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use she was goin’ to put her edication to. Sometimes she was minded to go on the stage, at others lawyerin’ looked good to her, but most of the time she seemed to think that a female doctor would come nearer fittin’ her than anything else.

Me an’ Jabez worried about it a heap; but we was wise enough to hide it. We knew that Barbie carted around at all times what they call a spirit of combativity, which fattened on opposition, an’ we preferred to let her scrap it out with herself, hopin’ that what she finally decided on would be all for the best.

Jabez said good-bye at the edge of the ranch, while I drove her over to Webb Station. I kind o’ fought shy of Danders ’cause it seemed to me that the’ was always some kind of a job waitin’ for me there, an’ Barbie had left me a heap of work for that winter. “Have you learned anything yet?” she asked me, after the train had pulled into sight an’ we was shakin’ hands.

“Not a thing for certain,” sez I. “I’ve stumbled onto several rumors, but they always went out. Do you still study over it much, Barbie?”

“Never a day goes by but what I study over it,” sez she. “There isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to know about my mother–all about her.”

“Are you sure, Barbie?” said I.

She thought hard a minute, an’ then she threw back her head an’ looked into my eyes. “Yes,” she said, in a low tone, “I’d give everything–even the love and respect I feel for my father.”

I gave a little shiver. “Barbie,” I sez, “I don’t think you’ll ever have to pay that high a price. I never saw your Dad cruel in cold blood, an’ he’s purty just.”

“Oh, I would rather die than find out that he’d ever been cruel to my mother; but I do want to know about her; and some day I will.” She squeezed my hand hard and her eyes were wet with tears when she stepped on the train; but she tried to smile, she sure did.

CHAPTER TWENTY

RICHARD WHITTINGTON ARRIVES

Well, that winter rolled by without a break. Me an’ Jabez had just about learned how to take each other, an’ we didn’t stretch our harness to the snappin’ point. Bill Andrews had finally got tol’able well acquainted with me also, an’ was able to savvy that while peace was my one great desire, the’ was some prices that I wouldn’t pay for it.

We was all het up when the graduation day finally came, an’ we didn’t do a lick of work on the ranch; just gathered around the ranch buildin’s, polishin’ up her harness an’ hosses, an’ talkin’ about her in hushed voices. She had won honors an’ medals an’ one thing or another until I reckon we felt purty much as Mrs. Washington did when she was cleanin’ house to welcome the father of his country after he had showed England where to reset the boundery stakes.

Barbie had wrote us that she was goin’ to cut out a string of invitations as long as your arm and pike right out for home as soon as she had finished her part of the program, an’ we weren’t able to do a tap until she arrived. At first I was minded to drive down after her, an’ then I decided that it would be better for me to stay at home an’ line up the boys in some sort of style to receive her. Spider Kelley went after her and as soon as they hove in sight I had all the punchers charge down an’ shoot their guns off in the air. They was wearin’ their gaudiest raiment an’ shoutin’ their heads off, an’ she owned up herself that it topped anything she ever saw in the East. She stood up in the buckboard an’ took off her hat an’ swung it about her head and shouted, “Boys, you’re just bully–every one of you!” an’ say, the’ wasn’t a puncher on the Diamond Dot that wouldn’t have given up his hide to make her a pair o’ ridin’ gloves. Jabez had waited back at the ranch house an’ he was tremblin’ when we left him to ride down an’ meet her.

Here she was, comin’ back for the last time with all the learnin’ of the earth packed away in her head, an’ niched up with more degrees than a thermometer; but it hadn’t changed her heart, not one grain; an’ when she saw the home buildin’s with ol’ Mount Savage sittin’ up on his throne an’ all the little peaks bowin’ before him, like pages to a king, she jes’ threw out her arms as though she would take in the whole outfit in one big hug, an’ her eyes filled up with tears as she sez, “Oh, Dad. I love it! I love every inch of it, every line of it, every shade of it; an’ I’ve hungered an’ thirsted for it all these years–an’ for you, Dad, for you most of all.”

Well, you should have seen Jabez. Beam? Why, I reckon you could have lit a cigar on his face, an’ he fluttered around like a hen with one chicken an’ that one a duck. He couldn’t quite believe that it was all true and that he was actually awake. He had worried so long about her cuttin’ into some new game as soon as her schoolin’ was done that he hardly dared rejoice for fear it would wake him up; but it didn’t take her long to begin enjoyin’ her old freedom again. It took us some longer to adjust ourselves to her, however.

Now she hadn’t changed such an awful sight, an’ yet the’ was somethin’ about her ‘at made you feel like touchin’ your hat when she issued an order. Not that she was uppity nor nothin’; she rambled around playin’ with the colts an’ the calves, an’ rompin’ with the dogs, an’ fairly stackin’ up the whole place in little heaps. An’ she rustled up her old sombrero an’ leggin’s just as though she had never set a hoof off the range. Still, the’ was somethin’ about her you couldn’t quite put your finger on; but which you knew in your heart was there all the time, awaitin’ till she made up her mind to call it out; like a handful o’ regulars givin’ dignity to a scrawny two by twice fort in the Injun country.

We took up our ridin’ again, an’ just as I was gettin’ used to it, along comes a feller lookin’ about two thirds starved. His clothes was ragged an’ soiled, he had forgot his baggage, he was on foot (an’ when I say on foot, I don’t only mean that he was dispensin’ with the luxury of a pony; he was also unemcumbered with soles to his boots), but he had indoor hands, a back as straight as an Injun’s, an’ a way of flingin’ up his head an’ drawin’ down his brows when you spoke to him sudden, which proved ‘at trampin’ was only a sideline with him. He put in an application as cook for the home gang.

Ol’ Cast Steel looked into him: examined his eyes, his hands, an’ the way he carried his head. Then he spoke kind o’ slow an’ drawly. “Cook?” sez he. “We’ll, I’d be willin’ to bet ‘at you’ve stayed up till three o’clock a heap more times’n you have ever arose at this wholesome hour. What can you cook?”

Well, the feller he laughed, an’ sez, “You win. I own up ‘at I ain’t no cook, nor I ain’t no cow puncher; but my pension has stopped an’ my appetite is still runnin’. I never yet recall readin’ no notice of any cook what died of starvation.”

Jabez grinned. “I don’t ask no man about his past,” sez he. “No man knows nothin’ about his future. As for the present, you can help with the cookin’. Flap Jack is due for his bender, week after next, an’ if you can learn the trade by that time you’ll come in handy.”

‘Twas the first time I ever heard of Cast Steel vary his hirin’ speech; so I knew ‘at he too had the feller spotted for a stray; but he rolled up his sleeves an’ started to peel spuds for the evenin’ slum. He said that his name was Richard Whittington, an’ while he didn’t talk overly extensive about himself, he wasn’t nowise offish nor snarly. He did his work up to the limit too, an’ even of Flap Jack didn’t complain as much as he generally did whenever he was furnished with a little extra help. The peculiar thing was the way ‘at Barbie treated him. She came down to the cook shack soon after he landed, with a lot of Jabez’ old clothes an’ a pair of boots, ’cause anything in distress got to her heart by the shortest cut. She came lopin’ along with about fifteen dogs, whistlin’ an’ hummin’ an’ sort o’ dancin’ up in the air like a young angel; but the minute she saw him she sobered up, an’ after he had thanked her, which he did in book langwidge, she simply pulled down the blinds an’ locked the door. It was mighty curious an’ set us all to talkin’, ’cause she treated us feliers just as friendly as the rest of the stock; but Dick made a bad impression right at the start, an’ we kept our eyes on him for the first crooked move.

He was a restless feller, was Dick, allus askin’ questions about breeds an’ fencin’ an’ winter feeds an’ marketin’. Said he liked to have somethin’ to study about when his hands was workin’. Barbie left one of her books out in the wagon-shed one day an’ Dick found it. He curled right up on a cushion an’ begun to read. That was the very day ‘at Flappy was to start off on his periodical, an’ he had made all his preparations so that everything would be in apple-pie order. When dinner went by an’ no deputy showed up he ground out several canticles of profanity; but when supper time hove in sight and nairy a report from the substitute hash-herder, he fairly stood on tiptoe an’ screamed his woes into what they call the wel-kin; an’ you can bet that Flappy made her welk all right.

He had been training for this jag for full three months, an’ the thirst he had built up was somethin’ for the whole ranch to be proud of; an’ all the boys was full of sympathy an’ interest, an’ wanted him to have every show in the world. They wanted his mind to be utterly free from care, so that he could give his full attention to tackin’ up a Diamond Dot record that would arouse the envy of the entire West, an’ Flappy was in fine shape to do it.

We all started out to find Dick, whether he was still hidin’ around the ranch or had started to hike; but it was Barbie herself who found him. She came racin’ along with a herd of dogs, friskin’ an’ rompin’ the same as they was; but when she came onto Dick readin’ her book she simmered down immejet. When he looked up an’ saw her he seemed like a feller wakin’ up out of a dream. It didn’t break on him all at once; but when it did, he looked as guilty as a sheep- herder. He stood up an’ bowed an’ helt out the book an’ stammered, an’ all in all, it was painful to watch ’em. None of us was able to figger out why they acted this way ever time they happened to meet; but they did.

Well, after he’d apologized a couple o’ chapters she told him ‘at she was nearly through with the book, an’ if he’d come up to the house after supper she’d he glad to let him take it. After supper up he went to the house an’ sent ol’ Mellisse in for it. When he got it he went back to the cook-shack an’ stayed up all night readin’ it. One of the boys what got in about two o’clock said ‘at he was just about half through with it the second time when he came along. Books is the same as opium to some folks. After that Barbie used to send him down books purty often, an’ he used to get a world of comfort out of ’em.

One afternoon when Dick was cookin’ up a stew Jabez came out an’ sat on a cracker-box talkin’ to him. He allus seemed to have a likin’ for Dick, an’ used to chat with him right consid’able. This afternoon he got to spreadin’ himself about how much money the place handled every year an’ how much the’ was invested in it, an’ what a great thing the cattle industry was to the entire country. Jabez had his vanities all right, an’ he used to parade ’em occasional an’ got a heap o’ comfort out of ’em. Dick went along seasonin’ an’ addin’ an’ stirrin’ an’ not seemin’ to pay a mite of attention, until finally Jabez got tired of appreciatin’ himself, an’ sez, “Well, what do you think of this little plant anyway?”

“Do you like the scenery around here, or do you have to live here on account of your health?” sez Dick, sort of unconcerned like.

Jabez looked at him about a minute to kind of get the drift of his remark, an’ then he sez, “What do you mean by that?”

“Why,” sez Dick, “you ain’t makin’ two percent profit, an’ I was just wonderin’ what you stayed here for–if it wasn’t for somethin’ else beside the filthy looger.”

Jabez, he jumps to his feet an’ goes all through it again, tellin’ all he has took in an’ all he has paid out; while Dick kept attendin’ to his pots an’ pans the same as if he was stone deaf. Jabez rattled on an ended up with: “An’ this here ranch has the best water an’ the best range an’ the best shelter of any ranch in the state. What do you think of that?” “Why, I think it all the more reason why it should pay a business profit,” drawls Dick. “Only last week I heard you complainin’ somethin’ fierce because you had to put up for a new freight-wagon. The great trouble with you is that you don’t have no system. You need a manager, a man who takes an interest in modern progress, a man who sees that the rest o’ the men pay a profit. I don’t mean a foreman, you got plenty o’ them. I mean a business man. You ain’t no business man; you don’t like it.”

Well, Jabez was stupefied. He’d never had no wage-earner dump advice on him before, an’ here was a tramp, as you might say, who started in by telling him that what he really needed was some one to run his business for him. He didn’t fly up through. He just rose an’ gave Dick a searchin’ look, an’ then he meandered up to the house; an’ you could tell by the very droop of his shoulders that what he was doin’ was thinkin’.

