Arizona displayed considerable astonishment, which found expression in a deprecating avowal.
"Say, I guess I'm too much o' the old hand. I didn't jest think o' that."
It was all he vouchsafed, but it said a great deal. And the thin face and wild eyes said more.
Now they rode on in silence, while they followed the wood-lined trail along the river. The shade was delightful, and the trail sufficiently sandy to muffle the sound of the horses' hoofs and so leave the silence unbroken. There was a faint hum from the insects that haunted the river, but it was drowsy, soft, and only emphasized the perfect sylvan solitude. After a while the trail left the river and gently inclined up to the prairie level. Then the bush broke and became scattered into small bluffs, and a sniff of the bracing air of the plains brushed away the last odor of the redolent glades they were leaving.
It was here that Arizona roused himself. He was of the prairie, belonging to the prairie. The woodlands depressed him, but the prairie made him expansive.
"Seems to me, Tresler, you're kind o' takin' a heap o' chances—mostly onnes'ary. Meanin' ther' ain't no more reason to it than whistlin' Methody hymns to a deaf mule. Can't see why you're mussin' y'self up wi' these all-fired hoss thieves. You're askin' fer a sight more'n you ken eat."
"And, like all men of such condition, I shall probably eat to repletion, I suppose you mean."
Arizona turned a doubtful eye on the speaker, and quietly spat over his horse's shoulder.
"Guess your langwidge ain't mine," he said thoughtfully; "but if you're meanin' you're goin' to git your belly full, I calc'late you're li'ble to git like a crop-bound rooster wi' the moult 'fore you're through. An' I sez, why?"
Tresler shrugged. "Why does a man do anything?" he asked indifferently.
"Gener'ly fer one of two reasons. Guess it's drink or wimmin." Again he shot a speculating glance at his friend, and, as Tresler displayed more interest in the distant view than in his remarks, he went on. "I ain't heerd tell as you wus death on the bottle."
The object of his solicitude smiled round on him.
"Perhaps you think me a fool. But I just can't stand by seeing things going wrong in a way that threatens to swamp one poor, lonely girl, whose only protection is her blind father."
"Then it is wimmin?"
"If you like."
"But I don't jest see wher' them hoss thieves figger."
"Perhaps you don't, but believe me they do—indirectly." Tresler paused. Then he went on briskly. "There's no need to go into details about it, but—but I want to run into this gang. Do you know why? Because I want to find out who this Red Mask is. It is on his personality depends the possibility of my helping the one soul on this ranch who deserves nothing but tender kindness at the hands of those about her."
"A-men," Arizona added in the manner he had acquired in his "religion" days.
"I must set her free of Jake—somehow."
Arizona's eyes flashed round on him quickly. "Jest so," he observed complainingly. "That's how I wanted to do last night."
"And you'd have upset everything."
"Perhaps so," Tresler smiled confidently. "We are all liable to mistakes."
Arizona's dissatisfied grunt was unmistakable. "Thet's jest how that sassafras-colored, bull-beef Joe Nelson got argyfyin' when Jake come around an' located him sleepin' off the night before in the hog-pen. But it don't go no more'n his did, I guess. Howsum, it's wimmin. Say, Tresler," the lean figure leant over toward him, and the wild eyes looked earnestly into his—"it's right, then—dead right?"
"When I've settled with her father—and Jake."
Arizona held out his horny, claw-like hand. "Shake," he said. "I'm glad, real glad."
They gripped for a moment, then the cowpuncher turned away, and sat staring out over the prairie. Tresler, watching him, wondered at that long abstraction. The man's face had a softened look.
"We all fall victims to it sooner or later, Arizona," he ventured presently. "It comes once in a man's lifetime, and it comes for good or ill."
The hard fact nipped Tresler's sentimental mood in the bud.
The other continued his study of the sky-line. "Yup," he said at last. "One died, an' t'other didn't hatch out."
It was no use attempting sympathy. When Arizona spoke of himself, when he chose to confide his life's troubles to any one, he had a way of stating simple facts merely as facts; he spoke of them because it suited his pessimistic mood.
"Yup. The first was kind o' fady, anyways—sort o' limp in the backbone. Guess I'd got fixed wi' her 'fore I knew a heap. Must 'a' bin. Yup, she wus fancy in her notions. Hated sharin' a pannikin o' tea wi' a friend; guess I see her scrape out a fry-pan oncet. I 'lows she had cranks. Guess she hadn't a pile o' brain, neither. She never could locate a hog from a sow, an' as fer stridin' a hoss, hell itself couldn't 'a' per-suaded her. She'd a notion fer settin' sideways, an' allus got muleish when you guessed she wus wrong. Yup, she wus red-hot on the mission sociables an' eatin' off'n chiny, an' wa'n't satisfied wi' noospaper on the table; an' took the notion she'd got pimples, an' worried hell out o' her old man till he bo't a razor an' turned his features into a patch o' fall ploughin', an' kind o' bulldozed her mother into lashin' her stummick wi' some noofangled fixin' as wouldn't meet round her nowheres noways. An' she wus kind o' finnicky wi' her own feedin', too. Guess some wall-eyed cuss had took her into Sacramento an' give her a feed at one of them Dago joints, wher' they disguise most everythin' wi' langwidge, an' ile, an' garlic, till you hate yourself. Wal, she died. Mebbe she's got all them things handy now. But I ain't sayin' nothin' mean about her; she jest had her notions. Guess it come from her mother. I 'lows she wus kind o' struck on fool things an' fixin's. Can't blame her noways. Guess I wus mostly sudden them days. Luv ut fust sight is a real good thing when it comes to savin' labor, but like all labor-savin' fixin's, it's liable to git rattled some, an' then ther' ain't no calc'latin' what's goin' to bust."
Arizona's manner was very hopeless, but presently he cheered up visibly and renewed his wad of chewing.
"T'other wus kind o' slower in comin' along," he went on, in his reflective drawl. "But when it got around it wus good an' strong, sure. Y' see, ther' wus a deal 'tween us like to make us friendly. She made hash fer the round-up, which I 'lows, when the lady's young, she's most gener'ly an objec' of 'fection fer the boys. Guess she wus most every kind of a gal, wi' her ha'r the color of a field of wheat ready fer the binder, an' her figger as del'cate as one o' them crazy egg-bilers, an' her pretty face all sparklin' wi' smiles an' hoss-soap, an' her eye! Gee! but she had an eye. Guess she would 'a' made a prairie-rose hate itself. But that wus 'fore we hooked up in a team. I 'lows marryin's a mighty bad finish to courtin'."
"You were married?"
A silence fell. The horses ambled on in the fresh noonday air. Arizona's look was forbidding. Suddenly he turned and gazed fiercely into his friend's face.
"Yes, sirree. An' it's my 'pinion, in spite of wot some folks sez, gettin' married's most like makin' butter. Courtin's the cream, good an' thick an' juicy, an' you ken lay it on thick, an' you kind o' wonder how them buzzocky old cows got the savee to perduce sech a daisy liquid. But after the turnin'-point, which is marryin', it's diff'rent some. 'Tain't cream no longer. It's butter, an' you need to use it sort o' mean. That's how I found, I guess."
"I suppose you settled down, and things went all right, though?" suggested Tresler.
"Wal, maybe that's so. Guess if anythin' wus wrong it wus me. Yer see, ther' ain't a heap o' fellers rightly understands females. I'm most gener'ly patient. Knowin' their weakness, I sez, 'Arizona, you're mud when wimmin gits around. You bein' married, it's your dooty to boost the gal along.' So I jest let her set around an' shovel orders as though I wus the hired man. Say, guess you never had a gal shovelin' orders. It's real sweet to hear 'em, an' I figger they knows their bizness mostly. It makes you feel as though you'd ha'f a dozen hands an' they wus all gropin' to git to work. That's how I felt, anyways. Every mornin' she'd per-suade me gentle out o' bed 'fore daylight, an' I'd feel like a hog fer sleepin' late. Then she'd shovel the orders hansum, in a voice that 'ud shame molasses. It wus allus 'dear' or 'darlin'.' Fust haul water, then buck wood, light the stove, feed the hogs an' chick'ns, dung out the ol' cow, fill the lamp, rub down the mare, pick up the kitchen, set the clothes bilin', cook the vittles, an' do a bit o' washin' while she turned over fer five minits. Then she'd git around, mostly 'bout noon, wi' her shower o' ha'r trailin' like a rain o' gold-dust, an' a natty sort o' silk fixin' which she called a 'dressin'-gown,' an' she'd sot right down an' eat the vittles, tellin' me o' things she wanted done as she'd fergot. Ther' wus the hen-roost wanted limin', she was sure the chick'ns had the bugs, an' the ol' mare's harness wanted fixin', so she could drive into town; an' the buckboard wanted washin', an' the wheels greasin'. An' the seat wus kind o' hard an' wanted packin' wi' a pillar. Then ther' wus the p'tater patch wanted hoein', an' the cabb'ges. An' the hay-mower wus to be got ready fer hayin'. She mostly drove that herself, an' I 'lows I wus glad."
Arizona paused and took a fresh chew. Then he went on.
"Guess you ain't never got hitched?"
Tresler denied the impeachment. "Not yet," he said.
"Hah! Guess it makes a heap o' diff'rence."
"Yes, I suppose so. Sobers a fellow. Makes him feel like settling down."
"And where's your wife living now?" Tresler asked, after another pause.
"Can't rightly say." There was a nasty sharpness in the manner Arizona jerked his answer out. "Y' see, it's this a-ways. I guess I didn't amount to a deal as a married man. Leastways, that's how she got figgerin' after a whiles. Guess I'd sp'iled her life some. I 'lows I wus allus a mean cuss. An' she wus real happy bakin' hash. Guess I druv her to drinkin' at the s'loon, too, which made me hate myself wuss. Wal, I jest did wot I could to smooth things an' kep goin'. I got punchin' cows agin, an' give her every cent o' my wages; but it wa'n't to be." The man's voice was husky, and he paused to recover himself. And then hurried on as though to get the story over as soon as possible. "Guess I wus out on the 'round-up' some weeks, an' then I come back to find her gone—plumb gone. Mebbe she'd got lonesome; I can't say. Yup, the shack wus empty, an' the buckboard gone, an' the blankets, an' most o' the cookin' fixin's. It wus the neighbors put me wise. Neighbors mostly puts you wise. They acted friendly. Ther'd bin a feller come 'long from Alberta, a pretty tough Breed feller. He went by the name o' 'Tough' McCulloch."
