"Hallo, Bill, whither bound?" said the old rancher, as the younger man came up. "Going to join us in the parlor of Smith's fragrant hostelry? The spider is already there weaving the web in which he hopes to ensnare us."
Bunning-Ford shook his head.
"Who's the spider—Lablache?"
"Yes, we're going to play. It's the first time for some days. Guess we've all been too busy with the round-up. Won't you really join us?"
"Can't. I've promised Mancha and 'Pickles' revenge for a game we played the other night, when I happened to relieve them of a few dollars."
"Sensible man—Lablache is too consistent," put in the doctor, quietly.
"Nonsense," said "Poker" John, optimistically. "You're always carping about the man's luck. We must break it soon."
"Yes, we've suggested that before."
Bill spoke with meaning and finished up with a purse of the lips.
They were near the saloon.
"How long are you going to play?" he went on quietly.
"Right through the evening," replied "Poker" John, with keen satisfaction. "And you?"
"Only until four o'clock. I am going to take tea up at your place."
The old man offered no comment and Bill dismounted and tied the horse to a post, and the three men entered the stuffy bar. The room was half full of people. They were mostly cow-boys or men connected with the various ranches about the neighborhood. Words of greeting hailed the new-comers on all sides, but old John, who led the way, took little or no notice of those whom he recognized. The lust of gambling was upon him, and, as a dipsomaniac craves for drink, so he was longing to feel the smooth surface of pasteboard between his fingers. While Bunning-Ford stopped to exchange a word with some of those he met, the other two men went straight up to the bar. Smith himself, a grizzled old man, with a tobacco-stained gray moustache and beard, and the possessor of a pair of narrow, wicked-looking eyes, was serving out whisky to a couple of worse-looking half-breeds. It was noticeable that every man present wore at his waist either a revolver or a long sheath knife. Even the proprietor was fully armed. The half-breeds wore knives.
"Poker" John was apparently a man of distinction here. Possibly the knowledge that he played a big game elicited for him a sort of indifferent respect. Anyway, the half-breeds moved to allow him to approach the bar.
"Lablache here?" asked the rancher, eagerly.
"He is," replied Mr. Smith, in a drawling voice, as he pushed the two whiskies across to the waiting half-breeds. "Been here half an hour. Jest pass right through, mister. Maybe you'll find him located in number two."
There was no doubt that John B. Smith hailed from America. Although the Canadian is not devoid of the American accent there is not much doubt of nationality when one hears the real thing.
"Good; come on, Doc. No, thanks, Smith," as the man behind the bar reached towards a bottle with a white seal. "We'll have something later on. Number two on the right, I think you said."
The two men passed on into the back part of the premises.
"Guess dollars'll be flyin' 'fore the night's out," said Smith, addressing any who cared to listen, and indicating "Poker" John with a jerk of the head in the direction of the door through which the two men had just passed. "Make the banks hum when they raise the 'bid.' Guess ther' ain't many o' ther' likes roun' these parts. Rye or Scotch?" to "Lord" Bill and three other men who came up at that moment. Mancha and "Pickles" were with him, and a fourth player—the deposed captain of the "round-up," Sim Lory.
"Scotch, you old heathen, of course," replied Bill, with a tolerant laugh. "You don't expect us to drink fire-water. If you kept decent Rye it would be different. We're going to have a flutter. Any room?"
"Number two, I guess. Chock-a-block in the others. Tolerable run on poker these times. All the round-up hands been gettin' advances, I take it. Say when."
The four men said "when" in due course, and each watered his own whisky. The proprietor went on, with a quick twinkle of his beady eyes,—
"Ther's Mr. Allandale an' Lablache and company in number two. Nobody else, I guess. I've a notion you'll find plenty of room. Chips, no? All right; goin' to play a tidy game? Good!"
The four men, having swallowed their drink, followed in the footsteps of the others.
There was something very brisk and business-like about this gambling-hell. Early settlers doubtless remember in the days of "prohibition," when four per cent. beer was supposed to be the only beverage of the country, and before rigid legislation, backed by the armed force of the North-West Mounted Police, swept these frightful pollutions from the fair face of the prairie, how they thrived on the encouragement of gambling and the sale of contraband spirits. The West is a cleaner country now, thanks to the untiring efforts of the police.
In number two "Poker" John and his companions were already getting to work when Bill and his friends entered. Beyond a casual remark they seemed to take little notice of each other. One and all were eager to begin the play.
A deep silence quickly fell upon the room. It was the silence of suppressed excitement. A silence only broken by monosyllabic and almost whispered betting and "raising" as the games proceeded. An hour passed thus. At the table where Lablache and John Allandale were playing the usual luck prevailed. The money-lender seemed unable to do wrong, and at the other table Bunning-Ford was faring correspondingly badly. Pedro Mancha, the Mexican, a man of obscure past and who lived no one quite knew how, but who always appeared to find the necessary to gamble with, was the favored one of dame Fortune. Already he had heaped before him a pile of "bills" and I.O.U.'s most of which bore "Lord" Bill's signature. Looking on at either table, no one from outward signs could have said which way the luck was going. Only the scribblings of the pencils upon the memo pads and the gradual accumulation of the precious slips of paper before Lablache at one table and the wild-eyed, dark-skinned Mexican at the other, told the story of the ruin which was surely being accomplished.
At length, with a loser's privilege, Bunning-Ford, after glancing at his watch, rose from the table. His lean face was in no way disturbed. He seemed quite indifferent to his losses.
"I'll quit you, Pedro," he said, smiling lazily down at the Mexican. "You're a bit too hot for me to-day."
The dark-skinned man smiled a vague, non-committing smile and displayed a double row of immaculate teeth.
"Good. You shall have your revenge. Doubtless you would like some of these papers back," he said, as he swept them leisurely into his pocket-book, and then sugar-bagging a cigarette paper he poured a few grains of granulated tobacco into it.
"Yes, I daresay I shall relieve you of some later on," replied Bill, quietly. Then he turned to the other table and stood watching the play.
He glanced anxiously at the bare table in front of the old rancher. Even Dr. Abbot was well stocked with slips of paper. Then his gaze fell upon the money-lender, behind whose huge back he was standing.
He moved slightly to one side. It is an unwritten law amongst poker players, in a public place in the west of the American continent, that no onlooker should stand immediately behind any player. He moved to Lablache's right. The money-lender was dealing. "Lord" Bill lit a cigarette.
The cards were dealt round. Then the draw. Then Lablache laid the pack down. Bunning-Ford had noted these things mechanically. Then something caught his attention. It was his very indifference which caused his sudden attention. Had he been following the game with his usual keenness he would only have been thinking of the betting.
Lablache was writing upon his memo, pad, which was a gorgeous effort in silver mounting. One of those oblong blocks with a broad band of burnished silver at the binding of the perforated leaves. He knew that this was the pad the money-lender always used; anyway, it was similar in all respects to his usual memorandum pads.
How it was his attention had become fixed upon that pad he could not have told, but now an inspiration came to him. His face remained unchanged in its expression, but those lazy eyes of his gleamed wickedly as he leisurely puffed at his cigarette.
The bet went round. Lablache raised and raised again. Eventually the rancher "saw" him. The other took the pool. No word was spoken, but "Lord" Bill gritted his teeth and viciously pitched his cigarette to the other end of the room.
During the next two deals he allowed his attention to wander. Lablache dropped out one hand, and, in the next, he merely "filled" his "ante" and allowed the doctor to take in the pool. John Allandale's face was serious. The nervous twitching of the cheek was still, but the drawn lines around his mouth were in no way hidden by his gray mustache, nor did the eager light which burned luridly in his eyes for one moment deceive the onlooker as to the anxiety of mind which his features masked.
Now it was Lablache's deal. "Lord" Bill concentrated his attention upon the dealer. The money-lender was left-handed. He held the pack in his right, and, in dealing, he was slow and slightly clumsy. The object of Bunning-Ford's attention quickly became apparent. Each card as it left the pack was passed over the burnished silver of the dealer's memorandum pad. It was smartly done, and Lablache was assisted by the fact that the piece of metal was inclined towards him. There was no necessity to look down deliberately to see the reflection of each card as it passed on its way to its recipient, a glance—just the glance necessary when dealing cards—and the money-lender, by a slight effort of memory, knew every hand that was out. Lablache was cheating.
To say that "Lord" Bill was astonished would be wrong. He was not. He had long suspected it. The steady run of luck which Lablache had persisted in was too phenomenal. It was enough to set the densest thinking. Now everything was plain. Standing where he was, Bill had almost been able to read the index numerals himself. He gave no sign of his discovery. Apparently the matter was of no consequence to him, for he merely lit a fresh cigarette and walked towards the door. He turned as he was about to pass out.
"What time shall I tell Jacky to expect you home, John?" he said quietly, addressing the old rancher.
Lablache looked up with a swift, malevolent glance, but he said nothing. Old John turned a drawn face to the speaker.
"Supper, I guess," he said in a thick voice, husky from long silence. "And tell Smith to send me in a bottle of 'white seal' and some glasses."
"Right you are." Then "Lord" Bill passed out. "Poker without whisky is bad," he muttered as he made his way back to the bar, "but poker and whisky together can only be the beginning of the end. We'll see. Poor old John!"
ACROSS THE GREAT MUSKEG
It was on the stroke of four o'clock when Bunning-Ford left the saloon. He had said that he would be at the ranch at four, and usually he liked to be punctual. He was late now, however, and made no effort to make up time. Instead, he allowed his horse to walk leisurely in the direction of the Allandales' house. He wanted time to think before he again met Jacky.
He was confronted by a problem which taxed all his wit. It was perhaps a fortunate thing that his was not a hasty temperament. He well knew the usual method of dealing with men who cheated at cards in those Western wilds. Each man carried his own law in his holster. He had realized instantly that Lablache was not a case for the usual treatment. Pistol law would have defeated its own ends. Such means would not recover the terrible losses of "Poker" John, neither would he recover thereby his own lost property. No, he congratulated himself upon the restraint he had exercised when he had checked his natural impulse to expose the money-lender. Now, however, the case looked more complicated, and, for the moment, he could see no possible means of solving the difficulty. Lablache must be made to disgorge—but how? John Allandale must be stopped playing and further contributing to Lablache's ill-gotten gains. Again—but how?
