Trueman Rock slowly stepped down from the coach, grip in hand, with an eager and curious expression upon his lean dark face. He wore a plain check suit, rather wrinkled, and a big grey sombrero that had seen service. His step, his lithe shape, proclaimed him to be a rider. A sharp eye might have detected the bulge of a gun worn under his coat, high over his left hip and far back.
He had the look of a man who expected to see someone he knew. There was an easy, careless, yet guarded air about him. He walked down the platform without meeting anyone who took more than a casual glance at him.
At the end of the flagstone walk Rock hesitated and halted, as if surprised, even startled. Across the wide street stood a block of frame and brick buildings, with high weatherbeaten signs. It was a lazy scene. A group of cowboys occupied the corner; saddled horses were hitched to a rail; buckboards and wagons showed farther down the street; Mexicans in colourful garb sat in front of a saloon.
Memory stirred to the sight of the familiar corner. He had been in several bad gun fights in this town. The scene of one of them lay before him and a subtle change began to affect his pleasure in returning to Wagontongue. He left the station.
But he had not walked half a block before he came to another saloon, the familiar look of which and the barely decipherable name--Happy Days--acted like a blow in his face. He quickened his step, then, reacting to his characteristic spirit, he deliberately turned back to enter the saloon. The same place, the same bar, and the faded paintings; the same pool tables. Except for a barkeeper, the room was deserted. Rock asked for a drink.
"Stranger hereabouts, eh?" inquired the bartender.
"Yes, but I used to know Wagon-tongue," replied Rock. "You been here long?"
"Goin' on two years."
"How's the cattle business?"
"Good, off an' on. It's slack now, but there's some trade in beef."
"Beef? You mean on the hoof?"
"No. Butcherin'. Gage Preston's outfit do a big business."
"Well, that's new," replied Rock, thoughtfully. "Gage Preston? Heard his name somewhere."
He went to the Range House, a hotel on another corner. He registered, gave the clerk his baggage checks, and went to the room assigned him, where he further resisted the mood encroaching upon him by shaving and making himself look presentable to his exacting eyes.
"Sure would like to run into Amy Wund," he said, falling into reminiscence. "Or Polly Ackers. Or Kit Rand. All married long ago, I'll bet."
He went downstairs to the lobby, where he encountered a ruddy-faced man, Clark, the proprietor, whom he well remembered.
"Howdy, Rock! Glad to see you," greeted that worthy, cordially if not heartily, extending a hand.
"Howdy, Bill!" returned Rock, as they gripped hands.
"Wal, you haven't changed any, if I remember. Fact is you look fit, an' prosperous, I may say. How long since you left Wagontongue?"
"Wal, so long as that? Time shore flies. We've growed some, Rock. A good many cattlemen, have come in. All the range pretty well stocked now. We have two lumber mills, some big stores, a school, an' a town hall."
"Well, you sure are comin' on. I'm right glad, Bill. Always liked Wagontongue."
"Did yon jest drop in to say hello to old friends, or do you aim to stay?" inquired Clark, his speculative eyes lighting.
Rock mused over that query, while Clark studied him. After a moment he flipped aside Rock's coat. "Ahuh! Excuse me, Rock, for bein' familiar. I see you're packin' hardware, as usual. But I hope you ain't lookin' for someone."
"Reckon not, Bill. But there might be someone lookin' for me. How's my old friend, Cass Seward?"
"Ha! Wal, you needn't be curious aboot Cass lookin' for you. He's been daid these two years. He was a real sheriff, Rock, an' a good friend of yours."
"Well, I'm not so sure of that last, but Cass was a good fellow all right. Dead! I'm sure sorry. What ailed him, Bill?"
"Nothin'. He cashed with his boots on."
"Who killed him?"
"Wal, that was never cleared up for shore. It happened out here at Sandro. Cass got in a row an' was shot. The talk has always been that Ash Preston killed Seward. But nobody, least of all our new sheriff, ever tried to prove it."
"Who's Ash Preston?"
"He's the oldest son of Gage Preston, a new cattleman to these parts since you rode here. An' Ash is as bad a hombre as ever forked a horse. I ain't sayin' any an' please regard that as confidence."
"Certainly, Bill," replied, Rock, hastily. After some casual conversation about the range, they parted in the hotel lobby.
Sitting there, he recalled friends and enemies of the old days. One of his best friends had been Sol Winter. Whenever Rock got into a scrape, provided it was not a shooting one, Sol was the one who helped him out of it. And as for money, Sol had always been his bank. Rock, remembering many things--one of which was that he had left Wagontongue hastily and penniless--thought he recalled a debt still unpaid. With that he sallied out to find Winter's store.
It should have been a couple if blocks down the street. Some of the buildings were new, however, and Rock could not be sure. Finally he located the corner where Sol's place of business had been. A large and pretentious store now occupied this site. Rock experienced keen pleasure at the evidence of his old friend's prosperity, and he stalked gayly in, only to learn that Sol Winter did not occupy this store.
Through inquiry, he located Winter's store at the end of the street. It was by no means a small or cheap place, but it was not what it had once been. Rock entered. Sol was waiting upon a woman, looked, older, thinner, greyer, and there were deep lines in his face. Six years was a long time. Rock gazed round him. It was a large store room crowded with merchandise--hardware, groceries, saddles and harness and farm implements.
"Well, sir, what can I do for you?" inquired Winter.
"Howdy, Sol, old-timer!" said Rock with a warm leap of his pulse. "Don't you know me?"
Winter leaned and crouched a little, his eyes piercing. Suddenly the tightness of his face loosened into a convulsive smile.
"True Rock!" he shouted incredulously. "If it ain't really you! Why, you old ridin', drinkin', shootin', love-makin' son of a gun!"
"Glad to see me, Sol?" returned Rock, tingling under Winter's grip.
"Glad? Lordy, there ain't words to tell you. Why, True, you were always like my own boy. An' since I lost him--"
"Lost him! Who? You never had any boy but Nick."
"Didn't you ever hear aboot Nick? Nick was shot off his hoss out near Sunset Pass."
"Aw--no! Sol! That fine sweet lad! My God! I'm sorry," exclaimed Rock, huskily. "But it was an accident?"
"So they say, but I never believed it. There's still bad blood on the range, True. You must remember. In fact there's some new bad blood come in since you left."
Here a customer entered, and Rock seated himself on the counter and put aside his sombrero, to find his brow clammy and cold. Nick Winter dead! Shot by rustlers, probably, or perhaps by this new bad element hinted at by Clark and Winter. The last thing Rock would have expected was that anyone could do violence to gentle, kindly, crippled Nick Winter. Here was something to keep Rock around Wagontongue, if nothing else offered.
"True, it's good to see you sittin' there," said Winter, returning to place a hand on Rock's shoulder. "I never saw you look so well, so clean an' fine. I don't need to be told you've worked hard."
"Yes, Sol. I've been five years on a cattle job in Texas. Cleaned up ten thousand, all honest and square. I've got a roll that would choke a cow."
"No! Ten thousand? Why, True, that's a small fortune! It'll make you. If only you don't get drunk an' begin to gamble."
"Well, Sol, maybe I won't. But I've gone straight so long I'm worried. How much do I owe you?"
