"Wal," he said grumblingly, "mebbe you Noo Yorkers has points—mebbe, I sez." Then he dismissed the subject with an impatient shrug of his drooping shoulders, and went off at a fresh angle. "Say, I wus kind o' wonderin' some 'bout that flea-bitten shadder, Joe Nelson. He's amazin' queer stayin' 'round here. He's foxin' some, too. Y' ain't never sure when you're like to strike them chewed-up features o' his after nightfall. Y' see he's kind o' quit drinkin'—leastways, he's frekent sober. Mebbe he can't sleep easy. Ther's suthin' worritin' his head, sure. He 'pears ter me desp'rate restless—kind o' like an old hoss wi' the bush-ticks. Et don't fit noways wi' the Joe Nelson I oncet knew. Mebbe it's religion. Ther' ain't nuthin' like religion fer makin' things oneasy in your head. Joe allus had a strain o' religion in him."
The Southerner gazed gloomily at the saddle on the fence, while he munched his tobacco in thoughtful silence.
"I don't think Joe's got religion," said Tresler, with a smile. "He's certainly worried, and with reason. Jake's got his knife into him. No, I think Joe's got a definite object in staying around here, and I shouldn't wonder if he's clever enough to attain it, whatever it is."
"That sounds more like Joe," assented the other, cheering up at the suggestion. "Still, Joe allus had a strain o' religion in him," he persisted. "I see him drop a man in his tracks oncet, an' cry like a noo-born babby 'cos ther' wa'n't a chu'ch book in Lone Brake Settlement, an' he'd forgot his prayers, an' had ter let the feller lie around fer the coyotes, instead o' buryin' him decent. That's a whiles ago. Guess Lone Brake's changed some. They do say ther's a Bible ther' now. Kind o' roped safe to the desk in the meetin'-house, so the boys can't git foolin' wi' it. Yup," he went on, with an abstracted look in his expressive eyes, "religion's a mighty powerful thing when it gits around. Most like the fever. I kind o' got touched wi' it down Texas way on the Mexican border. Guess et wer' t' do wi' a lady I favored at the time; but that ain't here nor there. Guess most o' the religion comes along o' the wimmin folk. 'Longside o' wimmin men is muck."
Tresler nodded his appreciation of the sentiment.
"Gettin' religion's most like goin' on the bust. Hits yer sudden, an' yer don't git off'n it easy. The signs is allus the same. You kind o' worry when folks gits blasphemin', an' you don't feel like takin' a hand to help 'em out. You hate winnin' at 'draw,' an' talks easy when a feller holds 'fours' too frekent. An' your liquor turns on your stummick. They're all signs," he added expansively. "When a feller gits like that he'd best git right off to the meetin'-house. That's how I tho't."
"And you went?"
"That's so. Say, an' it ain't easy. I 'lows my nerve's pretty right fer most things, but when you git monkeyin' wi' religion it's kind o' different. 'Sides, ther's allus fellers ter choke you off. Nassy Wilkes, the s'loon-keeper, he'd had religion bad oncet, tho' I 'lows he'd fergot most o't sence he'd been in the s'loon biz; he kind o' skeered me some. Sed they used a deal o' water, an' mostly got ducking greenhorns in it. Wal, I put ha'f a dozen slugs o' whisky down my neck—which he sed would prevent me gittin' cold, seein' water wa'n't in my line—an' hit the trail fer the meetin'."
"What denomination?" asked Tresler, curiously. "What religion?" he added, for the man's better understanding.
"Wal, I don't rightly knows," Arizona went on gravely. "I kind o' fancy the boys called 'em 'dippers'; but I guess this yarn don't call fer no argyment," he added, with a suspicion of his volcanic temper rising at the frequent interruptions. Then, as the other kept silence, he continued in his earnest way, "Guess that meetin'-house wus mostly empty. Ther' wus one feller ther' a'ready when I come. He wus playin' toons on a kind o' 'cordian he worked wi' his feet——"
"Harmonium," suggested Tresler, diffidently.
"That's it. I could 'a' wep' as I looked at that feller, he wus that noble. He'd long ha'r greased reg'lar, an' wore swaller-tails. Guess he wus workin' that concertina-thing like mad; an' he jest looked right up at the ceilin' as if he wer' crazy fer some feller to come 'long an' stop him 'fore he bust up the whole shootin' match."
"Looked inspired," Tresler suggested.
"Mebbe that's wot. Still, I wus glad I come. Then the folks come along, an' the deac'n; an' the feller quit. Guess he wus plumb scart o' that deac'n, tho' I 'lows he wus a harmless-lookin' feller 'nough. I see him clear sheer out o' range on sight, which made me think he wus a mean-sperrited cuss anyway.
"Yes, I guess I wus glad I'd come; I felt that easy an' wholesome. Say, the meetin's dead gut stuff. Yes, sir—dead gut. I felt I'd never handle a gun again; I couldn't 'a' blasphemed 'longside a babby ef you'd give me ten dollars to try. An' I guess ther' wa'n't no dirty Greaser as I couldn't ha' loved like a brother, I wus that soothed, an' peaceful, an' saft feelin'. I jest took a chaw o' plug, an' sat back an' watched them folks lookin' so noble as they come along in the'r funeral kids an' white chokers. Then the deac'n got good an' goin', an' I got right on to the 'A-mens,' fetchin' 'em that easy I wished I'd never done nothin' else all my life. I set ther' feelin' real happy."
Arizona paused, and his wild eyes softened as his thoughts went back to those few happy moments of his chequered career. Then he heaved a deep sigh of regret and went on—
"But it wa'n't to last. No, sir, religion ain't fer the likes o' me. Ye can't play the devil an' mix wi' angels. They're bound to out you. Et's on'y natteral. Guess I'd bin chawin' some, an' ther' wa'n't no spit boxes. That's wher' the trouble come. Ther' wus a raw-boned cuss wi' his missis settin' on the bench front o' me, an' I guess her silk fixin's got mussed up wi' t'bacca juice someways. I see her look down on the floor, then she kind o' gathered her skirts aroun' her an' got wipin' wi' her han'k'chief. Then she looks aroun' at me, an', me feelin' friendly, I kind o' smiled at her, not knowin' she wus riled. Then she got whisperin' to her wall-eyed galoot of a man, an' he turns aroun' smart, an' he sez, wi' a scowl, sez he, 'The meetin'-house ain't no place fer chawin' hunks o' plug, mister; wher' wus you dragged from?' Ther' wus a nasty glint to his eye. But ef he wus goin' to fergit we wus in the meetin'-house I meant showin' him I wa'n't. So I answers him perlite. Sez I, wi' a smile, 'Sir,' sez I, 'I take it we ain't from the same hog trough.' I see he took it mean, but as a feller got up from behind an' shouts 'Silence,' I guessed things would pass over. But that buzzard-headed mule wus cantankerous. He beckons the other feller over an' tells him I wus chawin', an' the other feller sez to me: 'You can't chaw here, mussin' up the lady's fixin's.'
"Wal, bein' on'y human, I got riled, but, not wishin' to raise a racket, I spat my chew out. I don't know how it come, but, I guess, bein' riled, I jest didn't take notice wher' I dumped it, till, kind o' sudden-like, I found I wus inspectin' the vitals o' that side-show-freak's gun. Sez he, in a nasty tone, which kind o' interrupted the deac'n's best langwidge, an' made folks fergit to fetch the 'A-men' right, 'You dog-gone son of a hog——' But I didn't wait fer no more. I sees then what's amiss. My chaw had located itself on the lady's ankle—which I 'lows wus shapely—which she'd left showin' in gatherin' her fixin's aroun' her. I see that, an' I see his stovepipe hat under the seat. I jest grabbed that hat sudden, an' 'fore he'd had time to drop his hammer I'd mushed it down on his head so he couldn't see. Then I ups, wi' the drop on him, an' I sez: 'Come right along an' we'll settle like honest cit'zens.' An' wi' that I backed out o' the meetin'. Wal, I guess he wus clear grit. We settled. I 'lows he wus a dandy at the bizness end o' a gun, an' I walked lame fer a month after. But ther' was a onattached widdy in that town when we'd done."
"You killed him?" Tresler asked.
"Wal, I didn't wait to ast no details. Guess I got busy fergittin' religion right off. Mebbe ther's a proper time fer ev'rything, an' I don't figger it's reas'nable argyfyin' even wi' a deac'n when his swaller-tail pocket's bustin' wi' shootin' materials. No, sir, guess religion ain't no use fer me."
Arizona heaved a deep sigh of regret. Tresler gathered up his saddle and bridle. Once or twice he had been ready to explode with laughter during his companion's story, but the man's evident sincerity and earnestness had held him quiet; had made him realize that the story was in the nature of a confidence, and was told in no spirit of levity. And, somehow, now, at the end of it, he felt sorry for this wandering outcast, with no future and only a disreputable past. He knew there was far more real good in him than bad, and yet there seemed no possible chance for him. He would go on as he was; he would "punch" cattle so long as he could find employment. And when chance, or some other matter, should plunge him on his beam ends, he would take to what most cowboys in those days took to when they fell upon evil days—cattle-stealing. And, probably, end his days dancing at the end of a lariat, suspended from the bough of some stout old tree.
As he moved to go, Arizona rose abruptly from his seat, and stayed him with a gesture.
"Guess I got side-tracked yarnin'. I wanted to tell you a few things that's bin doin' sence you've bin away."
