "She's a heap too good fer you. Ther' ain't a feller breathin' amounts to a row o' beans aside o' her. But it's the on'y way to save her from Jake. You'll do it. Yes, sure, you'll do it. I ken see it in your face."
The little fellow was leaning over, peering up into Tresler's face with anxious, almost fierce eyes. His emotion was intense, and at that moment a refusal would have driven him to despair.
"You are too swift for me, Joe," Tresler said quietly. But his tone seemed to satisfy his companion, for the latter sat back in his saddle with a sigh of relief. "It takes the consent of two people to make a marriage. However," he went on, with deep earnestness, "I'll promise you this, Miss Marbolt shall never marry Jake unless it is her own wish to do so. And, furthermore, she shall never lack a friend, ready to act on her behalf, while I am in the country."
"You've said it."
And the finality of Joe's tone brought silence.
In spite of the punishment he knew to be awaiting him, Joe was utterly happy. It was as though a weight, which had been oppressing him for years, had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. He would cheerfully have ridden on to any terror ever conceived by the ruthless Jake. Diane's welfare—Diane's happiness; it was the key-note of his life. He had watched. He knew. Tresler was willing enough to marry her, and she—he chuckled joyfully to himself.
"Jake ain't a dorg's chance—a yaller dorg's chance. When the 'tenderfoot' gits good an' goin' he'll choke the life out o' Master Jake. Gee!"
And Tresler, too, was busy with his thoughts. Joe's suggestion had brought him face to face with hard fact, and, moreover, in a measure, he had pledged himself. Now he realized, after having listened to the little man's story, how much he had fallen in love with Diane. Joe, he knew, loved her as a father might love his child, or a gardener his flowers; but his was the old, old story that brought him a delight such as he felt no one else had ever experienced. Yes, he knew now he loved Diane with all the strength of his powerful nature; and he knew, too, that there could be little doubt but that he had fallen a victim to the beautiful dark, sad face he had seen peering up at him from beneath the straw sun-hat, at the moment of their first meeting. Would he marry Diane? Ay—a thousand times ay—if she would have him. But there it was that he had more doubts than Joe. Would she marry him? he asked himself, and a chill damped the ardor of his thoughts.
And so, as they rode on, he argued out the old arguments of the lover; so he wrestled with all the old doubts and fears. So he became absorbed in an ardent train of thought which shut out all the serious issues which he felt, that, for his very love's sake, he should have probed deeply. So he rode on impervious to the keen, studious, sidelong glances wise old, drunken old Joe favored him with; impervious to all, save the flame of love this wild old ranchman had fanned from a smouldering ember to a living fire; impervious to time and distance, until the man at his side, now thoroughly sobered, called his attention to their arrival at the ranch.
"Say, boy," he observed, "that's the barn yonder. 'Fore we git ther' ther's jest one thing more. Jake's goin' to play his hand by force. Savee? Mebbe we've a notion o' that force—Miss Dianny an' me——"
"Yes, and we must think this thing thoroughly out, Joe. Developments must be our cue. We can do nothing but wait and be ready. There's the sheriff——"
"Eh? Sheriff?" Joe swung round, and was peering up into Tresler's face.
"Ah, I forgot." Tresler's expression was very thoughtful. They had arrived at the barn, and were dismounting. "I was following out my own train of thought. I agree with you, Joe, Red Mask and his doings are at the bottom of this business." His voice had dropped now to a low whisper lest any one should chance to be around.
Without a word Joe led his horse into the barn, and, off-saddling him, fixed him up for the night. Tresler did the same for his mare. Then they came out together. At the door Joe paused.
"Say," he remarked simply, "I jest didn't know you wus that smart."
"Don't credit me with smartness. It's—poor little girl."
"Ah!" Joe's face twisted into his apish grin. "Say, you'll stick to what you said?"
"Every word of it."
"Good; the rest's doin' itself, sure."
And they went their several ways; Joe to the kitchen of the house, and Tresler to his dusty mattress in the bunkhouse.
TRESLER INVOLVES HIMSELF FURTHER; THE LADY JEZEBEL IN A FREAKISH MOOD
Enthusiasm is the mainspring of a cowboy's life. Without enthusiasm a cowboy inevitably falls to the inglorious level of a "hired man"; a nice distinction in the social conditions of frontier life. The cowboy is sometimes a good man—not meaning a man of religion—and often a bad man. He is rarely indifferent. There are no half measures with him. His pride is in his craft. He will lavish the tenderness of a mother for her child upon his horse; he will play poker till he has had the doubtful satisfaction of seeing his last cent pass into somebody else's pocket; he will drink on the most generous scale, and is ever ready to quarrel. Even in this last he believes in thoroughness. But he has many good points which often outweigh his baser instincts. They can be left to the imagination; for it is best to know the worst of him at the outset to get a proper, and not a glorified estimate of his true character. The object of this story is to give a veracious, and not a highly gilded picture of the hardy prairie man of days gone by.
Before all things the cowboy is a horseman. His pride in this almost amounts to a craze. His fastidiousness in horse-flesh, in his accoutrements, his boots, his chapps, his jaunty silk handkerchief about his neck, even to the gauntlets he so often wears upon his hands, is an education in dandyism. He is a thorough dandy in his outfit. And the greater the dandy, the more surely is he a capable horseman. He is not a horse-breaker by trade, but he loves "broncho-busting" as a boy loves his recreation. It comes to him as a relief from the tedium of branding, feeding, rounding up, cutting out, mending fences, and all the utility work of the ranch. Every unbroken colt is like a ticket in a lottery; it may be easy, or it may be a tartar. And the tartar is the prize that every cowpuncher wants to draw so that he may demonstrate his horsemanship.
Broncho-busting was the order of the next day at Mosquito Bend, and all hands were agog, and an element of general cheeriness pervaded the bunkhouse whilst breakfast was in preparation. Marbolt had obtained a contract to supply the troops with a large band of remounts, and the terms demanded that each animal must be saddle-broken.
Tresler, with the rest, was up betimes. He, too, was going to take his part in the horse-breaking. While breakfast was in the course of preparation he went out to overhaul his saddle. There must be no doubtful straps in his gear. Each saddle would have a heavy part to play, and his own, being one he had bought second-hand from one of his comrades, needed looking to.
He was very thoughtful as he went about his work. His overnight talk with Joe Nelson had made him realize that he was no longer a looker-on, a pupil, simply one of the hands on the ranch. Hitherto he had felt, in a measure, free in his actions. He could do as it pleased him to do. He could have severed himself from the ranch, and washed his hands of all that was doing there. Now it was different. Whether he would or no he must play out his part. He had taken a certain stand, and that stand involved him with responsibilities which he had no wish to shirk.