"Owe me? Nothin'."
"Look over your books before I hand you one," ordered Rock fiercely. Whereupon he helped Winter find the old account, and forced him to accept payment with interest.
"Say, Rock, to be honest, this little windfall will help a lot," declared Winter. "I got in a cattle deal some time past an' lost out pretty much in debt. Then the new store---Dabb's--ate into my trade. I had to move. Lately, though, my business has picked up. I think I can pull out."
"That's good. Who'd you go in cattle deals with?" rejoined Rock.
"Dabb? Not John Dabb who ran things here years ago? Sol, you ought to have known better."
"Sure. But it seemed such a promisin' deal; an' it was for Nick's sake--but I'm out of cattle deals for good."
"Go on. Tell me some more bad news," said Rock gloomily. "What's become of my old girl, Kit Rand?"
"Kit. Let me see. I know she married Chess Watkins--"
"What! That drunken loafer?"
"Yes, an' she couldn't change him either. Kitty had to go to work in a restaurant here, an' finally they left Wagontongue."
"Kitty-Rand? That dainty, clever little girl a waitress! Good Lord! How about Polly Ackers?"
"Polly went to the bad," returned Sol, gravely. "Some flash gambler got around her. She's been gone for years."
Rock groaned. "I'm Sorry I ever came back to this darned Wagontongue. One more question. How about my best girl, Amy Wund?"
"Worse an' more of it, True," rejoined Winter. "After you left, Amy played fast an' loose with many a puncher, There are some who say she never got over your runnin' away."
"Thunder! They're crazy!" burst out Rock. "She played fast an' loose with me. She never cared two snaps for me."
"Yes, she did, if there's anythin' in gossip. Mebbe she never found it out till you were gone. Amy was a highstrung lass. An' yon know, Rock, you were sweet on Polly at the same time."
"Lord forgive me, I was."
Trueman dropped his head.
"Son, it's the way of life," went on Winter.
"Sol, will you keep my money till I come askin' for it?" queried Rock, with his hand inside his waistcoat.
"Now what're you up to?"
"I'm' goin' out and get awful, terrible drunk," declared Rock.
Winter laughed, though he looked serious enough. "Don't do it, True. It'll only fetch back the old habit. You look so fine, I'd hate to see you, do it."
"I'm goin' to drown my grief, Sol," declared Rock, solemnly.
"Well, wait till I come back," returned Winter. "I've got to go to the station. My clerk is off today. Keep store for me--like you used to."
"All right. I'll keep store. But you rustle back here pronto."
Winter hurried out, leaving Rock sitting on the counter, a prey to symptoms he well knew. If Sol did not hurry back--
A light quick step arrested the current of Trueman's thoughts. He looked up. A girl had entered the store. His first swift sight of her caused him to slip off the counter. She looked around expectantly, and seeing Rock she hesitated, then came forward. Rock suddenly realised that to get terribly drunk was the very remotest thing that he wanted or intended to do.
"Is Mr. Winter in?" asked the girt, pausing before the counter.
"No. He had to go to the station. Reckon he'll be there quite some time. Can I do anythin' for you?" Rock was cool, easy; respectful.
"Are you the new clerk, Mr. Winter was expecting?" she queried.
"Yes, miss, at your service."
"I've quite a list of things to get," she said, opening a handbag.
"I'll do my best, miss. But I'm a little new to the business."
"That's all right. I'll help you," she returned, graciously. "Now where is that paper?"
The delay, gave Trueman opportunity to look at her covertly. She was thoroughbred Western, about 21 or 22, blonde, with fair hair more silver than gold. She was not robust of build, yet scarcely slender. She wore a faded little blue bonnet not of the latest style, and her plain white dress, though clean and neat, had seen long service.
"Here it is," she said, producing a slip of paper and looking up somewhat flushed. Her eyes were large, wide apart, grey in colour. Rock looked into them. Something happened to him then that had never happened before and which could never happen again.
"Now, shall I read the list off one at a time or altogether?"
"Well, miss, it really doesn't--make any difference," replied Trueman, vaguely, gazing at her lips. They were sweet and full and red, and just now curved into a little questioning smile. But, as he watched, it fled and then they seemed sad. Indeed her whole face seemed sad, particularly the deep grey eyes that had begun to regard him somewhat doubtfully.
"Very well--the groceries first," she said, consulting her list. "Five of sugar, five of rice, five--"
"Five what?" interrupted Trueman, with alacrity. Everything was in plain sight. It ought to be easy, if he could keep his eyes off her.
"Five what!" she echoed, in surprise. "Did you think I meant barrels? Five pounds."
"Sure. That's what I thought," replied Trueman, hastily. "But some people buy this stuff in bulk."
Rock began to grasp that he was bungling the greatest opportunity of his life. He found the sugar and had almost filled a large sack when she checked him: "Not brown sugar. White, please."
There was something in her tone that made Rock wonder if she were laughing at him. It stirred him to dexterity rather than clumsiness. He filled a large paper bag with white sugar.
"But you didn't weigh it," she said.
"I never weigh out small amounts," he returned blandly. "I can guess very accurately."
"There's more than five pounds of sugar in that bag," she protested.
"Probably, a little. Sure I never guess underweight. What next? Oh, the rice."
"Can you guess the weight of rice, too?"
"Sure can. Even better. It's not near so heavy as sugar." And he filled a larger bag. In attempting to pass this to her he accidentally touched her bare hand with his. The soft contact shot a thrilling current through him. He dropped the bag. It burst, and the rice poured all over her, and like a white stream to the floor.
"There--you've done' it," she said, aghast.
"Excuse me, miss. I'm sure awkward this day. But rice is lucky. That might be a good omen. I'm superstitious. Spillin' rice might mean a wedding."
She blushed, but spoke up with spirit. "It couldn't, so far as I'm concerned," she said. "Of course I don't know your affairs. But you are wasting my time. I must hurry. They'll be waiting."
Rock humbly apologized and proceeded to fill another bag with rice. Then he went on with the order, and for several moments, in which he kept his eyes averted, he performed very well as a clerk. He certainly prayed that Sol would not come back soon.
"That's all the groceries," she said. "Now I want buttons, thread, calico, dress goods, linen and--"
At the dry-goods counter Rock could not find anything.
The young lady calmly walked behind the counter. "Can't you read?" she inquired, pointing at some boxes.
"Read!" exclaimed Trueman, in an injured tone. "Sure I can read. I went to school for eight years. That's about four more than any cowpuncher I ever met."
"Indeed! No one would suspect it," she returned demurely. "If you're a cowboy--what're you doing in here?"
"I just lately went to clerking."
"Show me the buttons. There--in the white boxes. Thank you."
While she bent over them, looking and assorting, Trueman feasted his eyes on the little stray locks of fair hair that peeped from under her bonnet, on the small well-shaped ear, on the nape of her neck; beautiful and white, and upon the contour of cheek.
"It isn't pearl?" she inquired holding a button in her palm.
"Sure is," he replied dreamily, meaning her cheek, suddenly terribly aware of its nearness and sweetness.
"That pearl! Don't you know bone when you see it?"
"I'm sorry," spoke up Rock, contritely. "I'm not usually so dumb. But you see I never before waited on such a--a girl as you."
