Part 2 out of 5
porch and talk it over with us where there ain't ladies present."
"Isn't this a costume dance? What's the matter with my guns? I'm
an outlaw, ain't I?"
"I don't know whether y'u are or not, seh. If y'u say y'u are
we're ready to take your word. The guns have to be shucked if y'u
stay here. They might go off accidental and scare the ladies. "
The man rose blackly. "I'll remember this. If y'u knew who y'u
were getting so gay with--"
"I can guess, Mr. Holloway, the kind of an outfit y'u freight
with, and I expect I could put a handle to another name for you."
"By God, if y'u dare to say--"
"I don't dare. especially among so many ladies," came
McWilliams's jaunty answer.
The eyes of the two men gripped, after which Holloway swung on
his heel and swaggered defiantly out of the house.
Presently there came the sound of a pony's feet galloping down
the road. It had not yet died away when Texas announced that the
supper intermission was over.
"Pardners for a quadrille. Ladies' choice."
The dance was on again full swing. The fiddlers were tuning up
and couples gathering for a quadrille. Denver came to claim Miss
Messiter for a partner. Apparently even the existence of the
vanished Holloway was forgotten. But Helen remembered it, and
pondered over the affair long after daylight had come and brought
with it an end to the festivities.
CHAPTER 6. A PARTY CALL
The mistress of the Lazy D, just through with her morning visit
to the hospital in the bunkhouse, stopped to read the gaudy
poster tacked to the wall. It was embellished with the drawing of
a placid rider astride the embodiment of fury incarnate, under
which was the legend: "Stick to Your Saddle."
BIG FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION AT GIMLET BUTTE. ROPING AND BRONCO
BUSTING CONTESTS FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD AND BIG
Including $1,000 for the Best Rider and the Same for Best Roper.
Cow Pony Races, Ladies' Races and Ladies' Riding Contest,
AND FREE BARBECUE! ! ! ! EVERYBODY COME AND TURN YOUR WOLF LOOSE.
A sudden thud of pounding hoofs, a snatch of ragtime, and her
foreman swept up in a cloud of white dust. His pony came from a
gallop to an instant halt, and simultaneously Mac landed beside
her, one hand holding the wide-brimmed hat he had snatched off in
his descent, the other hitched by a casual thumb to the belt of
She laughed. "You really did it very well."
Mac blushed. He was still young enough to take pride in his
picturesque regalia, to prefer the dramatic way of doing a
commonplace thing. But, though he liked this girl's trick of
laughing at him with a perfectly grave face out of those dark,
long-lashed eyes, he would have liked it better if sometimes they
had given back the applause he thought his little tricks merited.
"Sho! That's foolishness," he deprecated.
"I suppose they got you to sit for this picture;" and she
indicated the poster with a wave of her hand.
"That ain't a real picture," he explained, and when she smiled
added, "as of course y'u know. No hawss ever pitched that
way--and the saddle ain't right. Fact is, it's all wrong."
"How did it come here? It wasn't here last night."
"I reckon Denver brought it from Slauson's. He was ridin' that
country yesterday, and as the boys was out of smokin' he come
home that way."
"I suppose you'll all go?"
"And you'll ride?"
"I aim to sit in."
"At the roping, too?"
"No, m'm. I ain't so much with the rope. It takes a Mexican to
snake a rope."
"Then I'll be able to borrow only a thousand dollars from you to
help buy that bunch of young cows we were speaking about," she
"Only a thousand," he grinned. "And it ain't a cinch I'll win.
There are three or four straightup riders on this range. A fellow
come from the Hole-in-the-Wall and won out last year."
"And where were you?"
"Oh, I took second prize," he explained, with obvious
"Well, you had better get first this year. We'll have to show
them the Lazy D hasn't gone to sleep."
"Sure thing," he agreed.
"Has that buyer from Cheyenne turned up yet?" she asked,
reverting to business.
"Not yet. Do y'u want I should make the cut soon as he comes?"
"Don't you think his price is a little low--twenty dollars from
"It's a scrub bunch. We want to get rid of them, anyway. But
you're the doctor," he concluded slangily.
She thought a moment. "We'll let him have them, but don't make
the cut till I come back. I'm going to ride over to the Twin
His admiring eyes followed her as she went toward the pony that
was waiting saddled with the rein thrown to the ground. She
carried her slim, lithe figure with a grace, a lightness, that
few women could have rivaled. When she had swung to the saddle,
she half-turned in her seat to call an order to the foreman.
"I think, Mac, you had better run up those horses from Eagle
Creek. Have Denver and Missou look after them."
"Sure, ma'am," he said aloud; and to himself: "She's ce'tainly a
thoroughbred. Does everything well she tackles. I never saw
anything like it. I'm a Chink if she doesn't run this ranch like
she had been at it forty years. Same thing with her gasoline
bronc. That pinto, too. He's got a bad eye for fair, but she
makes him eat out of her hand. I reckon the pinto is like the
rest of us--clean mashed." He put his arms on the corral fence
and grew introspective. "Blamed if I know what it is about her.
'Course she's a winner on looks, but that ain't it alone. I guess
it's on account of her being such a game little gentleman. When
she turns that smile loose on a fellow--well, there's sure
sunshine in the air. And game--why, Ned Bannister ain't gamer
McWilliams had climbed lazily to the top board of the fence. He
was an energetic youth, but he liked to do his thinking at his
ease. Now, as his gaze still followed its lodestar, he suddenly
slipped from his seat and ran forward, pulling the revolver from
its scabbard as he ran. Into his eyes had crept a tense
alertness, the shining watchfulness of the tiger ready for its
The cause of the change in the foreman of the Lazy D was a simple
one, and on its face innocent enough. It was merely that a
stranger had swung in casually at the gate of the short stable
lane, and was due to meet Miss Messiter in about ten seconds. So
far good enough. A dozen travelers dropped in every day, but this
particular one happened to be Ned Bannister.
From the stable door a shot rang out. Bannister ducked and
shouted genially: "Try again."
But Helen Messiter whirled her pony as on a half-dollar, and
charged down on the stable.
"Who fired that shot?" she demanded, her eyes blazing.
The horse-wrangler showed embarrassment. He had found time only
to lean the rifle against the wall.
"I reckon I did, ma'am. Y'u see--"
"Did you get my orders about this feud?" she interrupted crisply.
"Yes, ma'am, but--"
"Then you may call for your time. When I give my men orders I
expect them to obey."
"I wouldn't 'a' shot if I'd knowed y'u was so near him. Y'u was
behind that summer kitchen," he explained lamely.
"You only expect to obey orders when I'm in sight. Is that it?"
she asked hotly, and without waiting for an answer delivered her
ultimatum. "Well, I won't have it. I run this ranch as long as I
am its owner. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am. I hadn't ought to have did it, but when I seen
Bannister it come over me I owed him a pill for the one he sent
me last week down in the coulee. So I up and grabbed the rifle
and let him have it."
"Then you may up and grab your trunk for Medicine Hill. Shorty
will drive you tomorrow."
When she returned to her unexpected guest, Helen found him in
conversation with McWilliams. The latter's gun had found again
its holster, but his brown, graceful hand hovered close to its
"Seems like a long time since the Lazy D has been honored by a
visit from Mr. Bannister," he was saying, with gentle irony.
"That's right. So I have come to make up for lost time," came
Bannister's quiet retort.
Miss Messiter did not know much about Wyoming human nature in the
raw, but she had learned enough to be sure that the soft courtesy
of these two youths covered a stark courage that might leap to
life any moment. Wherefore she interposed.
"We'll be pleased to show you over the place, Mr. Bannister. As
it happens, we are close to the hospital. Shall we begin there?"
Her cool, silken defiance earned a smile from the visitor. "All
your cases doing well, ma'am?"
"It's very kind of you to ask. I suppose you take an interest
because they are YOUR cases, too, in a way of speaking?"
"Yes. If it were not for you I'm afraid our hospital would be
"It must be right pleasant to be nursed by Miss Messiter. I
reckon the boys are grateful to me for scattering my lead so
"I heard one say he would like to lam your haid tenderly,"
"With a two-by-four, I suppose," laughed Bannister.
"Shouldn't wonder. But, looking y'u over casual, it occurs to me
he might get sick of his job befo' he turned y'u loose,"
McWilliams admitted, with a glance of admiration at the clean
power showing in the other's supple lines.
Nor could either the foreman or his mistress deny the tribute of
their respect to the bravado of this scamp who sat so jauntily
his seat regardless of what the next moment might bring forth.
Three wounded men were about the place, all presumably quite
willing to get a clean shot at him in the open. One of them had
taken his chance already, and missed. Their visitor had no
warrant for knowing that a second might not any instant try his
luck with better success. Yet he looked every inch the man on
horseback, no whit disturbed, not the least conscious of any
danger. Tall, spare, broad shouldered, this berry-brown young
man, crowned with close-cropped curls, sat at the gates of the
enemy very much at his insolent case.
"I came over to pay my party call," he explained.
"It really wasn't necessary. A run in the machine is not a formal
"Maybe not in Kalamazoo."
"I thought perhaps you had come to get my purse and the
sixty-three dollars," she derided.
