Eagle Creek urged his horse up the last steep place, right in the face of the leaders, which halted and tried to turn back. Pink, swearing in a whisper, began to force them forward.
"Let 'em alone," Eagle Creek bellowed harshly. "They ain't goin' no farther."
"W-what?" Pink stopped short and eyed him critically. Eagle Creek could not justly be called a teetotaler; but Pink had never known him to get worse than a bit wobbly in his legs; his mind had never fogged perceptibly. Still, something was wrong with him, that was certain. Pink glanced dubiously across at the Silent One and saw him shrug his shoulders expressively.
Eagle Creek rode up and stopped within ten feet of the line-backed cow; she seemed hurt at being held up in this manner, Pink thought.
"Yuh'll have t' turn this herd back," Eagle Creek announced bluntly.
"Where to?" Pink asked, too stunned to take in the meaning of it.
"T' hell, I guess. It's the only place I know of where everybody's welcome." Eagle Creek's tone was not pleasant.
"We just came from there," Pink said simply, thinking of the horrors of that drive.
"Where's Wooden Shoes?" snapped the old man; and the foreman's hat-crown appeared at that instant over the ridge.
"Well, we're up against it," Eagle Creek greeted. "That damn' agent—or the fellow he had workin' for him—reported his renting us pasture. Made the report read about twice as many as we're puttin' on. He's got orders now t' turn out every hoof but what b'longs there."
"My Lord!" Wooden Shoes gasped at the catastrophe which faced the Cross L.
"That's Harry Conroy's work," Pink cut in sharply' "He'd hurt the Cross L if he could, t' spite me and Rowdy. He—"
"Don't matter—seein' it's done. Yuh might as well turn the herd loose right here, an' let 'em go t' the devil. I don't know what else t' do with 'em."
"Anything gone wrong?" It was Rowdy, who had left his place and ridden forward to see what was holding the herd back.
"Naw. We're fired off the reservation, is all. We got orders to take the herd to hell. Eagle Creek's leased it. Mr. Satan is going to keep house here in Montana; he says it's better for his trade," Pink informed him, in his girlish treble.
Eagle Creek turned on him fiercely, then thought better of it and grinned. "Them arrangements wouldn't make us any worse off'n what we are," he commented. "Turn 'em loose, boys."
"Man, if yuh turn 'em loose here, the first storm that hits 'em, they all die," Wooden Shoes interposed excitedly. "They ain't nothings for 'em. We had t' turn 'em into the Rockin' R field last night, t' git water an' feed. Red Willow's gone dry outside dat field. They ain't—nothings. They'll die!"
Eagle Creek looked at him dully. For the first time in his life he faced utter ruin. "Damn 'em, let 'em die, then!" he said.
"That's what they'll sure do," Wooden Shoes reiterated stubbornly. "If they don't git feed and water now, yuh needn't start no round-up next spring."
Pink's eyes went down over the close-huddled backs and the thicket of polished horns, and his eyelids stung. Would all of them die, he wondered! Four thousand! He hoped not. There must be some way out. Down the hill, he knew the cowboys were making cigarettes while they waited and wondered mightily what it was all about If they only knew, he thought, there would be more than one rope ready for Harry Conroy.
"How about the Peck reservation? Couldn't you get them on there?" Rowdy ventured.
"Not a hoof!" growled Eagle Creek, with his chin sunk against his chest. "There's thirty thousand Valley County cattle on there now." He looked down at the cattle, as Pink had done. "God! It's bad enough t' go broke," he groaned; "but t' think uh them poor brutes dyin' off in bunches, for want uh grass an' water! I've run that brand fer over thirty year."
CHAPTER 11. Rowdy Promoted.
Rowdy rode closer. "If you don't mind paying duty," he began tentatively, "I can put you next to a range over the line, where I'll guarantee feed and water the year round for every hoof you own."
Eagle Creek lifted his head and looked at him "Whereabouts?" he demanded skeptically.
