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Wyoming, a Story of the Outdoor West
by William MacLeod Raine
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From the first moment of darkness Helen had the outlaw leader dogged by two of her men. Since neither of these were her own riders this was done without suspicion. At intervals of every quarter of an hour they reported to her in turn. Bannister was beginning to drink heavily, and she did not want to cut short his dissipation by a single minute. Yet she had to make sure of getting his attention before he went too far.

It was close to nine when she sent him a note, not daring to delay a minute longer. For the reports of her men were all to the same effect, that the crisis would not now be long postponed. Bannister, or Holloway, as he chose to call himself, was at the bar with his lieutenants in evil when the note reached him. He read it with a satisfaction he could not conceal. So! He had brought her already to her knees. Before he was through with her she should grovel in the dust before him.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. Do nothing till I return," he ordered, and went jingling away to the Elk House.

The young woman's anxiety was pitiable, but she repressed it sternly when she went to meet the man she feared; and never had it been more in evidence than in this hour of her greatest torture. Blithely she came forward to meet him, eye challenging eye gayly. No hint of her anguish escaped into her manner. He read there only coquetry, the eternal sex conflict, the winsome defiance of a woman hitherto the virgin mistress of all assaults upon her heart's citadel. It was the last thing he had expected to see, but it was infinitely more piquant, more intoxicating, than desperation. She seemed to give the lie to his impression of her love for his cousin; and that, too, delighted his pride.

"You will sit down?"

Carelessly, almost indolently, she put the question, her raised eyebrows indicating a chair with perfunctory hospitality. He had not meant to sit, had expected only to gloat a few minutes over her despair; but this situation called for more deliberation. He had yet to establish the mastery his vanity demanded. Therefore he took a chair.

"This is ce'tainly an unexpected honor. Did y'u send for me to explain some more about that sufficient understanding between us?" he sneered.

It was a great relief to her to see that, though he had been drinking, as she had heard, he was entirely master of himself. Her efforts might still be directed to Philip sober.

"I sent for you to congratulate you," she answered, with a smile. "You are a bigger man than I thought. You have done what you said you would do, and I presume you can very shortly go out of mourning."

He radiated vanity, seemed to visibly expand "Do y'u go in when I go out?" he asked brutally.

She laughed lightly. "Hardly. But it does seem as if I'm unlucky in my foremen. They all seem to have engagements across the divide."

"I'll get y u another."

"Thank you. I was going to ask as much of you. Can you suggest one now?"

"I'm a right good cattle man myself."

"And—can you stay with me a reasonable time?"

He laughed. "I have no engagements across the Styx, ma'am."

"My other foremen thought they were permanent fixtures here, too."

"We're all liable to mistakes."

"Even you, I suppose."

"I'll sign a lease to give y'u possession of my skill for as long as y'u like."

She settled herself comfortably back in an easy chair, as alluring a picture of buoyant, radiant youth as he had seen in many a day. "But the terms. I am afraid I can't offer you as much as you make at your present occupation."

"I could keep that up as a side-line."

"So you could. But if you use my time for your own profit, you ought to pay me a royalty on your intake."

His eyes lit with laughter. "I reckon that can be arranged. Any percentage you think fair It will all be in the family, anyway."

"I think that is one of the things about which we don't agree," she made answer softly, flashing him the proper look of inviting disdain from under her silken lashes.

He leaned forward, elbow on the chair-arm and chin in hand. "We'll agree about it one of these days."

"Think so?" she returned airily.

"I don't think. I know."

Just an eyebeat her gaze met his, with that hint of shy questioning, of puzzled doubt that showed a growing interest. "I wonder," she murmured, and recovered herself little laugh.

How she hated her task, and him! She was a singularly honest woman, but she must play the siren; must allure this scoundrel to forgetfulness, with a hurried and yet elude the very familiarity her manner invited. She knew her part, the heartless enticing coquette, compounded half of passion and half of selfishness. It was a hateful thing to do, this sacrifice of her personal reticence, of the individual abstraction in which she wrapped herself as a cloak, in order to hint at a possibility of some intimacy of feeling between them. She shrank from it with a repugnance hardly to be overcome, but she held herself with an iron will and consummate art to the role she had undertaken. Two lives hung on her success. She must not forget that. She would not let herself forget that—and one of them that of the man she loved.

So, bravely she played her part, repelling always with a hint of invitation, denying with the promise in her fascinated eyes of ultimate surrender to his ardor. In the zest of the pursuit the minutes slipped away unnoticed. Never had a woman seemed to him more subtly elusive, and never had he felt more sure of himself. Her charm grew on him, stirred his pulses to a faster beat. For it was his favorite sport, and this warm, supple young creature, who was to be the victim of his bow and arrow, showed herself worthy of his mettle.

The clock downstairs struck the half-hour, and Bannister, reminded of what lay before him outside, made a move to go. Her alert eyes had been expecting it, and she forestalled him by a change of tactics. Moved apparently by impulse, she seated herself on the piano-stool, swept the keys for an instant with her fingers, and plunged into the brilliant "Carmen" overture. Susceptible as this man was to the influence of music, he could not fail to be arrested by so perfect an interpretation of his mood. He stood rooted, was carried back again in imagination to a great artiste's rendering of that story of fierce passion and aching desire so brilliantly enacted under the white sunbeat of a country of cloudless skies. Imperceptibly she drifted into other parts of the opera. Was it the wild, gypsy seductiveness of Carmen that he felt, or, rather, this American girl's allurement? From "Love will like a birdling fly" she slipped into the exquisitely graceful snatches of song with which Carmen answers the officer's questions. Their rare buoyancy marched with his mood, and from them she carried him into the song "Over the hill," that is so perfect and romantic an expression of the wanderlust.

How long she could have held him she will never know, for at that inopportune time came blundering one of his men into the room with a call for his presence to take charge of the situation outside.

"What do y'u want, Bostwick?" he demanded, with curt peremptoriness.

The man whispered in his ear.

"Can't wait any longer, can't they?" snapped his chief. "Y'u tell them they'll wait till I give the word. Understand?"

He almost flung the man out of the room, but Helen noticed that she had lost him. His interest was perfunctory, and, though he remained a little time longer, it was to establish his authority with the men rather than to listen to her. Twice he looked at his watch within five minutes.

He rose to go. "There is a little piece of business I have to put through. So I'll have to ask y'u to excuse me. I have had a delightful hour, and I hate to go." He smiled, and quoted with mock sentimentality:

"The hours I spent with thee, dear heart, Are as a string of pearls to me; I count them over, every one apart, My rosary! My rosary!"

"Dear me! One certainly lives and learns. How could I have guessed that, with your reputation, you could afford to indulge in a rosary?" she mocked.

"Good night." He offered his hand.

"Don't go yet," she coaxed.

He shook his head. "Duty, y'u know."

"Stay only a little longer. Just ten minutes more."

His vanity purred, so softly she stroked it. "Can't. Wish I could. Y'u hear how noisy things are getting. I've got to take charge. So-long."

She stood close, looking up at him with a face of seductive appeal.

"Don't go yet. Please!"

The triumph of victory mounted to his head. "I'll come back when I've done what I've got to do."

"No, no. Stay a little longer just a little."

"Not a minute, sweetheart."

He bent to kiss her, and a little clenched fist struck his face.

"Don't you dare!" she cried.

The outraged woman in her, curbed all evening with an iron bit, escaped from control. Delightedly he laughed. The hot spirit in her pleased him mightily. He took her little hands and held them in one of his while he smiled down at her. "I guess that kiss will keep, my girl, till I come back."

"My God! Are you going to kill your own cousin?"

All her terror, all her detestation and hatred of him, looked haggardly out of her unmasked face. His narrowed eyes searched her heart, and his countenance grew every second more sinister,

"Y'u have been fooling me all evening, then?"

"Yes, and hating you every minute of the time."

"Y'u dared?" His face was black with rage.

"You would like to kill me. Why don't you?"

"Because I know a better revenge. I'm going out to take it now. After your lover is dead, I'll come back and make love to y'u again," he sneered.

"Never!" She stood before him like a queen in her lissom, brave, defiant youth. "And as for your cousin, you may kill him, but you can't destroy his contempt for you. He will die despising you for a coward and a scoundrel."

It was true, and he knew it. In his heart he cursed her, while he vainly sought some weapon that would strike home through her impervious armor.

"Y'u love him. I'll remember that when I see him kick," he taunted.

"I make you a present of the information. I love him, and I despise you. Nothing can change those facts," she retorted whitely.

"Mebbe, but some day y'u'll crawl on your knees to beg my pardon for having told me so."

"There is your overweening vanity again," she commented.

"I'm going to break y'u, my beauty, so that y'u'll come running when I snap my fingers."

"We'll see."

