She broke the silence after his story with a gentle "Thank you. I can understand why you don't like to tell the story."
"I am very glad of the chance to tell it to you," he answered.
"When you were delirious you sometimes begged some one you called Ned not to break his mother's heart. I thought then you might be speaking to yourself as ill people do. Of course I see now it was your cousin that was on your mind."
"When I was out of my head I must have talked a lot of nonsense," he suggested, in the voice of a question. "I expect I had opinions I wouldn't have been scattering around so free if I'd known what I was saying."
He was hardly prepared for the tide of color that swept her cheeks at his words nor for the momentary confusion that shuttered the shy eyes with long lashes cast down.
"Sick folks do talk foolishness, they say," he added, his gaze trained on her suspiciously.
"Mrs. Winslow says I did. But when I asked her what it was I said she only laughed and told me to ask y'u. Well, I'm askin' now."
She became very busy over the teapot. "You talked about the work at your ranch—sheep dipping and such things."
"Was that all?"
"No, about lots of other things—football and your early life. I don't see what Mrs. Winslow meant. Will you have some more tea?"
"No, thank y'u. I have finished. Yes, that ce'tainly seems harmless. I didn't know but I had been telling secrets." Still his unwavering eyes rested quietly on her.
"Secrets?" She summoned her aplomb to let a question rest lightly in the face she turned toward him, though she was afraid she met his eyes hardly long enough for complete innocence "Why, yes, secrets." He measured looks with her deliberately before he changed the subject, and he knew again the delightful excitement of victory. "Are y'u going to read to me this evening?"
She took his opening so eagerly that he smiled, at which her color mounted again.
"If y'u like. What shall I read?"
"Some more of Barrie's books, if y'u don't mind. When a fellow is weak as a kitten he sorter takes to things that are about kids."
Nora came in and cleared away the supper things. She was just beginning to wash them when McWilliams and Denver dropped into the kitchen by different doors. Each seemed surprised and disappointed at the presence of the other. Nora gave each of them a smile and a dishcloth.
"Reddy, he's shavin' and Frisco's struggling with a biled shirt—I mean with a necktie," Denver hastily amended. "They'll be along right soon, I shouldn't wonder."
"Y'u better go tell the boys Miss Nora don't want her kitchen littered up with so many of them," suggested his rival.
"Y'u're foreman here. I don't aim to butt into your business, Mac," grinned back the other, polishing a tea plate with the towel.
"I want to get some table linen over to Lee Ming to-night," said Nora, presently.
"Denver, he'll be glad to take it for y'u, Miss Nora. He's real obliging," offered Mac, generously.
"I've been in the house all day, so I need a walk. I thought perhaps one of you gentlemen—" Miss Nora looked from one to the other of them with deep innocence.
"Sure, I'll go along and carry it. Just as Mac says, I'll be real pleased to go," said Denver, hastily.
Mac felt he had been a trifle precipitate in his assumption that Nora did not intend to go herself. Lee Ming had established a laundry some half mile from the ranch, and the way thereto lay through most picturesque shadow and moonlight. The foreman had conscientious scruples against letting Denver escort her down such a veritable lovers' lane of romantic scenery.
"I don't know as y'u ought to go out in the night air with that cold, Denver. I'd hate a heap to have y'u catch pneumony. It don't seem to me I'd be justified in allowin' y'u to," said the foreman, anxiously.
"You're THAT thoughtful, Mac. But I expect mebbe a little saunter with Miss Nora will do my throat good. We'll walk real slow, so's not to wear out my strength."
"Big, husky fellows like y'u are awful likely to drop off with pneumony. I been thinkin' I got some awful good medicine that would be the right stuff for y'u. It's in the drawer of my wash-stand. Help yourself liberal and it will surely do y'u good. Y'u'll find it in a bottle."
"I'll bet it's good medicine, Mac. After we get home I'll drop around. In the washstand, y'u said?"
"I hate to have y'u take such a risk," Mac tried again. "There ain't a bit of use in y'u exposing yourself so careless. Y'u take a hot footbath and some of that medicine, Denver, then go right straight to bed, and in the mo'ning y'u'll be good as new. Honest, y'u won't know yourself."
"Y'u got the best heart, Mac." Nora giggled.
"Since I'm foreman I got to be a mother to y'u boys, ain't I?"
"Y'u're liable to be a grandmother to us if y'u keep on," came back the young giant.
"Y'u plumb discourage me, Denver," sighed the foreman.
"No, sir! The way I look at it, a fellow's got to take some risk. Now, y'u cayn't tell some things. I figure I ain't half so likely to catch pneumony as y'u would be to get heart trouble if y'u went walking with Miss Nora," returned Denver.
A perfect gravity sat on both their faces during the progress of most of their repartee.
"If your throat's so bad, Mr. Halliday, I'll put a kerosene rag round it for you when we get back," Nora said, with a sweet little glance of sympathy that the foreman did not enjoy.
Denver, otherwise "Mr. Halliday," beamed. "Y'u're real kind, ma'am. I'll bet that will help it on the outside much as Mac's medicine will inside."
"What'll y'u do for my heart, ma'am, if it gits bad the way Denver figures it will?"
"Y'u might try a mustard plaster," she gurgled, with laughter.
For once the debonair foreman's ready tongue had brought him to defeat. He was about to retire from the field temporarily when Nora herself offered first aid to the wounded.
"We would like to have you come along with us, Mr. McWilliams. I want you to come if you can spare the time."
The soft eyes telegraphed an invitation with such a subtle suggestion of a private understanding that Mac was instantly encouraged to accept.
He knew, of course, that she was playing them against each other and sitting back to enjoy the result, but he was possessed of the hope common to youths in his case that he really was on a better footing with her than the other boys. This opinion, it may be added, was shared by Denver, Frisco and even Reddy as regards themselves. Which is merely another way of putting the regrettable fact that this very charming young woman was given to coquetting with the hearts of her admirers.
"Any time y'u get oneasy about that cough y'u go right on home, Denver. Don't stay jest out of politeness. We'll never miss y'u, anyhow," the foreman assured him.
"Thank y'u, Mac. But y'u see I got to stay to keep Miss Nora from getting bored."
"Was it a phrenologist strung y'u with the notion y'u was a cure for lonesomeness?"
"Shucks! I don't make no such claims. The only thing is it's a comfort when you're bored to have company. Miss Nora, she's so polite. But, y'u see, if I'm along I can take y'u for a walk when y'u get too bad."
They reached the little trail that ran up to Lee Ming's place, and Denver suggested that Mac run in with the bundle so as to save Nora the climb.
"I'd like to, honest I would. But since y'u thought of it first I won't steal the credit of doing Miss Nora a good turn. We'll wait right here for y'u till y'u come back."
"We'll all go up together," decided Nora, and honors were easy.
In the pleasant moonlight they sauntered back, two of them still engaged in lively badinage, while the third played chorus with appreciative little giggles and murmurs of "Oh, Mr. Halliday!" and "You know you're just flattering me, Mr. McWilliams."
If they had not been so absorbed in their gay foolishness the two men might not have walked so innocently into the trap waiting for them at their journey's end. As it was, the first intimation they had of anything unusual was a stern command to surrender.
"Throw up your hands. Quick, you blank fools!"
A masked man covered them, in each hand a six-shooter, and at his summons the arms of the cow-punchers went instantly into the air.
Nora gave an involuntary little scream of dismay.
"Y'u don't need to be afraid, lady. Ain't nobody going to hurt you, I reckon," the masked man growled.
"Sure they won't," Mac reassured her, adding ironically: "This gun-play business is just neighborly frolic. Liable to happen any day in Wyoming."
A second masked man stepped up. He, too was garnished with an arsenal.
"What's all this talking about?" he demanded sharply.
"We just been having a little conversation seh?" returned McWilliams, gently, his vigilant eyes searching through the disguise of the other "Just been telling the lady that your call is in friendly spirit. No objections, I suppose?"
The swarthy newcomer, who seemed to be in command, swore sourly.
"Y'u put a knot in your tongue, Mr. Foreman."
"Ce'tainly, if y'u prefer," returned the indomitable McWilliams.
"Shut up or I'll pump lead into you!"
"I'm padlocked, seh."
Nora Darling interrupted the dialogue by quietly fainting. The foreman caught her as she fell.
"See what y'u done, y'u blamed chump!" he snapped.
CHAPTER 13. THE TWO COUSINS
The sheepman lay at his ease, the strong supple lines of him stretched lazily on the lounge. Helen was sitting beside him in an easy chair, and he watched the play of her face in the lamplight as she read from "The Little White Bird." She was very good to see, so vitally alive and full of a sweet charm that half revealed and half concealed her personality. The imagination with which she threw herself into a discussion of the child fancies portrayed by the Scotch writer captured his fancy. It delighted him to tempt her into discussions that told him by suggestion something of what she thought and was.
They were in animated debate when the door opened to admit somebody else. He had stepped in so quietly that he stood there a little while without being observed, smiling down at them with triumphant malice behind the mask he wore. Perhaps it was the black visor that was responsible for the Mephisto effect, since it hid all the face but the leering eyes. These, narrowed to slits, swept the room and came back to its occupants. He was a tall man and well-knit, dressed incongruously in up-to-date riding breeches and boots, in combination with the usual gray shirt, knotted kerchief and wide-brimmed felt hat of the horseman of the plains. The dust of the desert lay thick on him, without in the least obscuring a certain ribald elegance, a distinction of wickedness that rested upon him as his due. To this result his debonair manner contributed, though it carried with it no suggestion of weakness. To the girl who looked up and found him there he looked indescribably sinister.