She shot him a grey glance not wholly doubtful or unforgiving. And meeting his eyes caused her to look down again with a tinge of colour staining her cheeks.
"I'm not a clerk. Good heavens! If the gangs I've ridden with would drop in here to see me--doin' this. Whew! My name is Trueman Rock. I'm an old friend of Sol Winter's."
"Trueman Rock?" she repeated, almost with a start, as she swiftly lifted big, surprised eyes.
"Yes. I used to ride this range years ago. I've been gone six years--five of which I've spent in Texas, workin' hard and--well,' I'd like you to know, because maybe you've heard talk here. Workin' hard and goin' straight. I sold out. Somethin' drew me back to Wagontongue. Got here today, and when I ran in to see Sol he left me here in charge of the store. I'm sorry I've annoyed you--kept you waitin'. But it was Sol's fault. Only, I should have told you first off."
"You needn't apologize, Mr. Rock," she replied shyly. "Please wrap these for me. Charge to Thiry Preston."
He found a pencil near at hand, and bending over a piece of wrapping paper, very business-like, he inquired, "Miss Thiry Preston?"
"Yes, Miss," she replied.
"What place?" he went on.
"Way out there?" He glanced up in surprise. "Sixty miles. I know that country--every water-hole, stone, and jack-rabbit."
She smiled fully for the first time, and that further fascinated Rock. "You were well acquainted, weren't you?"
"I expect to renew old acquaintances out there. And I may be lucky enough to make new ones."
Miss Preston did not meet his glance.
"What instructions about these parcels?"
"None. I'll carry them."
"Carry them! All this heavy load? Thirty pounds or more!"
"Surely. I'm quite strong. I've carried far more."
"Out to the corral. Our buckboard is there. They'll be waiting and I'm late. I must hurry." In rather nervous haste she took up the several light packages and moved toward the other counter.
Rock got there first and intercepted her. "I'll carry these."
"But you shouldn't leave the store," she protested.
Fortunately, at this juncture Sol Winter hurriedly entered. "Well, now, what's this?" he queried, with a broad smile. "Thiry, to think you'd happen in just the wrong minute."
"Oh, Mr. Winter, I didn't miss you at all," returned Thiry, gayly. "Your new clerk was most obliging and--and capable--after I found the thing I needed."
"Haw! Haw! He's shore a fine clerk. Thiry, meet True Rock, old rider an' pard Of mine."
"Ah--I remember now," she flashed. "Is Mr. Rock the rider who once saved your son, Nick?"
"Yes, Thiry," he replied, and turning, to Rock he added, "Son, this lass is Miss Thiry Preston, who's helped to make some hard times easier for me."
"Happy to meet you, Miss Preston," beamed Rock.
"How do you do, Mr. Rock," returned Thiry, with just a hint of mischief in her grey eyes.
They went out together and Trueman felt that he was soaring to the blue sky. Outside in the sunshine he could see her better and it was as if some magic had transformed her.
They soon reached the end of the street and started across an open flat toward the corrals.
"You're in an awful hurry," finally complained Trueman.
"Yes, I am. I'm late, and you don't know--" She did not complete the sentence, but nevertheless it told Rock much.
By this time they had reached the first corral. The big gate swung ajar. The fence was planked and too high to see over. Thiry led the way in. Rock espied some saddle-horses, a wagon, and then a double-seated buckboard hitched to a fine-looking team of roans.
"Here we, are," said the girl, with evident relief. "No one come yet! I'm glad. Put the bundles under the back seat, Mr. Rock."
He did as directed, and then faced her, not knowing what to say, fearing the mingled feelings that swept over him and bewildered by them.
"After all, you've been very kind--even if--"
"Don't say if," he broke in, entreatingly. "Don't spoil it by a single if. It's been the greatest adventure of my life."
"Of many like adventures, no doubt," she replied, her clear grey eyes on him.
"I've met many girls in many ways, but there has never been anything like this," he returned.
"Mr. Rock!" she protested, lifting a hand to her cheek, where a wave of scarlet burned.
Then a clink of spins, slow steps, and thuds of hoofs sounded behind Rock. He saw the girl's colour fade and her face turn white.
"Hyah she ish, Range," called out a coarse voice, somehow vibrant, despite a thick hint of liquor. "With 'nother galoot, b'gosh! Schecond one terday."
Slowly Rock turned on his heel, and in the turning went back to the original self that had been in abeyance for a while. When it came to dealing with men he was not a clerk.
Two riders had entered the coral, and the foremost was dismounting. He was partly drunk, but that was not the striking thing about him. He looked and breathed the very spirit of the range at its wildest. He was tall, lean, lithe, with a handsome red face, eyes hot as blue flame and yellow hair that curled scraggily from under a dusty-black sombrero. Drops of sweat stood out like beads on his lean jowls and his curved lips. A gun swung below his hip.
The other rider, called Range, was a cowboy, young in years, with still grey eyes like Miss Preston's, and intent, expressionless face. Rock gathered from the resemblance that this boy was Thiry's brother. But who was the other?
"Thiry, who's thish?" queried the rider, striding forward.
"I can introduce myself," struck in Rock coolly. "I'm Trueman Rock, late of Texas."
"Hell, you shay!" returned the other ponderingly, as if trying to fit the name to something in memory. "Whash you doin' hyar?"
"Well, if it's any of your business, I was in Winter's store and packed over Miss Preston's bundles," replied Rock.
"Haw! Haw!" guffawed the rider derisively. Who was he? Surely not a lover! The thought seemed to cut fiercely into Rock's inner flesh.
"Wal," went on the tall rider presently, swaggering closer to Rock, "run along, Big Hat, 'fore I reach you with a boot."
"Ash! You're drunk!" burst out the girl.
The disgust and scorn and fear, and something else in her outbreak, instantly gave Rock tight rein on his own feelings. This rider, then, was Ash Preston. Her brother! The relief Rock experienced out-stressed anything else for the moment.
"Whosh drunk?" queried Preston. "Your mistake, Thiry."
"Yes, you are drunk," she returned with heat. "You've insulted Mr. Rock, who was kind enough to help me carry things from the store."
"Wal, I'll help Mishter Rock on his way," replied Preston leering.
Range, the other rider, like a flash leaped out of his saddle and jerked Preston's gun from its sheath. "Ash, you look out," he called sharply. "You don't know this fellar."
Thiry Preston stepped out as if impelled, yet she was evidently clamped with fear. "Please, Ash, be decent if you can't be a gentleman," begged Thiry.
For answer Preston lurched by Thiry and swept out a long slow arm, with open hand, aimed at Rock's face. But Rock dodged, and at the sane time stuck out his foot dexterously. The rider, his momentum unchecked, tripped and lost his balance. He fell slowly, helplessly, and striking on his shoulder he rolled over in the dirt. He sat up, ludicrously, and wiping the dust off his cheek he extended a long arm, with shaking hand, up at Rock. "Shay, you hit me, fellar."
"Preston you're quite wrong. I didn't," replied Rock.
"Whash you hit me with?"
"I didn't hit you with anythin'."
"Range, is thish hyar Big Hat lyin' to 'me?"
