"Gee! The very thing I've been looking for. He's got that land from McLagan. He's going to run a ranch. He's going to play big dog. Gee! That's the game! Say, master Jim," he went on, apostrophizing the absent man he had so easily learned to hate, "I'll make you a sick man before the snow falls. Gee! You'd butt in in my affairs. You're standing Eve's friend." He laughed. "Go ahead, boy. I'll play up to you. Eve shall tell you I'm a reformed man, and you'll feel better. And then——"
And by the time he reached his home there was apparently a complete transformation in him. The old moody selfishness and brutality toward his wife seemed to have fallen from him like a hideous cloak. He played the game he intended with such an appearance of good faith that the sick woman suddenly experienced the first relief and comfort she had known for months.
He waited on her, repentant and solicitous, till she could hardly believe her senses, and she even forgot to ask the result of his gamble. And the next morning, when necessity forced her to ask him for money, she was content that he returned to her something under ten dollars of that which he had stolen from her.
Later in the day he left for the hills, and from that moment an entire change came over Eve's whole life.
THE WORKING OF THE PUBLIC MIND
The month following Will's departure from the village saw stirring times for the citizens of Barnriff.
The exploding of Dan McLagan's bombshell in their midst was only the beginning; a mere herald of what was to follow. Excitement after excitement ran riot, until the public mind was dazed, and the only thing that remained clear to it was that crime and fortune were racing neck and neck for possession of their community.
The facts were simple enough in themselves, but the complexity of their possibilities was a difficult problem which troubled Barnriff not a little.
In the first instance McLagan's alarm set everybody agog. Then a systematic wave of cattle-stealing set in throughout the district. Nor were these depredations of an extensive nature. Cattle disappeared in small bunches of from ten to forty head, but the persistence with which the thefts occurred soon set the aggregate mounting up to a large figure.
The "AZ's" lost two more bunches of cattle within a week. The "[diamond] P's" followed up with their quota of forty head, which set "old man" Blundell raving through the district like a mad bull. Then came a raid on the "U—U's." Sandy McIntosh cursed the rustlers in the broadest Scotch, and set out to scour the country with his boys. Another ranch to suffer was the "crook-bar," but they, like the "TT's," couldn't tell the extent of their losses definitely, and estimated them at close on to thirty head of three-year-old beeves.
The village seethed, furious with indignation. For years Barnriff had been clear of this sort of thing, and, as a consequence, the place had been left to bask in the sun of commercial prosperity consequent upon the thriving condition of the surrounding ranches. Now, that prosperity was threatened. If the ranches suffered Barnriff must suffer with them. Men spoke of a vigilance committee. But they spoke of it without any real enthusiasm. The truth was they were afraid of inaugurating an affair of that sort. There was scarcely a man in the place but had at some time in his life felt the despotic tyranny of a vigilance committee. Though they felt that such an organization was the only way to cope with the prevailing trouble they cordially dreaded it.
Then, in the midst of all this to-do, came the news of Will's rich strike in the hills. He had discovered a "placer" which was yielding a profit of fabulous dimensions. Of how rich his strike really was no one seemed to possess any very definite information. In the calm light of day men spoke of a handsome living wage, but, as the day wore on, and Silas Rocket's whiskey did its work, Will's possible wealth generally ended in wild visions of millions of dollars.
Under this inspiring news the commercial mind of Barnriff was stirred; it was lifted out of the despondency into which the news of the cattle-stealing had plunged it. It cleaned off its rust and began to oil its joints and look to its tools. With the first news it, metaphorically, "reared up." Then Will came into town with a bag of dust and nuggets, and the optical demonstration set lips smacking and eyes gleaming with envy and covetousness. They asked "Where?" But Will shook his head with a cunning leer. Let them go and seek it as he had to do, he said. And forthwith his advice was acted upon by no less than a dozen men, who promptly abandoned profitable billets for the pursuit of the elusive yellow ore.
Two weeks later Will again visited the village. This time he staggered the folks by taking his wife to Abe Horsley's store, and spending two hundred dollars in dry-goods and draperies for her. He flashed a "wad" of bills that dazzled the lay-preacher's eyes, and talked of buying a ranch and building himself a mansion on it.
Nor did he visit the saloon. He was sober, and looked the picture of health and cheerfulness. He talked freely of his strike and its possibilities. He swaggered and patronized his less fortunate fellow townsmen, until he had them all by the ears and set them tumbling over each other to get out after the gold.
He was followed and watched. Men shadowed his every movement in the hope of discovering his mine, but he was too clever for them. They kept his trail to the hills, but there he quickly lost them. He never took the same route twice, and, on one occasion, traveled for three days and nights, due north, before entering the foot-hills. He was as elusive as the very gold his pursuers sought.
One by one the would-be prospectors returned disappointed to the village, and again took up their various works, forced to the sorry consolation of listening to the tales of Will's wealth, and watching him occasionally run in to the village and scatter his money broadcast amongst the storekeepers.
Of all Barnriff Peter Blunt seemed the least disturbed. He went calmly on with his work, smiling gently whenever spoken to on the subject. And his reply was invariably the same.
"I'm not handling 'placer,'" he told Doc Crombie one day, when that strenuous person was endeavoring to "pump" him on the subject. "I allow 'placers' are easy, and make a big show. But my 'meat' is high grade ore that's going to work for years. His strike don't interest me a heap, except it proves there's gold in plenty around these parts."
Nor could he be drawn into further discussion in the matter.
Yet his interest was far greater than he admitted. He was puzzled, too. He could not quite make out how he had missed the signs of alluvial deposit. Both scientifically and practically he was a master of his hobby, in spite of local opinion. Yet he had missed this rich haul under his very nose. That was his interest as a gold miner. But there was another side to it, which occupied his thoughts even more. And it was an interest based on his knowledge of Will Henderson, and—various other things.
He was out at a temporary camp at one of his cuttings with Elia, who, since his first sojourn with the prospector, now frequently joined him in his work. They had just finished dinner, and Peter was smoking and resting. Elia was perched like a bird on an upturned box, watching his friend with cold, thoughtful eyes. Suddenly he blurted out an irrelevant remark.
"Folks has quit chasin' Will Henderson," he said.
Peter stared at him intently. He was becoming accustomed to the curious twists of the lad's warped mind, but he wondered what he was now driving at.
"He's too slim for 'em," Elia went on, gazing steadily into the fire. "He's slim, an'—bad. But he ain't as bad as me."
Peter smiled at the naive confession.
"You're talking foolishly," he said, in a tone his smile belied.
"Maybe I am. Say, I could track Will."
"I'm goin' to. But I'll need your help. See here, Peter, I'll need to get away from sis, an' if I get out without sayin', she'll set half the village lookin' to find me. If I'm with you, she won't. See?"
"But why do you want to track him?"
"'Cause he's bad—an' ain't got no 'strike.' He's on some crook's work. Maybe he's cattle duffin'. I mean to find out."
Peter's eyes grew cold and hard, and the boy watching him read what he saw with a certainty that was almost uncanny.
"You've been thinking that always, too," he said. "You don't believe in his strike, neither," he added triumphantly.
"I don't see why I shouldn't," replied Peter, guardedly.
"Yes, you do," the boy persisted. "It's because he's bad. Say, he's makin' Eve bad takin' that money he sends her. An' she don't know it."
"And supposing it's as you say—and you found out?"
"The boys 'ud hang him. And—and Eve would be quit of him."
"And you'd break her heart. She's your sister, and would sooner cut off her right hand than hurt you."
Elia laughed silently. There was a fiendishness in his manner that was absolutely repulsive.
"Guess you're wrong," he said decidedly. "It wouldn't break Eve's heart worth a cent. She don't care a cuss for him, since—since that night. Eve's a heap high-toned in her notions. He hit her. He nigh killed her. She ain't one to fergit easy." He laughed again. "I ken see clear through Eve. If Will was dead, in six months she'd marry agin. D'ye know who? Jim Thorpe. She's jest a fool gal. She's allus liked Jim a heap. That night's stickin' in her head. She ain't fergot Jim—nor you. Say, d'you know what she's doin'? When Will sends her money she sets it aside an' don't touch it. She don't buy things for herself. She hates it. She lives on her sewin'. That's Eve. I tell you she hates Will, same as I do, an' I'm—I'm glad."
Peter smiled incredulously. He didn't believe that the girl's love for her husband was dead. Possibly her attitude deceived the lad, as well it might. How could one of his years understand a matter of this sort? But he thought long before he replied to the venomous tirade. He knew he must stop the lad's intention. He felt that it was not for him to hunt Will down, even—even if he were a cattle-thief.
"Look here, laddie," he said at last, "I promised you all the gold I found in this place. I'm going to keep that promise, but you've got to do something for me. See? Now I'm not going to say you can't track Will if you've a notion to. But I do say this, if he's on the crook, and you find it out, you'll promise only to tell me and no one else. You leave Will to me. I'm not going to have you hanging your sister's husband. You've got to promise me, laddie, or you don't see the color of my gold. And don't you try to play me up, either, because I'll soon know if you are. Are you going to have that gold?"
The boy's face was obstinately set. Yet Peter realized that his cupidity was fighting with the viciousness of his twisted mind, and had no doubt of the outcome. The thought of seeing Will hang was a delirious joy to Elia. He saw the man he hated suffering, writhing in agony at the end of a rope, and dying by inches. It was hard to give it up. Yet the thought of Peter's gold—not the man himself, of whom, in his strange fashion, he was fond—was very sweet. Gold! It appealed to him, young as he was, as it might have appealed to a mind forty years older; the mind of a man beaten by poverty and embittered by a long life of hopeless struggle. Finally, as Peter expected, cupidity won the day, but not without a hot verbal protest.