"And in the meantime I'll go hang your lover." He bowed ironically, swung on his jingling heel, and strode out of the room.

She stood there listening to his dying footfalls, then covered her face with her hands, as if to press back the dreadful vision her mind conjured.



CHAPTER 19. WEST POINT TO THE RESCUE

It was understood that the sheriff should make a perfunctory defense against the mob in order to "square" him with the voters at the election soon to be held. But the word had been quietly passed that the bullets of the prison guards would be fired over the heads of the attackers. This assurance lent an added braggadocio to the Dutch courage of the lynchers. Many of them who would otherwise have hung back distinguished themselves by the enthusiasm which they displayed.

Bannister himself generaled the affair, detailing squads to batter down the outer door, to guard every side of the prison, and to overpower the sheriff's guard. That official, according to programme, appeared at a window and made a little speech, declaring his intention of performing his duty at whatever cost. He was hooted down with jeers and laughter, and immediately the attack commenced.

The yells of the attackers mingled with the sound of the axe-blows and the report of revolvers from inside the building. Among those nearest to the door being battered down were Denver and the few men he had with him. His plan offered merely a forlorn hope. It was that in the first scramble to get in after the way was opened he and his friends might push up the stairs in the van, and hold the corridor for as long as they could against the furious mob.

It took less than a quarter of an hour to batter down the door, and among the first of those who sprang across the threshold were Denver, Missou, Frisco and their allies. While others stopped to overpower the struggling deputies according to the arranged farce, they hurried upstairs and discovered the cell in which their friends were fastened.

Frisco passed a revolver through the grating to McWilliams, and another to Bannister. "Haven't got the keys, so I can't let y'u out, old hoss," he told the foreman. "But mebbe y'u won't feel so lonesome with these little toys to play with."

Meanwhile Denver, a young giant of seventy-six inches, held the head of the stairs, with four stalwart plainsmen back of him. The rush of many feet came up pell-mell, and he flung the leaders back on those behind.

"Hold on there. This isn't a free-lunch counter. Don't you see we're crowded up here already?"

"What's eating you? Whyfor, can't we come?" growled one of the foremost nursing an injured nose.

"I've just explained to you, son, that it's crowded. Folks are prevalent enough up here right now. Send up that bunch of keys and we'll bring your meat to you fast enough."

"What's that? What's that?" The outlaw chief pushed his way through the dense mob at the door and reached the stairway.

"He won't let us up," growled one of them.

"Who won't?" demanded Bannister sharply, and at once came leaping up the stairs.

"Nothing doing," drawled Frisco, and tossed him over the railing on to the heads of his followers below.

They carried Bannister into the open air, for his head had struck the newel-post in his descent. This gave the defense a few minutes respite.

"They're going to come a-shooting next time," remarked Denver. "Just as soon as he comes back from bye-low land you'll see things hum."

"Y'u bet," agreed Missou. "We'll last about three minutes when the stampede begins."

The scream of an engine pierced the night.

Denver's face lit. "Make it five minutes, Missou, and Mac is safe. At least, I'm hoping so awful hard. Miss Helen wired for the militia from Sheridan this nothing. Chances are they're on that train. I couldn't tell you earlier because she made me promise not to. She was afraid it might leak out and get things started sooner."

Weak but furious, the miscreant from the Shoshones returned to the attack. "Break in the back door and sneak up behind on those fellows. We'll have the men we want inside of fifteen minutes," he promised the mob.

"We'll rush them from both sides, and show those guys on the landing whether they can stop us," added Bostwick.

Suddenly some one raised the cry, "The soldiers!" Bannister looked up the street and swore a vicious oath. Swinging down the road at double time came a company of militia in khaki. He was mad with baffled fury, but he made good his retreat at once and disappeared promptly into the nearest dark alley.

The mob scattered by universal impulse; disintegrated so promptly that within five minutes the soldiers held the ground alone, save for the officials of the prison and Denver's little band.

A boyish lieutenant lately out of the Point, and just come in to a lieutenancy in the militia, was in command. "In time?" he asked anxiously, for this was his first independent expedition.

"Y'u bet," chuckled Denver. "We're right glad to see you, and I'll bet those boys in the cage ain't regretting your arrival any. Fifteen minutes later and you would have been in time to hold the funeral services, I reckon."

"Where is Miss Messiter?" asked the young officer.

"She's at the Elk House, colonel. I expect some of us better drift over there and tell her it's all right. She's the gamest little woman that ever crossed the Wyoming line. Hadn't been for her these boys would have been across the divide hours ago. She's a plumb thoroughbred. Wouldn't give up an inch. All day she has generaled this thing; played a mighty weak hand for a heap more than it was worth. Sand? Seh: she's grit clear through, if anybody asks you." And Denver told the story of the day, making much of her unflinching courage and nothing of her men's readiness to back whatever steps she decided upon.

It was ten minutes past eleven when a smooth young, apple-cheeked lad in khaki presented himself before Helen Messiter with a bow never invented outside of West Point.

"I am Lieutenant Beecher. Governor Raleigh presents his compliments by me, Miss Messiter, and is very glad to be able to put at your service such forces as are needed to quiet the town."

"You were in time?" she breathed.

"With about five minutes to spare. I am having the prisoners brought here for the night if you do not object. In the morning I shall investigate the affair, and take such steps as are necessary. In the meantime you may rest assured that there will be no further disturbance."

"Thank you I am sure that with you in command everything will now be all right, and I am quite of your opinion that the prisoners had better stay here for the night. One of them is wounded, and ought to be given the best attention. But, of course, you will see to that, lieutenant."

The young man blushed. This was the right kind of appreciation. He wished his old classmates at the Point could hear how implicitly this sweet girl relied on him.

"Certainly. And now, Miss Messiter, if there is nothing you wish, I shall retire for the night. You may sleep with perfect confidence."

"I am sure I may, lieutenant." She gave him a broadside of trusting eyes full of admiration. "But perhaps you would like me to see my foreman first, just to relieve my mind. And, as you were about to say, his friend might be brought in, too, since they are together."

The young man promptly assented, though he had not been aware that he was about to say anything of the kind.

They came in together, Bannister supported by McWilliams's arm. The eyes of both mistress and maid brimmed over with tears when they saw them. Helen dragged forward a chair for the sheepman, and he sank into it. From its depths he looked up with his rare, sweet smile.

"I've heard about it," he told her, in a low voice. "I've heard how y'u fought for my life all day. There's nothing I can say. I owed y'u everything already twice, and now I owe it all over again. Give me a lifetime and I couldn't get even."

Helen's swift glance swept over Nora and the foreman. They were in a dark alcove, oblivious of anybody else. Also they were in each other's arms frankly. For some reason wine flowed into the cream of Helen's cheeks.

"Do you have to 'get even'? Among friends is that necessary?" she asked shyly.

"I hope not. If it is, I'm sure bankrupt Even my thanks seem to stay at home. If y'u hadn't done so much for me, perhaps I could tell y'u how much y'u had done But I have no words to say it."

"Then don't," she advised.

"Y'u're the best friend a man ever had. That's all I can say."

"It's enough, since you mean it, even though it isn't true," she answered gently.

Their eyes met, fastened for an instant, and by common consent looked away.

As it chanced they were close to the window, their shadows reflected on the blind. A man, slipping past in the street on horseback, stopped at sight of that lighted window, with the moving shadows, in an uncontrollable white fury. He slid from the saddle, threw the reins over the horse's head to the ground, and slipped his revolver from its holster and back to make sure that he could draw it easily. Then he passed springily across the road to the hotel and up the stairs. He trod lightly, stealthily, and by his very wariness defeated his purpose of eluding observation. For a pair of keen eyes from the hotel office glimpsed the figure stealing past so noiselessly, and promptly followed up the stairway.

"Hope I don't intrude at this happy family gathering."

Helen, who had been pouring a glass of cordial for the spent and wounded sheepman, put the glass down on the table and turned at sound of the silken, sinister voice. After one glance at the vindictive face, from the cold eyes of which hate seemed to smolder, she took an instinctive step toward her lover. The cold wave that drenched her heart accompanied an assurance that the man in the doorway meant trouble.

His sleek smile arrested her. He was standing with his feet apart, his hands clasped lightly behind his back, as natty and as well groomed as was his wont.

"Ah, make the most of what ye yet may spend, Before ye, too, into the Dust descend; Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie, Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!"

he misquoted, with a sneer; and immediately interrupted his irony to give way to one of his sudden blind rages.