Tresler started. But Arizona was still staring out at the distant prairie, and the movement escaped him.
"Guess he'd bin around the shack a heap," he went on, "an' the day 'fore I got back the two of 'em had drove out wi' the buckboard loaded, takin' the trail fer the hills. I put after 'em, but never found a trace. I 'lows the feller had guts. He left a message on the table. It wus one o' his guns—loaded. Likely you won't understan', but I kep' that message. I ain't see her sence. I did hear tell she wus bakin' hash agin. I 'lows she could bake hash. Say, Tresler, I've lost hogs, an' I've lost cows, but I'm guessin' ther' ain't nothin' in the world meaner than losin' yer wife."
Tresler made no reply. What could he say? "Tough" McCulloch! the name rang in his ears. It was the name Anton had been known by in Canada. He tried to think what he ought to do. Should he tell Arizona? No. He dared not. Murder would promptly be done, if he knew anything of the American. No doubt the Breed deserved anything, but there was enough savagery at Mosquito Bend without adding to it. Suddenly another thought occurred to him.
"Did you know the man?" he asked.
"Never set eyes on him. But I guess I shall some day." And Tresler's decision was irrevocably confirmed.
"And the 'gun' message?"
"Wal, it's a way they have in Texas," replied Arizona. "A loaded gun is a mean sort o' challenge. It's a challenge which ain't fer the present zacly. Guess it holds good fer life. Et means 'on sight.'"
And the rest of the journey to Willow Bluff was made almost in silence.
The wonderful extent of the blind man's domain now became apparent. They had traveled twenty miles almost as the crow flies, and yet they had not reached its confines. As Arizona said, in response to a remark from his companion, "The sky-line ain't no limit fer the blind hulk's land."
Willow Bluff was, as its name described, just a big bluff of woodland standing at the confluence of two rivers. To the south and west it was open prairie. The place consisted of a small shack, and a group of large pine-log corrals capable of housing a thousand head of stock. And as the men came up they saw, scattered over the adjacent prairie, the peacefully grazing beeves which were to be their charge.
"A pretty bunch," observed Arizona.
"Yes, and a pretty place for a raid."
At that moment the doings of the raiders were uppermost in Tresler's mind.
Then they proceeded to take possession. They found Jim Henderson, a mean looking Breed boy, in the shack, and promptly set him to work to clean it out. It was not a bad place, but the boys had let it get into a filthy condition, in the customary manner of all half-breeds. However, this they quickly remedied, and Tresler saw quite a decent prospect of comfort for their stay there.
Arizona said very little while there was work to be done. And his companion was astonished, even though he knew him so well, at his capacity and forethought. Evening was the most important time, and here the cattleman stood out a master of his craft. The beeves had to be corralled every night. There must be no chance of straying, since they were sold, and liable for transport at any moment. This work, and the task of counting, demanded all the cattleman's skill. Bands of fifty were rounded up, cut out from the rest, and quietly brought in. When each corral was filled, and the whole herd accommodated for the night, a supply of fresh young hay was thrown to them to keep them occupied during their few remaining hours of waking. Arizona was a giant at the work; and to see his lithe, lean body swaying this way and that, as he swung his well-trained pony around the ambling herd, his arms and "rope" and voice at work, was to understand something of the wild life that claimed him, and the wild, untrained nature which was his.
The last corral was fastened up, and then, but not until then, the two friends took leisure.
"Wal," said Arizona, as they stood leaning against the bars of the biggest corral, "guess ther's goin' to be a night-guard?"
"Yes. These boys are smart enough lads, it seems. We'll let them take two hours about up to midnight You and I will do the rest."
"An' the hull lot of us'll sleep round the corrals?"
"An' the hosses?"
"We'll keep them saddled."
"An' the sheriff's fellers?"
"That I can't say. We're not likely to see them, anyway."
And so the plans were arranged, simple, even hopeless in construction. Two men, for they could not depend on the half-breeds, to face possibly any odds should the raider choose this spot for attack. But however inadequate the guard, there was something morally strong in the calm, natural manner of its arranging. These two knew that in case of trouble they had only themselves to depend on. Yet neither hesitated, or balked at the undertaking. Possibilities never entered into their calculations.
The first and second night produced no alarm. Nor did they receive any news of a disturbing nature. On the third day Jacob Smith rode into their camp. He was a patrol guard, on a visiting tour of the outlying stations. His news was peaceful enough.
"I don't care a cuss how long the old man keeps the funks," he said, with a cheery laugh. "I give it you right here, this job's a snap. I ride around like a gen'l spyin' fer enemies. Guess Red Mask has his uses."
"So's most folk," responded Arizona, "but 'tain't allus easy to locate."
"Wal, I guess I ken locate his jest about now. I'm sort o' lyin' fallow, which ain't usual on Skitter Bend."
"Guess not. He's servin' us diff'rent."
"Ah! Doin' night-guard? Say, I'd see blind hulk roastin' 'fore I'd hang on to them beasties. But it's like you, Arizona. You hate him wuss'n hell, an' Jake too, yet you'd—pshaw! So long. Guess I'd best get on. I've got nigh forty miles to do 'fore I git back."
And he rode away, careless, thoughtless, in the midst of a very real danger. And it was the life they all led. They asked for a wage, a bunk, and grub; nothing else mattered.
Tresler had developed a feeling that the whole thing was a matter of form rather than dead earnest, that he had been precipitate in sending his message to the sheriff. He wanted to get back to the ranch. He understood only too well how he had furthered Jake's projects, and cursed himself bitterly for having been so easily duped. He was comfortably out of the way, and the foreman would take particularly good care that he should remain so as long as possible. Arizona, too, had become anything but enlivening. He went about morosely and snapped villainously at the boys. There was no word in answer to the message to the sheriff. They daily searched the bluff for some sign, but without result, and Tresler was rather glad than disappointed, while Arizona seemed utterly without opinion on the matter.
The third night produced a slight shock for Tresler. It was midnight, and one of the boys roused him for his watch. He sat up, and, to his astonishment, found Arizona sitting on a log beside him. He waited until the boy had gone to turn in, then he looked at his friend inquiringly.
And Arizona's reply fairly staggered him. "Say, Tresler," he said, in a tired voice, utterly unlike his usual forceful manner, "I jest wanted to ast you to change 'watches' wi' me. I've kind o' lost my grip on sleep. Mebbe I'm weak'nin' some. I 'lows I'm li'ble to git sleepy later on, an' I tho't, mebbe, ef I wus to do the fust watch—wal, y' see, I guess that plug in my chest ain't done me a heap o' good."
Tresler was on his feet in an instant. It had suddenly dawned on him that this queer son of the prairie was ill.
"Rot, man!" he exclaimed. His tone in no way hid his alarm. They were at the gate of the big corral, hidden in the shadow cast by the high wall of lateral logs. "You go and turn in. I'm going to watch till daylight."
"Say, that's real friendly," observed the other, imperturbably. "But it ain't no use. Guess I couldn't sleep yet."
"Well, please yourself. I'm going to watch till daylight." Tresler's manner was quietly decided, and Arizona seemed to accept it.
"Wal, ef it hits you that a-ways I'll jest set around till I git sleepy."
Tresler's alarm was very real, but he shrugged with a great assumption of indifference and moved off to make a round of the corrals, carefully hugging the shadow of the walls as he went. After a while he returned to his post. Arizona was still sitting where he had left him.
There was a silence for a few minutes. Then the American quietly drew his revolver and spun the chambers round. Tresler watched him, and the other, looking up, caught his eye.
"Guess these things is kind o' tricksy," he observed, in explanation, "I got it jammed oncet. It's a decent weapon but noo, an' I ain't fer noo fixin's. This hyar," he went on, drawing a second one from its holster, "is a 'six' an' 'ud drop an ox at fifty. Ha'r trigger too. It's a dandy. Guess it wus 'Tough' McCulloch's. Guess you ain't got yours on your hip?"
Tresler shook his head. "No, I use the belt for my breeches, and keep the guns loose in my pockets when I'm not riding."
"Wrong. Say, fix 'em right. You take a sight too many chances."
Tresler laughingly complied "I'm not likely to need them, but still——"
"Nope." Arizona returned his guns to their resting-place. Then he looked up. "Say, guess I kind o' fixed the hosses diff'rent. Our hosses. Bro't 'em up an' stood 'em in the angle wher' this corral joins the next one. Seems better; more handy-like. It's sheltered, an' ther's a bit of a sharp breeze. One o' them early frosts." He looked up at the sky. "Guess ther' didn't ought. Ther' ain't no moon till nigh on daylight. Howsum, ther' ain't no argyfyin' the weather."
Tresler was watching his comrade closely. There was something peculiar in his manner. He seemed almost fanciful, yet there was a wonderful alertness in the rapidity of his talk. He remained silent, and, presently, the other went on again, but he had switched off to a fresh topic.
"Say, I never ast you how you figgered to settle wi' Jake," he said. "I guess it'll be all"—he broke off, and glanced out prairieward, but went on almost immediately,—"a settlin'. I've seen you kind o' riled. And I've seen Jake." He stood up and peered into the darkness while he talked in his even monotone. "Yup," he went on, "ther's ways o' dealin' wi' men—an' ways. Guess, now, ef you wus dealin' wi' an honest citizen you'd jest talk him fair. Mind, I figger to know you a heap." His eyes suddenly turned on the man he was addressing, but returned almost at once to their earnest contemplation of the black vista of grass-land. "You'd argyfy the point reas'nable, an' leave the gal to settle for you. But wi' Jake it's diff'rent." His hand slowly went round to his right hip, and suddenly he turned on his friend with a look of desperate meaning. "D'you know what it'll be 'tween you two? This is what it means;" and he whipped out the heavy six that had once been "Tough" McCulloch's, and leveled it at arm's length out prairieward. Tresler thought it was coming at him, and sprang back, while Arizona laughed. "This is what it'll be. You'll take a careful aim, an' if you've friends around they'll see fair play, sure. I guess they'll count 'three' for you, so. Jest one, two, an' you'll both fire on the last, so. Three!"