She half rose to her feet, dilated eyes fixed on him.
"Good evenin'. I came to make sure y'u got safe home, Miss Messiter," he said.
The eyes of the two men clashed, the sheepman's stern and unyielding, his cousin's lit with the devil of triumph. But out of the faces of both men looked the inevitable conflict, the declaration of war that never ends till death.
"I've been a heap anxious about y'u—couldn't sleep for worrying. So I saddled up and rode in to find out if y'u were all right and to inquire how Cousin Ned was getting along."
The sheepman, not deigning to move an inch from his position, looked in silence his steady contempt.
"This conversation sounds a whole lot like a monologue up to date," he continued. "Now, maybe y'u don't know y'u have the honor of entertaining the King of the Bighorn." The man's brown hand brushed the mask from his eyes and he bowed with mocking deference. "Miss Messiter, allow me to introduce myself again—Ned Bannister, train robber, rustler, kidnapper and general bad man. But I ain't told y'u the worst yet. I'm cousin to a sheepherder' and that's the lowest thing that walks."
He limped forward a few steps and sat down. "Thank you, I believe I will stay a while since y'u both ask me so urgent. It isn't often I meet with a welcome so hearty and straight from the heart."
It was not hard to see how the likeness between them contributed to the mistake that had been current concerning them. Side by side, no man could have mistaken one for the other. The color of their eyes, the shade of hair, even the cut of their features, were different. But beneath all distinctions in detail ran a family resemblance not to be denied. This man looked like his cousin, the sheepman, as the latter might have done if all his life he had given a free rein to evil passions.
The height, the build, the elastic tread of each, made further contributions to this effect of similarity.
"What are you doing here?" They were the first words spoken by the man on the lounge and they rang with a curt challenge.
"Come to inquire after the health of my dear cousin," came the prompt silken answer.
"My dear cousin, y'u speak with such conviction that y'u almost persuade me. But of course if I'm a villain I've got to live up to my reputation. Haven't I, Miss Messiter?"
"Wouldn't it be better to live it down?" she asked with a quietness that belied her terror. For there had been in his manner a threat, not against her but against the man whom her heart acknowledged as her lover.
He laughed. "Y'u're still hoping to make a Sunday school superintendent out of me, I see. Y'u haven't forgot all your schoolmarm ways yet, but I'll teach y'u to forget them."
The other cousin watched him with a cool, quiet glance that never wavered. The outlaw was heavily armed, but his weapons were sheathed, and, though there was a wary glitter behind the vindictive exultation in his eyes, his capable hands betrayed no knowledge of the existence of his revolvers. It was, he knew, to be a moral victory, if one at all.
"Hope I'm not disturbing any happy family circle," he remarked, and, taking two limping steps forward, he lifted the book from the girl's unresisting hands. "H'm! Barrie. I don't go much on him. He's too sissy for me. But I could have guessed the other Ned Bannister would be reading something like that," he concluded, a flicker of sneering contempt crossing his face.
"Perhaps y'u'll learn some time to attend to your own business," said the man on the couch quietly.
Hatred gleamed in the narrowed slits from which the soul of the other cousin looked down at him. "I'm a philanthropist, and my business is attending to other people's. They raise sheep, for instance, and I market them."
The girl hastily interrupted. She had not feared for herself, but she knew fear for the indomitable man she had nursed back to life. "Won't you sit down, Mr. Bannister? Since you don't approve our literature, perhaps we can find some other diversion more to your taste." She smiled faintly.
The man turned in smiling divination of her purpose, and sat down to play with her as a cat does with a mouse.
"Thank y'u, Miss Messiter, I believe I will. I called to thank y'u for your kindness to my cousin as well as to inquire about you. The word goes that y'u pulled my dear cousin back when death was reaching mighty strong for him. Of course I feel grateful to y'u. How is he getting along now?"
"He's doing very well, I think."
"That's ce'tainly good hearing," was his ironical response. "How come he to get hurt, did y'u say?"
His sleek smile was a thing hateful to see.
"A hound bit me," explained the sheepman.
"Y'u don't say! I reckon y'u oughtn't to have got in its way. Did y'u kill it?"
"That was surely a mistake, for it's liable to bite again."
The girl felt a sudden sickness at his honeyed cruelty, but immediately pulled herself together. For whatever fiendish intention might be in his mind she meant to frustrate it.
"I hear you are of a musical turn, Mr. Bannister. Won't you play for us?"
She had by chance found his weak spot. Instantly his eyes lit up. He stepped across to the piano and began to look over the music, though not so intently that he forgot to keep under his eye the man on the lounge.
"H'm! Mozart, Grieg, Chopin, Raff, Beethoven. Y'u ce'tainly have the music here; I wonder if y'u have the musician." He looked her over with a bold, unscrupulous gaze. "It's an old trick to have classical music on the rack and ragtime in your soul. Can y'u play these?"
"You will have to be the judge of that," she said.
He selected two of Grieg's songs and invited her to the piano. He knew instantly that the Norwegian's delicate fancy and lyrical feeling had found in her no inadequate medium of expression. The peculiar emotional quality of the song "I Love Thee" seemed to fill the room as she played. When she swung round on the stool at its conclusion it was to meet a shining-eyed, musical enthusiast instead of the villain she had left five minutes earlier.
"Y'u CAN play," was all he said, but the manner of it spoke volumes.
For nearly an hour he kept her at the piano, and when at last he let her stop playing he seemed a man transformed.
"You have given me a great pleasure, a very great pleasure, Miss Messiter," he thanked her warmly, his Western idiom sloughed with his villainy for the moment. "It has been a good many months since I have heard any decent music. With your permission I shall come again."
Her hesitation was imperceptible. "Surely, if you wish." She felt it would be worse than idle to deny the permission she might not be able to refuse.
With perfect grace he bowed, and as he wheeled away met with a little shock of remembrance the gaze of his cousin. For a long moment their eyes bored into each other. Neither yielded the beat of an eyelid, but it was the outlaw that spoke.
"I had forgotten y'u. That's strange, too because it was for y'u I came. I'm going to take y'u home with me.
"Alive or dead?" asked the other serenely.
"Alive, dear Ned."
"Same old traits cropping out again. There was always something feline about y'u. I remember when y'u were a boy y'u liked to torment wild animals y'u had trapped."
"I play with larger game now—and find it more interesting."
"Just so. Miss Messiter, I shall have to borrow a pony from y'u, unless—" He broke off and turned indifferently to the bandit.
"Yes, I brought a hawss along with me for y'u," replied the other to the unvoiced question. "I thought maybe y'u might want to ride with us."
"But he can't ride. He couldn't possibly. It would kill him," the girl broke out.
"I reckon not." The man from the Shoshones glanced at his victim as he drew on his gauntlets. "He's a heap tougher than y'u think."
"But it will. If he should ride now, why—It would be the same as murder," she gasped. "You wouldn't make him ride now?"
"Didn't y'u hear him order his hawss, ma'am? He's keen on this ride. Of course he don't have to go unless he wants to." The man turned his villainous smile on his cousin, and the latter interpreted it to mean that if he preferred, the point of attack might be shifted to the girl. He might go or he might stay. But if he stayed the mistress of the Lazy D would have to pay for his decision.
"No, I'll ride," he said at once.
Helen Messiter had missed the meaning of that Marconied message that flashed between them. She set her jaw with decision. "Well, you'll not. It's perfectly ridiculous. I won't hear of such a thing."
"Y'u seem right welcome. Hadn't y'u better stay, Ned?" murmured the outlaw, with smiling eyes that mocked.
"Of course he had. He couldn't ride a mile—not half a mile. The idea is utterly preposterous."
The sheepman got to his feet unsteadily. "I'll do famously."
"I won't have it. Why are you so foolish about going? He said you didn't need to go. You can't ride any more than a baby could chop down that pine in the yard."
"I'm a heap stronger than y'u think."
"Yes, you are!" she derided. "It's nothing but obstinacy. Make him stay," she appealed to the outlaw.
"Am I my cousin's keeper?" he drawled. "I can advise him to stay, but I can't make him."
"Well, I can. I'm his nurse, and I say he sha'n't stir a foot out of this house—not a foot."
The wounded man smiled quietly, admiring the splendid energy of her. "I'm right sorry to leave y'u so unceremoniously."
"You're not going." She wheeled on the outlaw "I don't understand this at all. But if you want him you can find him here when you come again. Put him on parole and leave him here. I'll not be a party to murder by letting him go."
"Y'u think I'm going to murder him?" he smiled.
"I think he cannot stand the riding. It would kill him."
"A haidstrong man is bound to have his way. He seems hell-bent on riding. All the docs say the outside of a hawss is good for the inside of a man. Mebbe it'll be the making of him."
"I won't have it. I'll rouse the whole countryside against you. Why don't you parole him till he is better?"
"All right. We'll leave it that way," announced the man. "I'd hate to hurt your tender feelings after such a pleasant evening. Let him give his parole to come to me whenever I send for him, no matter where he may be, to quit whatever he is doing right that instant, and come on the jump. If he wants to leave it that way, we'll call it a bargain."
Again the rapier-thrust of their eyes crossed. The sheepman was satisfied with what he saw in the face of his foe.
"All right. It's a deal," he agreed, and sank weakly back to the couch.