Bill was roused out of his usual apathetic indifference. The moment had arrived when he must set aside the old indolent carelessness. He was stirred to the core. A duty had been suddenly forced upon him. A duty to himself and also a duty to those he loved. Lablache had consistently robbed him, and also the uncle of the girl he loved. Now, how to restore that property and prevent the villain's further depredations?
Again and again he asked himself the question as he allowed his horse to mouche, with slovenly step, over the sodden prairie; but no answer presented itself. His thin, eagle face was puckered with perplexity. The sleepy eyes gleamed vengefully from between his half-closed eyelids as he gazed across the sunlit prairie. His aquiline nose, always bearing a resemblance to an eagle's beak, was rendered even more like that aristocratic proboscis by reason of the down-drawn tip, consequent upon the odd pursing of his tightly-compressed lips. For the moment "Lord" Bill was at a loss. And, oddly enough, he began to wonder if, after all, silence had been his best course.
He was still struggling in the direst perplexity when he drew up at the veranda of the ranch. Dismounting, he hitched his picket rope to the tying-post and entered the sitting-room by the open French window. Tea was set upon the table and Jacky was seated before the stove.
"Late, Bill, late! Guess that 'plug' of yours is a rapid beast, judging by the pace you came up the hill."
For the moment Bunning-Ford's face had resumed its wonted air of lazy good-nature.
"Glad you took the trouble to watch for me, Jacky," he retorted quickly, with an attempt at his usual lightness of manner. "I appreciate the honor."
"Nothing of the sort. I was looking for uncle. The mail brought a letter from Calford. Dawson, the cattle buyer of the Western Railway Company, wants to see him. The Home Government are buying largely. He is commissioned to purchase 30,000 head of prime beeves. Come along, tea's ready."
Bill seated himself at the table and Jacky poured out the tea. She was dressed for the saddle.
"Where is Dawson now?" asked Bill.
"Calford. Guess he'll wait right there for uncle."
Suddenly a look of relief passed across the man's face.
"This is Wednesday. At six o'clock the mail-cart goes back to town. Send some one down to the saloon at once, and John will be able to go in to-night."
As Bill spoke his eyes encountered a direct and steady glance from the girl. There was much meaning in that mute exchange. For answer Jacky rose and rang a bell sharply.
"Send a hand down to the settlement to find my uncle. Ask him to come up at once. There is an important letter awaiting him," she said, to the old servant who answered the summons.
"Bill, what's up?" she went on, when the retainer had departed.
"Lots. Look here, Jacky, we mustn't be long over tea. We must both be out of the house when your uncle returns. He may not want to go into town to-night. Anyway, I don't want to give him the chance of asking any questions until we have had a long talk. He's losing to Lablache again."
"Ah! I don't want anything to eat. Whenever you are ready, Bill, I am."
Bunning-Ford drank his tea and rose from the table. The girl followed his example.
There was something very strong and resolute in the brisk, ready-for-emergency ways of this girl. There was nothing of the ultra-feminine dependence and weakness of her sex about her. And yet her hardiness detracted in no way from her womanly charm; rather was that complex abstract enhanced by her wonderful self-reliance. There are those who decry independence in women, but surely only such must come from those whose nature is largely composed of hectoring selfishness. There was a resolute set of the mouth as Jacky sent word to the stables to have her horse brought round. She asked no questions of her companion, as, waiting for compliance with her orders, she drew on her stout buckskin gauntlets. She understood this man well enough to be aware that his suggestion was based upon necessity. "Lord" Bill rarely interfered with anything or anybody, but when such an occasion arose his words carried a deal of weight with those who knew him.
A few minutes later and they were both riding slowly down the avenue of pines leading from the house. The direction in which they were moving was away from the settlement, down towards where the great level flat of the muskeg began. At the end of the avenue they turned directly to the southeast, leaving the township behind them. The prairie was soft and springy. There was still a keen touch of winter in the fresh spring air. The afternoon sun was shining coldly athwart the direction of their route.
Jacky led the way, and, as they drew clear of the bush, and the house and settlement were hidden from view behind them, she urged her horse into a good swinging lope. Thus they progressed in silence. The far-reaching deadly mire on their right, looking innocent enough in the shadow of the snow-clad peaks beyond, the ranch well behind them in the hollow of the Foss River Valley, whilst, on their left, the mighty prairie rolled away upwards to the higher level of the surrounding country.
In this way they covered nearly a mile, then the girl drew up beside a small clump of weedy bush.
"Are you ready for the plunge, Bill?" she asked, as her companion drew up beside her. "The path's not more than four feet wide. Does your 'plug' shy any?"
"He's all right. You lead right on. Where you can travel I've a notion I'm not likely to funk. But I don't see the path."
"I guess you don't. Never did nature keep her secret better than in the setting out of this one road across her woeful man-trap. You can't see the path, but I guess it's an open book to me, and its pages ain't Hebrew either. Say, Bill, there's been many a good prairie man looking for this path, but"—with a slight accent of exultation—"they've never found it. Come on. Old Nigger knows it; many a time has he trodden its soft and shaking surface. Good old horse!" and she patted the black neck of her charger as she turned his head towards the distant hills and urged him forward with a "chirrup."
Far across the muskeg the distant peaks of the mountain range glistened in the afternoon sun like diamond-studded sugar loaves. So high were the clouds that every portion of the mighty summits was clearly outlined. The great ramparts of the prairie are a magnificent sight on a clear day. Flat and smooth as any billiard-table stretched this silent, mysterious muskeg, already green and fair to the eye, an alluring pasture to the unwary. An experienced eye might have judged it too green—too alluring. Could a more perfect trap be devised by evil human ingenuity than this? Think for one instant of a bottomless pit of liquid soil, absorbing in its peculiar density. Think of all the horrors of a quicksand, which, embracing, sucks down into its cruel bosom the despairing victim of its insatiable greed. Think of a thin, solid crust, spread like icing upon a cake and concealing the soft, spongy matter beneath, covering every portion of the cruel plain; a crust which yields a crop of luxurious, enticing grass of the most perfect emerald hue; a crust firm in itself and dry looking, and yet not strong enough to bear the weight of a good-sized terrier. And what imagination can possibly conceive a more cruel—more perfect trap for man or beast? Woe to the creature which trusts its weight upon that treacherous crust. For one fleeting instant it will sway beneath the tread, then, in the flash of a thought, it will break, and once the surface gives no human power can save the victim. Down, down into the depths must the poor wretch be plunged, with scarce time to offer a prayer to God for the poor soul which so swiftly passes to its doom. Such is the muskeg; and surely more terrible is it than is that horror of the navigator—the quicksands.
The girl led the way without as much as a passing thought for the dangers which surrounded her. Truly had her companion said "I don't see the path," for no path was to be seen. But Jacky had learned her lesson well—and learned it from one who read the prairie as the Bedouin reads the desert. The path was there and with a wondrous assurance she followed its course.
The travelers moved silently along. No word was spoken; each was wrapped in thought. Now and again a stray prairie chicken would fly up from their path with a whirr, and speed across the mire, calling to its mate as it went. The drowsy chirrup of frogs went on unceasingly around, and already the ubiquitous mosquito was on the prowl for human gore.
The upstanding horses now walked with down-drooped heads, with sniffing noses low towards the ground, ears cocked, and with alert, careful tread, as if fully alive to the danger of their perilous road. The silence of that ride teemed with a thrill of danger. Half an hour passed and then the girl gathered up her reins and urged her willing horse into a canter.
"Come on, Bill, the path is more solid now, and wider. The worst part is on the far side," she called back over her shoulder.
Her companion followed her unquestioningly.
The sun was already dipping towards the distant peaks and already a shadowy haze was rising upon the eastern prairie. The chill of winter grew keener as the sun slowly sank.
Two-thirds of the journey were covered and Jacky, holding up a warning hand, drew up her horse. Her companion came to a stand beside her.
"The path divides in three here," said the girl, glancing keenly down at the fresh green grass. "Two of the branches are blind and end abruptly further on. Guess we must avoid 'em," she went on shortly, "unless we are anxious to punctuate our earthly career. This is the one we must take," turning her horse to the left path. "Keep your eye peeled and stick to Nigger's footprints."
The man did as he was bid, marvelling the while at the strange knowledge of his companion. He had no fear; he only wondered. The trim, graceful figure on the horse ahead of him occupied all his thoughts. He watched her as, with quiet assurance she guided her horse. He had known Jacky for years. He had watched her grow to womanhood, but although her up-bringing must of necessity have taught her an independence and courage given to few women, he had never dreamt of the strength of the sturdy nature she was now displaying. Again his thoughts went to the tales of the gossips of the settlement, and the strange figure of the daring cattle-thief loomed up over his mental horizon. He rode, and as he rode he wondered. The end Of this journey would be a fitting place for the explanations which must take place between them.
At length the shaking path came to an end and the mire was crossed. A signal from the girl brought her companion to her side.
"We have crossed it," she said, glancing up at the sun, and indicating the muskeg with a backward jerk of her head. "Now for the horse."
"What about your promise to tell me about Peter Retief?"
"Guess being the narrator you must let me take my time."
She smiled up into her companion's eagle face.
"The horse is a mile or so further up towards the foothills. Come along."
They galloped side by side over the moist, springy grass—moist with the recently-melted snow. "Lord" Bill was content to wait her pleasure. Suddenly the man brought his horse up with a severe "yank."
"What's up?" The girl's beautiful eyes were fixed upon the ground with a peculiar instinct. Bill pointed to the ground on the side furthest from his companion.
Jacky gazed at the spot indicated.
"The tracks of the horse," she said sharply.
She was on the ground in an instant and inspecting the hoof-prints eagerly, with that careful study acquired by experience.
"Well?" said the other, as she turned back to her horse.
"Recent." Then in an impressive tone which her companion failed to understand, "That horse has been shod. The shoes are off—all except a tiny bit on his off fore. We must track it."
They now separated and rode keeping the hoof-prints between them. The marks were quite fresh and so plain in the soft ground that they were able to ride at a good pace. The clear-cut indentations led away from the mire up the gently-sloping ground. Suddenly they struck upon a path that was little more than a cattle-track, and instantly became mingled with other hoof-marks, older and going both ways. Hitherto the girl had ridden with her eyes closely watching the tracks, but now she suddenly raised her sweet, weather-tanned face to her companion, and, with a light of the wildest excitement in her eyes, she pointed along the path and set her horse at a gallop.
