"Y'u mean that you're going to respect the deadline? asked Mac in surprise.
"I didn't say quite that," explained the sheepman. "What I said was that I meant to keep on my side of it so far as the Lazy D cattle are concerned. I'll let your range alone."
"But y'u mean to cross it down below where the Bar Double-E cows run?"
Bannister's gay smile touched the sardonic face. "Do you invite the public to examine your hand when you sit into a game of poker, Mr. McWilliams?"
"You're dead right. It's none of my business what y'u do so long as y'u keep off our range," admitted the foreman. "And next time the conversation happens on Mr. Bannister, I'll put in my little say-so that he ain't all black."
"That's very good of you, sir," was the other's ironical retort.
The girl's gauntleted hand offered itself impulsively. "We can't be friends under existing circumstances, Mr. Bannister. But that does not alter the fact that I owe you an apology. You came as a peace envoy, and one of my men shot at you. Of course, he did not understand the reason why you came, but that does not matter. I did not know your reason myself, and I know I have been very inhospitable."
"Are you shaking hands with Ned Bannister the sheepman or Ned Bannister the outlaw?" asked the owner of that name, with a queer little smile that seemed to mock himself.
"With Ned Bannister the gentleman. If there is another side to him I don't know it personally."
He flushed underneath the tan, but very plainly with pleasure. "Your opinions are right contrary to Hoyle, ma'am. Aren't you aware that a sheepman is the lowest thing that walks? Ask Mr. McWilliams."
"I have known stockmen of that opinion, but—"
The foreman's sentence was never finished. From a clump of bushes a hundred yards away came the crack of a rifle. A bullet sang past, cutting a line that left on one side of it Bannister, on the other Miss Messiter and her foreman. Instantly the two men slid from their horses on the farther side, dragged down the young woman behind the cover of the broncos, and arranged the three ponies so as to give her the greatest protection available. Somehow the weapons that garnished them had leaped to their hands before their feet touched the ground.
"That coyote isn't one of our men. I'll back that opinion high," said McWilliams promptly.
"Who is he?" the girl whispered.
"That's what we're going to find out pretty soon," returned Bannister grimly. "Chances are it's me he is trying to gather. Now, I'm going to make a break for that cottonwood. When I go, you better run up a white handkerchief and move back from the firing-line. Turn Buck loose when you leave. He'll stay around and come when I whistle."
He made a run for it, zigzagging through the sage-brush so swiftly as to offer the least certain mark possible for a sharpshooter. Yet twice the rifle spoke before he reached the cottonwood.
Meanwhile Mac had fastened the handkerchief of his mistress on the end of a switch he had picked up and was edging out of range. His tense, narrowed gaze never left the bush-clump from which the shots were being pumped, and he was careful during their retreat to remain on the danger side of the road, in order to cover Helen.
"I guess Bannister's right. He don't want us, whoever he is."
And even as he murmured it, the wind of a bullet lifted his hat from his head. He picked it up and examined it. The course of the bullet was marked by a hole in the wide brim, and two more in the side and crown.
"He ce'tainly ventilated it proper. I reckon, ma'am, we'll make a run for it. Lie low on the pinto's neck, with your haid on the off side. That's right. Let him out."
A mile and a half farther up the road Mac reined in, and made the Indian peace-sign. Two dejected figures came over the hill and resolved themselves into punchers of the Lazy D. Each of them trailed a rifle by his side.
"You're a fine pair of ring-tailed snorters, ain't y'u?" jeered the foreman. "Got to get gay and go projectin' round on the shoot after y'u got your orders to stay hitched. Anything to say for yo'selves?"
If they had it was said very silently.
"Now, Miss Messiter is going to pass it up this time, but from now on y'u don't go off on any private massacrees while y'u punch at the Lazy D. Git that? This hyer is the last call for supper in the dining-cah. If y'u miss it, y'u'll feed at some other chuckhouse." Suddenly the drawl of his sarcasm vanished. His voice carried the ring of peremptory command. "Jim, y'u go back to the ranch with Miss Messiter, AND KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN. Missou, I need y'u. We're going back. I reckon y'u better hang on to the stirrup, for we got to travel some. Adios, senorita!"
He was off at a slow lope on the road he had just come, the other man running beside the horse. Presently he stopped, as if the arrangement were not satisfactory; and the second man swung behind him on the pony. Later, when she turned in her saddle, she saw that they had left the road and were cutting across the plain, as if to take the sharpshooter in the rear.
Her troubled thoughts stayed with her even after she had reached the ranch. She was nervously excited, keyed up to a high pitch; for she knew that out on the desert, within a mile or two of her, men were stalking each other with life or death in the balance as the price of vigilance, skill and an unflawed steel nerve. While she herself had been in danger, she had been mistress of her fear. But now she could do nothing but wait, after ordering out such reinforcements as she could recruit without delay; and the inaction told upon her swift, impulsive temperament. Once, twice, the wind brought to her a faint sound.
She had been pacing the porch, but she stopped, white as a sheet. Behind those faint explosions might lie a sinister tragedy. Her mind projected itself into a score of imaginary possibilities. She listened, breathless in her tensity, but no further echo of that battlefield reached her. The sun still shone warmly on brown Wyoming. She looked down into a rolling plain that blurred in the distance from knobs and flat spaces into a single stretch that included a thousand rises and depressions. That roll of country teemed with life, but the steady, inexorable sun beat down on what seemed a shining, primeval waste of space. Yet somewhere in that space the tragedy was being determined—unless it had been already enacted.
She wanted to scream. The very stillness mocked her. So, too, did the clicking windmill, with its monotonous regularity. Her pony still stood saddled in the yard. She knew that her place was at home, and she fought down a dozen times the tremendous impulse to mount and fly to the field of combat.
She looked at her watch. How slowly the minutes dragged! It could not be only five minutes since she had looked last time. Again she fell to pacing the long west porch, and interrupted herself a dozen times to stop and listen.
"I can bear it no longer," she told herself at last, and in another moment was in the saddle plying her pinto with the quirt.
But before she reached the first cottonwoods she saw them coming. Her glasses swept the distant group, and with a shiver she made out the dreadful truth. They were coming slowly, carrying something between them. The girl did not need to be told that the object they were bringing home was their dead or wounded.
A figure on horseback detached itself from the huddle of men and galloped towards her. He was coming to break the news. But who was the victim? Bannister or McWilliams she felt sure, by reason of the sinking heart in her; and then it came home that she would be hard hit if it were either.
The approaching rider began to take distinct form through her glasses. As he pounded forward she recognized him. It was the man nicknamed Denver. The wind was blowing strongly from her to him, and while he was still a hundred yards away she hurled her question.
His answer was lost in the wind sweep, but one word of it she caught. That word was "Mac."
CHAPTER 7. THE MAN FROM THE SHOSHONE FASTNESSES
Though the sharpshooter's rifle cracked twice during his run for the cottonwood, the sheepman reached the tree in safety. He could dodge through the brush as elusively as any man in Wyoming. It was a trick he had learned on the whitewashed football gridiron. For in his buried past this man had been the noted half-back of a famous college, and one of his specialties had been running the ball back after a catch through a broken field of opponents. The lesson that experience had then thumped into him had since saved his life on more than one occasion.
Having reached the tree, Bannister took immediate advantage of the lie of the ground to snake forward unobserved for another hundred feet. There was a dip from the foot of the tree, down which he rolled into the sage below. He wormed his way through the thick scrub brush to the edge of a dry creek, into the bed of which he slid. Then swiftly, his body bent beneath the level of the bank, he ran forward in the sand. He moved noiselessly, eyes and ears alert to aid him, and climbed the bank at a point where a live oak grew.
Warily he peeped out from behind its trunk and swept the plain for his foe. Nothing was to be seen of him. Slowly and patiently his eyes again went over the semi-circle before him, for where death may lurk behind every foot of vegetation, every bump or hillock, the plainsman leaves as little as may be to chance. No faintest movement could escape the sheepman's eyes, no least stir fail to apprise his ears. Yet for many minutes he waited in vain, and the delay told him that he had to do with a trained hunter rather than a mere reckless cow-puncher. For somewhere in the rough country before him his enemy lay motionless, every faculty alive to the least hint of his presence.
It was the whirring flight of a startled dove that told Bannister the whereabouts of his foe. Two hundred yards from him the bird rose, and the direction it took showed that the man must have been trailing forward from the opposite quarter. The sheepman slipped back into the dry creek bed, retraced his steps for about a stone-throw, and again crawled up the bank.
For a long time he lay face down in the grass, his gaze riveted to the spot where he knew his opponent to be hidden. A faint rustle not born of the wind stirred the sage. Still Bannister waited. A less experienced plainsman would have blazed away and exposed his own position. But not this young man with the steel-wire nerves. Silent as the coming of dusk, no breaking twig or displaced brush betrayed his self-contained presence.