There are men whose looks are a profanation to any good woman. Ned Bannister, of the Shoshones, was one of them. He looked at his cousin, and his ribald eyes coasted back to bold scrutiny of this young woman's charming, buoyant youth. There was Something in his face that sent a flush of shame coursing through her rich blood. No man had ever looked at her like that before.
"Take awful good care of him," he sneered, with so plain an implication of evil that her clean blood boiled. "But I know y'u will, and don't let him go before he's real strong."
"No," she murmured, hating herself for the flush that bathed her.
He bowed like a Chesterfield, and went out with elastic heels, spurs clicking.
Helen turned fiercely on her guest. "Why did you make me insist on your staying? As if I want you here, as if—" She stopped, choking with anger; presently flamed out, "I hate you," and ran from the room to hide herself alone with her tears and her shame.
CHAPTER 14. FOR THE WORLD'S CHAMPIONSHIP
The scene on which Helen Messiter's eyes rested that mellow Fourth of July was vivid enough to have interested a far more jaded mind than hers. Nowhere outside of Cattleland could it have been duplicated. Wyoming is sparsely populated, but the riders of the plains think nothing of traveling a hundred miles in the saddle to be present at a "broncobusting" contest. Large delegations, too, had come in by railroad from Caspar, Billings, Sheridan, Cheyenne and a score of other points, so that the amphitheatre that looked down on the arena was filled to its capacity.
All night the little town had rioted with its guests. Everything was wide open at Gimlet Butte. Saloons were doing a land-office business and gambling-houses coining money. Great piles of gold had passed to and fro during the night at the roulette wheel and the faro table. But with the coming of day interest had centered on the rough-riding contest for the world's championship. Saloons and dance halls were deserted, and the universal trend of travel had been toward the big grand stands, from which the sport could be best viewed.
It was afternoon now. The preliminaries had been ridden, and half a dozen of the best riders had been chosen by the judges to ride again for the finals. Helen was wonderfully interested, because in the six who were to ride again were included the two Bannister cousins, her foreman, McWilliams, the young man "Texas," whom she had met the day of her arrival at Gimlet Butte, and Tom Sanford, who had last year won the championship.
She looked down on the arena, and her heart throbbed with the pure joy of life. Already she loved her West and its picturesque, chap-clad population. Their jingling spurs and their colored kerchiefs knotted round sunburned necks, their frank, whole-hearted abandon to the interest of the moment, led her to regard these youths as schoolboys. Yet they were a hard-bitten lot, as one could see, burned to a brick-red by the untempered sun of the Rockies; with muscles knit like steel, and hearts toughened to endure any blizzard they might meet. Only the humorous wrinkles about the corners of their eyes gave them away for the cheerful sons of mirth that they were.
"Bob Austin on Two-Step," announced the megaphone man, and a little stir eddied through the group gathered at the lane between the arena and the corral.
A meek-looking buckskin was driven into the arena. The embodiment of listlessness, it apparently had not ambition enough to flick a fly from its flank with its tail. Suddenly the bronco's ears pricked, its sharp eyes dilated. A man was riding forward, the loop of a lariat circling about his head. The rope fell true, but the wily pony side-stepped, and the loop slithered to the ground. Again the rope shot forward, dropped over the pony's head and tightened. The roper's mustang braced its forefeet, and brought the buckskin up short. Another rope swept over its head. It stood trembling, unable to move without strangling itself.
A picturesque youth in flannel shirt and chaps came forward, dragging blanket, saddle and bridle. At sight of him the horse gave a spasmodic fling, then trembled again violently. A blind was coaxed over its eyes and the bridle slipped on. Quickly and warily, with deft fingers, the young man saddled and cinched. He waved a hand jauntily to the ropers. The lariats were thrown off as the puncher swung to the saddle. For an instant the buckskin stood bewildered, motionless as a statue. There was a sudden leap forward high in air, and Bob Austin, alias "Texas," swung his sombrero with a joyous whoop.
"Fan him! Fan him!" screamed the spectators, and the rider's quirt went up and down like a piston-rod.
Round and round went Two-Step in a vicious circle, "swapping ends" with dizzying rapidity. Suddenly he went forward as from a catapult, and came to sudden halt in about five seconds. But Texas's knees still clung, viselike, to the sides of the pony. A series of quick bucks followed, the buckskin coming down with back humped, all four legs stiff as iron posts. The jar on the rider would have been like a pile-driver falling on his head had he not let himself grow limp. The buckskin plunged forward again in frenzied leaps, ending in an unexpected jump to one side. Alas for Texas! One moment he was jubilantly plying quirt and spurs, the next he found himself pitching sideways. To save himself he caught at the saddle-horn.
"He's hunting leather," shouted a hundred voices.
One of the judges rode out and waved a hand. Texas slipped to the ground disqualified, and made his dejected way back to his deriding comrades. Some of them had endured similar misfortunes earlier in the day. Therefore they found much pleasure in condoling with him.
"If he'd only recollected to saw off the horn of his saddle, then he couldn't 'a' found it when he went to hunt leather," mournfully commented one puncher in a shirt of robin's egg blue.
"'Twould have been most as good as to take the dust, wouldn't it?" retorted Texas gently, and the laugh was on the gentleman in blue, because he had been thrown earlier in the day.
"A fellow's hands sure get in his way sometimes. I reckon if you'd tied your hands, Tex, you'd been riding that rocking-hawss yet," suggested Denver amiably.
"Sometimes it's his foot he puts in it. There was onct a gent disqualified for riding on his spurs," said Texas reminiscently.
At which hit Denver retired, for not three hours before he had been detected digging his spurs into the cinch to help him stick to the saddle.
"Jim McWilliams will ride Dead Easy," came the announcement through the megaphone, and a burst of cheering passed along the grand stand, for the sunny smile of the foreman of the Lazy D made him a general favorite. Helen leaned forward and whispered something gaily to Nora, who sat in the seat in front of her. The Irish girl laughed and blushed, but when her mistress looked up it was her turn to feel the mounting color creep into her cheeks. For Ned Bannister, arrayed in all his riding finery, was making his way along the aisle to her.
She had not seen him since he had ridden away from the Lazy D ten days before, quite sufficiently recovered from his wounds to take up the routine of life again. They had parted not the best of friends, for she had not yet forgiven him for his determination to leave with his cousin on the night that she had been forced to insist on his remaining. He had put her in a false position, and he had never explained to her why. Nor could she guess the reason—for he was not a man to harvest credit for himself by explaining his own chivalry.
Since her heart told her how glad she was he had come to her box to see her, she greeted him with the coolest little nod in the world.
"Good morning, Miss Messiter. May I sit beside y'u?" he asked.
"Oh, certainly!" She swept her skirts aside carelessly and made room for him. "I thought you were going to ride soon."
"No, I ride last except for Sanford, the champion. My cousin rides just before me. He's entered under the name of Jack Holloway."
She was thinking that he had no business to be riding, that his wounds were still too fresh, but she did not intend again to show interest enough in his affairs to interfere even by suggestion. Her heart had been in her mouth every moment of the time this morning while he had been tossed hither and thither on the back of his mount. In his delirium he had said he loved her. If he did, why should he torture her so? It was well enough for sound men to risk their lives, but—
A cheer swelled in the grand stand and died breathlessly away. McWilliams was setting a pace it would take a rare expert to equal. He was a trick rider, and all the spectacular feats that appealed to the onlooker were his. While his horse was wildly pitching, he drank a bottle of pop and tossed the bottle away. With the reins in his teeth he slipped off his coat and vest, and concluded a splendid exhibition of skill by riding with his feet out of the stirrups. He had been smoking a cigar when he mounted. Except while he had been drinking the pop it had been in his mouth from beginning to end, and, after he had vaulted from the pony's back, he deliberately puffed a long smoke-spiral into the air, to show that his cigar was still alight. No previous rider had earned so spontaneous a burst of applause. "He's ce'tainly a pure when it comes to riding," acknowledged Bannister. "I look to see him get either first or second."
"Whom do you think is his most dangerous rival?" Helen asked.
"My cousin is a straight-up rider, too. He's more graceful than Mac, I think, but not quite so good on tricks. It will be nip and tuck."
"How about your cousin's cousin?" she asked, with bold irony.
"He hopes he won't have to take the dust," was his laughing answer.
The next rider suffered defeat irrevocably before he had been thirty seconds in the saddle. His mount was one of the most cunning of the outlaw ponies of the Northwest, and it brought him to grief by jamming his leg hard against the fence. He tried in vain to spur the bronco into the middle of the arena, but after it drove at a post for the third time and ground his limb against it, he gave up to the pain and slipped off.
"That isn't fair, is it?" Helen asked of the young man sitting beside her.
He shrugged his lean, broad shoulders. "He should have known how to keep the horse in the open. Mac would never have been caught that way."
"Jack Holloway on Rocking Horse," the announcer shouted.
It took four men and two lariats to subdue this horse to a condition sufficiently tame to permit of a saddle being slipped on. Even then this could not be accomplished without throwing the bronco first. The result was that all the spirit was taken out of the animal by the preliminary ordeal, so that when the man from the Shoshone country mounted, his steed was too jaded to attempt resistance.
"Thumb him! Thumb him!" the audience cried, referring to the cowboy trick of running the thumbs along a certain place in the shoulder to stir the anger of the bucker.
But the rider slipped off with disgust. "Give me another horse," he demanded, and after a minute's consultation among the judges a second pony was driven out from the corral. This one proved to be a Tartar. It went off in a frenzy of pitching the moment its rider dropped into the saddle.
"Y'u'll go a long way before you see better ridin' than his and Mac's. Notice how he gives to its pitching," said Bannister, as he watched his cousin's perfect ease in the cyclone of which he was the center.