"Say," the other went on at once, "ther's suthin' doin' thick 'tween Jake an' blind hulks. Savee? I heerd Jake an' Miss Dianny gassin' at the barn one day. She wus ther' gittin' her bit of a shoe fixed by Jacob—him allus fixin' her shoes for her when they needs it—an' Jake come along and made her go right in an' look at the new driver he wus breakin' fer her. Guess they didn't see me, I wus up in the loft puttin' hay down. When they come in I wus standin' takin' a chaw, an' Jake's voice hit me squar' in the lug, an' I didn't try not to hear what he said. An' I soon felt good that I'd held still. Sez he, 'You best come out wi' me an' learn to drive her. She's dead easy.' An' Miss Dianny sez, sez she, 'I'll drive her when she's thoroughly broken!' An' he sez, 'You mean you ain't goin' out wi' me?' An' she answers short-like, 'No.' Then sez he, mighty riled, 'You shan't go out with that mare by yourself to meet no Treslers,' sez he. 'I'll promise you that. See? Your father's on to your racket, I've seen to that. He knows you an' him's bin sparkin', an' he's real mad. That's by the way,' he sez. 'What I want to tell you's this. You're goin' to marry me, sure. See? An' your father's goin' to make you.' An' Miss Dianny jest laffed right out at him. But her laff wa'n't easy. An' sez she, wi' mock 'nuff to make a man feel as mean as rank sow-belly, 'Father will never let me marry, and you know it.' An' Jake stands quiet a minnit. Then I guess his voice jest rasped right up to me through that hay-hole. 'I'm goin' to make him,' sez he, vicious-like. 'A tidy ranch, this, eh? Wal, I tell you his money an' his stock an' his land won't help him a cent's worth ef he don't give you to me. I ken make him lick my boots if I so choose. See?' Ther' wa'n't another word spoke. An' I heerd 'em move clear. Then I dropped, an' pushin' my head down through the hay-hole, I see that Jake's goin' out by hisself. Miss Dianny had gone out clear ahead, an' wus talkin' to Jacob."
"What do you think it means?" asked Tresler, quietly.
And in a moment the other shot off into one of his volcanic surprises.
"I ain't calc'latin' the'r meanin'. Say, Tresler." The man paused, and his great rolling eyes glanced furtively from right to left. Then he came close up and spoke in a harsh whisper. "It's got to be. He ain't fit to live. This is wot I wus thinkin'. I'll git right up to his shack, an' I'll call him every son-of-a—— I ken think of. See? He'll git riled, an'—wal, I owe her a debt o' gratitood, an' I can't never pay it no other ways, so I'll jest see my slug finds his carkis right, 'fore he does me in."
Arizona stepped back with an air of triumph. He could see no flaw in his plan. It was splendid, subtle.
It was the one and only way to settle all the problems centering round the foreman. Thus he would pay off a whole shoal of debts, and rid Diane of Jake forever. And he felt positively injured when Tresler shook his head.
"You would pay her ill if you did that," he said gravely. "Jake was probably only trying to frighten her. Besides, he is her father's foreman. The man he trusts and relies on."
"You ain't got no savee," Arizona broke out in disgust. "Say, he won't need no foreman when Jake's out of the way. You'll marry the gal, an'——"
But he got no further. Tresler interrupted him coldly.
"That's enough, Arizona. We aren't going to discuss it further. In the meantime, believe me that I am wide awake to my position, and to Miss Marbolt's, and ready to do the best for her in emergency. I must get on now, for I have several things to do before I turn in."
Arizona had no more to say. He relapsed into moody silence, and, as they moved away together, Tresler was thankful for the freakish chance that had made this man come to him with his plan before putting it into execution. It was dark now, and as they reached the bunkhouse they parted. Tresler deposited his saddle at the barn, but he did not return to the bunkhouse. He meant to see Diane before he turned in, by hook or by crook.
He knew that the time had come when he must actively seek to help her. When Jake openly threatened her, and she was found weeping, there was certainly need of that help. He was alarmed, seriously alarmed, and yet he hardly knew what it was he feared most. He quite realized the difficulties that confronted him. She had given him no right to interfere in her affairs. More, she would have every reason to resent such interference. But, in spite of this, he held to his resolve. It was his love that urged him on, his love that overbore his scruples, his gravest apprehensions. He told himself that he had the right which every man has. The right to woo and win for himself the love he covets. It was for Diane to say "yea" or "nay," not her father. There was no comfort she had been accustomed to, or even luxury, that he could not give her. There was no earthly reason why he should not try to win her. He vividly called to mind what Joe had suggested, and Arizona's unfinished sentence rang in his ears, but both suggestions as a basis of hope he set aside with a lover's egotism. What could these men know or understand of such a matter?
He had left the barn, and his way took him well out from the ranch yards in the direction of the pinewoods. He remembered his walk on his first night on the ranch, and meant to approach the back of the blind man's house by the same route.
The calm of the prairie night had settled upon the ranch. The lowing of the cattle was hushed, the dogs were silent; and the voices of men and the tramp of horses' hoofs were gone. There was only the harsh croaking of the frogs in the Mosquito River and the cry of the prowling coyote to disturb the peace of the summer night.
And as he walked, he felt for the first time something of the grip which sooner or later the prairie fixes upon those who seriously seek life upon its bosom. Its real fascination begins only when the first stages of apprenticeship to its methods and habits are passing. The vastness of its world, its silence, its profound suggestion of solitude, which ever remains even where townships and settlements exist, holds for man a fascination which appeals to the primitive senses and drags him back from the claims of civilization to the old, old life. And when that call comes, and the latent savage is roused from the depths of subjection, is it wonder that men yield to what, after all, is only the true human instinct—the right of the individual to defend itself from all attacks of foes? No; and so Tresler argued as he thought of the men who were his comrades.
Under the influence of his new feelings it seemed to him that life was so small a thing, on which folks of civilization set much too high a value. The ready appeal to the gun, which seemed to be one of the first principles of the frontiersman's life, was already beginning to lose its repugnance for him. After all, where no arbitration could be enforced, men still had a right to defend self and property.
His thoughts wandered on through a maze of argument which convinced him notwithstanding he told himself that it was all wrong. He told himself weakly that his thoughts were the result of the demoralizing influence of lawless associates, but, in spite of this, he felt that there was, in reality, something in them of a deeper, more abiding nature.
He had made the woodland fringe, and was working his way back toward the house. The darkness was profound here. The dense, sad-foliaged pines dropped their ponderous boughs low about him as he passed, shielding him from all possible view from the ranch. And, even over the underlay of brittle cones, his moccasined feet bore him along in a silent, ghostly manner. It was the first time in his life he had been forced to steal upon anybody's house like a thief in the night; but he felt that his object was more than sufficient justification.
Now he looked keenly for any sign of lights among the ranch buildings. The bunkhouse was in darkness, but Jake's house was still lit up. However, this did not bother him much. He knew that the foreman was in the habit of keeping his lamp burning, even after retiring. Perhaps he read at night. The idea amused him, and he wondered what style of literature might appeal to a man of Jake's condition of mind. But even as he watched, the light went out, and he felt more satisfied.
He reached a point on the edge of the forest opposite the barn. Then something brought him up with a start. Some unusual sound had caught his ear. It was the murmur of voices in the distance. Immediately his mind went back to his first night on the ranch, and he remembered Red Mask and his attendant horseman. Now he listened, peering hard into the darkness in the direction of the house, at the point whence the sound was proceeding. Whoever were talking they seemed to be standing still. The sound grew no louder, nor did it die away. His curiosity drew him on; and with cautious steps, he crept forward.
He tried to estimate how far the speakers were from the house. It seemed to him that they were somewhere in the neighborhood of the rancher's private stable. But he could not be altogether sure.
Now, as he drew nearer, the voices became louder. He could distinctly hear the rise and fall of their tones, but still they were unrecognizable. Again he paused, this time for caution's sake only. He estimated that he was within twenty-five yards of the stable. It would not be safe to go further. The steady murmur that reached him was tantalizing. Under ordinary circumstances he would have risked discovery and gone on, but he could not jeopardize his present object.
He stretched himself under the shelter of a low bush, and, strangely enough, recognized it as the one he had lain under on that memorable first night. This realization brought him a grim foreboding; he knew what he expected, he knew what was coming. And his foreboding was fulfilled within a few seconds of taking up his position.
Suddenly he heard a door close, and the voices ceased speaking. He waited almost breathlessly for the next move. It came. The crackling of pine cones under shod hoofs sounded sharply to his straining ears. It was a repetition of what had happened before. Two horsemen were approaching from the direction of the house. It was inevitable that his hand should go to his gun, and, as he realized his own action, he understood how surely the prairie instincts had claimed him. But he withdrew it quickly and waited, for he had no intention of taking action. It might be Red Mask. It probably was. But he had no intention of upsetting his present plans by any blind, precipitate attack upon the desperado. Besides, if Red Mask and Jake were one, then the shooting of him, in cold blood, in the vicinity of the ranch, would, in the eyes of the police, be murder. No story of his would convince a jury that the foreman of Mosquito Bend was a cattle-rustler.
A moment later the horses dimly outlined themselves. There were two of them, as before. But he could not see well, the woods seemed darker than before; and, besides, they did not pass so near to him. They went on like ghostly, silent shadows, only the scrunch of the cones underfoot told of their solidity.
He waited until the sound died out, then he rose quietly and pursued his way. But what he had just witnessed plunged his thoughts into a moody channel. The night-riders were abroad again, riding unchecked upon their desperate way, over the trail of murder and robbery they cut for themselves wherever they went. He wondered with dread who was to be victim to-night. He remembered Manson Orr and shuddered. He had a bitter feeling that he had acted wrongly in letting them pass unchallenged in spite of what reason and a cool judgment told him. His duty had been to investigate, but he also thought of a sad-faced girl, friendless and alone, weeping her heart out in the midst of her own home. And somehow his duty faded out before the second picture. And, as though to further encourage him, the memory of Joe Nelson's words came to him suddenly, and continued to haunt him persistently.
"You'll jest round that gal up into your own corrals, an' set your own brand on her quick, eh?"
THE RISING OF A SUMMER STORM
When the horsemen had passed out of hearing, Tresler still exerted the utmost caution. He had yet to pass the blind man's room, and he knew that that individual's hearing was something bordering on the marvelous, and, he argued, he must still be up, or, at least, awake. So he moved on with the lightest tread, with every sense alert; watchful alike for every unusual sound or movement. At the stable he paused and gently tried the door. It was fast. He put his ear to it and listened, and was forced to be content with the rattle of the collar chains, and the sound of the heavy-breathing animals within. He would have liked to investigate further, for the noise of the shutting door, he knew, had come from the stable, but it behooved him to refrain. It would be worse than useless to rouse the man, Anton, who slept over the stable. And there was no other means of ascertaining what had been going on.