"Come on! I know," she cried, "right on into the hills."
Bill followed willingly enough, but he failed to understand his companion's excitement. After all they were merely bent upon "roping" a stray horse. The girl galloped on at breakneck speed; the heavy black ringlets of hair were swept like an outspread fan from under the broad brim of her Stetson hat, her buckskin bodice ballooning in the wind as rider and horse charged along, utterly indifferent to the nature of the country they were traveling—indifferent to everything except the mad pursuit of an unseen quarry. Now they were on the summit of some eminence whence they could see for miles the confusion of hills, like innumerable bee-hives set close together upon an endless plain; now down, tearing through a deep hollow, and racing towards another abrupt ascent. With every hill passed the country became less green and more and more rugged. "Lord" Bill struggled hard to keep the girl in view as she raced on—on through the labyrinth of seemingly endless hillocks. But at last he drew up on the summit of a high cone-like rise and realized that he had lost her.
For a moment he gazed around with that peculiar, all-observing keenness which is given to those whose lives are spent in countries where human habitation is sparse—where the work of man is lost in the immensity of Nature's effort. He could see no sign of the girl. And yet he knew she could not be far away. His instincts told him to search for her horse tracks. He was sure she had passed that way. While yet he was thinking, she suddenly reappeared over the brow of a further hill. She halted at the summit, and, seeing him, waved a summons. Her gesticulations were excited and he hastened to obey. Down into the intervening valley his horse plunged with headlong recklessness. At the bottom there was a hard, beaten track. Almost unconsciously he allowed his beast to adopt it. It wound round and upwards, at the base of the hill on which Jacky was waiting for him. He passed the bend, then, with a desperate, backward heave of the body, he "yanked" his horse short up, throwing the eager animal on to its haunches.
He had pulled up on what, at first appeared to be the brink of a precipice, and what in reality was a declivity, down which only the slow and sure foot of a steer or broncho might safely tread. He sat aghast at his narrow escape. Then, turning at the sound of a voice behind him, he found that Jacky had come down from the hill above.
"See, Bill," she cried, as she drew abreast of his hard-breathing horse, "there he is! Down there, peacefully, grazing."
Her excitement was intense, and the hand with which she pointed shook like an aspen. Her agitation was incomprehensible to the man. He looked down. Hitherto he had seen little beyond the brink at which he had come to such a sudden stand. But now, as he gazed down, he beheld a deep dark-shadowed valley, far-reaching and sombre. From their present position its full extent was beyond the range of vision, but sufficient was to be seen to realize that here was one of those vast hiding-places only to be found in lands where Nature's fanciful mood has induced the mighty upheaval of the world's greatest mountain ranges. On the far side of the deep, sombre vale a towering craig rose wall-like, sheer up, overshadowing the soft, green pasture deep down at the bottom of the yawning gulch. Dense patches of dark, relentless pinewoods lined its base, and, over all, in spite of the broad daylight, a peculiar shadow, as of evening, added mystery to the haunting view.
It was some seconds before the man was able to distinguish the tiny object which had roused the girl to such unaccountable excitement. When he did, however, he beheld a golden chestnut horse quietly grazing as it made its way leisurely towards the ribbon-like stream which flowed in the bosom of the mysterious valley. "Lord" Bill's voice was quite emotionless when he spoke.
"Ah, a chestnut!" he said quietly. "Well, our quest is vain. He is beyond our reach."
For a moment the girl looked at him in indignant surprise. Then her mood changed and she nearly laughed outright. She had forgotten that this man as yet knew nothing of what had all along been in her thoughts. As yet he knew nothing of the secret of this hollow. To her it meant a world of recollection—a world of stirring adventure and awful hazard. When first she had seen that horse, grazing within sight of her uncle's house, her interest had been aroused—suspicions had been sent teeming through her brain. Her thoughts had flown to the man whom she had once known, and who was now dead. She had believed his horse had died with him. And now the strange apparition had yielded up its secret. The beast had been traced to the old, familiar haunt, and what had been only suspicion had suddenly become a startling reality.
"Ah, I forgot," she replied, "you don't understand. That is Golden Eagle. Can't you see, he has the fragments of his saddle still tied round his body. To think of it—and after two years."
Her companion still seemed dense.
"Golden Eagle?" he repeated questioningly. "Golden Eagle?" The name seemed familiar but he failed to comprehend.
"Yes, yes," the girl broke out impatiently. "Golden Eagle—Peter Retief's horse. The grandest beast that ever stepped the prairie. See, he is keeping watch over his master's old hiding-place—faithful—faithful to the memory of the dead."
"And this is—is the haunt of Peter Retief," Bill exclaimed, his interest centering chiefly upon the yawning valley before him.
"Yes—follow me closely, and we'll get right along down. Say, Bill, we must round up that animal."
For a fleeting space the man looked dubious, then, with lips pursed, and a quiet look of resolution in his sleepy eyes, he followed in his companion's wake. The grandeur—the solitude—the mystery and associations, conveyed by the girl's words, of the place were upon him. These things had set him thinking.
The tortuous course of that perilous descent occupied their full attention, but, at length, they reached the valley in safety. Now, indeed, was a wonderful scene disclosed. Far as the eye could reach the great hollow extended. Deep and narrow; deep in the heart of the hills which towered upon either side to heights, for the most part, inaccessible, precipitous. It was a wondrous gulch, hidden and unsuspected in the foothills, and protected by those amazing wilds, in which the ignorant or unwary must infallibly be lost. It was a perfect pasture, a perfect hiding-place, watered by a broad running stream; sheltered from all cold and storm. No wonder then that the celebrated outlaw, Peter Retief, had chosen it for his haunt and the harborage of his ill-gotten stock.
With characteristic method the two set about "roping" the magnificent crested horse they had come to capture. They soon found that he was wild—timid as a hare. Their task looked as though it would be one of some difficulty.
At first Golden Eagle raced recklessly from point to point. And so long as this lasted his would-be captors could do little but endeavor to "head" him from one to the other, in the hope of getting him within range of the rope. Then he seemed suddenly to change his mind, and, with a quick double, gallop towards the side of the great chasm. A cry of delight escaped the girl as she saw this. The horse was making for the mouth of a small cavern which had been boarded over, and, judging by the door and window in the woodwork, had evidently been used as a dwelling or a stable. It was the same instinct which led him to this place that had caused the horse to remain for two years the solitary tenant of the valley. The girl understood, and drew her companion's attention. The capture at once became easy. Keeping clear of the cave they cautiously herded their quarry towards it. Golden Eagle was docile enough until he reached the, to him, familiar door. Then, when he found that his pursuers still continued to press in upon him, he took alarm, and, throwing up his head, with a wild, defiant snort he made a bolt for the open.
Instantly two lariats whirled through the air towards the crested neck. One missed its mark, but the other fell, true as a gun-shot over the small, thoroughbred head. It was Jacky's rope which had found its mark. A hitch round the horn of her saddle, and her horse threw himself back with her forefeet braced, and faced the captive. Then the rope tightened with a jerk which taxed its rawhide strands to their utmost. Instantly Golden Eagle, after two years' freedom, stood still; he knew that once more he must return to captivity.
TOLD IN BAD MAN'S HOLLOW
Jacky held her treasure fast. The choking grip of the running noose quieted Golden Eagle into perfect docility. Bunning-Ford was off his horse in a moment. Approaching the primitive dwelling he forced open the crazy door. It was a patchwork affair and swung back on a pair of hinges which lamented loudly as the accumulation of rust were disturbed. The interior was essentially suggestive of the half-breed, and his guess at its purpose had been a shrewd one. Part storehouse for forage, part bedroom, and part stable, it presented a squalid appearance. The portion devoted to stable-room was far in the back; the curious apparatus which constituted the bed was placed under the window.
The man propped the door open, and then went to relieve the girl from the strain of holding her captive. Seizing the lariat he gripped it tightly and proceeded to pass slowly, hand over hand, towards the beautiful, wild-eyed chestnut. Golden Eagle seemed to understand, for, presently, the tension of the rope relaxed. For a moment the animal looked fearfully around and snorted, then, as "Lord" Bill determinedly attempted to lead him, he threw himself backward. His rebellion lasted but for an instant, for, presently, drooping his proud head as though in token of submission, he followed his captor quietly into the stable which had always been his.
The girl dismounted, and, shortly after, "Lord" Bill rejoined her.
"Well?" she asked, her questioning eyes turned in the direction of the cave.
"He's snug enough," Bill replied quietly, glancing at his watch. He looked up at the chilly sky, then he seated himself on the edge of a boulder which reposed beside the entrance to the stable. "We've just got two hours and a half before dark," he added slowly. "That means an hour in which to talk." Then he quietly prepared to roll a cigarette. "Now, Jacky, let's have your yarn first; after that you shall hear mine."
He leisurely proceeded to pick over the tobacco before rolling it in the paper. He was usually particular about his smoke. He centered his attention upon the matter now, purposely, so as to give his companion a chance to tell her story freely. He anticipated that what she had to tell would affect her nearly. But his surmise of the direction in which she would be affected proved totally incorrect. Her first words told him this.
She hesitated only for the fraction of a second, then she plunged into her story with a directness which was always hers.
"This is Bad Man's Hollow—he—he was my half-brother."
So the stories of the gossips were not true. Bill gave a comprehensive nod, but offered no comment. Her statement appeared to him to need none. It explained itself; she was speaking of Peter Retief.
"Mother was a widow when she married father—widow with one son. Mother was a half-breed."
An impressive silence ensued. For a moment a black shadow swept across the valley. It was a dense flight of geese winging their way back to the north, as the warm sun melted the snow and furnished them with well-watered feeding-grounds. The frogs were chirruping loudly down at the edge of the stream which trickled its way ever southwards. She went on.
"Mother and Peter settled at Foss River at different times. They never hit it off. No one knew that there was any relationship between them up at the camp. Mother lived in her own shack. Peter located himself elsewhere. Guess it's only five years since I learned these things. Peter was fifteen years older than I. I take it they made him 'bad' from the start. Poor Peter!—still, he was my half-brother."