"No, ma'am; nor yet to get that bunch of cows I was going to
rustle from you to buy an auto. I came to ask you to go riding
The audacity of it took her breath. Of all the outrageous things
she had ever heard, this was the cream. An acknowledged outlaw,
engaged in feud with her retainers over that deadly question of
the run of the range, he had sauntered over to the ranch where
lived a dozen of his enemies, three of them still scarred with
his bullets, merely to ask her to go riding with him. The
magnificence of his bravado almost obliterated its impudence. Of
course she would not think of going. The idea! But her eyes
glowed with appreciation of his courage, not the less because the
consciousness of it was so conspicuously absent from his manner.
"I think not, Mr. Bannister" and her face almost imperceptibly
stiffened. "I don't go riding with strangers, nor with men who
shoot my boys. And I'll give you a piece of advice, sir. That is,
to burn the wind back to your home. Otherwise I won't answer for
your life. My punchers don't love you, and I don't know how long
I can keep them from you. You're not wanted here any more than
you were at the dance the other evening."
McWilliams nodded. "That's right. Y'u better roll your trail,
seh; and if y'u take my advice, you'll throw gravel lively. I
seen two of the boys cutting acrost that pasture five minutes
ago. They looked as if they might be haided to cut y'u off, and I
allow it may be their night to howl. Miss Messiter don't want to
be responsible for y'u getting lead poisoning."
"Indeed!" Their visitor looked politely interested. "This
solicitude for me is very touching. I observe that both of you
are carefully blocking me from the bunkhouse in order to prevent
another practice-shot. If I can't persuade you to join me in a
ride, Miss Messiter, I reckon I'll go while I'm still
unpunctured." He bowed, and gathered the reins for departure.
"One moment! Mr. McWilliams and I are going with you," the girl
"Changed your mind? Think you'll take a little pasear, after
"I don't want to be responsible for your killing. We'll see you
safe off the place," she answered curtly.
The foreman fell in on one side of Bannister, his mistress on the
other. They rode in close formation, to lessen the chance of an
ambuscade. Bannister alone chatted at his debonair ease, ignoring
the responsibility they felt for his safety.
"I got my ride, after all," he presently chuckled. "To be sure, I
wasn't expecting Mr. McWilliams to chaperon us. But that's an
"Would it be an added pleasure to get bumped off to kingdom
come?" drawled the foreman, giving a reluctant admiration to his
"Thinking of those willing boys of yours again, are you?" laughed
Bannister. "They're ce'tainly a heap prevalent with their
hardware, but their hunting don't seem to bring home any meat."
"By the way, how IS your ankle, Mr. Bannister? I forgot to ask."
This shot from the young woman.
He enjoyed it with internal mirth. "They did happen on the target
that time," he admitted. "Oh, it's getting along fine, but I aim
to do most of my walking on horseback for a while."
They swept past the first dangerous grove of cottonwoods in
safety, and rounded the boundary fence corner.
"They're in that bunch of pines over there," said the foreman,
after a single sweep of his eyes in that direction.
"Yes, I see they are. You oughtn't to let your boys wear red
bandannas when they go gunning, Miss Messiter. It's an awful
Helen herself could see no sign of life in the group of pines,
but she knew their keen, trained eyes had found what hers could
not. Riding with one or another of her cowboys, she had often
noticed how infallibly they could read the country for miles
around. A scattered patch on a distant hillside, though it might
be a half-hour's ride from them, told them a great deal more than
seemed possible. To her the dark spots sifted on that slope meant
scrub underbrush, if there was any meaning at all in them. But
her riders could tell not only whether they were alive, but could
differentiate between sheep and cattle. Indeed, McWilliams could
nearly always tell whether they were HER cattle or not. He was
unable to explain to her how he did it. By a sort of instinct,
The pines were negotiated in safety, and on the part of the men
with a carelessness she could not understand. For after they had
passed there was a spot between her shoulder-blades that seemed
to tingle in expectation of a possible bullet boring its way
through. But she would have died rather than let them know how
Perhaps Bannister understood, however, for he remarked casually:
"I wouldn't be ambling past so leisurely if I was riding alone.
It makes a heap of difference who your company is, too. Those
punchers wouldn't take a chance at me now for a million dollars."
"No, they're some haidstrong, but they ain't plumb locoed,"
Fifteen minutes later Helen drew up at the line corner. "We'll
part company here, Mr. Bannister. I don't think there is any more
danger from my men."
"Before we part there is something I want to say. I hold that a
man has as much right to run sheep on these hills as cows. It's
government land, and neither one of us owns it. It's bound to be
a case of the survival of the fittest. If sheep are hardier and
more adapted to the country, then cows have got to vamos. That's
nature, as it looks to me. The buffalo and the antelope have
gone, and I guess cows have got to take their turn."
Her scornful eyes burned him. "You came to tell me that, did you?
Well, I don't believe a word of it. I'll not yield my rights
without a fight. You may depend on that."
"Here, too," nodded her foreman. "I'm with my boss clear down the
line. And as soon as she lets me turn loose my six-gun, you'll
hear it pop, seh."
"I have not a doubt of it, Mr. McWilliams," returned the sheepman
blithely. "In the meantime I was going to say that though most of
my interests are in sheep instead of cattle--"
"I thought most of your interests were in other people's
property," interrupted the young woman.
"It goes into sheep ultimately," he smiled. "Now, what I am
trying to get at is this: I'm in debt to you a heap, Miss
Messiter, and since I'm not all yellow cur, I intend to play fair
with you. I have ordered my sheep back across the deadline. You
can have this range to yourself for your cattle. The fight's off
so far as we personally are concerned."
A hint of deeper color touched her cheeks. Her manner had been
cavalier at best; for the most part frankly hostile; and all the
time the man was on an errand of good-will. Certainly he had
scored at her expense, and she was ashamed of herself.
"Y'u mean that you're going to respect the deadline? asked Mac in
"I didn't say quite that," explained the sheepman. "What I said
was that I meant to keep on my side of it so far as the Lazy D
cattle are concerned. I'll let your range alone."
"But y'u mean to cross it down below where the Bar Double-E cows
Bannister's gay smile touched the sardonic face. "Do you invite
the public to examine your hand when you sit into a game of
poker, Mr. McWilliams?"
"You're dead right. It's none of my business what y'u do so long
as y'u keep off our range," admitted the foreman. "And next time
the conversation happens on Mr. Bannister, I'll put in my little
say-so that he ain't all black."
"That's very good of you, sir," was the other's ironical retort.
The girl's gauntleted hand offered itself impulsively. "We can't
be friends under existing circumstances, Mr. Bannister. But that
does not alter the fact that I owe you an apology. You came as a
peace envoy, and one of my men shot at you. Of course, he did not
understand the reason why you came, but that does not matter. I
did not know your reason myself, and I know I have been very
"Are you shaking hands with Ned Bannister the sheepman or Ned
Bannister the outlaw?" asked the owner of that name, with a queer
little smile that seemed to mock himself.
"With Ned Bannister the gentleman. If there is another side to
him I don't know it personally."
He flushed underneath the tan, but very plainly with pleasure.
"Your opinions are right contrary to Hoyle, ma'am. Aren't you
aware that a sheepman is the lowest thing that walks? Ask Mr.
"I have known stockmen of that opinion, but--"
The foreman's sentence was never finished. From a clump of bushes
a hundred yards away came the crack of a rifle. A bullet sang
past, cutting a line that left on one side of it Bannister, on
the other Miss Messiter and her foreman. Instantly the two men
slid from their horses on the farther side, dragged down the
young woman behind the cover of the broncos, and arranged the
three ponies so as to give her the greatest protection available.
Somehow the weapons that garnished them had leaped to their hands
before their feet touched the ground.
"That coyote isn't one of our men. I'll back that opinion high,"
said McWilliams promptly.
"Who is he?" the girl whispered.
"That's what we're going to find out pretty soon," returned
Bannister grimly. "Chances are it's me he is trying to gather.
Now, I'm going to make a break for that cottonwood. When I go,
you better run up a white handkerchief and move back from the
firing-line. Turn Buck loose when you leave. He'll stay around
and come when I whistle."
He made a run for it, zigzagging through the sage-brush so
swiftly as to offer the least certain mark possible for a
sharpshooter. Yet twice the rifle spoke before he reached the
Meanwhile Mac had fastened the handkerchief of his mistress on
the end of a switch he had picked up and was edging out of range.
His tense, narrowed gaze never left the bush-clump from which the
shots were being pumped, and he was careful during their retreat
to remain on the danger side of the road, in order to cover
"I guess Bannister's right. He don't want us, whoever he is."
And even as he murmured it, the wind of a bullet lifted his hat
from his head. He picked it up and examined it. The course of the
bullet was marked by a hole in the wide brim, and two more in the
side and crown.
"He ce'tainly ventilated it proper. I reckon, ma'am, we'll make a
run for it. Lie low on the pinto's neck, with your haid on the
off side. That's right. Let him out."
A mile and a half farther up the road Mac reined in, and made the
Indian peace-sign. Two dejected figures came over the hill and
resolved themselves into punchers of the Lazy D. Each of them
trailed a rifle by his side.
"You're a fine pair of ring-tailed snorters, ain't y'u?" jeered
the foreman. "Got to get gay and go projectin' round on the shoot
after y'u got your orders to stay hitched. Anything to say for
If they had it was said very silently.
