HOT UPON THE TRAIL
The most welcome thing that had happened to the men on the ranch for many a long day was Tresler's return to the bunkhouse. He was hailed with acclamation. Though he had found it hard to part with Diane under the doubtful circumstances, there was some compensation, certainly gratification, in the whole-hearted welcome of his rough comrades. It was not the effusion they displayed, but the deliberateness of their reception of him, that indexed their true feelings. Teddy Jinks refused to serve out the supper hash until Tresler had all he required. Lew Cawley washed out a plate for him, as a special favor; and Raw Harris, pessimist as he was, and who had a way of displaying the fact in all the little every-day matters of life, cleaned and sharpened a knife for him by prodding it up to the hilt in the hard-beaten earth, and cleaned the prongs of a fork with the edge of his buckskin shirt. But he could not thus outrage his principles without excusing himself, which he did, to the effect that he guessed "invalid fellers need onusual feedin'." Jacob Smith, whose habit it was to take his evening meals seated at the foot of the upright log which served as part of the door casing, and which contact with his broad, buckskin-covered shoulders had polished till it shone resplendently, renounced his coveted position in the invalid's favor. Tresler was a guest of honor, for whom, on this one occasion at least, nothing was too good. And in this position Arizona supported him, cursing the flies that fell into his friend's pannikin of tea, and hooking them out with the point of his hash-besmeared knife as he sat on his log beside him. Joe, too, had come down specially to share the meal, but he, being a member of the household, was very small fry at the bunkhouse.
And Tresler delighted in the kindness thus showered on him. The freedom from the sick-room did him good; the air was good to breathe, the plain, wholesome food was good; but most of all those bronzed, tough faces around him seemed to put new life and vigor into his enfeebled frame. He realized that it was high time that he was at work again.
And there was lots for him to hear. Every man among them had something to add to the general hash of events, and in their usual way proceeded to ladle it out without regard for audience, contradicting, interrupting, cursing, until the unfortunate man who was the butt of their remarks found himself almost overpowered by the babel.
At length Arizona drew them up with one of his sudden "yanks."
"Say," he cried, his eyes glaring fiercely and embracing the whole party with a great, comprehensive roll, "you fellers is like a crowd o' coyotes around a bone. I 'lows Tresler ain't an a'mighty deal better'n a bone about now, but his lugs ain't deef. Y're jest a gorl-darned lot o' oneddicated hoboes."
Which attack had the effect of reducing the pandemonium, but in no way suppressing the ardent spirits of the party. It acted as a challenge, which Jacob Smith promptly took up.
"Say, boys," he cried, "we're goin' to git eddication from Arizona!"
His remark was followed by a derisive roar of laughter at Arizona's expense. But the moment it had subsided the derided one shot out his retort.
"Guess ther's things and critturs down our country we don't never figger to eddicate—them's hogs."
"Fer the reason which they knows more'n you," returned Jacob, in no way worried by the personality.
The boys considered the point achieved by Jacob, and another laugh at Arizona's expense went up. He had stumped the cowpuncher, who now entered the fight with wonderfully good-natured zest.
"Say," he observed, "I ain't had a heap to do wi' your folks, Jacob, but I'm guessin' ef you're talkin' Gospel, things don't run in your fam'ly."
"Call him a hog right out, Arizona," put in Raw, lazily.
"I ain't callin' Jacob no hog; et 'ud be a nasty trick—on the hog," observed the ready-tongued man.
"Hallo, Jacob!" cried Lew, as the laugh turned on the other man this time.
But Arizona resented the interference, and rounded on him promptly.
"Say, you passon feller, I ain't heerd tell as it's the ways o' your country to butt in an' boost folk on to a scrap. It's gener'ly sed you're mostly ready to do the scrappin'."
"Which means?" Lew grinned in his large way.
"Wal, it mostly means—let's hear from you fust hand."
"It's not much use hearing from me on the subject of hogs. They aren't great on 'em in my country. Besides, you seem quite at home with 'em."
Arizona sprang to his feet, and, walking over to the hulking form of the parson's son, held his hand out.
"Shake," he said, with a grin that drew his parchment-like skin into fierce wrinkles; "we live in the same shack."
Lew laughed with the rest, and when it died down observed—
"Look here, Arizona, when you get talking 'hog' you stand alone. The whole Northwest bows to you on that subject. Now go and sit down like a peaceable citizen, and remember that a man who is such a master in the craft of hog-raising, who has lived with 'em, bred 'em, fed on 'em, and whose mental vision is bounded by 'em, has no right to down inoffensive, untutored souls like ourselves. It isn't generous."
Arizona stood. He looked at the man; then he glanced at each face around him and noted the smiles. One hand went up to his long, black hair and he scratched his head, while his wild eyes settled themselves on Tresler's broadly grinning features. Suddenly he walked back to his seat, took up his dish of hash and continued his supper, making a final remark as he ate.
"Langwidge? Gee! I pass."
And during the rest of the meal "hog" found no place. They discussed the topic of the day threadbare. The night-riders filled their thoughts to the exclusion of all else, and Tresler learned the details of their recent exploits, and the opinion of each man on the outrages. Even Teddy Jinks, youthful and only "slushy" as he was, was listened to, so absorbed were these men in their cattle world.
"It's my belief," that reedy youth said, with profound finality, "they're working fer a bust up. I'd gamble one o' Arizona's hogs to a junk o' sow-belly ther' ain't no more of them rustlers around come the fall. Things is hot, an' they're goin' to hit the trail, takin' all they ken get right now."
It was good to be listening to the rough talk of these fellows again. So good that Tresler prolonged this, his first meal with them after such a long absence, to the last possible minute. Then he reluctantly filled his pipe, put away his plate and pannikin, and strolled over to the barn in company with Arizona. He went to inspect his mare; he was fond and justly proud of her. With all her vagaries of temper she was a wonderful beast. Arizona had told him how she had brought both of them into the ranch from Willow Bluff on that memorable night.
"Guess it's a real pity that sheriff feller hadn't got her when he hit Red Mask's trail," observed Arizona, while he watched Tresler gently pass his hands over each leg in turn. "Clean, eh?" he asked presently.
"Yes. The limbs of a race-horse. Has she been ridden while I've been sick?"
"Nope; she's jest stood guzzlin' oats."
"I shall have a time when I get into the saddle again."
They moved out and stood at the door in full view of the house. The evening was drawing in. The sun was on the horizon, and the purple night shades were rising out over the eastern sky.
"Arizona," Tresler said a little later, "I've got an unpleasant task before me. I've just seen Marbolt pass the window of his den. I want a few words with him. I think I'll go now."
"'Bout the leddy?" inquired the cowpuncher.
"You've struck it."
"Wal, git right along. I'd sooner it wus you than me, I guess. Howsum, I'll set right hyar. Mebbe I'll be handy ef you're wantin' me."
Tresler laughed. "Oh, it's all right," he said. "I'm not dealing with Jake."
"Nope," replied the other, settling himself on a saddle-tree. Then, after a thoughtful pause, "which is regret'ble."
Tresler walked away in the direction of the house. He was weak, and did the journey slowly. Nor did he feel comfortable. However, he was doing what he knew to be right, and, as he ruefully reminded himself, it was seldom pleasant to do one's duty. His object was simply a matter of form, but one which omitted would give Marbolt reason for saying things. Besides, in justice to Danny and himself he must ask her father's consent to their engagement. And as he thought of the uselessness of it he laughed bitterly to himself. Did not the rancher know? And had he not fully explained his views on the matter?
Arizona watched Tresler wabbling unsteadily toward the house and applied many mental epithets of an uncomplimentary nature on his "foolheadedness." Then he was joined by Joe, who had also observed Tresler's visit.
The little man waved a hand in the direction of the retreating figure.
"Wher's he goin'?" he asked.
"Guess it's 'bout the leddy," replied Arizona, shortly.
"An' he wus boosted out 'cause of her," the other said significantly. "Kind o' minds you of one o' them terriers."
"Yup. Or a cow wi' a ca'f."
"On'y he don't make no fuss. Guess it's a terrier."
And Joe accompanied his final decision with an emphatic nod.
Meanwhile the object of their remarks had made his way to the house and stood before the blind arbiter of his fate in the latter's little office. The rancher was sitting at his table with his face directed toward the window, and his red eyes staring at the glowing sunset. And so he remained, in spite of Tresler's blunt announcement of himself.
"It is necessary for me to see you, Mr. Marbolt," he said.
And he stood waiting for his answer. It came, after some moments, in a tone that offered no encouragement, but was more civil than he expected.
"Since you say so, I suppose it is."
Quite indifferent and certainly undaunted, Tresler proceeded—
"You have already been informed how matters stand between your daughter and myself."
"I am here, then, to formally ask your consent to our engagement."
The red eyes moved from their contemplation of the sunset, and their dead, leech-like stare fixed itself upon the undisturbed face of the would-be son-in-law.
"Tresler," the man said, in a manner that left little to the imagination, "I have only one answer for you. You have become offensive to me on this ranch, and I shall be glad if you will remove yourself as quickly as possible. I shall refund you the money you have paid, and your agreement can be torn up."
"Then you will not consider my proposal?"
"I have already answered you."
Tresler looked hard at the face before him. Mask-like as it was, it yet conveyed something of the fierce temper behind it. He was glad he saw something of it, for he felt more justified in the heat of his own feelings. The man's words were a studied insult, and he was not one to submit to insults from anybody.
"I emphatically refuse, then, to remove my offensive person," he replied, with a great assumption of calmness. "Furthermore, I will not entertain the return of my premium. I am here for three years' instruction, already paid for. That instruction I demand. You will understand it is not in your power to have my offensive person removed either legally or forcibly. The latter especially, since it would cost you far more than you would find it pleasant to pay."
He expected to witness one of those outbursts of fury such as the blind man had recently displayed toward Jake in his presence. But nothing of the kind happened. His manner remained the same.