His saddle was in order, his mare had been rubbed down and fed, and he was leisurely strolling over to the bunkhouse for breakfast. And as he passed the foreman's hut he heard Jake's voice from within hailing him with unwonted cheeriness.
"Mornin', Tresler," he called out. "Late gettin' in last night."
Tresler moved over and stood in the doorway. He was wary of the tone, and answered coolly—
"Yes; the mare bolted this side of the ford, and took me ten miles south. When I got on the Forks trail I met Nelson on his way home."
"Ah, that mare's the very devil. How are you doin' with her now?"
"Oh, so, so. She leads me a dance, but I'd rather have her than any plug you've got on the ranch. She's the finest thing I've ever put a leg over."
"Yes, guess that's so. The boss was always struck on her. I kind of remember when she came. She wasn't bred hereabouts. The old man bought her from some half-breed outfit goin' through the country three years ago—that's how he told me. Then we tried to break her. Say, you've done well with her, boy."
Jake had been lacing up a pair of high field boots; they were massive things with heavy, clumped soles, iron tips and heels. Now he straightened up.
"Did Nelson say why he was late?" he went on abruptly.
"No. And I didn't ask him."
"Ah, knew it, I s'pose. Drunk?"
Tresler felt that the lie was a justifiable one.
"Then what the devil kept the little swine?"
Jake's brows suddenly lowered, and the savage tone was no less than the coarse brutality of his words. The other's coolness grew more marked.
"That was none of my concern. He'd delivered the letter, and it was only left for me to hurry him home."
"I'll swear he was loafin' around the saloon all day. Say, I guess I'll see him later."
Tresler shrugged and turned away. He wanted to tell this man what he thought of him. He felt positively murderous toward him. He had never met anybody who could so rouse him. Sooner or later a crisis would come, in spite of his reassurances to Diane, and then—Jake watched him go. Then he turned again to the contemplation of his great boots, and muttered to himself.
"It won't be for long—no, not for long. But not yet. Ther's too much hangin' to it——" He broke off, and his fierce eyes looked after the retreating man.
The unconscious object of these attentions meanwhile reached the bunkhouse. Breakfast was well on, and he had to take his pannikin and plate round to Teddy's cookhouse to get his food. "Slushy," as the cook was familiarly called, dipped him out a liberal measure of pork and beans, and handed him half a loaf of new-made bread. Jinks was no niggard, and Tresler was always welcome to all he needed.
"Goin' to ride?" the youth demanded, as he filled the pannikin with tea.
"Why, of course." Tresler had almost forgotten the change of work that had been set out for the day. His face brightened now as the cook reminded him of it. "Wouldn't miss it for a lot. That mare of mine has given me a taste for that sort of thing."
"Taste!" Teddy exclaimed, with a scornful wave of his dipper. "Belly full, I tho't, mebbe." He turned to his stove and shook the ashes down. "Say," he went on, over his shoulder, "guess I'm bakin' hash in mine. Ther' ain't so much glory, but ther's a heap more comfort to it."
Tresler passed out smiling at the youth's ample philosophy. But the smile died out almost on the instant. A half-smothered cry reached him from somewhere in the direction of the barn. He stood for an instant with his brows knitted.
The next, and his movements became almost electrical.
Now the man's deliberate character flatly contradicted itself. There was no pause for consideration, no thought for what was best to do. He had heard that cry, and had recognized the voice. It was a cry that summoned him, and wrung the depths of his heart. His breakfast was pitched to the ground. And, as though fate had ordained it, he beheld a heavy rawhide quirt lying on the ground where he had halted. He grabbed the cruel weapon up, and set off at a run in the direction whence the cry had come.
His feet were still encased in the soft moccasin slippers he usually wore in exchange for his riding boots, and, as he ran, they gave out no sound. It was a matter of fifty yards to the foreman's hut, and he sprinted this in even time, keeping the building between himself and a direct view of the barn, in the region of which lay his destination. And as he ran the set expression of his face boded ill for some one. Jaws and mouth were clenched to a fierce rigidity that said far more than any words could have done.
He paused for one breathless instant at the hither side of the foreman's hut. It was because he heard Jake's voice cursing on the other side of it. Then he heard that which made his blood leap to his brain. It was a stifled cry in Nelson's now almost unrecognizable voice. And its piteous appeal aroused in him a blind fury.
He charged round the building in half a dozen strides. One glance at the scene was sufficient. Poor old Joe Nelson was lying on the ground, his arms thrown out to protect his head, while Jake, his face ablaze, stood over him, kicking him with his cruel field boots, with a force and brutishness that promised to break every bone in the old man's body.
It all came to him in a flash.
Then he leapt with a rush at the author of the unnatural scene. The butt of his quirt was uplifted. It swung above his head a full half-circle, then it descended with that whistling split of the air that told of the rage and force that impelled it. It took the giant square across the face, laying the flesh open and sending the blood spurting with its vicious impact. It sent him reeling backward with a howl of pain, like a child at the slash of an admonishing cane. And Jake's hands went up to his wounds at once; but, even so, his movements were not swift enough to protect him from a second slash of the vengeful thong. And Tresler's aim was so swift and sure that the bully fell to the ground like a pole-axed steer.
And with Jake's fall the tension of Tresler's rage relaxed. He could have carried the chastisement further with a certain wild delight, but he was no savage, only a real, human man, outraged and infuriated by the savagery of another. His one thought was for his poor old friend, and he dropped on his knees, and bent over the still, shrunken form in a painful anxiety. He called to him, and put one hand under the gray old head and raised it up. And as he did so the poor fellow's eyes opened. Joe murmured something unintelligible, and Tresler was about to speak again, when a movement behind him changed his purpose and brought him to his feet with a leap.
Nor was he any too soon. And his rage lit anew as he saw Jake struggling to rise. In an instant he was standing over him threateningly.
"Move, and I'll paralyze you!" he cried hoarsely.
And Jake made no further effort. He lay back with a growl of impotent rage, while his hands moved uneasily, mopping his blood-stained features.
Now it was, for the first time, Tresler became aware that the men from the bunkhouse had come upon the scene.
The sight of all those faces gazing in wide-eyed astonishment at the fallen Jake brought home to him something of the enormity of his offense, and it behooved him to get Joe out of further harm's way. He stooped, and gathering the little choreman tenderly into his powerful arms, lifted him on to his shoulders and strode away to the bunkhouse, followed by his silent, wondering comrades.
He deposited Joe upon his own bed, and the men crowded round. And questions and answers came in a wild volley about him.
It was Arizona who spoke least and rendered most assistance. Together he and Tresler undressed the patient and treated him to a rough surgical examination. They soon found that no limbs were broken, but of his ribs they were less certain. He was severely bruised about the head, and this latter no doubt accounted for his unconsciousness. Cold water, harshly applied, though with kind intent, was the necessary restorative, and after a while the twisted face took on a hue of life and the eyes opened. Then Tresler turned to the men about him.