He crept on; and now the shadowy outline of the house itself shut him off from the ranch. He cleared the danger zone of the rancher's bedroom and reached the kitchen, where he met with a first disappointment. He was relieved and delighted to find that a light was still burning there; but his joy was dashed almost immediately by finding that the linen blind was down, and not a crack showed by which he could get a view of the room. He dared not go to the door until he had ascertained who was within, so he stood for a moment uncertain what to do. Then he suddenly remembered that the kitchen had another window on the far side of the lean-to. It would mean passing out into the open again; still, the darkness was such that the risk was reduced to a minimum.
With no further hesitation he hurried round. His only care now was to tread quietly, and even this seemed unnecessary, for the blind man's room was at the other side of the house, and, if his suspicions were correct, Jake was busy at his nocturnal trade. Fortune favored him. The blind was down, but the lower sash of the window was raised, and he saw that, by pulling the linen on one side, he could obtain a full view of the room.
He was about to carry out his purpose. His hand was raised and reaching toward the window, when the sound of weeping came to him and checked his action. He stood listening for a second. Then, with a stifled ejaculation, he thrust his hand out further, and caught the edge of the blind.
He paused for nothing now. He had no scruples. He knew without inquiry who it was that was weeping within; who else but Diane could it be? And at the sound of each choking sob, his heart was wrung, and he longed to clasp her in his arms and comfort her. This love of his which had taken its place so suddenly in his life thrilled through his body like a fiery torrent roused to fever heat by the sound of the girl's sobs.
Drawing the edge of the blind sharply on one side, he peered into the room. His worst fears were realized. Diane was at the far side of the kitchen sitting over the square cook-stove, rocking herself to and fro in an access of misery, and, in what seemed to him, an attitude of physical suffering. Her pretty head was bowed low upon her hands, and her whole frame was shaken by the sobs she was struggling hard to, but could not, suppress.
He took all this in at a glance, then his eyes rested upon her arms. The sleeves of her dress had been unfastened, and were thrown back from her wrists, leaving them bare to the elbow. And he saw, to his horror and indignation, that the soft, rounded flesh of her forearm was swollen and bruised. The sight made him clench his teeth, and his blue eyes suddenly hardened. He no longer permitted caution to govern his actions.
"Hist, Diane!" he whispered hoarsely. And he shook the stiff blind to further draw her attention. "It is I, Tresler," he went on urgently.
And the girl sprang from her seat instantly and faced the window. She dashed her hand across her eyes and hastily sought to readjust her sleeves. But the pitiful attempt to thus hide her trouble only made the signs more marked. The tears still flowed, in spite of her bravest manner, and no effort of hers was able to keep the sweet lips from quivering.
She took one step in the direction of the window, but drew up with such a violent start and expression of alarm in her tearful eyes, that Tresler peered all round the room for the cause. He saw nothing more startling than a slumbering cat and the fragments of a broken lamp upon the floor, and his eyes went back to her again. Then, as he marked her attitude of attention, he understood. She was listening for the familiar but ominous "tap, tap" of her father's stick. He too listened. Then, as no sound came to his straining ears, he spoke again.
"I must speak with you, Miss Diane," he whispered. "Open the back door."
It was only after making his demand that he realized how impossible it must have sounded to the distraught girl. It was the first time, since he had set out to see her, that it occurred to him how one-sided was the proposition. She had no knowledge of his resolve to thrust his aid upon her. He told himself that she could have no possible inkling of his feelings toward her; and he waited with no little anxiety for her response.
Nor was that response long in coming. She made another effort to dash the tears from her eyes. Then, half defiantly and half eagerly, she stepped up to the window.
"Go round to the door, quick!" she whispered, and moved off again as though she stood in imminent peril as a consequence of her words.
And Tresler was round at the door and standing in the shadow of the water-barrel before the bolt was slipped back. Now, as the girl raised the latch and silently opened the door, he slid within. He offered no explanation, but simply pointed to the window.
"We must close that," he said in a low tone.
And Diane obeyed without demur. There was a quiet unobtrusive force about this man whenever his actions were directed into a definite channel. And Diane found herself complying without the least resentment, or even doubt as to the necessity for his orders. Now she came back to him, and raised a pair of trusting eyes to his face, and he, looking down into them, thought he had never gazed upon anything so sweetly pathetic; nor had he ever encountered anything quite so rousing as the implicit trust of her manner toward him. Whatever he had felt for her before, it was as nothing to the delicious sense of protection, the indefinable wave of responsibility, almost parental, that now swept over him. He felt that, come what might, she was his to cherish, to guard, to pilot through whatever shoals her life might hold for her. It was the effect of her simple womanly trust appealing to his manhood, unconsciously for her part, but nevertheless surely. Nor was that feeling only due to his love for her; it was largely the chivalrous instinct of a brave and strong man for a weak woman that filled his heart at that moment.
"There is a lot for us to talk about," he said. "A lot that others mustn't hear," he added thoughtfully.
"What others?" Diane asked anxiously.
Tresler deemed it best to avoid half measures, and answered with prompt decision—
"Your father, for one."
"Then," said Diane, steadying at once, "we had better close the door into the passage."
She suited the action to the word, and returned dry-eyed and calm.
"My father?" Her question was sharp; it was a demand.
Instead of answering her, Tresler pointed to the broken lamp on the floor.
"You have had an accident," he said, and his blue eyes compelled hers, and held them.
"Yes," she said, after the least possible hesitation. Then, not without a slight touch of resentment: "But you have not answered my question."
"I'll answer that later on. Let me go on in my own way."
The girl was impressed with the gravity of his manner. She felt uneasy too. She felt how impossible it would be to hide anything from this man, who, quiet yet kindly, could exercise so masterful an influence over her. And there was a good deal just now she would have liked to keep from him. While they were talking she drew the sleeves of her dress down over her bruised wrists. Tresler saw the action and called her attention to the blackened flesh she was endeavoring to hide.
"Another accident?" he asked. And Diane kept silence. "Two accidents, and—tears," he went on, in so gentle a tone that fresh tears slowly welled up into her eyes. "That is quite unlike you, Miss—Diane. One moment. Let me look." He reached out to take her hands, but she drew away from him. He shrugged his shoulders. "I wonder if it were an accident?" he said, his keen eyes searching her face. "It would be strange to bruise both wrists by—accident."
The girl held silent for a while. It was evident that a struggle was going on in her mind. Tresler watched. He saw the indecision. He knew how sorely he was pressing his advantage. Yet he must do it, if he would carry out his purpose. He felt that he was acting the brute, but it was the only way. Every barrier must be swept aside. At last she threw her head back with an impatient movement, and a slight flush of anger tinged her cheeks.
"And what if it were no accident?"
"The bruises or the lamp?"
"Then"—and Tresler's tone was keenly incisive—"it is the work of some cruelly disposed person. You would not wilfully bruise yourself, Diane," he moved nearer to her, and his voice softened wonderfully; "is there any real reason why you cannot trust me with the truth? May I not share something of your troubles? See, I will save you the pain of the telling. If I am right, do not answer me, and I shall understand. Your father has been here, and it was his doing—these things."
The anger had passed out of the girl's face, and her eyes, troubled enough but yielding, looked up into his.
"But how do you——?"
"Some one, we both know whom, has maliciously been talking to your father," Tresler went on, without heeding the interruption; "has been lying to him to prejudice him against me—us. And your father has accepted his tales without testing their veracity. Having done so, he has spoken to you. What has passed between you I do not know, nor shall I attempt to fathom. The result is more than sufficient for me. You are unhappy; you have been unusually unhappy for days. You have wept much, and now you bear signs of violence on your arms."
Diane averted her gaze, her head was bent, and her eyes were fixed upon the broken lamp.
"Shall I go on?" Tresler continued. "Shall I tell you the whole story? Yes, I had better."
Diane nodded without looking at him.
"You know most of it, but you may not have looked at it quite in the same way that I do." His tone was very low, there was a great depth of earnestness in it. "We are all in the midst of a foul conspiracy, and that conspiracy it is for us to break up. Your father is threatened. You know it. And you are threatened with marriage to a rascal that should be wiped off the face of the earth. And this is the work of one man whom we believe to be the scourge of the countryside; whom we call Red Mask or Jake Harnach, according to when and where we meet him. Now, is this all to go on without protest? Will you submit? Is your father to be victimized?"
The girl shook her head.
"No," she said. Then with a sudden burst of passion she went on, only keeping her voice low by the greatest effort. "But what can we do? I have warned father. He has been told all that you have told me. He laughed. And I grew angry. Then he grew angry, too. And—and these things are the result. Oh, he hates you because he believes Jake's stories. And he scorns all my accusations against Jake, and treats me worse than some silly, tattling servant girl. How can we do anything?"
It was that last question that set fire to the powder-train. She had coupled herself with him, and Tresler, seeking only the faintest loophole, jumped at the opportunity it afforded him. His serious face softened. A slow, gentle smile crept into his eyes, and Diane was held by their caressing gaze.
"We can do something. We are going to do something," he said. "Not singly, but together; you and I."
There was that in his manner that made the girl droop her eyelids. There was a warmth, a light in his eyes he had never permitted her to see before, and her woman's instinct set her heart beating fast, so fast that she trembled and fidgeted nervously.
"Diane," he went on, reaching out and quietly taking possession of one of her hands, and raising it till the bared wrist displayed the cruel bruise encircling it, "no man has a right to lay a hand upon a woman to give her pain. A woman has a right to look to her men-folk to protect her, and when they fail her, she is indeed in sore straits. This," touching the bruises with his finger, "is the work of your father, the man of all who should protect you. You are sadly alone, so much alone that I cannot see what will be the end of it—if it is allowed to go on. Diane, I love you, and I want you, henceforward, to let me be your protector. You will need some whole-hearted support in the future. I can see it. And you can see it too. Say, tell me, little girl, fate has pitched us together in a stormy sea, surely it is for me to aid you with all the loving care and help I can bestow. Believe me, I am no idle boaster. I do not even say that my protection will be worth as much as that of our faithful old Joe, but, such as it is, it is yours, whether you take me with it or no, for as long as I live."