"Up in the Red Deer country. Pink knows the place. There's range a-plenty, and creeks running through that never go dry; and the country isn't stocked and fenced to death, like this is."
"And would we be ordered off soon as we got there?"
"Sure not—if you paid duty, which would only be about double what you were going to pay for one year's pasture."
Eagle Creek breathed deeply, like a man who has narrowly escaped suffocation. "Young man, I b'lieve you're a square dealer, and that yuh savvy the cow business. I've thought it ever since yuh started t' work." His keen old eyes twinkled at the memory of Rowdy's arrival, and Rowdy grinned. "I take yuh at your word, and yuh can consider yourself in charge uh this herd as it stands. Take it t' that cow heaven yuh tell about—and damn it, yuh won't be none the worse for it!"
"We'll pass that up," said Rowdy quietly. "I'll take the herd through, though; and I'd advise you to get the rest on the road as soon as they can be gathered. It's a three-hundred-mile drive."
"All right. From now on it's up to you," Eagle Creek told him briskly. "Take 'em back t' the Rockin' R field, and I'll send the wagons back t' you. Old Mullen'll likely make a roar—but that's most all gove'ment land he's got fenced, so I guess I can calm him down. Will yuh go near the ranch?"
"I think so," said Rowdy. "It will be the shortest way."
"Well, I'll give yuh some blank checks, an' you can load up with grub and anything else yuh need. I'll be over there by the time you are, and fix up that duty business. Wooden Shoes'll have t' get another outfit together, and get another bunch on the trail. One good thing—I got thirty days t' get off what cattle is on there; and thirty days uh grass and water'll put 'em in good shape for the trip. Wish this bunch was as well fixed."
"That's what," Rowdy assented. "But I think they'll make it, all right."
"I'll likely want yuh to stay up there and keep cases on 'em. Any objections?"
"Sure not!" laughed Rowdy. "Only I'll want Pink and the Silent One to stay with me."
"Keep what men yuh want. Anything else?"
"I don't think of anything," said Rowdy. "Only I'd like to have a—talk—with Conroy." Creek eyed him sharply. "Yuh won't be apt t' meet him. Old Bill Brown, up home, would like to see him, too. Bill's a perseverin' old cuss, and wants to see Conroy so bad he's got the sheriff out lookin' for him. It's about a bunch uh horses that was run off, three years ago. Yuh brought one of 'em back into the country last spring, yuh mind."
Rowdy and Pink looked at one another, but said nothing.
"Old Bill, he follered your back trail and found out some things he wanted t' know. Conroy got wind of it, though, and he left the agency kind-a suddint. No use yuh lookin' for him."
"Then we're ready to hit the grit, I guess." Rowdy glanced again at Pink who nodded.
"Well, I ain't stoppin' yuh," Eagle Creek drawled laconically. "S'-long, and good luck t' yuh."
He waited while Pink and the Silent One swung the point back down the hill, with Rowdy helping them, quite unmoved by his sudden promotion. When the herd was fairly started on the backward march, Eagle Creek nodded satisfaction the while he pried off a corner of plug-tobacco.
"He's all right," he asserted emphatically. "That boy suits me, from the ground up. If he don't put that deal through in good shape, it'll be becaus' it can't be did."
Wooden Shoes, with whom Rowdy had always been a prime favorite, agreed with Dutch heartiness. Then, leaving the herd to its new guardian they rode swiftly to overtake and turn back the wagons.
"Three hundred miles! And part of it across howling desert!" Rowdy drew his brows together. "It's a big thing for me, all right, Pink; but it's sure a big contract to take this herd through, if anybody should happen to ask yuh."
"Oh, buck up! You'll make good, all right—if only these creeks wasn't so bone dry!"
"Well, there's water enough in the Rocking R field for to-day; we'll throw 'em in there till tomorrow. And I've a notion I can find a better trail across to North Fork than the way we came. I'm going to strike out this afternoon and see, anyway, if Quitter Creek hasn't got water farther up. Once we get up north uh the home ranch, I can see my way clear."