Something in the clump he watched wriggled forward and showed indistinctly through an opening in the underscrub. He whipped his rifle into position and fired twice. The huddled brown mass lurched forward and disappeared.
"Wonder if I got him? Seems to me I couldn't have missed clean," thought Bannister.
Silence as before, vast and unbroken.
A scramble of running feet tearing a path through the brush, a crouching body showing darkly for an eyeflash, and then the pounding of a horse's retreating feet.
Bannister leaped up, ran lightly across the intervening space, and with his repeater took a potshot at the galloping horseman.
"Missed!" he muttered, and at once gave a sharp whistle that brought his pony to him on the trot. He vaulted to the saddle and gave chase. It was rough going, but nothing in reason can stop a cow-pony. As sure footed as a mountain goat, as good a climber almost as a cat, Buck followed the flying horseman over perilous rock rims and across deep-cut creek beds. Pantherlike he climbed up the steep creek sides without hesitation, for the round-up had taught him never to falter at stiff going so long as his rider put him at it.
It was while he was clambering out of the sheer sides of a wash that Bannister made a discovery. The man he pursued was wounded. Something in the manner of the fellow's riding had suggested this to him, but a drop of blood splashed on a stone that happened to meet his eye made the surmise a certainty.
He was gaining now—not fast, almost imperceptibly, but none the less surely. He could see the man looking over his shoulder, once, twice, and then again, with that hurried, fearful glance that measures the approach of retribution. Barring accidents, the man was his.
But the unforeseen happened. Buck stepped in the hole of a prairie dog and went down. Over his head flew the rider like a stone from a catapult.
How long Ned Bannister lay unconscious he never knew. But when he came to himself it was none too soon. He sat up dizzily and passed his hand over his head. Something had happened.
What was it? Oh, yes, he had been thrown from his horse. A wave of recollection passed over him, and his mind was clear once more. Presently he got to his feet and moved rather uncertainly toward Buck, for the horse was grazing quietly a few yards from him.
But half way to the pony he stopped. Voices, approaching by way of the bed of Dry Creek, drifted to him.
"He must 'a' turned and gone back. Mebbe he guessed we was there."
And a voice that Bannister knew, one that had a strangely penetrant, cruel ring of power through the drawl, made answer: "Judd said before he fainted he was sure the man was Ned Bannister. I'd ce'tainly like to meet up with my beloved cousin right now and even up a few old scores. By God, I'd make him sick before I finished with him!"
"I'll bet y'u would, Cap," returned the other, admiringly. "Think we'd better deploy here and beat up the scenery a few as we go?"
There are times when the mind works like lightning, flashes its messages on the wings of an electric current. For Bannister this was one of them. The whole situation lighted for him plainly as if it had been explained for an hour.
His cousin had been out with a band of his cut-throats on some errand, and while returning to the fastnesses of the Shoshone Mountains had stopped to noon at a cow spring three or four miles from the Lazy D. Judd Morgan, whom he knew to be a lieutenant of the notorious bandit, had ridden toward the ranch in the hope of getting an opportunity to vent his anger against its mistress or some of her men. While pursuing the renegade Bannister had stumbled into a hornet's nest, and was in imminent danger of being stung to death. Even now the last speaker was scrambling up the bank toward him.
The sheepman had to choose between leaving his rifle and immediate flight. The latter was such a forlorn hope that he gave up Buck for the moment, and ran back to the place where his repeating Winchester had fallen. Without stopping he scooped the rifle up as he passed. In his day he had been a famous sprinter, and he scudded now for dear life. It was no longer a question of secrecy. The sound of men breaking their hurried way through the heavy brush of the creek bank came crisply to him. A voice behind shouted a warning, and from not a hundred yards in front of him came an answering shout. Hemmed in from the fore and the rear, he swung off at a right angle. An open stretch lay before him, but he had to take his desperate chance without cover. Anything was better than to be trapped like a wild beast driven by the beaters to the guns.
Across the bare, brown mesa he plunged; and before he had taken a dozen steps the first rifle had located its prey and was sniping at him. He had perhaps a hundred yards to cover ere the mesa fell away into a hollow, where he might find temporary protection in the scrub pines. And now a second marksman joined himself to the first. But he was going fast, already had covered half the distance, and it is no easy thing to bring down a live, dodging target.
Again the first gun spoke, and scored another miss, whereat a mocking, devilish laugh rang out in the sunshine.
"Y'u boys splash a heap of useless lead around the horizon. I reckon Cousin Ned's my meat. Y'u see, I get him in the flapper without spoiling him complete." And at the word he flung the rifle to his shoulder and fired with no apparent aim.
The running man doubled up like a cottontail, but found his feet again in an instant, though one arm hung limp by his side. He was within a dozen feet of the hilldrop and momentary safety.
"Shall I take him, Cap?" cried one of the men.
"No; he's mine." The rifle smoked once more and again the runner went down. But this time he plunged headlong down the slope and out of sight.
The outlaw chief turned on his heel. "I reckon he'll not run any more to-day. Bring him into camp and we'll take him along with us," he said carelessly, and walked away to his horse in the creek bed.
Two of the men started forward, but they stopped half way, as if rooted to the ground. For a galloping horseman suddenly drew up at the very point for which they were starting. He leaped to the ground and warned them back with his rifle. While he covered them a second man rode up and lifted Bannister to his saddle.
"Ready, Mac," he gave the word, and both horses disappeared with their riders over the brow of the hill. When the surprised desperadoes recovered themselves and reached that point the rescuers had disappeared in the heavy brush.
The alarm was at once given, and their captain, cursing them in a raucous bellow for their blunder, ordered immediate pursuit. It was some little time before the trail of the fugitives was picked up, but once discovered they were over hauled rapidly.
"We're not going to get out without swapping lead," McWilliams admitted anxiously. "I wisht y'u wasn't hampered with that load, but I reckon I'll have to try to stand them off alone."
"We bucked into a slice of luck when I opened on his bronc mavericking around alone. Hadn't been for that we could never have made it," said Missou, who never crossed a bridge until he came to it.
"We haven't made it yet, old hoss, not by a long mile, and two more on top o' that. They're beginning to pump lead already. Huh! Got to drap your pills closer'n that 'fore y'u worry me."
"I believe he's daid, anyway," said Missou presently, peering down into the white face of the unconscious man.
"Got to hang onto the remains, anyhow, for Miss Helen. Those coyotes are too much of the wolf breed to leave him with them."
"Looks like they're gittin' the aim some better," equably remarked the other a minute later, when a spurt of sand flew up in front of him.
"They're ce'tainly crowding us. I expaict I better send them a 'How-de-do?' so as to discourage them a few." He took as careful aim as he could on the galloping horse, but his bullet went wide.
"They're gaining like sixty. It's my offhand opinion we better stop at that bunch of trees and argue some with them. No use buck-jumpin' along to burn the wind while they drill streaks of light through us."
"All right. Take the trees. Y'u'll be able to get into the game some then."
They debouched from the road to the little grove and slipped from their horses.
"Deader'n hell," murmured Missou, as he lifted the limp body from his horse. "But I guess we'll pack what's left back to the little lady at the Lazy D."
The leader of the pursuers halted his men just out of range and came forward alone, holding his right hand up in the usual signal of peace. In appearance he was not unlike Ned Bannister. There was the same long, slim, tiger build, with the flowing muscles rippling easily beneath the loose shirt; the same effect of power and dominance, the same clean, springy stride. The pose of the head, too, even the sweep of salient jaw, bore a marked resemblance. But similarity ceased at the expression. For instead of frankness there lurked here that hint of the devil of strong passion uncontrolled. He was the victim of his own moods, and in the space of an hour one might, perhaps, read in that face cold cunning, cruel malignity, leering ribaldry, as well as the hard-bitten virtues of unflinching courage and implacable purpose.
"I reckon you're near enough," suggested Mac, when the man had approached to within a hundred feet of the tree clump.
"Y'u're drawing the dead-line," the other acknowledged, indolently. "It won't take ten words to tell y'u what I want and mean to have. I'm giving y'u two minutes to hand me over the body of Ned Bannister. If y'u don't see it that way I'll come and make a lead mine of your whole outfit."
"Y'u can't come too quick, seh. We're here a-shootin', and don't y'u forget it," was McWilliams's prompt answer.
The sinister face of the man from the Shoshones darkened. "Y'u've signed your own death warrants," he let out through set teeth, and at the word swung on his heel.
"The ball's about to open. Pardners for a waltz. Have a dust-cutter, Mac, before she grows warm."
The puncher handed over his flask, and the other held it before his eye and appraised the contents in approved fashion. "Don't mind if I do. Here's how!"
"How!" echoed Missou, in turn, and tipped up the bottle till the liquor gurgled down his baked throat.
"He's fanning out his men so as to, get us both at the front and back door. Lucky there ain't but four of them."
"I guess we better lie back to back," proposed Missou. "If our luck's good I reckon they're going to have a gay time rushing this fort."