"You're a fool man some ways, Peter," the boy at last declared in a snarling acquiescence. "What for d'you stop me? Gee, you've nothing to help him for. Say, I'd watch him die, I'd spit at him. I'd—I'd——" But his frenzy of evil joy made it impossible for him to find further words. He broke off, and, a moment later, went on coldly: "All right, I'll do as you say. Gee, but it makes me sick. Eh? No. I won't tell other folk. Nor Eve—but—but you're goin' to give me that gold, an' I'll be rich. Say, I'll be able to buy buggies, an' hosses, an' ranches, an' things? I'll be able to have plenty folks workin' for me? Gee! I'll make 'em work. I'll make 'em sick to death when I get that gold."
Peter rose abruptly to return to work. The boy's diseased mind nauseated him. His heart revolted with each fresh revelation of the terrible degeneracy that possessed the lad.
A WOMAN'S INSTINCT
The women of Barnriff were as keenly alive to the prevailing excitements as the men. Perhaps they were affected differently, but this was only natural. The village, with its doings, its gossip, was their life. The grinding monotony of household drudgery left them little margin for expansion. Their horizon possessed the narrowest limits in consequence. Nor could it be otherwise. Most of them lived in a state of straining two ends across an impossible gulf, and the process reduced them to a condition of pessimism which blinded them to matters beyond their narrow focus.
But just now the cloud had lifted for a moment and a flutter of excitement gave them an added interest in things, and relieved them from the burden of their usual topics. When they met now matters of housekeeping and babies, and their men-folk, were thrust aside for the fresher interests. And thus Pretty Wilkes, blustering out of Abe Horsley's emporium in a heat of indignation, found little sympathy for her grievance from Mrs. Rust and Jane Restless.
"Say, I'll give Carrie a word or two when I see her," she cried, viciously flourishing a roll of print in the faces of her friends. "If Abe isn't a money grubbing skinflint I just don't know nothin'. Look at that stuff. Do I know print? Do I know pea-shucks! He's been tryin' to sell me faded goods that never were anything else but faded, at twice the price they ever were, when they couldn't have been worth half of it if the color hadn't faded that never did, because there wasn't no decent color to fade. I'll——"
But the two women's attention was wandering. They were gazing across at Eve's house where Annie Gay was just disappearing through the doorway. Pretty saw her, too, and, in a moment, her anger merged into the general interest.
"Say, if that ain't the third time this mornin'," she exclaimed.
"Meanin' Annie?" inquired Mrs. Rust.
"Chasin' dollars," added Jane Restless, with a sniff.
Pretty laughed unpleasantly.
"Why not?" she asked, and promptly answered herself. "Guess her man's taught her. However, I don't blame her. Dollars are hard enough to come by in this place. Say, they tell me Eve's gettin' 'em in hundreds."
"Thousands," said Mrs. Rust, her eyes shining.
"Say, ain't she lucky?" exclaimed Jane. "I don't care who knows it. I envy her good an' plenty. Thousands! Gee!"
"I don't know she's to be envied a heap," said Mrs. Rust. "I 'lows all men has their faults, but Will Henderson ain't no sort of bokay of virtues. He's a drunken bum anyway."
"An' he knocks her about," added Pretty, with a snap.
"But he's pilin' up the dollars for her," Jane urged, still lost in serious contemplation of the fabulous sums her simple mind attributed to Eve's fortune.
But Pretty Wilkes had no sympathy with such excuses.
"Well, dollars or no dollars, I wouldn't change places with Eve for a lot. Guess there's some folk as would sell their souls for dollars," she said, eyeing Jane Restless severely. "But if dollars means having Will Henderson behind 'em, I'd rather get out an' do chores all my life."
"Guess you're right," acquiesced Mrs. Rust, thoughtfully. "Will's a whiskey souse an' poker playin' bum. What I sez is, give me a fool man like my Rust, who's no more sense than to beat hot iron, an' keep out o' my way when I've a big wash doin'."
"That's so," agreed Pretty. "An' if I'm any judge, that's just 'bout how pore Eve feels."
"Pore?" sniggered Jane.
"Yes, 'pore.'" Pretty's manner assumed its most pronounced austerity. "That gal ain't what she was, an'—an' I can't get the rights of it. What for does she keep right on with her needle, with all those dollars? She don't never laff now for sure. There's something on her mind, and it's my belief it's Will Henderson. Say, Kate Crombie told me that Eve never spent any o' those dollars, an' it was her belief she ain't never touched 'em. She says it's 'cause of him. She says it's 'cause she hates Will, has hated him ever since that time she fell agin the coal box. That was Will. Kate said so; and her man fixed Eve up. Say, he orter been lynched. An' if the men-folk won't do it, then we ought to. It makes my blood boil thinkin' of it. Pore Eve! I allus liked her. But she's fair lost her snap since she's got married. Guess it 'ud bin different if she'd married Jim Thorpe."
"I don't know," exclaimed Jane, with some antagonism. "I don't know. Jim Thorpe's a nice seemin' feller enough, someways, but——"
"But—what?" inquired Mrs. Rust, eagerly.
"Oh, nothin' much, on'y there's queer yarns goin' of that same Jim Thorpe. Restless was yarning with two of McLagan's boys, who are out huntin' the stolen cattle. Well, they got a yarn from one of the boys of the '[diamond] P.'s.' Course I don't know if it's right, but this feller seen a big bunch of cattle running where Jim keeps his stock. An' he swore positive they was re-branded with Jim's mark. You know, '[double star],' which, as he pointed out, was an elegant brand for covering up an original brand. Them boys, Restless said, was off to look up the stock."
Jane told her story with considerable significance, and, for the moment, her two friends were held silent. Then Pretty Wilkes gathered herself to protest.
"But—but Jim's McLagan's foreman. He don't need to."
"That's just it. Folks wouldn't suspect him easy."
The force of Jane's argument almost carried conviction. But the blacksmith's wife liked Jim, and could not let Jane carry off honors so easily.
"Jim ain't no cattle-thief," she said. "And," she hurried on, with truly feminine logic, "if he was he'd be cleverer than that. Mark me, Jim's too dead honest. Now, if it was Will Henderson——"
But the gossip was becoming too concentrated, and Pretty helped it into a fresh channel.
"Talkin' of Will Henderson," she said, "Kate Crombie told me the Doc's goin' to make him say where he gets his gold—in the interest of public prosperity. That's how she called it. That's why he ain't showed up in town for nigh three weeks. Guess he'll go on keepin' away."
"Doc's up again Will someways," said Jane.
"Most folks is," added Mrs. Rust.
"Doc's a bad one to get up against," observed Pretty. "If he's going to make Will talk, our men-folk 'll all get chasin' gold. I don't know, I'm sure. Seems to me a roast o' beef in the cook-stove's worth a whole bunch o' cattle that ain't yours. Well, I'll get on to home, an' get busy on the children's summer suitings—if you can call such stuff as Abe sells any sort o' suitings at all. Good-bye, girls."
She left the matrons and hurried away. A moment later Jane Restless went on to the butcher's, while Mrs. Rust pottered heavily along to Smallbones' store to obtain some iron bolts for her husband.
But these good women wronged Annie Gay when they hinted at time-serving to Eve on account of the money her husband was making. Her friendship for Eve was of much too long standing, and much too disinterested for it to be influenced by the other's sudden rise to prosperity. As a matter of fact it made her rejoice at the girl's sudden turn of fortune. She was cordially, unenviously glad of it.
She found Eve hard at work at her sewing-machine, in the midst of an accumulation of dress stuff, such as might well have appalled one unused to the business. But the busy rush of the machine, and the concentrated attitude of the sempstress, displayed neither confusion nor worry beyond the desire to complete that which she was at work on.
Eve glanced up quickly as Annie came in. She gave her a glance of welcome, and silently bent over her work again. Annie possessed herself of a chair and watched. She liked watching Eve at work. There was such a whole-hearted determination in her manner, such a businesslike directness and vigor.
But just now there was more to hold her interest. The girl was not looking well. Her sweet young face was looking drawn, and, as she had told her that very morning, she looked like a woman who had gone through all the trials of rearing a young family on insufficient means. Now she was here she meant to have it out with Eve. She was going to abandon her role of sympathetic onlooker. She was going to delve below the surface, and learn the reason of Eve's present unsmiling existence.
All this she thought while the busy machine rattled down the cloth seams of Jane Restless's new fall suit. The low bent head with its soft wavy hair held her earnest attention, the bending figure, so lissome, yet so frail as it swayed to the motion of the treadle. She watched and watched, waiting for the work to be finished, her heart aching for the woman whom she knew to be so unhappy.
How she would have begun her inquiries she did not know. Nor did she pause to think. It was no use. She knew Eve's proud, self-reliant disposition, and the possibilities of her resenting any intrusion upon her private affairs. But she was spared all trouble in this direction, for suddenly the object of her solicitude looked up, raised her needle, and drew the skirt away from the machine.
"Thank goodness that's done," she exclaimed. Then she leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms and eased her aching back. "Annie, I'm sick of it all. Sick to death. It's grind, grind, grind. No lightness, nothing but dark, uncheered work." She turned her eyes to the window with a look of sorrowful regret. "Look at the sunlight outside. It's mocking, laughing. Bidding us come out and gather fresh courage to go on, because it knows we can't. I mean, what is the use of it if we do go out? It is like salt water to the thirsty man. He feels the moisture he so needs, and then realizes the maddening parching which is a hundred times worse than his original state. Life's one long drear, and—and I sometimes wish it were all over and done with."