With incredible swiftness his right hand moved forward and up, catching revolver from scabbard as it rose. But by a fraction of a second his purpose had been anticipated. A closed fist shot forward to the salient jaw in time to fling the bullets into the ceiling. An arm encircled the outlaw's neck, and flung him backward down the stairs. The railing broke his fall, and on it his body slid downward, the weapon falling from his hand. He pulled himself together at the foot of the stairs, crouched for an upward rush, but changed his mind instantly. The young officer who had flung him down had him covered with his own six-shooter. He could hear footsteps running toward him, and he knew that in a few seconds he would be in the hands of the soldiers. Plunging out of the doorway, the desperado vaulted to the saddle and drove his spurs home. For a minute hoofs pounded on the hard, white road. Then the night swallowed him and the echo of his disappearance.

"That was Bannister of the Shoshones and the Tetons," the girl's white lips pronounced to Lieutenant Beecher.

"And I let him get away from me," the disappointed lad groaned. "Why, I had him right in my hands. I could have throttled him as easy. But how was I to know he would have nerve enough to come rushing into a hotel full of soldiers hunting him?"

"Y'u have a very persistent cousin, Mr. Bannister," said McWilliams, coming forward from the alcove with shining eyes. "And I must say he's game. Did y'u ever hear the like? Come butting in here as cool as if he hadn't a thing to do but sing out orders like he was in his own home. He was that easy."

"It seems to me that a little of the praise is due Lieutenant Beecher. If he hadn't dealt so competently with the situation murder would have been done. Did you learn your boxing at the Academy, Lieutenant?" Helen asked, trying to treat the situation lightly in spite of her hammering heart.

"I was the champion middleweight of our class," Beecher could not help saying boyishly, with another of his blushes.

"I can easily believe it," returned Helen.

"I wish y'u would teach me how to double up a man so prompt and immediate," said the admiring foreman.

"I expect I'm under particular obligations to that straight right to the chin, Lieutenant," chimed in the sheepman. "The fact is that I don't seem to be able to get out anything except thanks these days. I ought to send my cousin a letter thanking him for giving me a chance to owe so much kindness to so many people."

"Your cousin?" repeated the uncomprehending officer.

"This desperado, Bannister, is my cousin," answered the sheepman gravely.

"But if he was your cousin, why should he want—to kill you?"

"That's a long story, Lieutenant. Will y'u hear it now?"

"If you feel strong enough to tell it."

"Oh, I'm strong enough." He glanced at Helen. "Perhaps we had better not tire Miss Messiter with it. If y'u'll come to my room—"

"I should like, above all things, to hear it again," interrupted that young woman promptly.

For the man she loved had just come back to her from the brink of the grave and she was still reluctant to let him out of her sight.

So Ned Bannister told his story once more, and out of the alcove came the happy foreman and Nora to listen to the tale. While he told it his sweetheart's contented eyes were on him. The excitement of the night burnt pleasantly in her veins, for out of the nettle danger she had plucked safety for her sheepman.



CHAPTER 20. TWO CASES OF DISCIPLINE

The Fourth of July celebration at Gimlet Butte had been a thing of the past for four days and the Lazy D had fallen back into the routine of ranch life. The riders were discussing supper and the continued absence of Reddy when that young man drew back the flap and joined them.

He stood near the doorway and grinned with embarrassed guilt at the assembled company.

"I reckon I got too much Fourth of July at Gimlet Butte, boys. That's how come I to be onpunctual getting back."

There was a long silence, during which those at the table looked at him with an expressionless gravity that did not seem to veil an unduly warm welcome.

"Hello, Mac! Hello, boys! I just got back," he further contributed.

Without comment the Lazy D resumed supper. Apparently it had not missed Reddy or noticed his return. Casual conversation was picked up cheerfully. The return of the prodigal was quite ignored.

"Then that blamed cow gits its back up and makes a bee-line for Rogers. The old man hikes for his pony and—"

"Seems good to git my legs under the old table again," interrupted Reddy with cheerful unease.

"—loses by about half a second," continued Missou. "If Doc hadn't roped its hind laig—"

"Have some cigars, boys. I brought a box back with me." Reddy tossed a handful on the table, where they continued to lie unnoticed.

"—there's no telling what would have happened. As 'twas the old man got off with a—"

"Y'u bet, they're good cigars all right," broke in the propitiatory Reddy.

The interrupted anecdote went on to a finish and the men trooped out and left the prodigal alone with his hash. When that young man reached the bunkhouse Frisco was indulging in a reminiscence. Reddy got only the last of it, but that did not contribute to his serenity.

"Yep! When I was working on the Silver Dollar. Must a-been three years ago, I reckon, when Jerry Miller got that chapping."

"Threw down the outfit in a row they had with the Lafferty crowd, didn't he?" asked Denver.

Frisco nodded.

Mac got up, glanced round, and reached for his hat. "I reckon I'll have to be going," he said, and forthright departed.

Reddy reached for HIS hat and rose. "I got to go and have a talk with Mac," he explained.

Denver got to the door first and his big frame filled it.

"Don't hurry, Reddy. It ain't polite to rush away right after dinner. Besides, Mac will be here all day. He ain't starting for New York."

"Y'u're gittin' blamed particular. Mac he went right out."

"But Mac didn't have a most particular engagement with the boys. There's a difference."

"Why, I ain't got—" Reddy paused and looked around helplessly.

"Gents, I move y'u that it be the horse sense of the Lazy D that our friend Mr. Reddy Reeves be given gratis one chapping immediately if not sooner. The reason for which same being that he played a lowdown trick on the outfit whose bread he was eating."

"Oh, quit your foolin', boys," besought the victim anxiously.

"And that Denver, being some able-bodied and having a good reach, be requested to deliver same to the gent needing it," concluded Missou.

Reddy backed in alarm to the wall. "Y'u boys don't want to get gay with me. Y'u can't monkey with—"

Motion carried unanimously.

Just as Reddy whipped out his revolver Denver's long leg shot out and his foot caught the wrist behind the weapon. When Reddy next took cognizance of his surroundings he was serving as a mattress for the anatomy of three stalwart riders. He was gently deposited face down on his bunk with a one-hundred-eighty-pound live peg at the end of each arm and leg.

"All ready, Denver," announced Frisco from the end of the left foot.

Denver selected a pair of plain leather chaps with care and proceeded to business. What he had to do he did with energy. It is safe to say that at least one of those present can still vividly remember this and testify to his thoroughness.

Mac drifted in after the disciplining. As foreman it was fitting that he should be discreetly ignorant of what had occurred, but he could not help saying:

"That y'u I heard singing, Reddy? Seems to me y'u had ought to take that voice into grand opera. The way y'u straddle them high notes is a caution for fair. What was it y'u was singing? Sounded like 'Would I were far from here, love.'"

"Y'u go to hell," choked Reddy, rushing past him from the bunkhouse.

McWilliams looked round innocently. "I judge some of y'u boys must a-been teasing Reddy from his manner. Seemed like he didn't want to sit down and talk."

"I shouldn't wonder but he'll hold his conversations standing for a day or two," returned Missou gravely.

At the end of the laugh that greeted this Mac replied:

"Well, y'u boys want to be gentle with him." "He's so plumb tender now that I reckon he'll get along without any more treatment in that line from us," drawled Frisco.

Mac departed laughing. He had an engagement that recurred daily in the dusk of the evening, and he was always careful to be on time. The other party to the engagement met him at the kitchen door and fell with him into the trail that led to Lee Ming's laundry.

"What made you late?" she asked.

"I'm not late, honey. I seem late because you're so anxious," he explained.

"I'm not," protested Nora indignantly. "If you think you're the only man on the place, Jim McWilliams."

"Sho! Hold your hawsses a minute, Nora, darling. A spinster like y'u—"

"You think you're awful funny—writing in my autograph album that a spinster's best friend is her powder box. I like Mr. Halliday's ways better. He's a perfect gentleman."

"I ain't got a word to say against Denver, even if he did write in your book,

"'Sugar is sweet, The sky is blue, Grass is green And so are you.'

I reckon, being a perfect gentleman, he meant—"

"You know very well you wrote that in yourself and pretended it was Mr. Halliday, signing his name and everything. It wasn't a bit nice of you."

"Now do I look like a forger?" he wanted to know with innocence on his cherubic face.

"Anyway you know it was mean. Mr. Halliday wouldn't do such a thing. You take your arm down and keep it where it belongs, Mr. McWilliams."

"That ain't my name, Nora, darling, and I'd like to know where my arm belongs if it isn't round the prettiest girl in Wyoming. What's the use of being engaged if—"

"I'm not sure I'm going to stay engaged to you," announced the young woman coolly, walking at the opposite edge of the path from him.

"Now that ain't any way to talk."

"You needn't lecture me. I'm not your wife and I don't think I'm going to be," cut in Nora, whose temper was ruffled on account of having had to wait for him as well as for other reasons.

"Y'u surely wouldn't make me sue y'u for breach of promise, would y'u?" he demanded, with a burlesque of anxiety that was the final straw.