A few desultory shots had already been dropped among the cottonwoods, and returned by the defendants when Missou let out a yell of triumph.
"Glory Hallelujah! Here comes the boys splittin' down the road hell-for-leather. That lopsided, ring-tailed snorter of a hawss-thief is gathering his wolves for a hike back to the tall timber. Feed me a cigareet, Mac. I plumb want to celebrate."
It was as the cow-puncher had said. Down the road a cloud of dust was sweeping toward them, in the centre of which they made out three hardriding cowboys from the ranch. Farther back, in the distance, was another dust whirl. The outlaw chief's hard, vigilant gaze swept over the reinforcements! and decided instantly that the game had gone against him for the present. He whistled shrilly twice, and began a slow retreat toward the hills. The miscreants flung a few defiant shots at the advancing cowmen, and disappeared, swallowed up in the earth swells.
The homeward march was a slow one, for Bannister had begun to show signs of consciousness and it was necessary to carry him with extreme care. While they were still a mile from the ranch house the pinto and its rider could be seen loping toward them.
"Ride forward, Denver, and tell Miss Helen we're coming. Better have her get everything fixed to doctor him soon as we get there. Give him the best show in the world, and he'll still be sailing awful close to the divide. I'll bet a hundred plunks he'll cash in, anyway."
The voice came faintly from the improvised litter. Mac turned with a start, for he had not known that Bannister was awake to his surroundings. The man appeared the picture of helplessness, all the lusty power and vigor stricken out of him; but his indomitable spirit still triumphed over the physical collapse, for as the foreman looked a faint smile touched the ashen lips. It seemed to say: "Still in the ring, old man."
CHAPTER 8. IN THE LAZY D HOSPITAL
Helen's first swift glance showed that the wounded man was Bannister. She turned in crisp command to her foreman.
"Have him taken to my room and put to bed there. We have no time to prepare another. And send one of the boys on your best horse for a doctor."
They carried the limp figure in with rough tenderness and laid him in the bed. McWilliams unbuckled the belt and drew off the chaps; then, with the help of Denver, undressed the wounded man and covered him with quilts. So Helen found him when she came in to attend his wounds, bringing with her such things as she needed for her task. Mrs. Winslow, the housekeeper, assisted her, and the foreman stayed to help, but it was on the mistress of the ranch that the responsibility of saving him fell. Missou was already galloping to Bear Creek for a doctor, but the girl knew that the battle must be fought and the issue decided before he could arrive.
He had fallen again into insensibility and she rinsed and dressed his wounds, working with the quiet impersonal certainty of touch that did not betray the inner turmoil of her soul. But McWilliams, his eyes following her every motion and alert to anticipate her needs, saw that the color had washed from her face and that she was controlling herself only to meet the demands of the occasion.
As she was finishing, the sheepman opened his eyes and looked at her.
"You are not to speak or ask questions. You have been wounded and we are going to take care of you," she ordered.
"That's right good of y'u. I ce'tainly feet mighty trifling." His wide eyes traveled round till they fell on the foreman. "Y'u see I came back to help fill your hospital. Am I there now? Where am I?" His gaze returned to Helen with the sudden irritation of the irresponsible sick.
"You are at the Lazy D, in my room. You are not to worry about anything. Everything's all right."
He took her at her word and his eyes closed; but presently he began to mutter unconnected words and phrases. When his lids lifted again there was a wilder look in his eyes, and she knew that delirium was beginning. At intervals it lasted for long; indeed, until the doctor came next morning in the small hours. He talked of many things Helen Messiter did not understand, of incidents in his past life, some of them jerky with the excitement of a tense moment, others apparently snatches of talk with relatives. It was like the babbling of a child, irrelevant and yet often insistent. He would in one breath give orders connected with the lambing of his sheep, in the next break into football talk, calling out signals and imploring his men to hold them or to break through and get the ball. Once he broke into curses, but his very oaths seemed to come from a clean heart and missed the vulgarity they might have had. Again his talk rambled inconsequently over his youth, and he would urge himself or someone else of the same name to better life.
"Ned, Ned, remember your mother," he would beseech. "She asked me to look after you. Don't go wrong." Or else it would be, "Don't disgrace the general, Ned. You'll break his heart if you blacken the old name." To this theme he recurred repeatedly, and she noticed that when he imagined himself in the East his language was correct and his intonation cultured, though still with a suggestion of a Southern softness.
But when he spoke of her his speech lapsed into the familiar drawl of Cattleland. "I ain't such a sweep as y'u think, girl. Some day I'll sure tell y'u all about it, and how I have loved y'u ever since y'u scooped me up in your car. You're the gamest little lady! To see y'u come a-sailin' down after me, so steady and businesslike, not turning a hair when the bullets hummed—I sure do love y'u, Helen." And then he fell upon her first name and called her by it a hundred times softly to himself.
This happened when she was alone with him, just before the doctor came. She heard it with starry eyes and with a heart that flushed for joy a warmer color into her cheeks. Brushing back the short curls, she kissed his damp forehead. It was in the thick of the battle, before he had weathered that point where the issues of life and death pressed closely, and even in the midst of her great fears it brought her comfort. She was to think often of it later, and always the memory was to be music in her heart. Even when she denied her love for him, assured herself it was impossible she could care for so shameful a villain, even then it was a sweet torture to allow herself the luxury of recalling his broken delirious phrases. At the very worst he could not be as bad as they said; some instinct told her this was impossible. His fearless devil-may-care smile, his jaunty, gallant bearing, these pleaded against the evidence for him. And yet was it conceivable that a man of spirit, a gentleman by training at least, would let himself lie under the odium of such a charge if he were not guilty? Her tangled thoughts fought this profitless conflict for days. Nor could she dismiss it from her mind. Even after he began to mend she was still on the rack. For in some snatch of good talk, when the fine quality of the man seemed to glow in his face, poignant remembrance would stab her with recollection of the difference between what he was and what he seemed to be.
One of the things that had been a continual surprise to Helen was the short time required by these deep-cheated and clean-blooded Westerners to recover from apparently serious wounds. It was scarce more than two weeks since Bannister had filled the bunkhouse with wounded men, and already two of them were back at work and the third almost fit for service. For perhaps three days the sheepman's life hung in the balance, after which his splendid constitution and his outdoor life began to tell. The thermometer showed that the fever had slipped down a notch, and he was now sleeping wholesomely a good part of his time. Altogether, unless for some unseen contingency, the doctor prophesied that the sheepman was going to upset the probabilities and get well.
"Which merely shows, ma'am, what is possible when you give a sound man twenty-four hours a day in our hills for a few years," he added. "Thanks to your nursing he's going to shave through by the narrowest margin possible. I told him to-day that he owed his life to you, Miss Messiter."
"I don't think you need have told him that Doctor," returned that young woman, not a little vexed at him, "especially since you have just been telling me that he owes it to Wyoming air and his own soundness of constitution."
When she returned to the sickroom to give her patient his medicine he wanted to tell her what the doctor had said, but she cut him off ruthlessly and told him not to talk.
"Mayn't I even say 'Thank you?'" he wanted to know.
"No; you talk far too much as it is."
He smiled "All right. Y'u sit there in that chair, where I can see y'u doing that fancywork and I'll not say a word. It'll keep, all right, what I want to say."
"I notice you keep talking," she told him, dryly.
"Yes, ma'am. Y'u had better have let me say what I wanted to, but I'll be good now."
He fell asleep watching her, and when he awoke she was still sitting there, though it was beginning to grow dark. He spoke before she knew he was awake.
"I'm going to get well, the doctor thinks."
"Yes, he told me," she answered.
"Did he tell y'u it was your nursing saved me?"
"Please don't think about that."
"What am I to think about? I owe y'u a heap, and it keeps piling up. I reckon y'u do it all because it's your Christian duty?" he demanded.
"It is my duty, isn't it?"
"I didn't say it wasn't, though I expaict Bighorn County will forget to give y'u a unanimous vote of thanks for doing it. I asked if y'u did it because it was your duty?"
"The reason doesn't matter so that I do it," she answered, steadily.
"Reasons matter some, too, though they ain't as important as actions out in this country. Back in Boston they figure more, and since y'u used to go to school back there y'u hadn't ought to throw down your professor of ethics."
"Don't you think you have talked enough for the present?" she smiled, and added: "If I make you talk whenever I sit beside you I shall have to stay away."
"That's where y'u've ce'tainly got the drop on me, ma'am. I'm a clam till y'u give the word."
Before a week he was able to sit up in a chair for an hour or two, and soon after could limp into the living room with the aid of a walking stick and his hostess. Under the tan he still wore an interesting pallor, but there could be no question that he was on the road to health.
"A man doesn't know what he's missing until he gets shot up and is brought to the Lazy D hospital, so as to let Miss Messiter exercise her Christian duty on him," he drawled, cheerfully, observing the sudden glow on her cheek brought by the reference to his unanswered question.