Diane had had time to recover from her first embarrassment. She knew that she loved this man; knew that she had done so almost from the very first. He was so different from the men she had known about the ranch. She understood, and acknowledged without shame, the feeling that had prompted her first warning to him. She knew that ever since his coming to the ranch he had hardly ever been out of her thoughts. She had never attempted to deceive herself about him. All she had feared was that she might, by some chance act, betray her feelings to him, and so earn his everlasting contempt. She was very simple and single-minded. She had known practically no association with her sex. Her father, who had kept her a willing slave by his side all her life, had seen to that. And so she had been thrown upon her own resources, with the excellent result that she had grown up with a mind untainted by any worldly thought. And now, when this man came to her with his version of the old, old story, she knew no coquetry, knew how to exercise no coyness or other blandishment. She made no pretense of any sort. She loved him, so what else was there to do but to tell him so?
"Joe has been my faithful protector for years, Mr. Tresler," she replied, her sweet round face blushing and smiling as she raised it to him, "and I know his value and goodness. But—but I'd sooner have you—ever so much."
And of her own accord she raised her other hand to his and placed it trustfully within his only too willing clasp. But this was not sufficient for Tresler. He reached out and took her in his powerful arms and drew her to his breast. And when he released her there were tears again in her eyes, but they were tears of happiness.
"And now, sweetheart, we must be practical again," he said. "If I am to be your protector, I must not allow my inclination to interfere with duty. Some day, when you are my wife, we shall be able to look back on this time and be proud of our restraint. Just now it is hard. It is a moment for kisses and happy dreams, and these things are denied us——"
He broke off and started as the flutter of the linen blind behind him drew his attention.
"I thought you shut the window," he said sharply.
"I thought I did; perhaps I didn't quite close it."
Diane was about to move over to investigate, but Tresler restrained her.
He went instead. The window was open about six inches. He closed and bolted it, and came back with a smile on his face that in no way deceived the girl.
"Yes, you left it open," he said.
And Diane's reply was an unconvinced "Ah!"
"Now let us be quick," he went on. "Jake may threaten and bully, but he can do nothing to really hurt you. You are safe from him. For, before anything can possibly happen—I mean to you—I shall be on hand to help you. Joe is our watch-dog, asking his pardon. You can take heart in the thought that you are no longer alone. But developments are imminent, and I want you to watch your father closely, and endeavor to ascertain Jake's attitude toward him. This is my fear—that Jake may put some nefarious scheme, as regards him, into operation; such schemes as we cannot anticipate. He may even try to silence me, or make me ineffective in some way before such time comes along. He may adopt some way of getting rid of me——"
"What way?" There was a world of fear and anxiety in Diane's question, and she drew up close to him as though she would protect him with her own frail body.
Tresler shrugged. "I don't know. But it doesn't matter; I have my plans arranged. The thing that is of more importance is the fact that the night-riders are abroad again. I saw them on my way here. At the same spot where I saw them before. This time I shall not conceal my knowledge of the fact."
"You mean you will tell Jake—to his face?"
Diane gave a little gasp, and her beautiful eyes fixed themselves apprehensively upon his. They had in their depths a soft look of admiration, in spite of her anxiety and fear. But Tresler saw nothing of that. He took her question seriously.
"Certainly; it is my only means of getting into line of battle. By this means I shall make myself the centre of open attack—if all our surmises be true. It is getting late and I must go. I want to witness the return of the ruffians."
A silence fell. The man had said it was time for him to go, but he found it hard to tear himself away. He wanted to say so much to her; he wanted to ask her so much. Diane, half shyly, came a step nearer to him, and, though her face was smiling bravely, a pucker wrinkled her brows.
"I was christened 'John.'"
"John, then." The girl blushed faintly as she pronounced the name, which, spoken by her, seemed to seal the bond between them. "Is it absolutely necessary to tell Jake? Is it absolutely necessary to put yourself in such peril? Couldn't you——"
But she got no further. Her lover's arms were about her in an instant. He caught her to him in a great embrace and kissed her pleading, upturned face.
"Yes, yes, yes, child. It is absolutely necessary. No, you can't go yet," as she struggled feebly to free herself. "I ought to leave you now, yet I can hardly tear myself away. I have heaps to ask you: about yourself, your life, your father. I want to learn all there is in your little head, in your heart, little girl. I want to make our bond of love one of perfect sympathy and understanding of each other; of trust and confidence. It is necessary. We come together here with storm-clouds gathering on our horizon; with the storm actually breaking. We come together under strange and unusual circumstances, and must fight for this love of ours. Ours will be no flower-strewn path. This much I have fully realized; but it only makes me the more determined to see it through quickly. We have to fight—good. We will be early in the field. Now good-night, sweetheart. God bless you. Trust to me. Whatever I do will be done after careful deliberation; with a view to our common goal. If I am wrong, so much the worse. I will do all that is given me to do. And, last, remember this. Should anything happen to me, you have two friends who will never let Jake marry you. They are Joe and Arizona. Now, good-bye again."
"But nothing will happen to you—Jack?"
Every vestige of independence, every atom of the old self-reliance had gone from the girl's manner. She clung to him, timid, loving, a gentle, weak woman. Her whole soul was in her appeal and the look she bestowed.
"I hope not. Courage, little woman. I remember the white dress, the sad, dark little face beneath the straw sun-hat of the girl who knew no fear when two men held thoughts of slaying each other, and were almost in the act of putting them into execution. You must remember her too."
"You are right, Jack. I will be brave and help you, if I can. Good-bye."
They kissed once more, and Tresler hurried from the room with the precipitancy of a man who can only hold to his purpose by an ignominious flight from temptation.
Outside the door he paused, turned, and closed it carefully after him. And then he listened intently. He had in no way been deceived by the window business. He knew, as Diane knew, that she had closed it. Some hand from outside had opened it; and he wondered whose had been the hand, and what the purpose.
When he passed out of the kitchen, the whole aspect of the night had changed. There was not a star visible, and the only light to guide him was that which shone through the window. He waited while Diane bolted the door, then, as nothing appeared to cause him alarm, he moved off. He had to pass round the shed where Joe slept. This was an addition to the kitchen, and quite shut off from the house. He groped his way along the wall of it till he came to the door, which stood open. He was half inclined to go in and rouse the little choreman. He felt that he would like to tell his old friend of his luck, his happiness. Then it flashed through his mind that, seeing the door was open, Joe might still be abroad. So he contented himself with listening for the sound of his breathing. All was still within; his conjecture was right. Joe had not yet turned in.
He was puzzled. Where was Joe, and what was he doing at this hour of the night?
He moved on slowly now. His thoughts were fully occupied. He was not the man to let a single detail pass without careful analysis. And the matter was curious. Especially in conjunction with the fact of the open window. He attributed no treachery to Joe, but the thing wanted explanation. He rounded the building, and as he did so understood the change in the weather. A sharp gust of wind took him, and he felt several drops of rain splash upon his face. A moment later a flash of lightning preceded a distant rumble of thunder.
He quickened his pace and drew out into the open, leaving the shadow of the woods behind him as he turned toward the ranch buildings. The light in the kitchen had been put out. Evidently Diane had already gone to bed. He stepped out briskly, and a moment later another flash of lightning revealed the window close beside him. He mechanically stretched out a hand and felt along the sill. It was tightly closed all right. A crash of thunder warned him of the quick-rising summer storm that was upon him, and the rain was coming down with that ominous solidity which portends a real, if brief, deluge. He started at a run. A drenching at that hour was unpleasant to contemplate. He had intended witnessing the return of the night-riders, but, under the circumstances, that was now out of the question.
He had only gone a few paces when he brought up to a stand. Even amidst the noisy splashing of the rain, he thought he heard the sound of running feet somewhere near by; so he stood listening with every nerve straining. Then the promised deluge came and drowned every other sound. It was no use waiting longer, so he hurried on toward his quarters.
A dozen strides further on and the sky was split from end to end with a fork of lightning, and he was brought to a dead halt by the scene it revealed. It was gone in an instant, and the thunder crashed right above him. He had distinctly seen the figures of two men running. One was running toward him, and, curiously enough, the other was running from his left rear. And yet he had seen them both. Utterly heedless of the rain now, he waited for another flash. There was something strange doing, and he wished to fathom the mystery.
The duration of the storm was only a matter of a few minutes. It seemed to have spent itself in one flash of lightning and one peal of thunder. The second flash was long in coming. But at last a hazy sheet of white light shone for a second over the western sky, revealing the ghostly shadow of a man coming at him, bearing in his upraised hand some heavy weapon of offense. He leapt to avoid the blow. But he was too late. The weapon descended, and, though he flung his arms to protect himself, the darkness foiled him, and a crushing blow on the head felled him to the ground. And as he fell some great noise roared in his ears, or so it seemed, and echoed and reechoed through his head. Then he knew no more.
All sound was lost in the deluge of rain. The sky was unrelieved by any further flashes of light for many minutes. Then, at last, one came. A weak, distant lighting up of the clouds, overhead, but it was sufficient to show the outstretched form of the stricken man lying with his white face staring up at the sky. Also it revealed a shadowy figure bending over him. There was no face visible, no distinct outline of form. And this figure was moving, and appeared to be testing the lifeless condition of the fallen man.
Half an hour later the rain ceased, but the water was still racing down the hill in little trickling rivulets toward the ranch buildings. And as rapidly as the storm had come up so the sky cleared. Again the stars shone out and a faint radiance dimly outlined the scene of the attack.
Within fifty yards of the rancher's house Tresler was still stretched out upon the ground, but now a different figure was bending over him. It was a well-defined figure this time, a familiar figure. A little man with a gray head and a twisted face.
It was Joe Nelson trying, by every rough art his prairie life had taught him, to restore animation and consciousness in his friend. For a long time his efforts were unavailing; the task seemed hopeless. Then, when the little man had begun to fear the very worst, his patient suddenly moved and threw out his legs convulsively. Once the springs of life had been set in motion, the hardy constitution asserted itself, and, without further warning, Tresler sat bolt upright and stared about him wonderingly. For a few seconds he sat thus, then, with a movement of intense agony, one hand went up to his head.