"Go to it, boss," Pink cried heartily. "I don't see how I'm goin t' keep from sassing yuh, once in a while, though. That's what bothers me. What'll happen if I turn loose on yuh, some time?"
"You'll get fired, I expect," laughed Rowdy, and rode off to announce the news to the rest of the outfit, who were very unhappy in their mystification.
If their reception of the change of plans and foreman was a bit profane, and their manner toward him a bit familiar, Rowdy didn't mind. He knew that they did not grudge him his good luck, even while they hated the long drive. He also knew that they watched him furtively; for nothing—not even misfortune—is as sure a test of a man's character as success. They liked Rowdy, and they did not believe this would spoil him; still, every man of them was secretly a bit anxious.
On the trail, he rode in his accustomed place, and, so far as appearances went, the party had no foreman. He went forward and helped Pink take down the fence that had been so carefully put up a few hours before, and he whistled while he put it in place again, just as if he had no responsibility in the world. Then the cattle were left to themselves, and the men rode down to their old campground, marked by empty tin-cans and a trodden place where had been the horse corral.
Rowdy swung down and faced the men gravely. Instinctively they stood at attention, waiting for what he had to say; they felt that the situation was so far out of the ordinary that a few remarks pertaining to their new relations would not be out of place.
He looked them over appraisingly, and met glances as grave as his own. Straight, capable fellows they were, every man of them.
"Boys," he began impressively, "you all know that from to-day on you're working under my orders. I never was boss of anything but the cayuse I happened to have under me, and I'm going to extract all the honey there is in the situation. Maybe I'll never be boss again—but at present I'm it. I want you fellows to remember that important fact, and treat me with proper respect. From now on you can call me Mr. Vaughan; 'Rowdy' doesn't go, except on a legal holiday.
"Furthermore, I'm not going to get out at daylight and catch up my own horse; I'll let yuh take turns being flunky, and I'll expect yuh to saddle my horse every morning and noon, and bring him to the cook-tent—and hold my stirrup for me. Also, you are expected, at all times and places, to anticipate my wants and fall over yourselves waiting on me. You're just common, ordinary, forty-dollar cow-punchers, and if I treat yuh white, it's because I pity yuh for not being up where I am. Remember, vassals, that I'm your superior, mentally, morally, socially—"
"Chap him!" yelled Pink, and made for him "I'll stand for a lot, but don't yuh ever think I'm a vassal!"
"Mutiny is strictly prohibited!" he thundered. "Villains, beware! Gadzooks—er—let's have a swim before the wagons come!"
They laughed and made for the creek, feeling rather crestfallen and a bit puzzled.
"If I had an outfit like this to run, and a three hundred-mile drive to make," Bob Nevin remarked to the Silent One, "blessed if I'd make a josh of it! I'd cultivate the corrugated brow and the stiff spine—me!"
"My friend," the Silent One responded, "don't be too hasty in your judgment. It's because the corrugated brow will come later that he laughs now. You'll presently find yourself accomplishing the impossible in obedience to the flicker of Rowdy Vaughan's eyelids. Man, did you never observe the set of his head, and the look of his eye? Rowdy Vaughan will get more out of this crowd than any man ever did; and if he fails, he'll fail with the band playing 'Hot Time.'"
"Maybe so," Bob admitted, not quite convinced; "but I wonder if he realizes what he's up against." At which the Silent One only smiled queerly as he splashed into the water.
After dinner Rowdy caught up the blue roan, which was his favorite for a hard ride—he seemed to have forgotten his speech concerning "flunkies"—and rode away up the coulee which had brought them into the field the night before. The boys watched him go, speculated a lot, and went to sleep as the best way of putting in the afternoon.
Pink, who knew quite well what was in Rowdy's mind, said nothing at all; it is possible that he was several degrees more jealous of the dignity of Rowdy's position than was Rowdy himself, who had no time to think of anything but the best way of getting the herd to Canada. He would like to have gone along, only that Rowdy did not ask him to. Pink assured himself that it was best for Rowdy not to start playing any favorites, and curled down in the bed-tent with the others and went to sleep.