"Now, Miss Messiter is going to pass it up this time, but from
now on y'u don't go off on any private massacrees while y'u punch
at the Lazy D. Git that? This hyer is the last call for supper in
the dining-cah. If y'u miss it, y'u'll feed at some other
chuckhouse." Suddenly the drawl of his sarcasm vanished. His
voice carried the ring of peremptory command. "Jim, y'u go back
to the ranch with Miss Messiter, AND KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN. Missou,
I need y'u. We're going back. I reckon y'u better hang on to the
stirrup, for we got to travel some. Adios, senorita!"
He was off at a slow lope on the road he had just come, the other
man running beside the horse. Presently he stopped, as if the
arrangement were not satisfactory; and the second man swung
behind him on the pony. Later, when she turned in her saddle, she
saw that they had left the road and were cutting across the
plain, as if to take the sharpshooter in the rear.
Her troubled thoughts stayed with her even after she had reached
the ranch. She was nervously excited, keyed up to a high pitch;
for she knew that out on the desert, within a mile or two of her,
men were stalking each other with life or death in the balance as
the price of vigilance, skill and an unflawed steel nerve. While
she herself had been in danger, she had been mistress of her
fear. But now she could do nothing but wait, after ordering out
such reinforcements as she could recruit without delay; and the
inaction told upon her swift, impulsive temperament. Once, twice,
the wind brought to her a faint sound.
She had been pacing the porch, but she stopped, white as a sheet.
Behind those faint explosions might lie a sinister tragedy. Her
mind projected itself into a score of imaginary possibilities.
She listened, breathless in her tensity, but no further echo of
that battlefield reached her. The sun still shone warmly on brown
Wyoming. She looked down into a rolling plain that blurred in the
distance from knobs and flat spaces into a single stretch that
included a thousand rises and depressions. That roll of country
teemed with life, but the steady, inexorable sun beat down on
what seemed a shining, primeval waste of space. Yet somewhere in
that space the tragedy was being determined--unless it had been
She wanted to scream. The very stillness mocked her. So, too, did
the clicking windmill, with its monotonous regularity. Her pony
still stood saddled in the yard. She knew that her place was at
home, and she fought down a dozen times the tremendous impulse to
mount and fly to the field of combat.
She looked at her watch. How slowly the minutes dragged! It could
not be only five minutes since she had looked last time. Again
she fell to pacing the long west porch, and interrupted herself a
dozen times to stop and listen.
"I can bear it no longer," she told herself at last, and in
another moment was in the saddle plying her pinto with the quirt.
But before she reached the first cottonwoods she saw them coming.
Her glasses swept the distant group, and with a shiver she made
out the dreadful truth. They were coming slowly, carrying
something between them. The girl did not need to be told that the
object they were bringing home was their dead or wounded.
A figure on horseback detached itself from the huddle of men and
galloped towards her. He was coming to break the news. But who
was the victim? Bannister or McWilliams she felt sure, by reason
of the sinking heart in her; and then it came home that she would
be hard hit if it were either.
The approaching rider began to take distinct form through her
glasses. As he pounded forward she recognized him. It was the man
nicknamed Denver. The wind was blowing strongly from her to him,
and while he was still a hundred yards away she hurled her
His answer was lost in the wind sweep, but one word of it she
caught. That word was "Mac."
CHAPTER 7. THE MAN FROM THE SHOSHONE FASTNESSES
Though the sharpshooter's rifle cracked twice during his run for
the cottonwood, the sheepman reached the tree in safety. He could
dodge through the brush as elusively as any man in Wyoming. It
was a trick he had learned on the whitewashed football gridiron.
For in his buried past this man had been the noted half-back of a
famous college, and one of his specialties had been running the
ball back after a catch through a broken field of opponents. The
lesson that experience had then thumped into him had since saved
his life on more than one occasion.
Having reached the tree, Bannister took immediate advantage of
the lie of the ground to snake forward unobserved for another
hundred feet. There was a dip from the foot of the tree, down
which he rolled into the sage below. He wormed his way through
the thick scrub brush to the edge of a dry creek, into the bed of
which he slid. Then swiftly, his body bent beneath the level of
the bank, he ran forward in the sand. He moved noiselessly, eyes
and ears alert to aid him, and climbed the bank at a point where
a live oak grew.
Warily he peeped out from behind its trunk and swept the plain
for his foe. Nothing was to be seen of him. Slowly and patiently
his eyes again went over the semi-circle before him, for where
death may lurk behind every foot of vegetation, every bump or
hillock, the plainsman leaves as little as may be to chance. No
faintest movement could escape the sheepman's eyes, no least stir
fail to apprise his ears. Yet for many minutes he waited in vain,
and the delay told him that he had to do with a trained hunter
rather than a mere reckless cow-puncher. For somewhere in the
rough country before him his enemy lay motionless, every faculty
alive to the least hint of his presence.
It was the whirring flight of a startled dove that told Bannister
the whereabouts of his foe. Two hundred yards from him the bird
rose, and the direction it took showed that the man must have
been trailing forward from the opposite quarter. The sheepman
slipped back into the dry creek bed, retraced his steps for about
a stone-throw, and again crawled up the bank.
For a long time he lay face down in the grass, his gaze riveted
to the spot where he knew his opponent to be hidden. A faint
rustle not born of the wind stirred the sage. Still Bannister
waited. A less experienced plainsman would have blazed away and
exposed his own position. But not this young man with the
steel-wire nerves. Silent as the coming of dusk, no breaking twig
or displaced brush betrayed his self-contained presence.
Something in the clump he watched wriggled forward and showed
indistinctly through an opening in the underscrub. He whipped his
rifle into position and fired twice. The huddled brown mass
lurched forward and disappeared.
"Wonder if I got him? Seems to me I couldn't have missed clean,"
Silence as before, vast and unbroken.
A scramble of running feet tearing a path through the brush, a
crouching body showing darkly for an eyeflash, and then the
pounding of a horse's retreating feet.
Bannister leaped up, ran lightly across the intervening space,
and with his repeater took a potshot at the galloping horseman.
"Missed!" he muttered, and at once gave a sharp whistle that
brought his pony to him on the trot. He vaulted to the saddle and
gave chase. It was rough going, but nothing in reason can stop a
cow-pony. As sure footed as a mountain goat, as good a climber
almost as a cat, Buck followed the flying horseman over perilous
rock rims and across deep-cut creek beds. Pantherlike he climbed
up the steep creek sides without hesitation, for the round-up had
taught him never to falter at stiff going so long as his rider
put him at it.
It was while he was clambering out of the sheer sides of a wash
that Bannister made a discovery. The man he pursued was wounded.
Something in the manner of the fellow's riding had suggested this
to him, but a drop of blood splashed on a stone that happened to
meet his eye made the surmise a certainty.
He was gaining now--not fast, almost imperceptibly, but none the
less surely. He could see the man looking over his shoulder,
once, twice, and then again, with that hurried, fearful glance
that measures the approach of retribution. Barring accidents, the
man was his.
But the unforeseen happened. Buck stepped in the hole of a
prairie dog and went down. Over his head flew the rider like a
stone from a catapult.
How long Ned Bannister lay unconscious he never knew. But when he
came to himself it was none too soon. He sat up dizzily and
passed his hand over his head. Something had happened.
What was it? Oh, yes, he had been thrown from his horse. A wave
of recollection passed over him, and his mind was clear once
more. Presently he got to his feet and moved rather uncertainly
toward Buck, for the horse was grazing quietly a few yards from
But half way to the pony he stopped. Voices, approaching by way
of the bed of Dry Creek, drifted to him.
"He must 'a' turned and gone back. Mebbe he guessed we was
And a voice that Bannister knew, one that had a strangely
penetrant, cruel ring of power through the drawl, made answer:
"Judd said before he fainted he was sure the man was Ned
Bannister. I'd ce'tainly like to meet up with my beloved cousin
right now and even up a few old scores. By God, I'd make him sick
before I finished with him!"
"I'll bet y'u would, Cap," returned the other, admiringly. "Think
we'd better deploy here and beat up the scenery a few as we go?"
There are times when the mind works like lightning, flashes its
messages on the wings of an electric current. For Bannister this
was one of them. The whole situation lighted for him plainly as
if it had been explained for an hour.
His cousin had been out with a band of his cut-throats on some
errand, and while returning to the fastnesses of the Shoshone
Mountains had stopped to noon at a cow spring three or four miles
from the Lazy D. Judd Morgan, whom he knew to be a lieutenant of
the notorious bandit, had ridden toward the ranch in the hope of
getting an opportunity to vent his anger against its mistress or
some of her men. While pursuing the renegade Bannister had
stumbled into a hornet's nest, and was in imminent danger of
being stung to death. Even now the last speaker was scrambling up
the bank toward him.
The sheepman had to choose between leaving his rifle and
immediate flight. The latter was such a forlorn hope that he gave
up Buck for the moment, and ran back to the place where his
repeating Winchester had fallen. Without stopping he scooped the
rifle up as he passed. In his day he had been a famous sprinter,
and he scudded now for dear life. It was no longer a question of
secrecy. The sound of men breaking their hurried way through the
heavy brush of the creek bank came crisply to him. A voice behind
shouted a warning, and from not a hundred yards in front of him
came an answering shout. Hemmed in from the fore and the rear, he
swung off at a right angle. An open stretch lay before him, but
he had to take his desperate chance without cover. Anything was
better than to be trapped like a wild beast driven by the beaters
to the guns.
