"No, I won't tell anybody—and I'd advise you not to," Lone repeated grimly. "Just keep those thoughts outa your head, Swan. They're bad medicine."
He mounted John Doe and rode away, his eyes downcast, his quirt slapping absently the weeds along the trail. It was not his business, and yet—— Lone shook himself together and put John Doe into a lope. He had warned Swan, and he could do no more.
Halfway to the Quirt he met Lorraine riding along the trail. She would have passed him with no sign of recognition, but Lone lifted his hat and stopped. Lorraine looked at him, rode on a few steps and turned. "Did you wish to speak about something?" she asked impersonally.
Lone felt the flush in his cheeks, which angered him to the point of speaking curtly. "Yes. I found your purse where you dropped it that night you were lost. I was bringing it over to you. My name's Morgan. I'm the man that found you and took you in to the ranch."
"Oh." Lorraine looked at him steadily. "You're the one they call Loney?"
"When they're feeling good toward me. I'm Lone Morgan. I went back to find your grip—you said you left it under a bush, but the world's plumb full of bushes. I found your purse, though."
"Thank you so much. I must have been an awful nuisance, but I was so scared—and things were terribly mixed in my mind. I didn't even have sense enough to tell you what ranch I was trying to find, did I? So you took me to the wrong one, and I was a week there before I found it out. And then they were perfectly lovely about it and brought me—home." She turned the purse over and over in her hands, looking at it without much interest. She seemed in no hurry to ride on, which gave Lone courage.
"There's something I'd like to say," he began, groping for words that would make his meaning plain without telling too much. "I hope you won't mind my telling you. You were kinda out of your head when I found you, and you said something about seeing a man shot and——"
"Oh!" Lorraine looked up at him, looked through him, he thought, with those brilliant eyes of hers. "Then I did tell——"
"I just wanted to say," Lone interrupted her, "that I knew all the time it was just a nightmare. I never mentioned it to anybody, and you'll forget all about it, I hope. You didn't tell any one else, did you?"
He looked up at her again and found her studying him curiously. "You're not the man I saw," she said, as if she were satisfying herself on that point. "I've wondered since—but I was sure, too, that I had seen it. Why mustn't I tell any one?"
Lone did not reply at once. The girl's eyes were disconcertingly direct, her voice and her manner disturbed him with their judicial calmness, so at variance with the wildness he remembered.
"Well, it's hard to explain," he said at last. "You're strange to this country, and you don't know all the ins and outs of—things. It wouldn't do any good to you or anybody else, and it might do a lot of harm." His eyes nicked her face with a wistful glance. "You don't know me—I really haven't got any right to ask or expect you to trust me. But I wish you would, to the extent of forgetting that you saw—or thought you saw—anything that night in Rock City."
Lorraine shivered and covered her eyes swiftly with one hand. His words had brought back too sharply that scene. But she shook off the emotion and faced him again.
"I saw a man murdered," she cried. "I wasn't sure afterwards; sometimes I thought I had dreamed it. But I was sure I saw it. I saw the horse go by, running—and you want me to keep still about that? What harm could it do to tell? Perhaps it's true—perhaps I did see it all. I might think you were trying to cover up something—only, you're not the man I saw—or thought I saw."
"No, of course I'm not. You dreamed the whole thing, and the way you talked to me was so wild, folks would say you're crazy if they heard you tell it. You're a stranger here, Miss Hunter, and—your father is not as popular in this country as he might be. He's got enemies that would be glad of the chance to stir up trouble for him. You—just dreamed all that. I'm asking you to forget a bad dream, that's all, and not go telling it to other folks."
For some time Lorraine did not answer. The horses conversed with sundry nose-rubbings, nibbled idly at convenient brush tips, and wondered no doubt why their riders were so silent. Lone tried to think of some stronger argument, some appeal that would reach the girl without frightening her or causing her to distrust him. But he did not know what more he could say without telling her what must not be told.
"Just how would it make trouble for my father?" Lorraine asked at last. "I can't believe you'd ask me to help cover up a crime, but it seems hard to believe that a nightmare would cause any great commotion. And why is my father unpopular?"
"Well, you don't know this country," Lone parried inexpertly. "It's all right in some ways, and in some ways it could be a lot improved. Folks haven't got much to talk about. They go around gabbling their heads off about every little thing, and adding onto it until you can't recognize your own remarks after they've been peddled for a week. You've maybe seen places like that."
"Oh, yes." Lorraine's eyes lighted with a smile. "Take a movie studio, for instance."
"Yes. Well, you being a stranger, you would get all the worst of it. I just thought I'd tell you; I'd hate to see you misunderstood by folks around here. I—I feel kinda responsible for you; I'm the one that found you."
Lorraine's eyes twinkled. "Well, I'm glad to know one person in the country who doesn't gabble his head off. You haven't answered any of my questions, and you've made me feel as if you'd found a dangerous, wild woman that morning. It isn't very flattering, but I think you're honest, anyway."
Lone smiled for the first time, and she found his smile pleasant. "I'm no angel," he disclaimed modestly, "and most folks think I could be improved on a whole lot. But I'm honest in one way. I'm thinking about what's best for you, this time."
"I'm terribly grateful," Lorraine laughed. "I shall take great care not to go all around the country telling people my dreams. I can see that it wouldn't make me awfully popular." Then she sobered. "Mr. Morgan, that was a horrible kind of—nightmare. Why, even last night I woke up shivering, just imagining it all over again."
"It was sure horrible the way you talked about it," Lone assured her. "It's because you were sick, I reckon. I wish you'd tell me as close as you can where you left that grip of yours. You said it was under a bush where a rabbit was sitting. I'd like to find the grip—but I'm afraid that rabbit has done moved!"
"Oh, Mr. Warfield and I found it, thank you. The rabbit had moved, but I sort of remembered how the road had looked along there, and we hunted until we discovered the place. Dad has driven in after my other luggage to-day—and I believe I must be getting home. I was only out for a little ride."
She thanked him again for the trouble he had taken and rode away. Lone turned off the trail and, picking his way around rough outcroppings of rock, and across unexpected little gullies, headed straight for the ford across Granite Creek and home. Brit Hunter's girl, he was thinking, was even nicer than he had pictured her. And that she could believe in the nightmare was a vast relief.
THE MAN AT WHISPER
Brit Hunter finished washing the breakfast dishes and put a stick of wood into the broken old cook-stove that had served him and Frank for fifteen years and was feeling its age. Lorraine's breakfast was in the oven, keeping warm. Brit looked in, tested the heat with his gnarled hand to make sure that the sour-dough biscuits would not be dried to crusts, and closed the door upon them and the bacon and fried potatoes. Frank Johnson had the horses saddled and it was time to go, yet Brit lingered, uneasily conscious that his habitation was lacking in many things which a beautiful young woman might consider absolute necessities. He had seen in Lorraine's eyes, as they glanced here and there about the grimy walls, a certain disparagement of her surroundings. The look had made him wince, though he could not quite decide what it was that displeased her. Maybe she wanted lace curtains, or something.
He set the four chairs in a row against the wall, swept up the bits of bark and ashes beside the stove, made sure that the water bucket was standing full on its bench beside the door, sent another critical glance around the room, and tiptoed over to the dish cupboard and let down the flowered calico curtain that had been looped up over a nail for convenience. The sun sent a bright, wide bar of yellow light across the room to rest on the shelf behind the stove where stood the salt can, the soda, the teapot, a box of matches and two pepper cans, one empty and the other full. Brit always meant to throw out that empty pepper can and always neglected to do so. Just now he remembered picking up the empty one and shaking it over the potatoes futilely and then changing it for the full one. But he did not take it away; in the wilderness one learns to save useless things in the faint hope that some day they may become useful. The shelves were cluttered with fit companions to that empty pepper can. Brit thought that he would have "cleaned out" had he known that Lorraine was coming. Since she was here, it scarcely seemed worth while.
He walked on his boot-toes to the door of the second room of the cabin, listened there for a minute, heard no sound and took a tablet and pencil off another shelf littered with useless things. The note which he wrote painstakingly, lest she might think him lacking in education, he laid upon the table beside Lorraine's plate; then went out, closing the door behind him as quietly as a squeaking door can be made to close.
Lorraine, in the other room, heard the squeak and sat up. Her wrist watch, on the chair beside her bed, said that it was fifteen minutes past six, which she considered an unearthly hour for rising. She pulled up the covers and tried to sleep again. The day would be long enough, at best. There was nothing to do, unless she took that queer old horse with withers like the breastbone of a lean Christmas turkey and hips that reminded her of the little roofs over dormer windows, and went for a ride. And if she did that, there was nowhere to go and nothing to do when she arrived there.
In a very few days Lorraine had exhausted the sights of Quirt Creek and vicinity. If she rode south she would eventually come to the top of a hill whence she could look down upon further stretches of barrenness. If she rode east she would come eventually to the road along which she had walked from Echo, Idaho. Lorraine had had enough of that road. If she went north she would—well, she would not meet Mr. Lone Morgan again, for she had tried it twice, and had turned back because there seemed no end to the trail twisting through the sage and rocks. West she had not gone, but she had no doubt that it would be the same dreary monotony of dull gray landscape.
Monotony of landscape was one thing which Lorraine could not endure, unless it had a foreground of riders hurtling here and there, and of perspiring men around a camera tripod. At the Sawtooth ranch, after she was able to be up, she had seen cowboys, but they had lacked the dash and the picturesque costuming of the West she knew. They were mostly commonplace young men, jogging past the house on horseback, or loitering down by the corrals. They had offered absolutely no interest or "color" to the place, and the owner's son, Bob Warfield, had driven her over to the Quirt in a Ford and had seemed exactly like any other big, good-looking young man who thought well of himself. Lorraine was not susceptible to mere good looks, three years with the "movies" having disillusioned her quite thoroughly. Too many young men of Bob Warfield's general type had attempted to make love to her—lightly and not too well—for Lorraine to be greatly impressed.