It was late that night when Rowdy crept silently into his corner of the tent; but Pink was awake, and whispered to know if he found water. Rowdy's "Yes" was a mere breath, but it was enough.
At sunrise the herd trailed up the Rocking R coulee, and Pink and the Silent One pointed them north of the old trail.
CHAPTER 12. "You Can Tell Jessie."
In the days that followed Rowdy was much alone. There was water to hunt, far ahead of the herd, together with the most practicable way of reaching it. He did not take the shortest way across that arid country and leave the next day's camping-place to chance—as Wooden Shoes had done. He felt that there was too much at stake, and the cattle were too thin for any more dry drives; long drives there were, but such was his generalship that there was always water at the end.
He rode miles and miles that he might have shirked, and he never slept until the next day's move, at least, was clearly defined in his mind and he felt sure that he could do no better by going another route.
These lonely rides gave him over to the clutch of thoughts he had never before harbored in his sunny nature. Grim, ugly thoughts they were, and not nice to remember afterward. They swung persistently around a central subject, as the earth revolves around the sun; and, like the earth, they turned and turned on the axis of his love for a woman.
In particularly ugly moods he thought that if Harry Conroy were caught and convicted of horsestealing, Jessie must perforce admit his guilt and general unworthiness—Rowdy called it general cussedness—and Rowdy be vindicated in her eyes. Then she would marry him, and go with him to the Red Deer country and—air-castles for miles! When he awoke to the argument again, he would tell himself savagely that if he could, by any means, bring about Conroy's speedy conviction, he would do so.
This was unlike Rowdy, whose generous charity toward his enemies came near being a fault. He might feel any amount of resentment for wrong done, but cold-blooded revenge was not in him; that he had suffered so much at Conroy's hands was due largely to the fact that Conroy was astute enough to read Rowdy aright, and unscrupulous enough to take advantage. Add to that a smallminded jealousy of Rowdy's popularity and horsemanship, one can easily imagine him doing some rather nasty things. Perhaps the meanest, and the one which rankled most in Rowdy's memory, was the cutting of Rowdy's latigo just before a riding contest, in which the purse and the glory of a championship-belt seemed in danger of going to Rowdy.
Rowdy had got a fall that crippled him for weeks, and Harry had won the purse and belt—and the enmity of several men better than he. For though morally sure of his guilt, no one could prove that he had cut the strap, and so he got off unpunished, except that Pink thrashed him—a bit unscientifically, it is true, since he resorted to throwing rocks toward the last, but with a thoroughness worthy even of Pink.
But in moods less ugly he shrank from the hurt that must be Jessie's if she should discover the truth. Jessie's brother a convicted thief serving his sentence in Deer Lodge! The thought was horrible; it was brutal cruelty. If he could only know where to look for that lad, he'd help him out of the country. It was no good shutting him up in jail; that wouldn't help him any, or make him better. He hoped he would get off—go somewhere, where they couldn't find him, and stay there.
He wondered where he was, and if he had money enough to see him through. He might be no good—he sure wasn't!—but he was Jessie's brother, and Jessie believed in him and thought a lot of him. It would be hard lines for that little girl if Harry were caught. Bill Brown, the meddlesome old freak!—he didn't blame Jessie for not wanting to stop there that night. She did just the right thing.
With all this going round and round, monotonously persistent in his brain, and with the care of four thousand lean kine and more than a hundred saddle-horses—to say nothing of a dozen overworked, fretful cow-punchers—Rowdy acquired the "corrugated brow" fast enough without any cultivation.
The men were as the Silent One had predicted. They made drives that lasted far into the night, stood guard, and got along with so little sleep that it was scarce worth mention, and did many things that shaved close the impossible—just because Rowdy looked at them straightly, with half-closed lids, and asked them if they thought they could.
Pink began to speak of their new foreman as "Moses"; and when the curious asked him why, told them soberly that Rowdy could "hit a rock with his quirt and start a creek running bank full." When Rowdy heard that, he thought of the miles of weary searching, and wished that it were true.