"I am sorry," he said, with something almost like a smile. "You drive me to an alternative, which, if less convenient, is perhaps, on the whole, more satisfactory. My daughter will have to go. I was prepared for this, and have already made arrangements for her to visit certain friends this day fortnight, for an indefinite period. You quite understand, Tresler, you will not see her again. She will remain away until you leave here. Of course, in the meantime, should you take it into your head to follow her, you are clear-headed enough to see that your agreement with me would be broken. Then she would return at once, and the question of force to keep you apart would be entirely in my hands. Further, I must tell you that while she is away she will be living in an obscure settlement many miles from here, where all letters addressed to her will be opened before she receives them."
The blind man turned away, indicating that the interview was ended, but Tresler stood his ground, though he fully realized how thoroughly this man had outwitted him.
"At least she will be happier away from here," he said significantly.
"I don't know," retorted the other, with diabolical meaning.
Tresler's exasperation could no longer be restrained. "Your conduct is inhuman to thus persecute a helpless girl, your daughter."
"Ah, my daughter. Yes?"
But the other gave no heed to the sneer. "You have no right to stand between us," he went on angrily. "You have no reasonable grounds. I tell you straight I will not submit. When your daughter is of age I will take her from this home, which is no home to her, from you who have never been a father to her."
"True," assented the other, with an aggravating calmness.
"You will have no power to interfere then. The law——"
"Enough of this nonsense," the rancher interrupted, with his first sign of impatience. "You'll never marry Diane while I live. Take it from me. Now—get out!"
And somehow, in spite of himself, Tresler found himself outside the house and moving in the direction of the bunkhouse at the most rapid pace his weakness permitted. But before he reached his destination Jake intercepted him, and he had little doubt in his mind that the man had seen him go to the house and had waited for his return.
"Wal?" he said, drawling out his inquiry, as though the contemplation of the answer he would receive gave him more than ordinary satisfaction. "Guess blind hulks is a pretty hard man to deal with, eh? You're goin' to quit us?"
Tresler was in no mood for this man's sneers. "No," he said. "On the contrary, I stay till my time's out."
Jake could not conceal his surprise and chagrin. "You ain't quittin'?"
"No." Tresler really enjoyed his discomfiture.
"An' you're goin'——"
"No." A thought suddenly occurred to him. He could hand something on to this man. "Miss Marbolt is going to be sent away until such time as I leave this ranch. Nearly three years, Jake," he finished up maliciously.
Jake stood thoughtfully contemplating the other's shrunken figure. He displayed no feeling, but Tresler knew he had hit him hard.
"An' she's goin', when?" he asked at last.
"This day fortnight."
"Ah. This day fortnight."
After that Jake eyed his rival as though weighing him up in his mind along with other things; then he said quietly—
"Guess he'd best have sent her right now." And, with this enigmatical remark, he abruptly went back to his shack.
A week saw Tresler in the saddle again. His recuperative powers were wonderful. And his strength returned in a manner which filled his comrades with astonishment. Fresh air and healthy work served as far better tonics than anything the horse-doctor had given him.
And the week, at least to Tresler, was full of portent. True, the rustlers had been quiet, but the effect of their recent doings was very apparent. The sheriff was now in constant communication with the ranch. Fyles visited Julian Marbolt frequently, holding long consultations with him; and a significant fact was that his men made the place a calling station. He realized that the long arm of the law was seriously at work, and he wondered in what direction the real object lay, for he quite understood that these open movements, in all probability, cloaked the real suspicions. Both he and Joe were of opinion that the sheriff was acting on some secret information, and they puzzled their heads to fathom the depths of the wily officer's motives.
Then happened something that Tresler had been expecting for some time. He had not seen Fyles to speak to since the Willow Bluff incident, and this had caused him some wonder. Therefore, one day while out on a distant pasture, rounding up a small bunch of yearlings, he was in no way surprised to see the farmer-like figure of the sheriff appear over the brow of a rising ground, and canter his raw-boned horse down toward him.
And that meeting was in the nature of an eye-opener to Tresler. He learned something of the machinery that was at work; of the system of espionage that was going on over the whole district, and the subtle means of its employment. He learned, amongst other things, something of what Jake was doing. How he was in constant touch with a number of half-breeds of the most disreputable type, and that his doings were of the most underground nature. He also learned that his own personal efforts in conveying warning before Willow Bluff were more than appreciated, and, finally, that Fyles wanted him to further act in concert with him.
Acceding to the officer's request he was then informed of certain other things for his future guidance. And when the man had gone, disappearing again over the rising ground, in the same ghostly fashion that he had appeared, he looked after him, and, in reviewing all he had heard, marveled how little he had been told, but what a lot had been suggested, and how devilish smart that farmer-like man, in spite of his recent failures, really was.
And during those days Tresler heard very little from Diane; which little came from Joe Nelson. Now and again she sent him a grief-stricken note alluding to her departure. She told him, although Joe had done so already, that her father had brought Anton into the house for the express purpose of preventing any communication with him, Tresler, and to generally keep sentry over her. She told him much that made his heart bleed for her, and made him spend hours at night writing pages of cheering messages to her. There was no help for it. He was powerless to do more than try to console her, and he frequently found himself doubting if the course he had selected was the right one; if he were not aggravating her position by remaining on the ranch. His reason told him that it was surely best. If she had to go away, she would, at least, be free of Jake, and, no matter what condition the people to whom she was to be sent, no worse associations than the combination of the blind man and his mate could possibly be found for her anywhere.
It was a poor sort of consolation with which he bolstered himself, and he spent many miserable hours during those last few days. Once he had said to Joe, "If I could only see her for a few minutes it might be some measure of comfort to us both." But Joe had shaken his gray head. "It ain't no use," he said. "You can't take no chances foolin' wi' Anton around. 'Sides, things might be wuss," he finished up, with a considerable emphasis.
And so Tresler had to be content; ill at ease, chafing, but quite powerless. In truth the rancher had outwitted him with a vengeance; moreover, what he had said he soon showed that he meant, for Joe brought him the news, two days before the date fixed for departure, that Diane was making her preparations, and had even begun to pack up.
And all this time Jake was very cheerful. The men on the ranch never remembered an easier time than the foreman was giving them now. He interfered very little with the work, and, except at the morning muster, they hardly saw anything of him. Tresler he never came near. He seemed to have forgotten that he had ever discussed Anton with him. It may have been that that discussion had only been inspired on the impulse of the moment, or it may have been—and Tresler thought this far more likely—he had deeper plans. However, the man, in face of Diane's departure, was unusually cheerful, and the wise old Joe quickly observed the fact.
For Joe to observe anything of interest was the cue for him to inquire further, and thus he set himself to watch Jake. And his watching quickly resulted in Tresler's attention being called to Jake's movements at night. Joe found that night after night Jake left the ranch, always on foot, but he left it for hours at a time. Twice during the last week he did not return until daylight. All this was more than interesting, but nothing developed to satisfy their curiosity until the last day of Diane's stay on the ranch. Then Jake visited her, and, taking her out of the kitchen, had a long confabulation with her in the open. Joe watched them, but, much to his disgust, had no means of learning the man's object. However, there was only one thing for him to do, and he did it without delay: he hurried down to convey his news to Tresler, who was having supper at the bunkhouse.
Taking him on one side he imparted his tidings hurriedly. And in conclusion spoke with evident alarm.
"Ther's suthin' doin'," he said, in, for him, quite a condition of excitement. "I can't locate it nohow. But Jake, he's that queer. See, he's jest gone right into his shack. Ther's suthin' doin', sure."
"And didn't you ask her what it was all about?" asked Tresler, catching something of the other's manner.
"Wal, no. That is, I guess I mentioned it like, but Miss Dianny wus that flustrated an' kind o' angry she jest went right up to her room, an' I thought best to git around hyar."
Tresler was thinking hard; and while he thought he stood watching the door where they had both seen Jake disappear. It occurred to him to go and seek Diane for himself. Poor girl, she would surely tell him if there were anything wrong. After all, he had the right to know. Then he thought of Anton.
He had turned to Joe, but his remark was cut short. Jake's door suddenly opened and the foreman came hurriedly out. Joe caught his companion by the arm, and they both looked after the giant as he strode away toward the barn. And they simultaneously became aware of something unsteady in his gait. Joe was the first to draw attention to it.
"Say, he's bin drinkin'," he whispered, in an awed manner.
Tresler nodded. This was something quite new. Jake, with all his faults, was not usually given to drink. On the contrary, he was a particularly sober man.
Tresler swiftly made up his mind. "I'm going to see what's up, Joe," he said. "Do you see? He's making for Marbolt's stable."
It was almost dusk. The men had settled down to their evening's occupations. Tresler and Joe were standing alone in the shadow of the bunkhouse wall. The lamp was lit within the building, and the glow from the window, which was quite near them, darkened the prospect still further. However, Tresler still could see the foreman, an indistinct shadow in the growing darkness.
Leaving his companion without further remark he hurried after the disappearing man and took up his position near the barn, whence he could both see and hear what might be going forward.
Jake reached the door of the stable and knocked on it in a forceful and peremptory manner.
BY THE LIGHT OF THE LAMP
Impelled by curiosity and nervous anticipation Tresler did not long remain in the shelter of the barn. It was too dark to see distinctly all that way off, so he closed up on the object of his watch. He intended to miss nothing of what was happening, so he crept out into the open, quite careless of the chances of being discovered at his undignified occupation.
And all the time he was a prey to unpleasant foreboding; that unaccountable foreboding so truly prophetic, which refuses to be shaken off. He knew that disaster was in the air as surely as if it had all happened, and there was nothing left for him but to gaze impotently upon the ruin. He had a certain amount of reason for his fears, of course, but that reason was largely speculative, and, had he been asked to state definitely what he anticipated, on whom disaster was to fall, he could not have answered with any real conviction. Something prompted him that Jake was to be the central figure, the prime mover. But beyond that his ideas were vague. The man's very summons at the door was a positive aggravation, and suggested possibilities.
An answer came with the abrupt opening of the stable door, which revealed the lithe figure of the dusky half-breed, framed in a setting of dingy yellow light from the lantern within. He could see the insolent, upward stare of the man's eyes as he looked up into the great man's face; nor at that moment could he help thinking of all he had heard of "Tough" McCulloch. And the recollection brought him a further feeling of uneasiness for the man who had thus come to beard him in his own den.
But even while these thoughts passed swiftly through his brain the bullying, hectoring tones of Jake's voice came to him. They were unnecessarily loud, and there was a thickness in them which corroborated the evidence of his uneven gait. Jake had certainly been priming himself with spirit.