"Boys," he said gravely, "I want you all to remember that this is purely my affair. Joe's and mine—and Jake's. I shall settle it in my own way. For the present we have our work to do."
There was a low murmur, and Arizona raised a pair of fierce eyes to his face. He was going to speak—to voice a common thought; but Tresler understood and cut him short.
"Go easy, Arizona. We're good friends all. You wouldn't like me to interfere in a quarrel of yours."
"Never mind the 'buts.'" And Tresler's keen, honest eyes looked squarely into the seared face of the wild cowpuncher.
For a moment the men stood around looking on with lowering faces, eyeing the prostrate man furtively. But Tresler's attitude gave them no encouragement, and even Arizona felt the influence of his strong personality. Suddenly, as though with a struggle, the cowboy swung round on his fellows and his high-pitched tones filled the silent room.
"Come right on, boys. Guess he's right. We'll git." And he moved toward the door.
And the men, after the slightest possible hesitation, passed out in his wake. Tresler waited until the door had closed behind the last of them, then he turned to the injured man.
"Feeling better, Joe?"
"Feelin' better? Why, yes, I guess."
Joe's answer came readily, but in a weak voice.
"No bones broken?"
"Bones? Don't seem."
Tresler seated himself on the bunk and looked into the gray face. At last he rose and prepared to go, but Joe detained him with a look.
"Say—they're gone?" he murmured.
The other sat down again. "Yes."
"Good." Joe sighed and reclosed his eyes; but it was only for a second. He opened them again and went on. "Say, you won't tell her—Miss Dianny. Don't you tell her. Pore little soul, she'll wep them pretty eyes o' hers out, sure. Y' see, I know her. Y' see, I did git drunk yesterday. I knew I'd git it. So it don't signify. Don't tell her."
"She'll be sure to hear of it."
"Say, Tresler," Joe went on, ignoring the other's objection. "Go easy; jest say nothin'. Kind o' fergit this thing fer the time. Ther's other work fer you. I'd a heap sooner I'd bin killed than you git roped into this racket. It's Miss Dianny you're to look to, not me; an' now, mebbe, they'll run you off'n the ranch."
Tresler shook his head decidedly. "Don't be afraid; they can't get rid of me, Joe," he said.
"Ah! Wal, I guess meanwhile you'd best git off to work. I'll pull round after a while. You see, you must go dead easy wi' Jake, 'cos o' her. Mind it's her—on'y her. You sed it last night. Mebbe this thing's goin' to make trouble. Trouble fer you; an' trouble fer you means trouble fer her."
Tresler saw the force of the other's argument. He must give them no further hold to turn on him. Yes, he saw how bad his position would be in the future. He wondered what would come of that morning's work; and, in spite of his confident assurance to Joe, he dreaded now lest there should be any means for them to get rid of him. He moved toward the door.
"All right, Joe. I'll keep a check on myself in the future," he said. "But don't you go and get drunk again or——"
He broke off. Flinging the door open to pass out, he found himself face to face with the object of their solicitude. Diane had been about to knock, and now started back in confusion. She had not expected this. She thought Tresler was with the "breaking" party. The man saw her distress, and the anxiety in her sweet brown eyes. He knew that at that moment all her thought was for Joe. It was the basket on her arm, full of comforts, that told him. And he knew, too, that she must have been a witness to the disgraceful scene by the barn, for how else could she have learned so quickly what had happened? He put his finger on his lip to silence her, while he closed the bunkhouse door behind him. Then he responded to the inquiry he saw in her eager, troubled face.
"He is better, Miss Diane. He will soon be all right," he added, keeping his voice low lest it should reach the man inside. "Can I give him anything for you? Any message?" He glanced significantly from her face to the basket on her arm.
The girl did not answer at once. Her eyes looked seriously up into his face.
"Thank you," she said at last, a little vaguely. Then she broke out eagerly, and Tresler understood the feeling that prompted her. "I saw the finish of it all," she went on; "oh, the dreadful finish. Thank God I did not see the rest. When you bore him off on your shoulders I thought he was dead. Then I felt I could not stay away. While I was wondering how to get down here without attracting attention, Sheriff Fyles arrived, and father and he went at once into the office. I knew Jake would be out of the way. I waited until Anton had disappeared with the sheriff's horse, then I hurried down here. Can I see him now? I have a few little luxuries here which I scrambled together for him."
The girl's appeal was irresistible. Nor was Tresler the man to attempt the impossible. Besides, she knew all, so there was nothing to hide from her. He glanced over at the barn. The men had already saddled. He saw Arizona leading two horses, and recognized Lady Jezebel as one of them. The wild cowpuncher had saddled his mare for him, and the friendliness of the act pleased him.
"Yes, go in and see him," he said. "The place hasn't been cleaned up yet, but perhaps you won't mind that. You will come like an angel of comfort to poor Joe. Poor old fellow! He thinks only of you. You are his one care in life. It will be like a ray of sunshine in his clouded life to be waited on by you. I need hardly give you the caution, but—don't stay long."
Diane nodded, and Tresler stepped aside. The girl's hand was on the door-latch; she hesitated a moment and finally faced about.
"Fyles is here now," she said significantly. "The raiders; do you think you ought——"
"I am going to see him."
"Yes." The girl nodded. She would have said more, but her companion cut her short.
"I must go," he said. Then he pointed over at the mare. "You see?" he added. "She is in view of Jake's window."
The next moment they had parted.
The Lady Jezebel was very fretful when Tresler mounted her. She treated him to a mild display of bad temper, and then danced boisterously off down the trail, and her progress was as much made on her hind legs as on all fours. Once round the bend her rider tried to bring her to a halt, but no persuasion could reduce her to the necessary docility. She fretted on until, exasperated, the man jabbed her sharply with the spurs. Then the mischief started. Her head went down and her back humped, and she settled to a battle royal.
It was in the midst of this that another horseman rounded the bend and rode leisurely on to the field of battle. He drew up and watched the conflict with interest, his own great raw-boned bay taking quite as enthusiastic an interest in what was going forward as its rider.
The mare fought like a demon; but Tresler had learned too much for her, and sat on his saddle as though glued to it; and the newcomer's interest became blended with admiration for the exhibition of horsemanship he was witnessing. As suddenly as she had begun the lady desisted. It was in a pause for breath that she raised her infuriated head and espied the intruder. Doubtless, realizing the futility of her efforts, and at the same time not wishing one of the opposite sex to witness her defeat, she preferred to disguise her anger and gave the impression of a quiet, frivolous gambol, for she whinnied softly and stared, with ears pricked and head erect, in a haughty look of inquiry at the more cumbersome figure of the bay.
And her rider, too, had time to look around. His glance at once fell upon the stranger, and he knew that it was the man he wanted to talk to.