"Nope. You jest fell over him," returned the younger rider.
"Ash, you're so drunk you can't stand up," interposed. Thiry.
"Wal, stranger, I'm 'ceptin' your apology."
"Thanks. You're sure considerate," returned Rock with sarcasm. He was not used to total restraint and he could not remember when any man had jarred him so. Turning to the girl, he said: "I'll go. Goodbye, Miss Preston."
With his back to the brothers Trueman made his eyes speak a great deal more than his words. The dullest of girls would have grasped that he did not mean goodbye forever. Thiry's response to his gaze was a silent one of regret, of confusion.
Rock stepped up on the corral fence, reached the top rail, and vaulted over. "Ash Preston! Bad medicine! And he's her brother!" muttered Rock, aloud. "Sure as fate we're goin' to clash."
He strode back to Sol Winter's store.
"Now, son, what's happened?" queried Sol, with concern.
"Lord knows. I--don't," panted Rock, spilling off his sombrero and wiping his face. "But it's--a lot."
"True, you took a shine to Thiry Preston, I seen that. No wonder. She's the sweetest lass who ever struck these parts."
"So, we'll investigate my state of mind last," replied Rock, ruefully. "Listen. I ran into the Preston outfit. At least, two of them." And he related all that had occurred at the corral.
"Same old Rock," mused Winter. "No, not the same, either. There's a difference I can't name yet. Wal, this Preston outfit is sure prominent in these parts. They call them 'The Thirteen Prestons of Sunset Pass.' Nobody seems to know where they come from. Anyway, they drove a herd of cattle in here some time after you left. An' 'ceptin' Ash Preston, they're just about the most likeable outfit you ever seen. Fact is, they're like Thiry. They located in Sunset Pass, right on the Divide. You know the place. An' it wasn't long until they' were known all over the range. Wonderful outfit with horses and ropes."
"Go on, Sol. What was the trouble you had?"
"They ran up a big bill in my store. The old store. I taxed the boys about it. Well, it was Ash Preston who raised the hell. He wasn't drunk then. An', son, you need to be told that Ash is wild when he's drunk. When sober he's--well, he's different. Nick was alone in the store. Nick was a spunky lad, you know, an' he razzed Ash somethin' fierce. Result was Ash piled the lad in a corner an' always hated him afterward. Fact is the range talk says Ash Preston hates everybody except Thiry. She's the only one who can do anythin' with him."
"She didn't do a whole lot, today. The drunken--! And Nick was shot off his horse out there in Sunset Pass?"
"Yes. I think Ash Preston must have killed Nick. They must have met an' fought it out. There were four empty shells, fresh shot, in Nick's gun."
"The boy had nerve and he was no slouch with a six-shooter. I wonder--"
"Well, Gage paid the bill. Then for a while he didn't buy from me. But one day Thiry came in, an' ever since I've sold goods to the Prestons. But none of them save Thiry have ever been in my store since."
"Ahuh. Any range talk among the punchers about these Prestons?"
"Well, son, there used to be no more than concerned the Culvers, or Tolls, or Smiths, an' not so much as used to be about the little outfits down in the woods. You know the range. All the outfits eat one another's cattle. It was a kind of unwritten code. But lately, the last two years, conditions have gone on the same, in that way, an' some different in another. I hear a good deal of complaint about the rustlin' of cattle. An' a few dark hints about the Prestons.
"Darn few, mind you, son, an' sure vague an untrailable. It might be owin' to the slow gettin' rich of Gage Preston. It's a fact. He's growin' rich. Not so much in cattle, but in land an' money in bank. I happen to know he has a bank account in Las Vegas. That's pretty far off, an' it looks queer to me. Found it out by accident. I buy from a wholesale grocer in Las Vegas. He happened here, an' in a talk dropped that bit of information. It's sure not known here in Wagontongue."
"Is Gage Preston one of these lone cattlemen?" queried Rock.
"Not now, but he sure was once."
"Who's he in with now?"
"John Dabb. They own the Bar X outfit. It's not so much. Dabb has the big end of it. Then Dabb runs a butcher shop. Fact is he undersold me an' put me out of that kind of business. He buys mostly from Preston. An' he ships a good many beeves."
"Ships? Out of town?"
"I should smile. They have worked into a considerable business. I saw this opportunity years ago. But didn't have the capital."
Rock pondered over his friend's disclosures, and Thiry Preston's sad face returned to haunt him.
"Sol, what do you think about Ash Preston?" asked Rock.
"Well, son, I'm sure curious to ask you that same question," replied Winter. "How did this fellow strike you?"
"Like a hard fist, right in the eye," acknowledged Rock.
"Ahuh. Rock, the Prestons are all out of the ordinary. Take Thiry, for instance. How did she, strike you?"
Trueman placed a slow heavy hand on the region of his heart, as if words were useless.
"Well, I wouldn't give two bits for you if she hadn't. Son, I've a hunch your comin' back means a lot. Wal, to go on--these Prestons are a mighty strikin' outfit. An' Ash Preston stands out even among them. He's a great rider of the range in all pertainin' to that, hard game. He can drink more, fight harder, shoot quicker than any man in these parts. He's sure the meanest, coldest, nerviest, deadliest proposition you're likely to stack up against in your life. I just want to give you a hunch, seein' you went sweet on Thiry."
"Sweet on that girl! No! I've been sweet on a hundred girls. This is different, somethin' terrible. Ten thousand times sweet!"
"Trueman, your trail will sure be rough."
"Listen, old friend. There's only one thing that could stump me. Tell me. Do you know Thiry real well?"
"Yes, son, an' I can answer that question so plain in your eyes. Thiry is not in love with anybody. I know, because she told me herself, not so long ago."
"That'll--help," replied Rock, swallowing hard. "Now, Sol, I'll sneak off alone somewhere and try to find out what's the matter with me--and what to de about it."
Trueman sallied forth into the sunlight like a man possessed. He did not notice the heat while he was striding out of town, but, when he got to the cedars and mounted a slope to a lonely spot he was grateful for the cool shade. He threw aside coat and sombrero, and lay down on the fragrant mat of cedar needles. How good to be there!
Only one thing had stood in the way of a happy return to Wagontongue, and that had been possibility of a clash with Cass Seward, the sheriff. This now no longer perturbed him. It had been reckless, perhaps foolish, for him to come back, when he had known that the probabilities were that Cass would try to make him show yellow and clap him in jail, because of a shooting affray which Rock had not started. But it had been Rock's way to come, not knowing; and that hazard was past. Rock gladly welcomed the fact that he had a clean slate before him.
That grey-eyed girl, Thiry Preston! Here he did surrender. He had been struck through the heart. And all the fight there was seemed directed against himself--a wavering, lessening doubt that he could be as marvelously transformed as he thought. And then, one by one, in solemn procession, there passed before his memory's eye the other girls he had known, trifled with, liked, or loved. He watched them pass by, out of the shade, it seemed, into the past forever.
Thiry Preston had made them vanish, as if by magic. She was the girl. All his life he had been dreaming of her. To realize she actually lived!
At length Rock started to retrace his steps toward town. A young woman coming out of Dabb's large establishment, almost ran into him.
"True Rock.--aren't you going to speak to me?" she burst out.