She conveyed a world of explanation in her last sentence. There was a tender, far-away look in her great, sorrowful eyes as she told her jerky story. "Lord" Bill allowed himself a side-long glance in her direction, then he turned his eyes towards the south end of the valley and something very like a sigh escaped him. She had struck a sympathetic chord in his heart. He longed to comfort her.
"There's no use in reckoning up Peter's acts. You know 'em as well as I do, Bill. He was slick—was Peter," she went on, with an inflection of satisfaction. She was returning to a lighter manner as she contemplated the cattle-thief's successes. "Cattle, mail-trains, mail-carts—nothing came amiss to him. In his own line Peter was a Jo-dandy." Her face flushed as she proceeded. The half-breed blood in her was stirred in all its passionate strength. "But he'd never have slipped the coyote sheriffs or the slick red-coats so long as he did without my help. Say, Bill," leaning forward eagerly and peering into his face with her beautiful glowing eyes, "for three years I just—just lived! Poor Peter! Guess I'm reckoned kind of handy 'round a bunch of steers. There aren't many who can hustle me. You know that. All the boys on the round-up know that. And why? Because I learnt the business from Peter—and Peter taught me to shoot quick and straight. Those three years taught me a deal, and I take it those things didn't happen for nothing," with a moody introspective gaze. "Those years taught me how to look after myself—and my uncle. Say, Bill, what I'm telling you may sicken you some. I can't help that. Peter was my brother and blood's thicker than water. I wasn't going to let him be hunted down by a lot of bloodthirsty coyotes who were no better than he. I wasn't going to let my mother's flesh feed the crows from the end of a lariat. I helped Peter to steer clear of the law—lynch at that—and if he fell at last, a victim to the sucking muck of the muskeg, it was God's judgment and not man's—that's good enough for me. I'd do it all again, I guess, if—if Peter were alive."
"Peter had some shooting on the account against him," said Bill, without raising his eyes from the contemplation of his cigarette. The girl smiled. The smile hovered for a moment round her mouth and eyes, and then passed, leaving her sweet, dark face bathed in the shadow of regret. She understood the drift of his remark but in no way resented it.
"No, Bill, I steered clear of that. I'd have shot to save Peter, but it never came to that. Whatever shooting Peter did was done on his—lonely. I jibbed at a frolic that meant—shooting. Peter never let me dirty my hands to that extent. Guess I just helped him and kept him posted. If I'd had law, they'd have called me accessory after the fact."
"Lord" Bill pondered. His lazy eyes were half-closed. He looked indifferent but his thoughts were flowing fast. This girl's story had given a fillup to a wild plan which had almost unconsciously found place in his active brain. Now he raised his eyes to her face and was astonished at the setness of its expression. She reminded him of those women in history whose deeds had, at various periods, shaken the foundations of empires. There was a deep, smouldering fire in her eyes, for which only the native blood in her veins could account. Her beautiful face was clouded beneath a somber shadow which is so often accredited as a presage of tragedy. Surely her expression was one of a great, passionate nature, of a soul capable of a wondrous love, or a wondrous—hate. She had seated herself upon the ground with the careless abandon of one used to such a resting-place. Her trim riding-boots were displayed from beneath the hem of her coarse dungaree habit. Her Stetson hat was pushed back on her head, leaving the broad low forehead exposed. Her black waving hair streamed about her face, a perfect framing for the Van Dyke coloring of her skin. She was very beautiful.
The man shifted his position.
"Tell me," he went on, gazing over towards where a flock of wild ducks had suddenly settled upon a reedy swamp, and were noisily revelling in the water, "did your uncle know anything about this?"
"Not a soul on God's earth knew. Did you ever suspect anything?"
Bill shook his head.
"Not a thing. I was as well posted on the subject of Peter as any one. Sometimes I thought it curious that old John's stock and my own were never interfered with. But I had no suspicion of the truth. Peter's relationship to your mother—did the Breeds in the settlement know anything of it?"
"No—I alone knew."
The girl looked curiously into her companion's face. The tone of his exclamation startled her. She wondered towards what end his questions were leading. His face was inscrutable; she gained no inspiration from it. There was a short pause. She wondered anxiously how her story had affected him in regard to herself. After all, she was only a woman—a woman of strong affections and deep feelings. Her hardihood, her mannish self-reliance, were but outer coverings, the result of the surroundings of her daily life. She feared lest he should turn from her in utter loathing.
The Hon. Bunning-Ford had no such thoughts, however. Twenty-four hours ago her story might have startled him. But now it was different. His was as wild and reckless a nature as her own. Law and order were matters which he regarded in the light of personal inclinations. He had seen too much of the early life on the prairie to be horrified by the part this courageous girl had taken in her blood-relative's interests. Under other circumstances "Lord" Bill might well have developed into a "bad man" himself. As it was, his sympathies were always with those whose daring led them into ways of danger and risk of personal safety.
"How far does this valley extend?" he asked abruptly, stepping over as though to obtain a view of the southern extremity of the mysterious hollow.
"Guess we reckoned it 300 miles. Dead straight into the heart of the mountains, then out again sharply into the foot-hills thirty miles south of the border. It comes to an end in Montana."
"And Peter disposed of his stock that way—all by himself?" he asked, returning to his seat upon the boulder.
"All by himself," the girl repeated, again wondering at the drift of his questions. "My help only extended as far as this place. Peter used to fatten his stock right here and then run them down into Montana. Down there no one knew where he came from, and so wonderfully is this place hidden that he was never traced. There is only one approach to it, and that's across the keg. In winter that can be crossed anywhere, but no sane persons would trust themselves in the foothills at that time of year. For the rest it can only be crossed by the secret path. This valley is a perfectly-hidden natural road for illicit traffic."
"Wonderful." The man permitted a smile to spread over his thin, eagle face. "Peter's supposed to have made a pile of money."
"Yes, I guess Peter sunk a pile of dollars. He hid his bills right here in the valley," Jacky replied, smiling back into the indolent face before her. Then her face became serious again. "The secret of its hiding-place died with him—it's buried deep down in the reeking keg."
"And you're sure he died in the 'reeking keg'?" There was a sharp intonation in the question. The matter seemed to be of importance in the story.
Jacky half started at the eagerness with which the question was put. She paused for an instant before replying.
"I believe he died there," she said at length, like one weighing her words well, "but it was never clearly proved. Most people think that he simply cleared out of the country. I picked up his hat close beside the path, and the crust of the keg had been broken. Yes, I believe he died in the muskeg. Had he lived I should have known."
"But how comes it that Golden Eagle is still alive? Surely Peter would never have crossed the keg on foot"
The girl looked perplexed for a moment. But her conviction was plainly evident.
"No—he wouldn't have walked. Peter drank some."
"Once I saved him from taking the wrong track at the point where the path forks. He'd been drinking then. Yes," with a quiet assurance, "I think he died in the keg."
Her companion seemed to have come to the end of his cross-examination. He suddenly rose from his seat. The chattering of the ducks in the distance caused him to turn his head. Then he turned again to the girl before him. The indolence had gone from his eyes. His face was set, and the firm pursing of his lips spoke of a determination arrived at. He gazed down at the recumbent figure upon the ground. There was something in his gaze which made the girl lower her eyes and look far out down the valley.
"This brother of yours—he was tall and thin?"
The girl nodded.
"Am I right in my recollection of him when I say that he was possessed of a dark, dark face, lantern jaws, thin—and high, prominent cheek-bones?"
She faced him inquiringly as she answered his eager questions.
He quickly turned again in the direction of the noisy water-fowl. Their rollicking gambols sounded joyously on the brooding atmosphere of the place. The wintry chill in the air was fast ousting the balmy breath of spring. It was a warning of the lateness of the hour.
"Now listen to me," he went on presently, turning again from the contemplation of his weird surroundings. "I lost all that was left to me from the wreck of my little ranch this afternoon—no, not to Lablache," as the girl was about to pronounce the hated name, "but," with a wintry smile, "to another friend of yours, Pedro Mancha. I also discovered, this afternoon, the source of Lablache's phenomenal—luck. He has systematically robbed both your uncle and myself—" He broke off with a bitter laugh.
The girl had sprung to her feet in her agitation. And a rage indescribable flamed into her face. The fury there expressed appalled him, and he stood for a moment waiting for it to abate. What terrible depths had he delved into? The hidden fires of a passionate nature are more easily kept under than checked in their blasting career when once the restraining will power is removed. For an instant it seemed that she must choke. Then she hurled her feelings into one brief, hissing sentence.
"Lablache—I hate him!"
And the man realized that he must continue his story.
"Yes, we lost our money not fairly, but by—cheating. I am ruined, and your uncle—" Bill shrugged.
"My uncle—God help him!"
"I do not know the full extent of his losses, Jacky—except that they have probably trebled mine."
"But I know to what extent the hound has robbed him," Jacky answered in a tone of such bitter hatred as to cause her companion to glance uneasily at the passionate young face before him. "I know, only too well. And right thoroughly has Lablache done his work. Say, Bill, do you know that that skunk holds mortgages on our ranch for two hundred thousand dollars? And every bill of it is for poker. For twenty years, right through, he has steadily sucked the old man's blood. Slick? Say a six-year-old steer don't know more about a branding-iron than does Verner Lablache about his business. For every dollar uncle's lost he's made him sign a mortgage. Every bit of paper has the old man had to redeem in that way. What he's done lately—I mean uncle—I can't say. But Lablache held those mortgages nearly a year ago."
"Whew—" "Lord" Bill whistled under his breath. "Gee-whittaker. It's worse than I thought. 'Poker' John's losses during the last winter, to my knowledge, must have amounted to nearly six figures—the devil!"
"Ruin, ruin, ruin!"
The girl for a moment allowed womanly feeling to overcome her, for, as her companion added his last item to the vast sum which she had quoted, she saw, in all its horrible nakedness, the truth of her uncle's position. Then she suddenly forced back the tears which had struggled into her eyes, and, with indomitable courage, faced the catastrophe.
"But can't we fight him—can't we give him—"
"Law? I'm afraid not," Bill interrupted. "Once a mortgage is signed the debt is no longer a gambling debt. Law is of no use to us, especially here on the prairie. There is only one law which can save us. Lablache must disgorge."
