Part 3 out of 5
"Can you take me home?"
"I surely can. But not to-night. You're more tired than y'u know.
We'll camp here, and in the mo'ning we'll hit the trail bright
This did not suit her at all. "Is it far to the Lazy D?" she
"Every inch of forty miles. There's a creek not more than two
hundred yards from here. We'll stay there till morning," he made
answer in a matter of course voice, leading the way to the place
he had mentioned.
She followed, protesting. Yet though it was not in accord with
her civilized sense of fitness, she knew that what he proposed
was the common sense solution. She was tired and worn out, and
she could see that his broncho had traveled far.
Having reached the bank of the creek, he unsaddled, watered his
horse and picketed it, and started a fire. Uneasily she watched
"I don't like to sleep out. Isn't there a ranchhouse near?"
"Y'u wouldn't call it near by the time we had reached it. What's
to hinder your sleeping here? Isn't this room airy enough? And
don't y'u like the system of lighting? 'Twas patented I forget
how many million years ago. Y'u ain't going to play parlor girl
now after getting the reputation y'u've got for gameness, are
But he knew well enough that it was no silly schoolgirl fear she
had, but some deep instinct in her that distrusted him and warned
her to beware. So, lightly he took up the burden of the talk
while he gathered cottonwood branches for the fire.
"Now if I'd only thought to bring a load of lumber and some
carpenters--and a chaperon," he chided himself in burlesque, his
bold eyes closely on the girl's face to gloat on the color that
flew to her cheeks at his suggestion.
She hastened to disclaim lightly the feeling he had unmasked in
her. "It is a pity, but it can't be helped now. I suppose I am
cross and don't seem very grateful. I'm tired out and nervous,
but I am sure that I'll enjoy sleeping out. If I don't I shall
not be so ungenerous as to blame you."
He soon had a cup of steaming coffee ready for her, and the heat
of it made a new woman of her. She sat in the warm fire glow, and
began to feel stealing over her a delightful reaction of languor.
She told herself severely it was ridiculous to have been so
foolishly prim about the inevitable.
"Since you know my name, isn't it fair that I should know yours?"
she smilingly asked, more amiably than she had yet spoken to him.
"Well, since I have found the lamb that was lost, y'u may call me
a shepherd of the desert."
"Then, Mr. Shepherd, I'm very glad to meet you. I don't remember
when I ever was more glad to meet a stranger." And she added with
a little laugh: "It's a pity I'm too sleepy to do my duty by you
in a social way."
"We'll let that wait till to-morrow. Y'u'll entertain me plenty
then. I'll make your bunk up right away."
She was presently lying with her feet to the fire, snugly rolled
in his saddle blankets. But though her eyes were heavy, her brain
was still too active to permit her to sleep immediately. The
excitement of her adventure was too near, the emotions of the day
too poignantly vivid, to lose their hold on her at once. For the
first time in her life she lay lapped in the illimitable velvet
night, countless unwinking stars lighting the blue-black dream in
which she floated. The enchantment of the night's loveliness
swept through her sensitive pulses and thrilled her with the
mystery of the great life of which she was an atom. Awe held her
a willing captive.
She thought of many things, of her past life and its incongruity
with the present, of the man who lay wounded at the Lazy D, of
this other wide-shouldered vagabond who was just now in the
shadows beyond the firelight, pacing up and down with long, light
even strides as he looked to his horse and fed the fire. She
watched him make an end of the things he found to do and then
take his place opposite her. Who and what was he, this
fascinating scamp who one moment flooded the moonlit desert with
inspired snatches from the opera sung in the voice of an angel,
and the next lashed at his horse like a devil incarnate? How
reconcile the outstanding inconsistencies in him? For his every
inflection, every motion, proclaimed the strain of good blood
gone wrong and trampled under foot of set, sardonic purpose,
indicated him a man of culture in a hell of his own choosing.
Lounging on his elbow in the flickering shadows, so carelessly
insouciant in every picturesque inch of him, he seemed to radiate
the melodrama of the untamed frontier, just as her guest of
tarnished reputation now at the ranch seemed to breathe forth its
"Sleep well, little partner. Don't be afraid; nothing can harm
you," this man had told her.
Promptly she had answered, "I'm not afraid, thank you, in the
least"; and after a mornent had added, not to seem hostile, "Good
night, big partner."
But despite her calm assurance she knew she did not feel so
entirely safe as if it had been one of her own ranch boys on the
other side of the fire, or even that other vagabond who had made
so direct an appeal to her heart. If she were not afraid, at
least she knew some vague hint of anxiety.
She was still thinking of him when she fell asleep, and when she
awakened the first sound that fell on her ears was his tuneful
whistle. Indeed she had an indistinct memory of him in the night,
wrapping the blankets closer about her when the chill air had
half stirred her from her slumber. The day was still very young,
but the abundant desert light dismissed sleep summarily. She
shook and brushed the wrinkles out of her clothes and went down
to the creek to wash her face with the inadequate facilities at
hand. After redressing her hair she returned to the fire, upon
which a coffee pot was already simmering.
She came up noiselessly behind him, but his trained senses were
apprised of her approach.
"Good mo'ning! How did y'u find your bedroom?" he asked, without
turning from the bacon he was broiling on the end of a stick.
"Quite up to the specifications. With all Wyoming for a floor and
the sky for a ceiling, I never had a room I liked better. But
have you eyes in the back of your head?"
He laughed grimly. "I have to be all eyes and ears in my
"Is your business of a nature so sensitive?"
"As much so as stocks on Wall Street. And we haven't any ticker
to warn us to get under cover. Do you take cream in your coffee,
She looked round in surprise. "Cream?"
"We're in tin-can land, you know, and live on air-tights. I milk
my cow with a can-opener. Let me recommend this quail on toast."
He handed her a battered tin plate, and prepared to help her from
"I suppose that is another name for pork?"
"No, really. I happened to bag a couple of hooters before you
"You're a missionary of the good-foods movement. I shall name
your mission St. Sherry's-in-the-Wilderness."
"Ah, Sherry's! That's since my time. I don't suppose I should
know my way about in little old New York now."
She found him eager to pick up again the broken strands that had
connected him with the big world from which he had once come. It
had been long since she had enjoyed a talk more, for he expressed
himself with wit and dexterity. But through her enjoyment ran a
note of apprehension. He was for the moment a resurrected
gentleman. But what would he be next? She had an insistent memory
of a heavenly flood of music broken by a horrible discord of
It was he that lingered over their breakfast, loath to make the
first move to bring him back into realities; and it was she that
had to suggest the need of setting out. But once on his feet, he
saddled and packed swiftly, with a deftness born of experience.
"We'll have to ask Two-step to carry double to-day," he said, as
he helped her to a place behind him.
Two-step had evidently made an end of the bronco spree upon which
he had been the evening before, for he submitted sedately to his
unusual burden. The first hilltop they reached had its surprise
to offer the girl. In a little valley below them, scarce a mile
away, nestled a ranch with its corrals and buildings.
"Look!" she exclaimed; and then swiftly, "Didn't you know it was
"Yes, that's the Hilke place," he answered with composure. "It
hasn't been occupied for years."
"Isn't that some one crossing to the corral now?"
"No. A stray cow, I reckon."
They dropped into a hollow between the hills and left the ranch
on their left. She was not satisfied, and yet she had not grounds
enough upon which to base a suspicion. For surely the figure she
had seen had been that of a man.
CHAPTER 12. MISTRESS AND MAID
Now that it was safely concluded, Helen thought the adventure
almost worthwhile for the spontaneous expressions of good will it
had drawn forth from her adherents. Mrs. Winslow and Nora had
taken her to their arms and wept and laughed over her in turn,
and in their silent undemonstrative way she had felt herself
hedged in by unusual solicitude on the part of her riders. It was
good--none but she knew how good--to be back among her own, to
bask in a friendliness she could not doubt. It was best of all to
sit opposite Ned Bannister again with no weight on her heart from
the consciousness of his unworthiness.
She could affect to disregard the gray eyes that followed her
with such magnetized content about the living room, but beneath
her cool self-containment she knew the joyous heart in her was
strangely buoyant. He loved her, and she had a right to let
herself love him. This was enough for the present.
"They're so plumb glad to see y'u they can't let y'u alone,"
laughed Bannister at the sound of a knock on the door that was
about the fifth in as many minutes.
This time it proved to be Nora, come to find out what her
mistress would like for supper. Helen turned to the invalid.
"What would you like, Mr. Bannister?"
"I should like a porterhouse with mushrooms," he announced
"You can't have it. You know what the doctor said." Very
peremptorily she smiled this at him.
"He's an old granny, Miss Messiter."
"You may have an egg on toast."
"Make it two," he pleaded. "Excitement's just like caviar to the
appetite, and seeing y'u safe--"
"Very well--two," she conceded.
They ate supper together in a renewal of the pleasant intimacy so
delightful to both. He lay on the lounge, propped up with sofa
cushions, the while he watched her deft fingers butter the toast
and prepare his egg. It was surely worth while to be a
convalescent, given so sweet a comrade for a nurse; and after he
had moved over to the table he enjoyed immensely the gay firmness
with which she denied him what was not good for him.
"I'll bet y'u didn't have supper like this at Robbers' Roost." he
told her, enthusiastically.