Across the bare, brown mesa he plunged; and before he had taken a
dozen steps the first rifle had located its prey and was sniping
at him. He had perhaps a hundred yards to cover ere the mesa fell
away into a hollow, where he might find temporary protection in
the scrub pines. And now a second marksman joined himself to the
first. But he was going fast, already had covered half the
distance, and it is no easy thing to bring down a live, dodging
Again the first gun spoke, and scored another miss, whereat a
mocking, devilish laugh rang out in the sunshine.
"Y'u boys splash a heap of useless lead around the horizon. I
reckon Cousin Ned's my meat. Y'u see, I get him in the flapper
without spoiling him complete." And at the word he flung the
rifle to his shoulder and fired with no apparent aim.
The running man doubled up like a cottontail, but found his feet
again in an instant, though one arm hung limp by his side. He was
within a dozen feet of the hilldrop and momentary safety.
"Shall I take him, Cap?" cried one of the men.
"No; he's mine." The rifle smoked once more and again the runner
went down. But this time he plunged headlong down the slope and
out of sight.
The outlaw chief turned on his heel. "I reckon he'll not run any
more to-day. Bring him into camp and we'll take him along with
us," he said carelessly, and walked away to his horse in the
Two of the men started forward, but they stopped half way, as if
rooted to the ground. For a galloping horseman suddenly drew up
at the very point for which they were starting. He leaped to the
ground and warned them back with his rifle. While he covered them
a second man rode up and lifted Bannister to his saddle.
"Ready, Mac," he gave the word, and both horses disappeared with
their riders over the brow of the hill. When the surprised
desperadoes recovered themselves and reached that point the
rescuers had disappeared in the heavy brush.
The alarm was at once given, and their captain, cursing them in a
raucous bellow for their blunder, ordered immediate pursuit. It
was some little time before the trail of the fugitives was picked
up, but once discovered they were over hauled rapidly.
"We're not going to get out without swapping lead," McWilliams
admitted anxiously. "I wisht y'u wasn't hampered with that load,
but I reckon I'll have to try to stand them off alone."
"We bucked into a slice of luck when I opened on his bronc
mavericking around alone. Hadn't been for that we could never
have made it," said Missou, who never crossed a bridge until he
came to it.
"We haven't made it yet, old hoss, not by a long mile, and two
more on top o' that. They're beginning to pump lead already. Huh!
Got to drap your pills closer'n that 'fore y'u worry me."
"I believe he's daid, anyway," said Missou presently, peering
down into the white face of the unconscious man.
"Got to hang onto the remains, anyhow, for Miss Helen. Those
coyotes are too much of the wolf breed to leave him with them."
"Looks like they're gittin' the aim some better," equably
remarked the other a minute later, when a spurt of sand flew up
in front of him.
"They're ce'tainly crowding us. I expaict I better send them a
'How-de-do?' so as to discourage them a few." He took as careful
aim as he could on the galloping horse, but his bullet went wide.
"They're gaining like sixty. It's my offhand opinion we better
stop at that bunch of trees and argue some with them. No use
buck-jumpin' along to burn the wind while they drill streaks of
light through us."
"All right. Take the trees. Y'u'll be able to get into the game
They debouched from the road to the little grove and slipped from
"Deader'n hell," murmured Missou, as he lifted the limp body from
his horse. " But I guess we'll pack what's left back to the
little lady at the Lazy D."
The leader of the pursuers halted his men just out of range and
came forward alone, holding his right hand up in the usual signal
of peace. In appearance he was not unlike Ned Bannister. There
was the same long, slim, tiger build, with the flowing muscles
rippling easily beneath the loose shirt; the same effect of power
and dominance, the same clean, springy stride. The pose of the
head, too, even the sweep of salient jaw, bore a marked
resemblance. But similarity ceased at the expression. For instead
of frankness there lurked here that hint of the devil of strong
passion uncontrolled. He was the victim of his own moods, and in
the space of an hour one might, perhaps, read in that face cold
cunning, cruel malignity, leering ribaldry, as well as the
hard-bitten virtues of unflinching courage and implacable
"I reckon you're near enough," suggested Mac, when the man had
approached to within a hundred feet of the tree clump.
"Y'u're drawing the dead-line," the other acknowledged,
indolently. "It won't take ten words to tell y'u what I want and
mean to have. I'm giving y'u two minutes to hand me over the body
of Ned Bannister. If y'u don't see it that way I'll come and make
a lead mine of your whole outfit."
"Y'u can't come too quick, seh. We're here a-shootin', and don't
y'u forget it," was McWilliams's prompt answer.
The sinister face of the man from the Shoshones darkened. "Y'u've
signed your own death warrants," he let out through set teeth,
and at the word swung on his heel.
"The ball's about to open. Pardners for a waltz. Have a
dust-cutter, Mac, before she grows warm."
The puncher handed over his flask, and the other held it before
his eye and appraised the contents in approved fashion. " Don't
mind if I do. Here's how!"
"How!" echoed Missou, in turn, and tipped up the bottle till the
liquor gurgled down his baked throat.
"He's fanning out his men so as to, get us both at the front and
back door. Lucky there ain't but four of them."
"I guess we better lie back to back," proposed Missou. "If our
luck's good I reckon they're going to have a gay time rushing
A few desultory shots had already been dropped among the
cottonwoods, and returned by the defendants when Missou let out a
yell of triumph.
"Glory Hallelujah! Here comes the boys splittin' down the road
hell-for-leather. That lopsided, ring-tailed snorter of a
hawss-thief is gathering his wolves for a hike back to the tall
timber. Feed me a cigareet, Mac. I plumb want to celebrate."
It was as the cow-puncher had said. Down the road a cloud of dust
was sweeping toward them, in the centre of which they made out
three hardriding cowboys from the ranch. Farther back, in the
distance, was another dust whirl. The outlaw chief's hard,
vigilant gaze swept over the reinforcements! and decided
instantly that the game had gone against him for the present. He
whistled shrilly twice, and began a slow retreat toward the
hills. The miscreants flung a few defiant shots at the advancing
cowmen, and disappeared, swallowed up in the earth swells.
The homeward march was a slow one, for Bannister had begun to
show signs of consciousness and it was necessary to carry him
with extreme care. While they were still a mile from the ranch
house the pinto and its rider could be seen loping toward them.
"Ride forward, Denver, and tell Miss Helen we're coming. Better
have her get everything fixed to doctor him soon as we get there.
Give him the best show in the world, and he'll still be sailing
awful close to the divide. I'll bet a hundred plunks he'll cash
The voice came faintly from the improvised litter. Mac turned
with a start, for he had not known that Bannister was awake to
his surroundings. The man appeared the picture of helplessness,
all the lusty power and vigor stricken out of him; but his
indomitable spirit still triumphed over the physical collapse,
for as the foreman looked a faint smile touched the ashen lips.
It seemed to say: "Still in the ring, old man."
CHAPTER 8. IN THE LAZY D HOSPITAL
Helen's first swift glance showed that the wounded man was
Bannister. She turned in crisp command to her foreman.
"Have him taken to my room and put to bed there. We have no time
to prepare another. And send one of the boys on your best horse
for a doctor."
They carried the limp figure in with rough tenderness and laid
him in the bed. McWilliams unbuckled the belt and drew off the
chaps; then, with the help of Denver, undressed the wounded man
and covered him with quilts. So Helen found him when she came in
to attend his wounds, bringing with her such things as she needed
for her task. Mrs. Winslow, the housekeeper, assisted her, and
the foreman stayed to help, but it was on the mistress of the
ranch that the responsibility of saving him fell. Missou was
already galloping to Bear Creek for a doctor, but the girl knew
that the battle must be fought and the issue decided before he
He had fallen again into insensibility and she rinsed and dressed
his wounds, working with the quiet impersonal certainty of touch
that did not betray the inner turmoil of her soul. But
McWilliams, his eyes following her every motion and alert to
anticipate her needs, saw that the color had washed from her face
and that she was controlling herself only to meet the demands of
As she was finishing, the sheepman opened his eyes and looked at
"You are not to speak or ask questions. You have been wounded and
we are going to take care of you," she ordered.
"That's right good of y'u. I ce'tainly feet mighty trifling." His
wide eyes traveled round till they fell on the foreman. "Y'u see
I came back to help fill your hospital. Am I there now? Where am
I?" His gaze returned to Helen with the sudden irritation of the
"You are at the Lazy D, in my room. You are not to worry about
anything. Everything's all right."
He took her at her word and his eyes closed; but presently he
began to mutter unconnected words and phrases. When his lids
lifted again there was a wilder look in his eyes, and she knew
that delirium was beginning. At intervals it lasted for long;
indeed, until the doctor came next morning in the small hours. He
talked of many things Helen Messiter did not understand, of
incidents in his past life, some of them jerky with the
excitement of a tense moment, others apparently snatches of talk
with relatives. It was like the babbling of a child, irrelevant
and yet often insistent. He would in one breath give orders
connected with the lambing of his sheep, in the next break into
football talk, calling out signals and imploring his men to hold
them or to break through and get the ball. Once he broke into
curses, but his very oaths seemed to come from a clean heart and
missed the vulgarity they might have had. Again his talk rambled
inconsequently over his youth, and he would urge himself or
someone else of the same name to better life.