They had left the home ranch a day's drive behind them, and were going north. Rowdy had denied himself the luxury of riding over to see Jessie, and he was repenting the sacrifice in deep gloom and sincerity, when two men rode into camp and dismounted, as if they had a right. The taller one—with brawn and brain a-plenty, by the look of him—announced that he was the sheriff, and would like to stop overnight.
Rowdy gave him welcome half-heartedly, and questioned him craftily. A sheriff is not a detective, and does not mind giving harmless information; so Rowdy learned that they had traced Conroy thus far, and believed that he was ahead of them and making for Canada. He had dodged them cleverly two or three times, but now they had reason to believe that he was not more than half a day's ride before them. They wanted to know if the outfit had seen any one that day, or sign of any one having passed that way.
Rowdy shook his head.
"I bet it was Harry Conroy driving that little bunch uh horses up the creek, just as we come over the ridge," spoke Pink eagerly.
Rowdy could have choked him. "He wouldn't be driving a lot of horses," he interposed quickly.
"Well, he might," argued Pink. "If I was making a quick get-away, and my horse was about played out—like his was apt t' be—I'd sure round up the first bunch I seen, and catch me a fresh one—if I was a horse-thief. I'll bet yuh—"
The sheriff had put down his cup of coffee. "Is there any place where a man could corral a bunch on the quiet?" he asked crisply. It was evident that Pink's theory had impressed him.
"Yes, there is. There's an old corral up at the ford—Drowning Ford, they call it—that I'd use, if it was me. It was an old line camp, and there's a cabin. It's down on the flat by the creek, and it's as God-forsaken a place as a man'd want t' hide in, or t' change mounts." Pink hitched up his chapbelt and looked across at Rowdy. He was aching for a sight of Harry Conroy in handcuffs, and he was certain that Rowdy felt the same. "If it was me," he added speculatively, "and I thought I was far enough in the lead, I'd stop there till morning."
"How far is it from here?" demanded the sheriff, standing up.
Pink told him he guessed it was five miles. Whereupon the sheriff announced his intention of going up there at once, and Pink hinted rather strongly that he would like to go with them. The sheriff did not know Pink; he looked down at his slimness and at the yellow fringe of curls showing under his hat brim, at his pink cheeks and dimples and girlish hands, and threw back his head in a loud ha! ha!
Pink asked him politely, but rather stiffly, what there was funny about it. The sheriff laughed louder and longer; then, being the sort of man who likes a joke now and then, even in the way of business, he solemnly deputized Pink, and patted him on the shoulder and told him gravely that they couldn't possibly do without him.
It looked for a minute as if Pink were going at him with his fists—but he didn't. He reflected that one must not offer violence to an officer of the law, and that, being made a deputy, he would have to go, anyway; so he gritted his teeth and buckled on his gun, and went along sulkily.
They rode silently, for the most part, and swiftly.
Even in the dusk they could see where a band of horses had been driven at a gallop along the creek bank. When they neared the place it was dark. Pink pulled up and spoke for the first time since leaving the tent.
"We better tie up our horses here and walk," he said, quite unconscious of the fact that he was usurping the leadership, and thinking only of their quest.
But the sheriff was old at the business, and not too jealous of his position. He signed to his deputy proper, and they dismounted.
When they started on, Pink was ahead. The sheriff observed that Pink's gun still swung in its scabbard at his hip, and he grinned—but that was because he didn't know Pink. That the gun swung at his hip would have been quite enough for any one who did know him; it didn't take Pink all day to get into action.
Ten rods from the corral, which they could distinguish as a black blotch in the sparse willow growth, Pink turned and stopped them. "I know the layout here," he whispered. "I'll just sneak ahead and rubber around. You Rubes sound like the beginning of a stampede, in this brush."
The sheriff had never before been called a Rube—to his face, at least. The audacity took his breath; and when he opened his mouth for scathing speech, Pink was not there. He had slipped away, like a slim, elusive shadow, and the sheriff did not even know the exact direction of his going. There was nothing for it but to wait.