He made the lounge in the big sunny window his headquarters. From it he could look out on some of the ranch activities when she was not with him, could watch the line riders as they passed to and fro and command a view of one of the corrals. There was always, too, the turquoise sky, out of which poured a flood of light on the roll of hilltops. Sometimes he read to himself, but he was still easily tired, and preferred usually to rest. More often she read aloud to him while he lay back with his leveled eyes gravely on her till the gentle, cool abstraction she affected was disturbed and her perplexed lashes rose to reproach the intensity of his gaze.
She was of those women who have the heavenborn faculty of making home of such fortuitous elements as are to their hands. Except her piano and such knickknacks as she had brought in a single trunk she had had to depend upon the resources of the establishment to which she had come, but it is wonderful how much can be done with some Navajo rugs, a bearskin, a few bits of Indian pottery and woven baskets and a judicious arrangement of scenic photographs. In a few days she would have her pictures from Kalamazoo, pending which her touch had transformed the big living room from a cheerless barn into a spot that was a comfort to the eye and heart. To the wounded man who lay there slowly renewing the blood he had lost the room was the apotheosis of home, less, perhaps, by reason of what it was in itself than because it was the setting for her presence—for her grave, sympathetic eyes, the sound of her clear voice, the light grace of her motion. He rejoiced in the delightful intimacy the circumstances made necessary. To hear snatches of joyous song and gay laughter even from a distance, to watch her as she came in and out on her daily tasks, to contest her opinions of books and life and see how eagerly she defended them; he wondered himself at the strength of the appeal these simple things made to him. Already he was dreading the day when he must mount his horse and ride back into the turbulent life from which she had for a time, snatched him.
"I'll hate to go back to sheepherding," he told her one day at lunch, looking at her across a snow-white tablecloth upon which were a service of shining silver, fragile china teacups and plates stamped Limoges.
He was at the moment buttering a delicious French roll and she was daintily pouring tea from an old family heirloom. The contrast between this and the dust and the grease of a midday meal at the end of a "chuck wagon" lent accent to his smiling lamentation.
"A lot of sheepherding you do," she derided.
"A shepherd has to look after his sheep, y'u know."
"You herd sheep just about as much as I punch cows."
"I have to herd my herders, anyhow, and that keeps me on the move."
"I'm glad there isn't going to be any more trouble between you and the Lazy D. And that reminds me of another thing. I've often wonered who those men could have been that attacked you the day you were hurt."
She had asked the question almost carelessly, without any thought that this might be something he wished to conceal, but she recognized her mistake by the wariness that filmed his eyes instantly.
"Room there for a right interesting guessing contest," he replied.
"You wouldn't need to guess," she charged, on swift impulse.
"Meaning that I know?"
"You do know. You can't deny that you now."
"Well, say that I know?"
"Aren't you going to tell?"
He shook his head. "Not just yet. I've got private reasons for keeping it quiet a while."
"I'm sure they are creditable to you," came her swift ironic retort.
"Sure," he agreed, whimsically. "I must live up to the professional standard. Honor among thieves, y'u know."
CHAPTER 9. MISS DARLING ARRIVES
Miss Messiter clung to civilization enough, at least, to prefer that her chambermaid should be a woman rather than a Chinese. It did not suit her preconceived idea of the proper thing that Lee Ming should sweep floors, dust bric-a-brac, and make the beds. To see him slosh-sloshing around in his felt slippers made her homesick for Kalamazoo. There were other reasons why the proprieties would be better served by having another woman about the place; reasons that had to do with the chaperone system that even in the uncombed West make its claims upon unmarried young women of respectability. She had with her for the present fourteen-year-old Ida Henderson, but this arrangement was merely temporary.
Wherefore on the morning after her arrival Helen had sent two letters back to "the States." One of these had been to Mrs. Winslow, a widow of fifty-five, inviting her to come out on a business basis as housekeeper of the Lazy D. The buxom widow had loved Helen since she had been a toddling baby, and her reply was immediate and enthusiastic. Eight days later she had reported in person. The second letter bore the affectionate address of Nora Darling, Detroit, Michigan. This also in time bore fruit at the ranch in a manner worthy of special mention.
It was the fourth day after Ned Bannister had been carried back to the Lazy D that Helen Messiter came out to the porch of the house with a letter in her hand. She found her foreman sitting on the steps waiting for her, but he got up as soon as he heard the fall of her light footsteps behind him.
"You sent for me, ma'am?" he asked, hat in hand.
"Yes; I want you to drive into Gimlet Butte and bring back a person whom you'll find at the Elk House waiting for you. I had rather you would go yourself, because I know you're reliable."
"Thank you, ma'am. How will I know him?"
"It's a woman—a spinster. She's coming to help Mrs. Winslow. Inquire for Miss Darling. She isn't used to jolting two days in a rig, but I know you will be careful of her."
"I'll surely be as careful of the old lady as if she was my own mother."
The mistress of the ranch smothered a desire to laugh.
"I'm sure you will. At her age she may need a good deal of care. Be certain you take rug enough."
"I'll take care of her the best I know how. Expect she's likely rheumatic, but I'll wrop her up till she looks like a Cheyenne squaw when tourist is trying to get a free shoot at her with camera."
"Please do. I want her to get a good impression of Wyoming so that she will stay. I don' know about the rheumatism, but you might ask her."
There were pinpoints of merriment behind the guileless innocence of her eyes, but they came to the surface only after the foreman had departed.
McWilliams ordered a team of young horse hitched, and presently set out on his two day; journey to Gimlet Butte. He reached that town in good season, left the team at a corral and walked back to the Elk House. The white dust of the plains was heavy on him, from the bandanna that loosely embraced the brown throat above the flannel shirt to the encrusted boots but through it the good humor of his tanned face smiled fraternally on a young woman he passes at the entrance to the hotel. Her gay smile met his cordially, and she was still in his mind while he ran his eye down the register in search of the name he wanted. There it was—Miss Nora Darling, Detroit, Michigan—in the neatest of little round letters, under date of the previous day's arrivals.
"Is Miss Darling in?" asked McWilliams of the half-grown son of the landlady who served in lieu of clerk and porter.
"Nope! Went out a little while ago. Said to tell anybody to wait that asked for her."
Mac nodded, relieved to find that duty had postponed itself long enough for him to pursue the friendly smile that had not been wasted on him a few seconds before. He strolled out to the porch and decided at once that he needed a cigar more than anything else on earth. He was helped to a realization of his need by seeing the owner of the smile disappear in an adjoining drug store.
She was beginning on a nut sundae when the puncher drifted in. She continued to devote even her eyes to its consumption, while the foreman opened a casual conversation with the drug clerk and lit his cigar.
"How are things coming in Gimlet Butte?" he asked, by way of prolonging his stay rather than out of desire for information.
Yes, she certainly had the longest, softest lashes he had ever seen, and the ripest of cherry lips, behind the smiling depths of which sparkled two rows of tiny pearls. He wished she would look at HIM and smile again. There wasn't any use trying to melt a sundae with it, anyhow.
"Sure, it's a good year on the range and the price of cows jumping," he heard his sub-conscious self make answer to the patronizing inquiries of him of the "boiled" shirt.
"Funny how pretty hair of that color was especially when there was so much of it. You might call it a sort of coppery gold where the little curls escaped in tendrils and ran wild. A fellow—"
"Yes, I reckon most of the boys will drop around to the Fourth of July celebration. Got to cut loose once in a while, y'u know."
A shy glance shot him and set him a-tingle with a queer delight. Gracious, what pretty dark velvety lashes she had!
She was rising already, and as she paid for the ice cream that innocent gaze smote him again with the brightest of Irish eyes conceivable. It lingered for just a ponderable sunlit moment or him. She had smiled once more.
After a decent interval Mac pursued his petit charmer to the hotel. She was seated on the porch reading a magazine, and was absorbedly unconscious of him when he passed. For a few awkward moments he hung around the office, then returned to the porch and took the chair most distant from her. He had sat there a long ten minutes before she let her hands and the magazine fall into her lap and demurely gave him his chance.
"Can you tell me how far it is to the Lazy D ranch?"
"Seventy-two miles as the crow flies, ma'am."
The conversation threatened to die before it was well born. Desperately McWilliams tried to think of something to say to keep it alive without being too bold.
"If y'u were thinking of traveling out that way I could give y'u a lift. I just came in to get another lady—an old lady that has just come to this country."
"Thank you, but I'm expecting a conveyance to meet me here. You didn't happen to pass one on the way, I suppose?"
"No, I didn't. What ranch were y'u going to, ma'am?
"Miss Messiter's—the Lazy D."
A suspicion began to penetrate the foreman's brain. "Y'u ain't Miss Darling?"
"What makes you so sure I'm not?" she asked, tilting her dimpled chin toward him aggressively.
"Y'u're too young," he protested, helplessly.
"I'm no younger than you are," came her quick, indignant retort.