Annie's pretty eyes opened wide with astonishment. Here was the self-reliant Eve talking like the veriest weakling. But quick as thought she seized her opportunity.
"But, Eve, surely you of any folk has no right to get saying things. You, with your husband heapin' up the dollars. Why, my dear, you don't need to do all this. I mean this dressmakin'. You can set right out to do just those things you'd like to do, an' leave the rest for folks that has to do it."
She rose from her chair and came to her friend's side, and gently placed an arm about her shoulders.
"My dear," she went on kindly, "I came here now to talk straight to you. I didn't know how I was to begin for sure, but you've saved me the trouble. I've watched you grow thinner an' thinner. I've sure seen your poor cheeks fadin', an' your eyes gettin' darker and darker all round 'em. I've seen, too, and worst of all, you don't smile any now. You don't never jolly folks. You just look, look as though your grave was in sight, and—and you'd already give my man the contract. I——"
The girl's gentle, earnest, half-humorous manner brought a shadowy smile to Eve's eyes as she raised them to the healthy face beside her. And Annie felt shrewdly that she'd somehow struck the right note.
"Don't worry about me, Annie," she said. "I'm good for a few years yet." Then her eyes returned to the gloomy seriousness which seemed to be natural to them now. "I don't know, I s'pose I've got the miserables, or—or something. P'raps a dash of that sunlight would do me good. And—yet—I don't think so."
Suddenly she freed herself almost roughly from Annie's embracing arm and stood up. She faced the girl almost wildly, and leaned against the work-table. Her eyes grew hot with unshed tears. Her face suddenly took on a look of longing, of yearning. Her whole attitude was one of appeal. She was a woman who could no longer keep to herself the heart sickness she was suffering.
"Yes, yes, I am sick. It's not bodily though, sure, sure. Oh, sometimes I think my heart will break, only—only I suppose that's not possible," she added whimsically. "Ah, Annie, you've got a good man. You love him, and he loves you. No hardship would be a trouble to you, because you've got him. I haven't got my man, and," she added in a low voice, "I don't want him. That's it! Stare, child! Stare and stare. You're horrified—and so am I. But I don't want him. I don't! I don't! I don't! I hate him. I loathe him. Say it, Annie. You must think it. Every right-minded woman must think it. I'm awful. I'm wicked. I——!"
She broke off on the verge of hysteria and struggled for calmness. Annie sensibly kept silent, and presently the distracted woman recovered herself.
"I won't say anything like that again, dear. I mustn't, but—but I had to say it to some one. You don't know what it is to keep all that on your mind and not be able to tell any one. But it's out now, and I—I feel better, perhaps."
Annie came to her side and placed her arm about her waist. Her action was all sympathy.
"I came here to listen," she said kindly. "I knew there was things troublin'. You can tell me anything—or nothing. And, Eve, you'll sure get my meanin' when I say the good God gave me two eyes to use, an' sometimes to sleep with. Well, dear, I mostly sleep at nights."
Eve tried to smile, but it was a failure.
"You're a good woman, Annie, and—and I don't know how I'd have got on all this time without you. But sit you down and listen. I've begun now, and—and I must go on. Oh, I can't tell you quite why, but I want to tell it to somebody, and—and—I'll feel better. You said I don't need to do all this," she hurried on, pointing at the dressmaking. "I do. It's the only thing that keeps me from running away, and breaking my marriage vows altogether. Will's got no love for me, and I—my love for him died weeks ago. Maybe with those sharp eyes of yours you've seen it."
Annie nodded and Eve went on.
"I'm frightened, Annie, and—and I don't know why. Will's a different man, but it's not that. No," she added thoughtfully, "somehow I'm not frightened of him now. I—I hate him too much. But I'm frightened, and——"
She flung herself upon the worn settee, and lifted a pair of gloomy eyes to her friend's face. "I can never touch his money, nor the things he buys. I want nothing from him, either for Elia or myself. I'm married to him and that I can't undo. Would to God I could! But I can never take anything from the man I do not love, and my love for Will is dead—dead. No, Annie, I must go on working in my own way, and I only hope and pray my husband will keep away. Maybe he will. Maybe when he's made a big pile out of his—claim he will go away altogether, and leave me in peace with Elia. I'm hoping for it—praying for it. Oh, my dear, my dear, what a mistake I've made! You don't know. You can't guess."
There was a silence for some moments. Annie was thinking hard. Suddenly she put a sharp question.
"Tell me, Eve. This fear you was saying. How can you be frightened? What of?"
There was no mistaking the effect of her words. Eve's brown eyes suddenly dilated. She looked like a hunted woman. And Annie shrank at the sight of it.
"I don't know," she said with a shiver. "I—I can't describe it. It's to do with Will. It's to do with"—she glanced about her fearfully—"his money, his gold find. Don't question me, because I don't know why I'm afraid. I think I first got afraid through Elia. He's a queer lad—you don't know how queer he is at times. Well"—she swallowed as though with a dry throat—"well, from the first, when—when Will found gold Elia laughed. And—and every time we speak about it he laughs, and will say nothing. Oh, I wish I knew."
Annie's question came with a curious abruptness. Eve stared. And when she spoke it was almost to herself.
"I don't know what I want to know. Only I—I wish I knew."
Annie suddenly came over to her friend's side. She took her hands in hers and squeezed them sympathetically.
"Eve, I don't guess I've got anything to say that can help you. But whenever you want to talk things that'll relieve you, why, you can just talk all you like to me. But don't you talk of these things to any other folk. Sure, sure, girl, don't you do it. You can just trust me, 'cause I've got so bad a memory. Other folks hasn't. I'll be goin' now to get my man's dinner. Good-bye."
She bent over and kissed the girl's thin cheek with a hearty smack. But, as she left the house, there was a grave light such as was rarely, if ever, seen in her merry eyes.
There is no calm so peaceful, no peace so idyllic as that which is to be found on a Western ranch on a fine summer evening. Life at such a time and in such a place is at its smoothest, its almost Utopian perfection. The whole atmosphere is laden with a sense of good-fellowship between men and between beasts. The day's work is over, and men idle and smoke, awaiting the pleasures of an ample fare with appetites healthily sharp-set, and lounge contentedly, contemplating their coming evening's amusement with untroubled minds.
And the beasts which are their care. Fed to repletion on the succulent prairie grasses they know nothing but contentment. The shadow of the butcher's knife has no terrors for them. They live only for their day. And the evening, when their stomachs are full and repose is in sight, is the height of their contentment.
Then, too, Nature herself is at her gentlest. The fierce passion of heat has passed, the harsher winds have died down, the worrying insects are already seeking repose. There is nothing left to harry the human mind and temper. It is peace—perfect peace.
It was such an evening on the ranch of the "AZ's." All these conditions were prevailing, except that the mind of Dan McLagan, the owner, was disturbed. Six of his boys were out on the special duty of searching for stolen cattle. This was bad enough, but Dan was fretting and chafing at the unpleasant knowledge that the epidemic of cattle stealing was spreading all too quickly.
He was never a patient man. His Celtic nature still retained all its native irritability, and his foreman, Jim Thorpe, had ample demonstration of it. He had spent several uncomfortable half hours that day with his employer. He was responsible for the working of the ranch. It was his to see that everything ran smoothly, and though the depredations of cattle-thieves could hardly come under the heading of his responsibilities, yet no employer can resist the temptation of visiting his chagrin on the head of his most trusted servant.
The hue and cry had been in progress for several weeks, and as yet no result of a hopeful nature had been obtained. And, in consequence, at every opportunity Dan McLagan cursed forcibly into the patient ears of his foreman.
Now, Jim was enjoying a respite. Dan had retired to his house for supper, and he was waiting for his to be served. He was down at the corrals, leaning on the rails, watching the stolid milch cows nuzzling and devouring their evening hay. His humor was interested. They had eaten all day. They would probably eat until their silly eyes closed in sleep. He was not sure they wouldn't continue to chew their cud amidst their bovine dreams. Each cow was already balloon-like, but the inflation was still going on. And each beast was still ready to horn the others off in its greediness.
He thought, whimsically, that the humbler hog was not given a fair position in the ranks of gluttony. Surely the bovine was the "limit" in that basest of all passions. One cow held his attention more particularly than the others. She was small, and black and white, and her build suggested Brittany extraction. She ran a sort of free lance piracy all round the corral. Her sharp horns were busy whenever she saw a sister apparently enjoying herself too cordially. And in every case she drove the bigger beast out and seized upon her choicest morsel.
Nor could he help thinking how little was the difference between man and beast. It was only in its objective. The manner was much the same. Yes, and the very means employed created in him an impression favorable to the hapless quadruped. Surely their battle for existence was more honest, more natural.
His mood was pessimistic, even for a man who sees the traffic which is his keenest interest threatened by a marauding gang of land pirates. Maybe it was the wearing hours of McLagan's nagging that caused his mood. Maybe it was an inclination brought about by the long train of disappointments that had been his as he trod his one-way trail. Maybe, as the cynical might suggest, his liver was out of order. However, whether it was sheer pessimism, or even the shadow cast by approaching events, he felt it would be good when the evening was past, and he could forget things in the blessed unconsciousness of sleep.
But his meditations were suddenly disturbed. The ranch dogs started their inharmonious chorus, and experience taught him that there are only two things which will stir the lazy ranch dog to vocal protest; the advent of the disreputable sun-downer, and the run of driven cattle.
