Part 5 out of 5
The lad's face blanched with fear, and his terror was so manifest
that the bully, who was threatening him with all manner of evils,
began to enjoy himself. Chalkeye, returning from watering the
horses, got back in time to hear the intemperate fag-end of the
scolding. He glanced at Hughie, whose hands were trembling in
spite of him, and then darkly at the brute who was attacking him.
But he said not a word.
The meal proceeded in silence except for jeers and taunts of the
"King." For nobody cared to venture conversation which might
prove a match to a powder magazine. Whatever thoughts might be
each man kept them to himself.
"Coffee," snapped the single talker, toward end of breakfast.
Hughie jumped up, filled the cup that was handed him and set the
coffee pot back on fire. As he handed the tin cup with the coffee
to the outlaw the lad's foot slipped on a piece wet wood, and the
hot liquid splashed over his chief's leg. The man jumped to his
feet in a rage and struck the boy across the face with his whip
once, and then again.
"By God, that'll do for you!" cried Chalkeye from the other side
of the fire, springing revolver in hand. "Draw, you coyote! I
The "King" wheeled, finding his weapon he turned. Two shots rang
out almost simultaneously, and Chalkeye pitched forward. The
outlaw chief sank to his knees, and, with one hand resting on the
ground to steady himself fired two more shots into the twitching
body on the other side of the fire. Then he, too, lurched forward
and rolled over.
It had come to climax so swiftly that not one of them had moved
except the combatants. Bannister rose and walked over to the
place where the body of his cousin lay. He knelt down and
examined him. When he rose it was with a very grave face.
"He is dead," he said quietly.
McWilliams, who had been bending over Chalkeye, looked up. "Here,
too. Any one of the shots would have finished him."
Bannister nodded. "Yes. That first exchange killed them both." He
looked down at the limp body of his cousin, but a minute before
so full of supple, virile life. "But his hate had to reach out
and make sure, even though he was as good as dead himself. He was
game." Then sharply to the young braggart, who had risen and was
edging away with a face of chalk: "Sit down, y'u! What do y'u
take us for? Think this is to be a massacre?"
The man came back with palpable hesitancy. "I was aiming to go
and get the boys to bury them. My God, did you ever see anything
so quick? They drilled through each other like lightning."
Mac looked him over with dry contempt. "My friend, y'u're too
tender for a genuwine A1 bad man. If I was handing y'u a bunch of
advice it would be to get back to the prosaic paths of peace
right prompt. And while we're on the subject I'll borrow your
guns. Y'u're scared stiff and it might get into your fool coconut
to plug one of us and light out. I'd hate to see y'u commit
suicide right before us, so I'll just natcherally unload y'u."
He was talking to lift the strain, and it was for the same
purpose that Bannister moved over to Hughie, who sat with his
face in his hands, trying to shut out the horror of what he had
The sheepman dropped a hand on his shoulder gently. "Brace up,
boy! Don't you see that the very best thing that could have
happened is this. It's best for y'u, best for the rest of the
gang and best for the whole cattle country. We'll have peace here
at last. Now he's gone, honest men are going to breathe easy.
I'll take y'u in hand and set y'u at work on one of my stations,
if y'u like. Anyhow, you'll have a chance to begin life again in
a better way."
"That's right," agreed the blatant youth. "I'm sick of rustling
the mails and other folks' calves. I'm glad he got what was
coming to him," he concluded vindictively, with a glance at his
dead chief and a sudden raucous oath.
McWilliams's cold blue eye transfixed him "Hadn't you better be a
little careful how your mouth goes off? For one thing, he's daid
now; and for another, he happens to be Mr. Bannister's cousin."
"But--weren't they enemies?"
"That's how I understand it. But this man's passed over the
range. A MAN doesn't unload his hatred on dead folks--and I
expect if y'u'll study him, even y'u will be able to figure out
that my friend measures up to the size of a real man."
"I don't see why if--"
"No, I don't suppose y'u do," interrupted the foreman, turning on
his heel. Then to Bannister, who was looking down at his cousin
with a stony face: "I reckon, Bann, we better make arrangements
to have the bodies buried right here in the valley," he said
Bannister was thinking of early days, of the time when this
miscreant, whose light had just been put out so instantaneously,
had played with him day in and day out. They had attended their
first school together, had played marbles and prisoners' base a
hundred times against each other. He could remember how they used
to get up early in the morning to go fishing with each other. And
later, when each began, unconsciously, to choose the path he
would follow in already beginning to settle into an established
fact. He could see now, by looking back on trifles of their
childhood, that his cousin had been badly handicapped in his
fight with himself against the evil in him. He had inherited
depraved instincts and tastes, and with them somewhere in him a
strand of weakness that prevented him from slaying the giants he
had to oppose in the making of a good character. From bad to
worse he had gone, and here he lay with the drizzling rain on his
white face, a warning and a lesson to wayward youths just setting
their feet in the wrong direction. Surely it was kismet.