In five minutes Pink appeared with a silent suddenness that startled them more than they would like to own.
"He's somewheres around," he announced, in a murmur that would not carry ten feet. "He's got a horse in the corral, and, from the sound, he's got him all saddled; and the gate's tied shut with a rope."
"How d'yuh know?" grunted the sheriff crossly.
"Felt of it, yuh chump. He's turned the bunch loose and kept up a fresh one, like I said he would. It's blame dark, but I could see the horse—a big white devil. It's him yuh hear makin' all that racket. If he gits away now—"
"Well, we didn't come for a chin-whackin' bee," snapped the sheriff. "I come out here t' git him."
Pink gritted his teeth again, and wished the sheriff was just a man, so he could lick him. He led them forward without a word, thinking that Rowdy wanted Harry Conroy captured.
The sheriff circled warily the corral, peered through the rails at the great white horse that ran here and there, whinnying occasionally for the band, and heard the creak of leather and the rattle of the bit. Pink was right; the horse was saddled, ready for immediate flight.
"Maybe he's in the cabin," he whispered, coming up where Pink stood listening tensely at all the little night sounds. Pink turned and crept silently to the right, keeping in the deepest shade, while the others followed willingly. They were beginning to see the great advantage of having Pink along, even if he had called them Rubes.
The cabin door yawned wide open, and creaked weirdly as the light wind moved it; the interior was black and silent—suspiciously silent, in the opinion of the sheriff. He waited for some time before venturing in, fearing an ambush. Then he caught the flicker of a shielded match, called out to Conroy to surrender, and leveled his gun at the place.
There was no answer but the faint shuffle of stealthy feet on the board floor. The sheriff called another warning, cocked his gun—and came near shooting Pink, who walked composedly out of the door into the sheriff's astonished face. The sheriff had been sure that Pink was just behind him.
"What the hell," began the sheriff explosively.
"He ain't here," said Pink simply. "I crawled in the window and hunted the place over."
The sheriff glared at him dumbly; he could not reconcile Pink's daredevil behavior with Pink's innocent, girlish appearance.
"I tell yuh the corral's what we want t' keep cases on," Pink added insistently. "He's sure somewheres around—I'd gamble on it. He saddled that horse t' git away on. That horse is sure the key t' this situation, old-timer. If you fellows'll keep cases on the gate, I'll cover the rear."
He made his way quietly to the back of the corral, inwardly much amused at the tractability of the sheriff, who took his deputy obediently to watch the gate.
Pink squatted comfortably in the shade of a willow and wished he dared indulge in a cigarette, and wondered what scheme Harry was trying to play.
Fifty feet away the big white horse still circled round and round, rattling his bridle impatiently and shaking the saddle in an occasional access of rage, and whinnying lonesomely out into the gloom.
So they waited and waited, and peered into the shadows, and listened to the trampling horse fretting for freedom and his mates.
The cook had just called breakfast when Pink dashed up to the tent, flung himself from his horse, and confronted Rowdy—a hollow-eyed, haggard Rowdy who had not slept all night, and whose eyes questioned anxiously.
"Well," Rowdy said, with what passed for composure, "did you get him?"
Pink leaned against his horse, with one hand reaching up and gripping tightly the horn of the saddle. His cheeks held not a trace of color, and his eyes were full of a great horror.
"They're bringin' him t' camp," he answered huskily. "We found a horse—a big white horse they call the Fern Outlaw"—the Silent One started and came closer, listening intently; evidently he knew the horse—"saddled in the corral, and the gate tied shut. We dubbed around a while, but we didn't find—Harry. So we camped down by the corral and waited. We set there all night—and the horse faunching around inside something fierce. When—it come daybreak—I seen something—by the fence, inside. It was—Harry." Pink shivered and moistened his dry lips. "That Fern Outlaw—some uh the boys know—is a devil t' mount. He'd got Harry down—hell, Rowdy! it—it was sure—awful. He'd been there all night—and that horse stomping."