He knew the voice, the face, too, the sparkling, astonished eyes.
"True--don't you know me? It's Amy."
"Why, Mrs. Dabb, this is a surprise!" he said, doffing his sombrero. "I'm sure glad to see you."
"Mrs. Dabb? Not Amy?" she replied with captivating smile and look Rock found strangely familiar.
"Someone told me you were married to my old boss, John Dabb," said Rock easily. "You sure look fine. And prosperous, too."
She did not like his slow, cool speech.
"True, I can return the compliment. You are handsomer than ever."
"True, you're not glad to see me," she rejoined petulantly.
"Why, sure I am! Glad you're settled and happy and--"
"Happy! Do I look that?" she interrupted bitterly.
"If my memory's any good you look as gay and happy as ever."
"Your memory is bad--about that--and other things. Trueman, have you come back on a visit?"
"No; I aim to stay. I always was comin' back."
"If you only had come!" She sighed. "I'm glad--terribly glad you're going to stay, We must be good friends again, True, You'll come to, see me--ride with--me--like you used to. Won't you?"
"I'm afraid Mr. Dabb wouldn't like that. He never had any use for me."
"It doesn't matter what he likes. Say you will, Trueman. I'm horribly lonesome."
Rock remembered that Amy had always been a flirt. Evidently she had not changed. He was sorry for her and wished to spare her discomfiture.
"I'll call on you and John sometime," he replied.
"Me and--John! Well, your long absence in Texas hasn't made you, any brighter. I dare say it hasn't changed you any--about girls, either. I saw you with Thiry Preston. At your old tricks, cowboy!"
"Did you? I don't call it old tricks to carry a few bundles for a girl," replied Rock stiffly. It annoyed him to feel the blood heat in his face.
"Bundles, rot!" she retorted. "I know you, True Rock, inside and out. You've lost your head pronto over Thiry Preston."
"I'm not denyin' it, am I?"
She would be his enemy, unless he allowed himself once more to be attached to her train. The idea was preposterous. In a few short hours--no, they were hours incalculably, long in their power--he, had grown past flirting with any woman.
Rock returned to Winter and proceeded to unburden himself.
"So you ran into Amy," meditated Sol, with a thoughtful twinkle. "Wal, son, take my advice and keep shy of Amy, She's got old Dabb so jealous he can't attend to his business. She always has some buckaroo runnin' after her. That won't do for you. The Dabbs about own Wagontongue, not to say a lot of the range outfits. Then I always see Thiry with Amy, when she comes to town. If you aim to snub your old girl for this new one--wal, son, you'll have a tough row to hoe."
"Sol, I'll not snub Amy, but I can't, go playin' round with her. Sol, how much money do you owe?"
"Couple of thousand, an' when that's paid off I'll be on the road to prosperity again."
"Old-timer, you're on it right now. I'll take that much stock in your business," went on Rock, as he took out his pocketbook.
"Son, I don't want you to do that," protested Winter.
"But I want to. I think it's a good investment. Now here's your two thousand. And here's five more, which I want you to put in your bank, on interest. Reckon we'd better add another thousand to that five. I only need enough money to buy a spankin' outfit.
"I'm goin' to be a plain cowpuncher and start in where I left off here six years ago. I want a jim-dandy outfit; two saddle-horses--the best on the range, if money can buy them."
"We can find one of them pronto," replied Winter with satisfaction. "After supper we'll walk out to Leslie's. He's sellin' out an' he has some good stock, One horse in particular. I never saw his beat, Dabb has been hagglin' with Leslie over the price. It's high, but the horse is worth it."
"All right, Sol. We'll buy. But I reckon one saddle-horse will do. Then I'll need a pack-horse and outfit. In the mornin' we'll pick out a tarp and blankets, grub and campin' outfit. I've got saddle, bridle, spurs, riata--all Mexican, Sol, and if they don't knock the punchers on this range, I'll eat them. And last, I reckon I'll require some more hardware."
"Ahuh! An' with all this outfit you're headin' for Sunset Pass."
"Yeah. I'm goin' to Gage Preston's and strike him for a job."
"Son, it's a bold move, if it's all on account of Thiry. Gage can't hardly refuse you a job. He needs riders. He has hired about every cowpuncher on the range. But they don't last. Ash gets rid of them, sooner or later. Reckon about as soon as they Shine up to Thiry."
"How does he do that?"
"Wal, he scares most of them. Some he has bumped up with his fists. An' several punchers he's driven to throw guns."
"Nope. They say he just crippled them. Ash shoots quick an where he wants."
"Most interestin' cuss--Ash Preston," said Rock lightly.
"Son, this is what worries me," went on Winter with gravity. "It'll be some different when Ash Preston butts into you. No matter how easy and cool you start--no matter how clever you are--it's bound to wind up a deadly business."
"Thanks, old-timer. I get your hunch. I'm takin' it serious and strong. Don't worry unreasonable about me, I've got to go."
"Wal, True, did you ever see the beat of that boss?" asked Sol Winter for the twentieth time.
Rock shook his head silently. Then, "I'll take him, Leslie, and consider the deal a lastin' favour."
"Mrs. Dabb has been wantin' this hoss, didn't you tell me, Jim," asked Winter.
"Wal, I reckon so. She has been out here often. But I don't think Mrs. Dabb really cared about the horse so much. She just wanted to show off with him. But today there was a girl here who loved him."
"Who was she, Jim?"
"Thiry Preston. She passed here today with her dad an' some of the boys. She just petted the hoss while the other Prestons walked around talkin'. Never said a word. But I seen her heart in her eyes."
"Speaks well for her," replied Rock, as he slid off the fence and approached the animal. If this beautiful white horse had appeared desirable in his eyes upon first sight, what was he now? Rock smoothed the silky mane, thrilling at the thought that Thiry's gentle hand had rested there. "Leslie, I'll come out in the mornin'. I want a packhorse or a mule. Here's your money. Shake on it."
"I'll throw the pack-horse in to boot," replied Leslie.
"Sol," Said Rock, thoughtfully, as they retraced their steps toward town, "do the Prestons come in often?"
"Some of them every Saturday, Thiry about twice a month."
"Pretty long ride in from Sunset. Sixty miles by trail. Reckon the Prestons make a one-night stop at some ranch?"
"No, They camp it, makin' Cedar Creek, where they turn off into a flat. There's an old cabin--belonged to a homesteader. Preston owns it now. Thiry was tellin' me they'd fixed it up."
"Queer how all about these Prestons interests me so," said Rock.
"Not so queer. Leavin' Thiry aside, they're a mighty interestin' outfit," returned Winter. "It's wild, perhaps, to let yourself go over this girl all in a minute. But then, wild or no it might turn out good for Thiry Preston."
"Sol, why is her face so sad?"
"I don't know. I've asked her why she looks sad--which you can see when she's not speakin', but she always makes herself smile an' laugh then."
"It's for me to find out," said. Rock.
It was nearly noon the following day when Rock had his pack outfit ready for travel. Leslie came up presently with the white horse.
"Black leather an' silver trimmings," said, the rancher, admiringly. "Never seen him so dressed up. An' the son-of-a-gun is smart enough to know he looks grand."