There was a flash, and a sharp report, and then a cry split the still night air. Tresler sprang at the man whom he now believed was mad, but the cry stayed him, and the next moment he felt the grip of Arizona's sinewy hand on his arm, and was being dragged round the corral as the sound of horses' hoofs came thundering toward him.
It was the only explanation Arizona vouchsafed. They reached the horses and both sprang into the saddle, and the American's voice whispered hoarsely—
"Bend low. Guess these walls'll save us, an' we've got a sheer sight o' all the corral gates. Savee? Shoot careful, an' aim true. An' watch out on the bluff. The sheriff's around."
And now the inexperienced Tresler saw the whole scheme. The masterly generalship of his comrade filled him with admiration. And he had thought him ill, his brain turned! For some reason he believed the raiders were approaching, but not being absolutely sure, he had found an excuse for not turning in as usual, and cloaked all his suspicions for fear of giving a false alarm. And their present position was one of carefully considered strategy; the only possible one from which they could hope to achieve any advantage, for, sheltered, they yet had every gate of the corrals within gunshot.
But there was little time for reflection or speculation. If the sheriff's men came, well and good. In the meantime a crowd of a dozen men had charged down upon the corrals, a silent, ghostly band; the only noise they made was the clatter of their horses' hoofs.
Both men, watching, were lying over their horses' necks. Arizona was the first to shoot. Again his gun belched a death-dealing shot. Tresler saw one figure reel and fall with a groan. Then his own gun was heard. His aim was less effective, and only brought a volley in reply from the raiders. That volley was the signal for the real battle to begin. The ambush of the two defenders was located, and the rustlers divided, and came sweeping round to the attack.
But Arizona was ready. Both horses wheeled round and raced out of their improvised fort, and Tresler, following the keen-witted man, appreciated his resource as he darted into another angle between two other corrals. The darkness favored them, and the rustlers swept by. Arizona only waited long enough for them to get well clear, then his gun rang out again, and Tresler's too. But the game was played out. A straggler sighted them and gave the alarm, and instantly the rest took up the chase.
"Round the corrals!"
As he spoke Arizona turned in his saddle and fired into the mob. A perfect hail of shots replied, and the bullets came singing all round them. He was as cool and deliberate as though he were hunting jack-rabbits. Tresler joined him in a fresh fusillade, and two more saddles were emptied, but the next moment a gasp told Arizona that his comrade was hit, and he turned only just in time to prevent him reeling out of the saddle.
"Hold up, boy!" he cried. "Kep your saddle if hell's let loose. I'll kep 'em busy."
And the wounded man, actuated by a similar spirit, sat bolt upright, while the two horses sped on. They were round at the front again. But though Arizona was as good as his word, and his gun was emptied and reloaded and emptied again, it was a hopeless contest—hopeless from the beginning. Tresler was bleeding seriously from a wound in his neck, and his aim was becoming more and more uncertain. But his will was fighting hard for mastery over his bodily weakness. Just as they headed again toward the bluff, Arizona gave a great yank at his reins and his pony was thrown upon its haunches. The Lady Jezebel, too, as though working in concert with her mate, suddenly stopped dead.
The cause of the cowpuncher's action was a solitary horseman standing right ahead of them gazing out at the bluff. The plainsman's gun was up in an instant, in spite of the pursuers behind. Death was in his eye as he took aim, but at that instant there was a shout from the bluff, and the cry was taken up behind him—"Sheriff's posse!" That cry lost him his chance of fetching Red Mask down. Before he could let the hammer of his gun fall, the horseman had wheeled about and vanished in the darkness.
Simultaneously the pursuers swung out, turned, and the next moment were in full retreat under a perfect hail of carbine-fire from the sheriff's men.
And as the latter followed in hot pursuit, Arizona hailed them—
"You've missed him; he's taken the river-bank for it. It's Red Mask! I see him."
But now Tresler needed all his friend's attention. Arizona saw him fall forward and lie clinging to his saddle-horn. He sprang to his aid, and, dismounting, lifted him gently to the ground. Then he turned his own horse loose, leading the Lady Jezebel while he supported the sick man up to the shack.
Here his patient fainted dead away, but he was equal to the emergency. He examined the wound, and found an ugly rent in the neck, whence the blood was pumping slowly. He saw at once that a small artery had been severed, and its adjacency to the jugular made it a matter of extreme danger. His medical skill was small, but he contrived to wash and bind the wound roughly. Then he quietly reloaded his guns, and, with the aid of a stiff horn of whisky, roused some life in his patient. He knew it would only be a feeble flicker, but while it lasted he wanted to get him on to the Lady Jezebel's back.
This he contrived after considerable difficulty. The mare resented the double burden, as was only to be expected. But the cowpuncher was desperate and knew how to handle her.
None but Arizona would have attempted such a feat with a horse of her description; but he must have speed if he was going to save his friend's life, and he knew she could give it.
WHAT LOVE WILL DO
Daylight was breaking when the jaded Lady Jezebel and her double freight raced into the ranch. The mare had done the journey in precisely two hours and a quarter. Arizona galloped her up to the house and rounded the lean-to in which Joe slept. Then he pulled up and shouted. Just then he had no thought for the rancher or Jake. He had thought for no one but Tresler.
His third shout brought Joe tumbling out of his bed.
"Say, I've got a mighty sick man here," he cried, directly he heard the choreman moving. "Git around an' lend a hand; gentle, too."
"That you, Arizona?" Joe, half awake, questioned, blinking up at the horseman in the faint light.
"I guess; an' say, 'fore I git answerin' no fool questions, git a holt on this notion. Red Mask's bin around Willow Bluff, an' Tresler's done up. Savee?"
"Tresler, did you say?" asked a girl's voice from the kitchen doorway. "Wounded?"
There was a world of fear in the questions, which were scarcely above a whisper.
Arizona was lifting Tresler down into Joe's arms. "I 'lows I didn't know you wus ther', missie," he replied, without turning from his task. "Careful, Joe; easy—easy now. He's dreadful sick, I guess. Yes, missie, it's him. They've kind o' scratched him some. 'Tain't nothin' to gas about; jest barked his neck. Kind o' needs a bit o' band'ge. Gorl durn you, Joe! Git your arm under his shoulders an' kep his head steady; he'll git bleedin' to death ef y' ain't careful. Quiet, you jade!" he cried fiercely, to the mare whom Diane had frightened with her white robe as she came to help. "No, missie, not you," Arizona exclaimed. "He's all blood an' mussed up." Then he discovered that she had little on but a night-dress. "Gee! but you ain't wropped up, missie. Jest git right in. Wal," as she deliberately proceeded to help the struggling Joe, "ef you will; but Joe ken do it, I guess. Ther', that's it. I ken git off'n this crazy slut of a mare now."
Directly Arizona had quit the saddle he relieved Diane, and, with the utmost gentleness, started to take the sick man into the lean-to. But the girl protested at once.
"Not in there," she said sharply. "Take him into the house. I'll go and fix a bed up-stairs. Bring him through the kitchen."
She spoke quite calmly. Too calmly, Joe thought.
"To that house?" Arizona protested.
"Yes, yes, of course." Then the passion of grief let itself loose, and Diane cried, "And why not? Where else should he go? He belongs to me. Why do you stand there like an imbecile? Take him at once. Oh, Jack, Jack, why don't you speak? Oh, take him quickly! You said he would bleed to death. He isn't dead? No, tell me he isn't dead?"
"Dead? Dead? Ha, ha!" Arizona threw all the scorn he was capable of into the words, and laughed with funereal gravity. "Say, that's real good—real good. Him dead? Wal, I guess not. Pshaw! Say, missie, you ain't ast after my health, an' I'm guessin' I oughter be sicker'n him, wi' that mare o' his. Say, jest git right ahead an' fix that bunk fer him, like the daisy gal you are. What about bl—your father, missie?"
"Never mind father. Come along."
The man's horse-like attempt at lightness had its effect. The girl pulled herself together. She realized the emergency. She knew that Tresler needed her help. Arizona's manner had only emphasized the gravity of his case.
She ran on ahead, and the other, bearing the unconscious man, followed.
"Never mind father," Arizona muttered doubtfully. "Wal, here goes." Then he called back to Joe: "Git around that mare an' sling the saddle on a fresh plug; guess I'll need it."
He passed through the kitchen, and stepping into the hall he was startled by the apparition of the blind man standing in the doorway of his bedroom. He was clad in his customary dressing-gown, and his eyes glowed ruddily in the light of the kitchen lamp.
"What's this?" he asked sharply.
"Tresler's bin done up," Arizona replied at once. "Guess the gang got around Willow Bluff—God's curse light on 'em!"
"Hah! And where are you taking him?"
"Up-sta'rs," was the brief reply. Then the cowpuncher bethought him of his duty to his employer. "Guess the cattle are safe, fer which you ken thank the sheriff's gang. Miss Dianny's hustlin' a bunk fer him," he added.
In spite of his usual assurance, Arizona never felt easy with this man. Now the rancher's manner decidedly thawed.
"Yes, yes," he said gently. "Take the poor boy up-stairs. You'd better go for the doctor. You can give me the details afterward."
He turned back into his room, and the other passed up the stairs.
He laid the sick man on the bed, and pointed out to the girl the bandage on his neck, advising, in his practical fashion, its readjustment. Then he went swiftly from the house and rode into Forks for Doc. Osler, the veterinary surgeon, the only available medical man in that part of the country.