"It wasn't so bad, considering everything." She was looking
directly at him as she spoke. "Your cousin is rather a remarkable
man in some ways. He manages to live on the best that can be got
in tin-can land."
"Did he tell y'u he was my cousin?" he asked, slowly.
"Yes, and that his name was Ned Bannister, too?"
"Did that explain anything to y'u?"
"It explained a great deal, but it left some things not clear
"For one thing, the reason why you should bear the odium of his
crimes. I suppose you don't care for him, though I can see how
you might in a way."
"I don't care for him in the least, though I used to when we were
boys. As to letting myself be blamed for his crimes. I did it
because I couldn't help myself. We look more or less alike, and
he was cunning enough to manufacture evidence against me. We were
never seen together, and so very few know that there are two
Bannisters. At first I used to protest, but I gave it up. There
wasn't the least use. I could only wait for him to be captured or
killed. In the meantime it didn't make me any more popular to be
"Weren't you taking a long chance of being killed first? Some one
with a grudge against him might have shot you."
"They haven't yet," he smiled.
"You might at least have told me how it was," she reproached.
"I started to tell y'u that first day, but it looked so much of a
fairy tale to unload that I passed it up."
"Then you ought not to blame me for thinking you what you were
"I don't remember blaming y'u. The fact is I thought it awful
white of y'u to do your Christian duty so thorough, me being such
a miscreant," he drawled.
"You gave me no chance to think well of you."
"But yet y'u did your duty from A to Z."
"We're not talking about my duty," she flashed back. "My point is
that you weren't fair to me. If I thought ill of you how could I
"I expaict your Kalamazoo conscience is worryin' y'u because y'u
"It isn't," she denied instantly.
"I ain't of a revengeful disposition. I'll forgive y'u for doing
your duty and saving my life twice," he said, with a smile of
"I don't want your forgiveness."
"Well, then for thinking me a 'bad man.'"
"You ought to beg my pardon. I was a friend, at least you say I
acted like one--and you didn't care enough to right yourself with
"Maybe I cared too much to risk trying it. I knew there would be
proof some time, and I decided to lie under the suspicion until I
could get it. I see now that wasn't kind or fair to you. I am
sorry I didn't tell y'u all about it. May I tell y'u the story
"If you wish."
It was a long story, but the main points can be told in a
paragraph. The grandfather of the two cousins, General Edward
Bannister, had worn the Confederate gray for four years, and had
lost an arm in the service of the flag with the stars and bars.
After the war he returned to his home in Virginia to find it in
ruins, his slaves freed and his fields mortgaged. He had pulled
himself together for another start, and had practiced law in the
little town where his family had lived for generations. Of his
two sons, one was a ne'er-do-well. He was one of those brilliant
fellows of whom much is expected that never develops. He had a
taste for low company, married beneath him, and, after a career
that was a continual mortification and humiliation to his father,
was killed in a drunken brawl under disgraceful circumstances,
leaving behind a son named for the general. The second son of
General Bannister also died young, but not before he had proved
his devotion to his father by an exemplary life. He, too, was
married and left an only son, also named for the old soldier. The
boys were about of an age and were well matched in physical and
mental equipment. But the general, who had taken them both to
live with him, soon discovered that their characters were as
dissimilar as the poles. One grandson was frank, generous, open
as the light; the other was of a nature almost degenerate. In
fact, each had inherited the qualities of his father. Tales began
to come to the old general's ears that at first he refused to
credit. But eventually it was made plain to him that one of the
boys was a rake of the most objectionable type.
There were many stormy scenes between the general and his
grandson, but the boy continued to go from bad to worse. After a
peculiarly flagrant case, involving the character of a
respectable young girl, young Ned Bannister was forbidden his
ancestral home. It had been by means of his cousin that this last
iniquity of his had been unearthed, and the boy had taken it to
his grandfather in hot indignation as the last hope of protecting
the reputation of the injured girl. From that hour the evil
hatred of his cousin, always dormant in the heart, flamed into
active heat. The disowned youth swore to be revenged. A short
time later the general died, leaving what little property he had
entirely to the one grandson. This stirred again the bitter rage
of the other. He set fire to the house that had been willed his
cousin, and took a train that night for Wyoming. By a strange
irony of fate they met again in the West years later, and the
enmity between them was renewed, growing every month more bitter
on the part of the one who called himself the King of the Bighorn
She broke the silence after his story with a gentle "Thank you. I
can understand why you don't like to tell the story."
"I am very glad of the chance to tell it to you," he answered.
"When you were delirious you sometimes begged some one you called
Ned not to break his mother's heart. I thought then you might be
speaking to yourself as ill people do. Of course I see now it was
your cousin that was on your mind."
"When I was out of my head I must have talked a lot of nonsense,"
he suggested, in the voice of a question. "I expect I had
opinions I wouldn't have been scattering around so free if I'd
known what I was saying."
He was hardly prepared for the tide of color that swept her
cheeks at his words nor for the momentary confusion that
shuttered the shy eyes with long lashes cast down.
"Sick folks do talk foolishness, they say," he added, his gaze
trained on her suspiciously.
"Mrs. Winslow says I did. But when I asked her what it was I said
she only laughed and told me to ask y'u. Well, I'm askin' now."
She became very busy over the teapot. "You talked about the work
at your ranch--sheep dipping and such things."
"Was that all?"
"No, about lots of other things--football and your early life. I
don't see what Mrs. Winslow meant. Will you have some more tea?"
"No, thank y'u. I have finished. Yes, that ce'tainly seems
harmless. I didn't know but I had been telling secrets." Still
his unwavering eyes rested quietly on her.
"Secrets?" She summoned her aplomb to let a question rest lightly
in the face she turned toward him, though she was afraid she met
his eyes hardly long enough for complete innocence "Why, yes,
secrets." He measured looks with her deliberately before he
changed the subject, and he knew again the delightful excitement
of victory. "Are y'u going to read to me this evening?"
She took his opening so eagerly that he smiled, at which her
color mounted again.
"If y'u like. What shall I read?"
"Some more of Barrie's books, if y'u don't mind. When a fellow is
weak as a kitten he sorter takes to things that are about kids."
Nora came in and cleared away the supper things. She was just
beginning to wash them when McWilliams and Denver dropped into
the kitchen by different doors. Each seemed surprised and
disappointed at the presence of the other. Nora gave each of them
a smile and a dishcloth.
"Reddy, he's shavin' and Frisco's struggling with a biled
shirt--I mean with a necktie," Denver hastily amended. "They'll
be along right soon, I shouldn't wonder."
"Y'u better go tell the boys Miss Nora don't want her kitchen
littered up with so many of them," suggested his rival.
"Y'u're foreman here. I don't aim to butt into your business,
Mac," grinned back the other, polishing a tea plate with the
"I want to get some table linen over to Lee Ming to-night," said
"Denver, he'll be glad to take it for y'u, Miss Nora. He's real
obliging," offered Mac, generously.
"I've been in the house all day, so I need a walk. I thought
perhaps one of you gentlemen--" Miss Nora looked from one to the
other of them with deep innocence.
"Sure, I'll go along and carry it. Just as Mac says, I'll be real
pleased to go," said Denver, hastily.
Mac felt he had been a trifle precipitate in his assumption that
Nora did not intend to go herself. Lee Ming had established a
laundry some half mile from the ranch, and the way thereto lay
through most picturesque shadow and moonlight. The foreman had
conscientious scruples against letting Denver escort her down
such a veritable lovers' lane of romantic scenery.
"I don't know as y'u ought to go out in the night air with that
cold, Denver. I'd hate a heap to have y'u catch pneumony. It
don't seem to me I'd be justified in allowin' y'u to," said the
"You're THAT thoughtful, Mac. But I expect mebbe a little saunter
with Miss Nora will do my throat good. We'll walk real slow, so's
not to wear out my strength."
"Big, husky fellows like y'u are awful likely to drop off with
pneumony. I been thinkin' I got some awful good medicine that
would be the right stuff for y'u. It's in the drawer of my
wash-stand. Help yourself liberal and it will surely do y'u good.
Y'u'll find it in a bottle."
"I'll bet it's good medicine, Mac. After we get home I'll drop
around. In the washstand, y'u said?"
"I hate to have y'u take such a risk," Mac tried again. "There
ain't a bit of use in y'u exposing yourself so careless. Y'u take
a hot footbath and some of that medicine, Denver, then go right
straight to bed, and in the mo'ning y'u'll be good as new.
Honest, y'u won't know yourself."
"Y'u got the best heart, Mac." Nora giggled.
"Since I'm foreman I got to be a mother to y'u boys, ain't I?"
"Y'u're liable to be a grandmother to us if y'u keep on," came
back the young giant.
"Y'u plumb discourage me, Denver," sighed the foreman.
"No, sir! The way I look at it, a fellow's got to take some risk.
Now, y'u cayn't tell some things. I figure I ain't half so likely
to catch pneumony as y'u would be to get heart trouble if y'u
went walking with Miss Nora," returned Denver.
A perfect gravity sat on both their faces during the progress of
most of their repartee.
"If your throat's so bad, Mr. Halliday, I'll put a kerosene rag
round it for you when we get back," Nora said, with a sweet
little glance of sympathy that the foreman did not enjoy.
Denver, otherwise "Mr. Halliday," beamed. "Y'u're real kind,
ma'am. I'll bet that will help it on the outside much as Mac's
medicine will inside."