"He's smart, all right," agreed Rock, with shining eyes. "Now we'll see if he'll hang me on the fence."
The white horse took Rock's mount easily, pranced and champed a little, and tossed his head.
"Good day and good luck, rancher," said Rock, lifting the halter of the pack animal off a post. With that he headed down the road which the Prestons had taken the preceding day.
Several hours' ride out of the town, Rock reached the top of a long slope and there halted the horses.
A 30-mile gulf yawned wide and shallow, a yellow-green sea of desert grass and sage, which sloped into ridge on ridge of cedar and white grass. The length of the valley both east and west extended beyond the limit of vision, and here began the vast, cattle range that made Wagontongue possible. Lonely land! Rock's heart swelled. He, was coming back to the valleys and hills that he now discovered he had loved.
An hour's ride down the slow incline brought Rock into a verdant swale of 50 acres surrounding a pretty ranch-house. Here Adam Pringle had lived.
The barn and corrals were closer to the road than the house. Rock saw a man at work under an open shed. The big gate leading in was shut. Rock halloed, whereupon the farmer started out leisurely, then quickened his steps. It was Adam--stalwart, middle-aged, weather-beaten settler.
"True Rock, or I'm a born sinner," shouted Pringle.
"Howdy, Adam! How's the old-timer?" returned; Rock.
"I knowed that hoss. An' I shore knowed you jest from the way you straddled him. How air you? This is plumb a surprise. Get down an' come in."
"Haven't time, Adam. I'm rustlin' along to make camp below. Adam, you're lookin' good. I see you've made this homestead go."
"Never seen you look any better, if I remember. Whar you been?"
"Whar you goin'?"
"Cowboy, if you want work, pile right off heah."
"Thanks, Adam, but I've got a hankerin' for wilder country. I'll try Preston. Think he'll take me?"
"Shore. But don't ask him."
"I'm advisin' you--not talkin'," returned the rancher, with a sharp gleam in his eye. "Stay away from Sunset, Pass."
"Adam, I just never could take advice," drawled Rock. "Much obliged, though. How you doin'?"
"Been on my feet these two years," returned Pringle, with, satisfaction. "Been raisin' turnips an potatoes an' some corn. Got three thousand haid of stock. An' sellin' eight-' hundred haid this fall."
"Losin' much stock?"
"Some. But not enough to rare aboot. Though there's more rustlin' than for some years past. Queer rustlin', too. You lose a few haid of steers, an' then you never hear of anyone seein' hide nor hair of them again."
"How's Jess Slagle? I used to ride for Jess, and want to see him."
"Humph! Slagle couldn't make it go in Sunset Pass after the Prestons come."
"Why not? It's sure big enough country for ten outfits."
"Wal there's only one left, an' thet's Preston's. Ask Slagle."
"I sure will. Is he still located in the Pass?"
"No. He's ten miles this side. Stone cabin. You'll remember it."
"If I do, that's no ranch for Jess Slagle. Marshland, what there was of it fit to graze cattle, salty water, mostly rocks and cedars."
"Your memory's good. Drop in to see Slagle. An' don't miss callin' heah when you come out."
"Which you're thinkin' won't be so very long. Huh, Adam?"
"Wal, if it was anyone else I'd give him three days--aboot," replied Pringle, with a guffaw.
Toward sundown Rock reached the south slope of the valley and entered the zone of the cedars. He halted for camp near a rugged little creek.
He was on his way before sunrise the next morning, and about noon he halted before the cabin that he knew must belong to his old friend and employer, Jess Slagle. Rock rode into what was a sorry excuse for a yard, where fences were down and dilapidated wagons, long out of use, stood around amid a litter of stones and wood.
Dismounting, Rock went to the door and knocked. The door opened half a foot to disclose a red-haired, homely woman in dirty garb, more like a sack than a dress.
"Does Jess Slagle live here?" asked Rock.
"Yes. He's out round the barn somewheres," she replied.
As Rock thanked her he sew that she was barefooted. So Jess Slagle had come to squalor, and poverty. Who was the woman? Presently Rock heard the sound of hammer or axe blows on wood, and he came upon Slagle at work on a pen beside the barn.
"Howdy, Rock! I knew you were in town. Range Preston rode by this mornin' an' passed the news."
This gaunt man was Slagle, changed vastly, no doubt like his fortunes. The grasp of his hand was rough, hard, but lacked warmth or response.
"Jess, I'm sure surprised and plumb sorry to find you--your condition so--so different," began Rock, a little uncertain. "What happened? How'd you lose out?"
"Well, Rock, I had hard luck. Two bad years for water and grass. Then Dabb shut down on me. Next I sold some cattle, put the money in a bank, an' it busted. Then Preston moved into the country--an' here I am."
"How in the devil did you get here?" demanded Rock bluntly.
"Right off I made a mistake," returned Slagle. "Preston was keen about my ranch in the Pass. He made me a good offer. I refused. He kept after me. I had some hard words with his son, Ash, an' it all lead to a breach. They kept edgin' my stock down out of the Pass an' that way, then, an' in others, I fell more in debt. I had finally to sell for about nothin'."
"Sure, No one on the lower range would take it as a gift. It was a poor location, if any other outfit rode the Pass."
"Ahuh! Then as it stands, Preston about ruined you?"
"No, Rock, I couldn't claim that. Gage Preston never did me any dirt that I actually know. When I went to him an' told him his outfit was drivin' my stock off grass an' water he raised the very old Ned with his sons, in particular Ash Preston, who's sure rotten enough to taint the whole other twelve Prestons."
"So this Ash Preston is rotten?" queried Rock deliberately, glad to find one man not afraid to voice his convictions. "Then what happened?"
"Well, the old man stalled off a shootin' match, I reckon."
"Have you ever met since?"
"Lots of times. But I've never had the nerve to draw on Ash. I know he'd kill me. He knows it, too."
"What do you mean by rotten?"
"Mebbe it's a poor word. But did you ever see a slick, cold, shiny rattlesnake, just after sheddin' his skin, come slippin' out, no more afraid of you than hell, sure of himself, an' ready to sting you deep? Well, that's Ash Preston."
"Ahuh! I see," rejoined Rock, studying the other's face. "Glad to get your angle. I'm goin' to ask Preston for a job."
"I had a hunch you were. I'm wishin' you luck."
"Do you aim to hang on here?"
"Thank God, I don't," replied Slagle, with feeling. "My wife--she's my second wife, by the way--has had a little money an' a farm left her in Missouri. Were leavin' before winter sets in."
"Glad, to hear you've had a windfall Jess."
Rock kid been two hours leisurely climbing the imperceptible slope up to the mouth of Sunset Pass. It was mid-afternoon. At last he entered the wide portal of the Pass, and had clear view of its magnificent reach and bold wild beauty. The winding Sunset Creek came down like a broken ribbon, bright here and dark there, to crawl at last into a gorge on Rock's left. The sentinel pines seemed to greet him.
They stood, first, one, isolated and stately, then, another, and next two, and again one, and so on that way until at the height of the Pass they grew in numbers, yet apart, lording it over the few cedars on the level bench, and the log cabins strange to Rock, that he knew must be the home of the Prestons.