She yawned, looked at her watch again, found that she had spent exactly six minutes in meditating upon her immediate surroundings, and fell to wondering why it was that the real West was so terribly commonplace. Why, yesterday she had been brought to such a pass of sheer loneliness that she had actually been driven to reading an old horse-doctor book! She had learned the symptoms of epizooetic—whatever that was—and poll-evil and stringhalt, and had gone from that to making a shopping tour through a Montgomery Ward catalogue. There was nothing else in the house to read, except a half dozen old copies of the Boise News.
There was nothing to do, nothing to see, no one to talk to. Her dad and the big, heavy-set man whom he called Frank, seemed uncomfortably aware of their deficiencies and were pitiably anxious to make her feel welcome,—and failed. They called her "Raine." The other two men did not call her anything at all. They were both sandy-complexioned and they both chewed tobacco quite noticeably, and when they sat down in their shirt sleeves to eat, Lorraine had seen irregular humps in their hip pockets which must be six-guns; though why they should carry them in their pockets instead of in holster belts buckled properly around their bodies and sagging savagely down at one side and swinging ferociously when they walked, Lorraine could not imagine. They did not wear chaps, either, and their spurs were just spurs, without so much as a silver concho anywhere. Cowboys in overalls and blue gingham shirts and faded old coats whose lapels lay in wrinkles and whose pockets were torn down at the corners! If Lorraine had not been positive that this was actually a cattle ranch in Idaho, she never would have believed that they were anything but day laborers.
"It's a comedy part for the cattle-queen's daughter," she admitted, putting out a hand to stroke the lean, gray cat that jumped upon her bed from the open window. "Ket, it's a scream! I'll take my West before the camera, thank you; or I would, if I hadn't jumped right into the middle of this trick West before I knew what I was doing. Ket, what do you do to pass away the time? I don't see how you can have the nerve to live in an empty space like this and purr!"
She got up then, looked into the kitchen and saw the paper on the table. This was new and vaguely promised some sort of break in the deadly monotony which she saw stretching endlessly before her. Carrying the nameless cat in her arms, Lorraine went in her bare feet across the grimy, bare floor to the table and picked up the note. It read simply:
"Your brekfast is in the oven we wont be back till dark maby. Don't leave the ranch today. Yr loveing father."
Lorraine hugged the cat so violently that she choked off a purr in the middle. "'Don't leave the ranch to-day!' Ket, I believe it's going to be dangerous or something, after all."
She dressed quickly and went outside into the sunlight, the cat at her heels, the thrill of that one command filling the gray monotone of the hills with wonderful possibilities of adventure. Her father had made no objection before when she went for a ride. He had merely instructed her to keep to the trails, and if she didn't know the way home, to let the reins lie loose on Yellowjacket's neck and he would bring her to the gate.
Yellowjacket's instinct for direction had not been working that day, however. Lorraine had no sooner left the ranch out of sight behind her than she pretended that she was lost. Yellowjacket had thereupon walked a few rods farther and stopped, patiently indifferent to the location of his oats box. Lorraine had waited until his head began to droop lower and lower, and his switching at flies had become purely automatic. Yellowjacket was going to sleep without making any effort to find the way home. But since Lorraine had not told her father anything about it, his injunction could not have anything to do with the unreliability of the horse.
"Now," she said to the cat, "if three or four bandits would appear on the ridge, over there, and come tearing down into the immediate foreground, jump the gate and surround the house, I'd know this was the real thing. They'd want to make me tell where dad kept his gold or whatever it was they wanted, and they'd have me tied to a chair—and then, cut to Lone Morgan (that's a perfectly wonderful name for the lead!) hearing shots and coming on a dead run to the rescue." She picked up the cat and walked slowly down the hard-trodden path to the stable. "But there aren't any bandits, and dad hasn't any gold or anything else worth stealing—Ket, if dad isn't a miser, he's poor! And Lone Morgan is merely ashamed of the way I talked to him, and afraid I'll queer myself with the neighbors. No Western lead that I ever saw would act like that. Why, he didn't even want to ride home with me, that day.
"And Bob Warfield and his Ford are incidents of the past, and not one soul at the Sawtooth seems to give a darn whether I'm in the country or out of it. Soon as they found out where I belonged, they brought me over here and dropped me and forgot all about me. And that, I suppose, is what they call in fiction the Western spirit!
"Dad looked exactly as if he'd opened the door to a book agent when I came. He—he tolerates my presence, Ket! And Frank Johnson's pipe smells to high heaven, and I hate him in the house and 'the boys'—hmhm! The boys—Ket, it would be terribly funny, if I didn't have to stay here."
She had reached the corral and stood balancing the cat on a warped top rail, staring disconsolately at Yellowjacket, who stood in a far corner switching at flies and shamelessly displaying all the angularity of his bones under a yellowish hide with roughened hair that was shedding dreadfully, as Lorraine had discovered to her dismay when she removed her green corduroy skirt after riding him. Yellowjacket's lower lip sagged with senility or lack of spirit, Lorraine could not tell which.
"You look like the frontispiece in that horse-doctor book," she remarked, eyeing him with disfavor. "I can't say that comedy hide you've got improves your appearance. You'd be better peeled, I believe."
She heard a chuckle behind her and turned quickly, palm up to shield her eyes from the straight, bright rays of the sun. Now here was a live man, after all, with his hat tilted down over his forehead, a cigarette in one hand and his reins in the other, looking at her and smiling.
"Why don't you peel him, just on a chance?" His smile broadened to a grin, but when Lorraine continued to look at him with a neutral expression in her eyes, he threw away his cigarette and abandoned with it his free-and-easy manner.
"You're Miss Hunter, aren't you? I rode over to see your father. Thought I'd find him somewhere around the corral, maybe."
"You won't, because he's gone for the day. No, I don't know where."
"I—see. Is Mr. Johnson anywhere about?"
"No, I don't believe any one is anywhere about. They were all gone when I got up, a little while ago." Then, remembering that she did not know this man, and that she was a long way from neighbors, she added, "If you'll leave a message I can tell dad when he comes home."
"No-o—I'll ride over to-morrow or next day. I'm the man at Whisper. You can tell him I called, and that I'll call again."
Still he did not go, and Lorraine waited. Some instinct warned her that the man had not yet stated his real reason for coming, and she wondered a little what it could be. He seemed to be watching her covertly, yet she failed to catch any telltale admiration for her in his scrutiny. She decided that his forehead was too narrow to please her, and that his eyes were too close together, and that the lines around his mouth were cruel lines and gave the lie to his smile, which was pleasant enough if you just looked at the smile and paid no attention to anything else in his face.
"You had quite an experience getting out here, they tell me," he observed carelessly; too carelessly, thought Lorraine, who was well schooled in the circumlocutions of delinquent tenants, agents of various sorts and those who crave small gossip of their neighbors. "Heard you were lost up in Rock City all night."
Lorraine looked up at him, startled. "I caught a terrible cold," she said, laughing nervously. "I'm not used to the climate," she added guardedly.
The man fumbled in his pocket and produced smoking material. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked perfunctorily.
"Why, no. It doesn't concern me in the slightest degree." Why, she thought confusedly, must she always be reminded of that horrible place of rocks? What was it to this man where she had been lost?
"You must of got there about the time the storm broke," the man hazarded after a silence. "It's sure a bad place in a thunderstorm. Them rocks draw lightning. Pretty bad, wasn't it?"
"Lightning is always bad, isn't it?" Lorraine tried to hold her voice steady. "I don't know much about it. We don't have thunderstorms to amount to anything, in Los Angeles. It sometimes does thunder there in the winter, but it is very mild."
With hands that trembled she picked the cat off the rail and started toward the house. "I'll tell dad what you said," she told him, glancing back over her shoulder. When she saw that he had turned his horse and was frankly following her to the house, her heart jumped wildly into her throat,—judging by the feel of it.
"I'm plumb out of matches. I wonder if you can let me have some," he said, still speaking too carelessly to reassure her. "So you stuck it out in Rock City all through that storm! That's more than what I'd want to do."
She did not answer that, but once on the doorstep Lorraine turned and faced him. Quite suddenly it came to her—the knowledge of why she did not like this man. She stared at him, her eyes wide and bright.
"Your hat's brown!" she exclaimed unguardedly. "I—I saw a man with a brown hat——"
He laughed suddenly. "If you stay around here long you'll see a good many," he said, taking off his hat and turning it on his hand before her. "This here hat I traded for yesterday. I had a gray one, but it didn't suit me. Too narrow in the brim. Brown hats are getting to be the style. If I can borrow half a dozen matches, Miss Hunter, I'll be going."
Lorraine looked at him again doubtfully and went after the matches. He thanked her, smiling down at her quizzically. "A man can get along without lots of things, but he's plumb lost without matches. You've maybe saved my life, Miss Hunter, if you only knew it."
She watched him as he rode away, opening the gate and letting himself through without dismounting. He disappeared finally around a small spur of the hill, and Lorraine found her knees trembling under her.
"Ket, you're an awful fool," she exclaimed fiercely. "Why did you let me give myself away to that man? I—I believe he was the man. And if I really did see him, it wasn't my imagination at all. He saw me there, perhaps. Ket, I'm scared! I'm not going to stay on this ranch all alone. I'm going to saddle the family skeleton, and I'm going to ride till dark. There's something queer about that man from Whisper. I'm afraid of him."
After awhile, when she had finished her breakfast and was putting up a lunch, Lorraine picked up the nameless gray cat and holding its head between her slim fingers, looked at it steadily. "Ket, you're the humanest thing I've seen since I left home," she said wistfully. "I hate a country where horrible things happen under the surface and the top is just gray and quiet and so dull it makes you want to scream. Lone Morgan lied to me. He lied—he lied!" She hugged the cat impulsively and rubbed her cheek absently against it, so that it began purring immediately.