When Diane found herself alone with the man she loved stretched out before her, inert, like one dead, her first inclination was to sit down and weep for him. She could face her own troubles with a certain fortitude, but to see this strong man laid low, perhaps dying, was a different thing, and her womanly weakness was near to overcoming her. But though the unshed tears filled her eyes, her love brought its courage to her aid, and she approached the task Arizona had pointed out.
With deft fingers she removed the sodden bandage, through which the blood was slowly oozing. The flow, which at once began again, alarmed her, and set her swiftly to work. Now she understood as well as Arizona did what was amiss. She hurried out to her own room, and returned quickly with materials for rebandaging, and her arms full of clothes. Then, with the greatest care, she proceeded to bind up the neck, placing a cork on the artery below the severance. This she strapped down so tightly that, for the time at least, the bleeding was staunched. Her object accomplished, she proceeded to dress herself ready for the doctor's coming.
She had taken her place at the bedside, and was meditating on what further could be done for her patient, when an event happened on which she had in nowise reckoned. Somebody was ascending the stair with the shuffling gait of one feeling his way. It was her father. The first time within her memory that he had visited the upper part of the house.
A look of alarm leapt into her eyes as she gazed at the door, watching for his coming, and she realized only too well the possibilities of the situation. What would he say? What would he do?
A moment later she was facing him with calm courage. Her fears had been stifled by the knowledge of her lover's helplessness. One look at his dear, unconscious form had done for her what nothing else could have done. Her filial duty went out like a candle snuffed with wet fingers. There was not even a spark left.
Julian Marbolt stepped across the threshold, and his head slowly moved round as though to ascertain in what direction his daughter was sitting. The oil-lamp seemed to attract his blind attention, and his eyes fixed themselves upon it; but for a moment only. Then they passed on until they settled on the girl.
"Where is he?" he asked coldly. "I can hear you breathing. Is he dead?"
Diane sprang up and bent over her patient. "No," she said, half fearing that her father's inquiry was prophetic. "He is unconscious from loss of blood. Arizona——"
"Tchah! Arizona!—I want to talk to you. Here, give me your hand and lead me to the bedside. I will sit here. This place is unfamiliar."
Diane did as she was bid. She was pale. A strained look was in her soft brown eyes, but there was determination in the set of her lips.
"What is the matter with you, girl?" her father asked. The softness of his speech in no way disguised the iciness of his manner. "You're shaking."
"There's nothing the matter with me," she replied pointedly.
"Ah, thinking of him." His hand reached out until it rested on one of Tresler's legs. His remark seemed to require no answer, and a silence fell while Diane watched the eyes so steadily directed upon the sick man. Presently he went on. "These men have done well. They have saved the cattle. Arizona mentioned the sheriff. I don't know much about it yet, but it seems to me this boy must have contrived their assistance. Smart work, if he did so."
"Yes, father, and brave," added the girl in a low tone.
His words had raised hope within her. But with his next he dashed it.
"Brave? It was his duty," he snapped, resentful immediately. The red eyes were turned upon his daughter, and she fancied she saw something utterly cruel in their painful depths. "You are uncommonly interested," he went on slowly. "I was warned before that he and you were too thick. I told you of it—cautioned you. Isn't that sufficient, or have I to——" He left his threat unfinished.
A color flushed slowly into Diane's cheeks and her eyes sparkled.
"No, it isn't sufficient, father. You have no right to stop me speaking to Mr. Tresler. I have bowed to your decision with regard to the other men on the ranch. There, perhaps, you had a right—a parent's right. But it is different with Mr. Tresler. He is a gentleman. As for character, you yourself admit it is unimpeachable. Then what right have you to refuse to allow me even speech with him? It is absurd, tyrannical; and I refuse to obey you."
The frowning brows drew sharply down over the man's eyes. And Diane understood the sudden rising of storm behind the mask-like face. She waited with a desperate calmness. It was the moral bravery prompted by her new-born love.
But the storm held off, controlled by that indomitable will which made Julian Marbolt an object of fear to all who came into contact with him.
"You are an ungrateful girl, a foolish girl," he said quietly. "You are ungrateful that you refuse to obey me; and foolish, that you think to marry him."
Diane sprang to her feet. "I—how——"
"Tut! Do not protest. I know you have promised to be his wife. If you denied it you would lie." He sat for a moment enjoying the girl's discomfort. Then he went on, with a cruel smile about his lips as she returned to her seat with a movement that was almost a collapse. "That's better," he said, following her action by means of his wonderful instinct. "Now let us be sensible—very sensible."
His tone had become persuasive, such as might have been used to a child, and the girl wondered what further cruelty it masked. She had not long to wait.
"You are going to give up this madness," he said coldly. "You will show yourself amenable to reason—my reason—or I shall enforce my demands in another way."
The girl's exasperation was growing with each moment, but she kept silence, waiting for him to finish.
"You will never marry this man," he went on, with quiet emphasis. "Nor any other man while I live. There is no marriage for you, my girl. There can be no marriage for you. And the more 'unimpeachable' a man's character the less the possibility."
"I don't pretend to understand you," Diane replied, with a coldness equal to her father's own.
"No; perhaps you don't." The man chuckled fiendishly.
Tears sprang into the girl's eyes. She could no longer check them. And with them came the protest that she was also powerless to withhold.
"Why may I not marry? Why can I not marry? Surely I can claim the right of every woman to marry the man of her choice. I know you have no good will for me, father. Why, I cannot understand. I have always obeyed you; I have ever striven to do my duty. If there has never been any great affection displayed, it is not my fault. For, ever since I can remember, you have done your best to kill the love I would have given you. How have I been ungrateful? What have I to be grateful for? I cannot remember one single kindness you have ever shown me. You have set up a barrier between me and the world outside this ranch. I am a prisoner here. Why? Am I so hateful? Have I no claims on your toleration? Am I not your own flesh and blood?"
The man's answer came with staggering force. It was the bursting of the storm of passion, which even his will could no longer restrain. But it was the whole storm, for he went no further. It was Diane who spoke next. Her cheeks had assumed an ashen hue, and her lips trembled so that she could scarcely frame her words.
"What do you mean?" she gasped.
"Tut! Your crazy obstinacy drives me to it," her father answered impatiently, but with perfect control. "Oh, you need have no fear. There is no legal shame to you. But there is that which will hit you harder, I think."
"Father! What are you saying?"
Something of the man's meaning was growing upon her. Old hints and innuendoes against her mother were recalled by his words. Her throat parched while she watched the relentless face of this man who was still her father.
"Saying? You know the story of my blindness. You know I spent three years visiting nearly every eye-doctor in Europe. But what you don't know, and shall know, is that I returned home to Jamaica at the end of that time to find myself the father of a three-days'-old baby girl." The man's teeth were clenched, rage and pain distorted his face, rendering his sightless stare a hideous thing. "Yes," he went on, but now more to himself, "I returned home to that, and in time to hear the last words your mother uttered in life; in time to feel—feel her death-struggles." He mouthed his words with unmistakable relish, and relapsed into silence.
Diane fell back with a bitter cry. The cry roused her father.
"Well?" he continued. "You'll give this man up—now?"
For some minutes there was no answer. The girl sat like a statue carved in dead white stone; and the expression of her face was as stony as the mould of her features. Her blood was chilled; her brain refused its office; and her heart—it was as though that fount of life lay crushed within her bosom. Even the man lying sick on the bed beside her had no meaning for her.
"Well?" her father demanded impatiently. "You are going to give Tresler up now?"
She heard him this time. With a rush everything came to her, and a feeling of utter helplessness swept over her. Oh, the shame of it! Suddenly she flung forward on the bed and sobbed her heart out beside the man she must give up. He had been the one bright ray in the dull gray of her life. His love, come so quickly, so suddenly, to her had leavened the memory of her unloved years. Their recollection had been thrust into the background to give place to the sunshine of a precious first love. And now it must all go. There was no other course open to her, she told herself; and in this decision was revealed her father's consummate devilishness. He understood her straightforward pride, if he had no appreciation of it. Then, suddenly, there came a feeling of resentment and hatred for the author of her misfortune, and she sat up with the tears only half dry on her cheeks. Her father's dead eyes were upon her, and their hateful depths seemed to be searching her. She knew she must submit to his will. He mastered her as he mastered everybody else.
"It is not what I will," she said, in a low voice. "I understand; our lives must remain apart." Then anger brought harshness into her tone. "I would have given him up of my own accord had I known. I could not have thrust the shame of my birth upon him. But you—you have kept this from me all these years, saving it, in your heartless way, for such a moment as this. Why have you told me? Why do you keep me at your side? Oh, I hate you!"
"Yes, yes, of course you do," her father said, quite unmoved by her attack. "Now you are tasting something—only something—of the bitterness of my life. And it is good that you should. The parent's sins—the children. Yes, you certainly can feel——"
"For heaven's sake leave me!" the girl broke in, unable to stand the taunting—the hideous enjoyment of the man.
"Not yet; I haven't done. This man——" The rancher leant over the bed, and one hand felt its way over Tresler's body until it rested over his heart. "At one time I was glad he came here. I had reasons. His money was as good as in my pocket. He would have bought stock from me at a goodish profit. Now I have changed my mind. I would sacrifice that. It would be better perhaps—perhaps. No, he is not dead yet. But he may die, eh, Diane? It would be better were he to die; it would save your explanation to him. Yes, let him die. You are not going to marry him. You would not care to see him marry another, as, of course, he will. Let him die. Love? Love? Why, it would be kindness to yourselves. Yes, let him die."
"You—you—wretch!" Diane was on her feet, and her eyes blazed down upon the cruel, working face before her. The cry was literally wrung from her. "And that is the man who was ready to give his life for your interests. That is the man whose cleverness and bravery you even praised. You want me to refuse him the trifling aid I can give him. You are a monster! You have parted us, but it is not sufficient; you want his life."
She suddenly bent over and seized her father's hand, where it rested upon Tresler's heart, and dragged it away.
"Take your hand off him; don't touch him!" she cried in a frenzy. "You are not——"
But she got no further. The lean, sinewy hand had closed over hers, and held them both as in a vice; and the pressure made her cry out.