The two men met with little formality.
"Sheriff Fyles?" Tresler said as he came up.
There was something wonderfully picturesque yet businesslike about this prairie sleuth. This man was the first of his kind he had seen, and he studied him with interest. The thought of Sheriff Fyles had come so suddenly into his mind, and so recently, that he had no time to form any imaginative picture of him. Had he done so he must inevitably have been disappointed with the reality, for Fyles was neither becoming nor even imposing. He was rather short and decidedly burly, and his face had an innocent caste about it, a farmer-like mould of russet-tanned features that was extremely healthy-looking, but in no way remarkable for any appearance of great intelligence.
But this was a case of the fallibility of appearances. Fyles was remarkable both for great intelligence and extreme shrewdness. Not only that, he was a man of cat-like activity. His bulk was the result of a superabundance of muscle, and not of superfluous tissue. His bucolic spread of features was useful to him in that it detracted from the cold, keen, compelling eyes which looked out from beneath his shaggy eyebrows; and, too, the full cheeks and fat neck, helping to hide the determined jaws, which had a knack of closing his rather full lips into a thin, straight line. Nature never intended a man of his mould to occupy the position that Fyles held in his country's peace regime. He was one of her happy mistakes.
And in that first survey Tresler realized something of the personality which form and features were so ludicrously struggling to conceal.
"Yes." The officer let his eyes move slowly over this stranger. Then, without the least expression of cordiality he spoke the thought in his mind. "That's a good nag—remarkably good. You handle her tolerably. Didn't get your name?"
"Yes. New hereabouts?"
The broad-shouldered man had an aggravatingly official manner. Tresler replied with a nod.
"Ah! Remittance man?"
At this the other laughed outright. He saw it was useless to display any anger.
"Wrong," he said. "Learning the business of ranching. Going to start on my own account later on."
"Ah! Younger son?"
"Not even a younger son!" The two horses were now moving leisurely on toward the ford. "Suppose we quit questions and answers that serve no particular purpose, sheriff. I have been waiting to see you."
"So I figured," observed the other, imperturbably, "or you wouldn't have answered my questions so amiably. Well?"
The sheriff permitted himself a sort of wintry smile, while his watchful eyes wandered interestedly over the surrounding bush.
"There are things doing about this country," Tresler began a little lamely. "You've possibly heard?"
"Things are generally doing in a cattle country where brands are easily changed and there is no official to inquire who has changed them."
Fyles glanced admiringly down at Lady Jezebel's beautiful clean legs.
"This Red Mask?" Tresler asked.
"You've heard the story of his latest escapade? The murder of Manson Orr?"
"From Mr. Marbolt—and others. In telling me, the blind man offered five thousand dollars' reward for the capture of the man."
"That's better than I hoped for," replied Tresler, musingly. "You see," he went on, "the blind man's something cantankerous. He's lost cattle himself, but when some of the boys offered to hunt Red Mask down, he treated them with scant courtesy—in fact, threatened to discharge any man who left the ranch on that quest."
"I found him amiable."
"You would." Tresler paused. This man was difficult to talk to, and he wanted to say so much. Suddenly he turned and faced him, and, to his chagrin, discovered that the other was still intent on the mare he was riding. His eyes were fixed on the lady's shoulder, where the indistinct marks of the brand were still visible. "You see, sergeant," he went on, ignoring the other's abstraction, "I have a story to tell you, which, in your official capacity, you may find interesting. In the light of recent events, I, at any rate, find it interesting. It has set me thinking a heap."
"Go ahead," said the officer, without even so much as raising his eyes. Tresler followed the direction of his gaze, but could see nothing more interesting in his mare's fore-quarters than their perfect shape. However, there was no alternative but to proceed with his narrative. And he told the sheriff of the visit of the night-riders which he had witnessed on the night of his arrival at the ranch. In spite of the other's apparent abstraction, he told the story carefully and faithfully, and his closing remarks were well pointed and displayed a close analysis. He told him of the previous visits of these night-riders, and the results following upon the circulation of the story by each individual who chanced to witness them. He told of Joe Nelson's warning to him, and how his earnestness had, at length, persuaded him to keep quiet. He felt no scruples in thus changing the responsibility of Diane's warning. Nothing would have induced him to drag her name into the matter.
"You see, sheriff," he said in conclusion, "I think I did right to keep this matter to myself until such time as I could tell it to you. It has all happened several times before, and, therefore, will no doubt happen again. What do you think?"
"She's the finest thing I've ever set two eyes on. There's only one like her—eh?" Tresler had given audible expression to his impatience, and the other abruptly withdrew his gaze from the mare. "It's interesting—decidedly."
"Did Marbolt tell you of the previous visits of these raiders? He knows of them."
"He told me more than I had time to listen to."
"He told me of the revolutionary spirit pervading the ranch."
Tresler saw the trap the wily police officer had laid for him and refused the bait. Evidently the blind man had told his version of that morning's doings, and the sheriff wished to learn the men's side of it. Probably his, Tresler's. This calm, cold man seemed to depend in no way upon verbal answers for the information he desired, for he went on without any appearance of expecting a reply.
"There's one thing you've made plain to me. You suspect collusion between these raiders and some one on the ranch."
"Yes. I meant you to understand that."
"Whom do you suspect? And your reasons?"
The two questions rapped out one after the other like lightning.
"My suspicions rest nowhere, because I can find no reason."
They had drawn rein at the ford. Fyles now looked keenly into Tresler's face, and his glance was full of meaning.
"I'm glad I've had this talk with you, Tresler. You have a keen faculty for observation, and a wise caution. When you have reason to suspect any one, and wish to tell me of it, you can communicate with me at any hour of the day or night. I know this ranch well by repute. So well, in fact, that I came out here to find you. You see, you also were known to me—through mutual acquaintances in Forks. Now your excellent caution will tell you that it would be bad policy for you to communicate openly with me. Good. Your equally excellent observation will have called your attention to this river. I have a posse stationed further down stream, for certain reasons which I will keep to myself. It is a hidden posse, but it will always be there. Now, to a man of your natural cleverness, I do not think you will have any difficulty in finding a means of floating a message down to me. But do not send an urgent message unless the urgency is positive. Any message I receive in that way I shall act upon at once. I have learned a great deal to-day, Tresler, so much indeed that I even think you may need to use this river before long. All I ask of you is to be circumspect—that's the word, circumspect."
The sheriff edged his horse away so that he could obtain a good view of Lady Jezebel. And he gazed at her with so much intentness that Tresler felt he must call attention to it.
"She is a beauty," he suggested.
And Fyles answered with a sharp question. "Is she yours?"
"No. Only to use."
"Belongs to the ranch?"
"Jake told me she is a mare the blind man bought from a half-breed outfit passing through the country. He sets great store by her, but they couldn't tame her into reliability. That's three years ago. By her mouth I should say she was rising seven."