"Ket—I'm afraid of that man at Whisper!" she breathed miserably against its fur.
"IT TAKES NERVE JUST TO HANG ON"
Brit was smoking his pipe after supper and staring at nothing, though his face was turned toward the closed door. Lorraine had washed the dishes and was tidying the room and looking at her father now and then in a troubled, questioning way of which Brit was quite oblivious.
"Dad," she said abruptly, "who is the man at Whisper?"
Brit turned his eyes slowly to her face as if he had not grasped her meaning and was waiting for her to repeat the question. It was evident that his thoughts had pulled away from something that meant a good deal to him.
"A man came this morning, and said he was the man at Whisper, and that he would come again to see you."
Brit took his pipe from his mouth, looked at it and crowded down the tobacco with a forefinger. "He seen me ride away from the ranch, this morning," he said. "He was coming down the Whisper trail as I was taking the fork over to Sugar Spring, Frank and me. What did he say he wanted to see me about?"
"He didn't say. He asked for you and Frank." Lorraine sat down and folded her arms on the oilcloth-covered table. "Dad, what is Whisper?"
"Whisper's a camp up against a cliff, over west of here. It belongs to the Sawtooth. Is that all he said? Just that he wanted to see me?"
"He—talked a little," Lorraine admitted, her eyebrows pulled down. "If he saw you leave, I shouldn't think he'd come here and ask for you."
"He knowed I was gone," Brit stated briefly.
With a finger nail Lorraine traced the ugly, brown pattern on the oilcloth. It was not easy to talk to this silent man who was her father, but she had done a great deal of thinking during that long, empty day, and she had reached the point where she was afraid not to speak.
"What do you want, Raine?"
"Dad, was—has any one around here died, lately?"
"Died? Nobody but Fred Thurman, over here on Granite. He was drug with a horse and killed."
Lorraine caught her breath, saw Brit looking at her curiously and moved closer to him. She wanted to be near somebody just then, and after all, Brit was her father, and his silence was not the inertia of a dull mind, she knew. He seemed bottled-up, somehow, and bitter. She caught his hand and held it, feeling its roughness between her two soft palms.
"Dad, I've got to tell you. I feel trapped, somehow. Did his horse have a white face, dad?"
"Yes, he's a blaze-faced roan. Why?" Brit moved uncomfortably, but he did not take his hand away from her. "What do you know about it, Raine?"
"I saw a man shoot Fred Thurman and push his foot through the stirrup. And, dad, I believe it was that man at Whisper. The one I saw had on a brown hat, and this man wears a brown hat—and I was advised not to tell any one I had been at that place they call Rock City, when the storm came. Dad, would an innocent man—one that didn't have anything to do with a crime—would he try to cover it up afterwards?"
Brit's hand shook when he removed the pipe from his mouth and laid it on the table. His face had turned gray while Lorraine watched him fearfully. He laid his hand on her shoulder, pressing down hard—and at last his eyes met her big, searching ones.
"If he wanted to live—in this country—he'd have to. Leastways, he'd have to keep his mouth shut," he said grimly.
"And he'd try to shut the mouths of others——"
"If he cared anything about them, he would. You ain't told anybody what you saw, have yuh?"
Lorraine hid her face against his arm. "Just Lone Morgan, and he thought I was crazy and imagined it. That was in the morning, when he found me. And he—he wanted me to go on thinking it was just a nightmare—that I'd imagined the whole thing. And I did, for awhile. But this man at Whisper tried to find out where I was that night——"
Brit pulled abruptly away from her, got up and opened the door. He stood there for a time, looking out into the gloom of early nightfall. He seemed to be listening, Lorraine thought. When he came back to her his voice was lower, his manner intangibly furtive.
"You didn't tell him anything, did you?" he asked, as if there had been no pause in their talk.
"No—I made him believe I wasn't there. Or I tried to. And dad! As I was going to cross that creek just before you come to Rock City, two men came along on horseback, and I hid before they saw me. They stopped to water their horses, and they were talking. They said something about the TJ had been here a long time, but they would get theirs, and it was like sitting into a poker game with a nickel. They said the little ones aren't big enough to fight the Sawtooth, and they'd carry lead under their hides if they didn't leave. Dad, isn't your brand the TJ? That's what it looks like on Yellowjacket."
Brit did not answer, and when Lorraine was sure that he did not mean to do so, she asked another question. "Dad, why didn't you want me to leave the ranch to-day? I was nervous after that man was here, and I did go."
"I didn't want you riding around the country unless I knew where you went," Brit said. "My brand is the TJ up-and-down. We never call it just the TJ."
"Oh," said Lorraine, relieved. "They weren't talking about you, then. But dad—it's horrible! We simply can't let that murder go and not do anything. Because I know that man was shot. I heard the shot fired, and I saw him start to fall off his horse. And the next flash of lightning I saw——"
"Look here, Raine. I don't want you talking about what you saw. I don't want you thinkin' about it. What's the use? Thurman's dead and buried. The cor'ner come and held an inquest, and the jury agreed it was an accident. I was on the jury. The sheriff's took charge of his property. You couldn't prove what you saw, even if you was to try." He looked at her very much as Lone Morgan had looked at her. His next words were very nearly what Lone Morgan had said, Lorraine remembered. "You don't know this country like I know it. Folks live in it mainly because they don't go around blatting everything they see and hear and think."
"You have laws, don't you, dad? You spoke about the sheriff——"
"The sheriff!" Brit laughed harshly. "Yes, we got a sheriff, and we got a jail, and a judge—all the makin's of law. But we ain't got one thing that goes with it, and that's justice. You'd best make up your mind like the cor'ner's jury done, that Fred Thurman was drug to death by his horse. That's all that'll ever be proved, and if you can't prove nothing else you better keep your mouth shut."
Lorraine sprang up and stood facing her father, every nerve taut with protest. "You don't mean to tell me, dad, that you and Frank Johnson and Lone Morgan and—everybody in the country are cowards, do you?"
Brit looked at her patiently. "No," he said in the tone of acknowledged defeat, "we ain't cowards, Raine. A man ain't a coward when he stands with his hands over his head. Most generally it's because some one's got the drop on 'im."
Lorraine would not accept that. "You think so, because you don't fight," she cried hotly. "No one is holding a gun at your head. Dad! I thought Westerners never quit. It's fight to the finish, always. Why, I've seen one man fight a whole outfit and win. He couldn't be beaten because he wouldn't give up. Why——"
Brit gave her a tolerant glance. "Where'd you see all that, Raine?" He moved to the table picked up his pipe and knocked out the ashes on the stove hearth. His movements were those of an aging man,—yet Brit Hunter was not old, as age is reckoned.
"Well—in stories—but it was reasonable and logical and possible, just the same. If you use your brains you can outwit them, and if you have any nerve——"
Brit made a sound somewhat like a snort. "These days, when politics is played by the big fellows, and the law is used to make money for 'em, it takes nerve just to hang on," he said. "Nobody but a dang fool would fight." Slow anger grew within him. He turned upon Lorraine almost fiercely. "D'yuh think me and Frank could fight the Sawtooth and get anything out of it but a coffin apiece, maybe?" he demanded harshly. "Don't the Sawtooth own this country? Warfield's got the sheriff in his pocket, and the cor'ner, and the judge, and the stock inspector—he's Senator Warfield, and what he wants he gets. He gets it through the law that you was talking about a little while ago. What you goin' to do about it? If I had the money and the land and the political pull he's got, mebby I'd have me a sheriff and a judge, too.
"Fred Thurman tried to fight the Sawtooth over a water right he owned and they wanted. They had the case runnin' in court till they like to of took the last dollar he had. He got bull-headed. That water right meant the hull ranch—everything he owned. You can't run a ranch without water. And when he'd took the case up and up till it got to the Supreme Court, and he stood some show of winnin' out—he had an accident. He was drug to death by his horse."
Brit stooped and opened the stove door, seeking a live coal; found none and turned again to Lorraine, shaking his pipe at her for emphasis.
"We try to prove Fred was murdered, and what's the result? Something happens: to me, mebby, or Frank, or both of us. And you can't say, 'Here, I know the Sawtooth had a hand in that.' You got to prove it! And when you've proved it," he added bitterly, "you got to have officers that'll carry out the law instead of using it to hog-tie yuh."
His futile, dull anger surged up again. "You call us cowards because we don't git up on our hind legs and fight the Sawtooth. A lot you know about courage! You've read stories, and you've saw moving pictures, and you think that's the West—that's the way they do it. One man hold off a hunderd with his gun—and on the other hand, a hunderd men, mebby, ridin' hell-whoopin' after one. You think that's it—that's the way they do it. Hunh!" He lifted the lid of the stove, spat into it as if he were spitting in the face of an enemy, and turned again to Lorraine.
"What you seen—what you say you seen—that was done at night when there wasn't no audience. All the fighting the Sawtooth does is done under cover. You won't see none of it—they ain't such fools. And what us small fellers do, we do it quiet, too. We ain't ridin' up and down the trail, flourishin' our six-shooters and yellin' to the Sawtooth to come on and we'll clean 'em up!"
"But you're fighting just the same, aren't you, dad? You're not letting them——"
"We're makin' out to live here—and we've been doin' it for twenty-five year," Brit told her, with a certain grim dignity. "We've still got a few head uh stock left—enough to live on. Playin' poker with a nickel, mebby—but we manage to ante, every hand so fur." His mind returned to the grisly thing Lorraine had seen.
"We can't run down the man that got Fred Thurman, supposin' he was killed, as you say. That's what the law is paid to do. If Lone Morgan told you not to talk about it, he told you right. He was talking for your own good. What about Al—the man from Whisper? You didn't tell him, did you?"