Thus boldly accused of his youth, the foreman blushed. "I didn't mean that. Miss Messiter said she was an old lady—"
"You needn't tell fibs about it. She couldn't have said anything of the kind. Who are you, anyhow?" the girl demanded, with spirit.
"I'm the foreman of the Lazy D, come to get Miss Darling. My name is McWilliams—Jim McWilliams."
"I don't need your first name, Mr. McWilliams," she assured him, sweetly. "And will you please tell me why you have kept me waiting here more than thirty hours?"
"Miss Messiter didn't get your letter in time. Y'u see, we don't get mail every day at the Lazy D," he explained, the while he hopefully wondered just when she was going to need his last name.
"I don't see why you don't go after your mail every day at least, especially when Miss Messiter was expecting me. To leave me waiting here thirty hours—I'll not stand it. When does the next train leave for Detroit?" she asked, imperiously.
The situation seemed to call for diplomacy, and Jim McWilliams moved to a nearer chair. "I'm right sorry it happened, ma'am, and I'll bet Miss Messiter is, too. Y'u see, we been awful busy one way and 'nother, and I plumb neglected to send one of the boys to the post-office."
"Why didn't one of them walk over after supper?" she demanded, severely.
He curbed the smile that was twitching at his facial muscles.
"Well, o' course it ain't so far,—only forty-three miles—still—"
"Forty-three miles to the post-office?"
"Yes, ma'am, only forty-three. If you'll excuse me this time—"
"Is it really forty-three?"
He saw that her sudden smile had brought out the dimples in the oval face and that her petulance had been swept away by his astounding information.
"Forty-three, sure as shootin', except twict a week when it comes to Slauson's, and that's only twenty miles," he assured her. "Used to be seventy-two, but the Government got busy with its rural free delivery, and now we get it right at our doors."
"You must have big doors," she laughed.
"All out o' doors," he punned. "Y'u see, our house is under our hat, and like as not that's twenty miles from the ranchhouse when night falls."
"Dear me!" She swept his graceful figure sarcastically. "And, of course, twenty miles from a brush, too."
He laughed with deep delight at her thrust, for the warm youth in him did not ask for pointed wit on the part of a young woman so attractive and with a manner so delightfully provoking.
"I expaict I have gathered up some scenery on the journey. I'll go brush it off and get ready for supper. I'd admire to sit beside y'u and pass the butter and the hash if y'u don't object. Y'u see, I don't often meet up with ladies, and I'd ought to improve my table manners when I get a chanct with one so much older than I am and o' course so much more experienced."
"I see you don't intend to pass any honey with the hash," she flashed, with a glimpse of the pearls.
"DIDN'T y'u say y'u was older than me? I believe I've plumb forgot how old y'u said y'u was, Miss Darling."
"Your memory's such a sieve it wouldn't be worth while telling you. After you've been to school a while longer maybe I'll try you again."
"Some ladies like 'em young," he suggested, amiably.
"But full grown," she amended.
"Do y'u judge by my looks or my ways?" he inquired, anxiously.
"That's right strange," he mused aloud. "For judging by some of your ways you're the spinster Miss Messiter was telling me about, but judging by your looks y'u're only the prettiest and sassiest twenty-year-old in Wyoming."
And with this shot he fled, to see what transformation he could effect with the aid of a whiskbroom, a tin pan of alkali water and a roller towel.
When she met him at the supper table her first question was, "Did Miss Messiter say I was an old maid?"
"Sho! I wouldn't let that trouble me if I was y'u. A woman ain't any older than she looks. Your age don't show to speak of."
"But did she?"
"I reckon she laid a trap for me and I shoved my paw in. She wanted to give me a pleasant surprise."
"Don't y'u grow anxious about being an old maid. There ain't any in Wyoming to speak of. If y'u like I'll tell the boys you're worried and some of them will be Johnnie-on-the-Spot. They're awful gallant, cowpunchers are."
"Some of them may be," she differed. "If you want to know I'm just twenty-one."
He sawed industriously at his steak. "Y'u don't say! Just old enough to vote—like this steer was before they massacreed him."
She gave him one look, and thereafter punished him with silence.
They left Gimlet Butte early next morning and reached the Lazy D shortly after noon on the succeeding day. McWilliams understood perfectly that strenuous competition would inevitably ensue as soon as the Lazy D beheld the attraction he had brought into their midst. Nor did he need a phrenologist to tell him that Nora was a born flirt and that her shy slant glances were meant to penetrate tough hides to tender hearts. But this did not discourage him, and he set about making his individual impression while he had her all to himself. He wasn't at all sure how deep this went, but he had the satisfaction of hearing his first name, the one she had told him she had no need of, fall tentatively from her pretty lips before the other boys caught a glimpse of her.
Shortly after his arrival at the ranch Mac went to make his report to his mistress of some business matters connected with the trip.
"I see you got back safely with the old lady," she laughed when she caught sight of him.
His look reproached her. "Y'u said a spinster."
"But it was you that insisted on the rheumatism. By the way, did you ask her about it?"
"We didn't get that far," he parried.
"Oh! How far did you get?" She perched herself on the porch railing and mocked him with her friendly eyes. Her heart was light within her and she was ready for anything in the way of fun, for the doctor had just pronounced her patient out of danger if he took proper care of himself.
"About as fur as I got with y'u, ma'am," he audaciously retorted.
"We might disagree as to how far that is," she flung back gayly with heightened color.
"No, ma'am, I don't think we would."
"But, gracious! You're not a Mormon. You don't want us both, do you?" she demanded, her eyes sparkling with the exhilaration of the tilt.
"Could I get either one of y'u, do y'u reckon? That's what's worrying me."
"I see, and so you intend to keep us both on the string."
His joyous laughter echoed hers. "I expaict y'u would call that presumption or some other dictionary word, wouldn't y'u?"
"In anybody else perhaps, but surely not in Mr. McWilliams."
"I'm awful glad to be trotting in a class by myself."
"And you'll let us know when you have made your mind up which of us it is to be?"
"Well, mine ain't the only mind that has to be made up," he drawled.
She took this up gleefully. "I can't answer for Nora, but I'll jump at the chance—if you decide to give it to me."
He laughed delightedly into the hat he was momentarily expecting to put on. "I'll mill it over a spell and let y'u know, ma'am."
"Yes, think it over from all points of view. Of course she is prettier, but then I'm not afflicted with rheumatism and probably wouldn't flirt as much afterward. I have a good temper, too, as a rule, but then so has Nora."
"Oh, she's prettier, is she?" With boyish audacity he grinned at her.
"What do you think?"
He shook his head. "I'll have to go to the foot of the class on that, ma'am. Give me an easier one."
"I'll have to choose another subject then. What did you do about that bunch of Circle 66 cows you looked at on your way in?"
They discussed business for a few minutes, after which she went back to her patient and he to his work.
"Ain't she a straight-up little gentleman for fair?" the foreman asked himself in rhetorical and exuberant question, slapping his hat against his leg as he strode toward the corral. "Think of her coming at me like she did, the blamed little thoroughbred. Y'u bet she knows me down to the ground and how sudden I got over any fool notions I might a-started to get in my cocoanut. But the way she came back at me, quick as lightning and then some, pretendin' all that foolishness and knowin' all the time I'd savez the game."
Both McWilliams and his mistress had guessed right in their surmise as to Nora Darling's popularity in the cow country. She made an immediate and pronounced hit. It was astonishing how many errands the men found to take them to "the house," as they called the building where the mistress of the ranch dwelt. Bannister served for a time as an excellent excuse. Judging from the number of the inquiries which the men found it necessary to make as to his progress, Helen would have guessed him exceedingly popular with her riders. Having a sense of humor, she mentioned this to McWilliams one day.
He laughed, and tried to turn it into a compliment to his mistress. But she would have none of it.
"I know better, sir. They don't come here to see me. Nora is the attraction, and I have sense enough to know it. My nose is quite out of joint," she laughed.
Mac looked with gay earnestness at the feature she had mentioned. "There's a heap of difference in noses," he murmured, apparently apropos of nothing.
"That's another way of telling me that Nora's pug is the sweetest thing you ever saw," she charged.
"I ain't half such a bad actor as some of the boys," he deprecated.
"Meaning in what way?"
"The Nora Darling way."
He pronounced her name so much as if it were a caress that his mistress laughed, and he joined in it.
"It's your fickleness that is breaking my heart, though I knew I was lost as soon as I saw your beatific look on the day you got back with Nora. The first week I came none of you could do enough for me. Now it's all Nora, darling." She mimicked gayly his intonation.
"Well, ma'am, it's this way," explained the foreman with a grin. "Y'u're right pleasant and friendly, but the boys have got a savvy way down deep that y'u'd shuck that friendliness awful sudden if any of them dropped around with 'Object, Matrimony' in their manner. Consequence is, they're loaded down to the ground with admiration of their boss, but they ain't presumptuous enough to expaict any more. I had notions, mebbe, I'd cut more ice, me being not afflicted with bashfulness. My notions faded, ma'am, in about a week."