"What'll y'u do for my heart, ma'am, if it gits bad the way
Denver figures it will?"
"Y'u might try a mustard plaster," she gurgled, with laughter.
For once the debonair foreman's ready tongue had brought him to
defeat. He was about to retire from the field temporarily when
Nora herself offered first aid to the wounded.
"We would like to have you come along with us, Mr. McWilliams. I
want you to come if you can spare the time."
The soft eyes telegraphed an invitation with such a subtle
suggestion of a private understanding that Mac was instantly
encouraged to accept.
He knew, of course, that she was playing them against each other
and sitting back to enjoy the result, but he was possessed of the
hope common to youths in his case that he really was on a better
footing with her than the other boys. This opinion, it may be
added, was shared by Denver, Frisco and even Reddy as regards
themselves. Which is merely another way of putting the
regrettable fact that this very charming young woman was given to
coquetting with the hearts of her admirers.
"Any time y'u get oneasy about that cough y'u go right on home,
Denver. Don't stay jest out of politeness. We'll never miss y'u,
anyhow," the foreman assured him.
"Thank y'u, Mac. But y'u see I got to stay to keep Miss Nora from
"Was it a phrenologist strung y'u with the notion y'u was a cure
"Shucks! I don't make no such claims. The only thing is it's a
comfort when you're bored to have company. Miss Nora, she's so
polite. But, y'u see, if I'm along I can take y'u for a walk when
y'u get too bad."
They reached the little trail that ran up to Lee Ming's place,
and Denver suggested that Mac run in with the bundle so as to
save Nora the climb.
"I'd like to, honest I would. But since y'u thought of it first I
won't steal the credit of doing Miss Nora a good turn. We'll wait
right here for y'u till y'u come back."
"We'll all go up together," decided Nora, and honors were easy.
In the pleasant moonlight they sauntered back, two of them still
engaged in lively badinage. while the third played chorus with
appreciative little giggles and murmurs of "Oh, Mr. Halliday!"
and "You know you're just flattering me, Mr. McWilliams."
If they had not been so absorbed in their gay foolishness the two
men might not have walked so innocently into the trap waiting for
them at their journey's end. As it was, the first intimation they
had of anything unusual was a stern command to surrender.
"Throw up your hands. Quick, you blank fools!"
A masked man covered them, in each hand a six-shooter, and at his
summons the arms of the cow-punchers went instantly into the air.
Nora gave an involuntary little scream of dismay.
"Y'u don't need to be afraid, lady. Ain't nobody going to hurt
you, I reckon," the masked man growled.
" Sure they won't," Mac reassured her, adding ironically: "This
gun-play business is just neighborly frolic. Liable to happen any
day in Wyoming."
A second masked man stepped up. He, too was garnished with an
"What's all this talking about?" he demanded sharply.
"We just been having a little conversation seh?" returned
McWilliams, gently, his vigilant eyes searching through the
disguise of the other " Just been telling the lady that your call
is in friendly spirit. No objections, I suppose?"
The swarthy newcomer, who seemed to be in command, swore sourly.
"Y'u put a knot in your tongue, Mr. Foreman."
"Ce'tainly, if y'u prefer," returned the indomitable McWilliams.
"Shut up or I'll pump lead into you!"
"I'm padlocked, seh."
Nora Darling interrupted the dialogue by quietly fainting. The
foreman caught her as she fell.
"See what y'u done, y'u blamed chump!" he snapped.
CHAPTER 13. THE TWO COUSINS
The sheepman lay at his ease, the strong supple lines of him
stretched lazily on the lounge. Helen was sitting beside him in
an easy chair, and he watched the play of her face in the
lamplight as she read from "The Little White Bird." She was very
good to see, so vitally alive and full of a sweet charm that half
revealed and half concealed her personality. The imagination with
which she threw herself into a discussion of the child fancies
portrayed by the Scotch writer captured his fancy. It delighted
him to tempt her into discussions that told him by suggestion
something of what she thought and was.
They were in animated debate when the door opened to admit
somebody else. He had stepped in so quietly that he stood there a
little while without being observed, smiling down at them with
triumphant malice behind the mask he wore. Perhaps it was the
black visor that was responsible for the Mephisto effect, since
it hid all the face but the leering eyes. These, narrowed to
slits, swept the room and came back to its occupants. He was a
tall man and well-knit, dressed incongruously in up-to-date
riding breeches and boots, in combination with the usual gray
shirt, knotted kerchief and wide-brimmed felt hat of the horseman
of the plains. The dust of the desert lay thick on him, without
in the least obscuring a certain ribald elegance, a distinction
of wickedness that rested upon him as his due. To this result his
debonair manner contributed, though it carried with it no
suggestion of weakness. To the girl who looked up and found him
there he looked indescribably sinister.
She half rose to her feet, dilated eyes fixed on him.
"Good evenin'. I came to make sure y'u got safe home, Miss
Messiter," he said.
The eyes of the two men clashed, the sheepman's stern and
unyielding, his cousin's lit with the devil of triumph. But out
of the faces of both men looked the inevitable conflict, the
declaration of war that never ends till death.
"I've been a heap anxious about y'u--couldn't sleep for worrying.
So I saddled up and rode in to find out if y'u were all right and
to inquire how Cousin Ned was getting along."
The sheepman, not deigning to move an inch from his position,
looked in silence his steady contempt.
"This conversation sounds a whole lot like a monologue up to
date," he continued. "Now, maybe y'u don't know y'u have the
honor of entertaining the King of the Bighorn." The man's brown
hand brushed the mask from his eyes and he bowed with mocking
deference. "Miss Messiter, allow me to introduce myself
again--Ned Bannister, train robber, rustler, kidnapper and
general bad man. But I ain't told y'u the worst yet. I'm cousin
to a sheepherder' and that's the lowest thing that walks."
He limped forward a few steps and sat down. "Thank you, I believe
I will stay a while since y'u both ask me so urgent. It isn't
often I meet with a welcome so hearty and straight from the
It was not hard to see how the likeness between them contributed
to the mistake that had been current concerning them. Side by
side, no man could have mistaken one for the other. The color of
their eyes, the shade of hair, even the cut of their features,
were different. But beneath all distinctions in detail ran a
family resemblance not to be denied. This man looked like his
cousin, the sheepman, as the latter might have done if all his
life he had given a free rein to evil passions.
The height, the build, the elastic tread of each, made further
contributions to this effect of similarity.
"What are you doing here?" They were the first words spoken by
the man on the lounge and they rang with a curt challenge.
"Come to inquire after the health of my dear cousin," came the
prompt silken answer.
"My dear cousin, y'u speak with such conviction that y'u almost
persuade me. But of course if I'm a villain I've got to live up
to my reputation. Haven't I, Miss Messiter?"
"Wouldn't it be better to live it down?" she asked with a
quietness that belied her terror. For there had been in his
manner a threat, not against her but against the man whom her
heart acknowledged as her lover.
He laughed. "Y'u're still hoping to make a Sunday school
superintendent out of me, I see. Y'u haven't forgot all your
schoolmarm ways yet, but I'll teach y'u to forget them."
The other cousin watched him with a cool, quiet glance that never
wavered. The outlaw was heavily armed, but his weapons were
sheathed, and, though there was a wary glitter behind the
vindictive exultation in his eyes, his capable hands betrayed no
knowledge of the existence of his revolvers. It was, he knew, to
be a moral victory, if one at all.
"Hope I'm not disturbing any happy family circle," he remarked,
and, taking two limping steps forward, he lifted the book from
the girl's unresisting hands. "H'm! Barrie. I don't go much on
him. He's too sissy for me. But I could have guessed the other
Ned Bannister would be reading something like that," he
concluded, a flicker of sneering contempt crossing his face.
"Perhaps y'u'll learn some time to attend to your own business,"
said the man on the couch quietly.
Hatred gleamed in the narrowed slits from which the soul of the
other cousin looked down at him. "I'm a philanthropist, and my
business is attending to other people's. They raise sheep, for
instance, and I market them."
The girl hastily interrupted. She had not feared for herself, but
she knew fear for the indomitable man she had nursed back to
life. "Won't you sit down, Mr. Bannister? Since you don't approve
our literature, perhaps we can find some other diversion more to
your taste." She smiled faintly.
The man turned in smiling divination of her purpose, and sat down
to play with her as a cat does with a mouse.
"Thank y'u, Miss Messiter, I believe I will. I called to thank
y'u for your kindness to my cousin as well as to inquire about
you. The word goes that y'u pulled my dear cousin back when death
was reaching mighty strong for him. Of course I feel grateful to
y'u. How is he getting along now?"
"He's doing very well, I think."
"That's ce'tainly good hearing," was his ironical response. "How
come he to get hurt, did y'u say?"
His sleek smile was a thing hateful to see.
"A hound bit me," explained the sheepman.
"Y'u don't say! I reckon y'u oughtn't to have got in its way. Did
y'u kill it?"
"That was surely a mistake, for it's liable to bite again."
The girl felt a sudden sickness at his honeyed cruelty, but
immediately pulled herself together. For whatever fiendish
intention might be in his mind she meant to frustrate it.
"I hear you are of a musical turn, Mr. Bannister. Won't you play
She had by chance found his weak spot. Instantly his eyes lit up.