He quickly discovered, at sight of a thick rising dust to the westward of the ranch, that the present disturbance was not caused by any ragged "bum." Cattle were coming in to the yards, and it needed little imagination on his part to guess that some of the boys on special duty were running in lost stock.
His pessimism vanished in a moment, and in its place a keen enthusiasm stirred. If it were some of the lost stock then they would probably have news of the thieves. Maybe even they'd made a capture. He hurried at once in the direction of the approaching cattle. Nor was he alone in his desire to learn the news. Every man had left his supper at the bunk house to greet the newcomers.
The incoming herd was still some distance away, but the bunch was considerable judging by the cloud of dust. Jim found himself amongst a group of the boys, and each and all of them were striving to ascertain the identity of those who were in charge.
"Ther's two o' them, sure," exclaimed Barney Job, after a long scrutiny. "Leastways I ken make out two. The durned fog's that thick you couldn't get a glimpse o' Peddick's flamin' hair in it."
"Cut it out, Barney," cried the lantern-faced owner of the fiery red hair. "Anyways a sight o' my hair 'ud be more encouragin' than your ugly 'map.' Seems to me, bein' familiar with my hair 'll make the fires of hell, you'll likely see later, come easier to you when they git busy fumigatin' your carkis."
"Gee! that's an elegant word," cried Hoosier Pete, a stripling of youthful elderliness. "Guess you've bin spellin' out Gover'ment Reg'lations."
"Yep. San'tary ones. Barney's thinkin' o' gettin' scoured in a kettle o' hot water," said Peddick, with a laugh.
"Needs it," muttered a surly Kentuckian.
"Hey!" interrupted Barney, quite undisturbed by his comrades' remarks upon his necessity for careful ablutions. "Them's Joe Bloc an' Dutch Kemp. I'd git Dutch's beard anywher's. You couldn't get thro' it with a hay rake. Sure," he went on, shading his eyes, "that's them an' they're drivin' them forty three-year-olds that was pinched up at the back o' the northern spurs. Say——"
But he broke off, concentrating upon the oncoming cattle even more closely. Everybody was doing the same. Jim had also recognized the two cow-punchers. And he, like the rest, was wondering and speculating as to the news that was to be poured into their curious ears directly.
The cattle were running and it was evident the two boys were in a hurry for their supper, or to deliver their news. The waiting crowd cleared the way. And one of the boys, at Jim's order, hurried down to the corrals to receive them. He stood by, joined by several others, to head the beasts into their quarters.
They came with a rush of shuffling, plodding feet bellowing protest at the hurry, or welcome at sight of the piles of hay that one or two of the men were already pitching into the corral for their consumption. And in less than five minutes they were housed for the night.
Then it was that Jim greeted the two cow-punchers.
"The boss'll be pleased, boys. Glad to see you back, Dutchy, and you, too, Joe. Guess you'll have things to report so——"
The boys were out of their saddles and loosening their cinchas. They eyed him curiously without attempting to acknowledge his greeting. The rest of the men had gathered round. And now it was noticeable that while they pointedly ignored their foreman, the newcomers, equally markedly, exchanged friendly nods and grins with their colleagues. Just for a moment Jim wondered. Then annoyance added sharpness to his words. He was not accustomed to being treated in this cool fashion.
"You best come right up to my shack and report," he said. "You can get supper after. I'll need to know at once——"
"Best get a look at them beasties fust," said Joe, in a harsh tone, and with an unmistakable laugh.
"Yep," sniggered Dutchy, with an insolent look into Jim's face.
The studied insult of both the men was so apparent that all eyes were turned curiously upon the foreman. For Jim Thorpe was popular. More than popular. He was probably the best-liked man on the range. Then, too, Jim, in their experience, was never one to take things "lying down."
His dark, clear brows drew ominously together, and his eyes narrowed unpleasantly.
"Say, the sun's hurt you some, boys, hasn't it?" he asked sharply. Then he went on rapidly, his teeth clipping with each sentence: "See here, get right up to my shack. I'll take that report. And I don't need any talk about it. Get me?"
But though the men remained silent the insolence of their eyes answered him. Dutchy slung his saddle over his shoulder and stood while Joe picked up his belongings. And in those moments his eyes unflinchingly fixed his foreman, and a smile, an infuriating smile of contempt, slowly broke over his heavy Teutonic features.
It was too much for Jim. He pointed at his shack. "Hustle!" he cried.
But before the men had time to move away, two of the boys, who had elected to obey their comrade's suggestion, came running up from the corral.
"Say, boss," cried Barney, excitedly, "get a peek at their brands!"
Nor was there any mistaking the man's anxiety—even awe. There was a general rush for the corral. And by the time Jim reluctantly reached the fences he heard smothered exclamations on all sides of him. He came to the barred gateway and peered over at the cattle inside.
The first thing that caught his eye was the broadside of a big steer. On its shoulder was a brand, at which he stared first incredulously, but presently with horrified amazement. It was the familiar "[double star]." He looked at others. Everywhere he saw his own brand, "double-star twice," as it was popularly known, on cattle which he recognized at a glance as being some of his employer's finest half-bred Polled Angus stock.
His feelings at that moment were indescribable. Astonishment, incredulity, anger all battled for place, and the outcome of them all was a laugh at once mirthless and angry. He turned on the two men waiting with their shouldered saddles.
"I'll take your report—up at the shack." And he pointed at his hut, fifty yards away.
The men moved off obediently. And Jim, left to his own unpleasant thoughts, followed them up.
Half-way to the hut he was joined by McLagan. The Irishman had seen the cattle come in, and was anxious to learn the particulars. His manner, after his recent ill-humor, was almost jocular. He realized that these were cattle he had lost.
"Say, Jim, those boys have picked up a dandy bunch of the lost ones. How many?"
But the foreman's humor did not by any means fit in with his employer's.
"Didn't count 'em," he said shortly. "I'm just getting the boys' report. You best come along. It looks like being interesting." Just for a moment a half-smile lit his face.
Dan glanced at him out of the tail of his eyes and fell in beside him. His foreman's manner was new, and he wondered at it. However, Jim made no effort to open his lips again until they reached the hut.
When they came up the boys were waiting outside the door. Jim promptly led the way in, angrily conscious of the meaning looks which passed between them.
Once inside, and Dan had seated himself on the bed, Jim called the two men in.
"Come along in, boys," he cried, and his manner had become more usual. He understood their attitude now, and somehow he found himself sympathizing with their evident suspicions. After all, he had grown into a thorough cattleman. "Speak up, lads. Let's get the yarn. The boss wants to hear where you found those cattle of his—re-branded with my own brand."
McLagan sat up with a jerk.
His face was a study. But chiefly it expressed a belief that he was being laughed at. Jim looked squarely into his half-resentful eyes and nodded.
"Those cattle they've just brought in are branded with my brand. You know the brand. You helped me design it. '[double star].' And," he added whimsically, "it's a mighty fine one for obliterating original brands, now I come to study it."
But Dan turned sharply on the two men.
"Let's hear it," he said; and there was no pleasantness in his tone.
It was Joe Bloc who took the lead. Dutchy, though speaking the language of the West freely enough, had, in moments of involved explanation, still the Teutonic failing of involving the verb.
"You see, boss," said Joe, his eyes steadily fixed on the foreman's unflinching face, "we got the news in Barnriff. We'd been out for nigh four days, and we'd decided to ride in here to get fresh plugs. Ours wus good an' done, an' we'd set 'em in Doc Crombie's barn, an' had got over to the saloon for a feed."
But Dan's sarcasm had no effect.
"That's how, boss. Wal, right in the bar was one of the '[diamond] P' boys—one of old man Blundell's hands."
"He'd got a tidy yarn, sure, an' seein' we was your hands, an' his yarn was to do with your stock, he handed it to us with frills. He'd just got in from the hills, wher' he'd been trailin'. He said he'd run into Jim Thorpe's stock, tucked away in as nice a hollow of sweet grass as you'd find this side of Kentucky. Wal, he hadn't no suspicion, seein' whose beasties they were, an' he was for makin' back. He'd started, he said, when somethin' struck him. Y'see he guessed of a sudden it was a mighty big bunch for a ranch-foreman to be running, an' ther' was such a heap o' half-bred Polled Angus amongst 'em. Wal, seein' that kind was your specialty, he just guessed he'd ride round 'em an' git a peek at the brands. Say, as he said, the game was clear out at once. They'd every son-of-a-cow got '[double star].' on 'em, but nigh haf wus re-brands over an' blottin' out the old one. He got to work an' cut out an' roped one o' them half-breeds, an' hevin' threw him, got down an looked close. The original brand had been burned out, an' the '[double star]' whacked deep over it. That's just all, boss. We got out an' brought the bunch in—that is, them we knew belonged to the 'AZ's.'"
An ominous silence followed the finish of his story. The smile on Jim's face seemed to be frozen and meaningless. Dan was staring intently at his boots and flicking them with his quirt. Joe turned his head and exchanged a smile of meaning with Dutchy, and both men shifted into an easy pose, as much as to say, "Well, we've found the cattle duffer for you." The moments passed heavily, then suddenly Dan looked up. There was storm in his eyes. He had forgotten the cow-punchers.
"Well, what are you waitin' for?" he cried. "Get out!"
It was all the thanks the men got for the unctuously given story, and their hard work.
They vanished rapidly through the door, and hastened to air their grievance and repeat their story with added "frills" to ready ears at the bunk house.
Jim gazed through the doorway after them, and Dan furtively watched him for some silent moments.
"Well?" he said at last.