"Then Nora came?" she laughed.
"No, ma'am, they had gone glimmering long before she arrived. I was just convalescent enough to need being cheered up when she drapped in."
"And are you cheered up yet?" his mistress asked.
He took off his dusty hat and scratched his head. "I ain't right certain, yet, ma'am. Soon as I know I'm consoled, I'll be round with an invite to the wedding."
"That is, if you are."
"If I am—yes. Y'u can't most always tell when they have eyes like hers."
"You're quite an authority on the sex considering your years."
"Yes, ma'am." He looked aggrieved, thinking himself a man grown. "How did y'u say Mr. Bannister was?"
"Wait, and I'll send Nora out to tell you," she flashed, and disappeared in the house.
Conversation at the bunkhouse and the chucktent sometimes circled around the young women at the house, but its personality rarely grew pronounced. References to Helen Messiter and the housemaid were usually by way of repartee at each other. For a change had come over the spirit of the Lazy D men, and, though a cheerful profanity still flowed freely when they were alone together, vulgarity was largely banished.
The morning after his conversation with Miss Messiter, McWilliams was washing in the foreman's room when the triangle beat the call for breakfast, and he heard the cook's raucous "Come and get it." There was the usual stampede for the tent, and a minute later Mac flung back the flap and entered. He took the seat at the head of the table, along the benches on both sides of which the punchers were plying busy knives and forks.
"A stack of chips," ordered the foreman; and the cook's "Coming up" was scarcely more prompt than the plate of hot cakes he set before the young man.
"Hen fruit, sunny side up," shouted Reddy, who was further advanced in his meal.
"Tame that fog-horn, son," advised Wun Hop; but presently he slid three fried eggs from a frying-pan into the plate of the hungry one.
"I want y'u boys to finish flankin' that bunch of hill calves to-day," said the foreman, emptying half a jug of syrup over his cakes.
"Redtop, he ain't got no appetite these days," grinned Denver, as the gentleman mentioned cleaned up a second loaded plate of ham, eggs and fried potatoes. "I see him studying a Wind River Bible* yesterday. Curious how in the spring a young man's fancy gits to wandering on house furnishing. Red, he was taking the catalogue alphabetically. Carpets was absorbin' his attention, chairs on deck, and chandeliers in the hole, as we used to say when we was baseball kids."
[* A Wind River Bible in the Northwest ranch country is a catalogue of one of the big Chicago department stores that does a large shipping business in the West.]
"Ain't a word of truth in it," indignantly denied the assailed, his unfinished nose and chin giving him a pathetic, whipped puppy look. "Sho! I was just looking up saddles. Can't a fellow buy a new saddle without asking leave of Denver?"
"Cyarpets used to begin with a C in my spelling-book, but saddles got off right foot fust with a S," suggested Mac amiably.
"He was ce'tainly trying to tree his saddle among the C's. He was looking awful loving at a Turkish rug. Reckon he thought it was a saddle-blanket," derided Denver cheerfully.
"Huh! Y'u're awful smart, Denver," retaliated Reddy, his complexion matching his hair. "Y'u talk a heap with your mouth. Nobody believes a word of what y'u say."
Denver relaxed into a range song by way of repartee:
"I want mighty bad to be married, To have a garden and a home; I ce'tainly aim to git married, And have a gyurl for my own."
"Aw! Y'u fresh guys make me tired. Y'u don't devil me a bit, not a bit. Whyfor should I care what y'u say? I guess this outfit ain't got no surcingle on me." Nevertheless, he made a hurried end of his breakfast and flung out of the tent.
"Y'u boys hadn't ought to wound Reddy's tender feelings, and him so bent on matrimony!" said Denver innocently. "Get a move on them fried spuds and sashay them down this way, if there's any left when y'u fill your plate, Missou."
Nor was Reddy the only young man who had dreams those days at the Lazy D. Cupid must have had his hands full, for his darts punctured more than one honest plainsman's heart. The reputation of the young women at the Lazy D seemed to travel on the wings of the wind, and from far and near Cattleland sent devotees to this shrine of youth and beauty. So casually the victims drifted in, always with a good business excuse warranted to endure raillery and sarcasm, that it was impossible to say they had come of set purpose to sun themselves in feminine smiles.
As for Nora, it is not too much to say that she was having the time of her life. Detroit, Michigan, could offer no such field for her expansive charms as the Bighorn country, Wyoming. Here she might have her pick of a hundred, and every one of them picturesquely begirt with flannel shirt, knotted scarf at neck, an arsenal that bristled, and a sun-tan that could be achieved only in the outdoors of the Rockies. Certainly these knights of the saddle radiated a romance with which even her floorwalker "gentleman friend" could not compete.
CHAPTER 10. A SHEPHERD OF THE DESERT
It had been Helen Messiter's daily custom either to take a ride on her pony or a spin in her motor car, but since Bannister had been quartered at the Lazy D her time had been so fully occupied that she had given this up for the present. The arrival of Nora Darling, however, took so much work off her hands that she began to continue her rides and drives.
Her patient was by this time so far recovered that he did not need her constant attendance and there were reasons why she decided it best to spend only a minimum of her time with him. These had to do with her increasing interest in the man and the need she felt to discourage it. It had come to a pretty pass, she told herself scornfully, when she found herself inventing excuses to take her into the room where this most picturesque of unhanged scamps was lying. Most good women are at heart puritans, and if Helen was too liberal to judge others narrowly she could be none the less rigid with herself. She might talk to him of her duty, but it was her habit to be frank in thought and she knew that something nearer than that abstraction had moved her efforts in his behalf. She had fought for his life because she loved him. She could deny it no longer. Nor was the shame with which she confessed it unmingled with pride. He was a man to compel love, one of the mood imperative, chain-armored in the outdoor virtues of strength and endurance and stark courage. Her abasement began only where his superlation ended. That a being so godlike in equipment should have been fashioned without a soul, and that she should have given her heart to him. This was the fount of her degradation.
It was of these things she thought as she drove in the late afternoon toward those Antelope Peaks he had first pointed out to her. She swept past the scene of the battle and dipped down into the plains for a run to that western horizon behind the jagged mountain line of which the sun was radiantly setting in a splash of glorious colors. Lost in thought, space slipped under her wheels unnoticed. Not till her car refused the spur and slowed to a despondent halt did she observe that velvet night was falling over the land.
She prowled round the machine after the fashion of the motorist, examining details that might be the cause of the trouble. She discovered soon enough with instant dismay that the gasolene tank was empty. Reddy, always unreliable, must have forgotten to fill it when she told him to.
By the road she must be thirty miles from home if she were a step; across country as the crow flies, perhaps twenty. She was a young woman of resolution, and she wasted no time in tears or regrets. The XIX ranch, owned by a small "nester" named Henderson, could not be more than five or six miles to the southeast. If she struck across the hills she would be sure to run into one of the barblines. At the XIX she could get a horse and reach the Lazy D by midnight. Without any hesitation she struck out. It was unfortunate that she did not have on her heavy laced high boots, but she realized that she must take things as she found them. Things might have been a good deal worse, she reflected philosophically.
And before long they were worse, for the increasing darkness blotted out the landmarks she was using as guides and she was lost among the hill waves that rolled one after another across the range. Still she did not give way, telling herself that it would be better after the moon was up. She could then tell north from south, and so have a line by which to travel. But when at length the stars came out, thousands upon thousands of them, and looked down on a land magically flooded with chill moonlight, the girl found that the transformation of Wyoming into this sense of silvery loveliness had toned the distant mountain line to an indefinite haze that made it impossible for her to distinguish one peak from another.
She wandered for hours, hungry and tired and frightened, though this last she would not confess.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," she told herself over and over. "Even if I have to stay out all night it will do me no harm. There's no need to be a baby about it."
But try to evade it as she would, there was something in the loneliness of this limitless stretch of hilltop that got on her nerves. The very shadows cast by the moonshine seemed too fantastic for reality. Something eerie and unearthly hovered over it all, and before she knew it a sob choked up her throat.
Vague fancies filtered through her mind, weird imaginings born of the night in a mind that had been swept from the moorings of reason. So that with no sensible surprise there came to her in that moonlit sea of desert the sound of a voice a clear sweet tenor swelling bravely in song with the very ecstacy of pathos.
It was the prison song from "Il Trovatore," and the desolation of its lifted appeal went to the heart like water to the roots of flowers.
Ah! I have sigh'd to rest me. Deep in the quiet grave.
The girl's sob caught in her breast, stilled with the awe of that heavenly music. So for an instant she waited before it was borne in on her that the voice was a human one, and that the heaven from which it descended was the hilltop above her.
A wild laugh, followed by an oath, cut the dying echoes of the song. She could hear the swish of a quirt falling again and again, and the sound of trampling hoofs thudding on the hard, sun-cracked ground. Startled, she sprang to her feet, and saw silhouetted against the skyline a horse and his rider fighting for mastery.