He stepped across to the piano and began to look over the music,
though not so intently that he forgot to keep under his eye the
man on the lounge.
"H'm! Mozart, Grieg, Chopin, Raff, Beethoven. Y'u ce'tainly have
the music here; I wonder if y'u have the musician." He looked her
over with a bold, unscrupulous gaze. "It's an old trick to have
classical music on the rack and ragtime in your soul. Can y'u
"You will have to be the judge of that," she said.
He selected two of Grieg's songs and invited her to the piano. He
knew instantly that the Norwegian's delicate fancy and lyrical
feeling had found in her no inadequate medium of expression. The
peculiar emotional quality of the song "I Love Thee" seemed to
fill the room as she played. When she swung round on the stool at
its conclusion it was to meet a shining-eyed, musical enthusiast
instead of the villain she had left five minutes earlier.
"Y'u CAN play," was all he said, but the manner of it spoke
For nearly an hour he kept her at the piano, and when at last he
let her stop playing he seemed a man transformed.
"You have given me a great pleasure, a very great pleasure, Miss
Messiter," he thanked her warmly, his Western idiom sloughed with
his villainy for the moment. "It has been a good many months
since I have heard any decent music. With your permission I shall
Her hesitation was imperceptible. "Surely, if you wish." She felt
it would be worse than idle to deny the permission she might not
be able to refuse.
With perfect grace he bowed, and as he wheeled away met with a
little shock of remembrance the gaze of his cousin. For a long
moment their eyes bored into each other. Neither yielded the beat
of an eyelid, but it was the outlaw that spoke.
"I had forgotten y'u. That's strange, too because it was for y'u
I came. I'm going to take y'u home with me.
"Alive or dead?" asked the other serenely.
"Alive, dear Ned."
"Same old traits cropping out again. There was always something
feline about y'u. I remember when y'u were a boy y'u liked to
torment wild animals y'u had trapped."
"I play with larger game now--and find it more interesting."
"Just so. Miss Messiter, I shall have to borrow a pony from y'u,
unless--" He broke off and turned indifferently to the bandit.
"Yes, I brought a hawss along with me for y'u," replied the other
to the unvoiced question. "I thought maybe y'u might want to ride
"But he can't ride. He couldn't possibly. It would kill him," the
girl broke out.
"I reckon not." The man from the Shoshones glanced at his victim
as he drew on his gauntlets. "He's a heap tougher than y'u
"But it will. If he should ride now, why--It would be the same as
murder," she gasped. "You wouldn't make him ride now?"
"Didn't y'u hear him order his hawss, ma'am? He's keen on this
ride. Of course he don't have to go unless he wants to." The man
turned his villainous smile on his cousin, and the latter
interpreted it to mean that if he preferred, the point of attack
might be shifted to the girl. He might go or he might stay. But
if he stayed the mistress of the Lazy D would have to pay for his
"No, I'll ride," he said at once.
Helen Messiter had missed the meaning of that Marconied message
that flashed between them. She set her jaw with decision. "Well,
you'll not. It's perfectly ridiculous. I won't hear of such a
"Y'u seem right welcome. Hadn't y'u better stay, Ned?" murmured
the outlaw, with smiling eyes that mocked.
"Of course he had. He couldn't ride a mile-- not half a mile. The
idea is utterly preposterous."
The sheepman got to his feet unsteadily. " I'll do famously."
"I won't have it. Why are you so foolish about going? He said you
didn't need to go. You can't ride any more than a baby could chop
down that pine in the yard."
"I'm a heap stronger than y'u think."
"Yes, you are!" she derided. "It's nothing but obstinacy. Make
him stay," she appealed to the outlaw.
"Am I my cousin's keeper?" he drawled. "I can advise him to stay,
but I can't make him."
"Well, I can. I'm his nurse, and I say he sha'n't stir a foot out
of this house--not a foot."
The wounded man smiled quietly, admiring the splendid energy of
her. "I'm right sorry to leave y'u so unceremoniously."
"You're not going." She wheeled on the outlaw "I don't understand
this at all. But if you want him you can find him here when you
come again. Put him on parole and leave him here. I'll not be a
party to murder by letting him go."
"Y'u think I'm going to murder him?" he smiled.
"I think he cannot stand the riding. It would kill him."
"A haidstrong man is bound to have his way. He seems hell-bent on
riding. All the docs say the outside of a hawss is good for the
inside of a man. Mebbe it'll be the making of him."
"I won't have it. I'll rouse the whole countryside against you.
Why don't you parole him till he is better?"
"All right. We'll leave it that way," announced the man. "I'd
hate to hurt your tender feelings after such a pleasant evening.
Let him give his parole to come to me whenever I send for him, no
matter where he may be, to quit whatever he is doing right that
instant, and come on the jump. If he wants to leave it that way,
we'll call it a bargain."
Again the rapier-thrust of their eyes crossed. The sheepman was
satisfied with what he saw in the face of his foe.
"All right. It's a deal," he agreed, and sank weakly back to the
There are men whose looks are a profanation to any good woman.
Ned Bannister, of the Shoshones, was one of them. He looked at
his cousin, and his ribald eyes coasted back to bold scrutiny of
this young woman's charming, buoyant youth. There was Something
in his face that sent a flush of shame coursing through her rich
blood. No man had ever looked at her like that before.
"Take awful good care of him," he sneered, with so plain an
implication of evil that her clean blood boiled. "But I know y'u
will, and don't let him go before he's real strong."
"No," she murmured, hating herself for the flush that bathed her.
He bowed like a Chesterfield, and went out with elastic heels,
Helen turned fiercely on her guest. "Why did you make me insist
on your staying? As if I want you here, as if--" She stopped,
choking with anger; presently flamed out, "I hate you," and ran
from the room to hide herself alone with her tears and her shame.
CHAPTER 14. FOR THE WORLD'S CHAMPIONSHIP
The scene on which Helen Messiter's eyes rested that mellow
Fourth of July was vivid enough to have interested a far more
jaded mind than hers. Nowhere outside of Cattleland could it have
been duplicated. Wyoming is sparsely populated, but the riders of
the plains think nothing of traveling a hundred miles in the
saddle to be present at a "broncobusting" contest. Large
delegations, too, had come in by railroad from Caspar, Billings,
Sheridan, Cheyenne and a score of other points, so that the
amphitheatre that looked down on the arena was filled to its
All night the little town had rioted with its guests. Everything
was wide open at Gimlet Butte. Saloons were doing a land-office
business and gambling-houses coining money. Great piles of gold
had passed to and fro during the night at the roulette wheel and
the faro table. But with the coming of day interest had centered
on the rough-riding contest for the world's championship. Saloons
and dance halls were deserted, and the universal trend of travel
had been toward the big grand stands, from which the sport could
be best viewed.
It was afternoon now. The preliminaries had been ridden, and half
a dozen of the best riders had been chosen by the judges to ride
again for the finals. Helen was wonderfully interested, because
in the six who were to ride again were included the two Bannister
cousins, her foreman, McWilliams, the young man "Texas," whom she
had met the day of her arrival at Gimlet Butte, and Tom Sanford,
who had last year won the championship.
She looked down on the arena, and her heart throbbed with the
pure joy of life. Already she loved her West and its picturesque,
chap-clad population. Their jingling spurs and their colored
kerchiefs knotted round sunburned necks, their frank,
whole-hearted abandon to the interest of the moment, led her to
regard these youths as schoolboys. Yet they were a hard-bitten
lot, as one could see, burned to a brick-red by the untempered
sun of the Rockies; with muscles knit like steel, and hearts
toughened to endure any blizzard they might meet. Only the
humorous wrinkles about the corners of their eyes gave them away
for the cheerful sons of mirth that they were.
"Bob Austin on Two-Step," announced the megaphone man, and a
little stir eddied through the group gathered at the lane between
the arena and the corral.
A meek-looking buckskin was driven into the arena. The embodiment
of listlessness, it apparently had not ambition enough to flick a
fly from its flank with its tail. Suddenly the bronco's ears
pricked, its sharp eyes dilated. A man was riding forward, the
loop of a lariat circling about his head. The rope fell true, but
the wily pony side-stepped, and the loop slithered to the ground.
Again the rope shot forward, dropped over the pony's head and
tightened. The roper's mustang braced its forefeet, and brought
the buckskin up short. Another rope swept over its head. It stood
trembling, unable to move without strangling itself.
A picturesque youth in flannel shirt and chaps came forward,
dragging blanket, saddle and bridle. At sight of him the horse
gave a spasmodic fling, then trembled again violently. A blind
was coaxed over its eyes and the bridle slipped on. Quickly and
warily, with deft fingers, the young man saddled and cinched. He
waved a hand jauntily to the ropers. The lariats were thrown off
as the puncher swung to the saddle. For an instant the buckskin
stood bewildered, motionless as a statue. There was a sudden leap
forward high in air, and Bob Austin, alias "Texas," swung his
sombrero with a joyous whoop.
"Fan him! Fan him!" screamed the spectators, and the rider's
quirt went up and down like a piston-rod.