"Ned, Ned, remember your mother," he would beseech. "She asked me
to look after you. Don't go wrong." Or else it would be, "Don't
disgrace the general, Ned. You'll break his heart if you blacken
the old name." To this theme he recurred repeatedly, and she
noticed that when he imagined himself in the East his language
was correct and his intonation cultured, though still with a
suggestion of a Southern softness.
But when he spoke of her his speech lapsed into the familiar
drawl of Cattleland. "I ain't such a sweep as y'u think, girl.
Some day I'll sure tell y'u all about it, and how I have loved
y'u ever since y'u scooped me up in your car. You're the gamest
little lady! To see y'u come a-sailin' down after me, so steady
and businesslike, not turning a hair when the bullets hummed--I
sure do love y'u, Helen." And then he fell upon her first name
and called her by it a hundred times softly to himself.
This happened when she was alone with him, just before the doctor
came. She heard it with starry eyes and with a heart that flushed
for joy a warmer color into her cheeks. Brushing back the short
curls, she kissed his damp forehead. It was in the thick of the
battle, before he had weathered that point where the issues of
life and death pressed closely, and even in the midst of her
great fears it brought her comfort. She was to think often of it
later, and always the memory was to be music in her heart. Even
when she denied her love for him, assured herself it was
impossible she could care for so shameful a villain, even then it
was a sweet torture to allow herself the luxury of recalling his
broken delirious phrases. At the very worst he could not be as
bad as they said; some instinct told her this was impossible. His
fearless devil-may-care smile, his jaunty, gallant bearing, these
pleaded against the evidence for him. And yet was it conceivable
that a man of spirit, a gentleman by training at least, would let
himself lie under the odium of such a charge if he were not
guilty? Her tangled thoughts fought this profitless conflict for
days. Nor could she dismiss it from her mind. Even after he began
to mend she was still on the rack. For in some snatch of good
talk, when the fine quality of the man seemed to glow in his
face, poignant remembrance would stab her with recollection of
the difference between what he was and what he seemed to be.
One of the things that had been a continual surprise to Helen was
the short time required by these deep-cheated and clean-blooded
Westerners to recover from apparently serious wounds. It was
scarce more than two weeks since Bannister had filled the
bunkhouse with wounded men, and already two of them were back at
work and the third almost fit for service. For perhaps three days
the sheepman's life hung in the balance, after which his splendid
constitution and his outdoor life began to tell. The thermometer
showed that the fever had slipped down a notch, and he was now
sleeping wholesomely a good part of his time. Altogether, unless
for some unseen contingency, the doctor prophesied that the
sheepman was going to upset the probabilities and get well.
"Which merely shows, ma'am, what is possible when you give a
sound man twenty-four hours a day in our hills for a few years,"
he added. "Thanks to your nursing he's going to shave through by
the narrowest margin possible. I told him to-day that he owed his
life to you, Miss Messiter."
"I don't think you need have told him that Doctor," returned that
young woman, not a little vexed at him, "especially since you
have just been telling me that he owes it to Wyoming air and his
own soundness of constitution."
When she returned to the sickroom to give her patient his
medicine he wanted to tell her what the doctor had said, but she
cut him off ruthlessly and told him not to talk.
"Mayn't I even say 'Thank you?'" he wanted to know.
"No; you talk far too much as it is."
He smiled "All right. Y'u sit there in that chair, where I can
see y'u doing that fancywork and I'll not say a word. It'll keep,
all right, what I want to say."
"I notice you keep talking," she told him, dryly.
"Yes, ma'am. Y'u had better have let me say what I wanted to, but
I'll be good now."
He fell asleep watching her, and when he awoke she was still
sitting there, though it was beginning to grow dark. He spoke
before she knew he was awake.
"I'm going to get well, the doctor thinks."
"Yes, he told me," she answered.
"Did he tell y'u it was your nursing saved me?"
"Please don't think about that."
"What am I to think about? I owe y'u a heap, and it keeps piling
up. I reckon y'u do it all because it's your Christian duty?" he
"It is my duty, isn't it?"
"I didn't say it wasn't, though I expaict Bighorn County will
forget to give y'u a unanimous vote of thanks for doing it. I
asked if y'u did it because it was your duty?"
"The reason doesn't matter so that I do it," she answered,
"Reasons matter some, too, though they ain't as important as
actions out in this country. Back in Boston they figure more, and
since y'u used to go to school back there y'u hadn't ought to
throw down your professor of ethics."
"Don't you think you have talked enough for the present?" she
smiled, and added: "If I make you talk whenever I sit beside you
I shall have to stay away."
"That's where y'u've ce'tainly got the drop on me, ma'am. I'm a
clam till y'u give the word."
Before a week he was able to sit up in a chair for an hour or
two, and soon after could limp into the living room with the aid
of a walking stick and his hostess. Under the tan he still wore
an interesting pallor, but there could be no question that he was
on the road to health.
"A man doesn't know what he's missing until he gets shot up and
is brought to the Lazy D hospital, so as to let Miss Messiter
exercise her Christian duty on him," he drawled, cheerfully,
observing the sudden glow on her cheek brought by the reference
to his unanswered question.
He made the lounge in the big sunny window his headquarters. From
it he could look out on some of the ranch activities when she was
not with him, could watch the line riders as they passed to and
fro and command a view of one of the corrals. There was always,
too, the turquoise sky, out of which poured a flood of light on
the roll of hilltops. Sometimes he read to himself, but he was
still easily tired, and preferred usually to rest. More often she
read aloud to him while he lay back with his leveled eyes gravely
on her till the gentle, cool abstraction she affected was
disturbed and her perplexed lashes rose to reproach the intensity
of his gaze.
She was of those women who have the heavenborn faculty of making
home of such fortuitous elements as are to their hands. Except
her piano and such knickknacks as she had brought in a single
trunk she had had to depend upon the resources of the
establishment to which she had come, but it is wonderful how much
can be done with some Navajo rugs, a bearskin, a few bits of
Indian pottery and woven baskets and a judicious arrangement of
scenic photographs. In a few days she would have her pictures
from Kalamazoo, pending which her touch had transformed the big
living room from a cheerless barn into a spot that was a comfort
to the eye and heart. To the wounded man who lay there slowly
renewing the blood he had lost the room was the apotheosis of
home, less, perhaps, by reason of what it was in itself than
because it was the setting for her presence--for her grave,
sympathetic eyes, the sound of her clear voice, the light grace
of her motion. He rejoiced in the delightful intimacy the
circumstances made necessary. To hear snatches of joyous song and
gay laughter even from a distance, to watch her as she came in
and out on her daily tasks, to contest her opinions of books and
life and see how eagerly she defended them; he wondered himself
at the strength of the appeal these simple things made to him.
Already he was dreading the day when he must mount his horse and
ride back into the turbulent life from which she had for a time,
"I'll hate to go back to sheepherding," he told her one day at
lunch, looking at her across a snow-white tablecloth upon which
were a service of shining silver, fragile china teacups and
plates stamped Limoges.
He was at the moment buttering a delicious French roll and she
was daintily pouring tea from an old family heirloom. The
contrast between this and the dust and the grease of a midday
meal at the end of a "chuck wagon" lent accent to his smiling
"A lot of sheepherding you do," she derided.
"A shepherd has to look after his sheep, y'u know."
"You herd sheep just about as much as I punch cows."
"I have to herd my herders, anyhow, and that keeps me on the
"I'm glad there isn't going to be any more trouble between you
and the Lazy D. And that reminds me of another thing. I've often
wonered who those men could have been that attacked you the day
you were hurt."
She had asked the question almost carelessly, without any thought
that this might be something he wished to conceal, but she
recognized her mistake by the wariness that filmed his eyes
"Room there for a right interesting guessing contest," he
"You wouldn't need to guess," she charged, on swift impulse.
"Meaning that I know?"
"You do know. You can't deny that you now."
"Well, say that I know?"
"Aren't you going to tell?"
He shook his head. "Not just yet. I've got private reasons for
keeping it quiet a while."
"I'm sure they are creditable to you," came her swift ironic
"Sure," he agreed, whimsically. "I must live up to the
professional standard. Honor among thieves, y'u know."
CHAPTER 9. MISS DARLING ARRIVES
Miss Messiter clung to civilization enough, at least, to prefer
that her chambermaid should be a woman rather than a Chinese. It
did not suit her preconceived idea of the proper thing that Lee
Ming should sweep floors, dust bric-a-brac, and make the beds. To
see him slosh-sloshing around in his felt slippers made her
homesick for Kalamazoo. There were other reasons why the
proprieties would be better served by having another woman about
the place; reasons that had to do with the chaperone system that
even in the uncombed West make its claims upon unmarried young
women of respectability. She had with her for the present
fourteen-year-old Ida Henderson, but this arrangement was merely
Wherefore on the morning after her arrival Helen had sent two
letters back to "the States." One of these had been to Mrs.