The upshot of it was that when Flappy was hauled out to the ranch the next week, an’ as soon as he got so he could tell fire from water, Dick fitted up an office in the North wing; an’ about fifteen minutes afterward we all felt the difference. From that on everything ran like a round-up. Dick didn’t boss none, he just pointed out the best way, an’ we did it. All those answers we had told him about calves an’ winter hay an’ such-like had simply gone in one ear–an’ stuck to the inside of his mental gearing. He discovered that Jabez had been stuck for further orders on most of his supplies, an’ had allus managed to win the bottom price whenever it came his turn to make a sale.

Well, Dick was a perpetual surprise party. You could tell by the color of his skin that he was an indoor man; but he sat a hoss like a cow puncher, an’ as soon as he got things runnin’ to suit him on our place he got to makin’ side trips to the other ranches. He would spend two hours talkin’ about the weather; but at the end o’ that time, he knew more about a man’s outfit than the owner himself. Then he ordered out a lot of stock papers, an’ the first thing we knew, we was askin’ him questions about things ‘at we’d allus supposed we savvied from tail to muzzle. He seemed to like me more’n the rest, an’ chose me out to be his ridin’ pal an’ what he called an A. D. Kong, which was simply the French for messenger boy; but Dick never unloaded a lot of talk about himself. You wouldn’t notice it, but he allus managed to have the other feller do most o’ the talkin’.

When winter came he took a trainload o’ cattle clear to Chicago an’ brought back twenty bulls–dandies! Big white-faced fellers with pool-table backs an’ stocky legs, an’ they sure made the other stuff look like the champion scrubs of creation. No one in our parts had ever seen such cattle, an’ for the rest of the winter we helt a fair an’ booked enough orders for calves to make a man nervous. Jabez had gone along, an’ it must have ganted him consid’able to heave out the wampum for that bunch; but you should have seen him swell up when folks got to talkin’ about ’em. He was game though, an’ gave Dick the credit. He thought Dick was the whole manuver by this time.

Barbie an’ Dick had got over givin’ antelope starts every time they met; but they wasn’t what you would call friendly by a long ways. Dick had worn a rough lookin’ beard when he first arrived; but afterward he had trimmed it to a point, an’ it made him look some like a doctor. His ears were set tight to his head, an’ he had a proud nose; but it was his hands an’ his eyes that set him apart. His hands were fair size but white, an’ they stayed white. They had a nervous way of fussin’ around with things whenever he got to thinkin’; but after all, the thing that was the final call was his eyes. They were bright an’ set in under heavy brows; but they never seemed tryin’ to bend you, like some eyes do, they just seemed so completely sure of what they saw, an’ they seemed to have seen so much beforehand, that a feller was tempted to stick to the truth in front of ’em–even when it wasn’t altogether convenient. Dick was the first cold-blooded man I ever liked, an’ he was sure cold- blooded at this period.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

HAPPY MAKES A DISCOVERY

Now dogs an’ Barbie was allus exceedin’ intimate. Dogs just doted on her, an she recipercated full measure; but she had one dog what was only a dog by what they call an act of courtesy. It must ‘a’ weighed fully two pounds, an’ had bushy hair at that. It had a bark to it like one o’ these intellectual dolls what can say Ma-maa, Ma-maa, but the critter was as proud o’ this bark as though it shook all the buildin’s on the place. The blame thing wasn’t physically able to inflict much more damage than a mosquito, but it was full as bloodthirsty, an’ it had took a keen disregard for Bill Andrews.

Bill Andrews was still the foreman, an’ one day he was on his way to the office to make a report to Dick when this imitation dog came sailin’ around the corner an’ took a grab at his leg. He had a brand-new pair of pants on, an’ they was outside his boots. You know how corduroy tears when the dye has been a bit too progressive. Well, the pup loosened up a piece like a section of pie. Bill Andrews lost his Christian fortitude, give that toy muff a kick that landed him fifteen feet–an’ Barbie came around the corner, an’ Dick came out of the office at the same time.

The poor little pup was a-layin’ on his back yelpin’ like a love- sick bob-cat; a white rage came over me an’ I pulled out my gun; but before I could use it Dick had sailed into him without a word. Bill Andrews was too flustered to pull his own gun, so he put up his hands, but it didn’t do no good. Dick caught him under the chin, an’ the back of his head struck the ground several moments before his feet arrived. It was a beautiful blow; I never seen a neater. I don’t reckon Barbie ever did either; ’cause as soon as she had gathered up the pup she walked up to Dick an’ sez, “I want to thank you for this, an’ to say that I am in your debt to the extent of any favor what’s in my power.” Course Dick was locoed the same as usual. His face looked like the settin’ sun, an’ he couldn’t pump out a word to save him. Them two found it mighty hard to overcome the first prejudice they’d felt again each other.

Bill Andrews he set up after a bit, with his hands on the ground, bracin’ himself while he was tryin’ to recall the history of the few precedin’ moments. Dick looked down at him calmly an’ said, “As soon as you have apologized to Miss Judson you may come into the office and we shall transact our business.” Then he lifted his hat, whirled on his heel, an ‘stalked inside like as if he was a colonel.

Bill Andrews was purty tol’able low-spirited; but he handed out as affectin’ an excuse as he could dream up, and as soon as Barbie had spoke her piece he slouched into the office purty consid’able cargoed up with conflictin’ emotions. I’d ruther shoot a man an’ not kill him, than to be the cause of makin’ him look ridiculous before a woman–that is, a revengeful sneak like what Bill Andrews was.

As soon as he an’ Dick got through with their talk, an’ it was a purty tol’able lengthy confab at that, Bill Andrews went to the boss an’ tendered in his resignation. Cast Steel accepted it mighty hearty, ’cause Barbie had just been callin’ on him; an’ that very mornin’ Dick made Pete Hanson foreman.

Next night the office safe was opened an’ fifteen hundred dollars was took. Every one thought right away of Bill Andrews, an’ the ol’ man sent us out in pairs to scour the country. The’ wasn’t much scourin’ to be done, how-ever, ’cause we found Bill Andrews on the next ranch, an’ they was ready to swear ‘at he hadn’t left it all night. The’ wasn’t no one else that any one felt like suspectin’. Jabez wasn’t the man to weep over upsettin’ a can o’ condensed, an’ purty soon the theft was forgot an’ everything was runnin’ along as smooth as forty quarts o’ joint-oil.

The ol’ man kept dependin’ more an’ more on Dick, until finally Dick got to signin’ checks, orderin’ all the supplies, an’ takin’ full charge; while Jabez spent most of his time taggin’ around after Barbie. They was like a couple o’ young children; but Barbie wasn’t quite so high-headed with Dick after the dog affair, an’ they got to ridin’ together quite a bit themselves. Barbie was just as good friends with me as ever; but I could see–any one could see–that Jabez was willin’ to call Dick a son-in-law just the minute that Barbie was.

By the time he had been there a year Dick was the big head chief, an’ the ranch was boomin’ along like a river steamboat. He allus got the best of everything in the way of supplies, an’ every laddie-buck in the West knew of it; so ‘at a Diamond Dot puncher didn’t throw up his job just for exercise. The’ was a swarm o’ white-faced calves, an’ about half of ’em wore other fellers’ brands, which was a receipt for a lot of fancy money, so ‘at Jabez was as well satisfied as the men; an’ even Barbie had come to own up that Dick was the fittin’est man in those parts. I could read every thought in her head, an’ it hurt me to think that at last I had dropped back to second fiddle; but I could see that Dick had had chances that I hadn’t had, an’–an’ I allus aim to play fair, so I took to ridin’ alone an’ workin’ harder than I was used to.

She could strum a guitar till you’d be willin’ to swear it was the heavenly harps of the Celustial Choir; an’ she an’ Dick used to loaf around in the moonlight makin’ melody ‘at was worth goin’ a good long ways to hear. They sure made a tasty couple, an’ all the boys used to like to see ’em together. In fact, the whole Diamond Dot was as match-makey as a quiltin’ bee.

One moonlight night I’d been up to ol’ Monody’s grave, an’ I came walkin’ back about half-past nine. It was more’n twelve years since Ol’ Monody had passed over, but it didn’t seem that long. Just as I turned a corner; I heard a laugh that seemed to float to me from a long ways back in the past. It was Jim Jimison’s laugh, an’ as I came around the corner of the house there he stood with his back to me, talkin’ to Barbie. “Well, for the Gee Whizz!” I cried. He turned, an’ it was Dick. We looked into each other’s eyes a moment, an’ then I forced a laugh an’ went on to the stallion stable, where I sat down to puzzle it out.

It wasn’t very long before Dick came to me an’ held out his hand. I took it, an’ we gave an old-time grip. “I was wonderin’ how long it would be before you saw through me,” he sez.

I got the moon in his face an’ looked at him a long time. Of course a dozen years and the beard made a lot of difference, but not near all. When I’d left him, he was only a boy, a boy all the way through,–looks, words, actions; while now he was a man an’ a sizey one at that. It ain’t years alone that make any such change. I knew in a minute that Jim had been through something that was mighty near too narrow to get through. “Well,” sez I, “what’s the story?”

“You put me on my feet, Happy,” sez he, “an’ after you left I just kept on goin’. I tended to my stuff, an’ I improved it an’ I took on new ranges, an’ I made it go, I sure made it go. Then the Exporters Cattle Company got after me. My range was needed to fill a gap between two o’ their ranges, an’ they tried to make me sell.

“I didn’t want to sell, I was makin’ money an’ I was layin’ it up; and I wasn’t ready to stop workin’ at my age, so I fought back. I didn’t stand any show. There’s a bunch o’ these big companies that are all the same, under different names, an’ they fought me on the ground an’ on the railroads, an’ at the stock yards; they tried to turn my men again me; they had my stuff run onto their range, an’ then tried to prevent my gettin’ it back. I didn’t mind their open warfare; but their underhanded ways drove me wild. One o’ their agents used to dog me around every time I’d go to town. He’d grin an’ ask me if I wasn’t ready to sell out YET. I finally closed out the cattle, an’ started to raise only horses. One night my three thorough-bred stallions had their throats cut, an’ then next time I went to town he came in when I was eatin’ my supper, grinnin’ as usual, an’ asked me if I thought raisin’ hosses would pay.

“I knew what his game was an’ tried my best to hold in, but I couldn’t help tellin’ him that I didn’t suppose it would pay quite so well as hirin’ out to murder hosses would. This was enough for him; he called me everything he could lay tongue to, and when I rose to my feet he pulled his gun. The other men in the room were beginnin’ to sneer at me, but I knew the consequences, and started to leave. He grabbed me by the shoulder an’ whirled me around. ‘Git down on your knees,’ he sez, ‘an’ ‘pologize to me.’

“That was my limit. My cup was nearly full of coffee, an’ I dashed the coffee in his face, hoping to get hold of his gun. But he jumped back an’ fired. He missed me, an’ I hit him in the center of the forehead with the coffee cup. It was big an’ heavy, and it–killed him. This was just what the bunch wanted; but in spite of their precautions I got away, came north, and got into another business; but that didn’t suit either; so here I am, with the worst gang in this country achin’ to get track o’ me.”

“How long ago was this, Jim?” sez I.

“Call me Dick,” sez he. “It was about four years ago now. I leased my land for more’n enough to pay taxes, but I suppose it will all blow up sometime, an’ they’ll get me in the end.”

“I don’t suppose the’ ‘s any way to go back an’ square it, is there?” sez I.

“Hell, no!” he sez, bitter as death. “They own Texas.”

“Haven’t you any friends there who would swear it was self-defense?” sez I.

“I’ve got plenty of friends there–that’s how I got away; but they don’t dare to fight that cattle crowd in the open,” sez he.

“Looks purty bad,” sez I.

“It’s rotten bad!” sez he. “But this is business all right. Whenever I hear any one talk about the morals of business it drives me wild. The’ ain’t any morals in business. The best it ever is, is straight gamblin’–I say the BEST it ever is, is straight gamblin'”–Jim’s voice was gritty with wrath–“while at the worst,” he went on, “it stoops to murder, wholesale and retail, it ruins homes, it manufactures thieves an’ perjurers an’–” “You remind me of a feller named Fergoson,” sez I. “He said that at the best, business was stealin’.”