"Yes—yes! For every dollar he has stolen let him pay ten."
The passionate fire in her eyes burned more steadily now. It was the fire which is unquenchable—the fire of a lasting hate, vengeful, terrible. Then her tone dropped to a contemplative soliloquy.
"But how?" she murmured, looking away towards the stream in the heart of the valley, as though in search of inspiration.
Bunning-Ford smiled as he heard the half-whispered question. But his smile was not pleasant to look upon. All the latent recklessness which might have made of him a good soldier or a great scoundrel was roused in him. He was passing the boundary which divides the old Adam, which is in every man, from the veneer of early training. He was mutely—unconsciously—calling to his aid the savage instincts which the best of men are not without. His face expressed something of what was passing within his active brain, and the girl before him, as she turned and watched the working features, usually so placid—indifferent, knew that she was to see a side of his character always suspected by her but never before made apparent. His thoughts at last found vent in words of almost painful intensity.
"How?" he said, repeating the question as though it had been addressed to himself. "He shall pay—pay! Everlastingly pay! So long as I have life—and liberty, he shall pay!"
Then as if anticipating a request for explanation he told her the means by which Lablache had consistently cheated. The girl listened, speechless with amazement. She hung upon his every word. At the conclusion of his story she put an abrupt question.
"And you gave no sign? He doesn't suspect that you know?"
"He suspects nothing."
"Good. You are real smart, Bill. Yes, shooting's no good. This is no case for shooting. What do you propose? I see you mean business."
The man was still smiling but his smile had suddenly changed to one of kindly humor.
"First of all Jacky," he said, taking a step towards her, "I can do nothing without your help. I propose that you share this task with me. No, no, I don't mean in that way," as she commenced to assure him of her assistance. "What I mean is that—that I love you, dear. I want you to give me the right to protect—your uncle."
He finished up with his hands stretched out towards her. Golden Eagle stirred in his stable, and the two heard him whinny as if in approval. Then as the girl made no answer Bill went on: "Jacky, I am a ruined man. I have nothing, but I love you better than life itself. We now have a common purpose in life. Let us work together."
His voice sank to a tender whisper. He loved this motherless girl who was fighting the battle of life single-handed against overwhelming odds, with all the strength of his nature. He had loved her ever since she had reached woman's estate. In asking for a return of his affections now he fully realized the cruelty of his course. He knew that the future—his future—was to be given up to the pursuit of a terrible revenge. And he knew that, in linking herself with him, she would perforce be dragged into whatever wrong-doing his contemplated revenge might lead him. And yet he dared not pause. It all seemed so plain—so natural—that they should journey through the crooked, paths of the future together. Was she not equally determined upon a terrible revenge?
He waited in patience for his answer. Suddenly she looked up into his face and gently placed her hands in his. Her answer came with simple directness.
"Do you really, Bill? I am glad—yes, glad right through. I love you, too. Say, you're sure you don't think badly of me because—because I'm Peter's sister?"
There was a smiling, half-tearful look in her eyes—those expressive eyes which, but a moment before, had burnt with a vengeful fire—as she asked the question. After all her nature was wondrously simple.
"Why should I, dear?" he replied, bending and kissing the gauntleted hands which rested so lovingly in his. "My life has scarcely been a Garden of Eden before the Fall. And I don't suppose my future, even should I escape the laws of man, is likely to be most creditable. Your past is your own—I have no right nor wish to criticise. Henceforth we are united in a common cause. Our hand is turned against one whose power in this part of the country is almost absolute. When we have wrested his property from him, to the uttermost farthing, we will cry quits—"
"And on the day that sees Lablache's downfall, Bill, I will become your wife."
There was a pause. Then Bill drew her towards him and they sealed the compact with one long embrace. They were roused to the matters of the moment by another whinny from Golden Eagle, who was chafing at his forced imprisonment.
The two stood back from one another, hand in hand, and smiled as they listened to the tuneful plaint. Then the man unfolded a wonderful plan to this girl whom he loved. Her willing ears drank in the details like one whose heart is set with a great purpose. They also talked of their love in their own practical way. There was little display of sentiment. They understood without that. Their future was not alluring, unless something of the man's strange plan appealed to the wild nature of the prairie which, by association, has somehow become affiliated with theirs. In that quiet, evening-lit valley these two people arranged to set aside the laws of man and deal out justice as they understood it. An eye for an eye—a tooth for a tooth; fortune favoring, a cent, per cent, interest in each case. The laws of the prairie, in those days always uncertain, were more often governed by human passions than the calm equity of unbiased jurymen. And who shall say that their idea of justice was wrong? Two "wrongs," it has been said, do not make one "right." But surely it is not a human policy when smote upon one cheek to turn the other for a similar chastisement.
"Then we leave Golden Eagle where he is," said Jacky, as she remounted her horse and they prepared to return home.
"Yes. I will see to him," Bill replied, urging his horse into a canter towards the winding ascent which was to take them home.
The ducks frolicking in their watery playground chattered and flapped their heavy wings. The frogs in their reedy beds croaked and chirruped without ceasing. And who shall say how much they had heard, or had seen, or knew of that compact sealed in Bad Man's Hollow?
Lablache was seated in a comfortable basket chair in his little back office. He preferred a basket chair—he knew its value. He had tried other chairs of a less yielding nature, but they were useless to support his weight; he had broken too many, and they were expensive—there is nothing more durable than a strong basket chair. Lablache appreciated strength combined with durability, especially when the initial outlay was reduced to a minimum.
His slippered feet were posted on the lower part of the self-feeding stove and he gazed down, deep in thought, at the lurid glow of the fire shining through the mica sides of the firebox.
A clock was ticking away with that peculiar, vibrating aggressiveness which characterizes the cheap American "alarm." The bare wood of the desk aggravated the sound, and, in the stillness of the little room, the noise pounded exasperatingly on the ear-drums. From time to time he turned his great head, and his lashless eyes peered over at the paper dial of the clock. Once or twice he stirred with a suggestion of impatience. At times his heavy breathing became louder and shorter, and he seemed about to give expression to some irritable thought.
At last his bulk heaved and he removed his feet from the stove. Then he slowly raised himself from the depths of the yielding chair. His slippered feet shuffled over the floor as he moved towards the window. The blind was down, but he drew it aside and wiped the steam from the glass pane with his soft, fat hand. The night was black—he could see nothing of the outside world. It was nearly an hour since he had left the saloon where he had been playing poker with John Allandale. He appeared to be waiting for some one, and he wanted to go to bed.
Once more he returned to his complaining chair and lowered himself into it. The minutes slipped by. Lablache did not want to smoke; he felt that he must do something to soothe his impatience, so he chewed at the quicks of his finger-nails.
Presently there came a tap at the window. The money-lender ponderously rose, and, cautiously opening the door, admitted the dark, unkempt form of Pedro Mancha. There was no greeting; neither spoke until Lablache had again secured the door. Then the money-lender turned his fishy eyes and mask-like face to the newcomer. He did not suggest that his visitor should sit down. He merely looked with his cold, cruel eyes, and spoke.
The latter part of his remark was an assertion. He knew the Mexican well. The fellow had an expressive countenance, unlike most of his race, and the least sign of drink was painfully apparent upon it. The man was not drunk but his wild eyes testified to his recent libations.
"Guess you've hit it right thar," he retorted indifferently.
It was noticeable that this man had adopted the high-pitched, keen tone and pronounced accent of the typical "South-Westerner." In truth he was a border Mexican; a type of man closely allied to the "greaser." He was a perfect scoundrel, who had doubtless departed from his native land for the benefit of that fair but swarming hornet's nest.
"It's a pity when you have business on hand you can't leave that 'stuff' alone."
Lablache made no effort to conceal his contempt. He even allowed his mask-like face to emphasize his words.
"You're almighty pertickler, mister. You ask for dirty work to be done, an' when that dirty work's done, gorl-darn-it you croak like a flannel-mouthed temperance lecturer. Guess I came hyar to talk straight biz. Jest leave the temperance track, an' hit the main trail."
Pedro's face was not pretty to look upon. The ring of white round the pupils of his eyes gave an impression of insanity or animal ferocity. The latter was his chief characteristic. His face was thin and scored with scars, mainly long and narrow. These, in a measure, testified to his past. His mouth, half hidden beneath a straggling mustache, was his worst feature. One can only liken it to a blubber-lipped gash, lined inside with two rows of yellow fangs, all in a more or less bad state of decay.
The two men eyed one another steadily for a moment. Lablache could in no way terrorize this desperado. Like all his kind this man was ready to sell his services to any master, provided the forthcoming price of such services was sufficiently exorbitant. He was equally ready to play his employer up should any one else offer a higher price. But Lablache, when dealing with such men, took no chances. He rarely employed this sort of man, preferring to do his own dirty work, but when he did, he knew it was policy to be liberal. Pedro served him well as a rule, consequently the Mexican was enabled to ruffle it with the best in the settlement, whilst people wondered where he got his money from. Somehow they never thought of Lablache being the source of this man's means; the money-lender was not fond of parting.
"You are right, I am particular. When I pay for work to be done I don't want gassing over a bar. I know what you are when the whisky is in you."
Lablache stood with his great back to the fire watching his man from beneath his heavy lids. Bad as he was himself the presence of this man filled him with loathing. Possibly deep down, somewhere in that organ he was pleased to consider his heart, he had a faint glimmer of respect for an honest man. The Mexican laughed harshly.
"Guess all you know of me, mister, wouldn't make a pile o' literature. But say, what's the game to-night?"
Lablache was gnawing his fingers.
"How much did you take from the Honorable?" he asked sharply.
"You told me to lift his boodle. Time was short—he wouldn't play for long."
"I'm aware of that. How much?"
Lablache's tone was abrupt and peremptory. Mancha was trying to estimate what he should be paid for his work.
"See hyar, I guess we ain't struck no deal yet. What do you propose to pay me?"
The Mexican was sharp but he was no match for his employer. He fancied he saw a good deal over this night's work.
"You played on paper, I know," said the money-lender, quietly. He was quite unmoved by the other's display of cunning. It pleased him rather than otherwise. He knew he held all the cards in his hands—he generally did in dealing with men of this stamp. "To you, the amounts he lost are not worth the paper they are written on. You could never realize them. He couldn't meet 'em."