Winslow, a widow of fifty-five, inviting her to come out on a
business basis as housekeeper of thc Lazy D. The buxom widow had
loved Helen since she had been a toddling baby, and her reply was
immediate and enthusiastic. Eight days later she had reported in
person. The second letter bore the affectionate address of Nora
Darling, Detroit, Michigan. This also in time bore fruit at the
ranch in a manner worthy of special mention.
It was the fourth day after Ned Bannister had been carried back
to the Lazy D that Helen Messiter came out to the porch of the
house with a letter in her hand. She found her foreman sitting on
the steps waiting for her, but he got up as soon as he heard the
fall of her light footsteps behind him.
"You sent for me, ma'am?" he asked, hat in hand.
"Yes; I want you to drive into Gimlet Butte and bring back a
person whom you'll find at the Elk House waiting for you. I had
rather you would go yourself, because I know you're reliable."
"Thank you, ma'am. How will I know him?"
"It's a woman--a spinster. She's coming to help Mrs. Winslow.
Inquire for Miss Darling. She isn't used to jolting two days in a
rig, but I know you will be careful of her."
"I'll surely be as careful of the old lady as if she was my own
The mistress of the ranch smothered a desire to laugh.
"I'm sure you will. At her age she may need a good deal of care.
Be certain you take rug enough."
"I'll take care of her the best I know how. expect she's likely
rheumatic, but I'll wrop her up till she looks like a Cheyenne
squaw when tourist is trying to get a free shoot at her with
"Please do. I want her to get a good impression of Wyoming so
that she will stay. I don' know about the rheumatism, but you
might ask her."
There were pinpoints of merriment behind th guileless innocence
of her eyes, but they came to the surface only after the foreman
McWilliams ordered a team of young horse hitched, and presently
set out on his two day; journey to Gimlet Butte. He reached that
town in good season, left the team at a corral and walked back to
the Elk House. The white dust of the plains was heavy on him,
from the bandanna that loosely embraced the brown throat above
the flannel shirt to the encrusted boots but through it the good
humor of his tanned face smiled fraternally on a young woman he
passes at the entrance to the hotel. Her gay smile met his
cordially, and she was still in his mind while he ran his eye
down the register in search of the name he wanted. There it
was--Miss Nora Darling, Detroit, Michigan--in the neatest of
little round letters, under date of the previous day's arrivals.
"Is Miss Darling in?" asked McWilliams of the half-grown son of
the landlady who served in lieu of clerk and porter.
"Nope! Went out a little while ago. Said to tell anybody to wait
that asked for her."
Mac nodded, relieved to find that duty had postponed itself long
enough for him to pursue the friendly smile that had not been
wasted on him a few seconds before. He strolled out to the porch
and decided at once that he needed a cigar more than anything
else on earth. He was helped to a realization of his need by
seeing the owner of the smile disappear in an adjoining drug
She was beginning on a nut sundae when the puncher drifted in.
She continued to devote even her eyes to its consumption, while
the foreman opened a casual conversation with the drug clerk and
lit his cigar.
"How are things coming in Gimlet Butte?" he asked, by way of
prolonging his stay rather than out of desire for information.
Yes, she certainly had the longest, softest lashes he had ever
seen, and the ripest of cherry lips, behind the smiling depths of
which sparkled two rows of tiny pearls. He wished she would look
at HIM and smile again. There wasn't any use trying to melt a
sundae with it, anyhow.
"Sure, it's a good year on the range and the price of cows
jumping," he heard his sub-conscious self make answer to the
patronizing inquiries of him of the "boiled" shirt.
Funny how pretty hair of that color was especially when there was
so much of it. You might call it a sort of coppery gold where the
little curls escaped in tendrils and ran wild. A fellow--"
"Yes, I reckon most of the boys will drop around to the Fourth of
July celebration. Got to cut loose once in a while, y'u know."
A shy glance shot him and set him a-tingle with a queer delight.
Gracious, what pretty dark velvety lashes she had!
She was rising already, and as she paid for the ice cream that
innocent gaze smote him again with the brightest of Irish eyes
conceivable. It lingered for just a ponderable sunlit moment or
him. She had smiled once more.
After a decent interval Mac pursued his petit charmer to the
hotel. She was seated on the porch reading a magazine, and was
absorbedly unconscious of him when he passed. For a few awkward
moments he hung around the office, then returned to the porch and
took the chair most distant from her. He had sat there a long ten
minutes before she let her hands and the magazine fall into her
lap and demurely gave him his chance.
"Can you tell me how far it is to the Lazy D ranch?"
"Seventy-two miles as the crow flies, ma'am."
The conversation threatened to die before it was well born.
Desperately McWilliams tried to think of something to say to keep
it alive without being too bold.
"If y'u were thinking of traveling out that way I could give y'u
a lift. I just came in to get another lady--an old lady that has
just come to this country."
"Thank you, but I'm expecting a conveyance to meet me here. You
didn't happen to pass one on the way, I suppose?"
"No, I didn't. What ranch were y'u going to, ma'am?
"Miss Messiter's--the Lazy D."
A suspicion began to peretrate the foreman's brain. "Y'u ain't
"What makes you so sure I'm not?" she asked, tilting her dimpled
chin toward him aggressively.
"Y'u're too young," he protested, helplessly.
"I'm no younger than you are," came her quick, indignant retort.
Thus boldly accused of his youth, the foreman blushed. "I didn't
mean that. Miss Messiter said she was an old lady--"
"You needn't tell fibs about it. She couldn't have said anything
of the kind. Who are you, anyhow?" the girl demanded, with
"I'm the foreman of the Lazy D, come to get Miss Darling. My name
is McWilliams--Jim McWilliams."
"I don't need your first name, Mr. McWilliams," she assured him,
sweetly. "And will you please tell me why you have kept me
waiting here more than thirty hours?"
"Miss Messiter didn't get your letter in time. Y'u see, we don't
get mail every day at the Lazy D," he explained, the while he
hopefully wondered just when she was going to need his last name.
"I don't see why you don't go after your mail every day at least,
especially when Miss Messiter was expecting me. To leave me
waiting here thirty hours--I'll not stand it. When does the next
train leave for Detroit?" she asked, imperiously.
The situation seemed to call for diplomacy, and Jim McWilliams
moved to a nearer chair. "I'm right sorry it happened, ma'am, and
I'll bet Miss Messiter is, too. Y'u see, we been awful busy one
way and 'nother, and I plumb neglected to send one of the boys to
"Why didn't one of them walk over after supper?" she demanded,
He curbed the smile that was twitching at his facial muscles.
"Well, o' course it ain't so far,--only forty-three
"Forty-three miles to the post-office?"
"Yes, ma'am, only forty-three. If you'll excuse me this time--"
"Is it really forty-three?"
He saw that her sudden smile had brought out the dimples in the
oval face and that her petulance had been swept away by his
"Forty-three, sure as shootin', except twict a week when it comes
to Slauson's, and that's only twenty miles," he assured her.
"Used to be seventy-two, but the Government got busy with its
rural free delivery, and now we get it right at our doors."
"You must have big doors," she laughed.
"All out o' doors," he punned. "Y'u see, our house is under our
hat, and like as not that's twenty miles from the ranchhouse when
"Dear me!" She swept his graceful figure sarcastically. "And, of
course, twenty miles from a brush, too."
He laughed with deep delight at her thrust, for the warm youth in
him did not ask for pointed wit on the part of a young woman so
attractive and with a manner so delightfully provoking.
"I expaict I have gathered up some scenery on the journey. I'll
go brush it off and get ready for supper. I'd admire to sit
beside y'u and pass the butter and the hash if y'u don't object.
Y'u see, I don't often meet up with ladies, and I'd ought to
improve my table manners when I get a chanct with one so much
older than I am and o' course so much more experienced."
"I see you don't intend to pass any honey with the hash," she
flashed, with a glimpse of the pearls.
"DIDN'T y'u say y'u was older than me? I believe I've plumb
forgot how old y'u said y'u was, Miss Darling."
"Your memory's such a sieve it wouldn't be worth while telling
you. After you've been to school a while longer maybe I'll try
"Some ladies like 'em young," he suggested, amiably.
"But full grown," she amended.
"Do y'u judge by my looks or my ways?" he inquired, anxiously.
"That's right strange," he mused aloud. "For judging by some of
your ways you're the spinster Miss Messiter was telling me about,
but judging by your looks y'u're only the prettiest and sassiest
twenty-year-old in Wyoming."
And with this shot he fled, to see what transformation he could
effect with the aid of a whiskbroom, a tin pan of alkali water
and a roller towel.
When she met him at the supper table her first question was, "Did
Miss Messiter say I was an old maid?"
"Sho! I wouldn't let that trouble me if I was y'u. A woman ain't
any older than she looks. Your age don't show to speak of."
"But did she?"
"I reckon she laid a trap for me and I shoved my paw in. She
wanted to give me a pleasant surprise."
"Don't y'u grow anxious about being an old maid. There ain't any
in Wyoming to speak of. If y'u like I'll tell the boys you're
worried and some of them will be Johnnie-on-the-Spot. They're
awful gallant, cowpunchers are."
"Some of them may be," she differed. "If you want to know I'm
He sawed industriously at his steak. "Y'u don't say! Just old
enough to vote--like this steer was before they massacreed him."
She gave him one look, and thereafter punished him with silence.