Round and round went Two-Step in a vicious circle, "swapping
ends" with dizzying rapidity. Suddenly he went forward as from a
catapult, and came to sudden halt in about five seconds. But
Texas's knees still clung, viselike, to the sides of the pony. A
series of quick bucks followed, the buckskin coming down with
back humped, all four legs stiff as iron posts. The jar on the
rider would have been like a pile-driver falling on his head had
he not let himself grow limp. The buckskin plunged forward again
in frenzied leaps, ending in an unexpected jump to one side. Alas
for Texas! One moment he was jubilantly plying quirt and spurs,
the next he found himself pitching sideways. To save himself he
caught at the saddle-horn.
"He's hunting leather," shouted a hundred voices.
One of the judges rode out and waved a hand. Texas slipped to the
ground disqualified, and made his dejected way back to his
deriding comrades. Some of them had endured similar misfortunes
earlier in the day. Therefore they found much pleasure in
condoling with him.
"If he'd only recollected to saw off the horn of his saddle, then
he couldn't 'a' found it when he went to hunt leather,"
mournfully commented one puncher in a shirt of robin's egg blue.
"'Twould have been most as good as to take the dust, wouldn't
it?" retorted Texas gently, and the laugh was on the gentleman in
blue, because he had been thrown earlier in the day.
"A fellow's hands sure get in his way sometimes. I reckon if
you'd tied your hands, Tex, you'd been riding that rocking-hawss
yet," suggested Denver amiably.
"Sometimes it's his foot he puts in it. There was onct a gent
disqualified for riding on his spurs," said Texas reminiscently.
At which hit Denver retired, for not three hours before he had
been detected digging his spurs into the cinch to help him stick
to the saddle.
"Jim McWilliams will ride Dead Easy," came the announcement
through the megaphone, and a burst of cheering passed along the
grand stand, for the sunny smile of the foreman of the Lazy D
made him a general favorite. Helen leaned forward and whispered
something gaily to Nora, who sat in the seat in front of her. The
Irish girl laughed and blushed, but when her mistress looked up
it was her turn to feel the mounting color creep into her cheeks.
For Ned Bannister, arrayed in all his riding finery, was making
his way along the aisle to her.
She had not seen him since he had ridden away from the Lazy D ten
days before, quite sufficiently recovered from his wounds to take
up the routine of life again. They had parted not the best of
friends, for she had not yet forgiven him for his determination
to leave with his cousin on the night that she had been forced to
insist on his remaining. He had put her in a false position, and
he had never explained to her why. Nor could she guess the
reason--for he was not a man to harvest credit for himself by
explaining his own chivalry.
Since her heart told her how glad she was he had come to her box
to see her, she greeted him with the coolest little nod in the
"Good morning, Miss Messiter. May I sit beside y'u?" he asked.
"Oh, certainly!" She swept her skirts aside carelessly and made
room for him. "I thought you were going to ride soon."
"No, I ride last except for Sanford, the champion. My cousin
rides just before me. He's entered under the name of Jack
She was thinking that he had no business to be riding, that his
wounds were still too fresh, but she did not intend again to show
interest enough in his affairs to interfere even by suggestion.
Her heart had been in her mouth every moment of the time this
morning while he had been tossed hither and thither on the back
of his mount. In his delirium he had said he loved her. If he
did, why should he torture her so? It was well enough for sound
men to risk their lives, but--
A cheer swelled in the grand stand and died breathlessly away.
McWilliams was setting a pace it would take a rare expert to
equal. He was a trick rider, and all the spectacular feats that
appealed to the onlooker were his. While his horse was wildly
pitching, he drank a bottle of pop and tossed the bottle away.
With the reins in his teeth he slipped off his coat and vest, and
concluded a splendid exhibition of skill by riding with his feet
out of the stirrups. He had been smoking a cigar when he mounted.
Except while he had been drinking the pop it had been in his
mouth from beginning to end, and, after he had vaulted from the
pony's back, he deliberately puffed a long smoke-spiral into the
air, to show that his cigar was still alight. No previous rider
had earned so spontaneous a burst of applause. "He's ce'tainly a
pure when it comes to riding," acknowledged Bannister. "I look to
see him get either first or second."
"Whom do you think is his most dangerous rival?" Helen asked.
"My cousin is a straight-up rider, too. He's more graceful than
Mac, I think, but not quite so good on tricks. It will be nip and
"How about your cousin's cousin?" she asked, with bold irony.
"He hopes he won't have to take the dust," was his laughing
The next rider suffered defeat irrevocably before he had been
thirty seconds in the saddle. His mount was one of the most
cunning of the outlaw ponies of the Northwest, and it brought him
to grief by jamming his leg hard against the fence. He tried in
vain to spur the bronco into the middle of the arena, but after
it drove at a post for the third time and ground his limb against
it, he gave up to the pain and slipped off.
"That isn't fair, is it?" Helen asked of the young man sitting
He shrugged his lean, broad shoulders. "He should have known how
to keep the horse in the open. Mac would never have been caught
"Jack Holloway on Rocking Horse," the announcer shouted.
It took four men and two lariats to subdue this horse to a
condition sufficiently tame to permit of a saddle being slipped
on. Even then this could not be accomplished without throwing the
bronco first. The result was that all the spirit was taken out of
the animal by the preliminary ordeal, so that when the man from
the Shoshone country mounted, his steed was too jaded to attempt
"Thumb him! Thumb him!" the audience cried, referring to the
cowboy trick of running the thumbs along a certain place in the
shoulder to stir the anger of the bucker.
But the rider slipped off with disgust. "Give me another horse,"
he demanded, and after a minute's consultation among the judges a
second pony was driven out from the corral. This one proved to be
a Tartar. It went off in a frenzy of pitching the moment its
rider dropped into the saddle.
"Y'u'll go a long way before you see better ridin' than his and
Mac's. Notice how he gives to its pitching," said Bannister, as
he watched his cousin's perfect ease in the cyclone of which he
was the center.
"I expect it depends on the kind of a 'hawss,'" she mocked. "He's
riding well, isn't he?"
"I don't know any that ride better."
The horse put up a superb fight, trying everything it knew to
unseat this demon clamped to its back. It possessed in
combination all the worst vices, was a weaver, a sunfisher and a
fence-rower, and never had it tried so desperately to maintain
its record of never having been ridden. But the outlaw in the
saddle was too much for the outlaw underneath. He was master,
just as he was first among the ruffians whom he led, because
there was in him a red-hot devil of wickedness that would brook
The furious bronco surrendered without an instant's warning, and
its rider slipped at once to the ground. As he sauntered through
the dust toward the grand stand, Helen could not fail to see how
his vanity sunned itself in the applause that met his
performance. His equipment was perfect to the least detail. The
reflection from a lady's looking-glass was no brighter than the
silver spurs he jingled on his sprightly heels. Strikingly
handsome in a dark, sinister way, one would say at first sight,
and later would chafe at the justice of a verdict not to be
Ned Bannister rose from his seat beside Helen. "Wish me luck," he
said, with his gay smile.
"I wish you all the luck you deserve," she answered.
"Oh, wish me more than that if y'u want me to win."
"I didn't say I wanted you to win. You take the most
unaccountable things for granted."
"I've a good mind to win, then, just to spite y'u," he laughed.
"As if you could," she mocked; but her voice took a softer
intonation as she called after him in a low murmur: "Be careful,
His white teeth flashed a smile of reassurance at her. "I've
never been killed yet."
"Ned Bannister on Steamboat," sang out the megaphone man.
"I'm ce'tainly in luck. Steamboat's the worst hawss on the
range," he told himself, as he strode down the grand stand to
enter the arena.
The announcement of his name created for the second time that day
a stir of unusual interest. Everybody in that large audience had
heard of Ned Bannister; knew of his record as a "bad man" and his
prowess as the king of the Shoshone country; suspected him of
being a train and bank robber as well as a rustler. That he
should have the boldness to enter the contest in his own name
seemed to show how defiant he was of the public sentiment against
him, and how secure he counted himself in flaunting this
contempt. As for the sheepman, the notoriety that his cousin's
odorous reputation had thrust upon him was extremely distasteful
as well as dangerous, but he had done nothing to disgrace his
name, and he meant to use it openly. He could almost catch the
low whispers that passed from mouth to mouth about him.
"Ain't it a shame that a fellow like that, leader of all the
criminals that hide in the mountains, can show himself openly
before ten thousand honest folks?" That he knew to be the purport
of their whispering, and along with it went a recital of the
crimes he had committed. How he was a noted "waddy," or
cattle-rustler; how he and his gang had held up three trains in
eighteen months; how he had killed Tom Mooney, Bob Carney and
several others--these were the sorts of things that were being
said about him, and from the bottom of his soul he resented his
impotency to clear his name.
There was something in Bannister's riding that caught Helen's
fancy at once. It was the unconscious grace of the man, the ease
with which he seemed to make himself a very part of the horse. He
attempted no tricks, rode without any flourishes. But the perfect
poise of his lithe body as it gave with the motions of the horse,
proclaimed him a born rider; so finished, indeed, that his very
ease seemed to discount the performance. Steamboat had a
malevolent red eye that glared hatred at the oppressor man, and
to-day it lived up to its reputation of being the most vicious
and untamed animal on the frontier. But, though it did its best
to unseat the rider and trample him underfoot, there was no
moment when the issue seemed in doubt save once. The horse flung
itself backward in a somersault, risking its own neck in order to
break its master's. But he was equal to the occasion; and when
Steamboat staggered again to its feet Bannister was still in the
saddle. It was a daring and magnificent piece of horsemanship,
and, though he was supposed to be a desperado and a ruffian, his
achievement met with a breathless gasp, followed by thunderous
The battle between horse and man was on again, for the animal was
as strong almost in courage as the rider. But Steamboat's
confidence had been shaken as well as its strength. Its efforts
grew less cyclonic. Foam covered its mouth and flecked its sides.