"My God! What's the matter with me? My head!"
He slowly rocked himself for a brief spell; then, with another start, he recognized his friend, and, with an effort, sprang to his feet.
"Joe!" he cried. Then he reeled and would have fallen but for the supporting arm about his waist.
"You wer' nigh 'done up.' Say, I wus kind o' rattled. I'd shaddered that feller fer an hour or more, an' then lost him. Gee!" And there was an infinite expression of disgust in the exclamation.
"Ther's on'y one feller around here hatin' you fit to murder, I guess."
"You mean—Jake?" asked Tresler, in a queer tone.
"Sure," was the emphatic reply.
"But, Joe, I saw the night-riders go out to-night. Not more than half an hour before the storm came on."
The little man made no answer, but quietly urged his patient forward in the direction of the bunkhouse.
THE BEARDING OF JAKE
That night was one that lived long in Tresler's memory. Weary in mind and body, he was yet unable to sleep when at last he sought his bunk. His head was racked with excruciating pain, which hammered through his brain with every pulsation of his throbbing temples. But it was not that alone which kept him awake. Thought ran riot with him, and his mind flew from one scene to another without concentration, without continuity, until he felt that if sleep did not come he must go mad.
He had talked late into the night with his shrewd counselor, Joe; and the net result of their talk was that all their theories, suspicions, deductions, were wrong. Jake and Red Mask were not one and the same. In all probability Jake had nothing to do with the ruffianly raider.
They were driven to this ultimate conclusion by the simple fact that while Tresler had been witnessing the movements of the masked night-rider, Joe had been zealously dogging the footsteps of the foreman in the general interests of his mistress. And that individual's footsteps had never once taken him to the rancher's private stable.
Jake had evidently been out on the spy himself. Of this Joe was certain, for the man had scoured the woods in the direction of the river; he had watched the trail from the rancher's stable for nearly half an hour; he had crept up to the verandah of the house under cover of the darkness, seeking Joe knew not what, but always on the alert, always with the unmistakable patience of a man by no means new to such a task. Once Joe had missed him in the woods. Somehow, like a gigantic shadow, Jake had contrived to give him the slip. And this, on comparing notes, the two friends found coincided with the time of the episode of the unclosed window. Doubtless he had been the author of that matter. They made up their minds that he had witnessed the scene in the kitchen, which, of course, accounted for his later dastardly attack. Who had Jake been out looking for? What was the object of his espionage? Had he been looking for him, Tresler, or some one else? And herein lay the mystery. Herein, perhaps, lay the key to the greater problem they sought to solve.
Hour after hour Tresler lay awake, lost in a confusion of thought which refused his best efforts to straighten out. The acuteness of the pain in his head set his mind almost wandering. And he found himself aimlessly reviewing the events since his coming to Mosquito Bend. He tossed wearily, drearily, on his unyielding palliasse, driven to a realization of his own utter impotence. What had he done in the cause he had espoused? Nothing—simply nothing. Worse; he had thrust himself like some clumsy, bull-headed elephant, into the girl's life, into the midst of her troubles, without even that animal's capacity for attaining his object by sheer might. And the result was only to aggravate her lot; to cause Jake to hasten his plans, and add threats to his other persecutions. And as for the raiders, they were still at large and no nearer capture than when he had first arrived. Yes, he told himself, he had nothing but failure to his account. And that failure, instead of being harmlessly negative, was an aggravation of the situation.
But at last, miserable, overwrought, and suffering as he was, sleep came to him; a deep sleep that carried him far into the morning.
He had been left undisturbed by his comrades when they turned out at daybreak. Joe had seen to this. He had put them off with an invention of his fertile imagination which satisfied them. Then, having hurried through his own immediate morning duties, he waited, with that philosophic patience which he applied now in his declining years to all the greater issues of his life, for his friend's awakening.
And when Tresler awoke he was wonderfully refreshed. His recuperative faculties were remarkable. The aching of his head had passed away, and with it the deplorable hopelessness of overnight. He sat up on his bunk, and the first object that his gaze fell upon was the patient figure of old Joe.
"Well—Scott! it's late. What's the time? Where are the boys? What are you doing here?"
He fired his questions rapidly. But Joe was not to be hurried; neither was he going to waste precious time on unnecessary talk. So he shrugged his shoulders and indicated the departure of the men to work with a backward jerk of his head, and, while Tresler performed his brief toilet, got to business in his own way.
"Feelin' good?" he asked.
"Goin' right up to see Jake?"
"Yes. Where is he?"
"In his shack. Say," the old man shifted uneasily, "I've tho't a crateful sence we wus yarnin' last night, I guess. Don't git shuvin' Jake too close agin the wall. Give him your yarn easy. Kind o' talk han'some by him. He's goin' to figger this thing out fer us. He'll git givin' us a lead, mebbe, when he ain't calc'latin' to. Savee?"
Tresler didn't answer at once; in fact, he didn't quite see the old man's point. He completed his toilet by buckling on his belt and revolver. Then he prepared to depart.
"We'll see. I intend to be governed by circumstances," he said quietly.
"Jest so. An' circumstances has the way o' governin' most things, anyways. Guess I'm jest astin' you to rub the corners off'n them circumstances so they'll run smooth."
Tresler smiled at the manner of the old man's advice, which was plain enough this time.
"I see. Well, so long."
He hurried out and Joe watched him go. Then the little man rose from his seat and went out to Teddy Jinks's kitchen on the pretense of yarning. In reality he knew that the foreman's hut was in full view from the kitchen window.
Tresler walked briskly across to the hut. He never in his life felt more ready to meet Jake than he did at this moment. He depended on the outcome of this interview for the whole of his future course. He did not attempt to calculate the possible result. He felt that to do so would be to cramp his procedure. He meant to work on his knowledge of his rival's character. Herein lay his hopes of success. It was Joe who had given him his cue. "It's the most dangerousest thing to hit a 'rattler' till you've got him good an' riled," the little man had once said. "Then he lifts an' it's dead easy, I guess. Hit him lyin', an' ef you don't kill him, ther's goin' to be trouble. Them critters has a way of thinkin' hard an' quick or'nary." And Tresler meant to deal with Jake in a similar manner. The rest must be left to the circumstances they had discussed.
It so happened that Jake, too, was late abed that morning. Tresler found him just finishing the breakfast Jinks had brought him. Jake's surly "Come in," in response to his knock, brought him face to face with the last man he desired to see in his hut at that moment. And Tresler almost laughed aloud as the great man sprang from the table, nearly overturning it in his angry haste.
"It's all right, Jake," he said with a smile, "I come in peace."
And the other stood for a moment eyeing him fiercely, yet not knowing quite how to take him. Without waiting for an invitation his visitor seated himself on the end of the bunk and stared back squarely into the angry face. It did him good, as he remembered the events of the night before, to thus beard this man who hated him to the point of murder.
He waited for Jake to reply; and while his gaze wandered over the cruel, intolerant, overbearing face he found himself speculating as to the caste of that which lay hidden beneath the black, coarse mat of beard.
At last the reply came, and he had expected no better.
"What in h—— are you doin' here?" Jake asked brutally. Then, as an afterthought, "Why ain't you out on the range?"
Tresler permitted himself to lounge over on his elbow and cross his legs with an aggravating air of ease.
"For much the same reason that you are only just finishing your grub. I overslept myself."
And he watched Jake choke back the furious retort that suddenly leapt to his lips. It was evident, even to the intolerant disposition of the foreman, that it was no time for abuse and anger. This man had come to him for some particular purpose, and it behooved him to keep guard on himself. The doings of the night before were in his mind, and he realized that it would be well to meet him coolly. Therefore, instead of the outburst so natural to him, he contented himself with a cool survey of his antagonist, while he put a non-committing inquiry.
And Tresler knew that his presence was accepted, and that he had scored the first point. At once he assumed a businesslike air. He sat up and generally displayed a briskness quite out of keeping with his former attitude.
"I suppose I ought to apologize for my intrusion," he began, "but when you have heard my story, you will understand its necessity. I had a busy night last night."
If he had expected any effect from this announcement he was disappointed. Jake's face never for a moment relaxed its grim look of attention.
"Yes," he went on, as the foreman remained silent. "These raiders—this Red Mask, or whatever he is called—I saw him last night. I saw him here on this ranch."
Jake stirred. He eyed his companion as though he would read him through and through.
"You saw—Red Mask—last night?" he said slowly.
"Yes. I saw him and one of his satellites."
"Go on." It was all the man vouchsafed, but it spoke volumes.
And Tresler at once proceeded with his story of the midnight visit of the masked rider and his companion. He told his story in as few words as possible, being careful to omit nothing, and laying a slight stress on his own rambling in the neighborhood of the house. He was very careful to confine himself to the matter of the apparition, avoiding all allusion to the further happenings of the night. When he had finished, which he did without any interruption from the other, Jake spoke with quiet appreciation.
"An' you've brought the yarn to me. For any partic'lar reason?"
Tresler raised his eyebrows. "Certainly," he replied. "You are foreman of the ranch. Mr. Marbolt's interests are yours."
"That being so, I'd like to know what you were doing around the house at that hour of the night?" was Jake's prompt retort.
Tresler had looked for this. He knew perfectly well that Jake did not expect his question to be answered. Didn't particularly want it answered. It was simply to serve a purpose. He was trying to draw him.
"That is my affair, Jake. For the moment, at least, let us set personalities on one side. No doubt we have accounts to settle. I may as well say at once we are in each other's debt. But this matter I am speaking of is of personal interest to everybody around the district."
All the time he was speaking, Tresler was watching for the smallest change in Jake's manner. And as he went on his appreciation of the fellow's capability rose. He realized that Jake was, after all, something more than a mass of beef and muscle. As no comment was forthcoming he went on rapidly.