Nora turned on her heel and headed for the house.

"Now don't y'u get mad at me, honey. I was only joking," he explained as he pursued her.

"You think you can laugh at me all you please. I'll show you that you can't," she informed him icily.

"Sho! I wasn't laughing at y'u. What tickled me—"

"I'm not interested in your amusement, Mr. McWilliams."

"What's the use of flying out about a little thing like that? Honest, I don't even know what you're mad at me for," the perplexed foreman averred.

"I'm not mad at you, as you call it. I'm simply disgusted."

And with a final "Good night" flung haughtily over her shoulder Miss Nora Darling disappeared into the house.

Mac took off his hat and gazed at the door that had been closed in his face. He scratched his puzzled poll in vain.

"I ce'tainly got mine good and straight just like Reddy got his. But what in time was it all about? And me thinkin' I was a graduate in the study of the ladies. I reckon I never did get jarred up so. It's plumb discouraging."

If he could have caught a glimpse of Nora at that moment, lying on her bed and crying as if her heart would break, Mac might have found the situation less hopeless.



CHAPTER 21. THE SIGNAL LIGHTS

In a little hill-rift about a mile back of the Lazy D Ranch was a deserted miner's cabin.

The hut sat on the edge of a bluff that commanded a view of the buildings below, while at the same time the pines that surrounded it screened the shack from any casual observation. A thin curl of smoke was rising from the mud chimney, and inside the cabin two men lounged before the open fire.

"It's his move, and he is going to make it soon. Every night I look for him to drop down on the ranch. His hate's kind of volcanic, Mr. Ned Bannister's is, and it's bound to bubble over mighty sudden one of these days," said the younger of the two, rising and stretching himself.

"It did bubble over some when he drove two thousand of my sheep over the bluff and killed the whole outfit," suggested the namesake of the man mentioned.

"Yes, I reckon that's some irritating," agreed McWilliams. "But if I know him, he isn't going to be content with sheep so long as he can take it out of a real live man."

"Or woman," suggested the sheepman.

"Or woman," agreed the other. "Especially when he thinks he can cut y'u deeper by striking at her. If he doesn't raid the Lazy D one of these nights, I'm a blamed poor prophet."

Bannister nodded agreement. "He's near the end of his rope. He could see that if he were blind. When we captured Bostwick and they got a confession out of him, that started the landslide against him. It began to be noised abroad that the government was going to wipe him out. Folks began to lose their terror of him, and after that his whole outfit began to want to turn State's evidence. He isn't sure of one of them now; can't tell when he will be shot in the back by one of his own scoundrels for that two thousand dollars reward."

The foreman strolled negligently to the door. His eyes drifted indolently down into the valley, and immediately sparkled with excitement.

"The signal's out, Bann," he exclaimed. "It's in your window."

The sheepman leaped to his feet and strode to the door. Down in the valley a light was gleaming in a window. Even while he looked another light appeared in a second window.

"She wants us both," cried the foreman, running to the little corral back of the house.

He presently reappeared with two horses, both saddled, and they took the downward trail at once.

"If Miss Helen can keep him in play till we arrive," murmured Mac anxiously.

"She can if he gives her a chance, and I think he will. There's a kind of cat instinct in him to play with his prey."

"Yes, but he missed his kill last time by letting her fool him. That's what I'm afraid of' that he won't wait."

They had reached lower ground now, and could put their ponies at a pounding gallop that ate up the trail fast. As they approached the houses, both men drew rein and looked carefully to their weapons. Then they slid from the saddles and slipped noiselessly forward.

What the foreman had said was exactly true. Helen Messiter did want them both, and she wanted them very much indeed.

After supper she had been dreamily playing over to herself one of Chopin's waltzes, when she became aware, by some instinct, that she was not alone in the room. There had been no least sound, no slightest stir to betray an alien presence. Yet that some one was in the room she knew, and by some subtle sixth sense could even put a name to the intruder.

Without turning she called over her shoulder: "Shall I finish the waltz?" No faintest tremor in the clear, sweet voice betrayed the racing heart.

"Y'u're a cool hand, my friend," came his ready answer. "But I think we'll dispense with the music. I had enough last time to serve me for twice."

She laughed as she swung on the stool, with that musical scorn which both allured and maddened. "I did rather do you that time," she allowed.

"This is the return match. You won then. I win now," he told her, with a look that chilled.

"Indeed! But isn't that rather discounting the future?"

"Only the immediate future. Y'u're mine, my beauty, and I mean to take y'u with me."

Just a disdainful sweep of her eyes she gave him as she rose from the piano-stool and rearranged the lamps. "You mean so much that never comes to pass, Mr. Bannister. The road to the nether regions is paved with good intentions, we are given to understand. Not that yours can by any stretch of imagination be called 'good intentions.'"

"Contrariwise, then, perhaps the road to heaven may be paved with evil intentions. Since y'u travel the road with me, wherever it may lead, it were but gallant to hope so."

He took three sharp steps toward her and stood looking down in her face, her sweet slenderness so close to him that the perfume mounted to his brain. Surely no maiden had ever been more desirable than this one, who held him in such contemptuous estimation that only her steady eyes moved at his approach. These held to his and defied him, while she stood leaning motionless against the table with such strong and supple grace. She knew what he meant to do, hated him for it, and would not give him the satisfaction of flying an inch from him or struggling with him.

"Your eyes are pools of splendor. That's right. Make them flash fire. I love to see such spirit, since it offers a more enticing pleasure in breaking," he told her, with an admiration half ironic but wholly genuine. "Pools of splendor, my beauty! Therefore I salute them."

At the touch of his lips upon her eyelids a shiver ran through her, but still she made no movement, was cold to him as marble. "You coward!" she said softly, with an infinite contempt.

"Your lips," he continued to catalogue, "are ripe as fresh flesh of Southern fruit. No cupid ever possessed so adorable a mouth. A worshiper of Eros I, as now I prove."

This time it was the mouth he kissed, the while her unconquered spirit looked out of the brave eyes, and fain would have murdered him. In turn he kissed her cold cheeks, the tip of one of her little ears, the small, clenched fist with which she longed to strike him.

"Are you quite through?"

"For the present, and now, having put the seal of my ownership on her more obvious charms, I'll take my bride home."

"I would die first."

"Nay, you'll die later, Madam Bannister, but not for many years, I hope," he told her, with a theatrical bow.

"Do you think me so weak a thing as your words imply?"

"Rather so strong that the glory of overcoming y'u fills me with joy. Believe me, madam, though your master I am not less your slave," he mocked.

"You are neither my master nor my slave, but a thing I detest," she said, in a low voice that carried extraordinary intensity.

"And obey," he added, suavely. "Come, madam, to horse, for our honeymoon."

"I tell you I shall not go."

"Then, in faith, we'll re-enact a modern edition of 'The Taming of the Shrew.' Y'u'll find me, sweet, as apt at the part as old Petruchio." He paced complacently up the room and back, and quoted glibly:

"And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor. He that knows better how to tame a shrew, Now let him, speak; 'tis charity to show."

"Would you take me against my will?"

"Y'u have said it. What's your will to me? What I want I take. And I sure want my beautiful shrew." His half-shuttered eyes gloated on her as he rattled off a couple more lines from the play he had mentioned.

"Kate, like the hazel-twig, Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue As hazel-nuts, and sweeter than the kernels."

She let a swift glance travel anxiously to the door. "You are in a very poetical mood to-day."

"As befits a bridegroom, my own." He stepped lightly to the window and tapped twice on the pane. "A signal to bring the horses round. If y'u have any preparations to make, any trousseau to prepare, y'u better set that girl of yours to work."

"I have no preparations to make."

"Coming to me simply as y'u are? Good! We'll lead the simple life."

Nora, as it chanced, knocked and entered at his moment. The sight of her vivid good looks truck him for the first time. At sight of him she stopped, gazing with parted lips, a double row of pearls shining through.

He turned swiftly to the mistress. "Y'u ought not to be alone there among so many men. It wouldn't be proper. We'll take the girl along with us."

"Where?" Nora's parted lips emitted.

"To Arden, my dear." He interrupted himself to look at his watch. "I wonder why that fellow doesn't come with the horses. They should pass this window."

Bannister, standing jauntily with his feet astride as he looked out of the window, heard someone enter the room. "Did y'u bring round the horses?" he snapped, without looking round.

"NO, WE ALLOWED THEY WOULDN'T BE NEEDED."

At sound of the slow drawl the outlaw wheeled like a flash, his hand traveling to the hilt of the revolver that hung on his hip. But he was too late. Already two revolvers covered him, and he knew that both his cousin and McWilliams were dead shots. He flashed one venomous look at the mistress of the ranch.