"Shut up!" Rowdy turned all at once deathly sick. He had once seen a man who had been trampled by a maddened, man-killing horse. It had not been a pretty sight. He sat down weakly and covered his face with his shaking hands.
The others stood around horrified, muttering disjointed, shocked sentences.
Pink lifted his head from where it had fallen upon his arm. "One thing, Rowdy—I done. You can tell Jessie. I shot that horse."
Rowdy dropped his hands and stood up. Yes, he must tell Jessie.
"You'll have to take the herd on," he told Pink in his masterful way. "I'll catch you to-morrow some time. I've got to go back and tell Jessie. You know the trail I was going to take—straight across to Wild Horse Lake. From there you strike across to North Fork—and if I don't overtake you on the way, I'll hit camp some time in the night. It's all plain sailing."
CHAPTER 13. Rowdy Finds Happiness.
Miss Conroy was rather listlessly endeavoring to persuade the First Reader class that "catch" should not be pronounced "ketch," when she saw Rowdy ride past the window. Intuition of something amiss sent her to the door before he reached it.
"Can't you give the kids a day off?" he began, without preface. "I've got such a lot to talk about—and I don't come very often." He thought that his tone was perfectly natural; but all the same she turned white. He rode on to a little tree and tied his horse—not that it was necessary to tie him, but to avoid questions.
Miss Conroy went in and dismissed the children, although it was only fifteen minutes after nine. They gathered up their lunch-pails and straggled out reluctantly, round-eyed, and curious. Rowdy waited until the last one had gone before he went in. Miss Conroy sat in her chair on the platform, and she was still white; otherwise she seemed to have herself well in hand.
"It's about Harry," she asserted, rather sharply.
"Have they—caught him?"
Rowdy stopped half-way down the aisle and stared. "How did you know they were—after him?"
"He came to me night before last, and—told me." She bit her lip, took firm hold on her honesty and her courage, and went on steadily. "He came because he—wanted money. I've wanted to see you since, to tell you that—I misjudged you. I know all about your—trouble, and I want you to know that I think you are—that you did quite right. You are to understand that I cannot honestly uphold—Harry. He is—not the kind of brother—I thought."
Rowdy went clanking forward till only the table stood between. "Did he tell you?" he demanded, in a curious, breathless fashion.
"No, he did not. He denied everything. It was Pink. He told me long ago—that evening, just after you—the last time I saw you. I told him he—lied. I tried not to believe it, but I did. Pink knew I would; he said so. The other night I asked Harry about—those things he did to you. He lied to me. I'd have forgiven him—but he lied. I—can't forgive that. I—"
"Hush!" Rowdy threw out a gloved hand quickly. He could not bear to let her go on like that.
She looked up at him, and all at once she was shaking. "There's something—tell me!"
"They didn't take him," he said slowly, weighing each word and looking down at her pityingly "They never will. He—had an accident. A horse—fell with him—and—he was dead when they picked him up." It was as merciful a version as he could make it, but the words choked him, even then. "Girlie!" He went around and knelt, with his arms holding her close.
After a long while he spoke again, smoothing her hair absently, and never noticing that he had not taken off his gloves. His gray hat was pushed aslant as his head rested against hers.
"Perhaps, girlie, it's for the best. We couldn't have saved him from—the other; and that would have been worse, don't you think? We'll forget all but the good in him"—he could not help thinking that there would not be much to remember—"and I'll get a little home ready, and come back and get you before snow flies—and—you'll be kind of happy, won't you?
"Maybe you haven't heard—but Eagle Creek has made me foreman of his outfit that's going to Canada. It's a good position. I can make you comfortable, girlie—and happy. Anyway, I'll try, mighty hard. You'll be ready for me when I come—won't you, girlie?"
Miss Conroy raised her face, all tear-stained, but, with the light of happiness fighting the sorrow in her eyes, nodded just enough to make the movement perceptible, and settled her head to a more comfortable nestling-place on his shoulder.