They left Gimlet Butte early next morning and reached the Lazy D
shortly after noon on the succeeding day. McWilliams understood
perfectly that strenuous competition would inevitably ensue as
soon as the Lazy D beheld the attraction he had brought into
their midst. Nor did he need a phrenologist to tell him that Nora
was a born flirt and that her shy slant glances were meant to
penetrate tough hides to tender hearts. But this did not
discourage him, and he set about making his individual impression
while he had her all to himself. He wasn't at all sure how deep
this went, but he had the satisfaction of hearing his first name,
the one she had told him she had no need of, fall tentatively
from her pretty lips before the other boys caught a glimpse of
Shortly after his arrival at the ranch Mac went to make his
report to his mistress of some business matters connected with
"I see you got back safely with the old lady," she laughed when
she caught sight of him.
His look reproached her. "Y'u said a spinster."
"But it was you that insisted on the rheumatism. By the way, did
you ask her about it?"
"We didn't get that far," he parried.
"Oh! How far did you get?" She perched herself on the porch
railing and mocked him with her friendly eyes. Her heart was
light within her and she was ready for anything in the way of
fun, for the doctor had just pronounced her patient out of danger
if he took proper care of himself.
"About as fur as I got with y'u, ma'am," he audaciously retorted.
"We might disagree as to how far that is," she flung back gayly
with heightened color.
"No, ma'am, I don't think we would."
"But, gracious! You're not a Mormon. You don't want us both, do
you?" she demanded, her eyes sparkling with the exhilaration of
"Could I get either one of y'u, do y'u reckon? That's what's
"I see, and so you intend to keep us both on the string."
His joyous laughter echoed hers. "I expaict y'u would call that
presumption or some other dictionary word, wouldn't y'u?"
"In anybody else perhaps, but surely not in Mr. McWilliams."
"I'm awful glad to be trotting in a class by myself."
"And you'll let us know when you have made your mind up which of
us it is to be?"
"Well, mine ain't the only mind that has to be made up," he
She took this up gleefully. "I can't answer for Nora, but I'll
jump at the chance-- if you decide to give it to me."
He laughed delightedly into the hat he was momentarily expecting
to put on. "I'll mill it over a spell and let y'u know, ma'am."
"Yes, think it over from all points of view. Of course she is
prettier, but then I'm not afflicted with rheumatism and probably
wouldn't flirt as much afterward. I have a good temper, too, as a
rule, but then so has Nora."
"Oh, she's prettier, is she?" With boyish audacity he grinned at
"What do you think?"
He shook his head. "I'll have to go to the foot of the class on
that, ma'am. Give me an easier one."
"I'll have to choose another subject then. What did you do about
that bunch of Circle 66 cows you looked at on your way in?"
They discussed business for a few minutes, after which she went
back to her patient and he to his work.
"Ain't she a straight-up little gentleman for fair?" the foreman
asked himself in rhetorical and exuberant question, slapping his
hat against his leg as he strode toward the corral. "Think of her
coming at me like she did, the blamed little thoroughbred. Y'u
bet she knows me down to the ground and how sudden I got over any
fool notions I might a-started to get in my cocoanut. But the way
she came back at me, quick as lightning and then some, pretendin'
all that foolishness and knowin' all the time I'd savez the
Both McWilliams and his mistress had guessed right in their
surmise as to Nora Darling's popularity in the cow country. She
made an immediate and pronounced hit. It was astonishing how many
errands the men found to take them to "the house," as they called
the building where the mistress of the ranch dwelt. Bannister
served for a time as an excellent excuse. Judging from the number
of the inquiries which the men found it necessary to make as to
his progress, Helen would have guessed him exceedingly popular
with her riders. Having a sense of humor, she mentioned this to
McWilliams one day.
He laughed, and tried to turn it into a compliment to his
mistress. But she would have none of it.
"I know better, sir. They don't come here to see me. Nora is the
attraction, and I have sense enough to know it. My nose is quite
out of joint," she laughed.
Mac looked with gay earnestness at the feature she had mentioned.
"There's a heap of difference in noses," he murmured, apparently
apropos of nothing.
"That's another way of telling me that Nora's pug is the sweetest
thing you ever saw," she charged.
"I ain't half such a bad actor as some of the boys," he
"Meaning in what way?"
"The Nora Darling way."
He pronounced her name so much as if it were a caress that his
mistress laughed, and he joined in it.
"It's your fickleness that is breaking my heart, though I knew I
was lost as soon as I saw your beatific look on the day you got
back with Nora. The first week I came none of you could do enough
for me. Now it's all Nora, darling." She mimicked gayly his
"Well, ma'am, it's this way," explained the foreman with a grin.
" Y'u're right pleasant and friendly, but the boys have got a
savvy way down deep that y'u'd shuck that friendliness awful
sudden if any of them dropped around with 'Object, Matrimony' in
their manner. Consequence is, they're loaded down to the ground
with admiration of their boss, but they ain't presumptuous enough
to expaict any more. I had notions, mebbe, I'd cut more ice, me
being not afflicted with bashfulness. My notions faded, ma'am, in
about a week."
"Then Nora came?" she laughed.
"No, ma'am, they had gone glimmering long before she arrived. I
was just convalescent enough to need being cheered up when she
"And are you cheered up yet?" his mistress asked.
He took off his dusty hat and scratched his head. "I ain't right
certain, yet, ma'am. Soon as I know I'm consoled, I'll be round
with an invite to the wedding."
"That is, if you are."
"If I am--yes. Y'u can't most always tell when they have eyes
"You're quite an authority on the sex considering your years."
"Yes, ma'am." He looked aggrieved, thinking himself a man grown.
"How did y'u say Mr. Bannister was?"
"Wait, and I'll send Nora out to tell you," she flashed, and
disappeared in the house.
Conversation at the bunkhouse and the chucktent sometimes circled
around the young women at the house, but its personality rarely
grew pronounced. References to Helen Messiter and the housemaid
were usually by way of repartee at each other. For a change had
come over the spirit of the Lazy D men, and, though a cheerful
profanity still flowed freely when they were alone together,
vulgarity was largely banished.
The morning after his conversation with Miss Messiter, McWilliams
was washing in the foreman's room when the triangle beat the call
for breakfast, and he heard the cook's raucous "Come and get it."
There was the usual stampede for the tent, and a minute later Mac
flung back the flap and entered. He took the seat at the head of
the table, along the benches on both sides of which the punchers
were plying busy knives and forks.
"A stack of chips," ordered the foreman; and the cook's "Coming
up" was scarcely more prompt than the plate of hot cakes he set
before the young man.
"Hen fruit, sunny side up," shouted Reddy, who was further
advanced in his meal.
"Tame that fog-horn, son," advised Wun Hop; but presently he slid
three fried eggs from a frying-pan into the plate of the hungry
"I want y'u boys to finish flankin' that bunch of hill calves
to-day," said the foreman, emptying half a jug of syrup over his
"Redtop, he ain't got no appetite these days," grinned Denver, as
the gentleman mentioned cleaned up a second loaded plate of ham,
eggs and fried potatoes. "I see him studying a Wind River Bible*
yesterday. Curious how in the spring a young man's fancy gits to
wandering on house furnishing. Red, he was taking the catalogue
alphabetically. Carpets was absorbin' his attention, chairs on
deck, and chandeliers in the hole, as we used to say when we was
[*A Wind River Bible in the Northwest ranch country is a
catalogue of one of the big Chicago department stores that does a
large shipping business in the West.]
"Ain't a word of truth in it," indignantly denied the assailed,
his unfinished nose and chin giving him a pathetic, whipped puppy
look. "Sho! I was just looking up saddles. Can't a fellow buy a
new saddle without asking leave of Denver?"
"Cyarpets used to begin with a C in my spelling-book, but saddles
got off right foot fust with a S," suggested Mac amiably.
"He was ce'tainly trying to tree his saddle among the C's. He was
looking awful loving at a Turkish rug. Reckon he thought it was a
saddle-blanket," derided Denver cheerfully.
"Huh! Y'u're awful smart, Denver," retaliated Reddy, his
complexion matching his hair. "Y'u talk a heap with your mouth.
Nobody believes a word of what y'u say."
Denver relaxed into a range song by way of repartee:
"I want mighty bad to be married, To have a garden and a home; I
ce'tainly aim to git married, And have a gyurl for my own."
"Aw! Y'u fresh guys make me tired. Y'u don't devil me a bit, not
a bit. Whyfor should I care what y'u say? I guess this outfit
ain't got no surcingle on me." Nevertheless, he made a hurried
end of his breakfast and flung out of the tent.
"Y'u boys hadn't ought to wound Reddy's tender feelings, and him
so bent on matrimony!" said Denver innocently. "Get a move on
them fried spuds and sashay them down this way, if there's any
left when y'u fill your plate, Missou."
Nor was Reddy the only young man who had dreams those days at the
Lazy D. Cupid must have had his hands full, for his darts
punctured more than one honest plainsman's heart. The reputation
of the young women at the Lazy D seemed to travel on the wings of
the wind, and from far and near Cattleland sent devotees to this
shrine of youth and beauty. So casually the victims drifted in,
always with a good business excuse warranted to endure raillery
and sarcasm, that it was impossible to say they had come of set
purpose to sun themselves in feminine smiles.