The pitches were easy to foresee and meet. Presently they ceased
Bannister slid from the saddle and swayed unsteadily across the
arena. The emergency past, he had scarce an ounce of force left
in him. Jim McWilliams ran out and slipped an arm around his
shoulders, regardless of what his friends might think of him for
"You're all in, old man. Y'u hadn't ought to have ridden, even
though y'u did skin us all to a finish."
"Nonsense, Mac. First place goes to y'u or--or Jack Holloway."
"Not unless the judges are blind."
But Bannister's prediction proved true. The champion, Sanford,
had been traveling with a Wild West show, and was far too soft to
compete with these lusty cowboys, who had kept hard from their
daily life on the plains. Before he had ridden three minutes it
was apparent that he stood no chance of retaining his title, so
that the decision narrowed itself to an issue between the two
Bannisters and McWilliams. First place was awarded to the latter,
the second prize to Jack Holloway and the third to Ned Bannister.
But nearly everybody in the grand stand knew that Bannister had
been discriminated against because of his unpopularity. The
judges were not local men, and had nothing to fear from the
outlaw. Therefore they penalized him on account of his
reputation. It would never do for the Associated Press dispatches
to send word all over the East that a murderous desperado was
permitted, unmolested, to walk away with the championship belt.
"It ain't a square deal," declared McWilliams promptly.
He was sitting beside Nora, and he turned round to express his
opinion to the two sitting behind him in the box.
"We'll not go behind the returns. Y'u won fairly. I congratulate
y'u, Mr. Champion-of-the-world," replied the sheepman, shaking
"I told you to bring that belt to the Lazy D," smiled his
mistress, as she shook hands.
But in her heart she was crying out that it was an outrage.
CHAPTER 15. JUDD MORGAN PASSES
Gimlet Butte devoted the night of the Fourth to a high old time.
The roping and the other sports were to be on the morrow, and
meanwhile the night hours were filled with exuberance. The
cowboy's spree comes only once in several months, but when it
does come he enters into the occasion with such whole-hearted
enthusiasm as to make up swiftly for lost time. A traveling
midway had cast its tents in a vacant square in competition with
the regular attractions of the town, and everywhere the
hard-riding punchers were "night herding" in full regalia.
There was a big masked ball in the street, and another in the
Masonic Hall, while here and there flared the lights of the faker
with something to sell. Among these last was "Soapy" Sothern,
doing a thriving business in selling suckers and bars wrapped
with greenbacks. Crowds tramped the streets blowing horns and
throwing confetti, and everywhere was a large sprinkling of men
in high-heeled boots, swinging along with the awkward,
stiff-legged gait of the cowboy. Sometimes a girl was hanging on
his arm, and again he was "whooping it up with the boys"; but in
either case the range-rider's savings were burning a hole through
his pockets with extreme rapidity.
Jim McWilliams and the sheepman Bannister had that day sealed a
friendship that was to be as enduring as life. The owner of the
sheep ranch was already under heavy obligation to the foreman of
the Lazy D, but debt alone is not enough on which to found soul
brotherhood. There must be qualities of kinship in the primeval
elements of character. Both men had suspected that this kinship
existed, but to-day they had proved it in the way that one had
lost and the other had won the coveted championship. They had
made no vows and no professions. The subject had not even been
touched in words; a meeting of the eyes, followed by the
handshake with which Bannister had congratulated the winner. That
had been all. But it was enough.
With the casual democracy of the frontier they had together
escorted Helen Messiter and Nora Darling through a riotous three
hours of carnival, taking care to get them back to their hotel
before the night really began "to howl."
But after they had left the young women, neither of them cared to
sleep yet. They were still in costume, Mac dressed as a monk, and
his friend as a Stuart cavalier, and the spirit of frolic was yet
strong in them.
"I expaict, mebbe, we better hunt in couples if we're going to
help paint the town," smiled Mac, and his friend had immediately
It must have been well after midnight that they found themselves
"bucking the tiger" in a combination saloon and gambling-house,
whose patrons were decidedly cosmopolitan in character. Here
white and red and yellow men played side by side, the Orient and
the Occident and the aboriginal alike intent on the falling cards
and the little rolling ball. A good many of them were still in
their masks and dominos, though these, for the most part, removed
their vizors before playing.
Neither McWilliams nor his friend were betting high, and the luck
had been so even that at the end of two hours' play neither of
them had at any time either won or lost more than fifteen
dollars. In point of fact, they were playing not so much to win
as just to keep in touch with the gay, youthful humor of the
They were getting tired of the game when two men jingled in for a
drink. They were talking loudly together, and it was impossible
to miss the subject of their conversation.
McWilliams gave a little jerk of his head toward one of them.
"Judd Morgan," his lips framed without making a sound.
"Been tanking up all day," Mac added. "Otherwise his tongue would
not be shooting off so reckless."
A silence had fallen over the assembly save for the braggarts at
the bar. Men looked at each other, and then furtively at
Bannister. For Morgan, ignorant of who was sitting quietly with
his back to him at the faro-table, was venting his hate of
Bannister and McWilliams.
"Both in the same boat. Did y'u see how Mac ran to help him
to-day? Both waddies. Both rustlers. Both train robbers. Sho! I
got through putting a padlock on me mouth. Man to man, I'm as
good as either of them--damn sight better. I wisht they was here,
one or both; I wisht they would step up here and fight it out.
Bannister's a false alarm, and that foreman of the Lazy D--" His
tongue stumbled over a blur of vilification that ended with a
foul mention of Miss Messiter.
Instantly two chairs crashed to the floor. Two pair of gray eyes
"My quarrel, Bann," said Jim, in a low, even voice.
The other nodded. "I'll see y'u have a clear field."
The man who was with Morgan suddenly whispered in his ear, and
the latter slewed his head in startled fear. Almost instantly a
bullet clipped past McWilliams's shoulder. Morgan had fired
without waiting for the challenge he felt sure was at hand.
Once--twice the foreman's revolver made answer. Morgan staggered,
slipped down to the floor, a bullet crashing through the
chandelier as he fell. For a moment his body jerked. Then he
rolled over and lay still.
The foreman's weapon covered him unwaveringly, but no more
steadily than Bannister's gaze the man who had come in with him
who lay lifeless on the floor. The man looked at the lifeless
thing, shuddered, and backed out of the saloon.
"I call y'u all to witness that my friend killed him in
self-defense," said Bannister evenly. "Y'u all saw him fire
first. Mac did not even have his gun out."
"That's right," agreed one, and another added: "He got what was
coming to him."
"He sure did," was the barkeeper's indorsement. "He came in
hunting trouble, but I reckon he didn't want to be accommodated
"Y'u'll find us at the Gimlet Butte House if we're wanted for
this," said Bannister. "We'll be there till morning."
But once out of the gambling-house McWilliams drew his friend to
one side. "Do y'u know who that was I killed?"
"Judd Morgan, foreman before y'u at the Lazy D."
"Yes, but what else?"
"What do y'u mean?"
"I mean that next to your cousin Judd was leader of that
"How do y'u know?"
"I suspected it a long time, but I knew for sure the day that
your cousin held up the ranch. The man that was in charge of the
crowd outside was Morgan. I could swear to it. I knew him soon as
I clapped eyes to him, but I was awful careful to forget to tell
him I recognized him."
"That means we are in more serious trouble than I had supposed."
"Y'u bet it does. We're in a hell of a hole, figure it out any
way y'u like. Instead of having shot up a casual idiot, I've
killed Ned Bannister's right-hand man. That will be the
excuse--shooting Morgan. But the real trouble is that I won the
championship belt from your cousin. He already hated y'u like
poison, and he don't love me any too hard. He will have us
arrested by his sheriff here. Catch the point. Y'U'RE NED
BANNISTER, THE OUTLAW, AND I'M HIS RIGHT-BOWER. That's the play
he's going to make, and he's going to make it right soon."
"I don't care if he does. We'll fight him on his own ground.
We'll prove that he's the miscreant and not us."
"Prove nothing," snarled McWilliams. "Do y'u reckon he'll give us
a chance to prove a thing? Not on your life. He'll have us jailed
first thing; then he'll stir up a sentiment against us, and
before morning there will be a lynchingbee, and y'u and I will
wear the neckties. How do y'u like the looks of it?"
"But y'u have a lot of friends. They won't stand for anything
"Not if they had time to stop it. Trouble is, fellow's friends
think awful slow. They'll arrive in time to cut us down and be
the mourners. No, sir! It's a hike for Jimmie Mac on the back of
the first bronc he can slap a saddle on."
Bannister frowned. "I don't like to run before the scurvy
"Do y'u suppose I'm enjoying it? Not to any extent, I allow. But
that sweet relative of yours holds every ace in the deck, and
he'll play them, too. He owns the law in this man's town, and he
owns the lawless. But the best card he holds is that he can get a
thousand of the best people here to join him in hanging the
'king' of the Shoshone outlaws. Explanations nothing! Y'u rode
under the name of Bannister, didn't y'u? He's Jack Holloway."