Ned Bannister untied the handkerchief from his neck and laid it
across the face of his kinsman. A moment longer he looked down,
then passed his hands across his eyes and seemed to brush away
the memories that thronged him. He stepped forward to the fire
and warmed his hands.
"We'll go on, Mac, to the rendezvous he had appointed with his
outfit. We ought to reach there by noon, and the boys can send a
wagon back to get the bodies."
CHAPTER 23. JOURNEYS END IN LOVERS' MEETING
It had been six days since the two Ned Bannisters had ridden away
together into the mountains, and every waking hour since that
time had been for Helen one of harassing anxiety. No word had yet
reached her of the issue of that dubious undertaking, and she
both longed and dreaded to hear. He had promised to send a
messenger as soon as he had anything definite to tell, but she
knew it would be like his cousin, too, to send her some
triumphant word should he prove the victor in the struggle
between them. So that every stranger she glimpsed brought to her
a sudden beating of the heart.
But it was not the nature of Helen Messiter to sit down and give
herself up a prey to foreboding. Her active nature cried out for
work to occupy her and distract her attention. Fortunately this
was to be had in abundance just now. For the autumn round-up was
on, and since her foreman was away the mistress of the Lazy D
found plenty of work ready to her hand.
The meeting place for the round-up riders was at Boom Creek, five
miles from the ranch, and Helen rode out there to take charge of
her own interests in person. With her were six riders, and for
the use of each of them in addition to his present mount three
extra ponies were brought in the remuda. For the riding is so
hard during the round-up that a horse can stand only one day in
four of it. At the appointed rendezvous a score of other cowboys
and owners met them. Without any delay they proceeded to
business. Mr. Bob Austin, better known as "Texas," was elected
boss of the round-up, and he immediately assigned the men to
their places and announced that they would work Squaw Creek. They
moved camp at once, Helen returning to the ranch.
It was three o'clock in the morning when the men were roused by
the cook's triangle calling them to the "chuck wagon" for
breakfast. It was still cold and dark as the boys crawled from
under their blankets and squatted round the fire to eat jerky,
biscuits and gravy, and to drink cupfuls of hot, black coffee.
Before sun rose every man was at his post far up on the Squaw
Creek ridges ready to begin the drive.
Later in the day Helen rode to the parade grounds, toward which a
stream of cattle was pouring down the canyon of the creek. Every
gulch tributary to the creek contributed its quota of wild cows
and calves. These came romping down the canyon mouth, where four
picked men, with a bunch of tame cows in front of them, stopped
the rush of flying cattle. Lunch was omitted, and branding began
at once. Every calf belonging to a Lazy D cow, after being roped
and tied, was flanked with the great D which indicated its
ownership by Miss Messiter, and on account of the recumbent
position of which letter the ranch had its name.
It was during the branding that a boyish young fellow rode up and
handed Helen a note. Her heart pumped rapidly with relief, for
one glance told her that it was in the handwriting of the Ned
Bannister she loved. She tore it open and glanced swiftly through
DEAR FRIEND: Two hours ago my cousin was killed by one of his own
men. I am sending back to you a boy who had been led astray by
him, and it would be a great service to me if you would give him
something to do till I return. His name is Hugh Rogers. I think
if you trust him he will prove worthy of it.
Jim and I are going to stay here a few days longer to finish the
work that is begun. We hope to meet and talk with as many of the
men implicated in my cousin's lawlessness as is possible. What
the result will be I cannot say. We do not consider ourselves in
any danger whatever, though we are not taking chances. If all
goes well we shall be back within a few days.
I hope you are not missing Jim too much at the roundup.
She liked the letter because there was not a hint of the
relationship between them to be read in it. He had guarded her
against the chance of its falling into the wrong hands and
creating talk about them.
She turned to Hughie. "Can you ride?"
"In a way, ma'am. I can't ride like these men." His glance
indicated a cow-puncher pounding past after a wild steer that had
broken through the cordon of riders and was trying to get away.
"Do you want to learn?"
"I'd like to if I had a chance," he answered wistfully.
"All right. You have your chance. I'll see that Mr. Austin finds
something for you to do. From to-day you are in my employ."