"Where was you last night, Anton?" he heard him ask.
"An' wher' should I be, Mr. Jake?" came the half-breed's sullen retort.
"That ain't no answer," the other cried, in a vicious tone.
The half-breed shrugged with apparent indifference, only there was no indifference in the resentful flash of his eyes.
"I not answer to you," he said, in his broken way, throwing as much insolence as he could into his words.
Jake's fury needed no urging; the spirit had wound him up to the proper pitch.
"You black son-of-a——," he cried, "you shall answer to me. For two pins I'd wring your blasted neck, only I'm savin' that fer the rope. I'll tell you wher' you was last night. You wer' out. Out with the horses. D'you hear? And you weren't at the Breed camp neither. I know wher' you was."
"Guess you shoot your mouth off," Anton said, with dangerous calmness. "Bah! I tell you I stay right hyar. I not out. You mad! Voila!"
Suddenly Jake's hand went up as though to strike the man, but the blow did not fall. His arm dropped to his side again; for once caution saved him. Tresler felt that had the blow fallen there might perhaps have been a sudden and desperate end to the scene. As it was he listened to Jake's final words, with every nerve throbbing.
"You lie, you black son-of-a——; you lie!"
And then he saw him swing round on his heel and stride away to the rancher's house, as if he could no longer control himself and sought safety in flight.
For the moment the watcher was so interested in the half-breed that he lost the significance of the foreman's going. Anton was still standing in the doorway, and the expression of his face was plainly visible in the lamplight. There was a saturnine grin about the lower part of the features, but the black eyes were blazing with a deep fire of hatred. He looked after the departing man until he reached the verandah, then suddenly, as though an inspiration had moved him, he vanished at a run within the stable.
Now Tresler became aware of Jake's object. He had mounted the verandah and was making for the door of the house. And this sight moved him to immediate action. Without a second thought he set off at a run to warn Diane of the visit. Why he wished to warn her he did not know. Perhaps it was the result of premonition, for he knew quite well that it was Jake's custom to wait on his chief at about this time in the evening.
He skirted the house well out of range of the light of its windows, and came to the kitchen just in time to hear the blind man calling to his daughter for a light. And when Diane returned from obeying the order she found him waiting for her. Her first feeling was one of apprehension, then love overcame her fears and she ran to him.
"Jack!" she whispered softly. "You here?"
He folded her in a bear-like embrace, and as she raised her face to him to speak he stopped her with a rain of kisses. The joy of the moment had driven the object of his coming from his head, and they stood heart to heart, lost in their mutual happiness, until Jake's voice, raised in bitter imprecation, reached them from the office. Then Tresler abruptly put her from him.
"I had forgotten, dear," he said, in a whisper. "No, don't close that door." Diane had moved over to the door leading into the dining-room. "Leave it open. It is on that account I am here."
"On what account?" the girl asked, in some perplexity.
"Jake. There's something up, and—hark!"
They stood listening. The foreman's voice was raised again. But now Marbolt's broke in, sharp, incisive. And the words were plainly audible.
"Keep your voice down," he said. "D'you want the girl to hear everything? You were always a blunderer, Jake."
"Blunderer be ——" But he nevertheless lowered his tone, for the listeners could distinguish nothing more.
"He's up to some devil's work," Tresler whispered, after making sure they could hear no more. "Danny," he went on eagerly, "I must slip into the hall and try and hear what's going on. I must be ready to——Listen! He's cursing again. Wait here. Not a sound; not a word! There's going to be trouble."
And his assertion seemed to have reason enough, for the rancher's sharp tones were now mingling with the harsher note of the other, and both had raised their voices again. Tresler waited for nothing now. He tiptoed to the door and stood listening. Then he crept silently out into the hall and stole along toward the blind man's office. He paused as he drew near the open door, and glanced round for some hiding-place whence he could see within. The hall was unlit, and only the faintest light reached it from the office. There was a long, heavy overcoat hanging on the opposite wall, almost directly in front of the door, and he made for it, crossing the hall in the darkest part, and sidling along in the shadow until he reached it. Here he drew it in front of him, so that he only elongated its outline and yet obtained a full view of the room.
Jake was not visible. And Tresler concluded that he was sitting in the chair which he knew to be behind the door. But the blind man was almost directly in front of him. He was seated beside the small window table on which the lamp stood, a safety lamp, especially reserved for his use on account of his blindness. His ruddy eyes were staring in the direction in which Tresler believed Jake to be sitting, and such was the effect of that intent stare that the watching man drew well within his cover, as though he feared the sightless sockets would penetrate his hiding-place.
But even from this vantage ground he found his purpose thwarted. Jake was talking, but his voice was so low that it only reached him in a thick growl which blurred his words into a hazy murmur. Therefore he fixed his attention on the man facing him, watching, and seeking information from his expression and general attitude.
And what he beheld riveted his attention. Whatever control the blind man had over himself—and Tresler had reason to know what wonderful control he had—his expression was quite unguarded now. There was a devilish cruelty in every line in his hard, unyielding features. His sanguinary eyes were burning with a curiously real live light—probably the reflection of the lamp on the table—and his habitually knit brows were scowling to an extent that the eyes beneath them looked like sparks of living fire. And though he was lounging comfortably back in his chair, without energy, without alertness, and one arm was resting on the table at his side, and his outstretched fingers were indolently drumming out a tattoo on the bare wood, his breath was coming short and fast, in a manner that belied his attitude.
Had Tresler only seen behind the door he would have been startled, even alarmed. The inflamed Jake was oblivious to everything but his own purpose. His mind was set on the object of his talk, to the exclusion of all else. Just then he had not the slightest fear of the blind man. There was nothing of the submission about him now that he had displayed once before in Tresler's presence. It was the spirit he had imbibed that had fortified him for the time. It is probable that Jake, at that moment, had no fear of either man or devil.
And, though Tresler could not distinguish a word, his talk was braggart, domineering, and there was a strong flavor of drink in its composition. But even so, there was a relentless purpose in it, too.
"Ther' ain't no option fer you, Marbolt," Jake was saying. "You've never given me an option, and I'm not goin' to be such a blazing fool as to give you one. God A'mighty, Marbolt, ther' never was a man treated as I've been by you. We've been together fer donkey's years, I guess. 'Way back in them old days, when we was mates, before you was blind, before you was cranked against 'most everybody, when we scrapped agin them black-backs in the Indies side by side, when we quarreled an' made friends again, I liked you, Marbolt, an' I worked honest by you. There wa'n't nothin' mean to you, then, 'cep' in handin' out dollars. I hadn't no kick comin' those days. I worked fer so much, an' I see I got it. I didn't ask no more, an' I guess I didn't want. That's all right. Then you got blind an' you changed round. That's where the rub come. I was no better than the rest to you. You fergot everything that had gone. You fergot I was a square dealin' man by you, an' since that time I've been dirt under your feet. Pshaw! it ain't no use in talkin'; you know these things just as well as I do. But you might have given me a show. You might have treated me 'white.' It was to your interest. I'd have stayed by you. I'd have done good by you. An' I'd have been real sorry when you died. But I ain't no use fer that sort o' thing now. What I want I'm goin' to have, an' you've got to give—see? It ain't a question of 'by-your-leave' now. I say right here I want your gal."
The man paused. But Marbolt remained undisturbed. He still beat an idle tattoo on the table, only his hand had drawn nearer to the lamp and the steady rapping of his fingers was a shade louder, as though more nervous force were unconsciously finding outlet in the movement.
"So you want my girl," he said, his lips scarcely parting to let the tone of his voice pass.
"Ay," Jake said emphatically, "I want that gal as I took out o' the water once. You remember. You said she'd fell overboard, after I'd hauled her back on to the ship out o' reach o' the sharks. That's what you said—after."
He paused significantly. If he had expected any display from his hearer he must have been disappointed. The other remained quite still except for those moving fingers tapping their way nearer and nearer the lamp.
"Wal, I've told you how I stand, an' I've told you how you stand," Jake proceeded, with his voice ever so little raised. He felt that the other was too easy. And, in his unimaginative way, he thought he had spoken too gently. "An' I say again I want that gal fer my wife. Time was when you would have been glad to be quit of her, 'bout the time she fell overboard. Being ready to part then, why not now? I'm goin' to get her,—an' what do I pay in return? You know. You'll go on ranchin' in peace. I'll even stay your foreman if you so want. I'll shut right down on the business we both know of, an' you won't have nothin' to fear. It's a fair an' square deal."
"A fair and square deal; most generous."
Even Jake detected the sarcasm, and his anger rose at once. But he gave no heed to those fingers which had now transferred their attention to the brass body of the lamp.
"I'm waitin' fer your answer," he said sharply.
Tresler now heard his words for the first time.
"Go slow, Jake, go slow," retorted the rancher. "I like to digest the position thoroughly. You put it so well."
The sarcasm had grown more fierce by reason of the restraint the rancher was putting on himself. And this restraint was further evident in the movement of the hand which had now settled itself upon the body of the lamp, and clutched it nervously.
Jake no longer kept check on himself. And his answer came in a roar.
"You shall take my price, or——"
"Keep calm, you blundering jackass!" the blind man rasped between his clenched teeth.
"No, you don't, Mr. blasted Marbolt!" cried Jake, springing to his feet and moving out to the middle of the room threateningly. "No, you don't!" he cried again; "I've had enough of that. God's curse on you for a low swine! I'll talk no more; it's 'yes' or 'no.' Remember"—he bent over toward the sitting man and pointed in his face with fierce delight—"I am your master now, an' ef you don't do as I say, by G——! but I'll make you whine for mercy."
And Marbolt's answer came with a crash of brass and smashing of glass, a leap of flame, then darkness, as he hurled the lamp to the floor and extinguished it. It came in silence, but a silence ruffled by the sound of sudden movement. It came, as was only to be expected from a man like him, without warning, like the silent attack of a puma, and with as deadly intent.
Tresler could see nothing, but he knew that death was hovering over that room for some one. Suddenly he heard the table dragged or pushed across the floor, and Jake's voice, harsh with the effort of struggle, reached him.