As for Nora, it is not too much to say that she was having the
time of her life. Detroit, Michigan, could offer no such field
for her expansive charms as the Bighorn country, Wyoming. Here
she might have her pick of a hundred, and every one of them
picturesquely begirt with flannel shirt, knotted scarf at neck,
an arsenal that bristled, and a sun-tan that could be achieved
only in the outdoors of the Rockies. Certainly these knights of
the saddle radiated a romance with which even her floorwalker
"gentleman friend " could not compete.
CHAPTER 10. A SHEPHERD OF THE DESERT
It had been Helen Messiter's daily custom either to take a ride
on her pony or a spin in her motor car, but since Bannister had
been quartered at the Lazy D her time had been so fully occupied
that she had given this up for the present. The arrival of Nora
Darling, however, took so much work off her hands that she began
to continue her rides and drives.
Her patient was by this time so far recovered that he did not
need her constant attendance and there were reasons why she
decided it best to spend only a minimum of her time with him.
These had to do with her increasing interest in the man and the
need she felt to discourage it. It had come to a pretty pass, she
told herself scornfully, when she found herself inventing excuses
to take her into the room where this most picturesque of unhanged
scamps was lying. Most good women are at heart puritans, and if
Helen was too liberal to judge others narrowly she could be none
the less rigid with herself. She might talk to him of her duty,
but it was her habit to be frank in thought and she knew that
something nearer than that abstraction had moved her efforts in
his behalf. She had fought for his life because she loved him.
She could deny it no longer. Nor was the shame with which she
confessed it unmingled with pride. He was a man to compel love,
one of the mood imperative, chain-armored in the outdoor virtues
of strength and endurance and stark courage. Her abasement began
only where his superlation ended. That a being so godlike in
equipment should have been fashioned without a soul, and that she
should have given her heart to him. This was the fount of her
It was of these things she thought as she drove in the late
afternoon toward those Antelope Peaks he had first pointed out to
her. She swept past the scene of the battle and dipped down into
the plains for a run to that western horizon behind the jagged
mountain line of which the sun was radiantly setting in a splash
of glorious colors. Lost in thought, space slipped under her
wheels unnoticed. Not till her car refused the spur and slowed to
a despondent halt did she observe that velvet night was falling
over the land.
She prowled round the machine after the fashion of the motorist,
examining details that might be the cause of the trouble. She
discovered soon enough with instant dismay that the gasolene tank
was empty. Reddy, always unreliable, must have forgotten to fill
it when she told him to.
By the road she must be thirty miles from home if she were a
step; across country as the crow flies, perhaps twenty. She was a
young woman of resolution, and she wasted no time in tears or
regrets. The XIX ranch, owned by a small "nester" named
Henderson, could not be more than five or six miles to the
southeast. If she struck across the hills she would be sure to
run into one of the barblines. At the XIX she could get a horse
and reach the Lazy D by midnight. Without any hesitation she
struck out. It was unfortunate that she did not have on her heavy
laced high boots, but she realized that she must take things as
she found them. Things might have been a good deal worse, she
And before long they were worse, for the increasing darkness
blotted out the landmarks she was using as guides and she was
lost among the hill waves that rolled one after another across
the range. Still she did not give way, telling herself that it
would be better after the moon was up. She could then tell north
from south, and so have a line by which to travel. But when at
length the stars came out, thousands upon thousands of them, and
looked down on a land magically flooded with chill moonlight, the
girl found that the transformation of Wyoming into this scence of
silvery loveliness had toned the distant mountain line to an
indefinite haze that made it impossible for her to distinguish
one peak from another.
She wandered for hours, hungry and tired and frightened, though
this last she would not confess.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," she told herself over and
over. "Even if I have to stay out all night it will do me no
harm. There's no need to be a baby about it."
But try to evade it as she would, there was something in the
loneliness of this limitless stretch of hilltop that got on her
nerves. The very shadows cast by the moonshine seemed too
fantastic for reality. Something eerie and unearthly hovered over
it all, and before she knew it a sob choked up her throat.
Vague fancies filtered through her mind, weird imaginings born of
the night in a mind that had been swept from the moorings of
reason. So that with no sensible surprise there came to her in
that moonlit sea of desert the sound of a voice a clear sweet
tenor swelling bravely in song with the very ecstacy of pathos.
It was the prison song from "Il Trovatore," and the desolation of
its lifted appeal went to the heart like water to the roots of
Ah! I have sigh'd to rest me.
Deep in the quiet grave.
The girl's sob caught in her breast, stilled with the awe of that
heavenly music. So for an instant she waited before it was borne
in on her that the voice was a human one, and that the heaven
from which it descended was the hilltop above her.
A wild laugh, followed by an oath, cut the dying echoes of the
song. She could hear the swish of a quirt falling again and
again, and the sound of trampling hoofs thudding on the hard,
sun-cracked ground. Startled, she sprang to her feet, and saw
silhouetted against the skyline a horse and his rider fighting
The battle was superb while it lasted. The horse had been a
famous outlaw, broken to the saddle by its owner out of the sheer
passion for victory, but there were times when its savage
strength rebelled at abject submission, and this was one of them.
It swung itself skyward, and came down like a pile-driver,
camel-backed, and without joints in the legs. Swiftly it rose
again lunging forward and whirling in the air, then jarred down
at an angle. The brute did its malevolent best, a fury incarnate.
But the ride, was a match, and more than a match, for it. He sat
the saddle like a Centaur, with the perfect: unconscious grace of
a born master, swaying in his seat as need was, and spurring the
horse to a blinder fury.
Sudden as had been the start, no less sudden was the finish of
the battle. The bronco pounded to a stiff-legged standstill,
trembled for a long minute like an aspen, and sank to a tame
surrender, despite the sharp spurs roweling its bloody sides.
"Ah, my beauty. You've had enough, have you?" demanded the cruel,
triumphant voice of the rider. "You would try that game, would
you? I'll teach you."
"Stop spurring that horse, you bully."
The man stopped, in sheer amazement at this apparition which had
leaped out of the ground almost at his feet. His wary glance
circled the hills to make sure she was alone.
"Ce'tainly, ma'am. We're sure delighted to meet up with you.
Ain't we, Two-step?"
For himself, he spoke the simple truth. He lived in his
sensations, spurring himself to fresh ones as he had but just now
been spurring his horse to sate the greed of conquest in him. And
this high-spirited, gallant creature--he could feel her vital
courage in the very ring of her voice--offered a rare fillip to
his jaded appetite. The dusky, long-lashed eyes which always give
a woman an effect of beauty, the splendid fling of head, and the
piquant, finely cut features, with their unconscious tale of
Brahmin caste, the long lines of the supple body, willowy and yet
plump as a partridge--they went to his head like strong wine.
Here was an adventure from the gods--a stubborn will to bend, the
pride of a haughty young beauty to trail in the dust, her untamed
heart to break if need be. The lust of the battle was on him
already. She was a woman to dream about,
"Sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath,"
he told himself exultantly as he slid from his horse and stood
bowing before her.
And he, for his part, was a taking enough picture of
devil-may-care gallantry gone to seed. The touch of jaunty
impudence in his humility, not less than the daring admiration of
his handsome eyes and the easy, sinuous grace of his flexed
muscles, labeled him what he was--a man bold and capable to do
what he willed, and a villain every inch of him.
Said she, after that first clash of stormy eyes with bold,
"I am lost--from the Lazy D ranch."
"Why, no, you're found," he corrected, white teeth flashing in a
"My motor ran out of gasolene this afternoon. I've been"--there
was a catch in her voice--"wandering ever since."
"You're played out, of course, and y'u've had no supper," he
said, his quiet close gaze on her.
"Yes, I'm played out and my nerve's gone." She laughed a little
hysterically. "I expect I'm hungry and thirsty, too, though I
hadn't noticed it before."
He whirled to his saddle, and had the canteen thongs unloosed in
a moment. While she drank he rummaged from his saddle-bags some
sandwiches of jerky and a flask of whiskey. She ate the
sandwiches, he the while watching her with amused sympathy in his
"You ain't half-bad at the chuck-wagon, Miss Messiter," he told
She stopped, the sandwich part way to her mouth. "I don't
remember your face. I've met so many people since I came to the
Lazy D. Still, I think I should remember you."
He immediately relieved of duty her quasi apology. "You haven't
seen my face before," he laughed, and, though she puzzled over
the double meaning that seemed to lurk behind his words and amuse
him, she could not find the key to it.
It was too dark to make out his features at all clearly, but she
was sure she had seen him before or somebody that looked very
much like him.
"Life on the range ain't just what y'u can call exciting," he
continued, "and when a young lady fresh from back East drops
among us while sixguns are popping, breaks up a likely feud and
mends right neatly all the ventilated feudists it's a corollary
to her fun that's she is going to become famous."
What he said was true enough. The unsolicited notoriety her
exploit had brought upon her had been its chief penalty. Garbled
versions of it had appeared with fake pictures in New York and
Chicago Sunday supplements, and all Cattleland had heard and
discussed it. No matter into what unfrequented canon she rode,
some silent cowpuncher would look at her as they met with
admiring eyes behind which she read a knowledge of the story. It
was a lonely desolate country, full of the wide deep silences of
utter emptiness, yet there could be no footfall but the whisper
of it was bruited on the wings of the wind.
"Do you know where the Lazy D ranch is from here?" she asked.