The tone of his inquiry was peculiar. There was no definite anger in it, nor was it a simple question. Yet it stung the man to whom it was addressed in a way that set his teeth gritting, and the blood running hot to his head.
"Well?" he retorted. And their eyes met with the defiance of men of big physical courage.
Dan was the first to avert his gaze, but it was only to hide that which lay behind in his thoughts. And when he spoke there was a harsh smile in his eyes.
"What ha' ye got to say t "—he jerked a thumb in the direction of the bunk house—"that feller's yarn?"
Jim's answer was unhesitating. He shrugged as he spoke.
"Guess there's no definite reason to doubt it. There are the cattle. They're all re-branded with my brand. I've seen 'em. The hand that did it was a prentice hand, though. That's the only thing. The veriest kid could detect the alteration."
"It's your brand." Dan's eyes were still averted.
"Sure it's my brand. There's no need for more than two eyes to see that."
McLagan's quirt again began to beat his boot-leg. Jim understood the temper lying behind that nervous movement. He felt sick.
"Wher' d'ye keep your brands?"
"There's one here and one up in the hills, in my little implement shack, where I run my cattle. I keep that there for convenience."
Jim was groping under the bed on which Dan was reclining. He heard the reply, but chose to ignore it.
But he knew by its tone that suspicion had been driven home in this cattleman's mind. He drew an iron out from amongst the litter under the bed, and held it up.
"That's the iron," he said. "It would be well to compare it on the brands. It is identical with the iron I keep up in the hills."
The men's eyes met again.
"Yes—for convenience." There was a sharpness in the foreman's acquiescence.
The Irishman's eyes grew hot. The whites began to get bloodshot.
"Seems to me it's fer you to see if that iron fits, an', if so—why?"
In spite of Dan's evident heat his tone was frigid, and its suggestion could no longer be ignored. Jim Thorpe, conscious of his innocence, was not the man to accept such innuendoes without protest. Suddenly his swift rising anger took hold of him, and the fiery protest which McLagan had intended to call forth broke out.
"Look here, McLagan," he cried, vainly trying to keep his tone cool, "I've been with you about four years. You know something of my history, and the folks I spring from. You know more than any one else of me. For four years I've worked for you in a way, as you, yourself, have been pleased to say in odd moments of generosity, in a way that few hired men generally work out here in the West. You've trusted me in consequence. And you've never found me shirking responsibilities, nor slacking. You've helped me get together a bunch of cattle with a view to becoming independent, and shown me in every way your confidence. You've even offered to lease me grazing. These latter things have not been without profit to you. That's as it should be. However, I just mention these things to point the rise in confidence which has grown up between us. You understand? Now the cattle stealing begins. These cattle are brought in here with my brands on. There is no doubt they are your steers. You listen to the story of the manner of their finding. You witness the cold suspicion of me which those two men possess. Those four years go for nothing. Your confidence won't stand the least strain. You do not accuse me straight out, but show me the suspicion with which you are contaminated in a manner unworthy of an honest man. I tell you it's rotten. It's—it's despicable. Do you think I'm going to sit down under this suspicion? It will be all over the countryside by to-morrow, and I—I shall be a branded man. I tell you I'm going to sift this matter to the bottom. But make no mistake. Not for your sake—nor for anybody else but myself. Those four years of hard honest work don't count with you. Well, they shan't count with me. I'll stay here with you so that I'm handy whenever wanted—you understand me, I suppose—'wanted.' But I'll thank you to let me pursue my investigations in the way I choose. Your work shan't suffer. If I don't lay my hands on the thief or thieves in a month's time, then write me down a wrong 'un. If I do round 'em up I'll at once take my leave of you, for I've no use for a man of your evident calibre."
He was standing when he finished speaking. His dark eyes said far more than his words, and the clenching hands at his sides conveyed a threat that Dan was quick to perceive. However he felt the other's words he gave no sign. And his attitude was once more disconcerting and puzzling to the furious Jim. He wanted one of those outbursts of Celtic passion he was used to; he wanted a chance to hand out unrestrained the fury that was working up to such a pitch inside him. But the opportunity was not given. Dan spoke coldly and quietly, a process which maddened the injured man.
"Words make elegant pictures," he said, "an' I hate pictures. See here, Jim Thorpe, you've ladled it out good an' plenty. Now I'm goin' to pass you a dipper o' hash. There's the cattle; there's your brands; there's wher' they was found. Three nuts that need crackin'. You guess you're goin' to crack them nuts. Wal, I'd say it's up to you. Crack 'em. An'—you needn't to stop here to do it. You can get right out an' do the crackin' where you like. An' when you've cracked 'em, an' you feel like it,—mind, I don't ask you to—you can come along and you'll find this shack still standin'. That, too, is up to you. Meanwhiles, Joe Bloc'll slep right here. Guess you'll be startin' out crackin' nuts to-morrow morning. There's just one thing I'd like to say before partin', Jim," he added, his frigidity thawing slightly. "I'm a cattleman first an' last. It's meat and drink an' pocket-money to me. My calibre don't cut any figure when there's cattle stealin' doing. As sure as St. Patrick got busy with the snakes, I'd help to hang the last cattle-rustler, an' dance on his face after he was dead—if he was my own brother. Think o' that, and maybe you'll understand things."
He rose from the bed and walked out of the hut without waiting for a reply.
For a full minute Jim stood staring after him through the doorway. Then his eyes came back to the branding-iron on the bed. He stared at it. Then he picked it up and mechanically examined the stars at the end of it. Suddenly he flung it out of sight under the bed where it had come from, and sat on the blankets with his face resting in his hands.
It was a hideous moment. He was dismissed—under suspicion. Suddenly he laughed. But the sound that came was high-pitched, strained, and had no semblance of a laugh in it. A moment and he sprang to his feet.
"By G—, he can't—he can't know what he's done!" he muttered, a new horror in his tone. "Sacked—'fired'—kicked out! he's branded me as surely—as surely as if he'd put the irons on me!"
APPROACHING THE TRIBUNAL
The sun was mounting royally in the eastern sky. There was not a breath of air to temper the rapidly heating atmosphere. The green grassland rolled away on every hand, a fascinating, limitless plain whose monotony drives men to deep-throated curses, and yet holds them to its bosom as surely as might a well-loved mistress. It was a morning when the heart of man should be stirred with the joy of life, when lungs expand with deep draughts of the earth's purest air, when the full, rich blood circulates with strong, virile pulsations, and the power to do tingles in every nerve.
It was no day on which a man, branded with the worst crime known to a cattle country, should set out to face his fellow men. There should have been darkening clouds on every horizon. There should have been distant growlings of thunder, and every now and then the heavens should have been "rent in twain with appalling floods of cruel light," to match the hopeless gloom of outraged innocence.
But the glorious summer day was there to mock, as is the way of things in a world where the struggles and disasters of humanity must be counted so infinitesimal.
This was the morning when Jim Thorpe turned his stiffly squared back upon the "AZ" ranch. He wanted no melodramatic accompaniment. He wanted the light, he wanted the cheering sun, he wanted that wealth of natural splendor, which the Western prairie can so amply afford, to lighten the burden which had so suddenly fallen upon him.
It was another of Fate's little tricks that had been aimed at him, another side of that unfortunate destiny which seemed to be ever dogging him. Well might he have cried out, "How long? How long?" Whatever the fates had done for him in the past, whatever his disappointments, whatever his disasters, crime had found no place in the accusations against him. It almost seemed as though his destiny was working its heartless pranks upon him with ever-growing devilishness.
With subtle foresight, and knowledge of its victim it timed its efforts carefully, and directed them on a course that could hurt his spirit most. Even when his inclinations, his sensibilities were at their highest pitch, down came the bolt with unerring aim, and surely in the very direction which, at the moment, could drive him the hardest, could bow his head the lowest.
Four years in the cattle world had ingrained in him the instincts of a traffic which possesses a wholesome appeal to all that is most manly in men. Four years had taught him to abhor crime against that traffic in a way that was almost as fanatical as it was in such men as McLagan and those actually bred to it. He was no exception. He had caught the fever; and the cattleman's fever is not easily shaken off. As McLagan would show no mercy to his own brother were he a proven cattle-thief, so Jim loathed the crime in little less degree. And he was about to face the world, his world, branded with that crime.
It was a terrible thought, a hideous thought, and, in spite of his squared shoulders, his stiffened back, his spirit, for the time, was crushed under the burden so unjustly thrust upon him. He thought of Peter Blunt, and wondered vaguely what he would say. He wondered what would be the look in the kindly gray eyes when he spoke the words of comfort and disbelief which he knew would await him. That was it. The look. It was the thought behind the words that mattered—and could so hurt.
As the miles swept away under his horse's raking stride, he tried to puzzle out the riddle, or the "nut" he had set out to crack, as McLagan had been pleased to call it. He could see no explanation of it. Why his brand? He knew well enough that cattle rustlers preferred to use established brands of distant ranches when it was necessary to hold stolen cattle in hiding before deporting them from the district. But his brand. It was absurd from a rustler's point of view. Everybody knew his small bunch of cattle. Any excessive number with his brand on would excite suspicion. It was surely, as he had said, the work of a prentice hand. No experienced thief would have done it.
He thought and thought, but he could see no gleam of light on the matter.
As the miles were covered he still floundered in a maze of speculation that seemed to lead him nowhither. But his efforts helped him unconsciously. It kept his mind from brooding on the disaster to himself, and, to a man of his sensibilities, this was healthy. He had all the grit to face his fellow men in self-defense, but, to his proud nature, it was difficult to stand up under the knowledge of a disgrace which was not his due.