"I expect it depends on the kind of a 'hawss,'" she mocked. "He's riding well, isn't he?"
"I don't know any that ride better."
The horse put up a superb fight, trying everything it knew to unseat this demon clamped to its back. It possessed in combination all the worst vices, was a weaver, a sunfisher and a fence-rower, and never had it tried so desperately to maintain its record of never having been ridden. But the outlaw in the saddle was too much for the outlaw underneath. He was master, just as he was first among the ruffians whom he led, because there was in him a red-hot devil of wickedness that would brook no rival.
The furious bronco surrendered without an instant's warning, and its rider slipped at once to the ground. As he sauntered through the dust toward the grand stand, Helen could not fail to see how his vanity sunned itself in the applause that met his performance. His equipment was perfect to the least detail. The reflection from a lady's looking-glass was no brighter than the silver spurs he jingled on his sprightly heels. Strikingly handsome in a dark, sinister way, one would say at first sight, and later would chafe at the justice of a verdict not to be denied.
Ned Bannister rose from his seat beside Helen. "Wish me luck," he said, with his gay smile.
"I wish you all the luck you deserve," she answered.
"Oh, wish me more than that if y'u want me to win."
"I didn't say I wanted you to win. You take the most unaccountable things for granted."
"I've a good mind to win, then, just to spite y'u," he laughed.
"As if you could," she mocked; but her voice took a softer intonation as she called after him in a low murmur: "Be careful, please."
His white teeth flashed a smile of reassurance at her. "I've never been killed yet."
"Ned Bannister on Steamboat," sang out the megaphone man.
"I'm ce'tainly in luck. Steamboat's the worst hawss on the range," he told himself, as he strode down the grand stand to enter the arena.
The announcement of his name created for the second time that day a stir of unusual interest. Everybody in that large audience had heard of Ned Bannister; knew of his record as a "bad man" and his prowess as the king of the Shoshone country; suspected him of being a train and bank robber as well as a rustler. That he should have the boldness to enter the contest in his own name seemed to show how defiant he was of the public sentiment against him, and how secure he counted himself in flaunting this contempt. As for the sheepman, the notoriety that his cousin's odorous reputation had thrust upon him was extremely distasteful as well as dangerous, but he had done nothing to disgrace his name, and he meant to use it openly. He could almost catch the low whispers that passed from mouth to mouth about him.
"Ain't it a shame that a fellow like that, leader of all the criminals that hide in the mountains, can show himself openly before ten thousand honest folks?" That he knew to be the purport of their whispering, and along with it went a recital of the crimes he had committed. How he was a noted "waddy," or cattle-rustler; how he and his gang had held up three trains in eighteen months; how he had killed Tom Mooney, Bob Carney and several others—these were the sorts of things that were being said about him, and from the bottom of his soul he resented his impotency to clear his name.
There was something in Bannister's riding that caught Helen's fancy at once. It was the unconscious grace of the man, the ease with which he seemed to make himself a very part of the horse. He attempted no tricks, rode without any flourishes. But the perfect poise of his lithe body as it gave with the motions of the horse, proclaimed him a born rider; so finished, indeed, that his very ease seemed to discount the performance. Steamboat had a malevolent red eye that glared hatred at the oppressor man, and to-day it lived up to its reputation of being the most vicious and untamed animal on the frontier. But, though it did its best to unseat the rider and trample him underfoot, there was no moment when the issue seemed in doubt save once. The horse flung itself backward in a somersault, risking its own neck in order to break its master's. But he was equal to the occasion; and when Steamboat staggered again to its feet Bannister was still in the saddle. It was a daring and magnificent piece of horsemanship, and, though he was supposed to be a desperado and a ruffian, his achievement met with a breathless gasp, followed by thunderous applause.
The battle between horse and man was on again, for the animal was as strong almost in courage as the rider. But Steamboat's confidence had been shaken as well as its strength. Its efforts grew less cyclonic. Foam covered its mouth and flecked its sides. The pitches were easy to foresee and meet. Presently they ceased altogether.
Bannister slid from the saddle and swayed unsteadily across the arena. The emergency past, he had scarce an ounce of force left in him. Jim McWilliams ran out and slipped an arm around his shoulders, regardless of what his friends might think of him for it.
"You're all in, old man. Y'u hadn't ought to have ridden, even though y'u did skin us all to a finish."
"Nonsense, Mac. First place goes to y'u or—or Jack Holloway."
"Not unless the judges are blind."
But Bannister's prediction proved true. The champion, Sanford, had been traveling with a Wild West show, and was far too soft to compete with these lusty cowboys, who had kept hard from their daily life on the plains. Before he had ridden three minutes it was apparent that he stood no chance of retaining his title, so that the decision narrowed itself to an issue between the two Bannisters and McWilliams. First place was awarded to the latter, the second prize to Jack Holloway and the third to Ned Bannister.
But nearly everybody in the grand stand knew that Bannister had been discriminated against because of his unpopularity. The judges were not local men, and had nothing to fear from the outlaw. Therefore they penalized him on account of his reputation. It would never do for the Associated Press dispatches to send word all over the East that a murderous desperado was permitted, unmolested, to walk away with the championship belt.
"It ain't a square deal," declared McWilliams promptly.
He was sitting beside Nora, and he turned round to express his opinion to the two sitting behind him in the box.
"We'll not go behind the returns. Y'u won fairly. I congratulate y'u, Mr. Champion-of-the-world," replied the sheepman, shaking hands cordially.
"I told you to bring that belt to the Lazy D," smiled his mistress, as she shook hands.
But in her heart she was crying out that it was an outrage.
CHAPTER 15. JUDD MORGAN PASSES
Gimlet Butte devoted the night of the Fourth to a high old time. The roping and the other sports were to be on the morrow, and meanwhile the night hours were filled with exuberance. The cowboy's spree comes only once in several months, but when it does come he enters into the occasion with such whole-hearted enthusiasm as to make up swiftly for lost time. A traveling midway had cast its tents in a vacant square in competition with the regular attractions of the town, and everywhere the hard-riding punchers were "night herding" in full regalia.
There was a big masked ball in the street, and another in the Masonic Hall, while here and there flared the lights of the faker with something to sell. Among these last was "Soapy" Sothern, doing a thriving business in selling suckers and bars wrapped with greenbacks. Crowds tramped the streets blowing horns and throwing confetti, and everywhere was a large sprinkling of men in high-heeled boots, swinging along with the awkward, stiff-legged gait of the cowboy. Sometimes a girl was hanging on his arm, and again he was "whooping it up with the boys"; but in either case the range-rider's savings were burning a hole through his pockets with extreme rapidity.
Jim McWilliams and the sheepman Bannister had that day sealed a friendship that was to be as enduring as life. The owner of the sheep ranch was already under heavy obligation to the foreman of the Lazy D, but debt alone is not enough on which to found soul brotherhood. There must be qualities of kinship in the primeval elements of character. Both men had suspected that this kinship existed, but to-day they had proved it in the way that one had lost and the other had won the coveted championship. They had made no vows and no professions. The subject had not even been touched in words; a meeting of the eyes, followed by the handshake with which Bannister had congratulated the winner. That had been all. But it was enough.
With the casual democracy of the frontier they had together escorted Helen Messiter and Nora Darling through a riotous three hours of carnival, taking care to get them back to their hotel before the night really began "to howl."
But after they had left the young women, neither of them cared to sleep yet. They were still in costume, Mac dressed as a monk, and his friend as a Stuart cavalier, and the spirit of frolic was yet strong in them.
"I expaict, mebbe, we better hunt in couples if we're going to help paint the town," smiled Mac, and his friend had immediately agreed.
It must have been well after midnight that they found themselves "bucking the tiger" in a combination saloon and gambling-house, whose patrons were decidedly cosmopolitan in character. Here white and red and yellow men played side by side, the Orient and the Occident and the aboriginal alike intent on the falling cards and the little rolling ball. A good many of them were still in their masks and dominos, though these, for the most part, removed their vizors before playing.
Neither McWilliams nor his friend were betting high, and the luck had been so even that at the end of two hours' play neither of them had at any time either won or lost more than fifteen dollars. In point of fact, they were playing not so much to win as just to keep in touch with the gay, youthful humor of the night.
They were getting tired of the game when two men jingled in for a drink. They were talking loudly together, and it was impossible to miss the subject of their conversation.
McWilliams gave a little jerk of his head toward one of them. "Judd Morgan," his lips framed without making a sound.
"Been tanking up all day," Mac added. "Otherwise his tongue would not be shooting off so reckless."
A silence had fallen over the assembly save for the braggarts at the bar. Men looked at each other, and then furtively at Bannister. For Morgan, ignorant of who was sitting quietly with his back to him at the faro-table, was venting his hate of Bannister and McWilliams.
"Both in the same boat. Did y'u see how Mac ran to help him to-day? Both waddies. Both rustlers. Both train robbers. Sho! I got through putting a padlock on me mouth. Man to man, I'm as good as either of them—damn sight better. I wisht they was here, one or both; I wisht they would step up here and fight it out. Bannister's a false alarm, and that foreman of the Lazy D—" His tongue stumbled over a blur of vilification that ended with a foul mention of Miss Messiter.
Instantly two chairs crashed to the floor. Two pair of gray eyes met quietly.
"My quarrel, Bann," said Jim, in a low, even voice.
The other nodded. "I'll see y'u have a clear field."