"Now, last night's apparition was not altogether new to me. I saw the same thing the first night I arrived on the ranch, but, being 'green' at the time, it lost its significance. Now, it is different. It needs explaining. So I have come to you. But I have not come to you without having considered the matter as fully as it is possible for one in my position to do. Mark me carefully. I have weighed all the details of Red Mask's raids; considered them from all points. Time and place, distance, the apparitions around the ranch, for those ghostly visitors have, at times, been seen in the neighborhood by others. And all these things so tally that they have produced a conviction in my mind that there is a prime mover in the business to be found on this ranch."
"An' the prime mover?" Jake's interest had in no way relaxed. He seemed to be eager to hear everything Tresler could tell him. The latter shrugged.
"Who is there on this ranch that cannot at all times be accounted for? Only one man. Anton—Black Anton."
A pause ensued. Tresler had played a high card. If Jake refused to be drawn it would be awkward. The pause seemed endless and he was forced to provoke an answer.
"Well?" he questioned sharply.
"Well," echoed the foreman; and the other noted the quiet derision in his tone, "seems to me you've done a deal of figgering."
Jake turned away with something very like a smile. Evidently he had decided upon the course to be pursued. Tresler, watching him, could not quite make up his mind whether he was playing the winning hand, or whether his opponent was finessing for the odd trick. Jake suddenly became expansive.
"I'd like to know how we're standin' before we go further," he said; "though, mind you, I ain't asking. I tell you candidly I ain't got no use for you, and I guess it would take a microscope to see your affection for me. This bein' so, I ask myself, what has this feller come around with his yarn to me for? I allow there's two possible reasons which strike me as bein' of any consequence. One is that, maybe, some'eres in the back of your head, you've a notion that I know a heap about this racket, and sort o' wink at it, seein' Marbolt's blind, an' draw a bit out of the game. And the other is, you're honest, an' tryin' to play the game right. Now, I'll ask you not to get plumb scared when I tell you I think you're dead honest about this thing. If I didn't—wal, maybe you'd be lit out of this shack by now."
Jake reached over to the table and picked up a plug of tobacco and tore off a chew with his great strong teeth. And Tresler could not help marveling at the pincher-like power with which he bit through the plug.
"Now, Tresler, there's that between us that can never let us be friends. I'm goin' to get level with you some day. But just now, as you said, we can let things bide. I say you're honest in this thing, and if you choose to be honest with me I'll be honest with you."
One word flashed through Tresler's brain: "finesse."
"I'm glad you think that way, Jake," he said seriously. "My object is to get to the bottom of this matter."
It was a neat play in the game, the way in which these two smoothed each other down. They accepted each other's assurances with the suavity of practiced lawyers, each without an atom of credence or good faith.
"Just so," Jake responded, with a ludicrous attempt at benignity. "An' it's due to the fact that you've been smart enough to light on the right trail, that I'm ready to tell you something I've been holding up from everybody, even Marbolt himself. Mind, I haven't got the dead-gut cinch on these folk yet, though I'm right on to 'em, sure. Anton, that's the feller. I've tracked him from the other side of the line. His real name's 'Tough' McCulloch, an' I guess I know as much as there is to be known of him an' his history, which is pretty rotten. He's wanted in Alberta for murder. Not one, but half a dozen. Say, shall I tell you what he's doin'? He rides out of here at night, an' joins a gang of scallywag Breeds, like himself, an' they are the crowd that have been raiding all around us. And Anton—well, I'd like to gamble my last dollar he's the fellow wearing the Red Mask. Say, I knew he was out last night. He was out with two of the horses. I was around. An' at daylight I went up to the stable while he was sleepin', an' the dog-gone fool hadn't cleaned the saddle marks from their backs. Now, if you're feeling like bearin' a hand in lagging this black son-of-a—— I'm with you fair an' square. We won't shake hands, for good reasons, but your word'll go with me."
"Nothing would suit me better."
Tresler was struggling to fathom the man's object.
"Good. Now we'll quietly go up to the stable. Maybe you can tell if a horse has been recently saddled, even after grooming?"
"Then I'll show you. An' mind, Marbolt hasn't ordered one of his private horses out. Nor ain't Miss Diane. It's Anton."
He rose and prepared to depart, but Tresler stayed him.
"One moment, Jake," he said. "I don't wish to give offense, but tell me why, if you have discovered so much about Anton, have you let these things go on so long? Think of the murder of Manson Orr, of Arizona's wound, of the dozen and one outrages of which even I am aware."
Jake stood silently contemplating him for a while. Nor was there any sign of his swift anger. He smiled faintly, and again Tresler noted the nasty tone of derision in his voice when he answered.
"I thought maybe you'd learnt a deal out here where you find everybody on their own. I thought you'd p'r'aps learned that it ain't wise to raise trouble till you've got the business end of your gun pointin' right. Can't you see there's not a cent's worth of evidence against the man yet? Have you ever heard where he runs his cattle? Has anybody? Has any one ever seen under that mask? Has any one been found who could identify even his figure? No. Red Mask is a will-o'-the-wisp. He's a ghost; and it's our business to find the body o' that ghost. I'm not the fool to go around to Anton and say, 'You are Red Mask.' He'd laugh in my face. An' later on I guess I'd be targettin' a shot for him. What if I rounded to the gove'nor an' got him fired? It would be the worst possible. Keepin' him here, and lying low, we have a chance of puttin' him out of business. No, sir, we're dealin' with the smartest crook west of Chicago. But I'll have him; we'll get him. I never was bested yet. An' I'll have him, same as I get any other guy that crosses me. Let's get on."
They moved out of the hut.
"It's been taking you some time, already," Tresler suggested with a smile, as they moved across the open.
Jake took no umbrage. His dark face responded with a sardonic grin, and his eyes were fiercely alight.
"Tchah!" he ejaculated impatiently. "Say, you never heard tell of a feller gettin' his own good, an' gettin' it quick. Cattle-thieves ain't easy handlin', an' I don't jump till I'm riled."
Tresler made no answer, and the two reached the stable without exchanging another word. Inside they found Anton at work, cleaning harness. He looked up as they came in, and Tresler eyed him with a renewed interest. And the man's face was worth studying. There was no smile, no light in it, and even very little interest. His smooth, tawny skin and aquiline features, his black hair and blacker eyes, in their dark setting, had a devilish look to Tresler's imagination. He even found himself wondering where the good looks he had observed when they met before had vanished to. Jake nodded to him and passed into Bessie's stall at once.
"This is the mare, Tresler, the dandiest thing ever bred on this ranch. Look at her points. See the coat, its color. Red roan, with legs as black as soot. Say, she's a picture. Now I guess she'd fetch a couple of hundred dollars away down east where you come from."
He said all this for Anton's benefit while he smoothed his hand over Bessie's back. Tresler followed suit, feeling for the impression of the saddle-cloth in the hair. It was there, and he went on inspecting the legs, with the air of a connoisseur. The other saddle-horse they treated in the same way, but the drivers were left alone. For some minutes they stood discussing the two animals and then passed out again. Anton had displayed not the least interest in their doings, although nothing had escaped his keen, swift-moving eyes.
Once out of ear-shot Jake turned to Tresler.
"The horses have both been saddled."
"Good. Now we've got the thing plumb located. You heard them gassin' at the stable. You heard 'em slam the door. You saw the two come along. An' one of 'em must have been Anton. Leastways he must have let 'em have the hosses. I guess that's an alternative. I say Anton was up on one of them hosses, an' the other was some gorl durned Breed mate of his. Good. We're goin' right on to see the governor."
"What to do?" asked Tresler.
"To give him your yarn," Jake said shortly.
They were half-way to the house when the foreman suddenly halted and stared out over the lower ranch buildings at the distant pastures. Tresler was slightly behind him as he stood, and only had a sight of the man's profile. He did not seem to be looking at any particular object. His attitude was one of thoughtful introspection. Tresler waited. Things were turning out better than he had hoped, and he had no wish but to let the arbiter of the situation take his own way. He began to think that, whatever Jake's ulterior object might be, he was in earnest about Anton.
At last his companion grunted and turned, and he saw at once that the artificial comradeship of his manner had lifted, and the "Jake" he had already learned to understand was dominant again. He saw the vicious setting of the brows, the fiery eyes. He quite understood that self-control was the weakest side of this man's character, and could not long withstand the more powerful bullying nature that swayed him.
"I asked you a question back there," he said, jerking his head in the direction of his hut, "an' you said it was your affair; an' we'd best let personalities stand for the moment. I'd like an answer before we go further. You reckon to be honest, I guess. Wal, now's your chance. Tell me to my face what I've learned for myself. What were you doin' round here last night? What were you doin' in Marbolt's kitchen?"
Tresler understood the motive of the man's insistence now. Jake was showing him a side of his character he had hardly suspected. It was the human nature in the man asking for a confirmation of his worst fears, in reality his worst knowledge. For he was well aware that Jake had witnessed the scene in the kitchen.
"As I said before, it is my affair," he responded, with an assumption of indifference. "Still, since you insist, you may as well know first as last. I went to see Miss Diane. I saw her——"
"An'?" There was a tense restraint in the monosyllable.
Tresler shrugged. "Miss Marbolt is my promised wife."
There was a deathly silence after his announcement. Tresler looked out over the ranch. He seemed to see everything about him at once; even Jake was in the strained focus, although he was not looking at him. His nerves were strung, and seemed as though they were held in a vice. He thought he could even hear the sound of his own temples beating. He had no fear, but he was expectant.
Then Jake broke the silence, and his voice, though harsh, was low; it was muffled with a throatiness caused by the passion that moved him.
"You'll never marry that gal," he said.
And Tresler was round on him in an instant, and his face was alight with a cold smile.
"I will," he said.
And then Jake moved on with something very like a rush. And Tresler followed. His smile was still upon his face. But it was there of its own accord, a nervous mask which had nothing to do with the thoughts passing behind it.