He was within a few miles of Barnriff when his mind suddenly lurched into a fresh channel of thought. With that roving, groping after a clue to the crime of which he was morally accused, Eve suddenly grew into his focus. He thought with a shudder what it would have meant to her had she married him instead of Will. He tried to picture her brave face, while she writhed under the taunts of her sex, and the meaning glances of the men-folk. It was a terrible picture, and one that brought beads of perspiration to his brow.
It was a lucky—yes, in spite of Will's defections—thing for her she had married the man she did. Besides, Will had mended his ways. He had kept to the judgment that Peter Blunt had passed on him. Well, he would have the laugh now.
Then there was Will's success. Everything had gone his way. Fortune had showered her best on him, whether he deserved it or not. She apparently found no fault in him. And they said he was turning out thousands of dollars. But there, it was no use thinking and wondering. The luck had all gone Will's way. It was hard—devilish hard.
Poor Eve! He caught himself pitying her. No, he had no right to pity her. The pity would have been had she married him. And yet—perhaps this would never have happened had she married him. No, he told himself, it would never, could never have happened then. For, in the fact of having won her, would not his luck have been the reverse of what it was?
Suddenly he wondered what she would think when he told her—or when others told her, as, doubtless by this time, they had already done. He shuddered. She was in a cattle country. She was ingrained with all its instincts. Would she condemn him without a hearing? When he went to speak to her, would she turn from him as from something unclean? Again the sweat broke out at his thought. She might. The facts were deadly against him. And yet—and yet somehow—— No, he dared not speculate; he must wait.
There was the humble little village on ahead of him, nestling like some tiny boat amidst the vast rollers of the prairie ocean. There, ahead, were his judges, and amongst them the woman who was still more to him than his very life. He must face them, face them all. And when their verdict was pronounced, as he knew it would be in no uncertain manner, then, with girded loins, he must stand out, and, conscious of his innocence, fight the great battle. It was the world—his world—against him, he knew. What—what must be the result?
Half an hour later Jim rode into Barnriff. It was getting on toward noon, and most of the villagers were busy at their various occupations. As he rode on to the market-place he glanced quickly about him, and, all unconsciously, there was defiance and resentment in his dark eyes; the look of a man prepared for the accusations which he knew were awaiting him. But this attitude was quite wasted, for there were few people about, and those few were either too far off, or too busy to note his coming, or appreciate his feelings, as expressed in his dark eyes.
It is strange how instinct will so often take the lead in moments critical in the lives of human beings. Jim had no thought of whither his immediate destination lay, yet he was riding straight for the house of the friendly gold prospector. Doubtless his action was due to a subconscious realization of a friendliness and trust on the part of Peter, which was not to be overborne by the first breath of suspicion.
He was within fifty yards of that friendly, open door, when he became aware that a woman's figure was standing before it. Her back was turned, and she looked to be either peering within the hut, or talking to some one inside it. Nor, strangely enough, did he recognize the trim outline of her figure until she abruptly turned away and moved off in the direction of her own house. It was Eve Henderson. And, without hesitation, he swung his horse in her direction.
She saw him at once and, smiling a welcome, waited for him to come up. He saw the smile and the unhesitating way she stepped forward to greet him. There could have been no doubt of her cordiality, even eagerness, yet with the shadow of his disgrace hanging over him, he tried to look beyond it for that something which he was ready to resent even in her.
He saw the shadow on her face, which even her smile had no power to lift out of its troubled lines. He saw dark shadows round her eyes, the tremulous, drooping mouth, once so buoyant and happy, and he selfishly took these signs to himself, and moodily felt that she was trying vainly to conceal her real thoughts of him behind a display of loyalty.
There was no verbal greeting between them, and he felt this to be a further ominous sign. Somehow, he could not force himself to an ordinary greeting under the circumstances. She had doubtless heard the story, so—— But he was quite wrong. Eve was simply wondering at his coming. Wondering what it portended. She had truly enough heard the story of the recovery of the cattle, as who in Barnriff had not? But her wonder and nervousness were not for him, but for herself. It was for herself, and had to do with that fear she had told Annie Gay of, and which now had become a sort of waking nightmare to her.
Jim sprang from the saddle. Linking his arm through the reins, he stood facing the woman he loved. "Well?" he said, in a curious, half-defiant manner, while his glance swept over every detail of her pretty, troubled face. Finally it settled upon the slight scar over her temple, and a less selfish feeling took possession of him. The change in her expression suddenly told him its own story. Her eyes were the eyes of suffering, not of any condemnation of himself.
"I—I've just been over to see if Peter was in," she said hesitatingly.
"Peter? Oh, yes—and, wasn't he?"
Jim was suddenly seized with a feeling of awkwardness such as he had never before felt when talking to Eve.
The girl shook her head and began to move in the direction of her house. He fell in beside her, and, for a moment, neither spoke. Finally she went on.
"No," she said regretfully. "And I sure wanted to see him so badly. You see," she added hastily, "Elia is away. He's been away for days, and, well, I want to know where he is. I get so anxious when he's away. You see, he's so——"
"And does Peter know where he is?"
"Yes. At least I'm hoping so. Elia goes with him a deal now, on his expeditions. Peter's real good to him. I think he's trying to help him in—in—you know Elia is so—so delicate."
The girl's evident reluctance to put into words her well-loved brother's weaknesses roused all Jim's sympathy.
"Yes, yes. And is he supposed to be with Peter now?"
"He went away with him four days ago."
Then there was another awkward pause. Again Eve was the one to break it. They were nearing the gate of her little garden.
"But what has brought you into town, Jim?" she suddenly asked, as though his presence had only just occurred to her as being unusual.
With a rush the memory of all his disgrace came upon him again. He laughed bitterly, harshly.
"Another of Dame Fortune's kicks," he said.
"Yes—ah, I forgot. Of course. Well, we'll call it one of Dame Fortune's kicks."
"You mean the—cattle stealing?" She was staring straight ahead of her, and into her eyes had leaped a sudden look of fear which she dared not let him see.
But Jim was too busy with himself to even notice her hesitation. He had no room to realize her emotions just then.
"Yes," he said, almost viciously. "It's about that—I s'pose I ought to say 'because' of that." She glanced at him swiftly, but waited for him to go on. He did so with another nervous laugh. "I'm 'fired,' Eve. Kicked out by Dan McLagan, and branded by him as a suspected cattle-thief, as surely—as surely as they've found a bunch of his cattle branded with my brand."
They had reached the gate, and Eve turned facing him. There was a curious look in her eyes. It was almost one of relief. Yet it was not quite. There was something else in it. There was incredulity, resentment; something which suggested a whole world of trust and confidence in the man before her.
"Nonsense," she cried. "You—you accused of cattle stealing? You? He must be mad. They must all be mad."
The girl suddenly flushed. She had said more than she intended. But there was no use drawing back.
"Oh, yes," she cried hotly. "I didn't mean to let you know. I've heard the story. Of course I have. Who, living in such a place as Barnriff, wouldn't hear it?" she hurried on bitterly. "Directly they told me I laughed at them. But—but they do suspect you. Oh, Jim, I think I hate these folks. You—you suspected of cattle-duffing. McLagan ought to be ashamed of himself. It's cruel in such a country as this. And the evidence is so ridiculous. Oh, Jim, if it weren't so horrible it would be almost—almost laughable."
"Thanks, Eve. And that—is really what you feel?"
She looked him in the face with wide, wondering eyes.
"Why, of course it is."
The man smiled ever so slightly. He felt better. A few more loyal friends like this and his position would be considerably easier.
"But they are all branded with my '[double star]'s," he went on doubtfully.
"And what of it? It's a blind. It's to put folks off the real track. I——" She broke off, and her eyelids were suddenly lowered to hide the fear with which her own words again inspired her. As she did not continue Jim seized his opportunity to pour out something of what he felt at her unquestioning loyalty.
"Eve," he cried, his eyes lighting with the love he was powerless to keep altogether under. "You don't know what all your words mean to me. You don't know how glad they make me feel. Do you know, when I was riding up to you just now I was looking for a sign of suspicion in your eyes? If I'd seen it—if I'd seen it, I can't tell you what it would have meant to me. I almost thought I did see it, but now I know I was wrong. There's just about two folks for whose opinion I care in this village, you and Peter. Well, now I feel I can face the rest. For the present I'm an unconvicted cattle rustler to them. There's not much difference between that and a rawhide rope with them. But there's just a bit of difference, and to that bit I'm going to hold good and tight."
Eve's face suddenly went an ashy gray.
"But, Jim, they'd never—never hang you." Her voice was low. There was a thrill of horror in it which made the man's heart glow. He felt that her horror was for his safety, and not for the fact of the hanging. Then the feeling swiftly passed. He remembered in time that she was the wife of another.
"They would," he said decidedly. "They'd hang me, or anybody else, with very little more proof than they've already got. You don't realize what cattle-duffing means to these folks. It's worse than murder. But," he went on, struggling to lighten his manner, "they're not going to hang me, if I know it. It's up to me to run this rustler to earth. I'm going to. That's what I'm out for. After I'd made up my mind to hunt the devil down McLagan informed me, not in so many words, of course, that to do so was the only way to convince folks of my innocence—himself included. So I'm going to hunt him down, if it takes months, and costs me my last cent. And when I find him"—his eyes lit with a terrible purpose—"may God have mercy on his soul, for I won't."