"Y'u fooled me again. That lamp business was a signal, and I was too thick-haided to see it. My compliments to y'u, Miss Messiter."

"Y'u are under arrest," announced his cousin.

"Y'u don't say." His voice was full of sarcastic admiration. "And you done it with your little gun! My, what a wonder y'u are!"

"Take your hand from the butt of that gun. Y'u better relieve him of it, Mac. He's got such a restless disposition he might commit suicide by reaching for it."

"What do y'u think you're going to do with me now y'u have got me, Cousin Ned?"

"We're going to turn y'u over to the United States Government."

"Guess again. I have a thing, or two to say to that."

"You're going to Gimlet Butte with us, alive or dead."

The outlaw intentionally misunderstood. "If I've got to take y'u, then we'll say y'u go dead rather than alive."

"He was going to take Nora and me with him," Helen explained to her friends.

Instantly the man swung round on her. "But now I've changed my mind, ma'am. I'm going to take my cousin with me instead of y'u ladies."

Helen caught his meaning first, and flashed it whitely to her lover. It dawned on him more slowly.

"I see y'u remember, Miss Messiter," he continued, with a cruel, silken laugh. "He gave me his parole to go with me whenever I said the word. I'm saying it now." He sat down astride a chair, put his chin on the back cross-bar, and grinned malevolently from one to another.

"What's come over this happy family? It don't look so joyous all of a sudden. Y'u don't need to worry, ma'am, I'll send him back to y'u all right—alive or dead. With his shield or on it, y'u know. Ha! ha!"

"You will not go with him?" It was wrung from Helen as a low cry, and struck her lover's heart.

"I must," he answered. "I gave him my word, y'u remember."

"But why keep it? You know what he is, how absolutely devoid of honor."

"That is not quite the question, is it?" he smiled.

"Would he keep his word to you?"

"Not if a lie would do as well. But that isn't the point, either."

"It's quixotic—foolish—worse than that—ridiculous," she implored.

"Perhaps, but the fact remains that I am pledged."

"'I could not love thee, dear, so much Loved I not honor more,'"

murmured the villain in the chair, apparently to the ceiling. "Dear Ned, he always was the soul of honor. I'll have those lines carved on his tombstone."

"You see! He is already bragging that he means to kill you," said the girl.

"I shall go armed," the sheepman answered.

"Yes, but he will take you into the mountain fastnesses, where the men that serve him will do his bidding. What is one man among so many?"

"Two men, ma'am," corrected the foreman.

"What's that?" The outlaw broke off the snatch of opera he was singing to slew his head round at McWilliams.

"I said two. Any objections, seh?"

"Yes. That wasn't in the contract."

"We're giving y'u surplusage, that's all. Y'u wanted one of us, and y'u get two. We don't charge anything for the extra weight," grinned Mac.

"Oh, Mac, will you go with him?" cried Helen, with shining eyes.

"Those are my present intentions, Miss Helen," laughed her foreman.

Whereat Nora emerged from the background and flung herself on him. "Y'u can't go, Jim! I won't have you go!" she cried.

The young man blushed a beautiful pink, and accepted gladly this overt evidence of a reconciliation. "It's all right, honey. Don't y'u think two big, grown-up men are good to handle that scalawag? Sho! Don't y'u worry."

"Miss Nora can come, too, if she likes," suggested he of the Shoshones. "Looks like we would have quite a party. Won't y'u join us, too, Miss Messiter, according to the original plan?" he said, extending an ironical invitation.

"I think we had better cut it down to me alone. We'll not burden your hospitality, sir," said the sheepman.

"No, sir, I'm in on this. Whyfor can't I go?" demanded Jim.

Bannister, the outlaw, eyed him unpleasantly. "Y'u certainly can so far as I am concerned. I owe y'u one, too, Mr. McWilliams. Only if y'u come of your own free will, as y'u are surely welcome to do, don't holler if y'u're not so welcome to leave whenever y'u take a notion."

"I'll try and look out for that. It's settled, then, that we ride together. When do y'u want to start?"

"We can't go any sooner than right now. I hate to take these young men from y'u, lady, but, as I said, I'll send them back in good shape. Adios, senorita. Don't forget to whom y'u belong." He swaggered to the door and turned, leaning against the jamb with one hand again it. "I expect y'u can say those lovey-dov good-byes without my help. I'm going into the yard. If y'u want to y'u can plug me in the back through the window," he suggested, with a sneer.

"As y'u would us under similar circumstances," retorted his cousin.

"Be with y'u in five minutes," said the foreman.

"Don't hurry. It's a long good-bye y'u're saying," returned his enemy placidly.

Nora and the young man who belonged to her followed him from the room, leaving Bannister and his hostess alone.

"Shall I ever see you again?" Helen murmured.

"I think so," the sheepman answered. "The truth is that this opportunity falls pat. Jim and have been wanting to meet those men who are under my cousin's influence and have a talk with them. There is no question but that the gang is disintegrating, and I believe that if we offer to mediate between its members and the Government something might be done to stop the outrages that have been terrorizing this country. My cousin can't be reached, but I believe the rest of them, or, at least a part, can be induced either to surrender or to flee the country. Anyhow, we want to try it."

"But the danger?" she breathed.

"Is less than y'u think. Their leader has not anywhere nearly the absolute power he had a few months ago. They would hardly dare do violence to a peace envoy."

"Your cousin would. I don't believe he has any scruples."

"We shall keep an eye on him. Both of us will not sleep at the same time. Y'u may depend on me to bring your foreman safely back to y'u," he smiled.

"Oh, my foreman!"

"And your foreman's friend," he added. "I have the best of reasons for wanting to return alive. I think y'u know them. They have to do with y'u, Miss Helen."

It had come at last, but, womanlike, she evaded the issue her heart had sought. "Yes, I know. You think it would not be fair to throw away your life in this foolish manner after I have saved it for you—how many times was it you said?" The blue eyes lifted with deceptive frankness to the gray ones.

"No, that isn't my reason. I have a better one than that. I love y'u, girl, more than anything in this world."

"And so you try to prove it to me by running into a trap set for you to take your life. That's a selfish kind of love, isn't it? Or it would be if I loved you."

"Do y'u love me, Helen?"

"Why should I tell you, since you don't love me enough to give up this quixotic madness?"

"Don't y'u see, dear, I can't give it up?"

"I see you won't. You care more for your pride than for me."

"No, it isn't that. I've got to go. It isn't that I want to leave y'u, God knows. But I've given my word, and I must keep it. Do y'u want me to be a quitter, and y'u so game yourself? Do y'u want it to go all over this cattle country that I gave my word and took it back because I lost my nerve?"

"The boy that takes a dare isn't a hero, is he! There's a higher courage that refuses to be drawn into such foolishness, that doesn't give way to the jeers of the empty headed."

"I don't think that is a parallel case. I'm sorry, we can't see this alike, but I've got to go ahead the way that seems to me right."

"You're going to leave me, then, to go with that man?"

"Yes, if that's the way y'u have to put it." He looked at her sorrowfully, and added gently: "I thought you would see it. I thought sure you would."

But she could not bear that he should leave her so, and she cried out after him. "Oh, I see it. I know you must go; but I can't bear it." Her head buried itself in his coat. "It isn't right—it isn't a—a square deal that you should go away now, the very minute you belong to me."

A happy smile shone in his eyes. "I belong to you, do I? That's good hearing, girl o' mine." His arm went round her and he stroked the black head softly. "I'll not be gone long, dear. Don't y'u worry about me. I'll be back with y'u soon; just as soon as I have finished this piece of work I have to do."

"But if you should get—if anything should happen to you?"

"Nothing is going to happen to me. There is a special providence looks after lovers, y'u know."

"Be careful, Ned, of yourself. For my sake, dear."

"I'll dry my socks every time I get my feet wet for fear of taking cold," he laughed.

"But you will, won't you?"

"I'll be very careful, Helen," he promised more gravely.

Even then she could hardly let him go, clinging to him with a reluctance to separate that was a new experience to her independent, vigorous youth. In the end he unloosened her arm, kissed her once, and hurried out of the room. In the hallway he met McWilliams, also hurryin out from a tearful farewell on the part of Nora.

Bannister, the outlaw, already mounted, was waiting for them. "Y'u did get through at last," he drawled insolently. "Well, if y'u'll kindly give orders to your seven-foot dwarf to point the Winchester another way I'll collect my men an we'll be moving."

For, though the outlaw had left his men in command of the ranch when he went into the house, he found the situation reversed on his return. With the arrival of reinforcements, in the persons of McWilliams and his friend, it had been the turn of the raiders to turn over their weapons.

"All right, Denver," nodded the foreman.

The outlaw chief whistled for his men, and with their guests they rode into the silent, desert night.



CHAPTER 22. EXIT THE "KING"

They bedded that night under the great vault-roof where twinkle a million stars.