"Listen!" he said fiercely. He, too, was standing now, and his tall figure dwarfed hers. "He is to be moved out of here. I will have Jake to see to it in the morning. And you shall know what it is to thwart me if you dare to interfere."
He abruptly released her hands and turned away; but he shot round again as he heard her reply.
"I shall nurse him," she said.
"You will not."
The girl laughed hysterically. The scene had been too much for her, and she was on the verge of breaking down.
"We shall see," she cried after him, as he passed out of the room.
The whole ranch was astir when Arizona returned with Doc. Osler. Nor did they come alone. Fyles had met them on the trail. He had just returned from a fruitless pursuit of the raiders. He had personally endeavored to track Red Mask, but the rustler had evaded him in the thick bush that lined the river; and his men had been equally unsuccessful with the rest of the band. The hills had been their goal, and they had made it through the excellence of their horses. Although the pursuers were well mounted their horses were heavier, and lost ground hopelessly in the midst of the broken land of the foot-hills.
Jake was closeted with the rancher at the coming of the doctor and his companions; but their confabulation was brought to an abrupt termination at once.
The doctor went to the wounded man, who still remained unconscious, while Fyles joined the rancher and his foreman in a discussion of the night's doings. And while these things were going on Arizona and Joe shared the hospitality of the lean-to.
The meeting in the rancher's den had not proceeded far when a summons from up-stairs cut it short. Diane brought a message from the doctor asking her father and the sheriff to join him. Marbolt displayed unusual alacrity, and Fyles followed him as he tapped his way up to the sick-room. Here the stick was abandoned, and he was led to his seat by his daughter. Diane was pale, but alert and determined; while her father wore a gentle look of the utmost concern. The doctor was standing beside the window gazing out over the pastures, but he turned at once as they came in.
"A nasty case, Mr. Marbolt," he said, the moment the rancher had taken up his position. "A very nasty case." He was a brusque little man with a pair of keen black eyes, which he turned on the blind man curiously. "An artery cut by bullet. Small artery. Your daughter most cleverly stopped bleeding. Many thanks to her. Patient lost gallons of blood. Precarious position—very. No danger from wound now. Exhaustion only. Should he bleed again—death. But he won't; artery tied up securely. Miss Marbolt says you desire patient removed to usual quarters. I say no! Remove him—artery break afresh—death. Sheriff, I order distinctly this man remains where he is. Am I right? Have I right?"
"Undoubtedly." Then Fyles turned upon the blind man. "His orders are your law, Mr. Marbolt," he said. "And you, of course, will be held responsible for any violation of them."
The blind man nodded in acquiescence.
"Good," said the doctor, rubbing his hands. "Nothing more for me now. Return to-morrow. Miss Marbolt, admirable nurse. Wish I was patient. He will be about again in two weeks. Artery small. Health good—young. Oh, yes, no fear. Only exhaustion. Hope you catch villains. Good-morning. Might have severed jugular—near shave."
Doc. Osler bowed to the girl and passed out muttering, "Capital nurse—beautiful." His departure brought the rancher to his feet, and he groped his way to the door. As he passed his daughter he paused and gently patted her on the back.
"Ah, child," he said, with a world of tolerant kindness in his voice, "I still think you are wrong. He would have been far better in his own quarters, his familiar surroundings, and amongst his friends. You are quite inexperienced, and these men understand bullet wounds as well as any doctor. However, have your way. I hope you won't have cause to regret it."
"All right, father," Diane replied, without turning her eyes from the contemplation of her sick lover.
And Fyles, standing at the foot of the bed watching the scene, speculated shrewdly as to the relations in which the girl and her patient stood, and the possible parental disapproval of the same. Certainly he had no idea of the matters which had led up to the necessity for his official services to enforce the doctor's orders.
THE LIGHTED LAMP
Diane was by no means satisfied with her small victory. She had gained her point, it is true, but she had gained it by means which gave no promise of a happy outcome to her purpose.
Left alone with her patient she had little to do but reflect on her position, and her thoughts brought her many a sigh, much heart-racking and anxiety. For herself she allowed little thought. Her mind was made up as to her future. Her love was to be snatched away while yet the first sweet glamour of it was upon her. Every hope, every little castle she had raised in her maiden thoughts, had been ruthlessly shattered, and the outlook of her future was one dull gray vista of hopelessness. It was the old order accentuated, and the pain of it gripped her heart with every moment she gave to its contemplation. Happily the life she had lived had strengthened her; she was not the girl to weep at every ill that befell. The first shock had driven her to tears, but that had passed. She was of a nature that can suffer bravely, and face the world dry-eyed, gently, keeping the bitterness of her lot to herself, and hiding her own pain under an earnest attempt to help others.
Tresler was her all; and that all meant far more than mere earthly love. To her he was something that must be cherished as a priceless gem entrusted to her care, and his honor was more sacred to her than her own. Therefore all personal considerations must be passed over, and she must give him up.
But if his honor was safe in her keeping, his personal safety was another matter. In pitting herself against her father's will she fully realized the danger she was incurring. Therefore she racked her sorely taxed brain for the best means of safeguarding her charge.
She hardly knew what she feared. There was no real danger she could think of, but her instinct warned her to watchfulness, to be prepared for anything. She felt sure that her father would seek some means of circumventing the sheriff's mandate. What form would his attempt take?
After half an hour's hard thinking she made up her mind to consult her wise old counselor, Joe, and enlist his aid. With this object in view she went down-stairs and visited the lean-to. Here she found both Arizona and Joe. Arizona was waiting a summons from the rancher, who was still busy with Jake and Fyles. At first she thought of consulting her adviser privately, but finally decided to take both men into her confidence; and this the more readily since she knew her lover's liking for the hot-headed cowpuncher.
Both men stood up as she entered. Arizona dragged his slouch hat off with clumsy haste.
"Boys," the girl said at once, "I've come to ask you for a little help."
"Makes me glad, missie," said the cowpuncher, with alacrity.
Joe contented himself with an upward glance of inquiry.
Diane nodded with an assumption of brightness.
"Well, it's this," she said. "Jack mustn't be left for the next few days. Now, I am his nurse, but I have household duties to perform and shall be forced to leave him at times. You, Arizona, won't be able to do anything in the daytime, because you are occupied on the ranch. But I thought you, Joe, could help me by being in the kitchen as much as possible. You see, in the kitchen you can hear the least sound coming from up-stairs. The room is directly overhead. In that way I shall be free to do my house."
"Guess you had trouble fixin' him up-stairs?" Joe inquired slowly. "Doc. Osler wus sayin' somethin' 'fore he went."
Diane turned away. The shrewd old eyes were reading her like a book.
"Yes, father wanted him put in the bunkhouse."
"Ah." Joe's twisted face took on a curious look. "Yes, I guess I ken do that. What's to happen o' night time?"
"Oh, I can sit up with him. The night is all right," the girl returned easily.
"Guess we'd best take it turn about like," Joe suggested.
"No, it wouldn't do."
"Guess it wouldn't do. That's so," the other observed thoughtfully. "Howsum, I ken set around the kitchen o' nights. I shan't need no lights. Y' see, wi' the door open right into the hall ther' ain't no sound but what I'll hear."
The man's meaning was plain enough, but the girl would not take it.
"No," she said, "it's in the daytime I want you."
"Daytime? I guess that's fixed." Joe looked up dissatisfied.
At this juncture Arizona broke in with a scheme for his own usefulness.
"Say, missie, any time o' night you jest tap hard on that windy I'll know you want the doc. fetchin'. An' I'll come right along up an' git orders. I'll be waitin' around."
The girl looked him squarely in the eyes, seeking the meaning that lay behind his words. But the man's expression was sphinx-like. She felt that these rough creatures, instead of acting as advisers, had assumed the responsibilities she had only asked their assistance in.
"You are good fellows both. I can't thank you; but you've taken a weight off my mind."
"Ther' ain't no thanks, missie. I figger as a doc. is an a'mighty ne'sary thing when a feller's sick," observed Arizona, quietly.
"Spec'ally at night time," put in Joe, seriously.
"I'll get back to my patient," Diane said abruptly. And as she flitted away to the house the men heard the heavy tread of Jake coming round the lean-to, and understood the hastiness of her retreat.
The next minute the foreman had summoned Arizona to the rancher's presence.
Diane had done well to enlist the help of these men. Without some aid it would have been impossible to look after Tresler. She feared her father, as well she might. What would be easier than for him to get her out of the way, and then have Jake deport her patient to the bunkhouse? Doc. Osler's threats of life or death had been exaggerated to help her carry her point, she knew, and, also, she fully realized that her father understood this was so. He was not the man to be scared of any bogey like that. Besides, his parting words, so gentle, so kindly; she had grown to distrust him most in his gentler moods.
All that day, assisted by Joe, she watched at the sickbed. Tresler was never left for long; and when it was absolutely necessary to leave him Joe's sharp ears were straining for any alarming sound, and, unauthorized by Diane, his eyes were on the hallway, watching the rancher's bedroom door. He had no compunction in admitting his fears to himself. He had wormed the whole story of the rancher's anger at Tresler's presence in the house from his young mistress, and, also, he understood that Diane's engagement to her patient was known to her father. Therefore his lynx eyes never closed, his keen ears were ever strained, and he moved about with a gun in his hip-pocket. He didn't know what might happen, but his movements conveyed his opinion of the man with whom they had to deal. Arizona had been despatched with Fyles to Willow Bluff. There were wounded men there to be identified, and the officer wanted his aid in examining the battlefield.
"But he'll git around to-night," Joe had said, after bringing the news to Diane. "Sure—sure as pinewood breeds bugs."
And the girl was satisfied. The day wore on, and night brought no fresh anxiety. Diane was at her post, Joe was alert, and though no one had heard of Arizona's return, twice, in the small hours, the choreman heard a footfall outside his lean-to, and he made a shrewd guess as to whose it was.
The second and third day passed satisfactorily, but still Tresler displayed no sign of life. He lay on the bed just as he had been originally placed there. Each day the brusque little doctor drove out from Forks, and each day he went back leaving little encouragement behind him. Before he went away, after his third visit, he shook his head gravely in response to the nurse's eager inquiries.