His tone, the suppressed violence of his manner, frightened Lorraine. She moved farther away from him.
"I didn't tell him anything. He was curious but—I only said I knew him because he was wearing a brown hat, and the man that shot Mr. Thurman had a brown hat. I didn't say all that. I just mentioned the hat. And he said there were lots of brown hats in the country. He said he had traded for that one, just yesterday. He said his own hat was gray."
Brit stared at her, his jaw sagging a little, his eyes growing vacant with the thoughts he hid deep in his mind. He slumped down into his chair and leaned forward, his arms resting on his knees, his fingers clasped loosely. After a little he tilted his head and looked up at her.
"You better go to bed," he told her stolidly. "And if you're going to live at the Quirt, Raine, you'll have to learn to keep your mouth shut. I ain't blaming you—but you told too much to Al Woodruff. Don't talk to him no more, if he comes here when I'm gone." He put out a hand, beckoning her to him, sorry for his harshness. Lorraine went to him and knelt beside him, slipping an arm around his neck while she hid her face on his shoulder.
"I won't be a nuisance, dad—really, I won't," she said. "I—I can shoot a gun. I never shot one with bullets in, but I could. And I learned to do lots of things when I was working in that play West I thought was real. It isn't like I thought. There's no picture stuff in the real West, I guess; they don't do things that way. But—what I want you to know is that if they're fighting you they'll have to fight me, too.
"I don't mean movie stuff, honestly I don't. I'm in this thing now, and you'll have to count me, same as you count Jim and Sorry. Won't you please feel that I'm one more in the game, dad, and not just another responsibility? I'll herd cattle, or do whatever there is to do. And I'll keep my mouth shut, too. I can't stay here, day after day, doing nothing but sweep and dust two rooms and fry potatoes and bacon for you at night. Dad, I'll go crazy if you don't let me into your life!
"Dad, if you knew the stunts I've done in the last three years! It was make-believe West, but I learned things just the same." She kissed him on the unshaven cheek nearest her,—and thought of the kisses she had breathed upon the cheeks of story fathers with due care for the make-up on her lips. Just because this was real, she kissed him again with the frank vigor of a child.
"Dad," she said wheedlingly, "I think you might scare up something that I can really ride. Yellowjacket is safe, but—but you have real live horses on the ranch, haven't you? You must not go judging me by the palms and the bay windows of the Casa Grande. That's where I've slept, the last few years when I wasn't off on location—but it's just as sensible to think I don't know anything else, as it would be for me to think you can't do anything but skim milk and fry bacon and make sour-dough bread, just because I've seen you do it!"
Brit laughed and patted her awkwardly on the back. "If you was a boy, I'd set you up as a lawyer," he said with an attempt at playfulness. "I kinda thought you could ride. I seen how you piled onto old Yellowjacket and the way you held your reins. It runs in the blood, I guess. I'll see what I can do in the way of a horse. Ole Yellowjacket used to be a real rim-rider, but he's gitting old; gitting old—same as me."
"You're not! You're just letting yourself feel old. And am I one of the outfit, dad?"
"I guess so—only there ain't going to be any of this hell-whoopin' stuff, Raine. You can't travel these trails at a long lope with yore hair flyin' out behind and—and all that damn foolishness. I've saw 'em in the movin' pitchers——"
Lorraine blushed, and was thankful that her dad had not watched her work in that serial. For that matter, she hoped that Lone Morgan would never stray into a movie where any of her pictures were being shown.
"I'm serious, dad. I don't want to make a show of myself. But if you'll feel that I can be a help instead of a handicap, that's what I want. And if it comes to fighting——"
Brit pushed her from him impatiently. "There yuh go—fight—fight—and I told yuh there ain't any fighting going on. Nothing more'n a fight to hang on and make a living. That means straight, hard work and mindin' your own business. If you want to help at that——"
"I do," said Raine quietly, getting to her feet. Her legacy of stubbornness set her lips firmly together. "That's exactly what I mean. Good night, dad."
Brit answered her noncommittally, apparently sunk already in his own musings. But his lips drew in to suppress a smile when he saw, from the corner of his eyes, that Lorraine was winding the alarm on the cheap kitchen clock, and that she set the hand carefully and took the clock with her to bed.
THE EVIL EYE OF THE SAWTOOTH
Oppression is a growth that flourishes best in the soil of opportunity. It seldom springs into full power at once. The Sawtooth Cattle Company had begun much as its neighbors had begun: with a tract of land, cattle, and the ambition for prospering. Senator Warfield had then been plain Bill Warfield, manager of the outfit, who rode with his men and saw how his herds increased,—saw too how they might increase faster under certain conditions. At the outset he was not, perhaps, more unscrupulous than some of his neighbors. True, if a homesteader left his claim for a longer time than the law allowed him, Bill Warfield would choose one of his own men to file a contest on that claim. The man's wages would be paid. Witnesses were never lacking to swear to the improvements he had made, and after the patent had been granted the homesteader (for the contestant always won, in that country) the Sawtooth, would pay him for the land. Frequently a Sawtooth man would file upon land before any other man had claimed it. Sometimes a Sawtooth man would purchase a relinquishment from some poor devil of a claim-holder who seemed always to have bad luck, and so became discouraged and ready to sell. An intelligent man like Bill Warfield could acquire much land in this manner, give him time enough.
In much the same manner his herds increased. He bought out small ranchers who were crowded to the selling point in one way or another. They would find themselves fenced off from water, the Sawtooth having acquired the water rights to creek or spring. Or they would be hemmed in with fenced fields and would find it next to impossible to make use of the law which gave them the right to "condemn" a road through. They would not be openly assailed,—Bill Warfield was an intelligent man. A dozen brands were recorded in the name of the Sawtooth Cattle Company, and if a small rancher found his calf crop shorter than it should be, he might think as he pleased, but he would have no tangible proof that his calves wore a Sawtooth brand.
Inevitably it became necessary now and then to stop a mouth that was ready to speak unwelcome truths. But if a Sawtooth man were known to have committed violence, the Sawtooth itself was the first to put the sheriff on his trail. If the man successfully dodged the sheriff and made his way to parts unknown, the Sawtooth could shrug its shoulders and wash its hands of him.
Then whispers were heard that the Sawtooth had on its pay roll men who were paid to kill and to leave no trace. So many heedless ones crossed the Sawtooth's path to riches! Fred Thurman had been one; a "bull-headed cuss" who had the temerity to fight back when the Sawtooth calmly laid claim to the first water rights to Granite Creek, having bought it, they said, with the placer claim of an old miner who had prospected along the headwaters of Granite at the base of Bear Top.
By that time the Sawtooth had grown to a power no poor man could hope to defeat. Bill Warfield was Senator Warfield, and Senator Warfield was a power in the political world that immediately surrounded him. Since his neighboring ranchmen had not been able to prevent his steady climbing to the position he now held, they had small hope of pulling him down. Brit was right. They did well to hang on and continue living in that country.
An open killing, one that would attract the attention of the outside world, might be avenged. The man who committed the crime might be punished,—if public opinion were sufficiently massed against him. In that case Senator Warfield would cry loudest for justice. But it would take a stronger man than the country held to raise the question of Fred Thurman's death and take even the first steps toward proving it a murder.
"It ain't that they can do anything, Mr. Warfield," the man from Whisper said guardedly, urging his horse close to the machine that stood in the trail from Echo. It was broad day—a sun-scorched day to boot—and Senator Warfield perspired behind the wheel of his car. "It's the talk they may get started."
"What have they said? The girl was at the ranch for several days. She didn't talk there, or Hawkins would have told me."
"She was sick. I saw her the other day at the Quirt, and she more'n half recognized me. Hell! How'd I know she was in there among them rocks? Everybody that was apt to be riding through was accounted for, and I knew there wasn't any one coming horseback or with a rig. My hearing's pretty good."
Warfield moved the spark lever up and down on the wheel while he thought. "Well," he said carefully at last, "if you're falling down in your work, what are you whining about it to me for? What do you want?"
Al moistened his lips with his tongue. "I want to know how far I can go. It's been hands off the Quirt, up to now. And the Quirt's beginning to think it can get away with most anything. They've throwed a fence across the pass through from Sugar Spring to Whisper. That sends us away around by Three Creek. You can't trail stock across Granite Ridge, nor them lava ledges. If it's going to be hands off, I want to know it. There's other places I'd rather live in, if the Quirt's going to raise talk about Fred Thurman."
Senator Warfield pulled at his collar and tie as if they choked him. "The Quirt has made no trouble," he said. "Of course, if they begin throwing fences across our stock trails and peddling gossip, that is another story. I expect you to protect our interests, of course. And I have never made a practice of dictating to you. In this case"—he sent a sharp glance at Al—"it seems to me your interests are involved more than ours. As to Fred Thurman, I don't know anything about it. I was not here when he died, and I have never seen this girl of Brit's who seems to worry you. She doesn't interest me, one way or the other."
"She seems to interest Bob a whole lot," Al said maliciously. "He rode over to see her yesterday. She wasn't home, though."
Senator Warfield seemed unmoved by this bit of news, wherefore Al returned to the main issue.
"Do I get a free hand, or don't I?" he insisted. "They can't be let peddle talk—not if I stay around here."
Senator Warfield considered the matter.
"The girl's got the only line on me," Al went on. "The inquest was as clean as I ever saw. Everything all straight—and then, here she comes up——"
"If you know how to stop a woman's mouth, Al, you can make a million a month telling other men." Senator Warfield smiled at him. Then he leaned across the front seat and added impressively, "Bear one thing in mind, Al. The Sawtooth cannot permit itself to become involved in any scandal, nor in any killing cases. We're just at the most crucial point with our reclamation project, over here on the flat. The legislature is willing to make an appropriation for the building of the canal, and in two or three months at the latest we should begin selling agricultural tracts to the public. The State will also throw open the land it had withdrawn from settlement, pending the floating of this canal project. More than ever the integrity of the Sawtooth Cattle Company must be preserved, since it has come out openly as a backer of the irrigation company. Nothing—nothing must be permitted to stand in the way."