“I like him,” sez Jim, or I suppose I better say Dick. “I like him. You couldn’t fool him with a lot o’ pleasant names for things. He dealt in the spirit of a deed. I like him.”

It wasn’t much peculiar that I hadn’t recognized the boy. As he talked, I could see the caged tiger glarin’ out through his eyes, an’ I knew that something wild would happen if the bars ever broke.

“I’m mighty sorry, Dick,” sez I.

“Oh, I ain’t through with ’em yet. I’m not clear out of the game. You don’t need to think ‘at they’ve broke me,” sez he.

“I wasn’t thinkin’ o’ you,” I said in a low tone.

He drew in his breath, an’ the noise he made was half way between a sob an’ a groan. “My God!” he said between set teeth. “Do you think that I haven’t carried that cross also? But I’ve changed a lot in five years, an’ they won’t think of me at the Diamond Dot. Happy, I’ve got a scheme for organizin’ the cattlemen o’ the Northwest to fight that Texas crowd an’ whip ’em out o’ the business. I know the game from A to Z, an’ if I can just work it through without comin’ out in the open I can beat ’em.”

“Mebbe,” sez I, “but it’s exposin’ her to a mighty big risk.”

“I’ll never do that, whatever happens,” sez he.

“As long as this Texas crime hangs over you, it hangs over her too,” sez I, “an’ as soon as your fight gets under way they’ll turn your record inside out, an’ you know it.”

He gripped his hands together an’ punched a hole in the ground with his heel, an’ you could tell by his face that he was mighty sorry he couldn’t have picked out the face he’d have liked to have under his heel instead of the ground. Finally he put his hand on my shoulder an’ sez, “Well, Happy, you allus did have the gift of hittin’ the nail on the head; an’ I’ll promise that no matter what comes up, I won’t do anything to risk the happiness of–of Barbie. You just remember to keep on callin’ me Dick, an’ I reckon I’ll be content to let the revenge part go, an’ just settle down with my head under cover. They didn’t remember me in the Chicago stock yards, an’ you didn’t recognize me; so I suppose it’s safe enough, if I just keep quiet.”

We shook hands, an’ he went back to the house; but I could easy see that he was troubled. I stayed out with the stars purty late that night. It was clear an’ bright an’ peaceful when I looked up, but when I tried to look ahead it seemed misty an’ dark an’ gloomy, so I looked straight up for a long, long time; an’ then when they soothed me, as they allus do, I went to bed an’ slept like a log.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

A FRIENDLY GAME

About three days after this, a slick lookin’ feller came ridin’ in about sun-down, an’ of course they booked him for supper an’ bed; a stranger didn’t want to expose himself to a meal at that outfit, less’n he was in the mood to eat. He was a fine easy talker, an’ he had indoor hands too, an’ one o’ these smiles what is made to order; what you might call a candidate’s smile–a sort o’ lightin’ up in honor o’ the person bein’ addressed. Barbie had a bit of a headache, ’cause her cinch had broke that mornin’ while she was havin’ a little argument with a bad-actor; an’ about eight o’clock she give us the fare-you-well an’ fluttered up to bed.

So the four of us–me, Dick, the stranger, an’ ol’ Jabez–sat there smokin’ seegars an’ tellin’ anecdotes. About nine Piker, which was the name the stranger had handed in, sez, “Do you gentlemen ever indulge in a little friendly game?”

Now Dick had never throwed a card in his life, to my knowin’. The ol’ man used to play some, but he was mighty choicy who he played with; while I–well, o’ course, I played. Dick didn’t say anything at first, but he give the stranger a long an’ a curious look, as though he was tryin’ to place him. He looked so long that both me an’ the ol’ man noticed it. “I don’t care to play,” sez Dick, blowin’ a ring o’ smoke to the ceilin’.

The ol’ man had been trottin’ along without a break for a consid’able of a stretch, an’ the proposition looked amply sufficient to him, so he sez pleasantly, “Well, now, boys, it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend the evenin’. We could make the stakes small an’ we could have a right sociable time together.”

‘Tain’t altogether wise to jump hasty at another man’s idee of size. I had seen the ol’ man sit in a game where steers was the ante an’ car-loads the limit; but at that time I thought I knew just a little wee mite more about the game than any other man what played straight, so I sez, “Well, I’ll set in a while; but I don’t care to lose more’n a hundred dollars”; which was just what I’d saved out for a little vacation I was ruminatin’ about.

“Oh, we’ll only play a quarter ante an’ five dollar limit,” sez Jabez. “Come on, boys, clear the table an’ let’s get started.”

Dick didn’t seem to want to play at all, but after the ol’ man had coaxed him a little he drew up his chair an’ we started in. The old man’s deck was purty tol’able careworn an’ floppy, an’ the stranger sez, “I happen to have a couple o’ new decks what have never been opened. We’ll open one in honor o’ the occasion.”

“This deck is good enough,” sez Dick, an’ he spoke purty harsh. As me an’ the ol’ man looked up, our glances met an’ we showed surprise. Dick wasn’t a bit like himself; but the stranger didn’t take no offense, he just smiled a bit careless an’ put his cards on the stand, sayin, “Well, I’ll just leave ’em here handy, an’ if we decide to use ’em later we can open ’em up. For my part, I like a new deck.”

“So do I,” sez the ol’ man. “I’m sorry mine are so bum. I meant to send for some new ones a long time ago, but I allus forgot it.”

The stranger took out a healthy lookin’ stack o’ gold, Dick an’ Jabez did the same, an’ my little squad o’ yella fellers looked purty tol’able squeezy. Dick was tremendous sober; his face was pale, his eyes were hid away beneath his brows, an’ kept dartin’ here an’ there like the eyes of a hawk. Now for me, I allus have a curious promonition when anything is goin’ to happen, an’ I began to have it bad.

Still the longer we played the easier Dick got in his ways, an’ purty soon he was smilin’ as open-faced as a dollar watch. We played along nice an’ gentle; my luck arrived early, an purty soon the yella fellers begun to percalate in my direction. About half-past ten Piker had to dig up some more funds, an’ he sez, “It’s gettin’ kind o’ late, boys, let’s raise the edge a bit. Hawkins there has had all the luck so far, an’ when it changes we ought to have a show to get back our riskin’s.”

“All right,” sez Jabez, “we’ll double.”

“The stakes suit me all right,” sez Dick. “In fact, I’d ruther split ’em.”

I was feelin’ purty consid’able opulent myself, so I voted to double.

“Three to one,” sez Piker, “the stakes are doubled.”

“The original agreement can’t be changed durin’ a game without the unanimous consent of all the players,” sez Dick, speakin’ like a judge; “but as the rest of you wish it, I’ll give mine.”

From that on the luck shifted. Two or three times I see a queer look steal across the ol’ man’s face; but everything was out in the open, as far as I could see. I played even Steven; but the wind shifted plumb away from Jabez, an’ he lost steady. Part of the time Dick corraled the pots, an’ part of the time me an’ Piker provided shelter for ’em: but no matter who won, the ol’ man lost.

Twice he frowned purty serious, an’ once I caught him givin’ Dick a queer hurt look. The ol’ man hadn’t a drop o’ welcher blood in his make-up; but cheatin’ was spelled in mighty red letters to ‘im. Dick was smilin’ now as sweet as a girl baby, an’ makin’ funny, joshin’ remarks, which was a new turn for him; but at the same time the’ was somethin’ in his face that wasn’t altogether pleasant.

When midnight arrived Dick an’ Piker was each about two thousand ahead, I was slidin’ back to taw, an’ the old man was payin’ the fiddler. We had doubled the edge again at eleven, an’ were usin’ both the strange decks, changin’ every few deals. Then the luck began to settle to Dick. Two out of three times on his own deals, an’ every single time on Piker’s deals, the devidends slid into Dick’s coffers, while I was growin’ resigned to havin’ had a good run for my money. Jabez’ face was drawn an’ worried, which was queer, ’cause he was allus a royal loser.

At last we had built up a four-story jack-pot, an’ every feller’s face wore the take-off-your-hat-to-me smile. It was Dick’s deal an’ we all held three cards except Jabez who had furnished openers. He only wintered through a pair, but after he looked at his draw he settled back to enjoy himself. I held three kings an’ a brace o trays. It looked to me as if that jack-pot belonged to Happy Hawkins. The peculiar expression had wore off Jabez’ face, an’ his eyes had a glad glint in ’em. I was only in for my table stakes, so I didn’t make much of a noise, nohow; but the other three kept boostin’ her up till it begun to look like a man’s game all right.

“If you’ll excuse the limit, I’d like to show my appreciation of this little hand by bettin’ a hundred on it,” sez Piker.

“I’m willin’,” sez Jabez, “an’ if it goes, why, I’ll see your appreciation an’ raise you five hundred.” “I don’t have any more vote,” sez I, “just enjoy yourselves.”

“Oh, no, Happy,” sez Dick, as serious as a hangman; “no matter if we raise the edge every hand, you must vote on it each time. We must be perfectly regular, you know, because this is merely a friendly little game to pass away the evening, you remember. I shall make no objections.”

Jabez had slid deep into his chair, an’ now he had a fierce scowl on his face. “That was MY toe you was a-pressin’,” he sez, lookin’ Piker between the eyes.

“I beg your pardon,” sez Piker, laughin’ easy; “I thought it was Silv–I mean Whittington’s. I wanted him to keep still until after this hand was out. Then I’ll be willin’ to quit or go back to the old limit, or keep right along with the lid off.”

I glanced at Dick; an’ talk about jerk-lightnin’! Well, I can’t see yet what kept Piker from gettin’ scorched; but Jabez was in a good humor again from lookin’ at his royalty, so he turns to Dick an’ sez, “Now, Dick, Piker’s company, you know, an’ I reckon we’d better humor him. What do you say?”

“Off goes the lid,” sez Dick.

They bet around awhile longer until nearly all of Dick’s money was in the pot an’ Jabez had a neat little pile of checks representin’ him. Then Dick bet his balance an’ called. We all laid down with a satisfied grin. Jabez had queens full on jacks, Piker had three bullets an’ a team o’ ten-spots; Dick had a royal straight flush, an’ I had a nervous chill. Three aristocratic fulls an’ a royal straight! Nobody spoke, an’ the money stayed where it was, in the center of the table. Finally the of man sez, makin’ an effort to speak cordial, “Well, I’ve had enough for one evenin’, I guess I’ll quit.” “Now, boys,” sez Dick, in a low, husky voice, “I don’t believe in gamblin’. I only went into this to be sociable, an’ I want you all to take your money back.”

We sat an’ looked at Dick with our eyes poppin’ out, ’cause that wasn’t our way o’ playin’ the game in that neighborhood. Suddenly the ol’ man whirled an’ glared at Piker. “What the hell do you mean by pressin’ my toe?” he growls between his set teeth. “This is the fourth time you’ve done it to-night.”

Piker seemed confused, an’ mumbled an’ stammered, an’ couldn’t hardly speak at all. “It ain’t my custom to play with strangers,” sez Jabez, an’ he was fast gettin’ into the dangerous stage, “but you are my guest. I won’t take my money back, but if Dick is willin’, I’ll write him a check for yours an’ you can take your condemned filthy gold an’ get out o’ here.”

“I ain’t askin’ my money back,” sez Piker. “I’m game, I am; but I can’t savvy this scheme o’ dividin’ up after the game.” He paused a second, an’ then sez clear an’ distinct, “This ain’t exactly the way ‘at Silver Dick used to play the game when he made a business of it.”