"He's got to get busy soon," he said, as he returned his liniments and medical stores to his bag. "Don't like it. Bad—very bad. Nature exhausting. He must rouse soon—or death. Three days——Tut, tut! Still no sign. Cheer up, nurse. Give him three more. Then drastic treatment. Won't come till he wakes—no use. Send for me. Good girl. Stick to it. Sorry. Good-bye."
And patting Diane on the back the man bustled out in his jerky fashion, leaving her weeping over the verdict he had left behind.
It was the strain of watching that had unnerved her. She was bodily and mentally weary. Her eyes and head ached with the seemingly endless vigil. Three days and nights and barely six hours' sleep over all, and those only snatched at broken intervals.
And now another night confronted her. So overwrought was she that she even thought of seeking the aid old Joe had proffered. She thought quite seriously of it for some moments. Could she not smuggle him up-stairs after her father had had his supper and retired to his bedroom? She had no idea that Joe had, secretly, spent almost as much time on the watch as she had done. However, she came to no actual decision, and went wearily down and prepared the evening meal. She waited on the blind man in her usual patient, silent manner, and afterward went back to the kitchen and prepared to face the long dreary night.
Joe was finishing the washing-up. He was longer over it than usual, though he had acquired a wonderful proficiency in his culinary duties since he was first employed on the ranch. Diane paid little heed to him, and as soon as her share of the work was finished, prepared to retire up-stairs.
"There's just the sweeping up, Joe," she said. "When you've finished that we are through. I must go up to him."
Joe glanced round from his washing-trough, but went on with his work.
"He ain't showed no sign, Miss Dianny?" he asked eagerly.
The girl spoke almost in a whisper, leaning against the table with a deep sigh of weariness.
"Say, Miss Dianny," the little man suggested softly, "that doc. feller said mebbe he'd give him three days. It's a real long spell. Seems to me you'll need to be up an' around come that time."
"Oh, I shall be 'up and around,' Joe."
The grizzled old head shook doubtfully, and he moved away from his trough, drying his hands, and came over to where she was standing.
"Say, I jest can't sleep noways. I'm like that, I guess. I git spells. I wus kind o' thinkin' mebbe I'd set around like. A good night's slep 'ud fix you right. I've heerd tell as folks kind o' influences their patiences some. You bein' tired, an' sleppy, an' miser'ble, now mebbe that's jest wot's keppin' him back——"
Diane shook her head. She saw through his round-about subterfuge, and its kindliness touched her.
"No, no, Joe," she said almost tenderly. "Not on your life. You would give me your last crust if you were starving. You are doing all, and more than any one else would do for me, and I will accept nothing further."
"You're figgerin' wrong," he retorted quite harshly. "'Tain't fer you. No, no, it's fer him. Y' see we're kind o' dependin' on him, Arizona an' me——"
"What for?" the girl asked quietly.
"Wal, y' see—wal—it's like this. He's goin' to be a rancher. Yes, don't y' see?" he asked, with a pitiful attempt at a knowing leer.
"No, I don't."
"Say, mebbe Arizona an' me'll git a nice little job—a nice little job. Eh?"
"You are talking nonsense, and you know it."
The little man stood abashed at the girl's tone.
"You're only saying all this to get me to sleep to-night, instead of sitting up. Well, I'm not going to. You thinking of mercenary things like that. Oh, Joe, it's almost funny."
Joe's face flushed as far as it was capable of flushing.
"Wal," he said, "I jest thought ther' wa'n't no use in two o' us settin' up."
"Nor is there. I'm going to do it. You've made me feel quite fresh with your silly talk."
"Ah, mebbe. Guess I'll swep up."
Diane took the hint and went up-stairs, her eyes brimming with tears. In her present state of unhappiness Joe's utter unselfishness was more than she could bear.
She took her place at the bedside, determined to sit there as long as she could keep awake, afterward she would adopt a "sentry-go" in the passage. For an hour she battled with sleep. She kept her eyes open, but her senses were dull and she passed the time in a sort of dream, a nasty, fanciful dream, in which Tresler was lying dead on the bed beside her, and she was going through the agony of realization. She was mourning him, living on in the dreary round of her life under her father's roof, listening to his daily sneers, and submitting to his studied cruelties. No doubt this waking dream would have continued until real sleep had stolen upon her unawares, but, after an hour, something occurred to fully arouse her. There was a distinct movement on the bed. Tresler had suddenly drawn up one arm, which, almost immediately, fell again on the coverlet, as though the spasmodic movement had been uncontrolled by any power either mental or physical.
She was on her feet in an instant, bending over him ready to administer the drugs Doc. Osler had left with her. And by the light of the shaded lamp she saw a distinct change in the pallor of his face. It was no longer death-like; there was a tinge of life, however faint, in the drawn features. And as she beheld it she could have cried aloud in her joy.
She administered the restoratives and returned to her seat with a fast-beating heart. And suddenly she remembered with alarm how near sleep she had been. She rose abruptly and began to pace the room. The moment was a critical one. Her lover might regain consciousness at any time. And with this thought came an access of caution. She went out on the landing and looked at the head of the stairs. Then she crept back. An inspiration had come to her. She would barricade the approach, and though even to herself she did not admit the thought, it was the recollection of her father's blindness that prompted her.
Taking two chairs she propped them at the head of the stairs in such a position that the least accidental touch would topple them headlong. The scheme appealed to her. Then, dreading sleep more than ever, she took up her "sentry-go" on the landing, glancing in at the sick-room at every turn in her walk.
The hours dragged wearily on. Tresler gave no further sign. It was after midnight, and the girl's eyes refused to keep open any longer; added to which she frequently stumbled as she paced to and fro. In desperation she fetched the lamp from the sick-room and passed into her own, and bathed her face in cold water. Then she busied herself with tidying the place up. Anything to keep herself awake. After a while, feeling better, she sat on the edge of her bed to rest. It was a fatal mistake. Her eyes closed against all effort of will. She was helpless. Nothing could have stopped her. Exhausted nature claimed her—and she slept.
And Tresler was rousing. His constitution had asserted itself, and the restorative Diane had administered was doing the rest. He moved several times, but as yet his strength was insufficient to rouse him to full consciousness. He lay there with his brain struggling against his overwhelming weakness. Thought was hard at work with the mistiness of dreaming. He was half aware that he was stretched out upon a bed, yet it seemed to him that he was bound down with fetters of iron, which resisted his wildest efforts to break. It seemed to him that he was struggling fiercely, and that Jake was looking on mocking him. At last, utterly weary and exhausted he gave up trying and called upon Arizona. He shouted loudly, but he could not hear his own voice; he shouted again and again, raising his screams to a fearful pitch, but still no sound came. Then he thought that Jake went away, and he was left utterly alone. He lay quite still waiting, and presently he realized that he was stretched out on the prairie, staked down to the ground by shackles securing his hands and feet; and the moon was shining, and he could hear the distant sound of the coyotes and prairie dogs. This brought him to a full understanding. His enemies had done this thing so that he should be eaten alive by the starving scavengers of the prairie. He pondered long; wondering, as the cries of the coyotes drew nearer, how long it would be before the first of the loathsome creatures would attack him. Now he could see their forms in the moonlight. They came slowly, slowly. One much bigger than the rest was leading; and as the creature drew near he saw that it had the face of the rancher, whose blind eyes shone out like two coals of fire in the moonlight. It reared itself on its hind legs, and to his utter astonishment, as this man-wolf stood gazing down upon him, he saw that it was wearing the dressing-gown in which the rancher always appeared. It was a weird apparition, and the shackled man felt the force of those savage, glowing eyes, gazing so cruelly into his. But there could be no resistance, he was utterly at the creature's mercy. He saw the gleaming teeth bared in anticipation of the meal awaiting it, but, with wolf-like cunning, it dissembled. It moved around, gazing in every direction to see that the coast was clear, it paused and stood listening; then it came on. Now it was standing near him, and he could feel the warmth of its reeking breath blowing on his face. Lower drooped its head, and its front feet, which he recognized as hands, were placed upon his neck. Then a faint and distant voice reached him, and he knew that this man-wolf was speaking. "So you'd marry her," it said. "You! But we'll take no chances—no chances. I could tear your throat out, but I won't; no, I won't do that. A little blood—just a little." And then the dreaming man felt the fingers moving about his throat. They felt cold and clammy, and the night air chilled him.
Then came a change, one of those fantastic changes which dreamland loves, and which drives the dreamer, even in his sleeping thought, nearly distracted. The dark vista of the prairie suddenly lit. A great light shone over all, and the dreaming man could see nothing but the light—that, and the wolf-man. The ghoulish creature stood its ground. The fingers were still at his throat, but now they moved uncertainly, groping. There was no longer the deliberate movement of set purpose. It was as though the light had blinded the cruel scavenger, that its purpose was foiled through its power of vision being suddenly destroyed. It was a breathless moment in the dream.
But the tension quickly relaxed. The hands were drawn abruptly away. The wolf-man stood erect again, and the dreamer heard it addressing the light. The words were gentle, in contrast with the manner in which it had spoken to him, and the softness of its tones held him fascinated.
"He's better, eh? Coming round," he said. And somehow the dreamer thought that he laughed, and the invisible coyotes laughed with him.
A brief silence followed, which was ultimately broken by another voice. It was a voice from out of the light, and its tones were a gasp of astonishment and alarm.
"What are you doing here, father?" the voice asked. There was a strange familiarity in the tones, and the dreamer struggled for recollection; but before it came to him the voice went on with a wild exclamation of horror. "Father! The bandage!"
The dreamer wondered; and something drew his attention to the wolf-man. He saw that the creature was eyeing the light with ferocious purpose in its expression. It was all so real that he felt a wild thrill of excitement as he watched for what was to happen. But the voice out of the light again spoke, and he found himself listening.
"Go!" it said in a tone of command, and thrilling with horror and indignation. "Go! or—no, dare to lay a hand on me, and I'll dash the lamp in your face! Go now! or I will summon help. It is at hand, below. And armed help."