She rode back to the ranch in the late afternoon, while the sun
was setting in a great splash of crimson. The round-up boss had
hinted that if she were nervous about riding alone he could find
it convenient to accompany her. But the girl wanted to be alone
with her own thoughts, and she had slipped away while he was busy
cutting out calves from the herd. It had been a wonderful relief
to her to find that HER Ned Bannister was the one that had
survived in the conflict, and her heart sang a paean of joy as
she rode into the golden glow of the westering sun. He was
alive--to love and be loved. The unlived years of her future
seemed to unroll before her as a vision. She glowed with a
resurgent happiness that was almost an ecstasy. The words of a
bit of verse she had once seen--a mere scrap from a magazine that
had stuck in an obscure corner of her memory--sang again and
again in her heart:
Life and love And a bright sky o'er us,
And--God take care Of the way before us!
Ah, the way before them, before her and her romance-radiating
hero! It might he rough and hilly, but if they trod it together--
Her tangled thoughts were off again in another glad leap of
The days passed somehow. She busied herself with the affairs of
the ranch, rode out often to the scenes of the cattle drives and
watched the round-up, and every twenty-four hours brought her one
day nearer to his return, she told herself. Nora, too, was on the
lookout under her longlashed, roguish eyelids; and the two young
women discussed the subject of their lovers' return in that
elusive, elliptical way common to their sex.
No doubt each of these young women had conjectured as to the
manner of that homecoming and the meeting that would accompany
it; but it is safe to say that neither of them guessed in her
day-dreams how it actually was to occur.
Nora had been eager to see something of the round-up, and as she
was no horsewoman her mistress took her out one day in her motor.
The drive had been that day on Bronco Mesa, and had finished in
the natural corral made by Bear Canon, fenced with a cordon of
riders at the end opening to the plains below. After watching for
two hours the busy scenes of cutting out, roping and branding,
Helen wheeled her car and started down the canyon on their
Now, a herd of wild cattle is uncertain as an April day's
behavior. Under the influence of the tame valley cattle among
which they are driven, after a little milling around, the whole
bunch may gentle almost immediately, or, on the other hand, it
may break through and go crashing away on a wild stampede at a
moment's notice. Every experienced cowman knows enough to expect
At Bronco Mesa the round-up had proceeded with unusual facility.
Scores of wiry, long-legged steers had drifted down the ridges or
gulches that led to the canon; and many a cow, followed by its
calf, had stumbled forward to the herd and apparently accepted
the inevitable. But before Helen Messiter had well started out of
the canyon's mouth the situation changed absolutely.
A big hill steer, which had not seen a man for a year, broke
through the human corral with a bellow near a point where Reddy
kept guard. The puncher wheeled and gave chase, Before the other
men could close the opening a couple of two-year-olds seized the
opportunity and followed its lead. A second rider gave chase, and
at once, as if some imp of mischief had stirred them, fifty tails
went up in wild flight. Another minute and the whole herd was in
Down the gulch the five hundred cattle thundered toward the motor
car, which lay directly in their path. Helen turned, appreciated
the danger, and put the machine at its full speed. The road
branched for a space of about fifty yards, and in her excitement
she made the mistake of choosing the lower, more level, one. Into
a deep sand bed they plowed, the wheels sinking at every turn.
Slower and slower went the car; finally came to a full stop.
Nora glanced back in affright at the two hundred and fifty tons
of beef that was charging wildly toward them. "What shall we do?"
she gasped, and clambered to the ground.
"Run!" cried Helen, following her example and scudding for the
sides of the canyon, which here sloped down less precipitately
than at other points. But before they had run a dozen steps each
of them was aware that they could not reach safety in time to
escape the hoofs rushing toward them so heavily that the ground quaked.
"Look out!" A resonant cry rang out above the dull thud of the
stampeding cattle that were almost upon them. Down the steep
sides of the gorge two riders were galloping recklessly. It was a
race for life between them and the first of the herd, and they
won by scarce more than a length. Across the sand the horses
plowed, and as they swept past the two trembling young women each
rider bent from the saddle without slackening speed, and snatched
one almost from under the very hoofs of the leaders.
The danger was not past. As the horses swerved and went forward
with the rush Helen knew that a stumble would fling not only her
and the man who had saved her, but also the horse down to death.
They must contrive to hold their own in that deadly rush until a
way could be found of escaping from the path of the living
cyclone that trod at their heels, galloped beside them, in front,
For it came to her that the horse was tiring in that rush through
the sand with double weight upon its back.
"Courage!" cried the man behind her as her fearful eyes met his.