The battle was superb while it lasted. The horse had been a famous outlaw, broken to the saddle by its owner out of the sheer passion for victory, but there were times when its savage strength rebelled at abject submission, and this was one of them. It swung itself skyward, and came down like a pile-driver, camel-backed, and without joints in the legs. Swiftly it rose again lunging forward and whirling in the air, then jarred down at an angle. The brute did its malevolent best, a fury incarnate. But the ride, was a match, and more than a match, for it. He sat the saddle like a Centaur, with the perfect: unconscious grace of a born master, swaying in his seat as need was, and spurring the horse to a blinder fury.
Sudden as had been the start, no less sudden was the finish of the battle. The bronco pounded to a stiff-legged standstill, trembled for a long minute like an aspen, and sank to a tame surrender, despite the sharp spurs roweling its bloody sides.
"Ah, my beauty. You've had enough, have you?" demanded the cruel, triumphant voice of the rider. "You would try that game, would you? I'll teach you."
"Stop spurring that horse, you bully."
The man stopped, in sheer amazement at this apparition which had leaped out of the ground almost at his feet. His wary glance circled the hills to make sure she was alone.
"Ce'tainly, ma'am. We're sure delighted to meet up with you. Ain't we, Two-step?"
For himself, he spoke the simple truth. He lived in his sensations, spurring himself to fresh ones as he had but just now been spurring his horse to sate the greed of conquest in him. And this high-spirited, gallant creature—he could feel her vital courage in the very ring of her voice—offered a rare fillip to his jaded appetite. The dusky, long-lashed eyes which always give a woman an effect of beauty, the splendid fling of head, and the piquant, finely cut features, with their unconscious tale of Brahmin caste, the long lines of the supple body, willowy and yet plump as a partridge—they went to his head like strong wine. Here was an adventure from the gods—a stubborn will to bend, the pride of a haughty young beauty to trail in the dust, her untamed heart to break if need be. The lust of the battle was on him already. She was a woman to dream about,
"Sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes, Or Cytherea's breath,"
he told himself exultantly as he slid from his horse and stood bowing before her.
And he, for his part, was a taking enough picture of devil-may-care gallantry gone to seed. The touch of jaunty impudence in his humility, not less than the daring admiration of his handsome eyes and the easy, sinuous grace of his flexed muscles, labeled him what he was—a man bold and capable to do what he willed, and a villain every inch of him.
Said she, after that first clash of stormy eyes with bold, admiring ones:
"I am lost—from the Lazy D ranch."
"Why, no, you're found," he corrected, white teeth flashing in a smile.
"My motor ran out of gasolene this afternoon. I've been"—there was a catch in her voice—"wandering ever since."
"You're played out, of course, and y'u've had no supper," he said, his quiet close gaze on her.
"Yes, I'm played out and my nerve's gone." She laughed a little hysterically. "I expect I'm hungry and thirsty, too, though I hadn't noticed it before."
He whirled to his saddle, and had the canteen thongs unloosed in a moment. While she drank he rummaged from his saddle-bags some sandwiches of jerky and a flask of whiskey. She ate the sandwiches, he the while watching her with amused sympathy in his swarthy countenance.
"You ain't half-bad at the chuck-wagon, Miss Messiter," he told her.
She stopped, the sandwich part way to her mouth. "I don't remember your face. I've met so many people since I came to the Lazy D. Still, I think I should remember you."
He immediately relieved of duty her quasi apology. "You haven't seen my face before," he laughed, and, though she puzzled over the double meaning that seemed to lurk behind his words and amuse him, she could not find the key to it.
It was too dark to make out his features at all clearly, but she was sure she had seen him before or somebody that looked very much like him.
"Life on the range ain't just what y'u can call exciting," he continued, "and when a young lady fresh from back East drops among us while sixguns are popping, breaks up a likely feud and mends right neatly all the ventilated feudists it's a corollary to her fun that's she is going to become famous."
What he said was true enough. The unsolicited notoriety her exploit had brought upon her had been its chief penalty. Garbled versions of it had appeared with fake pictures in New York and Chicago Sunday supplements, and all Cattleland had heard and discussed it. No matter into what unfrequented canon she rode, some silent cowpuncher would look at her as they met with admiring eyes behind which she read a knowledge of the story. It was a lonely desolate country, full of the wide deep silences of utter emptiness, yet there could be no footfall but the whisper of it was bruited on the wings of the wind.
"Do you know where the Lazy D ranch is from here?" she asked.
"Can you take me home?"
"I surely can. But not to-night. You're more tired than y'u know. We'll camp here, and in the mo'ning we'll hit the trail bright and early."
This did not suit her at all. "Is it far to the Lazy D?" she inquired anxiously.
"Every inch of forty miles. There's a creek not more than two hundred yards from here. We'll stay there till morning," he made answer in a matter of course voice, leading the way to the place he had mentioned.
She followed, protesting. Yet though it was not in accord with her civilized sense of fitness, she knew that what he proposed was the common sense solution. She was tired and worn out, and she could see that his broncho had traveled far.
Having reached the bank of the creek, he unsaddled, watered his horse and picketed it, and started a fire. Uneasily she watched him.
"I don't like to sleep out. Isn't there a ranchhouse near?"
"Y'u wouldn't call it near by the time we had reached it. What's to hinder your sleeping here? Isn't this room airy enough? And don't y'u like the system of lighting? 'Twas patented I forget how many million years ago. Y'u ain't going to play parlor girl now after getting the reputation y'u've got for gameness, are y'u?"
But he knew well enough that it was no silly schoolgirl fear she had, but some deep instinct in her that distrusted him and warned her to beware. So, lightly he took up the burden of the talk while he gathered cottonwood branches for the fire.
"Now if I'd only thought to bring a load of lumber and some carpenters—and a chaperon," he chided himself in burlesque, his bold eyes closely on the girl's face to gloat on the color that flew to her cheeks at his suggestion.
She hastened to disclaim lightly the feeling he had unmasked in her. "It is a pity, but it can't be helped now. I suppose I am cross and don't seem very grateful. I'm tired out and nervous, but I am sure that I'll enjoy sleeping out. If I don't I shall not be so ungenerous as to blame you."
He soon had a cup of steaming coffee ready for her, and the heat of it made a new woman of her. She sat in the warm fire glow, and began to feel stealing over her a delightful reaction of languor. She told herself severely it was ridiculous to have been so foolishly prim about the inevitable.
"Since you know my name, isn't it fair that I should know yours?" she smilingly asked, more amiably than she had yet spoken to him.
"Well, since I have found the lamb that was lost, y'u may call me a shepherd of the desert."
"Then, Mr. Shepherd, I'm very glad to meet you. I don't remember when I ever was more glad to meet a stranger." And she added with a little laugh: "It's a pity I'm too sleepy to do my duty by you in a social way."
"We'll let that wait till to-morrow. Y'u'll entertain me plenty then. I'll make your bunk up right away."
She was presently lying with her feet to the fire, snugly rolled in his saddle blankets. But though her eyes were heavy, her brain was still too active to permit her to sleep immediately. The excitement of her adventure was too near, the emotions of the day too poignantly vivid, to lose their hold on her at once. For the first time in her life she lay lapped in the illimitable velvet night, countless unwinking stars lighting the blue-black dream in which she floated. The enchantment of the night's loveliness swept through her sensitive pulses and thrilled her with the mystery of the great life of which she was an atom. Awe held her a willing captive.
She thought of many things, of her past life and its incongruity with the present, of the man who lay wounded at the Lazy D, of this other wide-shouldered vagabond who was just now in the shadows beyond the firelight, pacing up and down with long, light even strides as he looked to his horse and fed the fire. She watched him make an end of the things he found to do and then take his place opposite her. Who and what was he, this fascinating scamp who one moment flooded the moonlit desert with inspired snatches from the opera sung in the voice of an angel, and the next lashed at his horse like a devil incarnate? How reconcile the outstanding inconsistencies in him? For his every inflection, every motion, proclaimed the strain of good blood gone wrong and trampled under foot of set, sardonic purpose, indicated him a man of culture in a hell of his own choosing. Lounging on his elbow in the flickering shadows, so carelessly insouciant in every picturesque inch of him, he seemed to radiate the melodrama of the untamed frontier, just as her guest of tarnished reputation now at the ranch seemed to breathe forth its romance.
"Sleep well, little partner. Don't be afraid; nothing can harm you," this man had told her.
Promptly she had answered, "I'm not afraid, thank you, in the least"; and after a moment had added, not to seem hostile, "Good night, big partner."
But despite her calm assurance she knew she did not feel so entirely safe as if it had been one of her own ranch boys on the other side of the fire, or even that other vagabond who had made so direct an appeal to her heart. If she were not afraid, at least she knew some vague hint of anxiety.