A PORTENTOUS INTERVIEW
Tresler was in no way blind to the quality of the armistice that had been arranged between himself and Jake. He knew full well that that peaceful interim would be used by Jake to raise earthworks of the earthiest kind, and to train his guns with deadly accuracy upon his enemy. Well, so he wanted. His purpose was to draw his adversary's fire directly upon himself. As he had said, to do anything to help the girl he loved, he must himself be in the fighting line. And from the moment of his doubtful compact with Jake he felt that he was not only in the fighting line, but that, if all he had heard on the subject of Red Mask was true, he would become the centre of attack. There was a pleasant feeling of excitement and uncertainty in his position, and he followed Jake all the more eagerly to the presence of the rancher, only wondering in what manner the forthcoming interview was to affect matters.
Julian Marbolt had not left his bedroom when they arrived at the house. Diane, looking a little anxious when she saw these two together, showed them into her father's office. She was half disposed to refuse Jake's request that she should summon the blind man, but a smiling nod from Tresler decided her.
"Very well, Jake," she replied coldly. "You won't best please father unless the matter is important." This was said merely to conceal her real knowledge of the object of the visit.
If Jake understood he gave no sign. But he had seen and resented the silent assurance Tresler had given her. His angry eyes watched her as she went off; and as she disappeared he turned to his companion, who had seated himself by the window.
"Guess you ain't figgered on the 'old man' 'bout her?" he said.
"That, I think, is strictly my affair," Tresler replied coldly.
Jake laughed, and sat down near the door. The answer had no effect on him.
"Say, I guess you ain't never had a cyclone hit you?" he asked maliciously. "It'll be interestin' to see when you tell him. Maybe——"
Whatever he was about to say was cut short by the approach of the rancher. And it was wonderful the change that came over the man as he sat listening to the tap-tap of the blind man's stick in the passage. He watched the door uneasily, and there was a short breathless attention about him. Tresler, watching, could not help thinking of the approach of some Eastern potentate, with his waiting courtiers and subjects rubbing their faces in the dust lest his wrath should be visited upon them. He admitted that Jake's attitude just now was his true one.
At the door Julian Marbolt stood for a moment, doing by means of his wonderful hearing what his eyes failed to do for him. And the marvel of it was that he faced accurately, first toward Tresler, then toward Jake. He stood like some tall, ascetic, gray-headed priest, garbed in a dressing-gown that needed but little imagination to convert into a cassock. And the picture of benevolence he made was only marred by the staring of his dreadful eyes.
"Well, Jake?" he said, in subdued, gentle tones. "What trouble has brought you round here at this hour?"
"Trouble enough," Jake responded, with a slight laugh. "Tresler here brings it, though."
The blind man turned toward the window and instinctively focussed the younger man, and somehow Tresler shivered as with a cold draught when the sightless eyes fixed themselves upon him.
"Ah, you Tresler. Well, we'll hear all about it." Marbolt moved slowly, though without the aid of his stick now, over to the table, and seated himself.
"It's the old trouble," said Jake, when his master had settled himself. "The cattle 'duffers.' They're gettin' busy—busy around this ranch again."
"Well?" Marbolt turned to Tresler; his action was a decided snub to Jake.
Tresler took his cue and began his story. He told it almost exactly as he had told it to Jake, but with one slight difference: he gave no undue emphasis to his presence in the vicinity of the house. And Marbolt listened closely, the frowning brows bespeaking his concentration, and his unmoving eyes his fixed attention. He listened apparently unmoved to every detail, and displayed a wonderful patience while Tresler went point for point over his arguments in favor of his suspicions of Anton. Once only he permitted his sightless glance to pass in Jake's direction, and that was at the linking of the foreman's name with Tresler's suspicions. As his story came to an end the blind man rested one elbow on the table, and propped his chin upon his hand. The other hand coming into contact with a ruler lying adjacent, he picked it up and thoughtfully tapped the table, while the two men waited for him to speak.
At last he turned toward his foreman, and, with an impressive gesture, indicated Tresler.
"This story is nothing new to us, Jake," he said. Then for a moment his voice dropped, and took on a pained tone. "I only wish it were; then we could afford to laugh at it. No, there can be no laughing here. Past experience has taught us that. It is a matter of the greatest seriousness—danger. So much for the main features. But there are side issues, suspicions you have formed," turning back to Tresler, "which I cannot altogether accept. Mind, I do not say flatly that you are wrong, but I cannot accept them without question.
"Jake here has had suspicions of Anton. I know that, though he has never asserted them to me in so direct a fashion as apparently he has to you." He paused: then he went on in an introspective manner. "I am getting on in years. I have already had a good innings right here on this ranch. I have watched the country develop. I have seen the settlers come, sow the seeds of their homesteads and small ranches, and watched the crop grow. I have rented them grazing. I have sold them stock. I have made money, and they have made money, and the country has prospered. It is good to see these things; good for me, especially, for I was the first here. I have been lord of the land, and Jake my lieutenant. The old Indian days have gone, and I have looked for nothing but peace and prosperity. I wanted prosperity, for I admit I love it. I am a business man, and I do everything in connection with this ranch on a sound business basis. Not like many of those about me. In short, I am here to make money. And why not? I own the land."
The last was said as though in argument. Tresler could not help being struck by the manner in which he alluded to the making of money. There was an air of the miser about him when he spoke of it, a hardness about the mouth which the close-trimmed beard made no pretense of concealing. And there was a world of arrogance in the way he said, "I own the land." However, he was given no time for further observation, for Marbolt seemed to realize his own digression and came back abruptly to the object of his discourse.
"Then this spectre, Red Mask, comes along. He moves with the mystery of the Wandering Jew, and, like that imaginary person, scourges the country wherever he goes, only in a different manner. Anton had been with me three years when this raider appeared. Since then there have been no less than twenty-eight robberies, accompanied more or less by manslaughter." He became more animated and leaned forward in his chair, pointing the ruler he still held in his hand at Tresler as he named the figures. His red eyes seemed to stare harder and his heavy brows to knit more closely across his forehead. "Yes," he reiterated, "twenty-eight robberies. And I, with others, have estimated the number and value of stock that has been lost to this scoundrel. In round figures five thousand head of cattle, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, whisked away, spirited out of this district alone in the course of a few years. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars; one hundred and fifty thousand," he mouthed the words as though he delighted in the sound of so large a sum of money. Then his whole manner changed. A fiend could not have looked more vicious. "And in all I have lost five hundred beeves to him. Five hundred," he cried, his voice high-pitched in his anger, "fifteen thousand dollars, besides horses, and—and some of my men wounded, even killed."
Again he ceased speaking, and relapsed into a brooding attitude. And the two men watched him. His personality fascinated Tresler. He even began to understand something of the general fear he inspired. He thought of Jake who had been so many years with him, and he thought he understood something of the condition he must inspire in any one of no great moral strength who remained with him long. Then he thought of Diane, and moved uneasily. He remembered Jake's allusion to a cyclone.
At Tresler's movement the blind man roused at once and proceeded with his story.
"And he roams this country at large, unchecked, unopposed. Working his will whithersoever he fancies, unseen, unknown but for his sobriquet. And you claim he and Anton are one. This great man—for in his way he is great, head and shoulders above all other criminals, by reason of the extent of his exploits. Pshaw!"—his tone was scoffing—"let me tell you, on three different nights when this monster was abroad, carrying destruction in his path, Anton was driving me. Or, at least, was with me, having driven me into Forks on one occasion, and twice in the neighborhood of Whitewater. No, I am aware that Anton is a black-leg, or has been one, but he has served me well and truly since he has been my servant. As for the saddle-marks," he leaned back in his chair and his gentle smile returned slowly to his face. "No, no, Tresler, that is insufficient. Remember, Anton is a Breed, a young man, and, as Breeds go, good-looking. There is a Breed camp in the neighborhood where they indulge in all the puskies and orgies native to them. We must question him. I expect he has taken French leave with my horses."
"But you forget the Breed camp has gone," put in Jake quickly. "Since the comin' of the sheriff and his men to Forks they've cleared out, and, as yet, we ain't located 'em. I expect it's the hills."
"Just so, Jake," replied Marbolt, turning to the foreman coldly. "I forgot that you told me of it before. But that makes little difference. I have no doubt Anton knows where they are. Now," he went on, turning again to Tresler, "I hold no brief for Anton in particular. If I thought for a moment it were so," a sudden storm of vindictiveness leapt into his tone, "I would hound him down, and be near while they hung him slowly to death on one of our own trees. I would willingly stand by while he was put to the worst possible tortures, and revel in his cries of agony. Don't mistake me. If you could prove Anton to be the rascal, he should die, whatever the consequences. We would wait for no law. But you are all on the wrong trail, I feel sure."
He had dropped back into his old soft-spoken manner, and Tresler felt like hating him for the vileness of the nature he displayed.
"You plead well for Anton, Mr. Marbolt," he could not help saying, "but after what I heard last night, I cannot believe he is not in league with these people."
It was an unfortunate remark, and brought the biting answer that might have been expected.
"I plead for no man, Tresler. Most certainly not for a Breed. I show you where you are wrong. Your inexperience is lamentable, but you cannot help it." He paused, but went on again almost at once. "Since I cannot persuade you, go with your story to the sheriff. Let him judge of your evidence, and if a man of Fyles's undoubted skill and shrewdness acts upon it, I'll pay you one hundred dollars."
Tresler saw the force of the other's reply, but resented the tone, while he still remained utterly unconvinced of Anton's innocence. Perhaps the blind man realized his unnecessary harshness, for he quickly veered round again to his low-voiced benignity. And Jake, interested but silent, sat watching his master with an inscrutable look in his bold eyes and a half smile on his hard face.
"No, Tresler," he said, "we can set all that part of it on one side. You did quite right to come to me, though," he added hastily; "I thank you heartily. From past experience we have learned that your apparition means mischief. It means that a raiding expedition is afoot. Maybe it was committed last night. I suppose," turning to Jake, "you have not heard?"
"No." Jake shook his head.
"Well, we are forewarned, thanks to you, Tresler," the other went on gravely. "And it shan't be my fault if we are not forearmed. We must send a warning round to the nearest homesteads. I really don't know what will happen if this goes on much longer."
"Why not take concerted action? Why not resort to what was recently suggested—a vigilance party?" Tresler put in quickly.