Piker leaned back an’ stared at Dick in a sneerin’ sort of way; while me an’ the ol’ man stared at him with our eyes poppin’ out. Silver Dick, Silver Dick: every one in the West had heard of Silver Dick. It didn’t seem possible; but as me an’ Jabez sat gazin’ at him, we knew ‘at our Dick was Silver Dick the gambler, an’ the smoothest article, accordin’ to reports, ‘at ever threw a card. Dick didn’t say a word; just sat there with his face pale as a sheet, an’ his glitterin’ black eyes dartin’ flame at Piker’s nasty grin.

“I see you don’t recognize me with a full beard,” sez Piker; “but down at Laramie they called me Jo Denton. It was my cousin, Big Brown, that you shot.”

“Do you happen to know what I shot him for?” Dick’s face was as hard as marble, an’ his voice was as cold as ice.

“I wasn’t there at the time,” sez Piker in an irritatin’ voice, “but I know that it was because he spoke about it bein’ a little peculiar that you held such wonderful good hands on your own deal.”

Dick didn’t make no reply, but he slipped his hand inside his shirt, an’ I knew he had his gun there.

“I say that this was the EXCUSE for your shootin’;” Piker went on, bent on gettin’ all the trouble the’ was; “but I allus believed, myself, that it started over the woman you was keepin’.”

Dick’s gun flashed in the air; but quick as a wink ol’ Cast Steel knocked it up with his right hand, an’ struck at Dick with his left. The bullet crashed through the ceiling, an’ Dick grabbed Jabez’ wrist at the same instant. Piker made a quick snap under the table, a gun went off, an’ the bullet tore through the slack o’ Dick’s vest an’ spinged into the wall behind him.

Then I kicked off my hobbles an’ sailed in on my own hook. Dick had allus been white to me–an’ back in the old days he was the squarest feller on earth–so I felt mightly relieved when I caught Piker in the center of the forehead with a full left swing. It was a blow ‘at nobody didn’t have no grounds to complain of. The chair flew over backwards, Piker’s feet made a lovely circle, an’ his head tried to insinuate itself into the mopboard. He remained quiet, an’ I started in to satisfy my curiosity.

“Stay where you are,” commanded Dick, an’ I stuck in my tracks. “No man is allowed to doubt my deal without havin’ something to remind him of it. I ain’t a-goin’ to kill that snake now; but I do intend to remove his trigger fingers.”

Dick still held Jabez by a peculiar twist in the wrist ‘at made the ol’ man wince a little; he held his gun ready, an’ calmly sized up Piker’s hand, which was flattened out again the wall. I stood where I was, an’ the room was so quiet it hurt your ears.

A grin of wolfish joy came into Dick’s face as he stood there with his gun back of his head an’ his thumb on the hammer–of course he was a snap-shooter–these nervous fellers allus are. It seemed as if we had all been in that same position for ages, when suddenly a voice said, “Why, Dad, what’s the matter?”

It was Barbie with her hair all rumpled up an’ a loose gray wrapper on. Dick dropped his hands to his side an’ turned his face away; while Jabez put his arm about her an’ told her that we had had a little mix-up but that it was all over now an’ she must go back to bed. She reared up an’ vetoed the motion without parley; but the ol’ man finally convinced her, an’ she agreed to go if we’d promise not to stir up any more trouble. Me an’ Jabez promised quick, but Dick never said a word. She looked him in the face mighty beseechful, but he wouldn’t look at her; an’ when he finally promised not to START any more fuss his voice was so low you could hardly hear him.

She was pale as a ghost, an’ Dick’s voice made her all the more suspicious. “I’ll not go one step,” she said at last, sinkin’ down in a chair; but Dick walked over to her an’ asked her to step into the next room with him a minute. They only talked together a few moments, an’ then we heard her give a stifled sob an’ go back upstairs. I never see such a change as had come over Jabez. His face was drawn an’ haggard like the face of a man lost in the desert without water.

The time had come at last when another man stood between his daughter–his greatest treasure on earth–an’ himself. I remembered what Friar Tuck had said about the time comin’ when she’d be all girl an’ would stand before him with the questions of life in her eyes, an’ I pitied him, God knows I pitied him.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CAST STEEL

Jabez had got the rope on himself when Dick came back, an’ he spoke to him in the voice of a father sayin’ farewell to the son who had gone wrong once too often. “I don’t care nothin’ about the money, Dick,” he said. “You’d ‘a’ been welcome to all I had; but I can’t forgive you about my little girl. You made her love you, you schemed to do it, an’ you came here with that end in view. I trusted you from the ground up, but I can see a heap o’ things now ‘at I wouldn’t see before. I had a letter written from Bill Andrews tellin’ me ‘at he had heard you brag ‘at you intended to get holt o’ my money, an’ that it would pay me to search you instead o’ suspectin’ him–“

“Where was the letter from?” asked Dick.

“Laramie,” sez the ol’ man.

“Kind o’ curious,” sez Dick, an’ his vice was as bitter as the dregs o’ sin; “that’s where Denton came from too.”

“You deceived me all along,” sez the ol’ man, not payin’ much heed to Dick, but speakin’ mostly to himself. “You know ‘at what I hate worse’n anything else is deceit–an’ here you’ve been fast an’ loose with women–” Dick tried to say somethin’, but the ol’ man stopped him. “That was bad enough,” he went on, “but I’m no fool; I know the world, an’ I could forgive you a good deal; but hang it, I never could forgive you bein’ a professional gambler–a man that lives by deceit an’ trickery an’ false pretenses. Lookin’ back now, it strikes me as bein’ mighty curious how you got the best o’ Piker’s deals too. Was Piker or Denton, or whatever his name is, a gambler too?”

“He was,” answered Dick in a low tone.

The ol’ man squared himself, an’ his face was as fierce as the face of an ol’ she bear. “Of all the human snakes I ever heard of, you crawl the closest to the ground. You come here an’ act as square as a man can until you have made us all think the world of ya; an’ yet in your black heart you were all the time plottin’ to get my money, usin’ my little girl as a burglar would use a bar to open a safe with. Even then you couldn’t wait in patience; your inborn cussedness forced you to steal an’ cheat–and yet, boy, I could almost forgive you for deceivin’ me, but I can’t never forgive you for deceivin’ my little girl. You stand there with a gun in your hand an’ I stand here with none; you brag ‘at no man can’t doubt your dealin’ without havin’ cause to remember it; but I tell you to your teeth that you’re a sneak an’ a cheat an’ a low-grade coward.”

Dick stood with his head thrown back an’ his left hand clenched, while his right gripped the butt of his gun so fierce that the knuckles stood out white as chalk an’ the veins was black an’ swollen. His bosom was heavin’, his teeth showed in a threatenin’ white line, an’ all the savage th’ was in him was cryin’ kill, kill, kill!

He tottered a little when he took a step toward Jabez; but he laid the gun on the table with the butt pointin’ towards Jabez, an’ then he went back to the wall an’ folded his arms. He stood lookin’ at Jabez for a moment, an’ then he sez slow an’ soft an’ creepy: “Every word you have said from start to finish is a lie; and you yourself are a liar.”

The ol’ man choked. He loosened the collar around his neck, fairly gaspin’ for breath; an’ then he grabbed up the gun an’ held it ready to drop on Dick’s heart. A curious expression came over Dick as he looked into Jabez’ face; a tired, heart-achy smile as though he’d be so glad to be all through with it that he wouldn’t care a great deal how it was done. Ol’ Cast Steel was livin’ up to his name if ever a man did. The’ wasn’t a sign of anger in his face by this time, nothin’ but one grim purpose, an’ it was horrid. It looked like a plain case o’ suicide on Dick’s part, an’ I was just makin’ up my mind whether or not it would be polite to interfere, when the door opened noiselessly an’ Barbie stood in the openin’.

She seemed turned to stone for a second, an’ then she gave a spring an’ grabbed the ol’ man’s arm. “Jabez Judson, what are you doin’?” she said, an’ the’ wasn’t much blood relation in her tone.

The ol’ man lowered his gun an’ sank into a chair, while Barbie stood with her hands on her hips an’ looked from one to the other of us. Then it would be the time for our eyes to hit the carpet. “Now I want to know the meanin’ o’ this,” sez she, “an’ I want the full truth. This is nice doin’s over a game o’ cards. I wish I had thought to set up a bar, so you’d all felt a little more at home. What’s it about?”

We didn’t none of us seem to have a great deal to say, but just stood there lookin’ foolish. Finally Dick came out of it an’ sez, “I have been accused of cheatin’ an’ lyin’ an’ stealin’. The circumstantial evidence is all again me, so I shall have to go away, but you remember all I told you out in the other room–an’ on our rides across the plain, an’ on our walks in the moonlight; an’ Barbie, girl, don’t you believe a word of it.

“Good-bye, Happy–I know you an’ you know me. Jabez Judson, I know it ain’t no use to attempt any explanation; but I give you my word of honor–an’ I set just as much store by it as any man in all the world–that I never stacked a deck o’ cards in my life, an’ I never held a single underhanded thought again you; while as for Barbie– well, Barbie knows. Good-bye.”

Dick turned on his heel an’ stalked out o’ the room, Barbie dropped into a chair sobbin’, an’ me an’ the old man continued to look like the genuine guilty parties. Then it occurred to me that mebbe it would be wise to see if Piker was worth botherin’ with. First thing I did though was to see where he had helt his gun when he fired beneath the table. The’ wasn’t no gun on the floor, an’ I couldn’t nowise savvy it.

He had one gun in his holster, but he couldn’t have pulled it out without bein’ seen, an’ he couldn’t have put it back, nohow. I was plumb mystified, an’ had about give it up when I came across it. I own up it was a clever dodge, but snakish to an extreme. He had fashioned a rig just above his knee, an’ when he had sat down the gun had been pointin’ at Dick all through the game, an’ nothin’ but Jabez makin’ Dick move had saved him. It was a blood-thirsty scheme, an’ I felt like stampin’ his face into a jelly.

His head was still bent over an’ he was black in the face; but when I straightened him out an’ soused a lot o’ water over him, he came out of it, an’ I fair itched to make him eat his gun–knee-riggin’ an’ all! He sat up an’ began to tell what a low-down, sneakin’ cuss Dick had allus been. I let him sing a couple o’ verses, an’ then I sez: “Now, you look here, you slimy spider. Dick’s too busy just now to attend to your case an’ if you don’t swaller them few remarks instant I’ll be obliged to prepare you for the coroner myself. I’ve knowed Dick sometime, an’ I’ve knowed several other men; an’ I know enough to know that such a dust-eatin’ lizard as you never could know enough to know what such a man as Dick was thinkin’ out or plannin’ to do. An’ furthermore, you’re a liar in your heart, an’ still further more, I don’t like your face; an’ one other furthermore–the longer I look at you the madder I get! My advice to you, an’ I give it in the name o’ peace an’ sobriety, an’ because the’ ‘s a lady present, is to start right now to a more salubrious climate–you an’ your knee-gun an’ your black lies an’ your marked decks. Do you hear what I say? Are you goin’ to go?”

I was surely losin’ my temper; the’ was a blood taste in my throat, an’ when I asked him the question I kicked him gently in the chest, just to let him know ‘at I was ready for his verdict.

He was a coward. He just lunched himself away from me on his back an’ whined somethin’ about only tryin’ to show us the truth an’ not wantin’ any trouble, an’ a lot o’ such foolishness; but I soon wearied of it, an’ grabbed him by the collar an’ yanked him to his feet, an’ sez, “Now answer me one question–who told you that Dick was here?”

“Bill Andrews,” he sez; an’ I opened the door an’ kicked him through it: but in a minute back he comes, cringin’ like a cur. “Don’t send me away until after I see what direction Silver takes,” he whimpered. “He never forgives; He’ll kill me if he sees me; let me stay until after he starts.”

I laughed. “Why, you fool you,” I sez, “if he SHOULD happen to ruin you beyond repair you don’t imagine any one would put on mournin’ do ya? But if it’s goin’ to make your mind any easier I stand ready to give you a written guarantee ‘at he won’t use any knee-gun to do it with. Now you get; I’m strainin’ myself to keep from spoilin’ you on my own hook.”