"You would, would you? Right; it's you or me!"
At that moment the onlooker was about to rush forward, for what purpose he had but the vaguest idea. But even as he took the first step he felt himself seized forcibly by the arm from behind. And Diane's voice whispered in his ear.
"Not you, Jack!" she said eagerly. "Leave it to me; I—I can save him—Jake."
She was gone, and in an instant returned with the lighted kitchen lamp, which she held aloft as she rushed into the room.
Tresler was taken utterly by surprise. The girl's movements were so sudden, so unexpected, and her words so strange.
There she stood in the middle of the room with the light held above her head like some statue. And all the signs of a deadly struggle were about her. Jake was sheltered behind the window table, and stood blinking in the sudden light, staring at her in blank astonishment. But the chief figure of interest was the blind man. He was groping about the opposite edge of the table, pitifully helpless, but snarling in impotent and thwarted fury. His right hand was still grasping the hilt of a vicious-looking, two-edged hunting-knife, whose point Tresler saw was dripping blood.
Suddenly he turned fiercely on the girl. For the moment he had been held silent, confounded, but now his voice rang out in an access of fury.
"You jade!" he cried, and moved as though to attack her.
Tresler was about to leap to her assistance, but at that instant the man's attention was suddenly diverted. Jake saw his chance and made for the door. With a bitter imprecation the blind man lunged at him as he went, fell against the table, and stumbled almost to the ground. Instantly the girl took advantage of his position and followed Jake out, slamming the door behind her and swiftly turning the key as she went.
Diane had shown herself in a new light. Her presence of mind was startling, and the whole thing was enacted so swiftly that Tresler failed to grasp the full meaning of it all. Jake had not seen him. In a blind rush he had made for the hall door and passed out. The only thing that seemed real to Tresler was Diane's safety, and he caught her by the arm to take her to the kitchen. But the girl's readiness would permit of no such waste of time.
"No," she whispered quickly. "Leave me and follow Jake. Joe is in the kitchen and will protect me if need be. Quick!" she went on, stamping her foot in her excitement. "Go! Look to him. There must be no murder done here."
And Tresler was forced, much against his will, to leave her. For the moment Diane had soared to a height of alertness and ready action which was irresistible. Without a word he went, passing out of the front door.
Jake had left the verandah, and, in the moonlight, Tresler could see him moving down the hill in the direction of his shack. He followed him swiftly. But he was too late. The whole thing happened before his very eyes, while he was yet too far off to stay the ruthless act, before his warning shout could serve.
He saw a figure dart out from the rancher's stable. He saw it halt and stand. He saw one arm stretched out, and he realized and shouted to Jake.
The foreman stood, turned, a pistol-shot rang out, and he fell on his face. Tresler ran forward, but before he could reach him two more shots rang out, and a third sent its bullet whistling past his own head.
He ran for the man who had fired them. He knew him now; it was Anton. But, fleet of foot, the half-breed had reached the stable, where a horse stood ready saddled. He saw him vault into the saddle, and he saw him vanish into the adjacent woods. Then, at last, he gave up the chase and ran back to the fallen man.
Kneeling at his side he raised the great leonine head. The man was alive, and he shouted to the men at the bunkhouse for aid. But even as he called Jake spoke.
"It ain't no good," he said, in a hoarse tone. "I'm done. Done up by that lyin' son-of-a——, 'Tough' McCulloch. I might 'a' known. Guess I flicked him sore." He paused as the sound of running feet came from the bunkhouse and Arizona's voice was calling to know Tresler's whereabouts. Then the foreman's great frame gave a shiver. "Quick, Tresler," he said, in a voice that had suddenly grown faint; "ther' ain't much time. Listen! get around Widow Dangley's place—to-night—two—mornin' all——"
There came a rattle of flowing blood in his throat which blurred anything else he had to say. But he had said sufficient. Tresler understood.
When Arizona came up Jake, so long the bully of Mosquito Bend, had passed over the One-Way Trail. He died shot in three places, twice in the chest and once in the stomach. Anton, or rather "Tough" McCulloch, had done his work with all the consummate skill for which he had once been so notorious. And, as something of this flashed through Tresler's brain, another thought came with it, prompted by the presence of Arizona, who was now on his knees beside him.
"It's Anton, Arizona," he said. "Jake riled him. He shot him, and has bolted through the wood, back there, mounted on one of Marbolt's horses. He's making for the hills. Quick, here, listen! the others are coming. You know 'Tough' McCulloch?"
"Wal?" There was an ominous ring in Arizona's voice.
"You'd like to find him?"
"Anton is 'Tough' McCulloch."
"Who told you?"
"Jake, here. I didn't mention it before, because—because——"
"Did you say the hills?"
Arizona had risen to his feet. There was no emotion in his manner. They might have been discussing the most ordinary topic. Now the rest of the men crowded round. And Tresler heard the rancher's voice calling from the verandah to inquire into the meaning of the shots. However, heedless of the others, he replied to the cowpuncher's question.
"Yes," he said.
The two men gripped and Arizona faded away in the uncertain light, in the direction of the barn.
And the dead Jake was borne by rough but gentle hands into his own shack. And there was not one amongst those "boys" but would have been ready and eager to help him, if help had been possible. Even on the prairie death atones for much that in life is voted intolerable.
AT WIDOW DANGLEY'S
Inside the hut, where Jake had so long been master, the boys were grouped round the bunk on which their old oppressor was laid out; the strong, rough fellows were awed with the magnitude of the outrage. Jake, Jake Harnach, the terror of the ranch, "done up." The thought was amazing. Tresler was quietly stripping clothes from the dead man's upper body to free the wounds for the doctor's inspection, and Raw Harris was close beside him. It was while in the midst of this operation that the former came upon another wound. Raw Harris also saw it, and at once drew his attention.
"Guess I heerd four shots," he said. "Say, that feller Anton was a daddy. Four of 'em, an' all found their mark. I 'lows this one's on'y a graze. Might 'a' bin done wi' a knife, et's so clean. Yes, sirree, he was a daddy, sure."
As no one seemed inclined to contradict the statement that Anton was a "daddy," and as the question of four shots or three was of no vital interest to the onlookers, the matter passed unheeded. Only Tresler found food for reflection. That fourth wound he knew had not been inflicted by the half-breed. He remembered the rancher's knife and its dripping point, and he remembered Jake's cry, "You would, would you!" He needed no other explanation.
While the two men were still bending over their task there was a slight stir at the open door. The silent onlookers parted, leaving a sort of aisle to the bedside, and Julian Marbolt came shuffling his way through them, heralded by the regular tap, tap, of his guiding stick.
It was with many conflicting emotions that Tresler looked round when he heard the familiar sound. He stared at the man as he might stare at some horrid beast of prey, fascinated even against himself. It would have been hard to say what feeling was uppermost with him at the moment. Astonishment, loathing, expectation, and even some dread, all struggled for place, and the combination held him silent, waiting for what that hateful presence was to bring forth. He could have found it in his heart to denounce him then and there, only it would have served no purpose, and would probably have done much harm. Therefore he contented himself with gazing into the inflamed depths of the man's mysterious eyes with an intentness he had never yet bestowed upon them, and while he looked all the horror of the scene in the office stole over him again and made him shudder.
"Where is he—where is Jake?" the blind man asked, halting accurately at the bedside.
The question was directed at no one in particular, but Tresler took it upon himself to answer.
"Lying on the bed before you," he said coldly.
The man turned on him swiftly. "Ah—Tresler," he said.
Then he bent over the bed, and his hands groped over the dead man's body till they came into contact with the congealing blood round the wound in his stomach.
With a movement of repulsion he drew back sharply. "He's not dead?" he questioned, with a queer eagerness, turning round to those about him.
"Yes, he is dead," replied Tresler, with unintentional solemnity.
"Who—who did it?"
The question came in a tense voice, sharper and more eagerly than the preceding one.
"Anton," chorused the men, as though finding relief from their long silence in the announcement. The crime was even secondary to the personality of the culprit with them. Anton's name was uppermost in their minds, and so they spoke it readily.
"Anton? And where is he? Have you got him?"
The rancher had turned about, and addressed himself generally.
"Anton has made off with one of your horses," said Tresler. "I tried to get him, but he had too much start for me. I was on foot."
"Well, why are you all here? Have none of you sense enough to get after him?"
"Arizona is after him, and, until the sheriff comes, he is sufficient. He will never leave his trail."
There was no mistaking the significance Tresler conveyed in his last remark. The rancher took him up sharply.
"What do you mean?"
"Arizona has no love for Anton."
"Ah! And Jake. Who found him? Who was there when he died?"
Marbolt's eyes had fixed themselves on Tresler's face. And the latter had no hesitation in suiting his reply to his own purpose.
"I found him—dead; quite dead. His death must have been instantaneous."
Marbolt turned back to the bed.
The rancher stood over the dead man in silence for some minutes. Then, to Tresler's horror, he broke out into a low-voiced lamentation, the hypocrisy of which made him want to seize him by the throat and choke the words ere they were uttered.
"My poor old Jake!" he said, with infinite pity. "Poor old Jake!" he repeated, addressing the dead man sorrowfully. "I wish now I'd taken your advice about that rascal and got rid of him. And to think that you should be the man on whom he was to wreak his treachery. I wonder how it came about. It must have been that rough temper of yours. Tresler," he cried, pointing to the still form on the bed, "there lies the truest, the only friend I ever had. That man has stood by me when all others left me. Yes, we've fought side by side in the Indian days; ay, and further back still. I remember when he would have defended me with his life; poor Jake! I suppose he had his faults, the same as most of us have. Yes, and I wager his temper took him foul of Anton. Poor old Jake! I suppose we shall never know the truth of this." He paused. Then he cried fiercely, "Damn it! Men, every one of you, I'll give a thousand dollars to the one who brings Anton back, dead or alive. Dead from preference, then he won't escape us. A thousand dollars. Now, who?"
But Tresler could stand it no longer. "Don't trouble, Mr. Marbolt," he said icily. "It is no use your offering rewards. The man who has gone after Anton will find him. And you can rest satisfied he'll take nothing from you on that score. You may not know Arizona; I do."
"You are confident," the other retorted, resentful at once.
"I have reason to be," came the decided answer.