He removed his thin driving cap and wiped his perspiring forehead. "I'm sorry this all happened—as it has turned out," he said, with real regret in his tone. "But since it did happen, I must rely upon you to—to—er——"
"I guess I understand," Al grinned sardonically. "I just wanted you to know how things is building up. The Quirt's kinda overreached itself. I didn't want you comin' back on me for trying to keep their feet outa the trough. I want you to know things is pretty damn ticklish right now, and it's going to take careful steppin'."
"Well, don't let your foot slip, Al," Senator Warfield warned him. "The Sawtooth would hate to lose you; you're a good man."
"Oh, I get yuh," Al retorted. "My foot ain't going to slip—— If it did, the Sawtooth would be the first to pile onto my back!" The last sentence was not meant for the senator's ears. Al had backed his horse, and Senator Warfield was stepping on the starter. But it would not have mattered greatly if he had heard, for this was a point quite thoroughly understood by them both.
The Warfield car went on, lurching over the inequalities of the narrow road. Al shook his horse into a shambling trot, picking his way carelessly through the scattered sage.
His horse traveled easily, now and then lifting a foot high to avoid rock or exposed root, or swerving sharply around obstacles too high to step over. Al very seldom traveled along the beaten trails, though there was nothing to deter him now save an inherent tendency toward secretiveness of his motives, destinations and whereabouts. If the country was open, you would see Al Woodruff riding at some distance from the trail—or you would not see him at all, if there were gullies in which he could conceal himself. He was always "line-riding," or hunting stray stock—horses, usually—or striking across to some line-camp of the Sawtooth, on business which he was perfectly willing to state.
But you will long ago have guessed that he was the evil eye of the Sawtooth Company. He took no orders save such general ones as Senator Warfield had just given him. He gave none. Whatever he did he did alone, and he took no man into his confidence. It is more than probable that Senator Warfield would never have known to a certainty that Al was responsible for Thurman's death, if Al had not been worried over the Quirt's possible knowledge of the crime and anxious to know just how far his power might go.
Ostensibly he was in charge of the camp at Whisper, a place far enough off the beaten trails to free him from chance visitors. The Sawtooth kept many such camps occupied by men whose duty it was to look after the Sawtooth cattle that grazed near; to see that stock did not "bog down" in the tricky sand of the adjacent water holes and die before help came, and to fend off any encroachments of the smaller cattle owners,—though these were growing fewer year by year, thanks to the weeding-out policy of the Sawtooth and the cunning activities of such as Al Woodruff.
It may sound strange to say that the Sawtooth country had not had a real "killing" for years, though accidental deaths had been rather frequent. One man, for instance, had fallen over a ledge and broken his neck, presumably while drunk. Another had bought a few sticks of dynamite to open up a spring on his ranch, and at the inquest which followed the jury had returned a verdict of "death caused by being blown up by the accidental discharge of dynamite." A sheepman was struck by lightning, according to the coroner, and his widow had been glad to sell ranch and sheep very cheaply to the Sawtooth and return to her relatives in Montana. The Sawtooth had shipped the sheep within a month and turned the ranch into another line-camp.
You will see that Senator Warfield had every reason to be sincere when he called Al Woodruff a good man; good for the Sawtooth interests, that means. You will also see that Brit Hunter had reasons for believing that the business of ranching in the Sawtooth country might be classed as extra hazardous, and for saying that it took nerve just to hang on.
That is why Al rode oblivious to his surroundings, meditating no doubt upon the best means of preserving the "integrity" of the Sawtooth and at the same time soothing effectively the ticklishness of the situation of which he had complained. It was his business to find the best means. It was for just such work that the Sawtooth paid him—secretly, to be sure—better wages than the foreman, Hawkins, received. Al was conscientious and did his best to earn his wages; not because he particularly loved killing and spying as a sport, but because the Sawtooth had bought his loyalty for a price, and so long as he felt that he was getting a square deal from them, he would turn his hand against any man that stood in their way. He was a Sawtooth man, and he fought the enemies of the Sawtooth as matter-of-factly as a soldier will fight for his country. To his unimaginative mind there was sufficient justification in that attitude. As for the ease with which he planned to kill and cover his killing under the semblance of accident, he would have said, if you could make him speak of it, that he was not squeamish. They'd all have to die some day, anyway.
ANOTHER SAWTOOTH "ACCIDENT"
Frank Johnson rose from the breakfast table, shaved a splinter off the edge of the water bench for a toothpick and sharpened it carefully while he looked at Brit.
"You goin' after them posts, or shall I?" he inquired glumly, which, by the way, was his normal tone. "Jim and Sorry oughta git the post holes all dug to-day. One of us better take a look through that young stock in the lower field, too, and see if there's any more sign uh blackleg. Which you ruther do?"
Brit tilted his chair backward so that he could reach the coffeepot on the stove hearth. "I'll haul down the posts," he decided carelessly. "They're easy loaded, and I guess my back's as good as yourn."
"All you got to do is skid 'em down off'n the bank onto the wagon," Frank said. "I wisht you'd go on up where we cut them last ones and git my sweater, Brit. I musta left it hanging on a bush right close to where I was workin'."
Brit's grunt signified assent, and Frank went out. Jim and Sorry, the two unpicturesque cowboys of whom Lorraine had complained to the cat had already departed with pick and shovel to their unromantic task of digging post holes. Each carried a most unattractive lunch tied in a flour sack behind the cantle of his saddle. Lorraine had done her conscientious best, but with lumpy, sour-dough bread, cold bacon and currant jelly of that kind which is packed in wooden kegs, one can't do much with a cold lunch. Lorraine wondered how much worse it would look after it had been tied on the saddle for half a day; wondered too what those two silent ones got out of life,—what they looked forward to, what was their final goal. For that matter she frequently wondered what there was in life for any of them, shut into that deadly monotony of sagebrush and rocks interspersed with little, grassy meadows where the cattle fed listlessly.
Even the sinister undercurrent of antagonism against the Quirt could not whip her emotions feeling that she was doing anything more than live the restricted, sordid little life of a poorly equipped ranch. She had ridden once with Frank Johnson to look through a bunch of cattle, but it had been nothing more than a hot, thirsty, dull ride, with a wind that blew her hat off in spite of pins and tied veil, and with a companion who spoke only when he was spoken to and then as briefly as possible.
Her father would not talk again as he had talked that night. She had tried to make him tell her more about the Sawtooth and had gotten nothing out of him. The man from Whisper, whom Brit had spoken of as Al, had not returned. Nor had the promised saddle horse materialized. The boys were too busy to run in any horses, her father had told her shortly when she reminded him of his promise. When the fence was done, maybe he could rustle her another horse,—and then he had added that he didn't see what ailed Yellowjacket, for all the riding she was likely to do.
"Straight hard work and minding your own business," her father had said, and it seemed to Lorraine after three or four days of it that he had summed up the life of a cattleman's daughter in a masterly manner which ought to be recorded among Famous Sayings like "War is hell" and "Don't give up the ship."
On this particular morning Lorraine's spirits were at their lowest ebb. If it were not for the new stepfather, she would return to the Casa Grande, she told herself disgustedly. And if it were not for the belief among all her acquaintances that she was queening it over the cattle-king's vast domain, she would return and find work again in motion pictures. But she could not bring herself to the point of facing the curiosity and the petty gossip of the studios. She would be expected to explain satisfactorily why she had left the real West for the mimic West of Hollywood. She did not acknowledge to herself that she also could not face the admission of failure to carry out what she had begun.
She had told her dad that she wanted to fight with him, even though "fighting" in this case meant washing the coarse clothing of her father and Frank, scrubbing the rough, warped boards of the cabin floor, and frying ranch-cured bacon for every meal, and in making butter to sell, and counting the eggs every night and being careful to use only the cracked ones for cooking.
She hated every detail of this crude housekeeping, from the chipped enamel dishpan to the broom that was all one-sided, and the pillow slips which were nothing more nor less than sugar sacks. She hated it even more than she had hated the Casa Grande and her mother's frowsy mentality. But because she could see that she made life a little more comfortable for her dad, because she felt that he needed her, she would stay and assure herself over and over that she was staying merely because she was too proud to go back to the old life and own the West a failure.
She was sweeping the doorstep with the one-sided broom when Brit drove out through the gate and up the trail which she knew led eventually to Sugar Spring. The horses, sleek in their new hair and skittish with the change from hay to new grass, danced over the rough ground so that the running gear of the wagon, with its looped log-chain, which would later do duty as a brake on the long grade down from timber line on the side of Spirit Canyon, rattled and banged over the rocks with a clatter that could be heard for half a mile. Lorraine looked after her father enviously. If she were a boy she would be riding on that sack of hay tied to the "hounds" for a seat. But, being a girl, it had never occurred to Brit that she might like to go,—might even be useful to him on the trip.
"I suppose if I told dad I could drive that team as well as he can, he'd just look at me and think I was crazy," she thought resentfully and gave the broom a spiteful fling toward a presumptuous hen that had approached too closely. "If I'd asked him to let me go along he'd have made some excuse—oh, I'm beginning to know dad! He thinks a woman's place is in the house—preferably the kitchen. And here I've thought all my life that cowgirls did nothing but ride around and warn people about stage holdups and everything! I'd just like to know how a girl would ever have a chance to know what was going on in the country, unless she heard the men talking while she poured their coffee. Only this bunch don't talk at all. They just gobble and go."