There was a pause. The wolf-man stared at the light with villainous eyes, but the contemplated attack was not forthcoming. The creature muttered something which the dreamer lost. Then it moved away; not as it had come, but groping its way blindly. A moment later the light went out too, the cries of the coyotes were hushed, and the moon shone down on the scene as before. And the dreamer, still feeling himself imprisoned, watched the great yellow globe until it disappeared below the horizon. Then, as the darkness closed over him, he seemed to sleep, for the scene died out and recollection faded away.
The early morning sun was streaming in through the window of the sick man's room when Tresler at last awoke to consciousness. And, curiously enough, more than half an hour passed before Diane became aware of the change in her patient.
And yet she was wide awake too. Sleep had never been further from her eyes, and her mind never more alert. But for the first time since Tresler had been brought in wounded, his condition was no longer first in her thoughts. Something occupied her at the moment of his waking to the exclusion of all else.
The man lay like a log. His eyes were staring up at the ceiling; he made no movement, and though perfect consciousness had come to him there was no interest with it, no inquiry. He accepted his position like an infant waking from its healthy night-long slumber. Truth to tell, his weakness held him prisoner, sapping all natural inclination from mind and body. All his awakening brought him was a hazy, indifferent recollection of a bad dream; that, and a background of the events at Willow Bluff.
If the man were suffering from a bad dream, the girl's expression suggested the terrible reality of her thought. There was something worse than horror in her eyes, in the puckering of her brows, in the nervous compression of her lips. There was a blending of terror and bewilderment in the brown depths that contemplated the wall before her, and every now and then her pretty figure moved with a palpable shudder. Her thoughts were reviewing feverishly scenes similar to those in her patient's dream, only with her they were terrible realities which she had witnessed only a few hours before in that very room. At that moment she would have given her life to have been able to call them dreams. Her lover's life had been attempted by the inhuman process of reopening his wound.
Should she ever forget the dreadful scene? Never! Not once, but time and again her brain pictured each detail with a distinctness that was in the nature of physical pain. From the moment she awoke, which had been unaccountable to her, to find herself still propped against the foot-rail of her bed, to the finish of the dastardly scene in the sick-room was a living nightmare. She remembered the start with which she had opened her eyes. As far as she knew she had heard nothing; nothing had disturbed her. And yet she found herself sitting bolt upright, awake, listening, intent. Then her rush to the lamp. Her guilty feelings. The unconscious stealth of her tiptoeing to the landing outside. Her horror at the discovery that her obstruction to the staircase had been removed, and the chairs, as though to mock the puerility of her scheming, set in orderly fashion, side by side against the wall to make way for the midnight intruder. The closed door of the sick-room, which yielded to her touch and revealed the apparition of her father bending over her lover, and, with no uncertainty of movement, removing the bandage from the wounded neck. The terror of it all remained. So long as she lived she could never forget one single detail of it.
Even now, though hours had passed since these things had happened, the nervousness with which she had finally approached the task of readjusting the bandage still possessed her. And even the thankfulness with which she discovered that the intended injury had been frustrated was inadequate to bring her more than a passing satisfaction. She shuddered, and nervously turned to her patient.
Then it was that she became aware of his return to life.
"Jack! Oh, thank God!" she murmured softly.
And the sound of the well-loved voice roused the patient's interest in the things about him.
"Where am I?" he asked, in a weak whisper, turning his eyes to the face so anxiously regarding him.
But Diane's troubles had been lifted from her shoulders for the moment and the nurse was uppermost once more. She signed to him to keep quiet while she administered the doses Doc. Osler had prepared for him. Then she answered his question.
"You are in the room adjoining mine," she said quietly.
Her woman's instinct warned her that no more reassuring information could be given him.
And the result justified it. He smiled faintly, and, in a few moments, his eyes closed again and he slept.
Then the girl set about her work in earnest. She hurried down-stairs and communicated the good news to Joe. She went in search of Jake, to have a man despatched for the doctor. For the time at least all her troubles were forgotten in her thankfulness at her lover's return to life. Somehow, as she passed out of the house, the very sunlight seemed to rejoice with her; the old familiar buildings had something friendly in their bald, unyielding aspect. Even the hideous corrals looked less like the prisons they were, and the branding forges less cruel. But greatest wonder of all was the attitude of Jake when she put her request before him. The giant smiled upon her and granted it without demur. And, in her gladness, the simple child smiled back her heartfelt thanks. But her smile was short-lived, and her thanks were premature.
"I'm pretty nigh glad that feller's mendin'," Jake said. "Say, he's a man, that feller." He turned his eyes away and avoided her smiling gaze, and continued in a tone he tried to make regretful. "Guess I was gettin' to feel mean about him. We haven't hit it exac'ly. I allow it's mostly temper between us. Howsum, I guess it can't be helped now—now he's goin'."
"Going?" the girl inquired. But she knew he would be going, only she wondered what Jake meant.
"Sure," the foreman said, with a sudden return to his usual manner. "Say, your father's up against him good and hot. I've seen Julian Marbolt mad—madder'n hell; but I ain't never seen him jest as mad as he is against your beau. When Tresler gits right he's got to quit—quick. I've been wonderin' what's fixed your father like that. Guess you ain't been crazy enough to tell him that Tresler's been sparkin' you?"
The girl's smile died out, and her pretty eyes assumed a look of stony contempt as she answered with spirit. And Jake listened to her reply with a smile on his bold face that in no wise concealed his desire to hurt her.
"Whatever happens Mr. Tresler doesn't leave our house until Doc. Osler gives the word. Perhaps it will do you good to further understand that the doctor will not give that word until I choose."
"You're a silly wench!" Jake exclaimed angrily. Then he became scornful. "I don't care that much for Tresler, now." Nevertheless he gave a vicious snap with his fingers as he flicked them in the air. "I wish him well enough. I have reason to. Let him stay as long as you can keep him. Yes, go right ahead an' dose him, an' physic him; an' when he's well he's goin', sure. An' when he's out of the way maybe you'll see the advantage o' marryin' me. How's that, heh? There, there," he went on tauntingly, as he saw the flushing face before him, and the angry eyes, "don't get huffed, though I don't know but what you're a daisy-lookin' wench when you're huffed. Get right ahead, milady, an' fix the boy up. Guess it's all you'll ever do for him."
Diane had fled before the last words came. She had to, or she would have struck the man. She knew, only too well, how right he was about Tresler; but this cruelty was unbearable, and she went back to the sick-room utterly bereft of the last shadow of the happiness she had left it with.
The doctor came, and brought with him a measure of comfort. He told her there was nothing to be considered now but the patient's weakness, and the cleansing of the wound. In his abrupt manner he suggested a diet, and ordered certain physic, and finally departed, telling her that as her room adjoined her patient's there would be no further need of sitting up at night.
And so three weeks passed; three weeks of rapid convalescence for Tresler, if they were spent very much otherwise by many of the settlers in the district. Truth to tell, it was the stormiest time that the country had ever known. The check the night-riders had received at Willow Bluff had apparently sent them crazy for revenge, which they proceeded to take in a wholly characteristic manner. Hitherto their depredations had been comparatively far apart, considerable intervals elapsing between them, but now four raids occurred one after the other. The police were utterly defied; cattle were driven off, and their defenders shot down without mercy. These monsters worked their will whithersoever they chose. The sheriff brought reinforcements up, but with no other effect than to rouse the discontent of the ranchers at their utter failure. It seemed as though the acts of these rustlers was a direct challenge to all authority. A reign of terror set in, and settlers, who had been in the country for years, declared their intention of getting out, and seeking a place where, if they had to pay more for their land, they would at least find protection for life and property.
Such was the position when Tresler found himself allowed to move about his room, and sit in a comfortable armchair in the delightful sunlight at his open window. Nor was he kept in ignorance of the doings of the raiders. Diane and he discussed them ardently. But she was careful to keep him in ignorance of everything concerning herself and her father. He knew nothing of the latter's objection to his presence in the house, and he knew nothing of the blind man's threats, or that fearful attack he had perpetrated in one of his fits of mad passion.
These days, so delightful to them both, so brimful of happiness for him, so fraught with such a blending of pain and sweetness for her, had stolen along almost uncounted, unheeded. But like all such overshadowed delights, their end came swiftly, ruthlessly.
The signal was given at the midday meal. The rancher, who had never mentioned Tresler's name since that memorable night, rose from the table to retire to his room. At the door he paused and turned.
"That man, Tresler," he said, in his smooth, even tones. "He's well enough to go to the bunkhouse. See to it."
And he left the girl crushed and helpless. It had come at last. She knew that she could keep her lover no longer at her side. Even Doc. Osler could not help her, and, besides, if she refused to obey, her father would not have the slightest compunction in attending to the matter in his own way.
So it was with a heavy heart she took herself up-stairs for the afternoon. This tete-a-tete had become their custom every day; she with her sewing, and the sick man luxuriating in a pipe. Tresler was still bandaged, but it was only lightly, for the wound was almost healed.
The girl took up her position as usual, and Tresler moved his chair over beside the little table she laid her work on, and sat facing her. He loved to gaze upon the sad little face. He loved to say things to her that would rouse it from its serious caste, and show him the shadows dispelled, and the pretty smile wreathing itself in their stead. And he had found it so easy too. The simplicity, the honesty, the single-mindedness of this prairie flower made her more than susceptible to girlish happiness, even amidst her troublous surroundings. But he knew that these moments were all too passing, that to make them enduring he must somehow contrive to get her away from that world of brutality to a place where she could bask, surrounded by love and the sunshine of a happy home. And during the days of his convalescence he planned and plotted for the consummation of his hopes.
But he found her more difficult to-day. The eyes were a shade more sad, and the smile would not come to banish the shadows. The sweet mouth, too, always drooping slightly at the corners, seemed to droop more than usual to-day. He tried, in vain, every topic that he thought would interest her, but at last himself began to experience the depression that seemed to weigh so desperately on her. And strangely enough this dispiriting influence conjured up in his mind a morbid memory, that until then had utterly escaped him. It was the dream he had the night before his awakening. And almost unconsciously he spoke of it.