The man who was with Morgan suddenly whispered in his ear, and the latter slewed his head in startled fear. Almost instantly a bullet clipped past McWilliams's shoulder. Morgan had fired without waiting for the challenge he felt sure was at hand. Once—twice the foreman's revolver made answer. Morgan staggered, slipped down to the floor, a bullet crashing through the chandelier as he fell. For a moment his body jerked. Then he rolled over and lay still.
The foreman's weapon covered him unwaveringly, but no more steadily than Bannister's gaze the man who had come in with him who lay lifeless on the floor. The man looked at the lifeless thing, shuddered, and backed out of the saloon.
"I call y'u all to witness that my friend killed him in self-defense," said Bannister evenly. "Y'u all saw him fire first. Mac did not even have his gun out."
"That's right," agreed one, and another added: "He got what was coming to him."
"He sure did," was the barkeeper's indorsement. "He came in hunting trouble, but I reckon he didn't want to be accommodated so prompt."
"Y'u'll find us at the Gimlet Butte House if we're wanted for this," said Bannister. "We'll be there till morning."
But once out of the gambling-house McWilliams drew his friend to one side. "Do y'u know who that was I killed?"
"Judd Morgan, foreman before y'u at the Lazy D."
"Yes, but what else?"
"What do y'u mean?"
"I mean that next to your cousin Judd was leader of that Shoshone-Teton bunch."
"How do y'u know?"
"I suspected it a long time, but I knew for sure the day that your cousin held up the ranch. The man that was in charge of the crowd outside was Morgan. I could swear to it. I knew him soon as I clapped eyes to him, but I was awful careful to forget to tell him I recognized him."
"That means we are in more serious trouble than I had supposed."
"Y'u bet it does. We're in a hell of a hole, figure it out any way y'u like. Instead of having shot up a casual idiot, I've killed Ned Bannister's right-hand man. That will be the excuse—shooting Morgan. But the real trouble is that I won the championship belt from your cousin. He already hated y'u like poison, and he don't love me any too hard. He will have us arrested by his sheriff here. Catch the point. Y'U'RE NED BANNISTER, THE OUTLAW, AND I'M HIS RIGHT-BOWER. That's the play he's going to make, and he's going to make it right soon."
"I don't care if he does. We'll fight him on his own ground. We'll prove that he's the miscreant and not us."
"Prove nothing," snarled McWilliams. "Do y'u reckon he'll give us a chance to prove a thing? Not on your life. He'll have us jailed first thing; then he'll stir up a sentiment against us, and before morning there will be a lynchingbee, and y'u and I will wear the neckties. How do y'u like the looks of it?"
"But y'u have a lot of friends. They won't stand for anything like that."
"Not if they had time to stop it. Trouble is, fellow's friends think awful slow. They'll arrive in time to cut us down and be the mourners. No, sir! It's a hike for Jimmie Mac on the back of the first bronc he can slap a saddle on."
Bannister frowned. "I don't like to run before the scurvy scoundrels."
"Do y'u suppose I'm enjoying it? Not to any extent, I allow. But that sweet relative of yours holds every ace in the deck, and he'll play them, too. He owns the law in this man's town, and he owns the lawless. But the best card he holds is that he can get a thousand of the best people here to join him in hanging the 'king' of the Shoshone outlaws. Explanations nothing! Y'u rode under the name of Bannister, didn't y'u? He's Jack Holloway."
"It does make a strong combination," admitted the sheepman.
"Strong! It's invincible. I can see him playing it, laughing up his sleeve all the time at the honest fools he is working. No, sir! I draw out of a game like that. Y'u don't get a run for your money."
"Of course he knows already what has happened," mused Bannister.
"Sure he knows. That fellow with Morgan made a bee-line for him. Just about now he's routing the sheriff out of his bed. We got no time to lose. Thing is, to burn the wind out of this town while we have the chance."
"I see. It won't help us any to be spilling lead into a sheriff's posse. That would ce'tainly put us in the wrong."
"Now y'u're shouting. If we're honest men why don't we surrender peaceable? That's the play the 'king' is going to make in this town. Now if we should spoil a posse and bump off one or two of them, we couldn't pile up evidence enough to get a jury to acquit. No, sir! We can't surrender and we can't fight. Consequence is, we got to roll our tails immediate."
"We have an appointment with Miss Messiter and Nora for to-morrow morning. We'll have to leave word we can't keep it."
"Sure. Denver and Missou are playing the wheel down at the Silver Dollar. I reckon we better make those boys jump and run errands for us while we lie low. I'll drop in casual and give them the word. Meet y'u here in ten minutes. Whatever y'u do, keep that mask on your face."
"Better meet farther from the scene of trouble. Suppose we say the north gate of the grand stand?"
"Good enough. So-long."
The first faint streaks of day were beginning to show on the horizon when Bannister reached the grand stand. He knew that inside of another half-hour the little frontier town would be blinking in the early morning sunlight that falls so brilliantly through the limpid atmosphere. If they were going to leave without fighting their way out there was no time to lose.
Ten minutes slowly ticked away.
He glanced at his watch. "Five minutes after four. I wish I had gone with Mac. He may have been recognized."
But even as the thought flitted through his mind, the semi-darkness opened to let a figure out of it.
"All quiet along the Potomac, seh?" asked the foreman's blithe voice. "Good. I found the boys and got them started." He flung down a Mexican vaquero's gaily trimmed costume.
"Get into these, seh. Denver shucked them for me. That coyote must have noticed what we wore before he slid out. Y'u can bet the orders are to watch for us as we were dressed then."
"What are y u going to do?"
"Me? I'm scheduled to be Aaron Burr, seh. Missou swaps with me when he gets back here. They're going to rustle us some white men's clothes, too, but we cayn't wear them till we get out of town on account of showing our handsome faces."
"What about horses?"
"Denver is rustling some for us. Y'u better be scribbling your billy-doo to the girl y'u leave behind y'u, seh."
"Haven't y'u got one to scribble?" Bannister retorted. "Seems to me y'u better get busy, too."
So it happened that when Missou arrived a few minutes later he found this pair of gentlemen, who were about to flee for their lives, busily inditing what McWilliams had termed facetiously billets-doux. Each of them was trying to make his letter a little warmer than friendship allowed without committing himself to any chance of a rebuff. Mac got as far as Nora Darling, absentmindedly inserted a comma between the words, and there stuck hopelessly. He looked enviously across at Bannister, whose pencil was traveling rapidly down his note-book.
"My, what a swift trail your pencil leaves on that paper. That's going some. Mine's bogged down before it got started. I wisht y'u would start me off."
"Well, if you ain't up and started a business college already. I had ought to have brought a typewriter along with me," murmured Missou ironically.
"How are things stacking? Our friends the enemy getting busy yet?" asked Bannister, folding and addressing his note.
"That's what. Orders gone out to guard every road so as not to let you pass. What's the matter with me rustling up the boys and us holding down a corner of this town ourselves?"
The sheepman shook his head. "We're not going to start a little private war of our own. We couldn't do that without spilling a lot of blood. No, we'll make a run for it."
"That y'u, Denver?" the foreman called softly, as the sound of approaching horses reached him.
"Bet your life. Got your own broncs, too. Sheriff Burns called up Daniels not to let any horses go out from his corral to anybody without his O.K. I happened to be cinching at the time the 'phone message came, so I concluded that order wasn't for me, and lit out kinder unceremonious."
Hastily the fugitives donned the new costumes and dominos, turned their notes over to Denver, and swung to their saddles.
"Good luck!" the punchers called after them, and Denver added an ironical promise that the foreman had no doubt he would keep. "I'll look out for Nora—Darling." There was a drawling pause between the first and second names. "I'll ce'tainly see that she don't have any time to worry about y'u, Mac."
"Y'u go to Halifax," returned Mac genially over his shoulder as he loped away.
"I doubt if we can get out by the roads. Soon as we reach the end of the street we better cut across that hayfield," suggested Ned.
"That's whatever. Then we'll slip past the sentries without being seen. I'd hate to spoil any of them if we can help it. We're liable to get ourselves disliked if our guns spatter too much."
They rode through the main street, still noisy with the shouts of late revelers returning to their quarters. Masked men were yet in evidence occasionally, so that their habits caused neither remark nor suspicion. A good many of the punchers, unable to stay longer, were slipping out of town after having made a night of it. In the general exodus the two friends hoped to escape unobserved.
They dropped into a side street, galloped down it for two hundred yards, and dismounted at a barb-wire fence which ran parallel with the road. The foreman's wire-clippers severed the strands one by one, and they led their horses through the gap. They crossed an alfalfa-field, jumped an irrigation ditch, used the clippers again, and found themselves in a large pasture. It was getting lighter every moment, and while they were still in the pasture a voice hailed them from the road in an unmistakable command to halt.
They bent low over the backs of their ponies and gave them the spur. The shot they had expected rang out, passing harmlessly over them. Another followed, and still another.
"That's right. Shoot up the scenery. Y'u don't hurt us none," the foreman said, apostrophizing the man behind the gun.
The next clipped fence brought them to the open country. For half an hour they rode swiftly without halt. Then McWilliams drew up.
"Where are we making for?"
"How about the Wind River country?"
"Won't do. First off, they'll strike right down that way after us. What's the matter with running up Sweetwater Creek and lying out in the bad lands around the Roubideaux?"
"Good. I have a sheep-camp up that way. I can arrange to have grub sent there for us by a man I can trust."
"All right. The Roubideaux goes."