I was in an advanced state of bein’ exasperated, an’ I walked up to him intendin’ to brand him a few with the butt of his own gun, when Barbie spoke low an’ cold, but in a voice fairly jagged with scorn: “Let the creature alone; I don’t want Dick to soil his boots.” Barbie’s voice had lost its college finish, an’ she was in the mood to do a little shootin’ herself just then.

Dick finished his packin’ in short order, an’ went out an’ saddled his pony an’ rode away toward Danders an’ Laramie. We all set like corpse-watchers for half an hour longer, an’ then Jabez straightened up an’ sez to Piker; “Take your money out o’ that pot an’ never get caught in this neighborhood again. Your partner started toward Laramie; when you see him tell him I’ll send the full amount o’ the pot to him as soon as he sends me his address. You can also tell him that I’ll kill him if he ever sets foot on this ranch again.”

Barbie was standin’ at the window lookin’ out into the moonlight which had swallered up the best part of her world. When Jabez finished speakin’ she turned around an’ looked at Piker. “I can’t figger out just whose dog-robber yon are,” she sez; “but next time you go gunnin’ for Silver Dick–you better take the whole gang with you.”

It fair hurt me to see Barbie’s face, so hard it was an’ so different from the real Barbie: but it warmed my heart to hear the way she made that Silver Dick ring out. Oh, she was a thoroughbred every inch of her, that girl was. Piker didn’t say a word; he just picked up his coin an’ walked out o’ the room, an’ I raised up the window an’ drew a deep breath. The blame pole-cat had managed to slip out an’ saddle his pony about supper time, an’ in a second he dashed away toward Webb Station, mighty thankful in his nasty little heart that he wasn’t bound for hell, where he rightly belonged.

“Did you ever know Dick before he came here, Happy?” asked Barbie.

“I swear to heaven that I never knew that our Dick was Silver Dick until this very night,” sez I; “but I’d be willing to stake my life on his word, an’ I’d take it again the word of any other livin’ man- -bar none.”

“Thank you, Happy. Good-night.” She held her head high as she walked out o’ the room; but I knew that livin’ serpents was tearin’ at her heart.

Ol’ Cast Steel sat for an hour, his chin on his hands an’ his elbows on the table, lookin’ at the pile of money an’ checks on the table before him.

“Gold, gold, gold!” he mutters at last; “it builds the churches an’ the schoolhouses an’ the homes; an’ it fills the jails and the insane asylums an’ hell itself. It drives brother to murder brother, an’ neither love nor friendship is proof against its curse. It starves those who scorn it, while those who pay out their souls for it find themselves sinking, sinking, sinking in its hideous quicksand until at last it closes above their mad screams. God! if I only had my life to live over!”

That was just the way he said it, deep an’ hoarse an’ coning between his set teeth; an’ I felt the hair raisin’ on my head. He looked like a lost soul, an’ the whites of his eyes showed in ghastly rings around the pupils.

“You take this rubbish, Happy,” sez he, turnin’ on me. “You’re too much like the birds an’ the beasts for it to ever injure you. Take it an’ spend it–drink it, throw it away, burn it up, destroy it, an’ when it is gone come back here an’ live in the open again an’ you’ll never be far from the spirit of God.”

Well, I knew it was ol’ Cast Steel who was speakin’, but it was mighty hard to believe it. “I don’t mean no disrespect to you, Jabez,” I sez, edgin’ toward the door, “but I’ll see you damned first.” An’ I slid outside an’ straddled a pony an’ rode till the dawn wind blew all the fever out of me an’ let the sunshine in.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

FEMININE LOGIC

Well, the Diamond Dot was sure a dismal dump after that. Every one had liked Dick; but they didn’t know how much until he was snuffed out like the flame of a candle. The ol’ man had me make a stagger at fillin’ Dick’s shoes; but it wasn’t what a truthful man would call a coal-ossal success. Dick had left a lot of directions, tellin’ how to judge the markets an’ how to make improvements without feelin’ the cost, an’ a dozen other things that. I had allus supposed was simply a mixture o’ luck an’ Providence; but it wasn’t in my line to figger things out on paper. Give me the actual cattle an’ I could nurse ’em along through sand-storm an’ blizzard, an’ round ’em up in the President’s back yard; but at that time they didn’t signify much to me when they was corraled up on a sheet of paper. When it cane to action I was as prepossessed as a clerk at a pie counter; but I didn’t have the slightest symptom of what they call the legal mind.

The’ wouldn’t much ‘a’ come of it; but one day Barbie came out of her daze an’ walked into the office where I was sweatin’ over some of Dick’s prognostications, stuck a pencil behind her ear, an’ waded into ’em; an’ from that on I took off my hat to a college edication. Dick may have been on the queer all right, but he was smooth enough to hide it. Anyhow, ol’ man Judson’s bank account was a heap plumper’n it was when Dick had his first whack at it, an’ Dick had drawn a mighty stately salery himself. But he earned it, for the ranch was in strictly modern order an’ runnin’ on a passenger schedule.

It allus gave me a hurtin’ in the chest to see either Barbie or the ol’ man himself those days. The’ was a set look in Barbie’s eyes; cold an’ unflinchin’ an’ defiant. I once saw the same expression in the eyes of a trapped mountain lion. The ol’ man’s face was all plowed up too. He reminded me of an Injun up to Port Bridger. A Shoshone he was from the Wind River country, an’ he had the look of an eagle; but he got a holt of some alcohol an’ upset a kettle o’ boilin’ grease on himself. He lived for eight days with part of his bones stickin’ through, but never givin’ a groan; an’ I ain’t got the look of his face out o’ my system yet. Jabez reminded me of it a heap: an’ he was just about as noisy over it too. I never supposed that the Diamond Dot could get to lookin’ so much like a desert island to me. I got to feelin’ like one who had been sent up for life, an’ I would sure have made a break for freedom if it hadn’t been for the little girl. I couldn’t bear to leave her.

One of the saddest things I ever see in my whole life was the difference between the way she an’ Jabez acted an’ the way they used to. I’ve heard preachers beseech their victims to live in peace an’ harmony together, an’ not to quarrel or complain; an’ right at the time it didn’t sound so empty an’ mockish; but when you come to boil it down the’ ain’t nothin’ in that theory. Why, I’d seen the ol’ man hunt Barbie all forenoon just to pick a quarrel with her; an’ they would fuss an’ stew an’ revile each other an’ keep it up all through dinner; an’ then go off in the afternoon an’ scrap from wire to wire; but they was enjoyin’ themselves fine, an’ addin’ to their stock of what is called mutual respect. Every time one of ’em would land it would cheer him up an’ put the other one on his mettle; an’ they certainly did get more comfort an’ brotherly love out of it than most folks does out of a prayer-meetin’; but after Dick went away the’ wasn’t no more quarrels. No, they was as differential as a pair of Japanese ambassadors; an’ she never called him Dad again– never once! an’ I could see him a-hunngerin’ for it with the look in his eyes a young cow has when she is huntin’ for the little wet calf the coyotes has beat her to. It was allus, “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir,” until I could almost hear the ol’ man’s heart a-breakin’ in his breast.

She never complained none, Barbie didn’t. She plowed through her work as though it was goin’ to bring him back to her; an’ when she couldn’t think of anything else to do she would tramp off to the hills or ride like the wind over the roughest roads she could find. Time an’ again she wouldn’t be able to sleep, but would steal out o’ the house, an’ we could hear her guitar sobbin’ an’ wailin of in the night; but if Barbie herself ever shed a tear it never left a mark on her cheek nor put a glaze to her eye.

The’ was one knoll not far from the house which commanded the view a long way toward Danders in one direction, an’ a long way toward Webb Station in another, an’ she spent about ten minutes each evenin’ on this knoll. Oh, it used to hurt, it used to hurt, to see that purty little light-hearted creature makin’ her fight all alone, an’ never lettin’ another livin’ bein’ come within hailin’ distance. At times it was all I could do to keep from goin’ gunnin’ for Dick myself.

Once she sez to me, “Happy, if any mail comes to me I want to get it myself, an’ I want you to see that I do get it”

“Barbie,” sez I, “as far as my feeble power goes you’ll get your mail; an’ if it happens to involve any other male–why, from this on, I’m under your orders.” She was grateful all right, an’ tried to smile, but it was a purty successful failure.

Soon the winter settled down an’ the snow blotted out the trails, but she never heard from him. The ol’ man had wrote to the postmaster at Laramie, an’ he had answered that Dick had allus played fair accordin’ to the best o’ his belief. He went on to say that Dick was generally counted about the best citizen they had; but that after he had shut Big Brown he had pulled out an’ no one knew where he was. He said ‘at Brown hadn’t died, which was a cause for sorrow to the whole town. He also said that Denton would be a disgrace to coyote parents. He furthermore went on to state that Dick still owned quite a little property in Laramie. The old man showed me an’ Barbie the letter; but it didn’t help much.

When Thanksgivin’ hove in sight the ol’ man dug up a bottle o’ whiskey, an’ put on a few ruffles to sort o’ stiffen up his back; an’ one day after dinner he sez to Barbie, “Now you just stay settin’.” She was in the habit of estimatin’ just how little nurishment it would take to run her to the next feed, gettin’ it into her in the shortest possible time, an’ then makin’ a streak for it.

“Now, little girl,” sez Jabez, tryin’ to look joyous an’ free from care, “you are leadin’ too sober a life. I want to see you happy again. I want to see you laughin’ about the house, like you used to. Can’t you sort o’ liven up a little?”

“I might,” sez she, with the first sneer I ever see her use on the ol’ man, “I might, if you’d give me the rest o’ the bottle you got your own gaiety out of.”

Cast Steel’s face turned as red as a brick, an’ his fist doubled up. “That’s a sample o’ your idee of respect, is it? You’re gettin’ too infernal biggoty. Now you pay attention. I want to have a little gatherin’ here Thanks-givin’. Will you, or will you not, see that the arrangements are attended to?”

“Yes, sir,” sez Barbie, lookin’ down at her plate. “How many guests will the’ be?”

“Well, how can I tell?” sez Jabez. “Can you get ready for twenty?”

“Yes, sir,” answers Barbie, never liftin’ her eyes.

“Yes, sir; yes, sir; yes, sir!” yells the of man. “I get everlastin’ tired o’ your `yes, sirs.’ Am I or am I not your ol’ Dad?” “If you prefer, I can call you father,” sez she, like she was talkin’ to the moon through a telephone. “Dad is not correct English; it is a kalowquism.”

This was allus like a pail o’ water to the of man. Nothin’ stung him any worse than to have her peel a couple o’ layers off her edication an’ chuck ’em at him.

“Do you know what is apt to happen if you keep on pesterin’ me?” he sez, glarin’ at her. “Do you think ‘at you’re too big to be whipped?”

She raised her eyes an’ looked at him then. Poor feller, he could ‘a’ torn his tongue out by the roots the minute it was guilty o’ that fool speech; but she didn’t spare him. She let him have the full effect o’ that look, an’ he seemed to shrivel up. “I reckon you’re big enough to whip me–once,” she said; “but I’m of age, an’ I’m mighty sure ‘at that would be the finishin’ touch ‘at would break the bonds what seem to hold me to this house. I probably have bad blood o’ some kind in me; but I’m not so ill-favored but what I can find a man to go along with me when I do conclude to go.” She looked at me, an’ the ol’ man looked at me, an’ I felt like a red- hot stove; but I straightened back in my chair, an’ I cleared my throat. “I ain’t no mind-reader,” sez I, “but I’m bettin’ on that same card.”

The ol’ man couldn’t think up a come-back; so in about a minute he pushed back his chair, upsettin’ it an’ lettin’ it lay where it fell. He went up to his room, slammin’ the door after him, an’ Barbie got out a pony an’ galloped off to the hills.