But the girl had no response for him. Her enthusiastic belief in his innocence found no further expression. When he pronounced his determination her eyes were wide and staring, and as he ceased speaking she turned them toward the distant hills, lest he should witness the terror she could no longer hide. A shudder passed over her slight figure. She was struggling with herself, with that haunting fear that was ever dogging her. The thought of the rawhide rope had set it shuddering through her nerve centres afresh in a way that bathed her in a cold perspiration.
For a moment she stood battling thus. Then, in the midst of the struggle something came upon her, and her heart seemed to stand still. It was as though a flash of mental light had illumined her clouded horizon. Realization swept in upon her, a full terrible realization of the source of her fear.
It was to do with this cattle stealing. Yes, she knew it now. She knew more. She knew who the cattle-rustler was, for whom Jim was to stand the blame. She needed no words to tell her. She had no evidence. She needed none. Her woman's instinct served her, as though she had witnessed his acts. It was Will. It was—her husband.
And, all unconsciously, for so long this had been her fear. She remembered now so many things. She remembered his cynical laugh when he told her of his gold find, and how easy it was to work. She remembered her lack of confidence in his story—knowing the man as she did. She remembered her repugnance at the sight of the money he had spent on her, and how she could never bring herself to touch that which he sent to her. She had believed then that her reasons were personal. That it was because it came from him, the man who had struck her down, and left her to die at his hands, for all he cared; the man whose brutality had so quickly killed her love; the man whom she had long since admitted to herself that she detested, despised. No, she needed no further evidence. It was her woman's instinct that guided and convinced her.
She shuddered. She was chilled under a blazing sun that had no power to warm her. But her terror was not for Will. It was for herself. For the hideousness of the disgrace to which he had brought her. In fancy she saw him food for carrion at the end of a rope; she saw his body swaying to the night breeze, an ominous, hideous shadow, a warning to all of the fate awaiting those who sinned against the unwritten laws of the cattle world. She heard the pitying tones of the village women, she saw their furtive side glances, heard their whispering comments as they passed her, these women whom she had always lived amongst, whom she had always counted as friends. Oh, the horror of it all, and she was utterly—utterly powerless. Worse, she must strive her utmost to shield Will. And, because he was her husband, she must leave Jim to fight his own battle with her added wits pitted against him.
She remembered Jim's words. "May God have mercy on his soul, for I won't." Jim—Jim was to be Will's Nemesis—her Nemesis. He must be the man who would drive the sword crashing her to the dust beneath the weight of her husband's crime.
A despairing hope swept her. Ah, no, no. It could not be. That would be too cruel. No, no, she must be wrong. Will was not guilty. He could not be. This thing could surely never come upon her. What had she ever done to deserve it? What——? She thought of the man before her. What had he ever done to deserve his fate? And suddenly the momentary hope slid from under her feet.
Now her thought and terror found expression against her will. It would not be denied. It showed in her shrinking attitude. It was displayed in her horrified eyes. And Jim saw these things and read them in his own way. He deemed that he had shocked her by his words, nor could he clearly understand that the force of his determination to defend himself should so shock her. However, he promptly strove to lighten the impression he had made.
"Don't let us speak of these things. Let us think and speak of other matters. You see," he went on whimsically, "you were the first person I met, and I s'pose it was only natural you should get all the burden of—of my nightmare."
But Eve could not rid herself of her terror. She felt she must talk of this thing.
"No," she said with an effort to keep calm, "we must talk of it. We must think—think——"
"There is no need for you to think, Eve. Put it out of your head. I shall run him to earth——"
"But, Jim," she broke out, his words driving her to fresh terror, "it must be some half-breeds. Or—or—some 'toughs' from across the border. It must be. We are very near the Canadian border, remember. They're always being driven across by the Mounted Police."
"No, it's some one in the locality. Some one nobody would suspect. You see, there have been no strangers in the district for months."
"How do you know?" Eve's startled inquiry came almost defiantly.
If the man noticed her tone he gave no sign. He shook his head decidedly.
"We've had the district hunted, scoured thoroughly, sure." Then he shrugged. "But it don't matter. Psha! I'd sooner it was some half-breed or tough. I'd—I'd be less sorry for him." He paused and gazed tenderly into her troubled face. "But you don't need to be so shocked. Why?" he inquired. "This thing can't hurt you."
The girl jumped at the chance of denial.
"No, no, of course not," she exclaimed eagerly. Then, with a pitiful effort at subterfuge, "But you, Jim. To think that you are blamed."
In an instant his love was uppermost again. Her distress, whatever its cause, appealed to all that was best and manliest in him. Just now he took it to himself. And, in consequence, he found it hard to keep himself within the bounds of restraint. She was so sweet, so desirable in the pathetic picture she made.
"Never you worry, Eve," he said, with infinite gentleness. "This is up to me, and—I'm going to see it through. But here, I'm so full of my own troubles I'm forgetting all the good things coming your way. Say, I'm mighty glad of your luck. Will's claim is a bonanza, I'm told. I hear wonderful accounts of it—and of him." Then his voice lowered and his calm eyes darkened. "He has straightened up, hasn't he? It's a great thing. You'll be happier—now. You—you won't need my help—I mean for him. They tell me he's hit the right trail, and is busy traveling it." He sighed. "I'm glad, real glad—for you."
But curiously enough his sympathy met with no response. On the contrary, Eve seemed to freeze up. Every word he uttered lashed her until she felt she must blurt out to him the thing she believed to be the truth. But even in her agony of heart and mind she remembered what she conceived to be her duty, and, in self-defense, assumed a cold unresponsiveness.
"They say he'll be a way up millionaire," Jim went on, so busy with his own thoughts that he did not notice her silence. "Gee, and so easy, too. It's queer how fortune runs. Some folks work like—like Dagos, and get—mud. Others have gold poured over 'em, whether they work or not. But he must have worked to find it. Yes, sure. And having found it you can't blame him for not letting folks into the secret—eh?"
But Eve had not spoken. It was only a look, and an inarticulate sound. But it was a look of such abject terror that it could no longer escape the man's thoughtful eyes. Eve had betrayed herself in her very dread lest he should suspect. His reference to Will's secret had suggested suspicion to her, and the rest was the result of her innate honesty and simplicity.
Jim stared at her. And slowly a curious look crept into his eyes. Her terror was so evident, and—he thought back over the words that had inspired it. He was talking of Will—of Will's secret. For the moment he stood dumbfounded at that which flashed through his mind. Then he turned slowly, and mechanically threw the reins over his horse's neck.
When he looked round again Eve was still staring at him. Her terror was, if possible, intensified. Suddenly a great pity for her rose up in his heart. All his love was stirred to the almost limitless depths of his big heart. How he loved this woman! How he longed to take her to his heart, and shelter her from all the cruel buffeting of a harsh life! How he would fight for her, strive for her, work for her—and now? He thought of the brand that had fallen upon him, and he thought of that something which her sudden terrified glance had stirred in his unsuspicious mind.
"Guess I'll get on to the saloon, as Peter isn't in his hut," he said, in a quiet, unmeaning tone. "I'll see if I can locate Elia for you." He paused, and then swung into the saddle. Glancing down at her, he leaned forward and spoke earnestly. "Eve," he said, "it still stands good: the old order. When you need me—for anything, mind—you've only got to send me word. Wherever I am I'll come." He straightened up. He saw the girl make an effort to swallow, and glanced away to give her a chance to recover her composure. As he did so he saw a number of women and some men scattered about at the doorways of various houses. He promptly turned to the girl.
"Gee!" he cried, with a slightly forced laugh. "The vultures are around. They're looking for scandal, and, by the signs, I'd say they guess they've found it. To a man—or woman—they're staring this way. Say, I'll get going. Good-bye—and don't forget."
He rode off. Eve had not spoken. She knew that he knew, and she was overwhelmed at the knowledge. She slowly turned to the house, and with weary steps passed up the narrow pathway.
And Jim? The moment his face was turned from her his smile died out, leaving it stern and hard.
THE VIGILANCE COMMITTEE
Silas Rocket's saloon was more than usually desirable just now. There was so much news of an exciting nature going about. Of course, fertile invention was brought to bear in its purveyance, but that only made it the more exciting.
On the morning that brought Jim Thorpe into Barnriff many of the men of the village were partaking of a general hash up of the overnight dish of news, to which was added the delectable condiment of Jim's sudden advent in their midst. From the windows of the saloon his movements were closely watched, as, also, were they from many of the village houses. Speculation was rife. Curious eyes and bitter thoughts were in full play, while his meeting with Eve Henderson was sufficiently significant to the scandalous minds of the more virtuous women and the coarser men.
The saloon rang with a discordant blending of curses aimed at the head of the unconscious visitor, and ribald jests at the expense of the absent gold discoverer.
For the moment Anthony Smallbones had the floor. It was a position he never failed to enjoy. He loved publicity. And, in his secret mind, he firmly believed that, but for the presence of Doc Crombie in the village, he would undoubtedly have held place and power, and have been dictating the destiny of the village. Thus it was that, just now, a considerable measure of his spleen was aimed at the absent doctor.
"It's clear as day. That's sure. Doc Crombie's hangin' back," he was saying, in his curiously mean, high-pitched voice. "It ain't for me to say he ain't got grit. No, folks. But it's easy to guess for why he hangs back." He blinked truculently into the faces gathered about him, mutely daring anybody else to state that reason. But few cared to discuss the redoubtable doctor, so he was permitted to continue. "Doc's a sight too friendly disposed toward sech a skunk as Jim Thorpe. We've clear enough proof that feller is a cattle-rustler. We've the evidence of our eyes, sure. There's the cattle; ther's his brand—and—running with his own stock, hidden away up in the foot-hills. Do we need more? Psha! No. At least no one with any savvee. I've see fellers strung up on less evidence than that, an' I've bin on the——"
"Rope?" inquired Gay, sarcastically.