"It does make a strong combination," admitted the sheepman.
"Strong! It's invincible. I can see him playing it, laughing up
his sleeve all the time at the honest fools he is working. No,
sir! I draw out of a game like that. Y'u don't get a run for your
"Of course he knows already what has happened," mused Bannister.
"Sure he knows. That fellow with Morgan made a bee-line for him.
Just about now he's routing the sheriff out of his bed. We got no
time to lose. Thing is, to burn the wind out of this town while
we have the chance."
"I see. It won't help us any to be spilling lead into a sheriff's
posse. That would ce'tainly put us in the wrong."
"Now y'u're shouting. If we're honest men why don't we surrender
peaceable? That's the play the 'king' is going to make in this
town. Now if we should spoil a posse and bump off one or two of
them, we couldn't pile up evidence enough to get a jury to
acquit. No, sir! We can't surrender and we can't fight.
Consequence is, we got to roll our tails immediate."
"We have an appointment with Miss Messiter and Nora for to-morrow
morning. We'll have to leave word we can't keep it."
"Sure. Denver and Missou are playing the wheel down at the Silver
Dollar. I reckon we better make those boys jump and run errands
for us while we lie low. I'll drop in casual and give them the
word. Meet y'u here in ten minutes. Whatever y'u do, keep that
mask on your face."
"Better meet farther from the scene of trouble. Suppose we say
the north gate of the grand stand?"
"Good enough. So-long."
The first faint streaks of day were beginning to show on the
horizon when Bannister reached the grand stand. He knew that
inside of another half-hour the little frontier town would be
blinking in the early morning sunlight that falls so brilliantly
through the limpid atmosphere. If they were going to leave
without fighting their way out there was no time to lose.
Ten minutes slowly ticked away.
He glanced at his watch. "Five minutes after four. I wish I had
gone with Mac. He may have been recognized."
But even as the thought flitted through his mind, the
semi-darkness opened to let a figure out of it.
"All quiet along the Potomac, seh?" asked the foreman's blithe
voice. "Good. I found the boys and got them started." He flung
down a Mexican vaquero's gaily trimmed costume.
"Get into these, seh. Denver shucked them for me. That coyote
must have noticed what we wore before he slid out. Y'u can bet
the orders are to watch for us as we were dressed then."
"What are y u going to do?"
"Me? I'm scheduled to be Aaron Burr, seh. Missou swaps with me
when he gets back here. They're going to rustle us some white
men's clothes, too, but we cayn't wear them till we get out of
town on account of showing our handsome faces."
"What about horses?"
"Denver is rustling some for us. Y'u better be scribbling your
billy-doo to the girl y'u leave behind y'u, seh."
"Haven't y'u got one to scribble?" Bannister retorted. "Seems to
me y'u better get busy, too."
So it happened that when Missou arrived a few minutes later he
found this pair of gentlemen, who were about to flee for their
lives, busily inditing what McWilliams had termed facetiously
billets-doux. Each of them was trying to make his letter a little
warmer than friendship allowed without committing himself to any
chance of a rebuff. Mac got as far as Nora Darling,
absentmindedly inserted a comma between the words, and there
stuck hopelessly. He looked enviously across at Bannister, whose
pencil was traveling rapidly down his note-book.
"My, what a swift trail your pencil leaves on that paper. That's
going some. Mine's bogged down before it got started. I wisht y'u
would start me off."
"Well, if you ain't up and started a business college already. I
had ought to have brought a typewriter along with me," murmured
"How are things stacking? Our friends the enemy getting busy
yet?" asked Bannister, folding and addressing his note.
"That's what. Orders gone out to guard every road so as not to
let you pass. What's the matter with me rustling up the boys and
us holding down a corner of this town ourselves?"
The sheepman shook his head. "We're not going to start a little
private war of our own. We couldn't do that without spilling a
lot of blood. No, we'll make a run for it."
"That y'u, Denver?" the foreman called softly, as the sound of
approaching horses reached him.
"Bet your life. Got your own broncs, too. Sheriff Burns called up
Daniels not to let any horses go out from his corral to anybody
without his O.K. I happened to be cinching at the time the 'phone
message came, so I concluded that order wasn't for me, and lit
out kinder unceremonious."
Hastily the fugitives donned the new costumes and dominos, turned
their notes over to Denver, and swung to their saddles.
"Good luck!" the punchers called after them, and Denver added an
ironical promise that the foreman had no doubt he would keep.
"I'll look out for Nora--Darling." There was a drawling pause
between the first and second names. "I'll ce'tainly see that she
don't have any time to worry about y'u, Mac."
"Y'u go to Halifax," returned Mac genially over his shoulder as
he loped away.
"I doubt if we can get out by the roads. Soon as we reach the end
of the street we better cut across that hayfield," suggested Ned.
"That's whatever. Then we'll slip past the sentries without being
seen. I'd hate to spoil any of them if we can help it. We're
liable to get ourselves disliked if our guns spatter too much."
They rode through the main street, still noisy with the shouts of
late revelers returning to their quarters. Masked men were yet in
evidence occasionally, so that their habits caused neither remark
nor suspicion. A good many of the punchers, unable to stay
longer, were slipping out of town after having made a night of
it. In the general exodus the two friends hoped to escape
They dropped into a side street, galloped down it for two hundred
yards, and dismounted at a barb-wire fence which ran parallel
with the road. The foreman's wire-clippers severed the strands
one by one, and they led their horses through the gap. They
crossed an alfalfa-field, jumped an irrigation ditch, used the
clippers again, and found themselves in a large pasture. It was
getting lighter every moment, and while they were still in the
pasture a voice hailed them from the road in an unmistakable
command to halt.
They bent low over the backs of their ponies and gave them the
spur. The shot they had expected rang out, passing harmlessly
over them. Another followed, and still another.
"That's right. Shoot up the scenery. Y'u don't hurt us none," the
foreman said, apostrophizing the man behind the gun.
The next clipped fence brought them to the open country. For half
an hour they rode swiftly without halt. Then McWilliams drew up.
"Where are we making for?"
"How about the Wind River country?"
"Won't do. First off, they'll strike right down that way after
us. What's the matter with running up Sweetwater Creek and lying
out in the bad lands around the Roubideaux?"
"Good. I have a sheep-camp up that way. I can arrange to have
grub sent there for us by a man I can trust."
"All right. The Roubideaux goes."
While they were nooning at a cow-spring, Bannister, lying on his
back, with his face to the turquoise sky, became aware that a
vagrant impulse had crystallized to a fixed determination. He
broached it at once to his companion.
"One thing is a cinch, Mac. Neither y'u nor I will be safe in
this country now until we have broken up the gang of desperadoes
that is terrorizing this country. If we don't get them they will
get us. There isn't any doubt about that. I'm not willing to lie
down before these miscreants. What do y'u say?"
"I'm with y'u, old man. But put a name to it. What are y'u
"I'm proposing that y'u and I make it our business not to have
any other business until we clean out this nest of wolves. Let's
go right after them, and see if we can't wipe out the
"How? They own the law, don't they?"
"They don't own the United States Government. When they held up a
mail-train they did a fool thing, for they bucked up against
Uncle Sam. What I propose is that we get hold of one of the gang
and make him weaken. Then, after we have got hold of some
evidence that will convict, we'll go out and run down my namesake
Ned Bannister. If people once get the idea that his hold isn't so
strong there's a hundred people that will testify against him.
We'll have him in a Government prison inside of six months."
"Or else he'll have us in a hole in the ground," added the
"One or the other," admitted Bannister. "Are y'u in on this
"I surely am. Y'u're the best man I've met up with in a month of
Sundays, seh. Y'u ain't got but one fault; and that is y'u don't
smoke cigareets. Feed yourself about a dozen a day and y'u won't
have a blamed trouble left. Match, seh?" The foreman of the Lazy
D, already following his own advice, rolled deftly his smoke,
moistened it and proceeded to blow away his troubles.
Bannister looked at his debonair insouciance and laughed. "Water
off a duck's back," he quoted. "I know some folks that would be
sweating fear right now. It's ce'tainly an aggravating situation,
that of being an honest man hunted as a villain by a villain. But
I expaict my cousin's enjoying it."
"He ain't enjoying it so much as he would if his plans had worked
out a little smoother. He's holding the sack right now and
cussing right smaht over it being empty, I reckon."
"He did lock the stable door a little too late," chuckled the
sheepman. But even as he spoke a shadow fell over his face. "My
God! I had forgotten. Y'u don't suppose he would take it out of
"Not unless he's tired of living," returned her foreman, darkly.
"One thing, this country won't stand for is that. He's got to
keep his hands off women or he loses out. He dassent lay a hand
on them if they don't want him to. That's the law of the plains,
"That's the unwritten law for the bad man, but I notice it
doesn't seem to satisfy y'u, my friend. Y'u and I know that my
cousin, Ned Bannister, doesn't acknowledge any law, written or
unwritten. He's a devil and he has no fear. Didn't he kidnap her
"He surely would never dare touch those young ladies. But--I
don't know. Bann, I guess we better roll along toward the Lazy D
country, after all."