Lablache leisurely took a pinch of snuff from his snuff-box. He coughed and sneezed voluminously. His indifferent coolness, his air of patronage, aggravated the Mexican while it alarmed him. The deal he anticipated began to assume lesser proportions.
"Which means, I take it, you've a notion you'd like the feel of those same papers."
Mancha had come to drive a bargain. He was aware that the I.O.U.'s he held would take some time to realize on, in the proper quarter, but, at the same time, he was quite aware of the fact that Bunning-Ford would ultimately meet them.
Lablache shrugged his shoulders with apparent indifference—he meant to have them.
"What do you want for the debts? I am prepared to buy—at a reasonable figure."
The Mexican propped himself comfortably upon the corner of the desk.
"Say, guess we're talkin' biz, now. His 'lordship' is due to ante up the trifle of seven thousand dollars—"
The fellow was rummaging in an inside pocket for the slips of paper. His eyes never left his companion's face. The amount startled Lablache, but he did not move a muscle.
"You did your work well, Pedro," he said, allowing himself, for the first time in this conversation, to recognize that the Mexican had a name. He warmed towards a man who was capable of doing another down for such a sum in such a short space of time. "I'll treat you well. Two thousand spot cash, and you hand over the I.O.U.'s. What say? Is it a go?"
"Be damned to you. Two thousand for a certain seven? Not me. Say, what d'ye do with the skin when you eat a bananny? Sole your boots with it? Gee-whiz! You do fling your bills around."
The Mexican laughed derisively as he jammed the papers back into his pocket. But he knew that he would have to sell at the other's price.
Lablache moved heavily towards his desk. Selecting a book he opened it at a certain page.
"You can keep them if you like. But you may as well understand your position. What's Bunning-Ford worth? What's his ranch worth?"
The other suggested a figure much below the real value.
"It's worth more than that. Fifty thousand if it's worth a cent," Lablache said expansively. "I don't want to do you, my friend, but as you said we're talking business now. Here is his account with me, you see," pointing to the entries. "I hold thirty-five thousand on first mortgage and twenty thousand on bill of sale. In all fifty-five thousand, and his interest twelve months in arrears. Now, you refuse to part with those papers at my price, and I'll sell him up. You will then get not one cent of your money."
The money-lender permitted himself to smile a grim, cold smile. He had been careful to make no mention of Bunning-Ford's further assets. He had quite forgotten to speak of a certain band of cattle which he knew his intended victim to possess. It was a well-known thing that Lablache knew more of the financial affairs of the people of the settlement than any one else; doubtless the Mexican thought only of "Lord" Bill's ranch. Mancha shifted his position uneasily. But there was a cunning look on his face as he retorted swiftly,—
"You're a'mighty hasty to lay your hands on his reckoning. How's it that you're ready to part two thou' for 'em?"
There was a moment's silence as the two men eyed each other. It seemed as if each were endeavoring to fathom the other's thoughts. Then the money-lender spoke, and his voice conveyed a concentration of hate that bit upon the air with an incisiveness which startled his companion.
"Because I intend to crush him as I would a rattlesnake. Because I wish to ruin him so that he will be left in my debt. So that I can hound him from this place by holding that debt over his head. It is worth two thousand to me to possess that power. Now, will you part?"
This explanation appealed to the worst side of the Mexican's nature. This hatred was after his own heart. Lablache was aware that such would be the case. That is why he made it. He was accustomed to play upon the feelings of people with whom he dealt—as well as their pocket. Pedro Mancha grinned complacently. He thought he understood his employer.
"Hand over the bills. Guess I'll part. The price is slim, but it's not a bad deal."
Lablache oozed over to the safe. He opened it, keeping one heavy eye upon his companion. He took no chances—he trusted no one, especially Pedro Mancha. Presently he returned with a roll of notes. It contained the exact amount. The Mexican watched him hungrily as he counted out the green-backed bills. His lips moistened beneath his mustache—his eyes looked wilder than ever. Lablache understood his customer thoroughly. A loaded revolver was in his own coat pocket. It is probable that the brown-faced desperado knew this.
At last the money-lender held out the money. He held out both hands, one to give and the other to receive. Pedro passed him the I.O.U.'s and took the bills. One swift glance assured Lablache that the coveted papers were all there. Then he pointed to the door.
"Our transaction is over. Go!"
He had had enough of his companion. He had no hesitation in thus peremptorily dismissing him.
"You're in a pesky hurry to get rid of me. See hyar, pard, you'd best be civil. Your dealin's ain't a sight cleaner than mine."
"I'm waiting." Lablache's tone was coldly commanding. His lashless eyes gazed steadily into the other's face. Something the Mexican saw in them impelled him towards the door. He moved backwards, keeping his face turned towards the money-lender. At this moment Lablache was at his best. His was a dominating personality. There was no cowardice in his nature—at least no physical cowardice. Doubtless, had it come to a struggle where agility was required, he would have fallen an easy prey to his lithe companion; but with him, somehow, it never did come to a struggle. He had a way with him that chilled any such thought that a would-be assailant might have. Will and unflinching courage are splendid assets. And, amongst others, this man possessed both.
Mancha slunk back to the door, and, fumbling at the lock, opened it and passed out. Lablache instantly whipped out a revolver, and, stepping heavily on one side, advanced to the door, paused and listened. He was well under cover. The door was open. He was behind it. He knew better than to expose himself in the light for Mancha to make a target of him from without. Then he kicked the door to. Making a complete circuit of the walls of the office he came to the opposite side of the door, where he swiftly locked and bolted it. Then he drew an iron shutter across the light panelling and secured it.
"Good," he muttered, as, sucking in a heavy breath, he returned to the stove and turned his back to it. "It's as well to understand Mexican nature."
Then he lounged into his basket chair and rubbed his fleshy hands reflectively. There was a triumphant look upon his repulsive features.
"Quite right, friend Pedro, it's not a bad deal," he said to himself, blinking at the red light of the fire. "Not half bad. Seven thousand dollars for two thousand dollars, and every cent of it realizable." He shook with inward mirth. "The Hon. William Bunning-Ford will now have to disgorge every stick of his estate. Good, good!"
Then he relapsed into deep thought. Presently he roused himself from his reverie and prepared for bed.
"But I'll give him a chance. Yes, I'll give him a chance," he muttered, as, after undergoing the simple operation of removing his coat, he stretched himself upon his bed and drew the blankets about him. "If he'll consent to renounce any claim, fancied or otherwise, he may have to Joaquina Allandale's regard I'll refrain from selling him up. Yes, Verner Lablache will forego his money—for a time."
The great bed shook as the monumental money-lender suppressed a chuckle. Then he turned over, and his stertorous inhalations soon suggested that the great man slept.
Shylock, the Jew, determined on having his pound of flesh. But a woman outwitted him.
"AUNT" MARGARET REFLECTS
It was almost dark when Jacky returned to the ranch. She had left "Lord" Bill at the brink of the great keg, whence he had returned to his own place. Her first thought, on entering the house, was for the letter which she had left for her uncle. It was gone. She glanced round the room uncertainly. Then she stood gazing into the stove, while she idly drummed with her gauntleted fingers upon the back of a chair. She had as yet removed neither her Stetson hat nor her gauntlets.
Her strong, dark face was unusually varying in its expression. Possibly her thoughts were thus indexed. Now, as she stood watching the play of the fire, her great, deep eyes would darken with a grave, almost anxious expression; again they would smile with a world of untold happiness in their depths. Again they would change, in a flash, to a hard, cold gleam of hatred and unyielding purpose; then slowly, a tender expression, such as that of a mother for Her new-born babe, would creep into them and shine down into the depths of the fire with a world of sweet sympathy. But through all there was a tight compression of the lips, which spoke of the earnest purpose which governed her thoughts; a slight pucker of the brows, which surely told of a great concentration of mind.
Presently she roused herself, and, walking to where a table-bell stood, rang sharply upon it. Her summons was almost immediately answered by the entry of a servant.
Jacky turned as the door opened, and fired an abrupt question.
"Has Uncle John been in, Mamie?"
The girl's face had resumed its usual strong, kindly expression. Whatever was hidden behind that calm exterior, she had no intention of giving a chance observer any clew to it.
"No, miss," the servant replied, in that awestruck tone which domestics are apt to use when sharply interrogated. She was an intelligent-looking girl. Her dark skin and coarse black hair pronounced her a half-breed. Her mistress had said "blood is thicker than water." All the domestics under Jacky's charge hailed from the half-breed camp.
"Was my message delivered to him?"
Unconcernedly as she spoke she waited with some anxiety for the answer.
"Oh, yes, miss. Silas delivered it himself. The master was in company with Mr. Lablache and the doctor, miss," added the girl, discreetly.
"And what did he say?"
"He sent Silas for the letter, miss."
"He didn't say what time he would return, I suppose?"
"No, miss—" She hesitated and fumbled at the door handle.
"Well?" as the girl showed by her attitude that there was something she had left unsaid.
Jacky's question rang acutely in the quiet room.
"Silas—" began the girl, with a deprecating air of unbelief—"you know what strange notions he takes—he said—"
The girl stopped in confusion under the steady gaze of her mistress.
"Speak up, girl," exclaimed Jacky, impatiently. "What is it?"
"Oh, nothing, miss," the girl blurted out desperately. "Only Silas said as the master didn't seem well like."
"Ah! That will do." Then, as the girl still stood at the door, "You can go."
The dismissal was peremptory, and the half-breed had no choice but to depart. She had hoped to have heard something interesting, but her mistress was never given to being communicative with servants.
When the door had closed behind the half-breed Jacky turned again towards the stove. Again she was plunged in deep thought. This time there could be no mistake as to its tenor. Her heart was racked with an anxiety which was not altogether new to it. The sweet face was pale and her eyelids flickered ominously. The servant's veiled meaning was quite plain to her. Brave, hardy as this girl of the prairie was, the fear that was ever in her heart had suddenly assumed the proportions of a crushing reality. She loved her uncle with an affection that was almost maternal. It was the love of a strong, resolute nature for one of a kindly but weak disposition. She loved the gray-headed old man, whose affection had made her life one long, long day of happiness, with a tenderness which no recently-acquired faults of his could alienate. He—and now another—was her world. A world in which it was her joy to dwell. And now—now; what of the present? Racked by losses brought about through the agency of his all-absorbing passion, the weak old man was slowly but surely taking to drowning his consciousness of the appalling calamity which he had consistently set to work to bring about, and which in his lucid moments he saw looming heavily over his house, in drink. She had watched him with the never-failing eye of love, and had seen, to her horror, the signs she so dreaded. She could face disaster stoically, she could face danger unflinchingly, but this moral wrecking of the old man, who had been more to her than a father, was more than she could bear. Two great tears welled up into her beautiful, somber eyes and slowly rolled down her cheeks. She bowed like a willow bending to the force of the storm.