As he spoke they reached the end of the canyon and firm ground
simultaneously. Helen saw that her rescuer had now a revolver in
his hand, and that he was firing in such a way as to deflect the
leaders to the left. At first the change in course was hardly
perceptible, but presently she noticed that they were getting
closer to the outskirts of the herd, working gradually to the
extreme right, edging inch by inch, ever so warily, toward
safety. Going parallel to their course, running neck and neck
with the cow pony, lumbered a great dun steer. Unconsciously it
blocked every effort of the horseman to escape. He had one shot
left in his revolver, and this time he did not fire into the air.
It was a mighty risk, for the animal in falling might stagger
against the horse and hunt them all down to death. But the man
took it without apparent hesitation. Into the ear of the bullock
he sent the lead crashing. The brute stumbled and went down head
over heels. Its flying hoofs struck the flanks of the pony, but
the bronco stuck to its feet, and next moment staggered out from
among the herd stragglers and came to halt.
The man slid from its back and lifted down the half-fainting
girl. She clung to him, white a trembling. "Oh, it was horrible,
Ned!" She could still look down in imagination upon the sea of
dun backs that swayed and surged about them like storm-tossed
"It was a near thing, but we made it, girl. So did Jim. He got
out before we did. It's all past now. You can remember it as the
most exciting experience of your life."
She shuddered. "I don't want to remember it at all." And so
shaken was she that she did not realize that his arm was about
her the while she sobbed on his shoulder.
"A cattle stampede is a nasty thing to get in front of. Never
mind. It's done with now and everybody's safe."
She drew a long breath. "Yes, everybody's safe and you are back
home. Why didn't you come after your cousin was killed?"
"I had to finish my work."
"And DID you finish it?"
"I think we did. There will be no more Shoshone gang. It's
members have scatted in all directions."
"I'm glad you stayed, then. We can live at peace now." And
presently she added: "I knew you would not come back until you
had done what you set out to do. You're very obstinate, sir. Do
you know that?"
"Perseverance, I call it," he smiled, glad to see that she was
recovering her lightness of tone.
"You don't always insist on putting your actions in the most
favorable light. Do you remember the first day I ever saw you?"
"Am I likely ever to forget it?" he smiled fondly.
"I didn't mean THAT. What I was getting at was that you let me go
away from you thinking you were 'the king.' I haven't forgiven
you entirely for that."
"I expect y'u'll always have to be forgiving me things."
"If you valued my good opinion I don't see how you could let me
go without telling me. Was it fair or kind?"
"If y'u come to that, was it so fair and kind to convict me so
promptly on suspicion?" he retaliated with a smile.
"No, it wasn't. But--" She flushed with a divine shyness. "But I
loved you all the time, even when they said you were a villain."
"Even while y'u believed me one?"
"I didn't. I never would believe you one--not deep in my heart. I
wouldn't let myself. I made excuses for you--explained everything
"Yet your reason told y'u I was guilty "
"Yes, I think my mind hated you and my heart loved you."
He adored her for the frank simplicity of her confession, that
out of the greatness of her love she dared to make no secret of
it to him. Direct as a boy, she was yet as wholly sweet as the
most retiring girl could be.
"Y'u always swamp my vocabulary, sweetheart. I can't ever tell
y'u--life wouldn't be long enough--how much I care for you."
"I'm glad," she said simply.
They stood looking at each other, palms pressed to palms in
meeting hands, supremely happy in this miracle of love that had
befallen them. They were alone--for Nora and Jim had gone into
temporary eclipse behind a hill and seemed in no hurry to
emerge--alone in the sunshine with this wonder that flowed from
one to another by shining eyes, by finger touch, and then by
meeting lips. He held her close, knew the sweet delight of
contact with the supple, surrendered figure, then released her as
she drew away in maidenly reserve.
"When shall we be married, Helen? Is the early part of next week
too late?" he asked.
Still blushing, she straightened her hat. "That's ridiculous,
sir. I haven't got used to the thought of you yet."
"Plenty of time for that afterward. Then we'll say next week if
that suits y'u."
"But it doesn't. Don't you know that it is the lady's privilege
to name the day? Besides, I want time to change my mind if I
should decide to."
"That's what I'm afraid of," he laughed joyfully. "So I have to
insist on an early marriage."
"Insist?" she demurred.
"I've been told on the best of authority that I'm very
obstinate," he gayly answered.
"I have a mind of my own myself. If I ever marry you be sure I
shall name the day, sir."
"Will y'u marry me the day Nora does Jim?"
"We'll see." The eyes slanted at him under the curved lashes,
teased him delightfully. "Did Nora tell you she was going to
Bannister looked mildly hurt. "My common sense has been telling
it to me a month."
"How long has your common sense been telling you about us?"
"I didn't use it when I fell in love with y'u," he boldly
"Of all things to say!"