"You remember the day I woke to find myself here, Danny?" he said. "It just occurs to me now that I wasn't unconscious all the time before. I distinctly remember dreaming. Perhaps I was only asleep."
The girl shook her head.
"You were more than asleep," she said portentously.
"Anyhow, I distinctly remember a dream I had. I should say it was 'nightmare.' It was about your father. He'd got me by the throat, and—what's the matter?"
Diane started, and, to Tresler's alarm, looked like fainting; but she recovered at once.
"Nothing," she said, "only—only I can't bear to think of that time, and then—then—father strangling you! Don't think of your dream. Let's talk of something else."
Tresler's alarm abated at once; he laughed softly and leant forward and kissed her.
"Our future—our little home. Eh, dearest?" he suggested tenderly.
She returned his embrace and made a pitiful attempt to smile back into the eyes which looked so eagerly into hers. And now, for the first time, her lover began to understand that there really was something amiss with her. It was that look, so wistful, so appealing, that roused his apprehension. He pressed her to tell him her trouble, until, for sheer misery, she could keep it from him no longer.
"It's nothing," she faltered, with trembling lips.
Watching her face with a lover's jealousy he kept silence, for he knew that her first words were only her woman's preliminary to something she considered serious.
"Jack," she said presently, settling all her attention upon her work, "you've never asked me anything about myself. Isn't that unusual? Perhaps you are not interested, or perhaps"—her head bent lower over her work—"you, with your generous heart, are ready to take me on trust. However," she went on, before he could interrupt her, "I intend to tell you what you refuse to ask. No," as he leant forward and kissed her again, "now sit up and light your pipe. There are to be no interruptions like that."
She smiled wistfully and gently pushed him back into his chair.
"Now," she began, as he settled himself to listen, "I must go back such a long, long way. Before I was born. Father was a sea captain then. First the captain of a whaler, afterward he bought a ship of his own and traded round the East Indies. He often used to talk of those days, not because he had any desire to tell me of them, but it seemed to relieve him when he was in a bad temper. I don't know what his trade was, but I think it was of an exciting nature. He often spoke of the risks, which, he said, were amply compensated by the money he made." Tresler smiled gravely. "And father must have made a lot of money at that time, for he married mother, bought himself a fine house and lands just outside Kingston, in Jamaica, and, I believe, he kept a whole army of black servants. Yes, and he has told me, not once, but a hundred times, that he dates all his misfortunes from the day he married my mother, which always seems unfair to her anyway. Somehow I can never think of father as ever having been a kind man, and I've no doubt that poor mother had anything but an easy time of it with him. However, it is not for me to criticize." She paused, but went on almost immediately. "Let me see, it was directly after the honeymoon that he went away on his last trading trip. He was to call at Java. Jake was his mate, you know, and they were expecting to return in six months' time with a rich harvest of what he calls 'Black Ivory.' I think it was some native manufacture, because he had to call at the native villages. He told me so. But the trip was abandoned after three weeks at sea. Father was stricken down with yellow fever. And from that day to this he has never seen the light of day."
The girl pushed her work aside and went on drearily.
"When he recovered from the fever he was brought home, as he said himself, 'a blind hulk.' Mother nursed him back to health and strength, but she could not restore his sight. I am telling you these things just as I have gleaned them from him at such moments as he chose to be communicative. I imagine, too, from the little things he sometimes let fall when he was angry, that all this time he lived in a state of impotent fury against all the world, against God, but particularly against the one person to whom he should have been most grateful—mother. All his friends deserted him in consequence of his bitter temper—all, that is, except Jake. At last in desperation, he conceived the idea of going to Europe. At first mother was going with him, but though he was well able to afford the additional expense he begrudged it, and, changing his mind, decided to go alone. He sold his ship, settled his affairs, and went off, and for three years he traveled round Europe, visiting every eye-doctor of note in all the big capitals. But it was all no good, and he returned even more soured than he went away. It was during his absence that I was born."
Again Diane paused. This time it was some moments before she proceeded.
"To add to his troubles," she at last resumed, in a low tone, "mother was seriously ill when he got back, and, the day of his return, died in his presence. After that, whatever his disposition was before, it seems to have become a thousand times worse. And when he is angry now he takes a painful delight in discussing the hatred and abhorrence all the people of Kingston held him in, and the hatred and abhorrence he returns to mankind in general. By his own accounts he must have been terrible. However, this has nothing to do with our history. Personally, I remember nothing but this ranch, but I understand that he tried to resume his old trade in the Indies. For some reason this failed him; trouble occurred, and he gave it up for good, and came out to this country and settled here. Again, to quote his words, 'away from men and things that drove him distracted.' That," she finished up, "is a brief sketch of our history."
"And just such a story as I should imagine your father had behind him. A most unhappy one," Tresler observed quietly. But he was marveling at the innocence of this child who failed to realize the meaning of "black ivory."
For a little while there was a silence between them, and both sat staring out of the window. At last Diane turned, and when she spoke again there was an ominous quivering of the lips.
"Jack," she said, "I have not told you this without a purpose."
"No, I gathered that, dear," he returned. "And this profound purpose?" he questioned, smiling.
Her answer was a long time in coming. What she had to do was so hard.
"Father doesn't like you," she said at last in desperation.
Tresler put his pipe aside.
"It doesn't seem to me he likes anybody very much, unless it's Jake. And I wouldn't bet a pile on the affection between them."
"He likes Jake better than anybody else. At least he trusts him."
"Which is a fair equivalent in his case. But what makes you think he dislikes me more than most people?"
"You remember that night in the kitchen, when you asked me to——"
"Marry? Yes. Could I ever forget it?"
Tresler had taken possession of one of the small hands lying in the girl's lap, but she gently withdrew it.
"I was weeping, and—and you saw the bruises on my arms. Father disapproved of my talking to you——"
"Ah! I understand." And he added, under his breath, "The brute!"
"He says I must give you up."
Tresler was looking straight before him at the window. Now he turned slowly and faced her. His expression conveyed nothing.
"Oh, it is so hard!" Diane burst out, in distress. "And you make it harder. Yes," she went on miserably, "I have to give you up. I must not marry you—dare not——"
The question came without the movement of a muscle.
"Yes, he says so. Oh, don't you see? He is blind, and I—I am his only—oh, what am I saying?"
Tresler shook his head.
"I'm afraid you are saying a lot of—nonsense, little woman. And what is more, it is a lot of nonsense I am not going to take seriously. Do I understand that you are going to throw me over simply because he tells you to?"
"Not only because of that."
"Who told him about us?"
"I don't know."
"Never mind. Perhaps I can guess. You have grown tired of me already?"
"You know I haven't, Jack."
Diane put out a hand and gently laid it on one of his. But his remained unresponsive. This sudden awakening from his dream of love had more than startled him. It had left him feeling resentful against somebody or something; at present he was not sure who or what. But he meant to have it out, cost what it might.
"That's all right, then," he said. "Now, tell me this other reason." Suddenly he leant forward and looked down into her eyes. His hands, now thin and delicate, held hers tightly in a passionate clasp, and his face was alight with the truth and sincerity of his love. "Remember," he said, "this is no child's play, Danny. I am not the man to give you up easily. I am weak, I know; but I've still got a fight in me, and so long as I am assured of your love, I swear nothing shall part us. I love you as I have never loved anybody in my life—and I just want only you. Now tell me this other reason, dear."
But Diane still hesitated. Her evident distress wrung her lover's heart. He realized now that there was something very serious behind it all. He had never beheld anything so pitiful as the look with which she turned toward him, and further tried to put him off.
"Father says you are to leave this house to-day. Afterward you will be turned off the ranch. It is only through the sheriff backing the doctor's orders that you were not turned out of here before."
Tresler made no response for a moment. Then he burst out into a hard, mirthless laugh.
"So!" he exclaimed, his laugh dying abruptly. "Listen to me. Your father can turn me out of this house—though I'll save him that trouble—but he can't turn me off this ranch. My residence here is bought and paid for for three years. The agreement is signed and sealed. No, no, let him try another bluff." Then his manner changed to one of gentle persuasion. "But you have not come to the real reason, little one. Out with it. It is a bitter plum, I can tell. Something which makes you dread not only its consequences, but—something else. Tell it me, Danny. Whatever it is you may be sure of me. My love for you is unalterable. Believe me, nothing shall come between us."
His voice was infinitely tender, and its effect on Diane was to set two great tears rolling down her cheeks as she listened. He had driven her to a corner, and there was no escape. But even so she made one more effort to avoid her shameful disclosure.
"Will—will you not take me at my word, Jack?" she asked imploringly.
"Not in this, dearest," he replied.
He spoke inexorably, but with such a world of love in his voice that the long-pent tears came with a rush. He let her weep. He felt it would do her good. And, after a while, when her sobs had ceased, he urged her again.
"Tell me," he whispered.
The man waited with wonderful patience.
"Oh, don't—don't make me!" she cried.
"Yes, I must."
And at last her answer came in the faintest of whispers.
"I—I—father is—is only my legal father. He was away three years. I was born three days before he returned."
"Well, well." Tresler sat quite still for a moment while the simple girl sat cowering under the weight of her mother's shame. Then he suddenly reached out and caught her in his arms. "Why, Danny," he cried, pressing her to him, "I never felt so happy over anything in my life as the fact that Julian Marbolt is not your father."
"But the shame of it!" cried the girl, imagining that her lover had not fully understood.
"Shame? Shame?" he cried, holding her still tighter in his arms. "Never let me hear that word on your lips again. You are the truest, sweetest, simplest child in the world. You are mine, Danny. My very own. And I tell you right here that I've won you and will hold you to my last dying day."
Now she was kneeling beside him with her face pillowed on his breast, sobbing in the joy of her relief and happiness. And Tresler kissed her softly, pressing his cheek many times against the silky curls that wreathed about her head. Then, after a while, he sat looking out of the window with a hard, unyielding stare. Weak as he was, he was ready to do battle with all his might for this child nestling so trustfully in his arms.