She went in then and shut the door with a slam. Up on the ridge Al Woodruff lowered his small binocular and eased away from the spot where he had been crouching behind a bush. Every one on the Quirt ranch was accounted for. As well as if he had sat at their breakfast table Al knew where each man's work would take him that day. As for the girl, she was safe at the ranch for the day, probably. If she did take a ride later on, it would probably be up the ridge between the Quirt and Thurman's ranch, and sit for an hour or so just looking. That ride was beginning to be a habit of hers, Al had observed, so that he considered her accounted for also.
He made his way along the side hill to where his horse was tied to a bush, mounted and rode away with his mind pretty much at ease. Much more at ease than it would have been had he read what was in Lorraine's mind when, she slammed that door.
Up above Sugar Spring was timber. By applying to the nearest Forest Supervisor a certain amount could be had for ranch improvements upon paying a small sum for the "stumpage." The Quirt had permission to cut posts for their new fence which Al Woodruff had reported to his boss.
As he drove up the trail, which was in places barely passable for a wagon, Brit was thinking of that fence. The Sawtooth would object to it, he knew, since it cut off one of their stock trails and sent them around through rougher country. Just what form their objection would take, Brit did not know. Deep in his intrepid soul he hoped that the Sawtooth would at last show its hand openly. He had liked Fred Thurman, and what Lorraine had told him went much deeper than she knew. He wanted to bring them into the open where he could fight with some show of winning.
"I'll git Bill Warfield yet—and git him right," was the gist of his musings. "He's bound to show his head, give him time enough. Him and his killers can't always keep under cover. Let 'em come at me about that fence! It's on my land—the Quirt's got a right to fence every foot of land that belongs to 'em."
All the way over the ridge and across the flat and up the steep, narrow road along the edge of Spirit Canyon, Brit dwelt upon the probable moves of the Sawtooth. They would wait, he thought, until the fence was completed and they had made a trail around through the lava rocks. They would not risk any move at present; they would wait and tacitly accept the fence, or pretend to accept it, as a natural inconvenience. But Brit did not deceive himself that they would remain passive. That it had been "hands off the Quirt" he did not know, but attributed the Quirt's immunity to careful habits and the fact that they had never come to the point where their interests actually clashed with the Sawtooth.
It never occurred to him therefore that he was slated for an accident that day if the details could be conveniently arranged.
It was a long trail to Sugar Spring, and from there up Spirit Canyon the climb was so tedious and steep that Brit took a full hour for the trip, resting the team often because they were soft from the new grass diet and sweated easily. They lost none of their spirit, however, and when the road was steepest nagged at each other with head-shakings and bared teeth, and ducked against each other in pretended fright at every unusual rock or bush.
At the top he was forced to drive a full half mile beyond the piled posts to a flat large enough to turn around. All this took time, especially since Caroline, the brown mare, would rather travel ten miles straight ahead than go backward ten feet. Brit was obliged to "take it out of her" with the rein ends and his full repertoire of opprobrious epithets before he could cramp the wagon and head them down the trail again.
At the post pile he unhitched the team for safety's sake and tied them to trees, where he fed them a little grain in nose bags. He was absorbed now in his work and thought no more about the Sawtooth. He fastened the log chain to the rear wheels to brake the wagon on the long grade down the canyon, loaded the wagon with posts, bound them fast with a lighter chain he had brought for the purpose, ate his own lunch and decided that, since he had made fair time and would arrive home too early to do the chores and too late to start any other job, he would cruise farther up the mountain side and see what was the prospect of getting out logs enough for an addition to the cabin.
Now that Raine was going to live with him, two rooms were not enough. Brit wanted to make her as happy as he could, in his limited fashion. He had for some days been planning a "settin' room and bedroom" for her. She would be having beaux after awhile when she got acquainted, he supposed. He could not deny her the privilege; she was young and she was, in Brit's opinion, the best looking girl he had ever seen, not even excepting Minnie, her mother. But he hoped she wouldn't go off and get married the first thing she did,—and one good way to prevent that, he reasoned, was to make her comfortable with him. He had noticed how pleased she was that their cabin was of logs. She had even remarked that she could not understand how a rancher would ever want to build a board shack if there was any timber to be had. Well, timber was to be had, and she should have her log house, though the hauling was not going to be any sunshine, in Brit's opinion. With his axe he walked through the timber, craning upward for straight tree trunks and lightly blazing the ones he would want, the occasional axe strokes sounding distinctly in the quiet air.
Lorraine heard them as she rode old Yellowjacket puffing up the grade, following the wagon marks, and knew that she was nearing the end of her journey,—for which Yellowjacket, she supposed, would be thankful. She had started not more than an hour later than her father, but the team had trotted along more briskly than her poor old nag would travel, so that she did not overtake her dad as she had hoped.
She was topping the last climb when she saw the team tied to the trees, and at the same moment she caught a glimpse of a man who crawled out from under the load of posts and climbed the slope farther on. She was on the point of calling out to him, thinking that he was her dad, when he disappeared into the brush. At the same moment she heard the stroke of an axe over to the right of where the man was climbing.
She was riding past the team when Caroline humped her back and kicked viciously at Yellowjacket, who plunged straight down off the trail without waiting to see whether Caroline's aim was exact. He slid into a juniper thicket and sat down looking very perplexed and very permanently placed there. Lorraine stepped off on the uphill side of him, thanked her lucky stars she had not broken a leg, and tried to reassure Yellowjacket and to persuade him that no real harm had been done him. Straightway she discovered that Yellowjacket had a mind of his own and that a pessimistic mind. He refused to scramble back into the trail, preferring to sit where he was, or since Lorraine made that too uncomfortable, to stand where he had been sitting. Yellowjacket, I may explain, owned a Roman nose, a pendulous lower lip and drooping eyelids. Those who know horses will understand.
By the time Lorraine had bullied and cajoled him into making a somewhat circuitous route to the road, where he finally appeared some distance above the point of his descent, Brit was there, hitching the team to the wagon.
"What yuh doing up there?" he wanted to know, looking up with some astonishment.
Lorraine furnished him with details and her opinion of both Caroline and Yellow jacket. "I simply refuse to ride this comedy animal another mile," she declared with some heat. "I'll drive the team and you can ride him home, or he can be tied on behind the wagon."
"He won't lead," Brit objected. "Yeller's all right if you make up your mind to a few failin's. You go ahead and ride him home. You sure can't drive this team."
"I can!" Lorraine contended. "I've driven four horses—I guess I can drive two, all right."
"Well, you ain't going to," Brit stated with a flat finality that abruptly ended the argument.
Lorraine had never before been really angry with her father. She struck Yellowjacket with her quirt and sent him sidling past the wagon and the tricky Caroline, too stubborn to answer her dad when he called after her that she had better ride behind the load. She went on, making Yellowjacket trot when he did not want to trot down hill.
Behind her she heard the chuck-chuck of the loaded wagon. Far ahead she heard some one whistling a high, sweet melody which had the queer, minor strains of some old folk song. For just a few bars she heard it, and then it was stilled, and the road dipping steeply before her seemed very lonely, its emptiness cooling her brief anger to a depression that had held her too often in its grip since that terrible night of the storm. For the first time she looked back at her father lurching along on the load and at the team looking so funny with the collars pushed up on their necks with the weight of the load behind.
With a quick impulse of penitence she waved her hand to Brit, who waved back at her. Then she went on, feeling a bit less alone in the world. After all, he was her dad, and his life had been hard. If he failed to understand her and her mental hunger for real companionship, perhaps she also failed to understand him.
They had left the timber line now and had come to the lip of the canyon itself. Lorraine looked down its steep, rock-roughened sides and thought how her old director would have raved over its possibilities in the way of "stunts." Yellow jacket, she noticed, kept circumspectly to the center of the trail and eyed the canyon with frank disfavor.
She did not know at just what moment she became aware of trouble behind her. It may have been Yellowjacket, turning his head sidewise and abruptly quickening his pace that warned her. It may have been the difference in the sound of the wagon and the impact of the horses' hoofs on the rocky trail. She turned and saw that something had gone wrong. They were coming down upon her at a sharp trot, stepping high, the wagon tongue thrust up between their heads as they tried to hold back the load.
Brit yelled to her then to get out of the way, and his voice was harsh and insistent. Lorraine looked at the steep bank to the right, knew instinctively that Yellowjacket would never have time to climb it before the team was upon them, and urged him to a lope. She glanced back again, saw that the team was not running away, that they were trying to hold the wagon, and that it was gaining momentum in spite of them.
"Jump, dad!" she called and got no answer. Brit was sitting braced with his feet far apart, holding and guiding the team. "He won't jump—he wouldn't jump—any more than I would," she chattered to herself, sick with fear for him, while she lashed her own horse to keep out of their way.
The next she knew, the team was running, their eyeballs staring, their front feet flung high as they lunged panic-stricken down the trail. The load was rocking along behind them. Brit was still braced and clinging to the reins.
Panic seized Yellowjacket. He, too, went lunging down that trail, his head thrown from side to side that he might watch the thing that menaced him, heedless of the fact that danger might lie ahead of him also. Lorraine knew that he was running senselessly, that he might leave the trail at any bend and go rolling into the canyon.
A sense of unreality seized her. It could not be deadly earnest, she thought. It was so exactly like some movie thrill, planned carefully in advance, rehearsed perhaps under the critical eye of the director, and done now with the camera man turning calmly the little crank and counting the number of film feet the scene would take. A little farther and she would be out of the scene, and men stationed ahead would ride up and stop her horse for her and tell her how well she had "put it over."
She looked over her shoulder and saw them still coming. It was real. It was terribly real, the way that team was fleeing down the grade. She had never seen anything like that before, never seen horses so frantically trying to run from the swaying load behind them. Always, she had been accustomed to moderation in the pace and a slowed camera to speed up the action on the screen. Yellowjacket, too—she had never ridden at that terrific speed down hill. Twice she lost a stirrup and grabbed the saddle horn to save herself from going over his head.