Marbolt shook his close-cropped head. His resentment had gone from his manner again. He had few moods which he was unable to control at will. That was how it seemed to Tresler.
"I hope truly it may be as you say. But I must still doubt. However," he went on, in a lighter tone, "in the meantime there is work to be done. The doctor must be summoned. Send some one for doctor and sheriff first thing to-morrow morning, Tresler. It is no use worrying them to-night. The sheriff has his night work to do, and wouldn't thank us for routing him out now. Besides, nothing can be done until daylight! And the doctor is only needed to certify. Poor old Jake!"
He turned away with something very like a sigh. Half-way to the door he paused.
"Tresler, you take charge of things to-night. Have this door locked. And," he added, with redoubled earnestness, "are you sure Arizona will hunt that man down?"
Tresler smiled grimly. He fancied he understood the persistence.
There was a moment's silence. Then the stick tapped, and the rancher passed out under the curious gaze of his men. Tresler, too, looked after him. Nor was there any doubt of his feelings now. He knew that his presence in the house during Marbolt's murderous assault on Jake was unsuspected. And Marbolt, villainous hypocrite that he was, was covering his tracks. He loathed the blind villain as he never thought to have loathed anybody. And all through his thoughts there was a cold, hard vein of triumph which was utterly foreign to his nature, but which was quite in keeping with his feelings toward the man with whom he was dealing.
As Julian Marbolt passed out the men kept silence, and even when the distant tapping of his stick had died away. Tresler looked round him at these hardy comrades of his with something like delight in his eyes. Joe was not there, which matter gave him satisfaction. The faithful little fellow was at his post to care for Diane. Now he turned to Harris.
"Raw," he said, "will you ride in for the doctor?"
"He said t'-morrer," the man objected.
"I know. But if you'd care to do me a favor you'll ride in and warn the doctor to-night, and then—ride out to Widow Dangley's and meet us all there, cached in the neighborhood."
The man stared; every man in that room was instantly agog with interest. Something in Tresler's tone had brought a light to their eyes which he was glad to see.
"What is 't?" asked Jacob, eagerly.
"Ay," protested Raw; "no bluffin'."
"There's no bluffing about me," Tresler said quickly. "I'm dead in earnest. Here, listen, boys. I want you all to go out quietly, one by one. It's eight miles to Widow Dangley's. Arrange to get there by half-past one in the morning—and don't forget your guns. There's a big bluff adjoining the house," he suggested significantly. "I shall be along, and so will the sheriff and all his men. I think there'll be a racket, and we may—there, I can tell you no more. I refrained from asking Marbolt's permission; you remember what he said once before. We'll not risk saying anything to him."
"I'm in to the limit," said Raw, with decision.
"Guess we don't want no limit to this racket. We'll jest get right along," said Jacob, quietly.
And after that the men filed out one by one. And when the last had gone, Tresler put the lamp out and locked the door. Then he quietly stole up to the kitchen and peered in at the window. Diane was there, so was Joe, with two guns hanging to his belt. He had little difficulty in drawing their attention. There was no dalliance about his visit this time. He waived aside the eager questions with which the girl assailed him, and merely gave her a quiet warning.
"Stay up all night, dear," he said, "but do not let your father know it."
To Joe he said: "Joe, if you sleep a wink this night I'll never forgive you."
Then he hurried away, satisfied that neither would fail him, and went to the barn. Without a word, almost without a sound, he saddled the Lady Jezebel.
His mare ready, he went and gazed long and earnestly up at the rancher's house. He was speculating in his mind as to the risk he was running. Not the general risk, but the risk of success or failure in his enterprise.
He waited until the last of the lights had gone out, and the house stood out a mere black outline in the moonlight, then he disappeared within the barn again, and presently reappeared leading his fractious mare. A few moments later he rode quietly off. And the manner of his going brought a grim smile to his lips, for he thought of the ghostly movements of the night-riders as he had witnessed them. His way lay in a different direction from that of his comrades. Instead of taking the trail, as they had done, he skirted the upper corral and pastures, and plunged into the black pinewoods behind the house.
* * * * *
The Widow Dangley's homestead looked much more extensive in the moonlight than it really was. Everything was shown up, endowed with a curious silvery burnish which dazzled the eyes till shadows became magnified into buildings, and the buildings themselves distorted out of all proportion. Hers was simply a comfortable place and quite unpretentious.
The ranch stood in a narrow valley, in the midst of which a small brook gurgled its way on to the Mosquito River, about four miles distant. The valley was one of those sharp cuttings in which the prairie abounds, quite hidden and unmarked from the land above, lying unsuspected until one chances directly upon it. It was much like a furrow of Nature's ploughing, cut out to serve as a drainage for the surrounding plains. It wound its irregular course away east and west, a maze of undergrowth, larger bluff, low red-sand cut-banks and crumbling gravel cliffs, all scattered by a prodigal hand, with a profusion that seemed wanton amidst the surrounding wastes of grass-land.
The house stood on the northern slope, surrounded on three sides by a protecting bluff of pinewoods. Then to the right of it came the outbuildings, and last, at least one hundred and fifty yards from the rest, came the corrals, well hidden in the bluff, instead, as is usual, of being overlooked by the house. Certainly Widow Dangley was a confiding person.
And so Tresler, comparatively inexperienced as he was, thought, as he surveyed the prospect in the moonlight from the back of his mare. He was accompanied by Sheriff Fyles, and the two men were estimating the chances they were likely to have against possible invaders.
"How goes the time?" asked the sheriff, after a few moments' silent contemplation of the scene.
"You've half an hour in which to dispose your forces. Ah! there's one of your fellows riding down the opposite bank." Tresler pointed across the valley.
"Yes, and there's another lower down," Fyles observed quietly. "And here's one dropping down to your right. All on time. What of your men?"
"They should be in yonder bluff, backing the corrals."
"Four, including the cook."
"Four, and sixteen of mine—twenty. Our two selves—twenty-two. Good; come on."
The man led the way to the bluff. The cowboys were all there. They received instructions to hold the position at the corrals; to defend them, or to act as reinforcements if the struggle should take place elsewhere. Then the two leaders passed on down into the valley. It was an awkward descent, steep, and of a loose surface that shelved under their horses' feet. For the moment a cloud had obscured the moon, and Fyles looked up. A southwesterly breeze had sprung up, and there was a watery look about the sky.
"Good," he said again, in his abrupt manner. "There won't be too much moon. Moonlight is not altogether an advantage in a matter of this sort. We must depend chiefly on a surprise. We don't want too many empty saddles."
At the bottom of the valley they found the rest of the men gathered together in the shelter of the scattered undergrowth. It was Fyles's whole command. He proceeded at once to divide them up into two parties. One he stationed east of the ranch, split into a sort of skirmishing order, to act under Tresler's charge. The other party he took for his own command, selecting an advantageous position to the west. He had also established a code of signals to be used on the approach of the enemy; these took the form of the cry of the screech-owl. Thus, within a quarter of an hour after their arrival, all was in readiness for the raiders, and the valley once more returned to its native quiet.
And how quiet and still it all was! The time crept on toward the appointed hour. The moon was still high in the heavens, but its light had grown more and more uncertain. The clouds had become dense to a stormy extent. Now and then the rippling waters of the brook caught and reflected for a moment a passing shaft of light, like a silvery rift in the midst of the valley, but otherwise all was shadow. And in the occasional moonlight every tree and bush and boulder was magnified into some weird, spectral shape, distorting it from plain truth into some grotesque fiction, turning the humblest growth into anything from a grazing steer to a moving vehicle; from a prowling coyote to a log hut. The music of the waking night-world droned on the scented air, emphasizing the calm, the delicious peace. It was like some fairy kingdom swept by strains of undefined music which haunted the ear without monotony, and peopled with shadows which the imagination could mould at its pleasure.
But in the eagerness of the moment all this was lost to the waiting men. To them it was a possible battleground; with a view to cover, it was a strategic position, and they were satisfied with it. The cattle, turned loose from the corrals, must pass up or down the valley; similarly, any number of men must approach from one of these two directions, which meant that the ambush could not be avoided.
At last the warning signal came. An owl hooted from somewhere up the valley, the cry rising in weird cadence and dying away lingeringly. And, at the same time, there came the sound of a distant rumble, like the steady drone of machinery at some far-off point. Tresler at once gave up his watch on the east and centred all attention upon the west. One of his own men had answered the owl's cry, and a third screech came from the guard at the corrals.
The rumble grew louder. There were no moving objects visible yet, but the growing sound was less of a murmur; it was more detached, and the straining ears distinctly made out the clatter of hoofs evidently traveling fast down the valley trail. On they came, steadily hammering out their measure with crisp precision. It was a moment of tense excitement for those awaiting the approach. But only a moment, although the sensation lasted longer. The moon suddenly brought the whole thing into reality. Suspense was banished with its revealing light, and each man, steady at his post, gripped his carbine or revolver, ready to pour in a deadly fire the moment the word should be given. A troop of about eighteen horsemen dashed round a bend of the valley and plunged into the ambush.
Instantly Fyles's voice rang out. "Halt, or we fire!" he cried.
The horsemen drew rein at once, but the reply was a pistol-shot in the direction whence his voice had sounded. The defiance was Tresler's signal. He passed the word to his men, and a volley of carbine-fire rang out at once, and confusion in the ranks of the horsemen followed immediately.
Then the battle began in deadly earnest. The sheriff's men leapt into their saddles, and advanced both in front and in rear of the trapped raiders. And the cowpunchers came racing down from the corrals to hurl themselves into the melee whooping and yelling, as only men of their craft can.
The fight waxed furious, but the odds were in favor of the ambush. The clouded sky lent neither side much assistance. Now and again the peeping moon looked down upon the scene as though half afraid to show itself, and it was by those fleeting rays that the sheriff's men leveled their carbines and poured in their deadly fire. But the raiders were no mean foe. They fought desperately, and were masters in the use of their weapons. Their confusion of the first moment passed instantly, and they rode straight at Tresler's line of defense with a determination that threatened to overwhelm it and force a passage. But the coming of the cowpunchers stemmed the tide and hurled them back on Fyles's force in their rear. Several riderless horses escaped in the melee; nor were they only belonging to the raiders. One of the "deputies" had dropped from his saddle right beside Tresler, and there was no telling, in the darkness, how many others had met with a similar fate. Red Mask's gang had been fairly trapped, and both sides meant to fight to a finish.