She was still thinking of him when she fell asleep, and when she awakened the first sound that fell on her ears was his tuneful whistle. Indeed she had an indistinct memory of him in the night, wrapping the blankets closer about her when the chill air had half stirred her from her slumber. The day was still very young, but the abundant desert light dismissed sleep summarily. She shook and brushed the wrinkles out of her clothes and went down to the creek to wash her face with the inadequate facilities at hand. After redressing her hair she returned to the fire, upon which a coffee pot was already simmering.
She came up noiselessly behind him, but his trained senses were apprised of her approach.
"Good mo'ning! How did y'u find your bedroom?" he asked, without turning from the bacon he was broiling on the end of a stick.
"Quite up to the specifications. With all Wyoming for a floor and the sky for a ceiling, I never had a room I liked better. But have you eyes in the back of your head?"
He laughed grimly. "I have to be all eyes and ears in my business."
"Is your business of a nature so sensitive?"
"As much so as stocks on Wall Street. And we haven't any ticker to warn us to get under cover. Do you take cream in your coffee, Miss Messiter?"
She looked round in surprise. "Cream?"
"We're in tin-can land, you know, and live on air-tights. I milk my cow with a can-opener. Let me recommend this quail on toast." He handed her a battered tin plate, and prepared to help her from the frying-pan.
"I suppose that is another name for pork?"
"No, really. I happened to bag a couple of hooters before you wakened."
"You're a missionary of the good-foods movement. I shall name your mission St. Sherry's-in-the-Wilderness."
"Ah, Sherry's! That's since my time. I don't suppose I should know my way about in little old New York now."
She found him eager to pick up again the broken strands that had connected him with the big world from which he had once come. It had been long since she had enjoyed a talk more, for he expressed himself with wit and dexterity. But through her enjoyment ran a note of apprehension. He was for the moment a resurrected gentleman. But what would he be next? She had an insistent memory of a heavenly flood of music broken by a horrible discord of raucous oaths.
It was he that lingered over their breakfast, loath to make the first move to bring him back into realities; and it was she that had to suggest the need of setting out. But once on his feet, he saddled and packed swiftly, with a deftness born of experience.
"We'll have to ask Two-step to carry double to-day," he said, as he helped her to a place behind him.
Two-step had evidently made an end of the bronco spree upon which he had been the evening before, for he submitted sedately to his unusual burden. The first hilltop they reached had its surprise to offer the girl. In a little valley below them, scarce a mile away, nestled a ranch with its corrals and buildings.
"Look!" she exclaimed; and then swiftly, "Didn't you know it was there?"
"Yes, that's the Hilke place," he answered with composure. "It hasn't been occupied for years."
"Isn't that some one crossing to the corral now?"
"No. A stray cow, I reckon."
They dropped into a hollow between the hills and left the ranch on their left. She was not satisfied, and yet she had not grounds enough upon which to base a suspicion. For surely the figure she had seen had been that of a man.
CHAPTER 12. MISTRESS AND MAID
Now that it was safely concluded, Helen thought the adventure almost worthwhile for the spontaneous expressions of good will it had drawn forth from her adherents. Mrs. Winslow and Nora had taken her to their arms and wept and laughed over her in turn, and in their silent undemonstrative way she had felt herself hedged in by unusual solicitude on the part of her riders. It was good—none but she knew how good—to be back among her own, to bask in a friendliness she could not doubt. It was best of all to sit opposite Ned Bannister again with no weight on her heart from the consciousness of his unworthiness.
She could affect to disregard the gray eyes that followed her with such magnetized content about the living room, but beneath her cool self-containment she knew the joyous heart in her was strangely buoyant. He loved her, and she had a right to let herself love him. This was enough for the present.
"They're so plumb glad to see y'u they can't let y'u alone," laughed Bannister at the sound of a knock on the door that was about the fifth in as many minutes.
This time it proved to be Nora, come to find out what her mistress would like for supper. Helen turned to the invalid.
"What would you like, Mr. Bannister?"
"I should like a porterhouse with mushrooms," he announced promptly.
"You can't have it. You know what the doctor said." Very peremptorily she smiled this at him.
"He's an old granny, Miss Messiter."
"You may have an egg on toast."
"Make it two," he pleaded. "Excitement's just like caviar to the appetite, and seeing y'u safe—"
"Very well—two," she conceded.
They ate supper together in a renewal of the pleasant intimacy so delightful to both. He lay on the lounge, propped up with sofa cushions, the while he watched her deft fingers butter the toast and prepare his egg. It was surely worth while to be a convalescent, given so sweet a comrade for a nurse; and after he had moved over to the table he enjoyed immensely the gay firmness with which she denied him what was not good for him.
"I'll bet y'u didn't have supper like this at Robbers' Roost." he told her, enthusiastically.
"It wasn't so bad, considering everything." She was looking directly at him as she spoke. "Your cousin is rather a remarkable man in some ways. He manages to live on the best that can be got in tin-can land."
"Did he tell y'u he was my cousin?" he asked, slowly.
"Yes, and that his name was Ned Bannister, too?"
"Did that explain anything to y'u?"
"It explained a great deal, but it left some things not clear yet."
"For one thing, the reason why you should bear the odium of his crimes. I suppose you don't care for him, though I can see how you might in a way."
"I don't care for him in the least, though I used to when we were boys. As to letting myself be blamed for his crimes. I did it because I couldn't help myself. We look more or less alike, and he was cunning enough to manufacture evidence against me. We were never seen together, and so very few know that there are two Bannisters. At first I used to protest, but I gave it up. There wasn't the least use. I could only wait for him to be captured or killed. In the meantime it didn't make me any more popular to be a sheepman."
"Weren't you taking a long chance of being killed first? Some one with a grudge against him might have shot you."
"They haven't yet," he smiled.
"You might at least have told me how it was," she reproached.
"I started to tell y'u that first day, but it looked so much of a fairy tale to unload that I passed it up."
"Then you ought not to blame me for thinking you what you were not."
"I don't remember blaming y'u. The fact is I thought it awful white of y'u to do your Christian duty so thorough, me being such a miscreant," he drawled.
"You gave me no chance to think well of you."
"But yet y'u did your duty from A to Z."
"We're not talking about my duty," she flashed back. "My point is that you weren't fair to me. If I thought ill of you how could I help it?"
"I expaict your Kalamazoo conscience is worryin' y'u because y'u misjudged me."
"It isn't," she denied instantly.
"I ain't of a revengeful disposition. I'll forgive y'u for doing your duty and saving my life twice," he said, with a smile of whimsical irony.
"I don't want your forgiveness."
"Well, then for thinking me a 'bad man.'"
"You ought to beg my pardon. I was a friend, at least you say I acted like one—and you didn't care enough to right yourself with me."
"Maybe I cared too much to risk trying it. I knew there would be proof some time, and I decided to lie under the suspicion until I could get it. I see now that wasn't kind or fair to you. I am sorry I didn't tell y'u all about it. May I tell y'u the story now?"
"If you wish."
It was a long story, but the main points can be told in a paragraph. The grandfather of the two cousins, General Edward Bannister, had worn the Confederate gray for four years, and had lost an arm in the service of the flag with the stars and bars. After the war he returned to his home in Virginia to find it in ruins, his slaves freed and his fields mortgaged. He had pulled himself together for another start, and had practiced law in the little town where his family had lived for generations. Of his two sons, one was a ne'er-do-well. He was one of those brilliant fellows of whom much is expected that never develops. He had a taste for low company, married beneath him, and, after a career that was a continual mortification and humiliation to his father, was killed in a drunken brawl under disgraceful circumstances, leaving behind a son named for the general. The second son of General Bannister also died young, but not before he had proved his devotion to his father by an exemplary life. He, too, was married and left an only son, also named for the old soldier. The boys were about of an age and were well matched in physical and mental equipment. But the general, who had taken them both to live with him, soon discovered that their characters were as dissimilar as the poles. One grandson was frank, generous, open as the light; the other was of a nature almost degenerate. In fact, each had inherited the qualities of his father. Tales began to come to the old general's ears that at first he refused to credit. But eventually it was made plain to him that one of the boys was a rake of the most objectionable type.
There were many stormy scenes between the general and his grandson, but the boy continued to go from bad to worse. After a peculiarly flagrant case, involving the character of a respectable young girl, young Ned Bannister was forbidden his ancestral home. It had been by means of his cousin that this last iniquity of his had been unearthed, and the boy had taken it to his grandfather in hot indignation as the last hope of protecting the reputation of the injured girl. From that hour the evil hatred of his cousin, always dormant in the heart, flamed into active heat. The disowned youth swore to be revenged. A short time later the general died, leaving what little property he had entirely to the one grandson. This stirred again the bitter rage of the other. He set fire to the house that had been willed his cousin, and took a train that night for Wyoming. By a strange irony of fate they met again in the West years later, and the enmity between them was renewed, growing every month more bitter on the part of the one who called himself the King of the Bighorn Country.