They neared a sharp turn, and it took all her strength to pull her horse to the inside and save him from plunging off down the canyon's side. The nose of the hill hid for a moment her dad, and in that moment she heard a crash and knew what had happened. But she could not stop; Yellowjacket had his ears laid back flat on his senseless head, and the bit clamped tight in his teeth.
She heard the crash repeated in diminuendo farther down in the canyon. There was no longer the rattle of the wagon coming down the trail, the sharp staccato of pounding hoofs.
SWAN TALKS WITH HIS THOUGHTS
Lorraine, following instinct rather than thought, pulled Yellowjacket into the first opening that presented itself. This was a narrow, rather precipitous gully that seamed the slope just beyond the bend. The bushes there whipped her head and shoulders cruelly as the horse forged in among them, but they trapped him effectually where the gully narrowed to a point. He stopped perforce, and Lorraine was out of the saddle and running down to the trail before she quite realized what she was doing.
At the bend she looked down, saw the marks where the wagon had gone over, scraping rocks and bushes from its path. Fence posts were strewn at all angles down the incline, and far down a horse was standing with part of the harness on him and with his head drooping dispiritedly. Her father she could not see, nor the other horse, nor the wagon. A clump of young trees hid the lower declivity. Lorraine did not stop to think of what she would find down there. Sliding, running, she followed the traces of the wreck to where the horse was standing. It was Caroline, looking very dejected but apparently unhurt, save for skinned patches here and there where she had rolled over rocks.
A little farther, just beyond the point of the grove which they seemed to have missed altogether, lay the other horse and what was left of the wagon. Brit she did not see at all. She searched the bushes, looked under the wagon, and called and called.
A full-voiced shout answered her from farther up the canyon, and she ran stumbling toward the sound, too agonized to shed tears or to think very clearly. It was not her father's voice; she knew that beyond all doubt. It was no voice that she had ever heard before. It had a clear resonance that once heard would not have been easily forgotten. When she saw them finally, her father was being propped up in a half-sitting position, and the strange man was holding something to his lips.
"Just a little water. I carry me a bottle of water always in my pocket," said Swan, glancing up at her when she had reached them. "It sometimes makes a man's head think better when he has been hurt, if he can drink a little water or something."
Brit swallowed and turned his face away from the tilted bottle. "I jumped—but I didn't jump quick enough," he muttered thickly. "The chain pulled loose. Where's the horses, Raine?"
"They're all right. Caroline's standing over there. Are you hurt much, dad?" It was a futile question, because Brit was already going off into unconsciousness.
"He's hurt pretty bad," Swan declared honestly, looking up at her with his eyes grown serious. "I was across the walley and I saw him coming down the road like rolling rocks down a hill. I came quick. Now we make stretcher, I think, and carry him home. I could take him on my back, but that is hurting him too much." He looked at her—through her, it seemed to Lorraine. In spite of her fear, in spite of her grief, she felt that Swan was reading her very soul, and she backed away from him.
"I could help your father very much," he said soberly, "but I should tell you a secret if I do that. I should maybe ask that you tell a lie if somebody asks questions. Could you do that, Miss?"
"Lie?" Lorraine laughed uncertainly. "I'd kill!—if that would help dad."
Swan was folding his coat very carefully and placing it under Brit's head. "My mother I love like that," he said, without looking up. "My mother I love so well that I talk with my thoughts to her sometimes. You believe people can talk with their thoughts?"
"I don't know—what's that got to do with helping dad?" Lorraine knelt beside Brit and began stroking his forehead softly, as is the soothing way of women with their sick.
"I could send my thought to my mother. I could say to her that a man is hurt and that a doctor must come very quickly to the Quirt ranch. I could do that, Miss, but I should not like it if people knew that I did it. They would maybe say that I am crazy. They would laugh at me, and it is not right to laugh at those things."
"I'm not laughing. If you can do it, for heaven's sake go ahead! I don't believe it, but I won't tell any one, if that's what you want."
"If some neighbors should ask, 'How did that doctor come so quick?'——"
"I'd rather lie and say I sent for him, than say that you or any one else sent a telepathic message. That would sound more like a lie than a lie would. How are we going to make a stretcher? We've got to get him home, somehow——"
"At my cabin is blankets," Swan told her briskly. "I can climb the hill—it is up there. In a little while I will come back."
He started off without waiting to see what Lorraine would have to say about it, and with some misgivings she watched him run down to the canyon's bottom and go forging up the opposite side with a most amazing speed and certainty. In travel pictures she had seen mountain sheep climb like that, and she likened him now to one of them. It seemed a shame that he was a bit crazy, she thought; and immediately she recalled his perfect assurance when he told her of sending thought messages to his mother. She had heard of such things, she had even read a little on the subject, but it had never seemed to her a practical means of communicating. Calling a doctor, for instance, seemed to Lorraine rather far-fetched an application of what was at best but a debatable theory.
Considering the distance, he was back in a surprisingly short time with two blankets, a couple of light poles and a flask of brandy. He seemed as fresh and unwinded as if he had gone no farther than the grove, and he wore, more than ever, his air of cheerful assurance.
"The doctor will be there," he remarked, just as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "We can carry him to Fred Thurman's. There I can get horses and a wagon, and you will not have to carry so far. And when we get to your ranch the doctor will be there, I think. He is starting now. We will hurry. I will fix it so you need not carry much. It is just to make it steady for me."
While he talked he was working on the stretcher. He had a rope, and he was knotting it in a long loop to the poles. Lorraine wondered why, until he had lifted her father and placed him on the stretcher and placed the loop over his own head and under one arm, as a ploughman holds the reins, so that his hands may be free.
"If you will carry the front," said Swan politely, "it will not be heavy for you like this. But you will help me keep it steady."
Lorraine was past discussing anything. She obeyed him silently, lifting the end of the stretcher and leading the way down to the canyon's bottom, where Swan assured her they could walk quite easily and would save many detours which the road above must take. At the bottom Swan stopped her so that he might shorten the rope and take more of the weight on his shoulders. She protested half-heartedly, but Swan only laughed.
"I am strong like a mule," he said. "You should see me wrestle with somebody. Clear over my head—I can carry a man in my hands. This is so you can walk fast. Three miles straight down we come to Thurman's ranch, where I get the horses. It's funny how hills make a road far around. Just three miles—that's all. I have walked many times."
Lorraine did not answer him. She felt that he was talking merely to keep her from worrying, and she was fairly sick with anxiety and did not hear half of what he was saying. She was nervously careful about choosing her steps so that she would not stumble and jolt her father. She did not believe that he was wholly unconscious, for she had seen his eyelids tighten and his lips twitch several times, when she was waiting for Swan. He had seemed to be in pain and to be trying to hide the fact from her. She felt that Swan knew it, else he would have talked of her dad, would at least have tried to reassure her. But it is difficult to speak of a person who hears what you are saying, and Swan was talking of everything, it seemed to her, except the man they were carrying.
She wondered if it were really true that Swan had sent a call through space for a doctor; straightway she would call herself crazy for even considering for a moment its possibility. If he could do that—but of course he couldn't. He must just imagine it.
Many times Swan had her lower the stretcher to the ground, and would make a great show of rubbing his arms and easing his shoulder muscles. Whenever Lorraine looked full into his face he would grin at her as though nothing was wrong, and when they came to a clear-running stream he emptied the water bottle, dipped up a little fresh water, added brandy, and lifted Brit's head very gently and gave him a drink. Brit opened his eyes and looked at Swan, and from him to Lorraine, but he did not say anything. He still had that tightened look around his mouth which spelled pain.
"Pretty quick now we get you fixed up good," Swan told him cheerfully. "One mile more is all, and we get the horses and I make a good bed for you." He looked a signal, and Lorraine once more took up the stretcher.
Another mile seemed a long way, light though Swan had made the load for her. She thought once that he must have some clairvoyant power, because whenever she felt as if her arms were breaking, Swan would tell her to stop a minute.
"How do you know a doctor will come?" she asked Swan suddenly, when they were resting with the Thurman ranch in view half a mile below them.
Swan did not look at her directly, as had been his custom. She saw a darker shade of red creep up into his cheeks. "My mother says she would send a doctor quick," he replied hesitatingly. "You will see. It is because—your father he is not like other men in this country. Your father is a good man. That is why a doctor comes."
Lorraine looked at him strangely and stooped again to her burden. She did not speak again until they were passing the Thurman fence where it ran up into the mouth of the canyon. A few horses were grazing there, the sun striking their sides with the sheen of satin. They stared curiously at the little procession, snorted and started to run, heads and tails held high. But one wheeled suddenly and came galloping toward them, stopped when he was quite close, ducked and went thundering past to the head of the field. Lorraine gave a sharp little scream and set down the stretcher with a lurch, staring after the horse wide-eyed, her face white.
"They do it for play," Swan said reassuringly. "They don't hurt you. The fence is between, and they don't hurt you anyway."
"That horse with the white face—I saw it—and when the man struck it with his quirt it went past me, running like that and dragging—oh-h!" She leaned against the bluff side, her face covered with her two palms.
Swan glanced down at Brit, saw that his eyes were closed, ducked his head from under the looped rope and went to Lorraine.
"The man that struck that horse—do you know that man?" he asked, all the good nature gone from his voice.
"No—I don't know—I saw him twice, by the lightning flashes. He shot—and then I saw him——" She stopped abruptly, stood for a minute longer with her eyes covered, then dropped her hands limply to her sides. But when the horse came circling back with a great flourish, she shivered and her hands closed into the fists of a fighter.
"Are you a Sawtooth man?" she demanded suddenly, looking up at Swan defiantly. "It was a nightmare. I—I dreamed once about a horse—like that."
Swan's wide-open eyes softened a little. "The Sawtooth calls me that damn Swede on Bear Top," he explained. "I took a homestead up there and some day they will want to buy my place or they will want to make a fight with me to get the water. Could you know that man again?"