Her weakness was only momentary, however; her courage, bred from the wildness of her life surroundings, rose superior to her feminine weakness. She dashed her gloved hands across her eyes and wiped the tears away. She felt that she must be doing—not weeping. Had not she sealed a solemn compact with her lover? She must to work without delay.
She glanced round the room. Her gaze was that of one who wishes to reassure herself. It was as if the old life had gone from her and she was about to embark on a career new—foreign to her. A career in which she could see no future—only the present. She felt like one taking a long farewell to a life which had been fraught with nothing but delight. The expression of her face told of the pain of the parting. With a heavy sigh she passed out of the room—out into the chill night air, where even the welcome sounds of the croaking frogs and the lowing cattle were not. Where nothing was to cheer her for the work which in the future must be hers. Something of that solemn night entered her soul. The gloom of disaster was upon her.
It was only a short distance to Dr. Abbot's house. The darkness of the night was no hindrance to the girl. Hither she made her way with the light, springing step of one whose mind is made up to a definite purpose.
She found Mrs. Abbot in. The little sitting-room in the doctor's house was delightfully homelike and comfortable. There was nothing pretentious about it—just solid comfort. And the great radiating stove in the center of it smelt invitingly warm to the girl as she came in out of the raw night air. Mrs. Abbot was alternating between a basket of sewing and a well-worn, cheap-edition novel. The old lady was waiting with patience, the outcome of experience, for the return of her lord to his supper.
"Well, 'Aunt' Margaret," said Jacky, entering with the confidence of an assured welcome, "I've come over for a good gossip. There's nobody at home—up there," with a nod in the direction of the ranch.
"My dear child, I'm so pleased," exclaimed Mrs. Abbot, coming forward from her rather rigid seat, and kissing the girl on both cheeks with old-fashioned cordiality. "Come and sit by the stove—yes, take that hideous hat off, which, by the way, I never could understand your wearing. Now, when John and I were first en—"
"Yes, yes, dear. I know what you're going to say," interrupted the girl, smiling in spite of the dull aching at her heart. She knew how this sweet old lady lived in the past, and she also knew how, to a sympathetic ear, she loved to pour out the delights of memory from a heart overflowing with a strong affection for the man of her choice. Jacky had come here to talk of other matters, and she knew that when "Aunt" Margaret liked she could be very shrewd and practical.
Something in the half-wistful smile of her companion brought the old lady quickly back from the realms of recollection, and a pair of keen, kindly eyes met the steady gray-black orbs of the girl.
"Ah, Jacky, my child, we of the frivolous sex are always being forced into considering the mundane matters of everyday life here at Foss River. What is it, dear? I can see by your face that you are worrying over something."
The girl threw herself into an easy chair, drawn up to the glowing stove with careful forethought by the old lady. Mrs. Abbot reseated herself in the straight-backed chair she usually affected. She carefully put her book on one side and took up some darning, assiduously inserting the needle but without further attempt at work. It was something to fix her attention on whilst talking. Old Mrs. Abbot always liked to be able to occupy her hands when talking seriously. And Jacky's face told her that this was a moment for serious conversation.
"Where's the Doc?" the girl asked without preamble. She knew, of course, but she used the question by way of making a beginning.
The old lady imperceptibly straightened her back. She now anticipated the reason of her companion's coming. She glanced over the top of a pair of gold pince-nez, which she had just settled comfortably upon the bridge of her pretty, broad nose.
"He's down at the saloon playing poker. Why, dear?"
Her question was so innocent, but Jacky was not for a moment deceived by its tone. The girl smiled plaintively into the fire. There was no necessity for her to disguise her feelings before "Aunt" Margaret, she knew. But her loyal nature shrank from flaunting her uncle's weaknesses before even this kindly soul. She kept her fencing attitude a little longer, however.
"Who is he playing with?" Jacky raised a pair of inquiring gray eyes to her companion's face.
"Your uncle and—Lablache."
The shrewd old eyes watched the girl's face keenly. But Jacky gave no sign.
"Will you send for him, 'Aunt' Margaret?" said the girl, quietly. "Without letting him know that I am here," she added, as an afterthought.
"Certainly, dear," the old lady replied, rising with alacrity. "Just wait a moment while I send word. Keewis hasn't gone to his teepee yet. I set him to clean some knives just now. He can go. These Indians are better messengers than they are domestics." Mrs. Abbot bustled out of the room.
She returned a moment later, and, drawing her chair beside that of the girl, seated herself and rested one soft white hand on those of her companion, which were reposing clasped in the lap of her dungaree skirt.
"Now, tell me, dear—tell me all about it—I know, it is your uncle."
The sympathy of her tone could never have been conveyed in mere words. This woman's heart expressed its kindliness in voice and eyes. There was no resisting her, and Jacky made no effort to do so.
For one instant there flashed into the girl's face a look of utter distress. She had come purposely to talk plainly to the woman whom she had lovingly dubbed "Aunt Margaret," but she found it very hard when it came to the point, She cast about in her mind for a beginning, then abandoned the quest and blurted out lamely the very thing from which she most shrank.
"Say, auntie, you've observed uncle lately—I mean how strange he is? You've noticed how often, now, he is—is not himself?"
"Whisky," said the old lady, uncompromisingly. "Yes, dear, I have. It is quite the usual thing to smell' old man Smith's vile liquor when John Allandale is about. I'm glad you've spoken. I did not like to say anything to you about it. John's on a bad trail."
"Yes, and a trail with a long, downhill gradient," replied Jacky, with a rueful little smile. "Say, aunt," she went on, springing suddenly to her feet and confronting the old lady's mildly-astonished gaze, "isn't there anything we can do to stop him? What is it? This poker and whisky are ruining him body and soul. Is the whisky the result of his losses? Or is the madness for a gamble the result of the liquor?"
"Neither the one—nor the other, my dear. It is—Lablache."
The older woman bent over her darning, and the needle passed, rippling, round a "potato" in the sock which was in her lap. Her eyes were studiously fixed upon the work.
"Lablache—Lablache! It is always Lablache, whichever way I turn. Gee—but the whole country reeks of him. I tell you right here, aunt, that man's worse than scurvy in our ranching world. Everybody and everything in Foss River seems to be in his grip."
"Excepting a certain young woman who refuses to be ensnared."
The words were spoken quite casually. But Jacky started. Their meaning was driven straight home. She looked down upon the bent, gray head as if trying to penetrate to the thought that was passing within. There was a moment's impressive silence. The clock ticked loudly in the silence of the room. A light wind was whistling rather shrilly outside, round the angles of the house.
"Go on, auntie," said the girl, slowly. "You haven't said enough—yet. I guess you're thinking mighty—deeply."
Mrs. Abbot looked up from her work. She was smiling, but behind that smile there was a strange gravity in the expression of her eyes.
"There is nothing more to say at present." Then she added, in a tone from which all seriousness had vanished, "Hasn't Lablache ever asked you to marry him?"
A light was beginning to dawn upon the girl.
"I thought so." It was now Mrs. Abbot's turn to rise and confront her companion. And she did so with the calm manner of one who is assured that what she is about to say cannot be refuted. Her kindly face had lost nothing of its sweet expression, only there was something in it which seemed to be asking a mute question, whilst her words conveyed the statement of a case as she knew it. "You dear, foolish people. Can you not see what is going on before your very eyes, or must a stupid old woman like myself explain what is patent to the veriest fool in the settlement? Lablache is the source of your uncle's trouble, and, incidentally, you are the incentive. I have watched—I have little else to do in Foss River—you all for years past, and there is little that I could not tell you about any of you, as far as the world sees you. Lablache has been a source of a world of thought to me. The business side of him is patent to everybody. He is hard, flinty, tyrannical—even unscrupulous. I am telling you nothing new, I know. But there is another side to his character which some of you seem to ignore. He is capable of strong passions—ay, very strong passions. He has conceived a passion for you. I will call it by no other name in such an unholy brute as Lablache. He wishes to marry you—he means to marry you."
The silver-haired old lady had worked herself up to an unusual vehemence. She paused after accentuating her last words. Jacky, taking advantage of the break, dropped in a question.
"But—how does this affect my uncle?"
"Aunt" Margaret sniffed disdainfully and resettled the glasses which, in the agitation of the moment, had slipped from her nose.
"Of course it affects your uncle," she continued more quietly. "Now listen and I will explain." Once more these two seated themselves and "Aunt" Margaret again plunged into her story.
"Sometimes I catch myself speculating as to how it comes about that you have inspired this passion in such a man as Lablache," she began, glancing into the somberly beautiful face beside her. "I should have expected that mass of flesh and money—he always reminds me of a jelly-fish, my dear—ugh!—to have wished to take to himself one of your gaudy butterflies from New York or London for a wife; not a simple child of the prairie who is more than half a wild—wild savage." She smiled lovingly into the girl's face. "You see these coarse money-grubbers always prefer their pills well gilded, and, as a rule, their matrimonial pills need a lot of gilding to bring them up to the standard of what they think a wife should be. However, it was not long before it became plain to me that he wished to marry you. He may be a master of finance; he may disguise his feelings—if he has any—in business, so that the shrewdest observer can discover no vulnerable point in his armor of dissimulation. But when it comes to matters pertaining to—to—love—quite the wrong word in his case, my dear—these men are as babes; worse, they are fools. When Lablache makes up his mind to a purpose he generally accomplishes his end—"
"In business," suggested Jacky, moodily.