While they were nooning at a cow-spring, Bannister, lying on his back, with his face to the turquoise sky, became aware that a vagrant impulse had crystallized to a fixed determination. He broached it at once to his companion.
"One thing is a cinch, Mac. Neither y'u nor I will be safe in this country now until we have broken up the gang of desperadoes that is terrorizing this country. If we don't get them they will get us. There isn't any doubt about that. I'm not willing to lie down before these miscreants. What do y'u say?"
"I'm with y'u, old man. But put a name to it. What are y'u proposing?"
"I'm proposing that y'u and I make it our business not to have any other business until we clean out this nest of wolves. Let's go right after them, and see if we can't wipe out the Shoshone-Teton outfit."
"How? They own the law, don't they?"
"They don't own the United States Government. When they held up a mail-train they did a fool thing, for they bucked up against Uncle Sam. What I propose is that we get hold of one of the gang and make him weaken. Then, after we have got hold of some evidence that will convict, we'll go out and run down my namesake Ned Bannister. If people once get the idea that his hold isn't so strong there's a hundred people that will testify against him. We'll have him in a Government prison inside of six months."
"Or else he'll have us in a hole in the ground," added the foreman, dryly.
"One or the other," admitted Bannister. "Are y'u in on this thing?"
"I surely am. Y'u're the best man I've met up with in a month of Sundays, seh. Y'u ain't got but one fault; and that is y'u don't smoke cigareets. Feed yourself about a dozen a day and y'u won't have a blamed trouble left. Match, seh?" The foreman of the Lazy D, already following his own advice, rolled deftly his smoke, moistened it and proceeded to blow away his troubles.
Bannister looked at his debonair insouciance and laughed. "Water off a duck's back," he quoted. "I know some folks that would be sweating fear right now. It's ce'tainly an aggravating situation, that of being an honest man hunted as a villain by a villain. But I expaict my cousin's enjoying it."
"He ain't enjoying it so much as he would if his plans had worked out a little smoother. He's holding the sack right now and cussing right smaht over it being empty, I reckon."
"He did lock the stable door a little too late," chuckled the sheepman. But even as he spoke a shadow fell over his face. "My God! I had forgotten. Y'u don't suppose he would take it out of Miss Messiter."
"Not unless he's tired of living," returned her foreman, darkly. "One thing, this country won't stand for is that. He's got to keep his hands off women or he loses out. He dassent lay a hand on them if they don't want him to. That's the law of the plains, isn't it?"
"That's the unwritten law for the bad man, but I notice it doesn't seem to satisfy y'u, my friend. Y'u and I know that my cousin, Ned Bannister, doesn't acknowledge any law, written or unwritten. He's a devil and he has no fear. Didn't he kidnap her before?"
"He surely would never dare touch those young ladies. But—I don't know. Bann, I guess we better roll along toward the Lazy D country, after all."
"I think so." Ned looked at his friend with smiling drollery. "I thought y'u smoked your troubles away, Jim. This one seems to worry y'u."
McWilliams grinned sheepishly. "There's one trouble won't be smoked away. It kinder dwells." Then, apparently apropos of nothing, he added, irrelevantly: "Wonder what Denver's doing right now?"
"Probably keeping that appointment y'u ran away from," bantered his friend.
"I'll bet he is. Funny how some men have all the luck," murmured the despondent foreman.
CHAPTER 16. HUNTING BIG GAME
In point of fact, Denver's occupation at that moment was precisely what they had guessed it to be. He was sitting beside Nora Darling in the grand stand, explaining to her the fine points of "roping." Mr. Bob Austin, commonly known as "Texas," was meanwhile trying to make himself agreeable to Helen Messiter. Truth to tell, both young women listened with divided interest to their admirers. Both of them had heard the story of the night, and each of them had tucked away in her corsage a scribbled note she wanted to get back to her room and read again. That the pursuit was still on everybody knew, and those on the inside were aware that the "King," masquerading under the name of Jack Holloway, was the active power behind the sheriff stimulating the chase.
It was after the roping had begun, and Austin had been called away to take his turn, that the outlaw chief sauntered along the aisle of the grand stand to the box in which was seated the mistress of the Lazy D.
"Beautiful mo'ning, isn't it? Delightfully crisp and clear," he said by way of introduction, stopping at her box.
She understood the subtle jeer in his manner, and her fine courage rose to meet it. There was a daring light in her eye, a buoyant challenge in her voice as she answered:
"It is a splendid morning. I'm not surprised you are enjoying it."
"Did I say I was enjoying it?" He laughed as he lifted the bar, came into her box and took a seat.
"Of course not. How careless of me! I had forgotten you were in mourning for a deceased friend."
His dark eyes flashed. "I'll not mourn for him long. He was a mighty trifling fellow, anyhow. Soon as I catch and hang his murderers I'll quit wearing black."
"You may wear out several suits before then," she hit back.
"Don't y'u believe it; when I want a thing I don't quit till it's done."
She met his gaze, and the impact of eyes seemed to shock her physically. The wickedness in him threatened, gloated, dominated. She shivered in the warm sunlight, and would not have had him know it for worlds.
"Dear me! How confident you talk. Aren't you sometimes disappointed?"
"Temporarily. But when I want a thing I take it in the end."
She knew he was serving notice on her that he meant to win her; and again the little spinal shiver raced over her. She could not look at his sardonic, evil face without fear, and she could not look away without being aware of his eyes possessing her. What was the use of courage against such a creature as this?
"Yes, I understand you take a good deal that isn't yours," she retorted carelessly, her eyes on the arena.
"I make it mine when I take it," he answered coolly, admiring the gameness which she wore as a suit of chain armor against his thrusts.
"Isn't it a little dangerous sometimes?" her even voice countered. "When you take what belongs to others you run a risk, don't you?"
"That's part of the rules. Except for that I shouldn't like it so well. I hunt big game, and the bigger the game the more risk. That's why y'u guessed right when y'u said I was enjoying the mo'ning."
"Well, no. I wasn't thinking of him, though he's some sizable. But I'm hunting bigger game than he is, and I expect to bag it."
She let her scornful eyes drift slowly over him. "I might pretend to misunderstand you. But I won't. You may have your answer now. I am not afraid of you, for since you are a bully you must be a coward. I saw a rattlesnake last week in the hills. It reminded me of some one I have seen. I'll leave you to guess who."
Her answer drew blood. The black tide raced under the swarthy tan of his face. He leaned forward till his beady eyes were close to her defiant ones. "Y'u have forgotten one thing, Miss Messiter. A rattlesnake can sting. I ask nothing of you. Can't I break your heart without your loving me? You're only a woman—and not the first I have broken, by God—"
His slim, lithe body was leaning forward so that it cut off others, and left them to all intents alone. At a touch of her fingers the handbag in her lap flew open and a little ivory-hilted revolver lay in her hand.
"You may break me, but you'll never bend me an inch."
He looked at the little gun and laughed ironically. "Sho! If y'u should hit me with that and I should find it out I might get mad at y'u."
"Did I say it was for you?" she said coldly; and again the shock of joined eyes ended in drawn battle.
"Have y'u the nerve?" He looked her over, so dainty and so resolute, so silken strong; and he knew he had his answer.
His smoldering eyes burned with desire to snatch her to him and ride away into the hills. For he was a man who lived in his sensations. He had won many women to their hurt, but it was the joy of conflict that made the pursuit worth while to him; and this young woman, who could so delightfully bubble with little laughs ready to spill over and was yet possessed of a spirit so finely superior to the tenderness of her soft, round, maidenly curves, allured him mightily to the attack.
She dropped the revolver back into the bag and shut the clasp with a click, "And now I think, Mr. Bannister, that I'll not detain you any longer. We understand each other sufficiently."
He rose with a laugh that mocked. "I expaict to spend quite a bit of time understanding y'u one of these days. In the meantime this is to our better acquaintance."
Deliberately, without the least haste, he stooped and kissed her before she could rally from the staggering surprise of the intention she read in his eyes too late to elude. Then, with the coolest bravado in the world, he turned on his heel and strolled away.
Angry sapphires gleamed at him from under the long, brown lashes. She was furious, aghast, daunted. By the merest chance she was sitting in a corner of the box, so screened from observation that none could see. But the insolence of him, the reckless defiance of all standards of society, shook her even while it enraged her. He had put forth his claim like a braggart, but he had made good with an audacity superb in its effrontery. How she hated him! How she feared him! The thoughts were woven inseparably in her mind. Mephisto himself could not have impressed himself more imperatively than this strutting, heartless master artist in vice.
She saw him again presently down in the arena, for it was his turn to show his skill at roping. Texas had done well; very well, indeed. He had made the throw and tie in thirty-seven seconds, which was two seconds faster than the record of the previous year. But she knew instinctively, as her fascinated eyes watched the outlaw preparing for the feat, that he was going to win. He would use his success as a weapon against her; as a means of showing her that he always succeeded in whatever he undertook. So she interpreted he look he flung her as he waited at the chute for the wild hill steer to be driven into the arena. It takes a good man physically to make a successful roper. He must be possessed of nerve, skill and endurance far out of the ordinary. He must be quick-eyed, strong-handed, nimble of foot, expert of hand and built like a wildcat. So Denver explained to the two young women in the box, and the one behind him admitted reluctantly that she long, lean, supple Centaur waiting impassively at the gateway fitted the specifications.
Out flashed the rough-coated hill steer, wild and fleet as a hare, thin and leggy, with muscles of whipcord. Down went the flag, and the stopwatches began to tick off the seconds. Like an arrow the outlaw's pony shot forward, a lariat circling round and round the rider's head. At every leap the cow pony lessened the gap as it pounded forward on the heels of the flying steer.