"Not the rope, mister. Not the rope, but the committee as condemned 'em," retorted Smallbones, angrily.
"Wuss!" exclaimed the baker with profound contempt.
"Eh?" snarled the little man with an evil upward glance at the other.
"Jest this," cried Wilkes with heat. "The feller that hangs his feller man on slim evidence is a lousy, yaller skunk. Say he'd orter hev his belly tarred, an' a sky-rocket turned loose in his vitals. I sez right here the evidence against Jim ain't 'nuff to condemn a gopher. It's positive ridiculous. Wot needs provin' is, who set that brand on McLagan's cattle? That's the question I'm astin'."
"Psha! You make me sick!" cried Smallbones, his ferret-eyes dancing with rage. "Put your question. An' when you put it, who's got to get busy answerin'? I tell you it's up to Jim Thorpe to prove he didn't brand 'em. If he can't do that satisfact'ry, then he's got to swing."
But he had a divided audience. Gay shook his head, and two others audibly disagreed with his methods. But, in spite of this, the weight of opinion against Jim might easily have been carried had not the carpenter suddenly swept the last chance clear from under Smallbones' feet.
"Wal," cried the furious Jake, with such swift heat that even those who knew him best were staggered, "I'd sooner call a cattle-rustler friend than claim friendship, with such a low-down bum as Anthony Smallbones. Say, you scrap-iron niggler," he cried, advancing threateningly upon his victim. "I'll tell you something that ain't likely leaked in that sieve head o' yours. Cattle-rustlers is mostly men. Mebbe they're low-down, murderin' pirates, but they're men—as us folks understands men. They ain't allus skunkin' behind Bible trac's 'cos they're scairt to git out in the open. They're allus ready to put up a gamble, with their lives for the pot. An' when they gits it I guess they're sure ready to take their med'cine wi'out squealin'. Which needs grit an' nerve. Two things I don't guess Anthony Smallbones has ever heerd tell of outside a dime fiction. No, sir, I guess you got a foul, psalm-singin' tongue, but you ain't got no grit. Say," he added witheringly, "I'd hate to see such a miser'ble spectacle as you goin' to a man's death. I'd git sick feelin' sore I belonged to the human race. Nope, you couldn't never be a man. Say, you ain't even a—louse."
The laugh that followed ruined Smallbones' last chance of influencing the public mind. He spluttered and shouted furiously, but no one would listen. And, in the midst of his discomfiture, a diversion was created by the entrance of a small man with a round, cheery face and bad feet. He was a freighter. He walked to the bar, called for a drink, and inquired where Mrs. Henderson lived. It was his inquiry that made him the centre of interest at once.
"Mrs. Henderson?" said Silas, as he set the whiskey before his customer. "Guess that's her shanty yonder." And he pointed through the window nearest him. "Freight?" he inquired casually, after the little man had taken his bearings.
Rocket's astonishment was reflected in all the faces now crowding round.
"Yep." Then the freighter perceived the interest he had created, and promptly became expansive. "From the AEolian Musical Corporation, Highfield, Californy. To order of William Henderson, shipped to wife of same, Barnriff, Montana. Kind o' musical around these parts?"
"Wal, we're comin' on—comin' on nicely," observed Silas, winking at his friends gathered round.
Gay nodded, and proceeded to support him.
"Y'see, most of our leddies has got higher than 'cordions an' sech things. Though I 'lows a concertina takes a beatin'. Still, education has got loose on Barnriff, an' I heerd tell as ther's some o' the folks yearnin' fer piannys. I did hear one of our leadin' citizens, Mr. Anthony Smallbones, was about to finance a brass band layout."
"Ther' ain't nuthin' to beat a slap-up band," agreed the freighter politely. "But these yer harmoniums, they're kind o' cussed, some. Guess my ma had one some years back, but she traded it off fer a new cook-stove, with a line o' Chicago bacon thrown in. I won't say but she had the best o' the deal, too. Y'see that ther' harmonium had its drawbacks. You never could gamble if it had a cold in the head or a mortal pain in its vitals. It wus kind o' passionate in some of its keys, and wep' an' sniveled like a spanked kid in others. Then it would yep like a hound if you happened to push the wrong button, an' groan to beat the band if you didn't. Nope. They're cur'us things if they ain't treat right, an' I guess my ma hadn't got the knack o' pullin' them bolts right. Y'see she'd been trained hoein' kebbeges on a farm in her early years, an' I guess ther' ain't nothin' more calc'lated to fix a woman queer fer the doin's o' perlite sassiety than hoein' kebbeges. Guess I'll get right on."
He paid for his drink, and, followed by the whole company, hobbled out to his wagon. He was a queer figure, but, at the moment, his defects were forgotten in the interest created by his mission to Barnriff.
What prosperity the possession of a harmonium suggested to those men might have been judged by the attitude they took up the moment they were outside. They crowded round the wagon and gazed at the baize-covered instrument, caged within its protecting crate. They reached out and felt it through the baize; they peeked in through the gaping covering, and a hushed awe prevailed, until, with a cheery wave of the hand, the teamster drove off in the direction of Eve's house.
Then the chorus of comment broke out.
"Gee!" exclaimed Wilkes. "A—a harmonium!" Then, overpowered by his emotion, he remained silent.
"Psha! Makes me sick!" cried Smallbones. "My sister in Iowa has got a fiddle; an' I know she plays five toons on it—I've heerd her. She's got a mouth organ, too, an' a musical-box—electric! One 'ud think nobody had got nuthin' but Will Henderson." He strode back to the bar in dudgeon, filled to the brim with malicious envy.
Others took quite a different tone.
"It's walnut," said Restless, his professional instincts fully alert.
"Yep," agreed Gay, "burr!"
"An' it's got pipes," cried Rust, impressively. "I see 'em sure, stickin' up under its wrappin'."
"Most likely imitation," suggested Gay, with commercial wisdom. "Y'see them things needs fakin' up to please the eye. If they please the eye, they ain't like to hit the ear-drums so bad. Wimmin is cur'us that aways."
"Mebbe," agreed Rust, bowing to the butcher's superior knowledge. "But I guess it must 'a' cost a heap o' dollars. Say, Will must 'a' got it rich. I'd like to savvee wher'," he added, with a sigh, as they thoughtfully returned to the bar.
But nobody paid any attention to the blacksmith's regrets. They were all too busy with their own. There was not a man amongst them but had been duly impressed by the arrival of the harmonium. Gay, who was prosperous, felt that a musical instrument was not altogether beyond his means. In fact, then and there he got the idea of his wife learning to play a couple of funeral hymns, so he'd be able to charge more for interments, and, at the same time, make them more artistic.
Restless, too, was mildly envious. But being a carpenter, he got no further in his admiration of Will's wealth than the fact that he could decorate his home with burr walnut. He had always believed he had done well for himself in possessing a second-hand mahogany bureau, and an ash bedstead, but, after all, these were mere necessities, and their glory faded before burr walnut.
Rust, being a mere blacksmith, considered the wood but little, while the pipes fairly dazzled him. Henderson with a pipe organ! That was the wonder. He had only the vaguest notion of the cost, but, somewhere in the back of his head, he had a shadowy idea that such things ran into thousands of dollars.
A sort of depression crowded down the bar-room after the arrival of the harmonium. Nobody seemed inclined to drink, and talk was somehow impossible. Nor was it until Smallbones suddenly started, and gleefully pointed at the window, and informed the company that Jim Thorpe and Eve had parted at last at the gate of her cabbage patch, and that he was coming across to the saloon, that the gloom vanished, and a rapidly rising excitement took its place. All eyes were at once turned upon the window, and Smallbones again tasted the sweets of public prominence.
"Say," he cried, "he's comin' right here. The nerve of it. I 'lows it's up to us to get busy. I say he's a cattle-thief, an'——"
But Jake turned on him furiously.
"Shut your ugly face," he cried, "or—or I'll break it."
The baker's threat was effective. Smallbones relapsed into moody silence, his beady eyes watching with the others the coming of the horseman. As Jim drew near they backed from the window. But they lost nothing of his movements. They watched him hitch his horse to the tying-post. They watched him thoughtfully loosen his cinchas. They saw that he had a roll of blankets at the cantle of his saddle, and saddle-bags at its sides. They saw, also, that he was armed liberally. A pair of guns on his saddle, and one attached to the cartridge belt about his hips. Each mind was speculating, and each mind was puzzled at the man's apparent unconcern.
A moment later the swing doors parted, and Jim strode in. His dark eyes flashed a swift glance about the dingy interior. He noted the familiar faces, and very evident attitudes of unconcern. He knew at once that his coming had been witnessed, and that, in all probability, he had been well discussed. He was in no mood to mince matters, and intended to test the public feeling at once. With a cheery "Howdy," which included everybody, he walked to the bar.
"Guess we'll all drink, Silas," he said cheerily, and laid a five-dollar bill on the counter.
But, for once in his life, the saloon-keeper felt it would be necessary to ask his customers what they would drink. This he did, while Jim turned to Jake and the butcher, who happened to be standing nearest to him.
"I've quit the 'AZ's,'" he said, with a light laugh. "Or p'r'aps I'd best say McLagan's quit me. Say, I'm out on the war-path, chasing cattle-rustlers," he went on, with a smile. "That bunch of cattle coming in with my brand on 'em has set my name stinking some with Mac, and I guess it's up to me to—disinfect it. Eh?"