There were three of the outlaw's men with him, and both Mcwilliams and his friend noticed that they slept a little apart from their chief. There were other indications among the rustlers of a camp divided against itself. Bannister's orders to them he contrived to make an insult, and their obedience was as surly as possible compatible with safety. For all of the men knew that he would not hesitate to shoot them down in one of his violent rages should they anger him sufficiently.

Throughout the night there was no time that at least two men were not awake in the camp. The foreman and the sheepman took turns keeping vigil; and on the other side of the fire sat one of the rustlers in silent watchfulness. To the man opposite him each of the sentinels were outposts of the enemy, but they fraternized after the manner of army sentries, exchanging tobacco and occasional casual conversation.

The foreman took the first turn, and opposite him sat a one-eyed old scoundrel who had rustle calves from big outfits ever since Wyoming was a territory and long before. Chalkeye Dave, he was called, and sometimes merely Chalkeye. What his real name was no man knew. Nor was his past a subject for conversation in his presence. It was known that he had been in the Nevada penitentiary, and that he had killed a man in Arizona, but these details of an active life were rarely resurrected. For Chalkeye was deadly on the shoot, and was ready for it at the drop of the hat, though he had his good points too. One of these was a remarkable fondness for another member of the party, a mere lad, called by his companions Hughie. Generally surly and morose, to such a degree that even his chief was careful to humor him as a rule, when with Hughie all the softer elements of his character came to the surface. In his rough way he was ever humorous and genial.

Jim McWilliams found him neither, however. He declined to engage in conversation, accepted a proffer of tobacco with a silent, hostile grunt and relapsed into a long silence that lasted till his shift was ended.

"Hate to have y'u leave, old man. Y'u're so darned good company I'll ce'tainly pine for you," the foreman suggested, with sarcasm, when the old man rolled up in his blankets preparatory to falling asleep immediately.

Chalkeye's successor was a blatant youth much impressed with his own importance. He was both foul-mouthed and foul-minded, so that Jim was constrained to interrupt his evil boastings by pretending to fall asleep.

It was nearly two o'clock when the foreman aroused his friend to take his turn. Shortly after this the lad Hughie relieved the bragging, would-be bad man.

Hughie was a flaxen-haired, rather good-looking boy of nineteen. In his small, wistful face was not a line of wickedness, though it was plain that he was weak. He seemed so unfit for the life he was leading that the sheepman's interest was aroused. For on the frontier it takes a strong, competent miscreant to be a bad man and survive. Ineffectives and weaklings are quickly weeded out to their graves or the penitentiaries.

The boy was manifestly under great fear of his chief, but the curly haired young Hermes who kept watch with him had a very winning smile and a charming manner when he cared to exert it. Almost in spite of himself the youngster was led to talk. It seemed that he had but lately joined the Teton-Shoshones outfit of desperadoes, and between the lines Bannister easily read that his cousin's masterful compulsion had coerced the young fellow. All he wanted was an opportunity to withdraw in safety, but he knew he could never do this so long as the "King" was alive and at liberty.

Under the star-roof in the chill, breaking day Ned Bannister talked to him long and gently. It was easy to bring the boy to tears, but it was harder thing to stiffen a will that was of putty and to hearten a soul in mortal fear. But he set himself with all the power in him to combat the influence of his cousin over this boy; and before the camp stirred to life again he knew that he had measurably succeeded.

They ate breakfast in the gray dawn under the stars, and after they had finished their coffee and bacon horses were saddled and the trail taken up again. It led in and out among the foot-hills slopping upward gradually toward the first long blue line of the Shoshones that stretched before them in the distance. Their nooning was at running stream called Smith's Creek, and by nightfall the party was well up in the higher foot hills.

In the course of the day and the second night both the sheepman and his friend made attempt to establish a more cordial relationship with Chalkeye, but so far as any apparent results went their efforts were vain. He refused grimly to meet their overtures half way, even though it was plain from his manner that a break between him and his chief could not long be avoided.

All day by crooked trails they pushed forward, and as the party advanced into the mountains the gloom of the mournful pines and frowning peaks invaded its spirits. Suspicion and distrust went with it, camped at night by the rushing mountain stream, lay down to sleep in the shadows at every man's shoulder. For each man looked with an ominous eye on his neighbor, watchful of every sudden move, of every careless word that might convey a sudden meaning.

Along a narrow rock-rim trail far above a steep canon, whose walls shot precipitously down, they were riding in single file, when the outlaw chief pushed his horse forward between the road wall and his cousin's bronco. The sheepman immediately fell back.

"I reckon this trail isn't wide enough for two—unless y'u take the outside," he explained quietly.

The outlaw, who had been drinking steadily ever since leaving the Lazy D, laughed his low, sinister cackle. "Afraid of me, are y'u? Afraid I'll push y'u off?"

"Not when I'm inside and you don't have chance."

"'Twas a place about like this I drove for thousand of your sheep over last week. With sheep worth what they are I'm afraid it must have cost y'u quite a bit. Not that y'u'll miss it where you are going," he hastened to add.

"It was very like you to revenge yourself on dumb animals."

"Think so?" The "King's" black gaze rested on him. "Y'u'll sing a different song soon Mr. Bannister. It's humans I'll drive next time and don't y'u forget it."

"If you get the chance," amended his cousin gently.

"I'll get the chance. I'm not worrying about that. And about those sheep—any man that hasn't got more sense than to run sheep in a cow country ought to lose them for his pig-headedness.

"Those sheep were on the right side of the dead-line. You had to cross it to reach them." Their owner's steady eyes challenged a denial.

"Is that so? Now how do y'u know that? We didn't leave the herder alive to explain that to y'u, did we?"

"You admit murdering him?"

"To y'u, dear cousin. Y'u see, I have a hunch that maybe y'u'll go join your herder right soon. Y'u'll not do much talking."

The sheepman fell back. "I think I'll ride alone."

Rage flared in the other's eye. "Too good for me, are y'u, my mealy-mouthed cousin? Y'u always thought yourself better than me. When y'u were a boy you used to go sneaking to that old hypocrite, your grandfather—"

"You have said enough," interrupted the other sternly. "I'll not hear another word. Keep your foul tongue off him."

Their eyes silently measured strength.

"Y'u'll not hear a word!" sneered the chief of the rustlers. "What will y'u do, dear cousin?

"Stand up and fight like a man and settle this thing once for all."

Still their steely eyes crossed as with the thrust of rapiers. The challenged man crouched tensely with a mighty longing for the test, but he had planned a more elaborate revenge and a surer one than this. Reluctantly he shook his head.

"Why should I? Y'u're mine. We're four to two, and soon we'll be a dozen to two. I'd like a heap to oblige y'u, but I reckon I can't afford to just now. Y'u will have to wait a little for that bumping off that's coming to y'u."

"In that event I'll trouble you not to inflict your society on me any more than is necessary."

"That's all right, too. If y'u think I enjoy your conversation y'u have got another guess coming."

So by mutual consent the sheepman fell in behind the blatant youth who had wearied McWilliams so and rode in silence.

It was again getting close to nightfall. The slant sun was throwing its rays on less and less of the trail. They could see the shadows grow and the coolness of night sift into the air. They were pushing on to pass the rim of a great valley basin that lay like a saucer in the mountains in order that they might camp in the valley by a stream all of them knew. Dusk was beginning to fall when they at last reached the saucer edge and only the opposite peaks were still tipped with the sun rays. This, too, disappeared before they had descended far, and the gloom of the great mountains that girt the valley was on all their spirits, even McWilliams being affected by it.

They were tired with travel, and the long night watches did not improve tempers already overstrained with the expectation of a crisis too long dragged out. Rain fell during the night, and continued gently in a misty drizzle after day broke. It was a situation and an atmosphere ripe for tragedy, and it fell on them like a clap of thunder out of a sodden sky.

Hughie was cook for the day, and he came chill and stiff-fingered to his task. Summer as it was, there lay a thin coating of ice round the edges of the stream, for they had camped in an altitude of about nine thousand feet. The "King" had wakened in a vile humor. He had a splitting headache, as was natural under the circumstances and he had not left in his bottle a single drink to tide him over it. He came cursing to the struggling fire, which was making only fitful headway against the rain which beat down upon it.

"Why didn't y'u build your fire on the side of the tree?" he growled at Hughie.

Now, Hughie was a tenderfoot, and in his knowledge of outdoor life he was still an infant. "I didn't know—" he was beginning, when his master cut him short with a furious tongue lashing out of all proportion to the offense.

The lad's face blanched with fear, and his terror was so manifest that the bully, who was threatening him with all manner of evils, began to enjoy himself. Chalkeye, returning from watering the horses, got back in time to hear the intemperate fag-end of the scolding. He glanced at Hughie, whose hands were trembling in spite of him, and then darkly at the brute who was attacking him. But he said not a word.