"That's so. She'd be rising seven. She's a dandy."
"You seem to know her."
But Fyles made no answer. He swung his horse round, and, raising his hand in a half-military salute in token of "good-bye," called over his shoulder as his bay took to the water—
"Don't forget the river."
Tresler looked after him for some moments, then his mare suddenly reared and plunged into the water to follow. He understood at once that fresh trouble was brewing in her ill-balanced equine mind, and took her sharply to task. She couldn't buck in the water; and, finally, after another prolonged battle, she dashed out of it and on to the bank again. But in the scrimmage she had managed to get the side-bar of the bit between her teeth, and, as she landed, she stretched out her lean neck, and with a snort of ill-temper, set off headlong down the trail.
A WILD RIDE
The intractability of the Lady Jezebel was beyond all bounds. Her vagaries were legion. After his experiences with her, Tresler might have been forgiven the vanity of believing, in spite of her sex, that he had fathomed her every mood. But she was forever springing unpleasant surprises, and her present one was of a more alarming nature than anything that had gone before. One of her tricks, bolting, was not so very serious, but now she proved herself a "blind bolter." And among horsemen there is only one thing to do with a blind bolter—shoot it. A horse of this description seems to be imbued with but one idea—a furious desire to go, to run anywhere, to run into anything lying in its course, to run on until its strength is spent, or its career is suddenly terminated by a forcible full stop.
At the bend of the trail the mare took blindly to the bush. Chance guided her on to a cattle-path which cut through to the pinewoods beyond. It was but a matter of moments before her rider saw the dark shadow of the woodlands come at him with a rush, and he plunged headlong into the gray twilight of their virgin depths. He had just time to crouch down in the saddle, with his face buried in the tangle of the creature's flying mane, when the drooping boughs, laden with their sad foliage, swept his back. He knew there were only two courses open to him. Either he must sit tight and chance his luck till the mad frolic was spent, or throw himself headlong from the saddle at the first likely spot. A more experienced horseman would, no doubt, have chosen the latter course without a second thought. But he preferred to stay with the mare. He was loth to admit defeat. She had never bested him yet, and a sort of petty vanity refused to allow him to acknowledge her triumph now. They might come to an opening, he told himself, a stretch of open country. The mare might tire of the forest gloom and turn prairieward. These things suggested themselves merely as an excuse for his foolhardiness in remaining in the saddle, not that he had any hope of their fulfilment.
And so it was. Nothing moved the animal out of her course, and it seemed almost as though a miracle were in operation. For, in all that labyrinth of tree-trunks, a sheer road constantly opened out before them. Once, and once only, disaster was within an ace of him. She brushed a mighty black-barked giant with her shoulders. Tresler's knee struck it with such painful force that his foot was wrenched from the stirrup and dragged back so that the rowel of his spur was plunged, with terrific force, into the creature's flank. She responded to the blow with a sideways leap, and it was only by sheer physical strength her rider retained his seat. Time and again the reaching boughs swept him and tore at his clothes, frequently lacerating the flesh beneath with the force of their impact.
These things, however, were only minor troubles as he raced down the grim forest aisles. His thoughts centred themselves on the main chance—the chance that embraced life and death. An ill-fate might, at any moment, plunge horse and rider headlong into one of those silent sentries. It would mean anything. Broken limbs at the best. But Providence ever watches over the reckless horseman, and, in spite of a certain native caution in most things, Tresler certainly was that. He knew no fear of this jade of a mare, and deep down in his heart there was a wild feeling of joy, a whole-hearted delight in the very madness of the race.
And the animal herself, untamed, unchecked, frothing at her bit, her sides a-lather with foam, her barrel tuckered like that of a finely trained race-horse, rushed blindly on. The forest echoed and reechoed with the dull thud of her hoofs as they pounded the thick underlay of rotting cones. And her rider breathed hard as he lay with his head beside the reeking neck, and watched for the coming of the end.
Suddenly, in the midst of the gray, he saw a flash of sunlight. It was like a beacon light to a storm-driven mariner. It was only a gleam of sunshine and was gone almost at once, but it told him that he was fast coming on the river. The final shoals, maybe, where wreck alone awaited him. Just for an instant his purpose wavered. There was still time to drop to the ground. He would have to chance the mare's flying heels. And it might save him.
But the idea was driven from his head almost before he realized it; the mare swerved like a skidding vehicle. He clung desperately to her mane, one arm was even round her neck in a forcible embrace. The struggle lasted only a few seconds. Then, as he recovered his equilibrium, he saw that she had turned into what was undoubtedly a well-defined, but long-disused, forest trail. The way was clear of obstruction. The trees had parted, opening up a wide avenue, and above him shone the perfect azure of the summer sky.
He was amazed. Where could such a trail lead? His answer came immediately. Away ahead of him, towering above the abundant foliage, he saw the distant shimmer of snowy peaks, and nearer—so near as to make him marvel aloud—the forest-clad, broken lands of the foot-hills. Immediate danger was past and he had time to think. At all cost he must endeavor to stop the racing beast under him. So he began a vicious sawing at her mouth. His efforts only drove her faster, and caused her to throw her head higher and higher, until her crown was within six inches of his face.
The futility of his purpose was almost ludicrous. He desisted. And the Lady Jezebel lowered her head with an angry snort and rushed on harder than ever. And now the race continued without relaxing. Once or twice Tresler thought he detected other hoof-marks on the trail, but his impression of them was very uncertain. One thing surely struck him, however: since entering this relic of the old Indian days, a decided change had come over the mare. She was no longer running blind; more, it seemed to him that she displayed that inexpressible familiarity with her surroundings which a true horseman can always detect, yet never describe. This knowledge led him to the hope of the passing of her temper.
But his hope was an optimistic mistake. The sweat pouring from neck, shoulders, and flanks, she still lifted her mud-brown barrel to her mighty stride, with all the vim and lightness of the start. He felt that, jade that she was, she ran because she loved it; ran with a delight that acted as a safety-valve for her villainous temper. She would run herself into amiability and then stop, but not before. And he knew her temper so well that he saw many miles lying ahead of him.
The rift was gradually widening, and the forest on either side thinned. The trees were wider and more scattered, and the broken hilltops, which but now had been well ahead, were frowning right over him, and he knew, by the steady, gradual rise of the country, that he would soon be well within the maze of forest, crag, and ravine, which composed the mountain foot-hills.
At last the forest broke and the ragged land leapt into full view with magical abruptness. It was as though Nature had grown her forest within the confines of a field embraced by an imaginary hedge. There were no outskirts, no dwindling away. It ended in one clean-cut line. And beyond lay the rampart hills, fringed and patched with disheveled bluff, split by rifts and yawning chasms. And ever they rose higher and higher as the distance gained, and, though summer was not yet at its height, it was gaunt-looking, torn, chaotic, a land of desolation.