But the ol’ man hadn’t give up his project. He opened it again, an’ was mighty crafty in the way he handled it, until finally he engineered it through. The’ was purt’ nigh forty of ’em who arrived to make merry over Thanksgivin’. Some of ’em came the day before, an’ some of ’em two days before, an’ some didn’t arrive till the day itself, ’cause they had lived such a ways. The’ was four women an’ three unmarried ladies, countin’ Miss Wiggins, the Spike Crick schoolmarm, who was a friendly little thing, though a shade too coltish for her years. Most o’ the men was still liable to matrimony.

Jabez had an idee in his head, an’ it didn’t take no ferret to nose it out, neither. He was extra cordial to the store-keeper from Webb Station, an’ a young Englishman by the name o’ Hawthorn, finally settlin’ down to Hawthorn an’ playin’ him wide open. We had a mighty sociable time, an’ whenever we wasn’t eatin’ we played games. Barbie did just exactly what of Cast Steel played her to do. She was too red-blooded to let an outsider see ‘at she’d been bad hurt; so she brazened up an’ laughed an’ danced an’ sang, an’ showed ’em games they hadn’t never dreamt of before.

Most of ’em went home by Sunday night, but Hawthorn was prevailed upon to stay a week longer. He had a little ranch up in the hills, an’ seemed a well-meanin’ sort of a feller, but slow. He belonged to the show-me club, an’ had all his facical muscles spiked fast for fear they’d come loose an’ grin before he saw the point himself.

Barbie see through the ol’ man’s lead, an’ she took her revenge out on Hawthorn. She would lean forward an’ hold his eye, an’ say, in the sweetest voice you ever heard, “Oh. Mr. Hawthorn, I want to tell you somethin’ that happened at school;” an’ then she would start in an’ tell some long-winded tale ‘at didn’t have no more point than a mush room, an’ as she told along she would call his attention to certain details as though they was goin’ to figger in at the wind- up. When she would reach the end she would break out in a peal o’ spontunious laughter; while he would look as if he had been lost in the heart of a great city without his name-plate on. Still, he had a certain breedy look about him, an’ before the week was up she grew ashamed of her-self an’ showed him a good time.

He was one o’ these sad ones–sentimental an’ romantic, with a bad case o’ chronic lonesomeness; an’ one twilight he told her a pathetic little love story about a girl back in England what had had sense enough to cut him out of her assets when he had trooped over to this country to punch a fortune out o’ beef cattle. This had been about five years previous; but his heart still ached about it– though it hadn’t cut his appetite so you could notice. She treated him mighty gentle after this, an’ when he started to ride away Jabez had the look of a man what had filled his hand.

In about a week he came over an’ stayed for a couple o’ days, an’ he showed up at Christmas too; an’ about once a week after that he’d drop in an’ stay four or five days. Early in March he paid a visit to his own ranch to ready things up for spring, an’ the day after he was gone Jabez sez to Barbie at dinner, “Now, Mr Hawthorn is a gentle man. He asked me for the honor of winnin’ your hand in holy wedlock; an’ I have give my consent.”

Barbie went along eatin’ her meal, an’ purty soon Jabez sez, “Well, did you hear what I had to say?”

“Why, certainly I did,” sez Barbie, calmly.

“What have you got to say about it?” sez he.

“Oh, nothin’ in particular,” sez she. “It was very polite in him to ask, an’ very kind in you to give your consent; but I can’t see as it interests me much. I can’t see that he has any show of winnin’ the hand. I promised that once, an’ I ain’t never got the promise back.”

“Yes,” snaps Jabez, “an’ who did you promise it to? To a sneak who didn’t care a pin for you but was only after my money. If he was honest why didn’t he ask me, the same as Hawthorn did?”

“Of course I can’t tell for sure,” sez she, without raisin’ her voice or changin’ her expression, “but I thought at the time that it was the hand itself he wanted, an’ not merely permission to set an’ wish for it. In this life a man generally gets what he asks for. Dick got the hand.”

“Seems to set a heap o’ store by it,” sez the ol’ man, edgin’ up his voice cruel an’ tantalizin’. “Where’s this Dick now; when did you last hear from this winner of hands?”

It was a fierce stab, an’ Barbie went white as a sheet; but she faced him cool an’ steady. “I ain’t never heard from him since the day he left; but I trust him just the same. The hand will be his when he chooses to claim it; or if he never comes back at all–why the hand will still be his.”

Cast Steel got on his hind legs an’ struck the table till every dish on it jumped, an’ I rose a bit myself; but Barbie only curled her little red lip. “Curse him,” sez the ol’ man, “curse him, wherever he is an’ wherever he goes. He has ruined my life an’ he has ruined yours; an’ if he ever steps foot on this ranch again, I’ll–“

“Stop!” sez Barbie, springin’ to her feet. “You give me more sadness every day I live than Dick has altogether; but for pity’s sake don’t bind yourself by a threat. Wait till he comes back, an’ be free to meet him like a man, not like a thug pledged to murder.”

“What do you know about him?” sez the ol’ man, sittin’ down. “For all you know, he may be robbin’ trains for a livin’. It would be right in his line.”

“For all I know, robbin’ trains was where you got your start,” sez Barbie; an’ the of man’s face turned gray an’ his eyes stuck out like picture nails. He wasn’t used to gettin’ it quite so unpolluted, an’ it gave him a nasty jar.

“How do you know ‘at he ain’t livin’ with the woman he kept over at Laramie?” sez Jabez, tryin’ to get the whip hand again. “How do you know he ain’t married?”

“An’ how do I know ‘at you ever was married–” she stopped short, bitin’ her lip an’ turnin’ red with shame. “I know it’s well nigh hopeless to plead with a natural bully,” she sez in a new tone; “but I do wish ‘at you’d let me alone. You’re destroyin’ my respect for everything. I can’t stand this much longer. If I can’t live here in peace I’ll have to hunt a new place to live; but as long as I do stay here you will have to act like a man–even if you can’t act like a father. I think that in the future I shall take my meals alone.”

“I do want to act like a father, little girl. That’s what I want most of all. If you would only go back to the old times, if you would only get this sneak out of your head”–Jabez had started in gentle an’ repentent, but the minute he thought of Dick again he flared out white with rage–“an’ you might just as well get him out of your head, ’cause he’s the same as dead to you. I hate him! I hate every sneak; an’ I hate every lie–spoken or lived, I hate a lie!”

The ol’ man leaned forward, shaking with anger, an’ Barbie got up like a queen an’ walked out o’ the room as though she was steppin’ on the necks of the airy-stockracy. She went to the office, an’ after a couple o’ minutes I follered her, expectin’ to cheer her up a bit; but she wasn’t mournin’ none; she was workin’ like a steam engine, with her face cold an’ white except for a little patch o’ red in each cheek; an’ when she raised her eyes to mine I knew ‘at the ol’ man had gone a link too far.

After me and Barbie had taken up Dick’s work we had divided his wages, an’ she had a nice little roll of her own corded away. I didn’t ask no questions, but it was plain as day that she had jerked up her tie-rope; an’ the next time Cast Steel used the spurs he was goin’ to be dumped off an’ she was goin’ to flit the trail for Never-again. I didn’t blame her a mite; an’ though I didn’t pester her with queries nor smother her with advice nor sicken her with consolation nor madden her with pity, I did give her the man-to-man look, an’ she knew ‘at all she had to do was to issue orders.

It was that very afternoon that she started to correctin’ my talk an’ stimulatin’ my ambition, an’ tellin’ me about it never bein’ too late to mend; an’ while I couldn’t quite decide just what she was drivin’ at I saw that when she found she couldn’t trust her cinches any longer we was both goin’ to jump together. About five o’clock she put her hand on my shoulder an’ sez: “We’ve been mighty good pals, Happy Hawkins; an’ while you ain’t parlor-broke nor city-wise, any time ‘at anybody counts on you they don’t have to count over.”

She walked softly out o’ the office, an’ I sat until it was long after dark. I couldn’t believe ‘at she was desperate enough to marry me; I could see the gulf between us plain enough, an’ the higher you are the plainer you can see the difference; but I could see that unless Jabez changed his ways, why, the oldest man the’ was couldn’t tell how far Barbie would go. I didn’t think a bit of myself, I can say that much; all I looked at was what would make her the happiest, an’ she was welcome to take my life any way she wanted. If she chose to drag it out for fifty years, or if she selected that I cash it in the next hour, my only regret would be that I hadn’t but one life to give her.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

THE WAYS OF WOMANKIND

Things went along purty much the same after that; but I could see ‘at the ol’ man sensed a new tone in things, an’ he begun to look agey. He was still gallin’ on Barbie, but I couldn’t help but feel mighty sorry for him. He had paid all them years ‘at she was away at school, out o’ the joy of his own heart, lookin’ for his pay in the time when she’d come back an’ be his chum again, an’ here they was with a wall of ice between ’em an’ nairy a lovin’ glance to melt it down.

The’ come a warm spell toward the last o’ the month; an’ one evenin’ just as we was finishin’ supper we heard a cry o’ distress in a man’s voice–an’ the cry sounded like “Barbie!” I reckon all our hearts stood still, an’ I reckon we all thought exactly the same thing. In about a minute the cry came again, an’ the ol’ man jumped to his feet an’ pulled his gun. “If that’s Silver Dick,” sez he, “I’ll kill him.”

Barbie had also sprung up, an’ she looked him square in the eyes. “If you harm a hair of his head I’ll–I’ll do some shootin’ myself.”

She pulled a little gun out of her bosom, an’ we all stood quiet for a moment. It was easy to see ‘at she wasn’t bluffin’: but I’m purty sure that Jabez an’ I had different idees as to what she meant. Jabez thought she meant him self; but he hadn’t got the name o’ Cast Steel for nothin’, an’ a sort of a grim smile crept onto his face. We stood still for a moment, an’ then we went out together, an’ before long we heard the sound again–a long, waverin’, ghostly call in the gatherin’ twilight.

We hurried along, an’ purty soon we saw a man lyin’ across the trail. The ol’ man held his gun in his hand, an’ so did Barbie, while I walked a step behind doin’ a heap o’ thinkin’. If the ol’ man killed Dick, Barbie would shoot herself; if any one stopped the ol’ man that one would take on weight exceedin’ fast, unless he crippled the of man first. I finally made up my mind that I would try to overpower the ol’ man without hurtin’ him, an’ ol’ Cast Steel was built like a grizzly. I didn’t enjoy that walk as much as some I’ve took. When we got close to the figger lyin’ in the trail we all walked a little crouchy. It looked quite a little like Dick; but when we saw it wasn’t nothin’ but that fool Hawthorn with a busted leg, we three looked like the reception committee of the Foolish Society.

I hustled back an’ got Hanson an’ a couple o’ the boys and an ol’ door, an’ we fetched him home an’ put him to bed an’ sent for the doctor–an’ that was the worst luck that ever happened to ol’ Dick. You know how a woman is with anything hurt or sick; they’re the same the world over. A right strickly wise married man would have everything broke except his pocket-book, an’ then he’d be sure o’ lots of pettin’. They allus want to spoil a feller when he’s on the flat of his back. When he’s walkin’ around on his own feet all he needs to do is to express a desire, an’ they vetoe it on general principles, an’ after they’ve talked themselves dry they send out an’ get the preacher to finish the job; but when that same vile speciment of masculine humanity gets some of his runnin’ gear damaged, why they bed him on rose leaves, feed him on honey, an’, good or bad, they give him whatever he wants. This particular feller wanted Barbie, an’ Barbie was mighty gentle with him.

Sometimes it seems to me that the only men who can understand a woman are the men who work a lot with the dumb creatures. Take an animal now, wild or tame, an’ it hates to confess a weakness; it’ll just go on head up an’ eyes flashin’ till it drops in its tracks–so will a woman. Take the fiercest female animal the’ is, an’ it’s all mother on the inside. Why, they’re everlastin’ly adoptin’ somethin’ ‘at don’t rightly belong to ’em. Sometimes they go to work an’ adopt a little straggler that in a regular way is their daily food; an’ it ain’t no step-mother affair neither, it ‘s the real thing.