The loop swept forward and dropped over the horns of the animal. The pony, with the perfect craft of long practice, swerved to one side with a rush. The dragging rope swung up against the running steer's legs, grew suddenly taut. Down went the steer's head, and next moment its feet were swept from under it as it went heavily to the ground. Man and horse were perfect in their team work. As the supple rider slid from the back of the pony it ran to the end of the rope and braced itself to keep the animal from rising. Bannister leaped on the steer, tie-rope in hand. Swiftly his deft hands passed to and fro, making the necessary loops and knots. Then his hands went into the air. The steer was hog-tied.
For a few seconds the judges consulted together. "Twenty-nine seconds," announced their spokesman, and at the words a great cheer went up. Bannister had made his tie in record time.
Impudently the scoundrel sauntered up to the grand stand, bowed elaborately to Miss Messiter, and perched himself on the fence, where he might be the observed of all observers. It was curious, she thought, how his vanity walked hand in hand with so much power and force. He was really extraordinarily strong, but no debutante's self-sufficiency could have excelled his. He was so frankly an egotist that it ceased to be a weakness.
Back in her room at the hotel an hour later Helen paced up and down under a nervous strain foreign to her temperament. She was afraid; for the first time in her life definitely afraid. This man pitted against her had deliberately divorced his life from morality. In him lay no appeal to any conscience court of last resort. But the terror of this was not for herself principally, but for her flying lover. With his indubitable power, backed by the unpopularity of the sheepman in this cattle country, the King of the Bighorn could destroy his cousin if he set himself to do so. Of this she was convinced, and her conviction carried a certainty that he had the will as well as the means. If he had lacked anything in motive she herself had supplied one. For she was afraid that this villain had read her heart.
And as her hand went fluttering to her heart she found small comfort in the paper lying next it that only a few hours before had brought her joy. For at any moment a messenger might come in to tell her that the writer of it had been captured and was to be dealt with summarily in frontier fashion. At best her lover and her friend were but fugitives from justice. Against them were arrayed not only the ruffian followers of their enemy, but also the lawfully constituted authorities of the county. Even if they should escape to-day the net would tighten on them, and they would eventually be captured.
For the third time since coming to Wyoming Helen found refuge in tears.
CHAPTER 17. RUN TO EARTH
When word came to Denver and the other punchers of the Lazy D that Reddy had been pressed into service as a guide for the posse that was pursuing the fugitives they gave vent to their feelings in choice profanity.
"Now, ain't that like him? Had to run around like a locoed calf telling all he knowed and more till Burns ropes him in," commented the disgusted Missou.
"Trouble with Reddy is he sets his mouth to working and then goes away and leaves it," mourned Jim Henson.
"I'd hate to feel as sore as Reddy will when the boys get through playing with him after he gets back to the ranch," Denver contributed, when he had exhausted his vocabulary.
Meanwhile Reddy, unaware of being a cause of offense, was cheerfully happy in the unexpected honor that had been thrust upon him. His will was of putty, molded into the opinion of whomever he happened at the moment to be with. Just now, with the ironic eye of Sheriff Burns upon him, he was strong for law enforcement.
"A feller hadn't ought to be so promiscuous with his hardware. This here thing of shooting up citizens don't do Wyoming no good these days. Capital ain't a-going to come in when such goings-on occur," he sagely opined, unconsciously parroting the sentiment Burns had just been instilling into him.
"That's right, sir. If that ain't horse sense I don't know any. You got a head on you, all right," answered the admiring sheriff.
The flattered Reddy pleaded guilty to being wiser than most men. "Jest because I punch cows ain't any reason why I'm anybody's fool. I'll show them smart boys at the Lazy D I don't have to take the dust of any of the bunch when it comes to using my think tank."
"I would," sympathized Burns. "You bet they'll all be almighty jealous when they learn how you was chosen out of the whole outfit on this job."
All day they rode, and that night camped a few miles from the Lazy D. Early next morning they hailed a solitary rider as he passed. The man turned out to be a cowman, with a small ranch not far from the one owned by Miss Messiter.
"Hello, Henderson! y'u seen anything of Jim McWilliams and another fellow riding acrost this way?" asked Reddy.
"Nope," answered the cowman promptly. But immediately he modified his statement to add that he had seen two men riding toward Dry Creek a couple of hours ago. "They was going kinder slow. Looked to me sorter like one of them was hurt and the other was helping him out," he volunteered.
The sheriff looked significantly at one of his men and nodded.
"You didn't recognize the horses, I reckon?"
"Come to think of it, one of the ponies did look like Jim's roan. What's up, boys? Anything doing?"
"Nothing particular. We want to see Jim, that's all. So long."
What Henderson had guessed was the truth. The continuous hard riding had been too much for Bannister and his wound had opened anew. They were at the time only a few miles from a shack on Dry Creek, where the Lazy D punchers sometimes put up. McWilliams had attended the wound as best he could, and after a few hours' rest had headed for the cabin in the hills. They were compelled to travel very slowly, since the motion kept the sheepman's wound continually bleeding. But about noon they reached the refuge they had been seeking and Bannister lay down on the bunk with their saddle blankets under him. He soon fell asleep, and Mac took advantage of this to set out on a foraging expedition to a ranch not far distant. Here he got some bread, bacon, milk and eggs from a man he could trust and returned to his friend.
It was dark by the time he reached the cabin. He dismounted, and with his arms full of provisions pushed into the hut.
"Awake, Bann?" he asked in a low voice.
The answer was unexpected. Something heavy struck his chest and flung him back against the wall. Before he could recover his balance he was pinioned fast. Four men had hurled themselves upon him.
"We've got you, Jim. Not a mite o' use resisting," counseled the sheriff.
"Think I don't savez that? I can take a hint when a whole Methodist church falls on me. Who are y'u, anyhow?"
"Somebody light a lantern," ordered Burns.
By the dim light it cast Mac made them out, and saw Ned Bannister gagged and handcuffed on the bed. He knew a moment of surprise when his eyes fell on Reddy.
"So it was y'u brought them here, Red?" he said quietly.
Contrary to his own expectations, the gentleman named was embarrassed "The sheriff, he summoned me to serve," was his lame defense.
"And so y'u threw down your friends. Good boy!"
"A man's got to back the law up, ain't he?"
Mac turned his shoulder on him rather pointedly. "There isn't any need of keeping that gag in my friend's mouth any longer," he suggested to Burns.
"That's right, too. Take it out, boys. I got to do my duty, but I don't aim to make any gentleman more uncomfortable than I can help. I want everything to be pleasant all round."
"I'm right glad to hear that, Burns, because my friend isn't fit to travel. Y'u can take me back and leave him out here with a guard," the foreman replied quickly.
"Sorry I can't accommodate you, Jim, but I got to take y'u both with me."
"Those are the orders of the King, are they?"
Burns flushed darkly. "It ain't going to do you any good to talk that way. You know mighty well this here man with you is Bannister. I ain't going to take no chances on losing him now I've got my hand on him."
"Y'u ce'tainly deserve a re-election, and I'll bet y'u get it all right. Any man so given over to duty, so plumb loaded down to the hocks with conscience as y'u, will surely come back with a big majority next November."
"I ain't askin' for YOUR vote, Mac."
"Oh, y'u don't need votes. Just get the King to O. K. your nomination and y'u'll win in a walk."
"My friend, y'u better mind your own business. Far as I can make out y'u got troubles enough of your own," retorted the nettled sheriff.
"Y'u don't need to tell me that, Tom Burns' Y'u ain't a man—nothing but a stuffed skin worked by a string. When that miscreant Bannister pulls the string y'u jump. He's jerked it now, so y'u're taking us back to him. I can prove that coyote Morgan shot at me first, but that doesn't cut any ice with you."
"What made you light out so sudden, then?" demanded the aggrieved Burns triumphantly.
"Because I knew you. That's a plenty good reason. I'm not asking anything for myself. All I say is that my friend isn't fit to travel yet. Let him stay here under a guard till he is."
"He was fit enough to get here. By thunder, he's fit to go back!"
"Y'u've said enough, Mac," broke in Bannister. "It's awfully good of y'u to speak for me, but I would rather see it out with you to a finish. I don't want any favors from this yellow dog of my cousin."
The "yellow dog" set his teeth and swore vindictively behind them. He was already imagining an hour when these insolent prisoners of his would sing another tune.
CHAPTER 18. PLAYING FOR TIME
"They've got 'em. Caught them on Dry Creek, just below Green Forks."
Helen Messiter, just finishing her breakfast at the hotel preparatory to leaving in her machine for the ranch, laid down her knife and fork and looked with dilated eyes at Denver, who had broken in with the news.
"Are you sure?" The color had washed from her face and left her very white, but she fronted the situation quietly without hysterics or fuss of any kind.
"Yes, ma'am. They're bringing them in now to jail. Watch out and y'u'll see them pass here in a few minutes. Seems that Bannister's wound opened up on him and he couldn't go any farther. Course Mac wouldn't leave him. Sheriff Burns and his posse dropped in on them and had them covered before Mac could chirp."
"You are sure this man—this desperado Bannister—will do nothing till night?"
"Not the way I figure it. He'll have the jail watched all day. But he's got to work the town up to a lynching. I expect the bars will be free for all to-day. By night the worst part of this town will be ready for anything. The rest of the citizens are going to sit down and do nothing just because it is Bannister."