Slowly he rode up and entered the beautiful open park. The road cut through the centre and went down the outer side. Rock had a glimpse of gardens, corrals, fields, and then the purple pass threaded with winding white. Some of the cabins were weathered and grey, with moss green on the split shingles. Other cabins were new.
Just then a hound bayed, announcing the advent of a stranger in the Pass. Rock, having come abreast of the first cabin, halted his horse.
The door of this cabin opened. A tall, lithe, belted and booted man stalked out, leisurely, his eagle-like head bare, his yellow hair waving in the wind--Ash Preston.
The omission of the invariable Western "Get down and come in," was not lost on Rock.
"Howdy to you!" he returned. "Is this Gage Preston's ranch?"
"Then I'm on the right track. I want to see him."
"Who're you, stranger?"
"I'm Trueman Rock, late of Texas."
"Rock--are you the Rock who used to ride here before we came?"
"Reckon I am."
Ash Preston measured Rock, a long penetrating look that was neither insolent nor curious. "You can tell me what you want with Preston. I'm his son, Ash."
"Glad to meet you," said Rock pleasantly. "Do you run Preston's business?"
"I'm foreman here."
"Reckon my call's nothin' important," returned Rock easily. "But when I do call on a cattle man I want to see him."
"Are you shore it's my father you want to see most?" asked Ash.
"Well, I'm callin' one Miss Thiry, too, for that matter," rejoined Rock. "But I'd like to see your father first."
"Miss Thiry ain't seein' every rider who comes along," said Preston. "An' dad ain't home."
"You mean you say he isn't home to me?" queried Rock deliberately.
"Wal, I didn't expect you to take it that way, but since you do we'll let it go at that."
"Excuse me, Preston, if I can't let it go at that," he returned coolly. "Would you mind tellin' me if any of the other ten Prestons are home?"
There the gauntlet went in the face of Ash Preston. Still he did not show surprise. Whatever he might be when drunk, when sober as now, he was slow, cold, complex, cunning. He was flint, singularly charged with fire.
"Wal, Rock, all the Prestons home, if you're so set on knowin'," returned Ash. "But there's one of the thirteen who's advisin' you to dust down the road."
"Reckon that must be you, Mister Ash?"
"An' that's shore me."
"Well, I'm sorry. But I'm not takin' your hunch, Ash Preston. I'll stay long enough, anyhow, to see if the rest of your family is as rude to a stranger as you are."
In one sliding step Rock reached the ground. And at that instant heavy boots crunched the gravel.
"Hey, Ash, who're you palaverin' with?" called a deep, hearty voice.
Ash wheeled on his heel, and without answer strode back into the cabin, to slam the door. Then Rock turned to see a man of massive build, in the plain garb of an everyday cattleman. Rock perceived at once that he was father to Thiry and Range Preston, but there seemed no resemblance to Ash. He might have been 50 years old. Handsome in a bold way, he had a smooth hard face, bulging chin, well-formed large lips, and great deep grey eyes.
"Stranger, I reckon Ash wasn't welcomin' you with open arms," he said.
"Not exactly. You're Gage Preston?"
"Shore am, young man. Did you want to see me?"
"Yes. He said you weren't home."
"Doggone Ash, anyhow," replied the rancher, with impatient good humour. "Whenever a cowpuncher rides in hyar, Ash tells him we've got smallpox or such like. He's not sociable. But you mustn't judge us other Prestons by him."
"I was tryin' to argue with him on that very chance," said Rock, smilingly.
"Hyar, Tom," Preston called, turning toward a lanky youth in the background, "take these hosses. Throw saddle an' pack on the porch of the empty cabin. Wal, stranger, you're down, so come in."
Rock had not noticed that the next cabin, some distance away under the pines, was a double one of the picturesque kind, long, with wide eaves, a porch all around, and ample space between the two log structures. Evidently the second cabin was a kitchen.
"Reckon it'll he pleasanter sittin' outside," said Preston, and invited Rock to a rustic seat. "What'd you say your name was?"
"I didn't say--yet," laughed Rock. He liked Preston.
"Thiry didn't tell me either," went on the rancher. "But I know you're the young fellar who was polite to her an' made Ash huffy."
"Yes, I am. It wasn't much, certainly nothin' to offend Miss Thiry's brother."
"Aw, Ash was drunk. An' he shore ain't no credit to us then. Young man, say you didn't lose any time trailin' Thiry up," went on Preston quizzically, with a twinkle in his big grey eyes.
"Mr. Preston, you--I--I--" began Rock, somewhat disconcerted.
"You needn't lie about it. Lord knows this hyar has happened a hundred times. An' don't call me mister. Make it plain Preston, an' Gage when you feel acquainted enough. You're not trying to tell me you didn't foller Thiry out hyar."
"No--not exactly. I came to ask you for a job."
"Good. What'll you work fer?"
"Reckon the same as you pay any other rider. I'm an old hand with ropes, horses, cattle--anything about the range."
"Wal, you're hired. I'm shore in need of a man who can handle the boys. I run two outfits. Ash bosses the older riders. If you fit in with the youngsters it'll shore be a load off my mind. But I gotta tell you thet no young man I ever hired struck Ash right. An' none of them ever lasted."
"Preston, if I turn out to be of value to you, will you want me to last?" queried Rock, and this was the straight language of one Westerner to another.
"Wal, I like your talk an' I like your looks. An' if you can handle my boys an' stick it out in the face of Ash, I'll be some in your debt."
"I don't know Ash, but I can take a hunch, if you'll give it."
"Wal, Ash sees red whenever any puncher looks at Thiry. He cares fer nothin' on earth but thet girl. An' she's awful fond of him, She's never had a beau. An' Thiry's near twenty-two."
"Good heavens! Is her brother so jealous he won't let any man look at her?"
"Wal, he wouldn't if he could prevent it--thet's daid shore. An' far as the ranch hyar is concerned he does prevent. But when Thiry goes to town accidents happen, like you meetin' up with her. Thet riles Ash."
"In that case, Preston, I'm afraid Ash will get riled out here. For I reckon the same kind of accident may happen."
"Hum! Hum! You're a cool hand to draw to. What'd you say your name was?"
"I haven't told you yet. It's Trueman Rock, late of Texas. But I used to ride here."
"Truman Rock!--Are you thet there True Rock who figgered in gun-play hyar years ago?"
"Sorry I can't deny it, Preston."
"You rode fer Slagle--when he had his ranch down hyar below in the Pass? It was you who run down thet Hartwell rustlin' outfit?"
"I can't take all the credit. But I was there when it happened."
"Say, man, I've heerd aboot you all these years. Damn funny I didn't savvy who you were."
"It's been six years since I left here--and perhaps you heard some things not quite fair to me."
"Never heerd a word thet I'd hold against you. Come now, an' meet these hyar eleven other Prestons."
Mrs. Preston appeared a worthy mate for this virile cattleman. She was buxom and comely, fair like all of them.
"Ma, this is Trueman Rock, who's come to ride fer me," announced Preston. Then be presented Rock to Alice, a girl of 16, not by any means lacking the good looks that appeared to run in the family. Rock took instantly to the ragged, bare-footed, big-eyed children, Lucy and Burr; and signs were not wholly wanting that they were going to like him.