The mare held straight on. The change of scene had no effect on her; the trail still lay before her, and she seemed satisfied with it. Tresler looked for the river. He knew it was somewhere near by. He gazed away to the right, and his conjecture was proved at once. There it lay, the Mosquito River, narrowed and foaming, a torrent with high, clean-cut banks. He followed its course ahead and saw that the banks lost themselves in the shadow between towering, almost barren hills, which promised the narrow mouth of a valley beyond.
And as he watched these things, a feeling of uneasiness came over him. The split between the hills looked so narrow. He looked for the trail. It seemed to make straight for the opening. As the ground flew under him, he turned once more to the river and followed its course with his eyes, and suddenly he was thrilled with his first real feeling of apprehension. The river on the right, and the hill on the left of him were converging. Nor could he avoid that meeting-point.
He was borne on by the bolting mare. There was not the smallest hope of restraining her. Whatever lay before him, he must face it, and face it with every faculty alert and ready. His mouth parched, and he licked his lips. He was facing a danger now that was uncertain, and the uncertainty of it strung him with a nervous apprehension.
Bluff succeeded bluff in rapid succession. The hill on the left had become a sheer cliff, and the general aspect of the country, that of a tremendous gorge. The trail rose slightly and wound its tortuous way in such an aggravating manner that it was impossible for him to see what lay before him.
At one point he came to a fork where another trail, less defined, branched away to the right. For a moment he dreaded lest the mare should adopt the new way. He knew what lay out there—the river. However, his fears were quickly allayed. The Lady Jezebel had no intention of leaving the road she was on.
They passed the fork, and he sighed his relief. But his relief was short-lived. Without a sign or warning the trail he was on died out, and his course lay over a narrow level flat sparsely dotted with small, stubbly bush. Now he knew that the mare had been true to herself. She had passed the real trail by, and was running headlong to——
He dared think no more. He knew the crisis was at hand. He had reached the narrowest point of the opening between the two hills, and there stretched the river right across his path less than fifty yards ahead. It took no central course—as might have been expected—through the gorge. It met the left-hand cliff diagonally, and, further on, adopted its sheer side for its left bank. He saw the clearly defined cutting, sharp, precise, before it reached the cliff, and he was riding straight for it!
In that first moment of realization he passed through every sensation of fear; but no time was given him for thought. Fifty yards! What was that to the raking stride of his untamed mare? It would be gone in a few seconds. Action was the only thing to serve him, and such action as instinct prompted him to was utterly unavailing. With a mighty heave of his body, and with all the strength of his sinewy arms, he tried to pull the creature on to her haunches. As well try to stem the tide ahead of him. She threw up her head until it nearly struck him in the face; she pawed the air with her great front legs; then, as he released her, she rushed forward again with a vicious snort.
His case seemed utterly hopeless. He sat down tight in the saddle, leaning slightly forward. He held his reins low, keeping a steady strain upon them. There was a vague, wild thought in his mind. He knew the river had narrowed. Was it a possible jump? He feared the very worst, but clung desperately to the hope. He would lift the creature to it when it came, anyhow. Would she see it? Would she, freakish brute that she was, realize her own danger, and, for once in her desperate life, do one sensible act? He did not expect it. He dared not hope for that. He only wondered.
He could see the full extent of the chasm now. And he thrilled as he realized that it was broader than he had supposed. Worse, the far bank was lower, and a fringe of bush hung at its very edge. His jaws tightened as he came up. He could hear the roar of the torrent below, and, to his strained fancy, it seemed to come up from the very bowels of the earth.
A few more strides. He timed his effort with a judgment inspired by the knowledge that his life depended on it—it, and the mare.
The chasm now came at him with a rush. Suddenly he leaned over and let out a wild "halloo!" in the creature's ears. At the same time he lifted her and plunged his spurs hard into her flanks. The effect was instantaneous, electrical. Just for an instant it seemed to him that some unseen power had suddenly shot her from under him. He had a sensation of being left behind, while yet he was rushing through the air with the saddle flying from under him. Then all seemed still, and he was gliding, the lower part of his body struggling to outstrip the rest of him. He had an impression of some great depth below him, though he knew he saw nothing, heard nothing. There came a great jolt. He lurched on to the animal's neck, recovered himself, and, the next instant, the old desperate gallop was going on as before.
He looked back and shivered as he saw the gaping rift behind him. The jump had been terrific, and, as he realized the marvel of the feat, he leaned over and patted the mare's reeking shoulder. She had performed an act after her own wild heart.
And Tresler laughed aloud at the thought. He could afford to laugh now, for he saw the end of his journey coming. He had landed on the trail he had lost, in all probability the continuation across the river of the branch road he had missed on the other side, and this was heading directly for the hill before him. More, he could see it winding its way up the hill. Even the Lady Jezebel, he thought, would find that ascent more than to her liking.
And he was right. She faced it and breasted it like the lion-hearted animal she was, but the loose sandy surface, and the abruptness of the incline, first brought her to a series of plunges, and finally to her knees and a dead halt.
And Tresler was out of the saddle in an instant, and drew the reins over her head, while she, now quite subdued, struggled to her feet. She was utterly blown, and her master was little better. They stood together on that hillside and rested.
Now the man had a full view of the river below, and he realized the jump that the mare had made. And, further down, he beheld an astonishing sight. At a point where the course of the river narrowed, a rough bridge of pine-logs had been thrown across it. He stood for some minutes contemplating the scene and busy with his thoughts, which at last culminated in a question uttered aloud—
"Where on earth does it lead to?"
And he turned and surveyed the point, where, higher up, the trail vanished round the hillside above him. The question voiced a natural curiosity which he promptly proceeded to satisfy. Linking his arm through the reins, he led the mare up the hill.
It was a laborious climb. Even free of her burden the horse had difficulty in keeping her feet. The sandy surface was deep, and poured away at every step like the dry sand on the seashore. And as they labored up, Tresler's wonder increased at every step. Why had such a trail been made, and where—where could it lead to?
At length the vanishing-point was reached, and horse and rider rounded the bend. And immediately the reason was made plain. But even the reason sank into insignificance before the splendor of the scene which presented itself.
He was standing on a sort of shelf cut out of the hillside. It was not more than fifty yards long, and some twenty wide, but it stood high over a wide, far-reaching valley, scooped out amongst the great foot-hills which reared their crests about him on every side. Far as the eye could see was spread out the bright, early summer green of the grass-land hollow. For the most part the surrounding hills were precipitate, and rose sheer from the bed of the valley, but here and there a friendly landslide had made the place accessible. Just where he stood, and all along the shelf, the face of the hill formed a precipice, both above and below, and the only approach to it was the way he had come round from the other side of the hill.