The wild animals are the best to study, ’cause the tame ones have been some spoiled by associatin’ with man. Well, the wild animals spend all their spare time dressin’ up an’ cleanin’ their clothes, an’ when it ain’t absolutely necessary they hate to get a toe wet; but when it comes to love or duty, why fire, water, nor the fear o’ man ain’t goin’ to stop ’em; so again I sez ‘at the man what can savvy the wild animals can get purty nigh within hailin’ distance of woman, an’ that’s gettin’ close; but you want to remember this, no animal never tells the truth to an outsider. The principle part o’ their life is spent in throwin’ folks off their trail, an’ they allus make their lairs in the most secret places. If a feller ever gets to know ’em even a little he has to be mighty patient an’ mighty careful, an’ above all things, he mustn’t never get the idee that he knows every last thing about ’em the’ is to know, ’cause no man never knows that. Some men try to estimate a woman by their own earthy way o’ doin’ things. ‘T would be just as reasonable for a man who was purty wise to the ways of a pug-dog to get inflated with the idee that he had a natural talent for hivin’ grizzly bears.

But to get back to my tale: this Englishman had fallen on his feet all right, even if the connection to one of ’em was busted up a bit. I was around ’em a good bit, bein’ forced to consult with Barbie about things, an’ I was able to piece out the method he was usin’. He wasn’t such a fool as he looked, by consid’able many rods. He talked a heap about the sacrifice he had made for the girl back in England, an’ how much he had loved her an’ how much Barbie had comforted him, although even yet he could not forget her. Once Barbie asked him what her name was. For a moment he didn’t answer, an’ then he sez in a low voice, Alice LeMoyne. I lifted my face quick an’ gave him a look, but he wasn’t noticin’ me. I didn’t say anything; but I couldn’t help wonderin’ if this Alice LeMoyne had anything to do with the dancer what had married into the Clarenden family, an’ then died. It was an odd name, but still I didn’t reckon the’ was a patent on it.

Finally I could tell by their talk that Barbie had told him about Dick, an’ then I knew the jig was about up. He allus spoke o’ Dick in a gentle, soothin’ way, makin’ every excuse for him; an’ this made her think him a noble-minded feller! an’ the most natural outcome was for ‘m to just bunch their woes an’ cling together for comfort. She allus used to sit by his side in the twilight, singin’ sorrowful love songs to him, an’ once I caught him holdin’ her hand. You see she was just naturally hungry for somethin’ to pet an’ care for; luck offered a spavined Englishman, an’ she was tryin’ to make the best of it.

Jabez savvied this to the queen’s taste, an’ he got gentle an’ lovin’ to Barbie, an’ did all he could to square himself; so that poor old Dick wasn’t much more’n a memory, which is one o’ the complications absence is apt to cause after it gets tired o’ makin’ the heart grow fonder.

But hang it, I didn’t like this Englishman more than the law required. The’ didn’t seem to be much harm to him; but he had washy eyes, an’ he was too blame oily an’ gentle. I never heard him swear all through it, an’ it ain’t natural for a real man to stand on his back for eight weeks without havin’ a little molten lava slop over into his conversation. It was all I could do to keep from stickin’ a pin into him.

“Barbie,” I sez one day, as innocent as an Injun, “I over-heard our honored guest tell you that a girl by the name of Alice LeMoyne put a crack in his heart over the water.”

“Yes,” sez she, with a sigh.

“It don’t seem to be a popular name,” sez I. “I’ve met lots o’ women who wasn’t called Alice LeMoyne.”

“It is probably French,” sez she.

“It does sound like a circus, that’s a fact,” sez I. “Well, you break it to him gently that Alice LeMoyne is dead. Don’t ask me any questions, but do be careful not to shock him, he seems purty high strung.”

You might as well use sarcasm on a steer as on a woman; Barbie went up to Hawthorn with her eyes full o’ pity, while I waited below an’ made up pictures o’ the crockadile tears he’d pump up for her. All of a sudden she gave a shriek. I hit the stairs, goin’ forty miles an hour, an’ there was Barbie with her hands clasped, lookin’ down at the Englishman.

Well, he was enough to make a snake shriek. He was layin’ there with his head jerked back, his eyes wide open an’ pointin’ inwards, an’ lookin’ altogether like the ancient corpse of a strangled cat. His hands was doubled up tight, an’ the’ was a little froth on his lips. I’d never seen nothing like that before, so I threw some water in his face. That’s about all the rule I know for any one who is missin’ cogs, an’ I poured enough water on him to please a duck. He didn’t respond for some several minutes, an’ when he did come out of it he looked loose all over. I helped Barbie get some dry stuff under him, an’ then I went down, wonderin’ what kind o’ dynamite for him they’d been in that name I’d sent up.

I tried to convince Barbie that his wires were all mixed up an’ he wasn’t healthy; but she argued that it showed a loyal nature to be so affected by mention of his old sweet-heart, an’ tried to pump me for where I had picked up the name. It looked too much like a chance shot to me; as this guy had only been among us a few years, an’ I gathered from Bill Hammersly that the Alice LeMoyne I was springin’ had journeyed on, some several years earlier.

But the Englishman continued to repose on his bed o’ down, Barbie read to him, cooked little tid-bits for him, an’ he opened up his nature an’ gave a new shine to his eyes; while Jabez–well, Jabez was buoyant as a balloon, an’ sent here an’ there for nick-hacks an’ jim-cracks an’ such like luxuries. He got to callin’ Hawthorn “Clarence” an’ “my boy,” an’ kindry epithets, till even a casual stranger would ‘a’ knowed the’ was a roarin’ in the ol’ man’s head like a chime o’ weddin’ bells.

Hawthorn was able to crutch around a bit by the first o’ May; it was an early season, an’ the’ was a great harvest o’ calves at the round-up. I was in work up to my eyes, an’ sort o’ lost track of the doin’s except when Barbie would have the buckboard hooked up an’ come out to the brandin’ ground. The weather was glorious, an’ you couldn’t have blamed an Injun idol for fallin’ in love, so I lost heart an’ was two-thirds mad nine-tenths o’ the time.

Jabez had had a hard siege of it an’ it showed. His face was lined, his hair was white at the temples, an’ the’ was a wistful look in his eyes which was mighty touchy. Barbie was more chummy with him too, an’ they was edgin’ back to ol’ times; but I was darn glad to see Hawthorn finally admit that he was sufficiently recovered to drive over an’ see what had become of his own lay-out.

The very first meal that we et alone, however, showed that the old sore wasn’t plumb healed over yet. Jabez couldn’t wait any longer, so he called for a show-down as soon as our food began to catch up with our appetite. “Has Clarence popped the question yet, honey?” sez he.

“About twice a day on the average,” sez Barbie, chillin’ up a trifle; “but I don’t think he stands much chance. I like him an’ he is kind an’ good; but I don’t reckon I could ever marry him.”

The ol’ man didn’t flare up, same as he would have once. He just sat still, lookin’ at his plate, an’ that was the hardest blow he had ever struck her. She asked me twice that afternoon if I thought he was failin’.

Next day at dinner Jabez finished his rations, an’ then leaned back an’ looked lovin’ly at Barbie for a minute. “Little girl,” he sez, “I know ‘at you don’t like to hurt me intentional; but you have give me a mighty sight of heartaches in my time. I have allus aimed to do what seemed best for you, an’ it has generally been a hard job. I haven’t complained much; but I’m gettin’ old, child, I’m gettin’ old. It’s not for myself, Barbie, it’s all for you, for you an’ for- -for the mother you never knew; but who made me promise to watch over an’ protect ya. I can’t speak of her, Barbie; but when I meet her out yonder I want to be able to tell her that as far as I was able I’ve done my part.

“This Dick has been gone a year, an’ never a word to ya to let you know even whether he’s alive or not. This ain’t love, honey; he was only after my money. Now Clarence is honest an’ open; why can’t you take up with him, so ‘at if I’d be called sudden I could go in peace. It would mean a lot to me to see you in good hands, honey. I’m afraid ‘at Dick’ll wait until I’m gone, an’ then come snoopin’ around, like a coyote sneakin’ into camp when the hunters are away. Don’t answer me now, child; just think it over careful. I’ve generally let you have your own way, but I do wish you’d give in to me this time.”

Was Jabez failin’–was he? Well, not so you could notice it! Course he wasn’t quite so physically able as once; but I never saw him put up a toppier mental exhibition than he did right then. Barbie didn’t have a word to say that afternoon until about five o’clock. Then she suddenly looked up from some reports we was goin’ over, an’ sez, “Happy, if you had gone away from me like Dick did, what would be the only thing what would have kept you from comin’ back to me?”

“By God, nothin’ but death!” sez I, without stoppin’ to think.

The color rushed to her cheeks as if I had slapped her; an’ then it oozed away, leavin’ her white as chalk, while I bit my lip an’ pinched myself somethin’ hearty. I had wanted to compliment her I suppose, if I’d had any motive at all; but what I had done, when you come to look it square in the teeth, was to ask her to cut an ace out of a deck with nothin’ left higher than a six spot. I ain’t what you would call inventionative; but I could ‘a’ done a blame sight better’n that if I’d taken the time to think, instead o’ simply blurtin’ out the truth like some fool amateur.

“Well,” sez she, finally, “Dick was twice the man you are, so he must be–dead.”

We didn’t say anything for some time. Vanity ain’t like a mill-store about my neck; but at the same time, whenever any one plugs me in the face with an aged cabbage, I allus like to make a some little acknowledgment. Of course I knew that she was handin’ me one for my fool break; but she did it in cold blood, an’ if it hadn’t been for her bein’ so stewed up in trouble, I’d have made her furnish some specifications to back up that remark. Twice is a good many, but I let it go.

She sat lost in study for a while, an’ then said, mostly to herself, “I reckon I might as well take him”–my heart popped up in my mouth till I liked to have gagged, but she went on–“he’s honest an’ kind, an’ he’s been true a long time to his first love. I hope he’ll stay true to her after we’re married; I know I’ll stay true to mine”– then I knew she meant that fool Englishman. “Anyway, father has been good to me,” she continued, “an’ I don’t set enough store by my own life to risk spoilin’ his.”

“I suppose that mis-shapen stray from the other side is twice the man I am, too,” sez I. She put her hand on mine an’ sez in a tired voice, “Ah, Happy, you’ve been my staff so far through the valley, don’t you slip out from under me too”; so I swallered hard a couple o’ times an’ let it go.

She sat still a long while, lookin’ out the window an’ up to the of gray mountains; and as I watched her with her lips tremblin, an’ her eyes misty, with courage winnin’ a battle over pain, I saw the woman lines of her face steal forth an’ bury the last traces o’ girlhood. After a time she sez softly, “Poor ol’ Dick, I wonder how it happened”; but never one tear got by her eyelids–never one single tear.

From that on it was plain sailin’. Barbie didn’t put up any more fight to either of ’em. She told ’em open an’ fair that she would never in the world have consented if she had thought that Dick was still alive; but if they was willin’ to take what part of her heart was left why they was welcome to it. Jabez was pleased at any kind of a compromise ‘at would give him his own way, an’ Clarence, poor dear, wasn’t a proud lot. The flesh-pots of Egypt was about all the arguments needed to win his vote, confound him. I used to give him some sneerin’ glances what would ‘a’ put fight into the heart of a ring-dove; but he was resigned an’ submissive; so ‘at I had to swaller my tongue when I saw him comin’, for fear I might tell him my opinion of him an’ then stamp his life out for not bein’ insulted.

The first of November was selected for the weddin’ day; an’ Jabez told ’em ‘at his present would be a trip to Europe an’ a half interest in the ranch. Clarence sort o’ perked up his face when Jabez told him about it; an’ I thought he was goin’ to suggest that they cut out the trip to Europe an’ take the whole o’ the ranch. I had the makin’s of a good many cyclones in my system those days.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

A MODERN KNIGHT-ERRANT

I was lonesome once. I don’t mean simply willin’ to sit in a game, or to join a friendly little booze competition, or feelin’ a sort of inward desire to mingle about with some o’ the old boys an’ see who could remember the biggest tales–I mean LONESOME,–the real rib- strainin’ article when a man sits in a limpy little heap with his tongue hangin’ out, a-wishin’ that a flea-bit coyote would saunter along, slap him on the back, an’ call him friens.