"I think so." Ned looked at his friend with smiling drollery. "I
thought y'u smoked your troubles away, Jim. This one seems to
McWilliams grinned sheepishly. "There's one trouble won't be
smoked away. It kinder dwells. "Then, apparently apropos of
nothing, he added, irrelevantly: "Wonder what Denver's doing
"Probably keeping that appointment y'u ran away from," bantered
"I'll bet he is. Funny how some men have all the luck," murmured
the despondent foreman.
CHAPTER 16. HUNTING BIG GAME
In point of fact, Denver's occupation at that moment was
precisely what they had guessed it to be. He was sitting beside
Nora Darling in the grand stand, explaining to her the fine
points of "roping." Mr. Bob Austin, commonly known as "Texas,"
was meanwhile trying to make himself agreeable to Helen Messiter.
Truth to tell, both young women listened with divided interest to
their admirers. Both of them had heard the story of the night,
and each of them had tucked away in her corsage a scribbled note
she wanted to get back to her room and read again. That the
pursuit was still on everybody knew, and those on the inside were
aware that the "King," masquerading under the name of Jack
Holloway, was the active power behind the sheriff stimulating the
It was after the roping had begun, and Austin had been called
away to take his turn, that the outlaw chief sauntered along the
aisle of the grand stand to the box in which was seated the
mistress of the Lazy D.
"Beautiful mo'ning, isn't it? Delightfully crisp and clear," he
said by way of introduction, stopping at her box.
She understood the subtle jeer in his manner, and her fine
courage rose to meet it. There was a daring light in her eye, a
buoyant challenge in her voice as she answered:
"It is a splendid morning. I'm not surprised you are enjoying
"Did I say I was enjoying it?" He laughed as he lifted the bar,
came into her box and took a seat.
"Of course not. How careless of me! I had forgotten you were in
mourning for a deceased friend."
His dark eyes flashed. "I'll not mourn for him long. He was a
mighty trifling fellow, anyhow. Soon as I catch and hang his
murderers I'll quit wearing black."
"You may wear out several suits before then," she hit back.
"Don't y'u believe it; when I want a thing I don't quit till it's
She met his gaze, and the impact of eyes seemed to shock her
physically. The wickedness in him threatened, gloated, dominated.
She shivered in the warm sunlight, and would not have had him
know it for worlds.
"Dear me! How confident you talk. Aren't you sometimes
"Temporarily. But when I want a thing I take it in the end."
She knew he was serving notice on her that he meant to win her;
and again the little spinal shiver raced over her. She could not
look at his sardonic, evil face without fear, and she could not
look away without being aware of his eyes possessing her. What
was the use of courage against such a creature as this?
"Yes, I understand you take a good deal that isn't yours," she
retorted carelessly, her eyes on the arena.
"I make it mine when I take it," he answered coolly, admiring the
gameness which she wore as a suit of chain armor against his
"Isn't it a little dangerous sometimes?" her even voice
countered. "When you take what belongs to others you run a risk,
"That's part of the rules. Except for that I shouldn't like it so
well. I hunt big game, and the bigger the game the more risk.
That's why y'u guessed right when y'u said I was enjoying the
"Well, no. I wasn't thinking of him, though he's some sizable.
But I'm hunting bigger game than he is, and I expect to bag it."
She let her scornful eyes drift slowly over him. "I might pretend
to misunderstand you. But I won't. You may have your answer now.
I am not afraid of you, for since you are a bully you must be a
coward. I saw a rattlesnake last week in the hills. It reminded
me of some one I have seen. I'll leave you to guess who."
Her answer drew blood. The black tide raced under the swarthy tan
of his face. He leaned forward till his beady eyes were close to
her defiant ones. "Y'u have forgotten one thing, Miss Messiter. A
rattlesnake can sting. I ask nothing of you. Can't I break your
heart without your loving me? You're only a woman--and not the
first I have broken, by God--"
His slim, lithe body was leaning forward so that it cut off
others, and left them to all intents alone. At a touch of her
fingers the handbag in her lap flew open and a little
ivory-hilted revolver lay in her hand.
"You may break me, but you'll never bend me an inch."
He looked at the little gun and laughed ironically. "Sho! If y'u
should hit me with that and I should find it out I might get mad
"Did I say it was for you?" she said coldly; and again the shock
of joined eyes ended in drawn battle.
"Have y'u the nerve?" He looked her over, so dainty and so
resolute, so silken strong; and he knew he had his answer.
His smoldering eyes burned with desire to snatch her to him and
ride away into the hills. For he was a man who lived in his
sensations. He had won many women to their hurt, but it was the
joy of conflict that made the pursuit worth while to him; and
this young woman, who could so delightfully bubble with little
laughs ready to spill over and was yet possessed of a spirit so
finely superior to the tenderness of her soft, round, maidenly
curves, allured him mightily to the attack.
She dropped the revolver back into the bag and shut the clasp
with a click, "And now I think, Mr. Bannister, that I'll not
detain you any longer. We understand each other sufficiently."
He rose with a laugh that mocked. "I expaict to spend quite a bit
of time understanding y'u one of these days. In the meantime this
is to our better acquaintance."
Deliberately, without the least haste, he stooped and kissed her
before she could rally from the staggering surprise of the
intention she read in his eyes too late to elude. Then, with the
coolest bravado in the world, he turned on his heel and strolled away.
Angry sapphires gleamed at him from under the long, brown lashes.
She was furious, aghast, daunted. By the merest chance she was
sitting in a corner of the box, so screened from observation that
none could see. But the insolence of him, the reckless defiance
of all standards of society, shook her even while it enraged her.
He had put forth his claim like a braggart, but he had made good
with an audacity superb in its effrontery. How she hated him! How
she feared him! The thoughts were woven inseparably in her mind.
Mephisto himself could not have impressed himself more
imperatively than this strutting, heartless master artist in
She saw him again presently down in the arena, for it was his
turn to show his skill at roping. Texas had done well; very well,
indeed. He had made the throw and tie in thirty-seven seconds,
which was two seconds faster than the record of the previous
year. But she knew instinctively, as her fascinated eyes watched
the outlaw preparing for the feat, that he was going to win. He
would use his success as a weapon against her; as a means of
showing her that he always succeeded in whatever he undertook. So
she interpreted he look he flung her as he waited at the chute
for the wild hill steer to be driven into the arena. It takes a
good man physically to make a successful roper. He must be
possessed of nerve, skill and endurance far out of the ordinary.
He must be quick-eyed, strong-handed, nimble of foot, expert of
hand and built like a wildcat. So Denver explained to the two
young women in the box, and the one behind him admitted
reluctantly that she long, lean, supple Centaur waiting
impassively at the gateway fitted the specifications.
Out flashed the rough-coated hill steer, wild and fleet as a
hare, thin and leggy, with muscles of whipcord. Down went the
flag, and the stopwatches began to tick off the seconds. Like an
arrow the outlaw's pony shot forward, a lariat circling round and
round the rider's head. At every leap the cow pony lessened the
gap as it pounded forward on the heels of the flying steer.
The loop swept forward and dropped over the horns of the animal.
The pony, with the perfect craft of long practice, swerved to one
side with a rush. The dragging rope swung up against the running
steer's legs, grew suddenly taut. Down went the steer's head, and
next moment its feet were swept from under it as it went heavily
to the ground. Man and horse were perfect in their team work. As
the supple rider slid from the back of the pony it ran to the end
of the rope and braced itself to keep the animal from rising.
Bannister leaped on the steer, tie-rope in hand. Swiftly his deft
hands passed to and fro, making the necessary loops and knots.
Then his hands went into the air. The steer was hog-tied.
For a few seconds the judges consulted together. "Twenty-nine
seconds," announced their spokesman, and at the words a great
cheer went up. Bannister had made his tie in record time.
Impudently the scoundrel sauntered up to the grand stand, bowed
elaborately to Miss Messiter, and perched himself on the fence,
where he might be the observed of all observers. It was curious,
she thought, how his vanity walked hand in hand with so much
power and force. He was really extraordinarily strong, but no
debutante's self-sufficiency could have excelled his. He was so
frankly an egotist that it ceased to be a weakness.
Back in her room at the hotel an hour later Helen paced up and
down under a nervous strain foreign to her temperament. She was
afraid; for the first time in her life definitely afraid. This
man pitted against her had deliberately divorced his life from
morality. In him lay no appeal to any conscience court of last
resort. But the terror of this was not for herself principally,
but for her flying lover. With his indubitable power, backed by
the unpopularity of the sheepman in this cattle country, the King
of the Bighorn could destroy his cousin if he set himself to do
so. Of this she was convinced, and her conviction carried a
certainty that he had the will as well as the means. If he had
lacked anything in motive she herself had supplied one. For she
was afraid that this villain had read her heart.
And as her hand went fluttering to her heart she found small
comfort in the paper lying next it that only a few hours before
had brought her joy. For at any moment a messenger might come in
to tell her that the writer of it had been captured and was to be
dealt with summarily in frontier fashion. At best her lover and
her friend were but fugitives from justice. Against them were
arrayed not only the ruffian followers of their enemy, but also
the lawfully constituted authorities of the county. Even if they
should escape to-day the net would tighten on them, and they
would eventually be captured.
For the third time since coming to Wyoming Helen found refuge in
CHAPTER 17. RUN TO EARTH
When word came to Denver and the other punchers of the Lazy D
that Reddy had been pressed into service as a guide for the posse
that was pursuing the fugitives they gave vent to their feelings
in choice profanity.