"Raine!" Brit's voice held a warning, and Lorraine shivered again as she turned toward him. "Raine, you——"
He closed his eyes again, and she could get no further speech from him. But she thought she understood. He did not want her to talk about Fred Thurman. She went to her end of the stretcher and waited there while Swan put the rope over his head. They went on, Lorraine walking with her head averted, trying not to see the blaze-faced roan, trying to shut out the memory of him dashing past her with his terrible burden, that night.
Swan did not speak of the matter again. With Lorraine's assistance he carried Brit into Thurman's cabin, laid him, stretcher and all, on the bed and hurried out to catch and harness the team of work horses. Lorraine waited beside her father, helpless and miserable. There was nothing to do but wait, yet waiting seemed to her the one thing she could not do.
"Raine!" Brit's voice was very weak, but Lorraine jumped as though a trumpet had bellowed suddenly in her ear. "Swan—he's all right. But don't go telling—all yuh know and some besides. He ain't—Sawtooth, but—he might let out——"
"I know. I won't, dad. It was that horse——"
Brit turned his face to the wall as if no more was to be said on the subject. Lorraine wandered around the cabin, which was no larger than her father's place. The rooms were scrupulously clean—neater than the Quirt, she observed guiltily. Not one article, however small and unimportant, seemed to be out of its place, and the floors of both rooms were scrubbed whiter than any floors she had ever seen. Swan's housekeeping qualities made her ashamed of her own imperfections; and when, thinking that Swan must be hungry and that the least she could do was to set out food for him, she opened the cupboard, she had a swift, embarrassed vision of her own culinary imperfections. She could cook better food than her dad had been content to eat and to set before others, but Swan's bread was a triumph in sour dough. Biscuits tall and light as bread can be she found, covered neatly with a cloth. Prunes stewed so that there was not one single wrinkle in them—Lorraine could scarcely believe they were prunes until she tasted them. She was investigating a pot of beans when Swan came in.
"Food I am thinking of, Miss," he grinned at her. "We shall hurry, but it is not good to go hungry. Milk is outside in a cupboard. It is quicker than to make coffee."
"It will be dark before we can get him home," said Lorraine uneasily. "And by the time a doctor can get out there——"
"A doctor will be there, I think. You don't believe, but that is no difference to his coming just the same."
He brought the milk, poured off the creamy top into a pitcher, stirred it, and quietly insisted that she drink two glasses. Lorraine observed that Swan himself ate very little, bolting down a biscuit in great mouthfuls while he carried a mattress and blankets out to spread in the wagon. It was like his pretense of weariness on the long carry down the canyon, she thought. It was for her more than for himself that he was thinking.
THE QUIRT PARRIES THE FIRST BLOW
A car with dimmed lights stood in front of the Quirt cabin when Swan drove around the last low ridge and down to the gate. The rattle of the wagon must have been heard, for the door opened suddenly and Frank stood revealed in the yellow light of the kerosene lamp on the table within. Behind Frank, Lorraine saw Jim and Sorry standing in their shirt sleeves looking out into the dark. Another, shorter figure she glimpsed as Frank and the two men stepped out and came striding hastily toward them. Lorraine jumped out and ran to meet them, hoping and fearing that her hope was foolish. That car might easily be only Bob Warfield on some errand of no importance. Still, she hoped.
"That you, Raine? Where's Brit? What's all this about Brit being hurt? A doctor from Shoshone——"
"A doctor? Oh, did a doctor come, then? Oh, help Swan carry dad in! I'm—oh, I'm afraid he's awfully injured!"
"Yes-s—but how'n hell did a doctor know about it?" Sorry, the silent, blurted unexpectedly.
"Oh,—never mind—but get dad in. I'll——" She ran past them without finishing her sentence and burst incoherently into the presence of an extremely calm little man with gray whiskers and dust on the shoulders of his coat. These details, I may add, formed the sum of Lorraine's first impression of him.
"Well! Well!" he remonstrated with a professional briskness, when she nearly bowled him over. "We seem to be in something of a hurry! Is this the patient I was sent to examine?"
"No!" Lorraine flashed impatiently over her shoulder as she rushed into her own room and began turning down the covers. "It's dad, of course—and you'd better get your coat off and get ready to go to work, because I expect he's just one mass of broken bones!"
The doctor smiled behind his whiskers and returned to the doorway to direct the carrying in of his patient. His sharp eyes went immediately to Brit's face, pallid under the leathery tan, his fingers went to Brit's hairy, corded wrist. The doctor smiled no more that evening.
"No, he is not a mass of broken bones, I am happy to say," he reported gravely to Lorraine afterwards. "He has a sufficient number, however. The left scapula is fractured, likewise the clavicle, and there is a compound fracture of the femur. There is some injury to the head, the exact extent of which I cannot as yet determine. He should be removed to a hospital, unless you are prepared to have a nurse here for some time, or to assume the burden of a long and tedious illness." He looked at her thoughtfully. "The journey to Shoshone would be a considerable strain on the patient in his present condition. He has a splendid amount of constitutional vitality, or he would scarcely have survived his injuries so long without medical attendance. Can you tell me just how the accident occurred?"
"Excuse me, doctor—and Miss," Swan diffidently interrupted. "I could ask you to take a look on my shoulder, if you please. If you are done setting bones in Mr. Hunter. I have a great pain on my shoulder from carrying so long."
"You never mentioned it!" Lorraine reproached him quickly. "Of course it must be looked after right away. And then, Doctor, I'd like to talk to you, if you don't mind." She watched them retreat to the bunk-house together, Swan's big form towering above the doctor's slighter figure. Swan was talking earnestly, the mumble of his voice reaching Lorraine without the enunciation of any particular word to give a clue to what he was saying. But it struck her that his voice did not sound quite natural; not so Swedish, not so careful.
Frank came tiptoeing out of the room where Brit lay bandaged and unconscious and stood close to Lorraine, looking down at her solemnly.
"How 'n 'ell did he git here—the doctor?" he demanded, making a great effort to hold his voice down to a whisper, and forgetting now and then. "How'd he know Brit rolled off'n the grade? Us here, we never knowed it, and I was tryin' to send him back when you came. He said somebody telephoned there was a man hurt in a runaway. There ain't a telephone closer'n the Sawtooth, and that there's a good twenty mile and more from where Brit was hurt. It's damn funny."
"Yes, it is," Lorraine admitted uncomfortably. "I don't know any more than you do about it."
"Well, how'n 'ell did it happen? Brit, he oughta know enough to rough-lock down that hill. An' that team ain't a runaway team. I never had no trouble with 'em—they're good at holdin' a load. They'll set down an' slide but what they'll hold 'er. What become of the horses?"
"Why—they're over there yet. We forgot all about the horses, I think. Caroline was standing up, all right. The other horse may be killed. I don't know—it was lying down. And Yellowjacket was up that little gully just this side of the wreck, when I left him. They did try to hold the load, Frank. Something must have happened to the brake. I saw dad crawling out from under the wagon just before I got to where the load was standing. Or some one did. I think it was dad. But Caroline kicked my horse down off the road, and I only saw him a minute—but it must have been dad. And then, a little way down the hill, something went wrong."
Frank seemed trying to reconstruct the accident from Lorraine's description. "He'd no business to start down if his rough-lock wasn't all right," he said. "It ain't like him. Brit's careful about them things—little men most always are. I don't see how 'n 'ell it worked loose. It's a damn queer layout all around; and this here doctor gitting here ahead of you folks, that there is the queerest. What's he say about Brit? Think he'll pull through?"
The doctor himself, coming up just then, answered the question. Of course the patient would pull through! What were doctors for? As to his reason for coming, he referred them to Mr. Vjolmar, whom he thought could better explain the matter.
The three of them waited,—five of them, since Jim and Sorry had come up, anxious to hear the doctor's opinion and anything else pertaining to the affair. Swan was coming slowly from the bunk-house, buttoning his coat. He seemed to feel that they were waiting for him and to know why. His manner was diffident, deprecating even.
"We may as well go in out of the mosquitoes," the doctor suggested. "And I wish you would tell these people what you told me, young man. Don't be afraid to speak frankly; it is rather amazing but not at all impossible, as I can testify. In fact," he added dryly, "my presence here ought to settle any doubt of that. Just tell them, young man, about your mother."
Swan was the last to enter the kitchen, and he stood leaning against the closed door, turning his old hat round and round, his eyes going swiftly from face to face. They were watching him, and Swan blushed a deep red while he told them about his mother in Boise, and how he could talk to her with his thoughts. He explained laboriously how the thoughts from her came like his mother speaking in his head, and that his thoughts reached her in the same way. He said that since he was a little boy they could talk together with their thoughts, but people laughed and some called them crazy, so that now he did not like to have somebody know that he could do it.
"But Brit Hunter's hurt bad, so a doctor must come quick, or I think he maybe will die. It takes too long to ride a horse to Echo from this ranch, so I call on my mother, and I tell my mother a doctor must come quick to this ranch. So my mother sends a telephone to this doctor in Shoshone, and he comes. That is all. But I would not like it if everybody maybe finds it out that I do that, and makes talk about it."
He looked straight at Jim and Sorry, and those two unprepossessing ones looked at each other and at Swan and at the doctor and at each other again, and headed for the door. But Swan was leaning against it, and his eyes were on them. "I would like it if you say somebody rides to get the doctor," he hinted quietly.
Sorry looked at Jim. "I rode like hell," he stated heavily. "I leave it to Jim."
"You shore'n hell did!" Jim agreed, and Swan removed his big form from the door.
"You boys goin' over t' Spirit Canyon?" Frank wanted to know.
"Yeah," said Sorry, answering for them both, and they went out, giving Swan a sidelong look of utter bafflement as they passed him. Talking by the thought route from Spirit Canyon to Boise City was evidently a bit too much for even their phlegmatic souls to contemplate with perfect calm.