The other shook his head and turned to Jake for support. But none was forthcoming. Jake was watching that strong sightless face, gazing into it with a look of bitter hatred and sinister intentness. This change so astonished Tresler that he paid no attention to the rancher's reply.
And at once Marbolt's peculiar instinct asserted itself. He faced from one to the other with a perplexed frown, and as his red eyes fell finally upon the foreman, that individual's whole expression was instantly transformed to one of confusion. And Tresler could not help calling to mind the schoolboy detected in some misdemeanor. At first the confusion, then the attempt at bland innocence, followed by dogged sullenness. It was evident that Jake's conscience blinded him to the fact of the other's sightless gaze.
"What say you, Jake? We can only leave it to the sheriff and be on our guard."
The foreman fumbled out his reply almost too eagerly.
"Yes," he said, "sure; we must be on our guard. Guess we'd better send out night guards to the different stations." He stretched himself with an assumption of ease. Then suddenly he sat bolt upright and a peculiar expression came into his eyes. Tresler detected the half smile and the side glance in his own direction. "Yes," he went on, composedly enough now, "partic'larly Willow Bluff."
"Why Willow Bluff?" asked the rancher, with some perplexity.
"Why? Why? Because we're waitin' to ship them two hundred beeves to the coast. They're sold, you remember, an' ther's only them two Breeds, Jim an' Lag Henderson, in charge of 'em. Why, it 'ud be pie, a dead soft snap fer Red Mask's gang. An' the station's that lonesome. All o' twenty mile from here."
Julian Marbolt sat thinking for a moment. "Yes, you're right," he agreed at last. "We'll send out extra night guards. And you'd best detail two good, reliable men for a few days at Willow Bluff. Only thoroughly reliable men, mind. You see to it."
Jake turned to Tresler at once, his face beaming with a malicious grin. And the latter understood. But he was not prepared for the skilful trap which his archenemy was baiting for him, and into which he was to promptly fall.
"How'd it suit you, Tresler?" he asked. Then without waiting for a reply he went on, "But ther', I guess it wouldn't do sendin' you. You ain't the sort to get scrappin' hoss thieves. It wants grit. It's tough work an' needs tough men. Pshaw!"
Tresler's blood was up in a moment. He forgot discretion and everything else under the taunt.
"I don't know that it wouldn't do, Jake," he retorted promptly. "It seems to me your remarks come badly from a man who has reason to know—to remember—that I am capable of holding my own with most men, even those big enough to eat me."
He saw his blunder even while he was speaking. But he was red-hot with indignation and didn't care a jot for the consequences. And Jake came at him. If the foreman's taunt had roused him, it was nothing to the effect of his reply. Jake crossed the room in a couple of strides and his furious face was thrust close into Tresler's, and, in a voice hoarse with passion, he fairly gasped at him—
"I ain't fergot. An' by G——"
But he got no further. A movement on the part of the rancher interrupted him. Before he realized what was happening the blind man was at his side with a grip on his arm that made him wince.
"Stop it!" he cried fiercely. "Stop it, you fool! Another word and, blind as I am, I'll——" Jake struggled to release himself, but Marbolt held him with almost superhuman strength and slowly backed him from his intended victim. "Back! Do you hear? I'll have no murder done in here—unless I do it myself. Get back—back, blast you!" And Jake was slowly, in spite of his continued struggles, thrust against the wall. And then, as he still resisted, Marbolt pushed the muzzle of a revolver against his face. "I'll drop you like a hog, if you don't——"
But the compelling weapon had instant effect, and the foreman's resistance died out weakly.
The whole scene had occurred so swiftly that Tresler simply stood aghast. The agility, the wonderful sureness and rapidity of movement on Marbolt's part were staggering. The whole thing seemed impossible, and yet he had seen it; and the meaning of the stories of this man he had listened to came home to him. He was, indeed, something to fear. The great bullying Jake was a child in his hands. Now like a whipped child, he stood with his back to the wall, a picture of hate and fury.
With Jake silenced Marbolt turned on him. His words were few but sufficient.
"And as for you, Tresler," he said coldly, "keep that tongue of yours easy. I am master here."
There was a brief silence, then the rancher returned to the subject that had caused the struggle.
"Well, what about the men for Willow Bluff, Jake?"
It was Tresler who answered the question, and without a moment's hesitation.
"I should like to go out there, Mr. Marbolt. Especially if there's likely to be trouble."
It was the only position possible for him after what had gone before, and he knew it. He glanced at Jake and saw that, for the moment at least, his hatred for his employer had been set aside. He was smiling a sort of tigerish smile.
"Very well, Tresler," responded the rancher. "And you can choose your own companion. You can go and get ready. Jake," turning to the other, "I want to talk to you."
Tresler went out, feeling that he had made a mess of things. He gave Jake credit for his cleverness, quite appreciating the undying hate that prompted it. But the thing that was most prominent in his thoughts was the display the blind man had given him. He smiled when he thought of Jake's boasted threats to Diane; how impotent they seemed now. But the smile died out when he remembered he, himself, had yet to face the rancher on the delicate subject of his daughter. He remembered only too well Jake's reference to a cyclone, and he made his way to the bunkhouse with no very enlivening thoughts.
In the meantime the two men he had just left remained silent until the sound of his footsteps had quite died out. Then Marbolt spoke.
"Jake, you are a damned idiot!" he said abruptly.
The foreman made no answer and the other went on.
"Why can't you leave the boy alone? He's harmless; besides he's useful to me—to us."
"Harmless—useful?" Jake laughed bitterly. "Pshaw, I guess your blindness is gettin' round your brains!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it 'ud have been better if you'd let me—wipe him out. Better for us—for you."
"I don't see; you forget his money." The blind man's tone was very low. "You forget he intends to buy a ranch and stock. You forget that he has twenty-five thousand dollars to expend. Bah! I'll never make a business man of you."
"And what about your girl?" Jake asked, quite unmoved by the other's explanation.
"My girl?" Marbolt laughed softly. "You are always harping on that. He will leave my girl alone. She knows my wishes, and will—shall obey me. I don't care a curse about him or his affairs. But I want his money, and if you will only see to your diabolical temper, I'll—we'll have it. Your share stands good in this as in all other deals."
It was the foreman's turn to laugh. But there was no mirth in it. It stopped as suddenly as it began, cut off short.
"He will leave your girl alone, will he?" he said, with a sneer. "Say, d'you know what he was doin' around this house last night when he saw those hoss-thief guys, or shall I tell you?"
"You'd better tell me," replied the rancher, coldly.
"He was after your girl. Say, an' what's more, he saw her. An' what's still more, she's promised to be his wife. He told me."
"What's that? Say it again." There was an ominous calmness in the blind man's manner.
"I said he was after your girl, saw her, and she's—promised—to—be—his—wife."
Then there was a silence for some minutes. The red eyes were frowning in the direction of the window. At last the man drew a deep breath, and Jake, watching him, wondered what was coming.
"I'll see her," he said slowly, "and I'll see him—after he comes back from Willow Bluff."
That was all, but Jake, accustomed to Julian Marbolt's every mood, read a deal more than the words expressed. He waited for what else might be coming, but only received a curt dismissal in tones so sharp that he hurried out of the room precipitately.
Once clear of the verandah he walked more slowly, and his eyes turned in the direction of the bunkhouse. All the old hatred was stirred within him as he saw Tresler turn the angle of the building and disappear within its doorway.
"Guess no one's goin' to see you—after Willow Bluff," he muttered. "No one."
AT WILLOW BLUFF
Tresler would have liked to see Diane before going out to Willow Bluff, but reflection showed him how impossible that would be; at least, how much unnecessary risk it would involve for her. After what he had just witnessed of her father, it behooved him to do nothing rashly as far as she was concerned, so he turned his whole attention to his preparations for departure.
He had made up his mind as to his comrade without a second thought. Arizona was his man, and he sent the diplomatic Joe out to bring him in from Pine Creek sloughs, where he was cutting late hay for winter stores.
In about half an hour the American came in, all curiosity and eagerness; nor would he be satisfied until he had been told the whole details of the matter that had led up to the appointment. Tresler kept back nothing but his private affairs relating to Diane. At the conclusion of the recital, Arizona's rising temper culminated in an explosion.
"Say, that feller Jake's a meaner pirate an' cus as 'ud thieve the supper from a blind dawg an' then lick hell out o' him 'cos he can't see." Which outburst of feeling having satisfied the necessity of the moment, he became practical. "An' you're goin', you an' me?" he asked incredulously.
"That's the idea, Arizona; but of course you're quite free to please yourself. I chose you; Marbolt gave me the privilege of selection."
"Wal, guess we'd best git goin'. Willow Bluff station's fair to decent, so we'll only need our blankets an' grub—an' a tidy bunch of ammunition. Guess I'll go an' see Teddy fer the rations."
He went off in a hurry. Tresler looked after him. It was good to be dealing with such a man after those others, Jake and the rancher. Arizona's manner of accepting his selection pleased him. There was no "yes" or "no" about it: no argument. A silent acceptance and ready thought for their needs. A thorough old campaigner. A man to be relied on in emergency—a man to be appreciated.
In two hours everything was in readiness, Tresler contenting himself with a reassuring message to Diane through the medium of Joe.
They rode off. Jezebel was on her good behavior, and Arizona's mount kept up with her fast walk by means of his cowhorse amble. As they came to the ford, Tresler drew up and dismounted, and the other watched him while he produced a wicker-covered glass flask from his pocket.
"What's that?" he asked. "Rye?"
Tresler shook his head, and tried the metal screw cap.
"No," he replied shortly.
Then he leant over the water and carefully set the bottle floating, pushing it out as far as possible with his foot while he supported himself by the overhanging bough of a tree. Then he stood watching it carried slowly amid-stream. Presently the improvised craft darted out with a rush into the current, and swept onward with the main flow of the water. Then he returned and remounted his impatient mare.
"That," he said, as they rode on, "is a message. Fyles's men are down the river spying out the land, and, incidentally, waiting to hear from me. The message I've sent them is a request for assistance at Willow Bluff. I have given them sound reason, which Fyles will understand."