I was out in No-man’s land with just a small bunch o’ mangy cows, an’ the grass so scarce I purt’ nigh had to get ’em shod–they had to travel so far in makin’ a meal. It was hot an’ it was dusty an’ it was dry–the whole earth seemed to reek. My victuals got moldy an’ soft an’ sticky, my appetite laid down an’ refused to go another peg; ‘I was just simply dyin’ o’ thirst, an’ every single drop o’ water we came across had a breath like the dyin’ gasp of a coal-oil stove, expirin’ for a couple o’ fingers o’ the stuff they float universities in.

Now I’d allus supposed that the’ wasn’t anything left to tell me about bein’ lonesome; but when it was finally settled that Barbie was to waste herself on that imported imitation of a hand-made mechanical toy, I found out that heretofore I’d been only dealin’ in childish delusions. The whole Diamond Dot seemed to rest right on top o’ my soul: the air didn’t smell sweet, I got so I’d lie awake at night, food grew so fearless it could look me right in the face without flinchin’; but one night I saw Merry England with his arm around Barbie’s waist, an’ that settled it. By the time I had regained my self-control, I was twenty miles from the ranch, an’ I knew that if I went back it would be to make arrangements for the last sad obsequaries of Clarence the Comforter.

I had about three hundred bucks in my belt, so I wended my way to Danders an’ sneaked aboard the East-bound without attractin’ the notice of ol’ Mrs. Fate or any o’ the rest o’ the Danders bunch. I got out at Laramie, an’ they all knew Dick an’ was proud of him an’ eager to learn what had become of him. One thing else I found out, an’ that was that he had been keepin’ a woman all right, an’ that she was livin’ there yet; but never went out without a heavy veil, an’ the’ wasn’t any way short o’ physical force to get to speak to her.

I figured out that Dick wouldn’t care to go back to Texas, so the chances were that he was either in San Francisco or England. I didn’t know anything about England, so I went to Frisco. I prowled around for a couple o’ days exactly like a story-detective; an’ by jinks, I turned up a clew. That feller, Piker, was the clew, an’ when I spied him in a low gamblin’ room I made some little stir until I got him alone so I could talk to him. I hadn’t hurt him none; but I had been tol’able firm, an’ he was minded to speak the truth. He told me that Dick was in the Texas Penitentiary for life– that he had surrendered himself up, an’ that this was what had give him life instead of the rope.

I knew the gang what had put him there, an’ I knew that his chances for gettin’ out were about as good as if he was in his grave. I was stumped an’ I knew it; so I sez to Piker: “Piker, you may think that I’m allus as gentle as I’ve been with you; but if this ain’t the truth you’ve told me I’ll get your life if I have to track you bare- footed through hell.”

He swore by everything he could remember that it was the solemn truth, an’ then I turned him loose an’ I turned myself loose too. The boys down at Frisco was certainly glad to see me, an’ we sure had a royal good time as long as my money lasted; but when it began to dry up they seemed to lose interest in me an’ had a heap o’ private business to attend to.

One mornin’ I noticed that I was dead broke; so I drilled down to the dock an’ sat on a post. Pretty soon along comes a little fat man, an’ he looks me over from nose to toe. I don’t know why it is, but as a rule a city man takes as open-hearted an’ disembarrassed an interest in me as though I was a prize punkin’ or the father of a new breed o’ beef cattle. After he had made up his opinion he smiles into my eyes an’ sez, “I like your face.”

“You soothe me,” sez I. “I was just thinkin’ o’ havin’ it remodelled; but now I’ll leave it just as it is.”

Well, he laughs an’ slaps me on the back an’ sez, “I like your style. Want to take a ride?”

“What on?” sez I, for he seemed purty blocky an’ fat-legged for a ridin’ man.

“On that there sailboat,” sez he, pointin’ to a thing about the size of a flat-iron with a knittin’-needle stickin’ out of it. I give a little think, an’ I sez: “To tell you the gospel truth, Bud, I ain’t never been on a sailboat in my life; but I’m game to play her one whirl if you’ll just wait until I get my breakfast.”

“How long will it take?” sez he. “Deuced if I know,” sez I. “I’ve been waitin’ hereabout two hours already an’ the’ ain’t none showed up yet.”

“Why don’t you go to a restaurant?” sez he.

“I thank you kindly for the suggestion,” sez I; “but the same brilliant idee occurred to me a little over two hours ago, an’ all my finger-nails is wore to the quick tryin’ to scratch up enough change.”

He studied my face a moment, then he chuckled up a laugh, an’ scooted over to an eatin’-house, comin’ back with a lot o’ stuff an’ some coffee. Then we got into the boat an’ begun to sail. Oh, it certainly was grand! By the time I had made it up with my stomach we were out on the Pacific Ocean, an’ I felt like Christopher Columbus.

Enjoy myself? Well. I guess I did! I felt like a boy with copper- toed boots an’ a toy balloon. Then things began to churn up wild an’ furious. Fatty said that Pacific meant mild an’ peaceful–the darned, sarcastic, little liar! The storm that was presently kazooin’ along was fierce an’ horrible, an’ that dinky little soap- bubble cut up scand’lous.

We went jumpin’ an’ slidin’ ahead, tilted away over on one side, but Fatty never turned a hair; he said it was nothin’ but a capful o’ wind, an’ he sat in the back end o’ the boat with a little stick in his hand, hummin’ tunes an’ havin’ the time of his life; but give me a bunch of blizzard-scared long-horns for mine.

I never knowed a boat was so human. This one bucked an’ kicked an’ reared up an’ tried to fall over on its back, the same as a mustang; while I held on with my teeth an’ wondered if it was a put-up job. Then I began to feel as though I had partakin’ of a balloon. I gritted my teeth an’ swallered hot water constant; but it wasn’t no use; purty soon that beautiful breakfast began to fight its way to liberty. Layer after layer, up it came; an’ all the while mebbe I wasn’t feelin’ like a tender-foot, with that fat little cuss puffin’ his pipe in the back seat, as happy as a toad.

After a bit he looks at me purty sympathetic like, an’ sez, “You seem to have a weak stomach.”

“Weak?” I yells. “Weak! why you doggone son of a pirate, it kicks like a shotgun every time it goes off. Weak!”

We stayed out on our pleasure trip the best part of the day, me layin’ with what used to be my head jammed under the front seat, while my liver chased my stomach up an’ down my backbone, tryin’ to squeeze out a few more crumbs o’ that breakfast. You can believe me or not; but when noon came that double dyed villain got out the grub an’ began to eat–even goin’ so far as to ask me to join him. A hog wouldn’t ‘a’ done it. We came back; about five o’clock, an’ by the time we reached the landin’ place I was feelin’ fine. An’ hungry– Say!

When we got upon the platform an’ started to walk up-town Fatty sez to me, “What are you goin’ to do to kill time now?”

“Time?” sez I. “Well, now, I dunno as I feel any inborn hankerin’ to slaughter time; but if the game laws ain’t in force I wouldn’t mind flushin’ up a covey of fat young ham sandwidges.”

“You’re a funny cuss,” sez he.

“I am,” sez I; “an’ I hope I won’t come sudden in front of a lookin’-glass. A good hearty laugh just now would be purty apt to puncture my stomach–it’s jammed up so tight again my backbone.”

“You don’t seem to like this community,” sez he.

“I don’t know,” sez I. “It’s been a mighty long time since I tasted it; but I have an idy that I’d enjoy some served hot with a couple o’ porterhouse steaks smothered in cornbeef hash an’ about three pints o’ coffee.”

He chuckled up another laugh, an sez, “If you had a good job here would you be apt to settle?”

“Settle?” sez I. “You needn’t worry much about that; I’m no tight- wad. When it comes my turn to settle I generally fish up a handful an’ say, ‘Here, take it out o’ that an’ keep the change.'”

He looked at me a minute without speakin’, an’ then he said, as though he was thinkin’ aloud, “You seem to be mighty well set up.”

I was hurt at this. “Your ticket entitles you to one more guess,” sez I. “Any time anybody got set up in my company since I struck town the bartender allus managed to sneak me the checks without gettin’ caught at it. The’ must ‘a’ been a cold snap here, an’ all the easy spenders got froze up.”

“No, I mean you’re wonderful well built,” sez he. “Kin you ride a hoss?”

“I can,” sez I, “if he’s kind an’ gentle, an’ I manage to get a good grip on the saddle horn, an’ he don’t start to lopin’ or somethin’ like that.”

“Do you know what a knight is?” sez he.

“Yes,” sez I, “I do when I’m home; but since I’ve been here I ain’t wasted none of ’em in sleep, so I ain’t right certain.”

“No, I don’t mean that kind,” sez he. “I mean the soldiers of long ago who used to wear steel armor an’ fight with spears an’ rescue maidens an’ so forth. I believe I can get you a job at it for a month or so, at three dollars a day.”

“Now look here, Bud,” sez I, “them three dollars look mighty enticin’ to me, an’ I ain’t no objection to rescuin’ the maidens; but I move we cut out the steel armor an’ the spears. If the’ ‘s any great amount o’ maidens in need o’ rescuin’, I could do the job a heap quicker with my six-shooters.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to be a real knight,” sez he. “I want you to advertise tobacco.”

“Say,” sez I, “perhaps you never noticed it; but after you’ve been livin’ on air for some time you get so you can’t tell whether it’s yourself or the other feller what’s crazy. I came down to this town because my appetite was clogged up an’ wouldn’t work; but I’m cured. I’m the most infernally cured individual you ever set eyes on, an’ I’m goin’ back where food ain’t too blame proud to be seen in company with a poor man.”

Well, I broke through his crust that time, an’ we sidled into a feed-joint, where I pried my ribs apart while he un folded his plot. It seemed the’ was a brand of chewin’ tobacco what had one o’ these here knights on the tag, an’ I was to dress up like the picture an’ advertise it. The man who was to do it had sprained his ankle, an’ Fatty’s brother was huntin’ up a new man. Fatty said he’d get me the job.

Well, he did, an’ next mornin’ I started out in a tin suit with a sort of kettle turned upside down an’ covered with feathers for a sky-piece. I certainly made an imposin’ sight, an’ all I had to do was to ride around an’ fling little plugs o’ tobacco out o’ my saddle-bags. But the’ was draw-backs. The’ generally is.

Take the real native-son brand of Friscoite, an’ he’ll tell you ‘at Frisco an’ Paradise are sunonomous. I used to like to argue ’em out about it. One day I had a thirty-third degree one pointin’ his finger in my eye an’ beatin’ his palm with his fist, an’ spreadin’ himself somethin’ gorgeous. He never curbed his jubilization nor altered the heavy seriousness of his expression; but in the most matter-of-fact way in the world he backs over to the door-jamb an’ begins to polish it up with his spinal column. If ya’ll notice you’ll find most o’ the coats in that locality has curious little streaks up the back–but it ain’t polite to ask questions about ’em.

“Look here, Bud,” sez I, interruptin’, “I know all about your golden gates an’ sea lions an’ cosmopopilic civilization; but how about your fleas?”

“Fleas!” sez he. “Hang the fleas! I’ll tell you about them. The devil He tried an experiment; he wanted a place so fine to live in that man wouldn’t have no inducement to try to get to heaven; so he studied all the cities an’ the towns–an’ then he made Frisco. The experiment worked to perfection; everybody what lived there was perfectly satisfied, an’ the preachers couldn’t make ’em believe ‘at any place could be any better. But the good Lord, he was powerful fond o’ the Friscoites, so he finally figgered out the little red flea–an’ then even Frisco had a drawback; not enough to give the town anything of a black eye; just enough to leave one little