All this time both Tresler and Fyles were looking out for the leader, the man of all whom they desired to capture. But the darkness, which had favored the ambuscade, now defeated their object. In the mob of struggling humanity it was difficult enough to distinguish friend from foe, let alone to discover any one person. The ranks of the "deputies" had closed right in and a desperate hand-to-hand struggle was going on.
Tresler was caught in the midst of the tide, his crazy mare had carried him there whether he would or no; but if she had carried him thus into deadly peril, she was also ready to fight for him. She laid about her royally, swept on, and reared plunging at every obstruction to her progress, her master thus escaping many a shot, if it left him able to do little better than fire at random himself. In this frantic fashion the maddened creature tore her way through the thick of the fight, and her rider was borne clear to the further outskirts. Then she tried to get away with him, but in the nick of time, before her strong teeth had fixed themselves on the bit, he managed to head her once again for the struggling mass.
With furious recklessness she charged forward, and, as bad luck would have it, her wild career brought about the worst thing possible. She cannoned violently into the sheriff's charger, while its rider was in the act of leveling his revolver at the head of a man wearing a red mask. The impact was within an ace of bringing both horses and riders to the ground. The mare was flung on her haunches, while Fyles, cursing bitterly, clung desperately to his saddle to retain his seat. But his aim was lost, and his shot narrowly missed his horse's head; and, before either he or Tresler had recovered himself, the red masked man had vanished into the darkness, heading for the perilous ascent of the valley side.
Terrified out of her life the Lady Jezebel turned swinging round on her haunches, and charged down the valley; and as she went Tresler had the questionable satisfaction of seeing the sheriff detach himself from the mob and gallop in pursuit of the raider.
His own blood was up now, and though the mare had got the bit in her teeth he fought her with a fury equal to her own. He knew she was mistress of the situation, but he simply would not give in. He would kill her rather than she should get away with him this time. And so, as nothing else had any effect on her, he snatched a pistol from its holster and leant over and pounded the side of her head with the butt of it in a wild attempt to turn her. At first she gave not the smallest heed to his blows; such was her madness. But presently she flinched under them and turned her head away, and her body responded to the movement. In another moment he had her round, and as she faced the side of the valley where the raider had disappeared, he slashed her cruelly with his spurs. In a moment the noise of the battle was left behind him, and the mare, with cat-like leaps, was breasting the ascent.
And Tresler only thought of the man he was in pursuit of. His own neck or the neck of his mare mattered nothing to him then. Through him, or through the mare, they had lost Red Mask. He must rectify the fault. He had no idea how. His brain was capable of only one thought—pursuit; and he thanked his stars for the sure-footed beast under him. Nothing stopped her; she lifted to every obstruction. A cut-bank had no terrors for her, she simply charged it with her great, strong hoofs till the gravel and sand poured away under them and left her a foothold. Bushes were trampled down or plunged through. Blindly she raced for the top, at an angle that made her rider cling to the horn of his saddle to keep himself from sliding off over the cantle.
They passed Fyles struggling laboriously to reach the top. The Lady Jezebel seemed to shoot past him and leave him standing. And as he went Tresler called out—
"How much start has he?"
"He's topping it now," the sheriff replied.
And the answer fired Tresler's excitement so that he again rammed both spurs into the mare's flanks. The top of the hill loomed up against the sky. A thick fringe of bush confronted them. Head down, nose almost touching the ground, the mad animal plunged into it. Her rider barely had time to lie down in his saddle and cling to her neck. His thoughts were in a sort of mental whirlpool and he hardly realized what had happened, when, the next moment, the frenzied demon under him plunged out on to the open prairie.
She made no pause or hesitation, but like a shot from a gun swept on straight as the crow flies, her nose alone guiding her. She still held the bit in her jaws; her frolic had only just begun. Tresler looked ahead and scanned the sky-line, but the darkness obscured all signs of his quarry.
He had just made up his mind to trust to chance and the captious mood of his mare when the moon, crossing a rift in the clouds, gave him a sort of flashlight view of the horizon. It only lasted a few seconds, but it lasted long enough for him to detect a horseman heading for the Mosquito River, away to the right, with a start that looked like something over a mile. His heart sank at the prospect. But the next instant hope bounded within him, for the mare swung round of her own accord and stretched herself for the race.
He understood. She had recognized the possibility of company; and few horses, whatever their temper, can resist that.
He leaned over and patted her shoulder, easing her of his weight like a jockey.
"Now, you she-devil," he murmured affectionately, "behave yourself for once, and go—go like the fiend you are!"
THE PURSUIT OF RED MASK
A mile start; it would seem an impossible advantage. Even with a far better horse in pursuit, how many miles must be covered before that distance could be made up? Could the lost ground be regained in eight miles? It looked to be out of the question even to Tresler, hopeful of his mare as he was, and knowing her remarkable turn of speed. Yet such proved to be the case. Eight miles saw him so close on the heels of the raider that there was nothing left for the fugitive but to keep on.
He felt no surprise that they were traversing the river trail. He even thought he knew how he could head his man off by a short cut. But this would not serve his purpose. He wanted to get him red-handed, and to leave him now would be to give him a chance that he was confident would be taken advantage of at once. The river trail led to the ranch. And the only branches anywhere along its route were those running north and south at the ford.
Steadily he closed up, foot by foot, yard by yard. Sometimes he saw his quarry, sometimes he was only guided by the beat of the speeding hoofs. Now that he was urging her, the Lady Jezebel had relinquished the bit, not only willing, but bursting to do better than her best. No rider could resist such an appeal. And as they went Tresler found himself talking to her with an affection that would have sounded ridiculous to any but a horseman. It made him smile to see her ears laid back, not in the manner of a horse putting forth its last efforts, but with that vicious air she always had, as though she were running open-mouthed at Jacob Smith, as he had seen her do in the corral on his introduction to her.
When they came to the river ford he was a bare hundred yards in the wake of his man. Here the road turned off for the ranch, and the trees met overhead and shut out the light of the moon. It was pitch black, and he was only guided by the sound of the other horse in front. Abreast of the ford he became aware that this sound had abruptly died out, and at the bend of the trail he pulled up and listened acutely. They stood thus, the mare's great body heaving under him, until her rider caught the faint sound of breaking bush somewhere directly ahead of them.
Instantly recollection came to his help, and he laughed as he turned the mare off the trail and plunged into the scrub. It was the spot where, once before, he had taken, unwillingly, to the bush. There was no hesitation, no uncertainty. They raced through the tangle, and threaded their way on to the disused trail they had both traveled before.
The fugitive had gained considerably now, and Tresler, for the first time since the race had begun, asked his mare for more pace. She simply shook her head, snorted, and swished her tail, as though protesting that the blow was unnecessary. She could not do the impossible, and that he was asking of her. But his forcible request was the nervous result of his knowledge that the last lap of the race had been entered upon and the home stretch was not far off. It must be now or never.
He soon realized that the remaining distance was all too short. As he came to the place where the forest abruptly terminated, he saw that day had broken. The gray light showed him to be still thirty yards or so behind.
They had reached the broken lands he remembered so well. Before him stretched the plateau leading to the convergence of the river and the cliff. It was the sight of this which gave him an inspiration. He remembered the branching trail to the bridge, also the wide sweep it took, as compared with the way he had first come. To leap the river would gain him fifty yards. But in that light it was a risk—a grave risk. He hesitated. Annoyed at his own indecision, he determined to risk everything on one throw. The other horse was distinctly lagging. He reached down and patted his mare's neck. And that simple action restored his confidence; he felt that she was still on top of her work. The river would have no terrors for her.
He saw the masked man turn off for the bridge, but he held straight on. He gave another anxious look at the sky. The dull gray was still unbroken by any flush of sunrise, but it was lighter, certainly. The mask of clouds was breaking, though it still contrived to keep daylight in abeyance. He had no option but to settle himself in the saddle for the great effort. Light or no light, he could not turn back now.
And for the while he forgot the fugitive. His mind centred on the river ahead, and the moment when his hand must lend the mare that aid, without which he could not hope, after her great journey, to win the far bank. His nerve was steady, and his eyes never more alert. Everything was distinct enough about him. The bushes flying by were clearly outlined now, and he fancied he could already see the river's line of demarkation. On they raced, he leaning well forward, she with her ears pricked, attentive to the murmurs of the water already so near. Unconsciously his knees gripped the leggaderos of his saddle with all the power he could put into the pressure, and his body was bent crouching, as though he were about to make the spring himself.
And the moment came. He spurred and lifted; and the game beast shot forward like a rocket. A moment, and she landed. But the half lights must have deceived her. She had jumped further than before, and, crashing into a boulder with her two fore feet, she turned a complete somersault, and fell headlong to the ground, hurling her rider yards out of the saddle into the soft loose sand of the trail beyond.
Quite unhurt, Tresler was on his feet in an instant. But the mare lay still where she had fallen. A hopeless feeling of regret swept over the man as he turned and beheld her. He saw the masked rider dash at the hillside on his weary horse, not twenty yards from him, but he gave him no heed.
It needed no look into the mare's glazing eyes to tell him what he had done. He had killed her. The first really honest act of her life had led to the unfortunate creature's own undoing. Her lean ewe neck was broken, as were both her forelegs.
The moment he had ascertained the truth he left her, and, looking up at the hill, saw that it was high time. The rider had vanished, but his jaded horse was standing half-way up the hillside in the mire of loose sand. It was either too frightened or too weary to move, and stood there knee-deep, a picture of dejection.
The task of mounting to the ledge was no light one, but Tresler faced it without a second thought. The other had only something less than a minute's start of him, and as there was only one other exit to the place—and that, he remembered, of a very unpromising nature—he had few fears of the man's ultimate escape. No, there was no escape for him; and besides—a smile lit up the hard set of his features at the thought—daylight had really come. The clouds had at last given way before the rosy herald of sunrise.