And the object, the reason, of that hidden road. A small hut crushed into the side of the sheer cliff. A dugout of logs, and thatch, and mud plaster. A hut with one fronting door, and a parchment window; a hut such as might have belonged to some old-time trapper, who had found it necessary to set his home somewhere secure from the attacks of marauding Indians.
And what a strategic position it was! One approach to be barred and barricaded; one laborious road which the besieged could sweep with his rifle-fire, and beat back almost any horde of Indians in the country. He led his horse on toward the hut. The door was closed, and the parchment of the window hid the interior.
The outside appearance showed good repair. He examined it critically. He walked round its three sides, and, as he came to the far side of it, and thoughtfully took in the method of its construction, he suddenly became aware of another example of the old trapper's cunning. The cliff that rose sheer up for another two or three hundred feet slightly sloped backward at the extremity of the shelf, and here had been cut a rude sort of staircase in the gray limestone of which it was composed. There were the steps, dangerous enough, and dizzying to look at, rising up, up, to the summit above. He ventured to the brink where they began, but instantly drew back. Below was a sheer drop of perhaps five hundred feet.
Turning his eyes upward, his fancy conjured up a picture of the poor wretch, hunted and besieged by the howling Indians, starving perhaps, creeping at dead of night from the little fort he had held so long and so valiantly against such overwhelming odds, and, in desperation, availing himself of his one and only possible escape. Step by step, he followed him, in imagination, up the awful cliff, clinging for dear life with fingers worn and lacerated by the grinding stone. Weary and exhausted, he seemed to see him draw near the top. Then a slip, one slip of his tired feet, and no hold upon the limestone with his hands would have power to save him. Down, down——
He turned back to the hut with a sick feeling in his stomach. Securing his mare to an iron ring, which he found driven firmly into one of the logs, he proceeded to investigate further. The door was held by a common latch, and yielded at once when he raised it. It opened inward, and he waited after throwing it open. He had a strange feeling of trespass in thus intruding upon what might prove to be the home of some fur-hunter.
No sound followed the opening of the door. He waited listening; then at last he stepped forward and announced himself with a sharp "Hello!"
His only answer was the echo of his greeting. Without more ado he stepped in. For a moment the sharpness of the contrast of light made it impossible for him to see anything; but presently he became used to the twilight of the interior, and looked about him curiously. It was his first acquaintance with a dugout, nor was he impressed with the comfort it displayed. The place was dirty, unkempt, and his dream of the picturesque, old-time trapper died out entirely. He beheld walls bare of all decoration, simply a rough plastering of mud over the lateral logs; a frowsy cupboard, made out of a huge packing-case, containing odd articles for housekeeping purposes. There were the fragments of two chairs lying in a heap beside a dismembered table, which stood only by the aid of two legs and the centre post which supported the pitch of the roof. A rough trestle-bed occupied the far end of the hut, and in shape and make it reminded him of his own bed in the bunkhouse. But there the resemblance ended, for the palliasse was of brown sacking, and a pair of dull-red blankets were tumbled in a heap upon its foot. One more blanket of similar hue was lying upon the floor; but this was only a torn fragment that had possibly served as a carpet, or, to judge by other fragments lying about, had been used to patch shirts, or even the well-worn bedclothes.
It was a squalid hovel, and reeked of the earth out of which it was dug. Beyond the bedding, the red blankets, and the few plates and pots in the packing-case cupboard, there was not a sign of the owner, and Tresler found himself wondering as to what manner of man it was who could have endured such meanness. It did not occur to him that probably the very trapper he had thought of had left his eyrie in peace and taken his belongings with him, leaving behind him only those things which were worthless.
A few minutes satisfied his curiosity. Probably his ride, and a natural desire to return to the ranch as quickly as possible, had dulled the keenness of his faculties of observation. Certain it is that, squalid as the place was, there was an air of recent habitation about it that he missed. He took it for a deserted shack merely, and gave it no second thought.
He passed out into the daylight with an air of relief; he had seen quite enough. The Lady Jezebel welcomed him with an agitated snort; she too seemed anxious to get away. He led her down the shelving trail again. The descent was as laborious as the ascent had been, and much more dangerous. But it was accomplished at last, and at the foot of the hill he mounted the now docile animal, who cantered off as amiably as though she had never done anything wrong in her life.
And as he rode away his thoughts reverted to the incidents of that morning; he went again over the scenes in which he had taken part, the scenes he had witnessed. He thought of his brief battle with Jake, of Diane and Joe, of his interview with Fyles. All these things were of such vital import to him that he had no thought for anything else; even the log bridge spanning the river could not draw from him any kind of interest. Had his mind been less occupied, he might have paused to ask himself a question about the things he had just seen. He might even have wondered how the logs of that dugout had been hauled to the shelf on which it stood. Certain it was that they must have been carried there, for there was not a single tree upon the hillside, only a low bush. And the bridge; surely it was the work of many hands. And why was it there on a disused trail?
But he had no thought for such questions just then. He bustled the mare and hurried on.
THE TRAIL OF THE NIGHT-RIDERS
A week passed before Tresler was again brought into contact with Jake. When he got back from his ride into the foot-hills, the "broncho-busting" carnival was in full swing; but he was fated to have no share in it. Jacob Smith was waiting for him with a message from Julian Marbolt; his orders were peremptory. He was to leave at once for Whitewater, to make preparations for the reception of the young horses now being broken for the troops. The rancher made his meaning quite plain. And Tresler was quick to understand that this was simply to get him out of the way until such time as Jake's temper had cooled and the danger of a further rupture was averted.
He received his instructions without comment. It was rough on his mare, but as the Lady Jezebel was fond of giving hard knocks, she must not mind if she received a similar treatment in return. And so he went, much to the disquiet of Joe Nelson, and with a characteristic admonition from Arizona. That individual had just finished thrashing a bull-headed young broncho with a quirt, because he wouldn't move from the spot where he had been saddled, when Tresler came up. The lean man was breathing hard as he rested, and he panted his farewell huskily.
"Kep y'r gun good an' handy," he said. "Et's mighty good company, if et don't git gassin' wi'out you ast it a question."
In this case, however, there was no need for the advice. The journey was a peaceful relief after the storms of Mosquito Bend. Tresler transacted his business, the horses arrived, were delivered to the authorities, and he witnessed the military methods of dealing with their remounts, which was a wonderful example of patience and moderation. Then he set out for the ranch again, in company with Raw Harris and Lew Cawley—the two men who had brought the band into the town.