The meal proceeded in silence except for jeers and taunts of the "King." For nobody cared to venture conversation which might prove a match to a powder magazine. Whatever thoughts might be each man kept them to himself.

"Coffee," snapped the single talker, toward end of breakfast.

Hughie jumped up, filled the cup that was handed him and set the coffee pot back on fire. As he handed the tin cup with the coffee to the outlaw the lad's foot slipped on a piece wet wood, and the hot liquid splashed over his chief's leg. The man jumped to his feet in a rage and struck the boy across the face with his whip once, and then again.

"By God, that'll do for you!" cried Chalkeye from the other side of the fire, springing revolver in hand. "Draw, you coyote! I come a-shooting."

The "King" wheeled, finding his weapon he turned. Two shots rang out almost simultaneously, and Chalkeye pitched forward. The outlaw chief sank to his knees, and, with one hand resting on the ground to steady himself fired two more shots into the twitching body on the other side of the fire. Then he, too, lurched forward and rolled over.

It had come to climax so swiftly that not one of them had moved except the combatants. Bannister rose and walked over to the place where the body of his cousin lay. He knelt down and examined him. When he rose it was with a very grave face.

"He is dead," he said quietly.

McWilliams, who had been bending over Chalkeye, looked up. "Here, too. Any one of the shots would have finished him."

Bannister nodded. "Yes. That first exchange killed them both." He looked down at the limp body of his cousin, but a minute before so full of supple, virile life. "But his hate had to reach out and make sure, even though he was as good as dead himself. He was game." Then sharply to the young braggart, who had risen and was edging away with a face of chalk: "Sit down, y'u! What do y'u take us for? Think this is to be a massacre?"

The man came back with palpable hesitancy. "I was aiming to go and get the boys to bury them. My God, did you ever see anything so quick? They drilled through each other like lightning."

Mac looked him over with dry contempt. "My friend, y'u're too tender for a genuwine A1 bad man. If I was handing y'u a bunch of advice it would be to get back to the prosaic paths of peace right prompt. And while we're on the subject I'll borrow your guns. Y'u're scared stiff and it might get into your fool coconut to plug one of us and light out. I'd hate to see y'u commit suicide right before us, so I'll just natcherally unload y'u."

He was talking to lift the strain, and it was for the same purpose that Bannister moved over to Hughie, who sat with his face in his hands, trying to shut out the horror of what he had seen.

The sheepman dropped a hand on his shoulder gently. "Brace up, boy! Don't you see that the very best thing that could have happened is this. It's best for y'u, best for the rest of the gang and best for the whole cattle country. We'll have peace here at last. Now he's gone, honest men are going to breathe easy. I'll take y'u in hand and set y'u at work on one of my stations, if y'u like. Anyhow, you'll have a chance to begin life again in a better way."

"That's right," agreed the blatant youth. "I'm sick of rustling the mails and other folks' calves. I'm glad he got what was coming to him," he concluded vindictively, with a glance at his dead chief and a sudden raucous oath.

McWilliams's cold blue eye transfixed him "Hadn't you better be a little careful how your mouth goes off? For one thing, he's daid now; and for another, he happens to be Mr. Bannister's cousin."

"But—weren't they enemies?"

"That's how I understand it. But this man's passed over the range. A MAN doesn't unload his hatred on dead folks—and I expect if y'u'll study him, even y'u will be able to figure out that my friend measures up to the size of a real man."

"I don't see why if—"

"No, I don't suppose y'u do," interrupted the foreman, turning on his heel. Then to Bannister, who was looking down at his cousin with a stony face: "I reckon, Bann, we better make arrangements to have the bodies buried right here in the valley," he said gently.

Bannister was thinking of early days, of the time when this miscreant, whose light had just been put out so instantaneously, had played with him day in and day out. They had attended their first school together, had played marbles and prisoners' base a hundred times against each other. He could remember how they used to get up early in the morning to go fishing with each other. And later, when each began, unconsciously, to choose the path he would follow in already beginning to settle into an established fact. He could see now, by looking back on trifles of their childhood, that his cousin had been badly handicapped in his fight with himself against the evil in him. He had inherited depraved instincts and tastes, and with them somewhere in him a strand of weakness that prevented him from slaying the giants he had to oppose in the making of a good character. From bad to worse he had gone, and here he lay with the drizzling rain on his white face, a warning and a lesson to wayward youths just setting their feet in the wrong direction. Surely it was kismet.

Ned Bannister untied the handkerchief from his neck and laid it across the face of his kinsman. A moment longer he looked down, then passed his hands across his eyes and seemed to brush away the memories that thronged him. He stepped forward to the fire and warmed his hands.

"We'll go on, Mac, to the rendezvous he had appointed with his outfit. We ought to reach there by noon, and the boys can send a wagon back to get the bodies."



CHAPTER 23. JOURNEYS END IN LOVERS' MEETING

It had been six days since the two Ned Bannisters had ridden away together into the mountains, and every waking hour since that time had been for Helen one of harassing anxiety. No word had yet reached her of the issue of that dubious undertaking, and she both longed and dreaded to hear. He had promised to send a messenger as soon as he had anything definite to tell, but she knew it would be like his cousin, too, to send her some triumphant word should he prove the victor in the struggle between them. So that every stranger she glimpsed brought to her a sudden beating of the heart.

But it was not the nature of Helen Messiter to sit down and give herself up a prey to foreboding. Her active nature cried out for work to occupy her and distract her attention. Fortunately this was to be had in abundance just now. For the autumn round-up was on, and since her foreman was away the mistress of the Lazy D found plenty of work ready to her hand.

The meeting place for the round-up riders was at Boom Creek, five miles from the ranch, and Helen rode out there to take charge of her own interests in person. With her were six riders, and for the use of each of them in addition to his present mount three extra ponies were brought in the remuda. For the riding is so hard during the round-up that a horse can stand only one day in four of it. At the appointed rendezvous a score of other cowboys and owners met them. Without any delay they proceeded to business. Mr. Bob Austin, better known as "Texas," was elected boss of the round-up, and he immediately assigned the men to their places and announced that they would work Squaw Creek. They moved camp at once, Helen returning to the ranch.

It was three o'clock in the morning when the men were roused by the cook's triangle calling them to the "chuck wagon" for breakfast. It was still cold and dark as the boys crawled from under their blankets and squatted round the fire to eat jerky, biscuits and gravy, and to drink cupfuls of hot, black coffee. Before sun rose every man was at his post far up on the Squaw Creek ridges ready to begin the drive.

Later in the day Helen rode to the parade grounds, toward which a stream of cattle was pouring down the canyon of the creek. Every gulch tributary to the creek contributed its quota of wild cows and calves. These came romping down the canyon mouth, where four picked men, with a bunch of tame cows in front of them, stopped the rush of flying cattle. Lunch was omitted, and branding began at once. Every calf belonging to a Lazy D cow, after being roped and tied, was flanked with the great D which indicated its ownership by Miss Messiter, and on account of the recumbent position of which letter the ranch had its name.

It was during the branding that a boyish young fellow rode up and handed Helen a note. Her heart pumped rapidly with relief, for one glance told her that it was in the handwriting of the Ned Bannister she loved. She tore it open and glanced swiftly through it.

DEAR FRIEND: Two hours ago my cousin was killed by one of his own men. I am sending back to you a boy who had been led astray by him, and it would be a great service to me if you would give him something to do till I return. His name is Hugh Rogers. I think if you trust him he will prove worthy of it.

Jim and I are going to stay here a few days longer to finish the work that is begun. We hope to meet and talk with as many of the men implicated in my cousin's lawlessness as is possible. What the result will be I cannot say. We do not consider ourselves in any danger whatever, though we are not taking chances. If all goes well we shall be back within a few days.

I hope you are not missing Jim too much at the roundup. Sincerely,

NED BANNISTER

She liked the letter because there was not a hint of the relationship between them to be read in it. He had guarded her against the chance of its falling into the wrong hands and creating talk about them.

She turned to Hughie. "Can you ride?"

"In a way, ma'am. I can't ride like these men." His glance indicated a cow-puncher pounding past after a wild steer that had broken through the cordon of riders and was trying to get away.

"Do you want to learn?"

"I'd like to if I had a chance," he answered wistfully.

"All right. You have your chance. I'll see that Mr. Austin finds something for you to do. From to-day you are in my employ."