The last of the ascent was accomplished, and, breathing hard, Tresler stepped on to the gravel-strewn plateau, gun in hand. He felt glad of his five-chambered companion. Those rough friends of his on the ranch were right. There was nothing so compelling, nothing so arbitrary, nor so reassuring to the possessor and confounding to his enemies, as a gun well handled.
The ledge was empty. He looked at the towering cliff, but there was no sign of his man in that direction. He moved toward the hut, but at the first step the door of the dugout was flung wide, and Julian Marbolt, gun in hand, dashed out.
He came with a rush, without hesitation, confidently; but as the door was thrown open, and the flood of daylight shone down upon him, he fell back with a bitter cry of despair, and Tresler knew that he had not reckoned on the change from comparative darkness to daylight. He needed no further proof of what he had come to suspect. The rancher was only blind in the presence of strong light!
For a second only he stood cowering back, then, feeling his way, he darted with miraculous rapidity round the side of the building, and scrambled toward the dizzy staircase in the rock.
Tresler challenged him at once, but he paid no heed. He had reached the foot of the stairway, and was climbing for life and liberty. The other knew that he ought to have opened fire on him, but the old desire to trust to his hands and bodily strength overcame his better judgment, and he ran at him. His impulse was humane but futile, for the man was ascending with marvelous rapidity, and by the time he had reached the foot of the ladder, was beyond his reach.
There was nothing left now but to use his gun or to follow. One look at the terrific ascent, however, left him no choice.
"Go on, and I'll drop you, Julian Marbolt!" he shouted. "I've five chambers loaded in each gun."
For response, the blind man increased his exertions. On he went, up, up, till it made the man below dizzy to watch him. Tresler raised his gun and fired wide, letting the bullet strike the rock close to the man's right hand to convince him of his intentions. He saw the limestone splinter as the bullet hit it, while the clutching, groping hand slid higher for a fresh hold; but it had no other effect.
He was at a loss. If the man reached the top, he knew that somewhere over the brink lay a road to safety. And he was nearing it; nearing it foot by foot with his crawling, clinging clutch upon the face of rock. He shuddered as he watched, fascinated even against himself. Deprived of sight, the man's whole body seemed alert with an instinct that served him in its stead. His movements were like those of some cuttlefish, reaching out blindly with its long feelers and drawing itself up by the power of its tentacles.
He shouted a last warning. "Your last chance!" he cried; and now his aim was true, and his purpose inflexible.
The only answer was a hurried movement on the part of the climbing man.
Tresler's finger was on the trigger, while his eyes were fixed on his mark. But the hammer did not fall; the final compression of the hand was stayed, while horror leapt into the eyes so keenly looking over the sight. Something had happened up there on the face of the cliff. The man had slipped! One foot shot out helplessly, as the frantic climber struggled for those last few steps before the shot came. He wildly sought to recover himself, but the fatal jolt carried the weight of his body with it, and wrenched the other foot from its hold. For the fraction of a second the man below became aware of the clinging hands, as they desperately held to the rock, and then he dropped his gun and clapped his hands over his ears as a piercing shriek rang out. He could not witness any more. He only heard, in spite of his stopped ears, the lumping of a soft body falling; he saw, though his eyes were closed almost on the instant, a huddled figure pitch dully upon the edge of the plateau and disappear below. It all passed in a flash.
Then silence reigned. And when he opened his eyes there was no horrible sight, nothing seemed to have been disturbed. It had gone; no trace was left, not a tatter of cloth, not a spot of blood, nothing.
He knew. His imaginary vision of the old-time trapper had been enacted before his very eyes. All that remained of Julian Marbolt was lying—down there.
* * * * *
Fyles and Tresler were standing in the valley below. They were gazing on the mangled remains of the rancher. Fyles had removed the piece of red blanket from the dead man's face, and held it up for inspection.
"Um!" he grunted. "The game's played out."
"There's more of that up there in the hut," said Tresler.
"Breed blanket," commented Fyles, folding it up and carefully bestowing it in his pocket. Then he turned and gazed down the yawning valley. It was a wonderful place, a mighty rift extending for miles into the heart of the mountains. "A nice game, too," he went on presently. "Ever seen this place before?"
"Once," Tresler replied. Then he told the officer of his runaway ride.
Fyles listened with interest. At the conclusion he said, "Pity you didn't tell me of this before. However, you missed the chief interest. Look away down there in the shelter of the cliff. See—about a mile down. Corrals enough to shepherd ten thousand head. And they are cunningly disposed."
Tresler now became aware of a scattered array of corrals, stretching away out into the distance, but so arranged at the foot of the towering walls of the valley that they needed looking for closely.
Then he looked up at the ledge which had been the scene of the disaster, and the ladder of hewn steps above, and he pointed at them.
"I wonder what's on the other side?"
"That's an easy one," replied his companion promptly. "Half-breeds."
"That's about it. You remember the Breeds cleared away from their old settlement lately. We've never found them. Once they take to the hills, it's like a needle in a haystack. Maybe friend Anton is in hiding there."
"I doubt it. 'Tough' McCulloch didn't belong to them, as I told you. He comes from over the border. No; he's getting away as fast as his horse can carry him. And Arizona isn't far off his trail, if I'm any judge."
Fyles's great round face was turned contemplatively on his companion.
"Well, that's for the future, anyhow," he observed, and moved to a bush some yards away. "Let's take it easy. Money, one of my deputies, has gone in for a wagon. I don't expect him for a couple of hours or so. We must keep it company," he added, nodding his head in the direction of the dead man.
They sat down and silently lit their pipes. Fyles was the first to speak.
"Guess I've got to thank you," he said, as though that sort of thing was quite out of his province.
Tresler shook his head. "Not me," he said. "Thank my poor mare." Then he added, with a bitter laugh, "Why, but for the accident of his fall, I'm not sure he wouldn't have escaped. I'm pretty weak-kneed when it comes to dropping a man in cold blood."
The other shook his head.
"No; he wouldn't have escaped. You underestimate yourself. But even if you had missed I had him covered with my carbine. I was watching the whole thing down here. You see, Money and I came on behind. I don't suppose we were more than a few minutes after you. That mare you were riding was a dandy. I see she's done."
"Yes," Tresler said sorrowfully. "And I'm not ashamed to say it's hit me hard. She did us a good turn."
"And she owed it to us."
"You mean when she upset everything during the fight?"
"Well, she's more than made amends. In spite of her temper, that mare of mine was the finest thing on the ranch."
"Yours?" Fyles raised his eyebrows.
But the officer shook his head. "Nor Marbolt's. She belonged to me. Three years ago I turned her out to graze at Whitewater with a bunch of others, as an incorrigible rogue and vagabond. The whole lot were stolen and one of the guard shot. Her name was 'Strike 'em.'"
"Yes. Ever have her come at you with both front feet, and her mouth open?"
"That's it. 'Strike 'em.' Fine mare—half blood."
"But Marbolt told Jake he bought her from a half-breed outfit."
"Dare say he did."
Fyles relit his pipe for about the twentieth time, which caused Tresler to hand him his pouch.
"Try tobacco," he said, with a smile.
The sheriff accepted the invitation with unruffled composure. The gentle sarcasm passed quite unheeded. Probably the man was too intent on the business of the moment, for he went on as though no interruption had occurred.
"After seeing you on that mare I found the ranch interesting. But the man's blindness fooled me right along. I had no trouble in ascertaining that Jake had nothing to do with things. Also I was assured that none of the 'hands' were playing the game. Anton was the man for me. But soon I discovered that he was not the actual leader. So far, good. There was only Marbolt left; but he was blind. Last night, when you came for me, and told me what had happened at the ranch, and about the lighted lamp, I tumbled. But even so I still failed to understand all. The man was blind in daylight, and could see in darkness or half-light. Now, what the deuce sort of blind disease is that? And he seems to have kept the secret, acting the blind man at all times. It was clever—devilish clever."
Tresler nodded. "Yes; he fooled us all, even his daughter."
The other shot a quick glance from out of the corners of his eyes.
"I suppose so," he observed, and waited.
They smoked in silence.
"What are you going to do next?" asked Tresler, as the other showed no disposition to speak.
The man shrugged. "Take possession of the ranch. Just keep the hands to run it. The lady had better go into Forks if she has any friends there. You might see to that. I understand that you are—gossip, you know."
"There'll be inquiries and formalities. The property I don't know about. That will be settled by the government."
Tresler became thoughtful. Suddenly he turned to his companion.
"Sheriff," he said earnestly, "I hope you'll spare Miss Marbolt all you can. She has lived a terribly unhappy life with him. I can assure you she has known nothing of this—nothing of the strange blindness. I would swear it with my last breath."
"I don't doubt you, my boy," the other said heartily. "We owe you too much to doubt you. She shall not be bothered more than can be helped. But she had some knowledge of that blindness, or she would not have acted as she did with that lamp. I tell you candidly she will have to make a statement."
"Have no doubt; she will explain."
"Sure—ah! I think I hear the wheels of the wagon." Fyles looked round. Then he settled himself down again. "Jake," he went on, "was smartest of us all. I can't believe he was ever told of his patron's curious blindness. He must have discovered it. He was playing a big game. And all for a woman! Well, well."
"No doubt he thought she was worth it," said Tresler, with some asperity.
The officer smiled at the tone. "No doubt, no doubt. Still, he wasn't young. He fooled you when he concurred with your suspicions of Anton—that is, he knew you were off the true scent, and meant keeping you off it. I can understand, too, why you were sent to Willow Bluff. You knew too much, you were too inquiring. Besides, from your own showing to Jake—which he carried on to the blind man for his own ends—you wanted too much. You had to be got rid of, as others have been got rid of before. Yes, it was all very clever. And he never spared his own stock. Robbed himself by transferring a bunch of steers to these corrals, and, later on, I suppose, letting them drift back to his own pastures. I only wonder why, with a ranch like his, he ran the risk."
"Perhaps it was old-time associations. He was a slave-trader once, and no doubt he stocked his ranch originally by raiding the Indians' cattle. Then, when white people came around, and the Indians disappeared, he continued his depredations on less open lines."
"Ah! slave-trader, was he? Who said?"
"Miss Marbolt innocently told me he once traded in the Indies in 'black ivory.' She did not understand."
"Just so—ah, here is the wagon."