"But it isn't Bannister—not the Bannister they think it is."
He shook his head. "No use, ma'am. I've talked till my throat aches, but it don't do a mite of good. Nobody believes a word of what I say. Y'u see, we ain't got any proof."
"Proof! We have enough, God knows! didn't this villain—this outlaw that calls himself Jack Holloway—attack and try to murder him?"
"That's what we believe, but the report out is that one of us punchers shot him up for crossing the dead-line."
"Didn't this fellow hold up the ranch and try to take Ned Bannister away with him?"
"Yes, ma'am. But that doesn't look good to most people. They say he had his friends come to take him away so y'u wouldn't hold him and let us boys get him. This cousin business is a fairy tale the way they size it up. How come this cousin to let him go if he held up the ranch to put the sick man out of business? No, miss. This country has made up its mind that your friend is the original Ned Bannister. My opinion is that nothing on earth can save him."
"I don't want your opinion. I'm going to save him, I tell you; and you are going to help. Are his friends nothing but a bunch of quitters?" she cried, with sparkling eyes.
"I didn't know I was such a great friend of his," answered the cowboy sulkily.
"You're a friend of Jim McWilliams, aren't you? Are you going to sneak away and let these curs hang him?"
Denver flushed. "Y'u're dead right, Miss Helen. I guess I'll see it out with you. What's the orders?"
"I want you to help me organize a defense. Get all Mac's friends stirred up to make a fight for him. Bring as many of them in to see me during the day as you can. If you see any of the rest of the Lazy D boys send them in to me for instructions. Report yourself every hour to me. And make sure that at least three of your friends that you can trust are hanging round the jail all day so as to be ready in case any attempt is made to storm it before dark."
"I'll see to it." Denver hung on his heel a moment before leaving. "It's only square to tell y'u, Miss Helen, that this means war here tonight. These streets are going to run with blood if we try to save them."
"I'm taking that responsibility," she told him curtly; but a moment later she added gently: "I have a plan, my friend, that may stop this outrage yet. But you must do your best for me." She smiled sadly at him. "You're my foreman, to-day, you know."
"I'm going to do my level best, y'u may tie to that," he told her earnestly.
"I know you will." And their fingers touched for an instant.
Through a window the girl could see a crowd pouring down the street toward the hotel. She flew up the stairs and out upon the second-story piazza that looked down upon the road.
From her point of vantage she easily picked them out—the two unarmed men riding with their hands tied behind their backs, encircled by a dozen riders armed to the teeth. Bannister's hat had apparently fallen off farther down the street, for the man beside him was dusting it. The wounded prisoner looked about him without fear, but it was plain he was near the limit of endurance. He was pale as a sheet, and his fair curls clung moistly to his damp forehead.
McWilliams caught sight of her first, and she could see him turn and say a word to his comrade. Bannister looked up, caught sight of her, and smiled. That smile, so pale and wan, went to her heart like a knife. But the message of her eyes was hope. They told the prisoners silently to be of good cheer, that at least they were not deserted to their fate.
"What is it about—the crowd?" Nora asked of her mistress as the latter was returning to the head of the stairs.
In as few words as she could Helen told her, repressing sharply the tears the girl began to shed. "This is not the time to weep—not yet. We must save them. You can do your part. Mr. Bannister is wounded. Get a doctor over the telephone and see that he attends him at the prison. Don't leave the 'phone until you have got one to promise to go immediately."
"Yes, miss. Is there anything else?"
"Ask the doctor to call you up from the prison and tell you how Mr. Bannister is. Make it plain to him that he is to give up his other practice, if necessary, and is to keep us informed through the day about his patient's condition. I will be responsible for his bill."
Helen herself hurried to the telegraph office at the depot. She wrote out a long dispatch and handed it to the operator. "Send this at once please."
He was one of those supercilious young idiots that make the most of such small power as ever drifts down to them. Taking the message, he tossed it on the table. "I'll send it when I get time."
"You'll send it now."
Her steady eyes caught and held his shifting ones. "I say you are going to send it now—this very minute."
"I guess not. The line's busy," he bluffed.
"If you don't begin sending that message this minute I'll make it my business to see that you lose your position," she told him calmly.
He snatched up the paper from the place where he had tossed it. "Oh, well, if it's so darned important," he-conceded ungraciously.
She stood quietly above him while he sent the telegram, even though he contrived to make every moment of her stay an unvoiced insult. Her wire was to the wife of the Governor of the State. They had been close friends at school, and the latter had been urging Helen to pay a visit to Cheyenne. The message she sent was as follows:
Battle imminent between outlaws and cattlemen here. Bloodshed certain to-night. My foreman last night killed in self-defense a desperado. Bannister's gang, in league with town authorities, mean to lynch him and one of my other friends after dark this evening. Sheriff will do nothing. Can your husband send soldiers immediately? Wire answer.
The operator looked up sullenly after his fingers had finished the last tap. "Well?"
"Just one thing more," Helen told him. "You understand the rules of the company about secrecy. Nobody you knows I am sending this message. If by any chance it should leak out, I shall know through whom. If you want to hold your position, you will keep quiet."
"I know my business," he growled. Nevertheless, she had spoken in season, for he had had it in his mind to give a tip where he knew it would be understood to hasten the jail delivery and accompanying lynching.
When she returned to the hotel? Helen found Missou waiting for her. She immediately sent him back to the office, and told him to wait there until the answer was received. "I'll send one of the boys up to relieve you so that you may come with the telegram as soon as it arrives. I want the operator watched all day. Oh, here's Jim Henson! Denver has explained the situation to you, I presume. I want you to go up to the telegraph office and stay there all day. Go to lunch with the operator when he goes. Don't let him talk privately to anybody, not even for a few seconds. I don't want you to seem to have him under guard before outsiders, but let him know it very plainly. He is not to mention a wire I sent or the answer to it—not to anybody, Jim. Is that plain?"
"Y'u bet! He's a clam, all right, till the order is countermanded." And the young man departed with a cheerful grin that assured Helen she had nothing to fear from official leaks.
Nora, from answering a telephone call, came to report to the general in charge. "The doctor says that he has looked after Mr. Bannister, and there is no immediate danger. If he keeps quiet for a few days he ought to do well. Mr. McWilliams sent a message by him to say that we aren't to worry about him. He said he would—would—rope a heap of cows on the Lazy D yet."
Nora, bursting into tears, flung herself into Helen's arms. "They are going to kill him. I know they are, and—and 'twas only yesterday, ma'am, I told him not to—to get gay, the poor boy. When he tried to—to—" She broke down and sobbed.
Her mistress smiled in spite of herself, though she was bitterly aware that even Nora's grief was only superficially ludicrous.
"We're going to save him, Nora, if we can. There's hope while there's life. You see, Mac himself is full of courage. HE hasn't given up. We must keep up our courage, too."
"Yes, ma'am, but this is the first gentleman friend I ever had hanged, and—" She broke off, sobbing, leaving the rest as a guess.
Helen filled it out aloud. "And you were going to say that you care more for him than any of the others. Well, you must stop coquetting and tell him so when we have saved him."
"Yes, ma'am," agreed Nora, very repentant for the moment of the fact that it was her nature to play with the hearts of those of the male persuasion. Immediately she added: "He was THAT kind, ma'am, tender-hearted."
Helen, whose own heart was breaking, continued to soothe her. "Don't say WAS, child. You are to be brave, and not think of him that way."
"Yes, ma'am. He told me he was going to buy cows with the thousand dollars he won yesterday. I knew he meant—"
"Yes, of course. It's a cowboy's way of saying that he means to start housekeeping. Have you the telegram, Missou?" For that young man was standing in the doorway.
He handed her the yellow slip. She ripped open the envelope and read: Company B en route. Railroad connections uncertain Postpone crisis long as possible. May reach Gimlet Butte by ten-thirty.
Her first thought was of unspeakable relief. The militia was going to take a hand. The boys in khaki would come marching down the street, and everything would be all right. But hard on the heels of her instinctive gladness trod the sober second thought. Ten-thirty at best, and perhaps later! Would they wait that long, or would they do their cowardly work as soon as night fell She must contrive to delay them till the train drew in. She must play for those two lives with all her woman's wit; must match the outlaw's sinister cunning and fool him into delay. She knew he would come if she sent for him. But how long could she keep him? As long as he was amused at her agony, as long as his pleasure in tormenting her was greater than his impatience to be at his ruffianly work. Oh, if she ever needed all her power it would be to-night.
Throughout the day she continued to receive hourly reports from Denver, who always brought with him four or five honest cowpunchers from up-country to listen to the strange tale she unfolded to them. It was, of course, in part, the spell of her sweet personality, of that shy appeal she made to the manhood in them; but of those who came, nearly all believed, for the time at least, and aligned themselves on her side in the struggle that was impending. Some of these were swayed from their allegiance in the course of the day, but a few she knew would remain true.
Meanwhile, all through the day, the enemy was busily at work. As Denver had predicted, free liquor was served to all who would drink. The town and its guests were started on a grand debauch that was to end in violence that might shock their sober intelligence. Everywhere poisoned whispers were being flung broadcast against the two men waiting in the jail for what the night would bring forth.
Dusk fell on a town crazed by bad whiskey and evil report. The deeds of Bannister were hashed and rehashed at every bar, and nobody related them with more ironic gusto than the man who called himself Jack Holloway. There were people in town who knew his real name and character, but of these the majority were either in alliance with him or dared not voice their knowledge. Only Miss Messiter and her punchers told the truth, and their words were blown away like chaff.