"Just so—in business, my dear. In matters matrimonial it may be different. But I doubt his failure in that," went on Mrs. Abbot, with a decided snap of her expressive mouth. "He will try by fair means or foul, and, if I know anything of him, he will never relinquish his purpose. He asked you to marry him—and of course you refused, quite natural and right. He will not risk another refusal from you—these people consider themselves very sensitive, my dear—so he will attempt to accomplish his end by other means—means much more congenial to him, the—the beast. There now, I've said it, my dear. The doctor tells me that he is quite the most skilful player at poker that he has ever come across."
"I guess that's so," said the girl, with a dark, ironical smile.
"And that his luck is phenomenal," the old lady went on, without appearing to notice the interruption. "Very well. Your uncle, the old fool—excuse me, my dear—has done nothing but gamble all his life. The doctor says that he believes John has never been known to win more than about once in a month's play, no matter with whom he plays. You know—we all know—that for years he has been in the habit of raising loans from this monumental cuttle-fish to settle his losses. And you can trust that individual to see that these loans are well secured. John Allandale is reputed very rich, but the doctor assures me that were Lablache to foreclose his mortgages a very, very big slice of your uncle's worldly goods would be taken to meet his debts.
"Now comes the last stage of the affair," she went on, with a sage little shake of the head. "How long ago is it since Lablache proposed to you? But there, you need not tell me. It was a little less than a year ago—wasn't it?"
Her companion nodded her head. She wondered how "Aunt" Margaret had guessed it. She had never told a soul herself. The shrewd little old lady was filling her with wonder. The careful manner in which she had pieced facts together and argued them out with herself revealed to her a cleverness and observation she would never, in spite of the kindly soul's counsels, have given her credit for.
"Yes, I knew I was right," said Mrs. Abbot, complacently. "Just about the time when Lablache began seriously to play poker—about the time when his phenomenal luck set in, to the detriment of your uncle. Yes, I am well posted," as the girl raised her eyebrows in surprise. "The doctor tells me a great deal—especially about your uncle, dear. I always like to know what is going on. And now to bring my long explanation to an end. Don't you see how Lablache intends to marry you? Your uncle's losses this winter have been so terribly heavy—and all to Lablache. Lablache holds the whip hand of him. A request from Lablache becomes a command—or the crash."
"But how about the Doc," asked Jacky, quickly. "He plays with them—mostly?"
Mrs. Abbot shrugged her shoulders.
"The doctor can take care of himself. He's cautious, and besides—Lablache has no wish to win his money."
"But surely he must lose? Say, auntie, dear, it's not possible to play against Lablache's luck without losing—some."
"Well, dear, I can't say I know much of the game," with some perplexity, "but the doctor assures me that Lablache never hits him hard. Often and often when the 'pot' rests between them Lablache will throw down his hand—which goes to show that he does not want to take his money."
"An' I reckon goes to show that he's bucking dead against Uncle John, only. Yes, I see."
The little gray head again bent over the darning, which had lain almost untouched in her lap during her long recital. Now she resolutely drew the darning yarn through the soft wool of the sock and re-inserted the needle. The girl beside her bent an eager face before her, and, resting her chin upon her hands, propped her elbows on her knees.
"Yes, auntie, I know," Jacky went on thoughtfully. "Lablache means to put this marriage with me right through. I see it all. But say," bringing one of her brown hands down forcibly upon that of her companion, which was concealed in the foot of the woolen sock, and gripping it with nervous strength, "I guess he's reckoned without his bride. I'm not going to marry Lablache, auntie, dear, and you can bet your bottom dollar I'm not going to let him ruin uncle. All I want to do is to stop uncle drinking. That is what scares me most."
"My child, Lablache is the cause of that. The same as he is the cause of all troubles in Foss River. Your uncle realizes the consequences of the terrible losses he has incurred. He knows, only too well, that he is utterly in the money-lender's power. He knows he must go on playing, vainly endeavoring to recover himself, and with each fresh loss he drinks deeper to smother his fears and conscience. It is the result of the weakness of his nature—a weakness which I have always known would sooner or later lead to his undoing. Jacky, girl, I fear you will one day have to marry Lablache or your uncle's ruin will be certainly accomplished."
Mrs. Abbot's face was very serious now. She pitied from the bottom of her heart this motherless girl who had come to her, in spite of her courage and almost mannish independence, for that sympathy and advice which, at certain moments, the strongest woman cannot do without. She knew that all she had said was right, and even if her story could do no material good it would at least have the effect of putting the girl on her guard. In spite of her shrewdness Mrs. Abbot could never quite fathom her protegee. And even now, as she gazed into the girl's face, she was wondering how—in what manner—the narration of her own observations would influence the other's future actions. The thick blood of the half-breed slowly rose into Jacky's face, until the dark skin was suffused with a heavy, passionate flush. Slowly, too, the somber eyes lit—glowed—until the dazzling fire of anger shone in their depths. Then she spoke; not passionately, but with a hard, cruel delivery which sent a shiver thrilling through her companion's body and left her shuddering.
"'Aunt' Margaret, I swear by all that's holy that I'll never marry that scum. Say, I'd rather follow a round-up camp and share a greaser's blankets than wear all the diamonds Lablache could buy. An' as for uncle; say, the day that sees him ruined'll see Lablache's filthy brains spoiling God's pure air."
"Child, child," replied the old lady, in alarm, "don't take oaths, the rashness—the folly of which you cannot comprehend. For goodness' sake don't entertain such wicked thoughts. Lablache is a villain, but—"
She broke off and turned towards the door, which, at that moment, opened to admit the genial doctor.
"Ah," she went on, with a sudden change of manner back to that of her usual cheerful self, "I thought you men were going to make a night of it. Jacky came to share my solitude."
"Good evening, Jacky," said the doctor. "Yes, we were going to make a night of it, Margaret. Your summons broke up the party, and for John's sake—" He checked himself, and glanced curiously at the recurrent form of the girl, who was now lounging back in her chair gazing into the stove. "What did you want me for?"
Jacky rose abruptly from her seat and picked up her hat.
"'Aunt' Margaret didn't really want you, Doc. It was I who asked her to send for you. I want to see uncle."
The doctor permitted himself the ejaculation.
"Good-night, you two dear people," the girl went on, with a forced attempt at cheerfulness. "I guess uncle'll be home by now, so I'll be off."
"Yes, he left the saloon with me," said Doctor Abbot, shaking hands and walking towards the door. "You'll just about catch him."
The girl kissed the old lady and passed out. The doctor stood for a moment on his doorstep gazing after her.
"Poor child—poor child!" he murmured. "Yes, she'll find him—I saw him home myself," And he broke off with an expressive shrug.
THE CAMPAIGN OPENS
The summit of a hill, however insignificant its altitude, is always an inspiring vantage point from which to survey the surrounding world. There is a briskness of atmosphere on a hilltop which is inspiriting to the most jaded of faculties; there is a sparkling vitality in the breath of the morning air which must ever make life a joy and the world seem an inexpressible delight in which it is the acme of happiness to dwell.
The exigencies of prairie life demand the habit of early rising, and more often does the tiny human atom, which claims for its home the vast tracts of natural pasture, gaze upon the sloth of the orb of day than does that glorious sphere smile down upon a sleeping world.
Far as the eye can reach stretch the mighty wastes of waving grass—the undulating plains of ravishing verdure. What breadth of thought must thus be inspired in one who gazes out across the boundless expanse at the glories of a perfect sunrise? How insignificant becomes the petty affairs of man when gazing upon the majesty of God's handiwork. How utterly inconceivable becomes the association of evil with such transcendently beautiful creation? Surely no evil was intended to lurk in the shadow of so much simple splendor.
And yet does the ghastly specter of crime haunt the perfect plains, the majestic valleys, the noiseless, inspiring pine woods, the glistening, snow-capped hills. And so it must remain as long as the battle of life continues undecided—so long as the struggle for existence endures.
The Hon. Bunning-Ford rose while yet the daylight was struggling to overcome the shades of night. He stood upon the tiny veranda which fronted his minute house, smoking his early morning cigarette. He was waiting for his coffee—that stimulating beverage which few who have lived in the wilds of the West can do without—and idly luxuriating in the wondrous charm of scene which was spread out before him. "Lord" Bill was not a man of great poetic mind, but he appreciated his adopted country—"God's country," as he was wont to call it—as can only those who have lived in it. The prairie had become part of his very existence, and he loved to contemplate the varying lights and colors which moved athwart the fresh spring-clad plains as the sun rose above the eastern horizon.
The air was chill, but withal invigorating, as he watched the steely blue of the daylit sky slowly give place to the rosy tint of sunrise. Slowly at first—then faster—great waves of golden light seemed to leap from the top of one green rising ground to another; the gray white of the snowy western mountains passed from one dead shade to another, until, at last, they gleamed like alabaster from afar with a diamond brilliancy almost painful to the eye. Thus the sun rose like some mighty caldron of fire mounting into the cloudless azure of a perfect sky, showering unctuous rays of light and heat upon the chilled life that was of its own creating.
Bill was still lost in thought, gazing out upon the perfect scene from the vantage point of the hill upon which his "shack" stood, when round the corner of the house came a half-breed, bearing a large tin pannikin of steaming coffee. He took the pannikin from the man and propped himself against a post which helped to support the roof of the veranda.
"Are the boys out yet?" he asked the waiting Breed, and nodding towards the corrals, which reposed at the foot of the hill and were overlooked by the house.
"I guess," the fellow replied laconically. Then, as an afterthought, "They're getting breakfast, anyhow."
"Say, when they've finished their grub you can tell 'em to turn to and lime out the sheds. I'm going in to the settlement to-day. If I'm not back to-night let them go right on with the job to-morrow."
The man signified his understanding of the instructions with a grunt. This cook of "Lord" Bill's was not a man of words. His vocation had induced an irascibility of temper which took the form of silence. His was an incipient misanthropy.
Bill returned the empty pannikin and strolled down towards the corrals and sheds. The great barn lay well away from where the cattle congregated. This ranch was very different from that of the Allandales of Foss River. It was some miles away from the settlement. Its surroundings were far more open. Timber backed the house, it is true, but in front was the broad expanse of the open plains. It was an excellent position, and, governed by a thrifty hand, would undoubtedly have thrived and ultimately vied with the more elaborate establishment over which Jacky held sway. As it was, however, Bill cared little for prosperity and money-making, and though he did not neglect his property he did not attempt to extend its present limits.