Fyles rose leisurely to his feet. And Money drove up.
"The best of news, sheriff," the latter cried at once. "Captured the lot. Some of the boys are badly damaged, but we've got 'em all."
"Well, we'll get back with this," the officer replied quietly.
The dead man was lifted into the wagon, and, in a few minutes, the little party was on its way back to the ranch.
A RETURN TO THE LAND OF THE PHILISTINES
The affairs of the ranch were taken in hand by Fyles. Everything was temporarily under his control, and an admirable administrator he proved. Nor could Tresler help thinking how much better he seemed suited by such pastoral surroundings than by the atmosphere of his proper calling. But this appointment only lasted a week. Then the authorities drafted a man to relieve him for the more urgent business of the investigation into the death of the rancher and his foreman, and the trial of the half-breed raiders captured at Widow Dangley's.
Diane, acting on Tresler's advice, had taken up her abode with Mrs. Doc. Osler in Forks, which good, comfortable, kind, gossipy old woman insisted on treating her as a bereaved and ailing child, who must be comforted and ministered to, and incidentally dosed with tonics. As a matter of fact, Diane, though greatly shocked at the manner and conditions of her father's death, and the discovery that he was so terrible an outlaw, was suffering in no sense the bereavement of the death of a parent. She was heartily glad to get away from her old home, that had held so much unhappiness and misery for her. Later on, when Tresler sent her word that it was imperative for him to go into Whitewater with Fyles, that he had been summoned there as a witness, she was still more glad that she had left it. Thanks to the influence and consideration of Fyles, she had been spared the ordeal of the trial in Whitewater. She had given her sworn testimony at the preliminary inquiry on the ranch, and this had been put in as evidence at the higher court.
And so it was nearly a month before Tresler was free to return to Forks. And during that time he had been kept very busy. What with the ranch affairs, and matters of his own concerns, he had no time for anything but brief and infrequent little notes of loving encouragement to the waiting girl. But these messages tended otherwise than might have been expected. The sadness that had so long been almost second nature to the girl steadily deepened, and Mrs. Osler, ever kind and watchful of her charge, noticed the depression settling on her, and with motherly solicitude—she had no children of her own—insisted on the only remedy she understood—physic. And the girl submitted to the kindly treatment, knowing well enough that there was no physic to help her complaint. She knew that, in spite of his tender messages and assurances of affection, Tresler could never be anything more in her life than he was at present. Even in death her father had carried out his threat. She could never marry. It would be a cruel outrage on any man. She told herself that no self-respecting man would ever marry a girl with such a past, such parentage.
And so she waited for her lover's return to tell him. Once she thought of writing it, but she knew Jack too well. He would only come down to Forks post haste, and that might upset his plans; and she had no desire to cause him further trouble. She would tell him her decision when he had leisure to come to her. Then she would wait for the government orders about the ranch, and, if she were allowed to keep it, she would sell the land as soon as possible and leave the country forever. She felt that this course was the right one to pursue; but it was very, very hard, and no measure of tonics could dispel the deepening shadows which the cruelty of her lot had brought to her young face.
It was wonderful the kindness and sympathy extended to her in that rough settlement. There was not a man or woman, especially the men, who did not do all in his or her power to make her forget her troubles. No one ever alluded to Mosquito Bend in her presence, and, instead, assumed a rough, cheerful jocularity, which sat as awkwardly on the majority as it well could. For most of them were illiterate, hard-living folk, rendered desperately serious in the struggle for existence.
And back to this place Tresler came one day. He was a very different man now from what he had been on his first visit. He looked about him as he crossed the market-place. Quickly locating Doc. Osler's little house, he smiled to himself as he thought of the girl waiting for him there. But he kept to his course and rode straight on to Carney's saloon. Here, as before, he dismounted. But he needed no help or guide. He straightway hooked his horse's reins over the tie-post and walked into the bar.
The first man to greet him was his old acquaintance Slum Ranks. The little man looked up at him in a speculative manner, slanting his eyes at him in a way he remembered so well. There was no change in the rascal's appearance. In fact, he was wearing the same clothes Tresler had first seen him in. They were no cleaner and no dirtier. The man seemed to have utterly stagnated since their first meeting, just as everything else in the saloon seemed to have stagnated. There were the same men there—one or two more besides—the same reeking atmosphere, the same dingy hue over the whole interior. Nothing seemed changed.
Slum's greeting was characteristic. "Wal, blind-hulks has passed—eh? I figgered you was comin' out on top. Guess the government'll treat you han'some."
The butcher guffawed from his place at the bar. Tresler saw that he was still standing with his back to it; his hands were still gripping the moulded edge, as though he had never changed his position since the first time he had seen him. Shaky, the carpenter, looked up from the little side table at which he was playing "solitaire" with a greasy pack of cards; his face still wore the puzzled look with which he had been contemplating the maze of spots and pictures a moment before. Those others who were new to him turned on him curiously as they heard Slum's greeting, and Carney paused in the act of wiping a glass, an occupation which never failed him, however bad trade might be.
Tresler felt that something was due to those who could display so much interest in his return, so he walked to the bar and called for drinks. Then he turned to Slum.
"Well," he said, "I'm going to take up my abode here for a week or two."
"I'm real glad," said Ranks, his little eyes lighting up at the prospect. He remembered how profitable this man had proved before. "The missis'll be glad, too," he added. "I 'lows she's a far-seein' wummin. We kep a best room fer such folk as you, now. A bran' noo iron bed, wi' green an' red stripes, an' a washbowl goin' with it. Say, it's a real dandy layout, an' on'y three dollars a week wi'out board. Guess I'll git right over an' tell her to fix—eh?"
Tresler protested and laid a detaining hand on his arm. "Don't bother. Carney, here, is going to fix me up; aren't you, Carney?"
"That's how," replied the saloon-keeper, with a triumphant grin at the plausible Slum.
"Wal, now. You plumb rattle me. To think o' your goin' over from a pal like that," said Slum, protestingly, while the butcher guffawed and stretched his arms further along the bar.
"Guess he's had some," observed the carpenter, shuffling his cards anew. "I 'lows that bed has bugs, an' the wash-bowl's mostly used dippin' out swill," he finished up scornfully.
Ranks eyed the sad-faced man with an unfriendly look. "Guess I never knew you but what you was insultin', Shaky," he observed, in a tone of pity. "Some folks is like that. Guess you git figgerin' them cards too close. You never was bustin' wi' brains. Say, Carney," turning back to the bar complainingly, "wher's them durned brandy 'cocks' Mr. Tresler ordered a whiles back? You're gettin' most like a fun'ral on an up-hill trail. Slow—eh? Guess if we're to be pizened I sez do it quick."
"Comin' along, Slum," replied Carney, winking knowingly to let Tresler understand that the man's impatience was only a covering for his discomfiture at Shaky's hands. "I've done my best to pizen you this ten year. Guess Shaky's still pinin' fer the job o' nailin' a few planks around you. Here you are. More comin'."
"Who's needin' me?" asked Shaky, looking up from his cards. "Slum Ranks?" he questioned, pausing. "Guess I've got a plank or two fit fer him. Red pine. Burns better."
He lit his pipe with great display and sucked at it noisily. Slum lowered his cocktail and turned a disgusted look on him.
"Say, go easy wi' that lucifer. Don't breathe on it, or ther' won't be no need fer red pine fer you."
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," cried Carney, jocosely, "the present—kep to the present. Because Slum, here, runs a—well, a boardin' establishment, ther' ain't no need to discuss his future so coarsely."
"Not so much slack, Carney," said Slum, a little angrily. "Guess my boardin' emporium's rilin' you some. You're feelin' a hur'cane; that's wot you're feelin', I guess. Makes you sick to see folks gittin' value fer their dollars, don't it?"
"Good fer you, good fer you," cried the butcher, and subsided with a loud guffaw.
The unusual burst of speech from this man caused general surprise. The entire company paused to stare at the shining, grinning face.
"Sail in, Slum," said a lean man Tresler had heard addressed as "Sawny" Martin. "I allus sez as you've got a dead eye fer the tack-head ev'ry time. But go easy, or the boss'll bar you on the slate."
"Don't owe him nuthin'," growled Slum.
"Which ain't or'nary in this company," observed the smiling Carney; he loved to get Slum angry. "Say, Shaky," he went on, "how do Slum fix you in his—hotel? You don't seem bustin' wi' vittals."
"Might do wuss," responded the carpenter, sorrowfully. "But, y' see, I stan' in wi' Doc. Osler, an' he physics me reg'lar."
Everybody laughed with the butcher this time.
"Say, you gorl-durned 'fun'ral boards,' you're gittin' kind o' fresh, but I'd bet a greenback to a last year's corn-shuck you don't quit ther' an' come grazin' around Carney's pastures, long as my missis does the cookin'."
"I 'lows your missis ken cook," said Shaky, with enthusiasm. "The feller as sez she can't lies. But wi' her, my respec' fer your hog-pen ends. I guess this argyment is closed fer va-cation. Who's fer 'draw'?"
Slum turned back to the bar. "Here, Carney," he said, planking out a ten-dollar bill, "hand over chips to that. We're losin' blessed hours gassin'. I'm goin' fer a hand at 'draw.' An' say, give us a new deck o' cards. Guess them o' Shaky's needs curry-combin' some. Mr. Tresler," he went on, turning to his old boarder, "mebbe I owe you some. Have you a notion?"
"No thanks, Slum," replied Tresler, decidedly. "I'm getting an old hand now."
And the little man moved off with a thoughtful smile on his rutted, mahogany features.
Tresler watched these men take their seats for the game. Their recent bickering was wholly forgotten in the ruling passion for "draw." And what a game it was! Each man, ignorant, uncultured in all else, was a past master at poker—an artist. The baser instincts of the game appealed to the uppermost sides of their natures. They were there to best each other by any manner of trickery. Each man understood that his neighbor was doing all he knew, nor did he resent it. Only would he resent it should the delinquent be found out. Then there would be real trouble. But they were all such old-time sinners. They had been doing that sort of thing for years, and would continue to do it for years more. It was the method of their lives, and Tresler had no opinion on the right or wrong of it. He had no right to judge them, and, besides, he had every sympathy for them as struggling units in Life's great battle.