His return to Mosquito Bend was very different from his first coming. It seemed to him as if a lifetime had passed since he had been ridiculed about his riding-breeches by all who met him. So much had happened since then. Now he was admittedly a full-blown prairie man, with much to learn, perhaps, but garbed like the other cowpunchers with him, in moleskin and buckskin, Mexican spurs, and slouch hat; his gun-belt slantwise on his hips, and his leather chapps creaking as he rode. He was no longer "the guy with the pants" he had been when he first entered the land of cattle, and somehow he felt glad at the metamorphosis. It brought him nearer to the land, which, with all its roughness, he felt to be the true life for him.
It was evening; the sun had not yet set, but it was dipping low over the western hills, casting long shadows from behind the gorgeous-colored heat clouds. Its dying lustre shone like a fire of molten matter through the tree-tops, and lit the forest-crowned hills, until the densest foliage appeared like the most delicate fretwork of Nature's own cutting. And in the shadow cast by the hilly background there nestled the ranch, overlooking its vast, wide-spreading pastures of succulent grass.
Yes, Tresler was glad to be back to it all, no matter what the future might hold for him. He had missed his companions; he had missed Arizona, with his fierce, untamed spirit; he had missed Joe, with his quaint face and staunch heart; but more than all, he had longed to get back to Diane, looking forward to the greeting she would extend him as only a lover can. But there was something more in his longing than that. Every day he had been away he had fretted and chafed at the thought of what might be happening to her. Joe was there to send him word, but even this was insufficient. There had been times when he felt that he could not stay to finish the work put upon him; there had been times when his patience utterly gave way before the nervous tension of his feelings, and he had been ready to saddle his mare and offer her a race against time back to the girl he loved.
His feelings were stirred to their very depths as he came up the trail from the ford. He had no words for either of his companions, nor did they seem inclined for speech. They passed the corrals in silence and reached the bunkhouse, where several of their comrades greeted them with a nod or a casual "Hello!" They might have just returned from a day's work on the range for all the interest displayed at their coming. But, then, effusiveness is no part of the cowboy's manner. There is rarely a "good-bye" on the prairie, unless it is when a comrade "hits the one-way trail." Even then it is more often a quiet "s'long," without any demonstrativeness, but which may mean far more than a flood of tears.
Jake was at his door when Tresler rode over to report. He was still bearing the marks of the quirt on his face, and the author of them beheld his handiwork with some qualms of regret. However, there was none of this in his manner as he made his report. And, much to his astonishment, Jake displayed a cold civility. He surpassed himself. Not a sneer or sarcasm passed his lips. The report done, he went on to the barn and stabled his mare for the night. Then he passed on toward his quarters.
Before he reached his destination, however, he was joined by Nelson. The little man had evidently been waiting for him.
There was no greeting. Tresler put his monosyllabic question at once. And the choreman responded without hesitation.
"She's bin astin' fer you three times. When wus you gittin' around agin? I guessed I didn't know fer sure. She wus kind o' worrited, I reckon." He paused, and his twisted face turned in the direction of the foreman's hut. "She wus weepin' last night," he went on. Then he paused again, and his shrewd eyes came back to Tresler's face. "She's bin weepin' to-day," he said, with a peculiar look of expectation in his manner.
"What's the trouble?" The question came short and sharp.
"Mebbe she's lonesome."
"That's not it; you've got other reasons."
Joe looked away again. "Jake's bin around some. But I guess she's lonesome too. She's ast fer you." The little man's tone was full of obstinacy.
Tresler understood his drift. If Joe had his way he'd march Diane and him off to the nearest parson with no more delay than was required to saddle two horses.
"I'm going to see her to-night," Tresler replied quietly. Then, as he saw Jake appear again in the doorway, he said, "You'd better pass on now. Maybe I'll see you afterward."
And Joe moved off without another word. Jake had seen them together, but he was unsuspicious. He was thinking of the scars on his face, and of something else that had nothing to do with their meeting. And his thoughts made him smile unpleasantly.
If Tresler's first greeting had been indifferent, his reception, as he came over to the bunkhouse now, was far from being so. Talk flowed freely, inquiries hailed him on every side; jests passed, sometimes coarse, sometimes subtle, but always cordial. All the men on the ranch had a fair good-will for him. "Tenderfoot" he might be, but they approved his grit, and with frontiersmen grit is all that matters.
After supper he separated himself from his companions under pretext of cleaning his saddlery. He hauled a bucket of water, and went down to the lower corrals and disposed his accoutrements for the operation, but he did no work until he saw Arizona approaching. That unkempt personage loafed up in a sort of manner that plainly said he didn't care if he came or not. But Tresler knew this was only his manner. The cleaning of the saddle now proceeded with assiduity, and Arizona sat himself down on a fallen log and spat tobacco-juice around him. At last he settled himself, nursing one knee in his clasped hands, and spoke with that air of absolute conviction which always characterized him.
"Say, Jake's grittin' his teeth tight," he said. Then, as an afterthought, "But he ain't showin' 'em."
Tresler looked up and studied the cadaverous face before him.
"Wal, I wus jest figgerin' on how you wus standin'. Seems likely you're standin' lookin' east wi' a feller due west who's got the drop on yer; which, to my reckonin', ain't as safe as handin' trac's to a lodge o' Cheyenne neches on the war-path."
"You think that Jake's quietly getting the drop on me?"
"Wal, I allow ef I wus Jake I'd be gettin' a'mighty busy that way. An' I kind o' calc'late that's wot he's doin'."
Tresler smiled and returned to his work. "And what form do you think his 'drop' will take?" he asked, without looking up.
"I ain't gifted wi' imagination. Y' ain't never sure which way a blind mule's likely ter kick. Jake's in the natur' of a blind mule. What I sez is, watch him. Don't look east when he's west. Say," he went on, in a tone of disgust, "you Noo Yorkers make me sick. Ther' ain't nothin' ter hittin' a feller an' makin' him sore. It on'y gives him time to git mad. A gun's handy an' sudden. On'y you need a goodish bore ef you're goin' ter perf'rate the hide of a guy like Jake. Pshaw!" he finished up witheringly, "you fellers ain't got shut o' last century."
"Maybe we haven't," Tresler retorted, with a good-humored laugh; "but your enterprise has carried you so far ahead of time that you've overlapped. I tell you, man, you're back in the savage times. You're groping in the prehistoric periods—Jurassic, Eocene, or some such."
"Guess I ain't familiar wi' Jurassics an' Eocenes," Arizona replied gravely. "Mebbe that was before my time; but ef you're speakin' o' them fellers as clumped each other over the head wi' stone clubs, I 'lows they had more savee than a Noo Yorker, ef they wus kind o' primitive in the'r habits."
Tresler accepted the argument in the spirit in which it was put forward. It was no use getting angry. Arizona was peculiar, but he had reason to consider him, in his own parlance, "a decent citizen." He went on with his work steadily while the cowpuncher grunted out his impatience. Then at last, as though it were forced from him, the latter jerked out a more modified opinion of the civilized American. It seemed as though Tresler's very silence had drawn it from him.