She rode back to the ranch in the late afternoon, while the sun was setting in a great splash of crimson. The round-up boss had hinted that if she were nervous about riding alone he could find it convenient to accompany her. But the girl wanted to be alone with her own thoughts, and she had slipped away while he was busy cutting out calves from the herd. It had been a wonderful relief to her to find that HER Ned Bannister was the one that had survived in the conflict, and her heart sang a paean of joy as she rode into the golden glow of the westering sun. He was alive—to love and be loved. The unlived years of her future seemed to unroll before her as a vision. She glowed with a resurgent happiness that was almost an ecstasy. The words of a bit of verse she had once seen—a mere scrap from a magazine that had stuck in an obscure corner of her memory—sang again and again in her heart:

Life and love And a bright sky o'er us, And—God take care Of the way before us!

Ah, the way before them, before her and her romance-radiating hero! It might be rough and hilly, but if they trod it together—Her tangled thoughts were off again in another glad leap of imagination.

The days passed somehow. She busied herself with the affairs of the ranch, rode out often to the scenes of the cattle drives and watched the round-up, and every twenty-four hours brought her one day nearer to his return, she told herself. Nora, too, was on the lookout under her longlashed, roguish eyelids; and the two young women discussed the subject of their lovers' return in that elusive, elliptical way common to their sex.

No doubt each of these young women had conjectured as to the manner of that homecoming and the meeting that would accompany it; but it is safe to say that neither of them guessed in her day-dreams how it actually was to occur.

Nora had been eager to see something of the round-up, and as she was no horsewoman her mistress took her out one day in her motor. The drive had been that day on Bronco Mesa, and had finished in the natural corral made by Bear Canon, fenced with a cordon of riders at the end opening to the plains below. After watching for two hours the busy scenes of cutting out, roping and branding, Helen wheeled her car and started down the canyon on their return.

Now, a herd of wild cattle is uncertain as an April day's behavior. Under the influence of the tame valley cattle among which they are driven, after a little milling around, the whole bunch may gentle almost immediately, or, on the other hand, it may break through and go crashing away on a wild stampede at a moment's notice. Every experienced cowman knows enough to expect the unexpected.

At Bronco Mesa the round-up had proceeded with unusual facility. Scores of wiry, long-legged steers had drifted down the ridges or gulches that led to the canon; and many a cow, followed by its calf, had stumbled forward to the herd and apparently accepted the inevitable. But before Helen Messiter had well started out of the canyon's mouth the situation changed absolutely.

A big hill steer, which had not seen a man for a year, broke through the human corral with a bellow near a point where Reddy kept guard. The puncher wheeled and gave chase, Before the other men could close the opening a couple of two-year-olds seized the opportunity and followed its lead. A second rider gave chase, and at once, as if some imp of mischief had stirred them, fifty tails went up in wild flight. Another minute and the whole herd was in stampede.

Down the gulch the five hundred cattle thundered toward the motor car, which lay directly in their path. Helen turned, appreciated the danger, and put the machine at its full speed. The road branched for a space of about fifty yards, and in her excitement she made the mistake of choosing the lower, more level, one. Into a deep sand bed they plowed, the wheels sinking at every turn. Slower and slower went the car; finally came to a full stop.

Nora glanced back in affright at the two hundred and fifty tons of beef that was charging wildly toward them. "What shall we do?" she gasped, and clambered to the ground.

"Run!" cried Helen, following her example and scudding for the sides of the canyon, which here sloped down less precipitately than at other points. But before they had run a dozen steps each of them was aware that they could not reach safety in time to escape the hoofs rushing toward them so heavily that the ground quaked.

"Look out!" A resonant cry rang out above the dull thud of the stampeding cattle that were almost upon them. Down the steep sides of the gorge two riders were galloping recklessly. It was a race for life between them and the first of the herd, and they won by scarce more than a length. Across the sand the horses plowed, and as they swept past the two trembling young women each rider bent from the saddle without slackening speed, and snatched one almost from under the very hoofs of the leaders.

The danger was not past. As the horses swerved and went forward with the rush Helen knew that a stumble would fling not only her and the man who had saved her, but also the horse down to death. They must contrive to hold their own in that deadly rush until a way could be found of escaping from the path of the living cyclone that trod at their heels, galloped beside them, in front, behind.

For it came to her that the horse was tiring in that rush through the sand with double weight upon its back.

"Courage!" cried the man behind her as her fearful eyes met his.

As he spoke they reached the end of the canyon and firm ground simultaneously. Helen saw that her rescuer had now a revolver in his hand, and that he was firing in such a way as to deflect the leaders to the left. At first the change in course was hardly perceptible, but presently she noticed that they were getting closer to the outskirts of the herd, working gradually to the extreme right, edging inch by inch, ever so warily, toward safety. Going parallel to their course, running neck and neck with the cow pony, lumbered a great dun steer. Unconsciously it blocked every effort of the horseman to escape. He had one shot left in his revolver, and this time he did not fire into the air. It was a mighty risk, for the animal in falling might stagger against the horse and hunt them all down to death. But the man took it without apparent hesitation. Into the ear of the bullock he sent the lead crashing. The brute stumbled and went down head over heels. Its flying hoofs struck the flanks of the pony, but the bronco stuck to its feet, and next moment staggered out from among the herd stragglers and came to halt.

The man slid from its back and lifted down the half-fainting girl. She clung to him, white a trembling. "Oh, it was horrible, Ned!" She could still look down in imagination upon the sea of dun backs that swayed and surged about them like storm-tossed waves.

"It was a near thing, but we made it, girl. So did Jim. He got out before we did. It's all past now. You can remember it as the most exciting experience of your life."

She shuddered. "I don't want to remember it at all." And so shaken was she that she did not realize that his arm was about her the while she sobbed on his shoulder.

"A cattle stampede is a nasty thing to get in front of. Never mind. It's done with now and everybody's safe."

She drew a long breath. "Yes, everybody's safe and you are back home. Why didn't you come after your cousin was killed?"

"I had to finish my work."

"And DID you finish it?"

"I think we did. There will be no more Shoshone gang. It's members have scatted in all directions."

"I'm glad you stayed, then. We can live at peace now." And presently she added: "I knew you would not come back until you had done what you set out to do. You're very obstinate, sir. Do you know that?"

"Perseverance, I call it," he smiled, glad to see that she was recovering her lightness of tone.

"You don't always insist on putting your actions in the most favorable light. Do you remember the first day I ever saw you?"

"Am I likely ever to forget it?" he smiled fondly.

"I didn't mean THAT. What I was getting at was that you let me go away from you thinking you were 'the king.' I haven't forgiven you entirely for that."

"I expect y'u'll always have to be forgiving me things."

"If you valued my good opinion I don't see how you could let me go without telling me. Was it fair or kind?"

"If y'u come to that, was it so fair and kind to convict me so promptly on suspicion?" he retaliated with a smile.

"No, it wasn't. But—" She flushed with a divine shyness. "But I loved you all the time, even when they said you were a villain."

"Even while y'u believed me one?"

"I didn't. I never would believe you one—not deep in my heart. I wouldn't let myself. I made excuses for you—explained everything to myself."

"Yet your reason told y'u I was guilty."

"Yes, I think my mind hated you and my heart loved you."

He adored her for the frank simplicity of her confession, that out of the greatness of her love she dared to make no secret of it to him. Direct as a boy, she was yet as wholly sweet as the most retiring girl could be.

"Y'u always swamp my vocabulary, sweetheart. I can't ever tell y'u—life wouldn't be long enough—how much I care for you."

"I'm glad," she said simply.

They stood looking at each other, palms pressed to palms in meeting hands, supremely happy in this miracle of love that had befallen them. They were alone—for Nora and Jim had gone into temporary eclipse behind a hill and seemed in no hurry to emerge—alone in the sunshine with this wonder that flowed from one to another by shining eyes, by finger touch, and then by meeting lips. He held her close, knew the sweet delight of contact with the supple, surrendered figure, then released her as she drew away in maidenly reserve.

"When shall we be married, Helen? Is the early part of next week too late?" he asked.

Still blushing, she straightened her hat. "That's ridiculous, sir. I haven't got used to the thought of you yet."

"Plenty of time for that afterward. Then we'll say next week if that suits y'u."

"But it doesn't. Don't you know that it is the lady's privilege to name the day? Besides, I want time to change my mind if I should decide to."

"That's what I'm afraid of," he laughed joyfully. "So I have to insist on an early marriage."

"Insist?" she demurred.

"I've been told on the best of authority that I'm very obstinate," he gayly answered.

"I have a mind of my own myself. If I ever marry you be sure I shall name the day, sir."

"Will y'u marry me the day Nora does Jim?"

"We'll see." The eyes slanted at him under the curved lashes, teased him delightfully. "Did Nora tell you she was going to marry Jim?"

Bannister looked mildly hurt. "My common sense has been telling it to me a month."

"How long has your common sense been telling you about us?"

"I didn't use it when I fell in love with y'u," he boldly laughed.

"Of all things to say!"

THE END

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