"Where's Thiry?" asked the rancher.
"She's ironin'," replied Alice.
"Wal, didn't she hyar me call?"
"Reckon she did, Pa, for you'd almost woke the daid," replied his wife, and going to the door of the second cabin she called, "Thiry, we've company, an Pa wants you."
Whereupon Thiry appeared in the door in a long blue apron that scarcely hid her graceful symmetry. Her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow of shapely arms. She came out reluctantly, with troubled eyes and a little frown. She had seen him through the window.
"Good afternoon, Miss Preston," greeted Trueman.
"Oh, it's Mr. Rock, our new grocery clerk," she responded. "How do you do! And aren't you lost way out here?"
"Hey Rock, what's thet about you bein' a grocery clerk? I reckoned I was hirin' a cowboy."
Whereupon Rock had to explain that he had been keening store for Sol Winter when Thiry happened in. Thiry did not share in the laughter.
"Thiry, he's goin' to handle the boys." said Preston.
"You are a--a cowboy, then," she said to Rock, struggling to hide confusion or concern. "You don't know the job you've undertaken. What did my brother Ash say? I saw you talking with him."
"He was telling me your dad would sure give me a job--and that you'd be glad," replied Trueman, with disarming assurance.
"Yes, he was," retorted Thiry, blushing at the general laugh.
"You're right, Miss Preston," returned Rock ruefully. "Your brother was not--well, quite taken with my visit. He told me you didn't see every rider who came along. And that your father was not home. And that--"
"We apologize for Ash's rudeness," interposed Thiry hurriedly. She had not been able to meet Rock's gaze.
"Never mind, Rock. It's nothin' to be hurt about," added Preston. "Ash is a queer, unsociable fellar. But you're shore welcome to the rest of us. Thiry, if you never heard of True Rock, I want to tell you he's been one of the greatest riders of this range. An' I need him bad, in more ways than one."
"Oh, Dad, I--I didn't mean--I--of course I'm glad if you are," she returned hurriedly. "Please excuse me now. I've so much work."
Somehow Trueman divined that she was not glad; or if she were, it was owing to her father's need, and then it was not whole-hearted. But the youngsters saved him. They sidled over to him and began to ply him with questions about the white horse.
"What do you call him?" asked Burr.
"Well, the fact is I haven't named him yet," replied Rock.
"Can you think of a good one? What do you say, Lucy?"
"I like what Thiry calls him," she said, shyly. "Egypt. Isn't that just grand?"
"Egypt?--Oh, I see. Because he's like one of the white stallions of the Arabians. I think it's pretty good. Well call him Egypt."
"That'll tickle Thiry," cried the child joyously.
"Come; Rock, let me show you the ranch," called Preston, drawing Rock away. "When we first come hyar, aboot five years ago, Slagle, as you know, lived down below. He wouldn't sell, an' he swore this divide was on his land. But it wasn't, because he'd homesteaded a hundred an' sixty acres, an' his land didn't come half-way up. Wal, we throwed up a big cabin, an' we all lived in it for a while. 'Next I tore thet cabin down an' built the double one, an' this one hyar, which Ash has to himself. He won't sleep with nobody. Lately we throwed up four more, an' now we're shore comfortable."
The little cabin over by the creek under the largest of the pines was occupied by Alice and Thiry.
The grassy divide sloped gradually to the west, and down below the level were the corrals and barns and open sheds, substantial and well built. Rock found his white horse in one of the corrals, surrounded by three lanky youths from 16 to 20 years old. Preston introduced them as the inseparable three, Tom, Albert, and Harry. They had the Preston fairness, and Torn and Harry were twins.
"Rock, if you can tell which is Tom an' which is Harry, you'll do more'n anyone outside the family."
"Son-of-a-gun if I can tell now, lookin' right at them," ejaculated Rock.
The barns were stuffed full of hay and fodder. A huge bin showed a reserve of last year's corn. Wagons and harnesses were new; a row of saddles hung opposite a dozen stalls, where the Prestons no doubt kept their best horses. But these were empty now.
"Preston, if I owned this ranch I'd never leave it a single day," was Rock's eloquent encomium.
"Wal, I'd shore hate to leave it myself," returned the other tersely.
"How many cattle have you?"
"Don't have much idee. Ten thousand haid, Ash says. We run three herds, the small one down on the Flats, another hyar in the Pass, an' the third an' big herd up in the Foothills."
"Naturally the third means the big job," said Rock.
"Shore will be Tor you boys. Thar's a lot of cattle over there thet ain't mine. Ash said eighty thousand haid all told in the Foothills. But thet's his exaggerated figurin'."
"Gee! So many? Who's in on that range beside you?"
"Wal, thar's several heavy owners, like Dabb, Lincoln, Hesbitt, an' then a slew of others, from homesteaders like Slagle an' Pringle to two-bit cowpuncher rustlers. It's sort of a bad mess over thar. An' some of the outfits haven't no use fer mine."
"Ha! That's old cowboy breed. You can't ever change it. I know Lincoln. But Hesbitt is a new one on me."
"Yes, he came in soon after me," replied Preston shortly.
"Sol Winter told me you'd worked a new wrinkle on the range," went on Rock matter-of-factly. "Wholesale butcherin'."
"Yes. Hyar in this country I first set in killin' an' sellin' to local butchers. Then I got to shippin' beef to other towns not far along the railroad. An' all told I've made it pay a little better than sellin' on the hoof."
"Reckon it's a heap harder work."
"We Prestons ain't afraid of work," said the rancher. "But it takes some managin' as well. I made a slaughter-house out of Slagle's place, an' then we do some butcherin' out on the range."
"What stumps me, Preston, is how you get beef to town in any quantity," responded Rock.
"Easy for Missourians on these hard roads. We got big wagons an' four-hoss teams. In hot summer we drive at night. Wal, you'll want to unpack an' wash up fer supper."
It was just sunset when Rock came out of the cabin assigned him. Sitting down on the stone steps of the porch, he found there was an open place between the trees permitting unbroken view of the Pass.
A bell called Rock to supper. When he reached the cabin, to find the Preston boys straddling the benches, it was to be accosted by the rancher.
"Reckon we can eat now," added Preston. "Set down Rock, an' pitch in."
The long table was bountifully spread, steaming, savoury. Mrs. Preston sat at the foot. Alice's place was next to Rock, and she most solicitously served him.
When supper ended, dusk had just fallen. Rock sat on the edge of the porch, attended by the children. The older sons stalked away while the younger lingered, evidently accepting the newcomer.
Before the hour passed Mrs. Preston and Alice came out, and Thiry, too, and they all sat around on the porch and grass enjoying the cool breeze coming up the Pass. The moon shone bright.
Preston retired within his cabin, and soon after the boys slouched away. Trueman rose to say good night.
Thiry had been standing some moments, in the shadow of the cabin.
"Mr Rock, would you like to walk with me to my cabin?" she asked.
"Why--pleased, I'm sure," replied Rock, haltingly, scarce able to conceal his joy. Good nights were exchanged, and Rock found himself walking away in the shadowed moonlight, with Thiry beside him.
"Mr. Rock, I want to talk to you," she said, very quietly.
"Yes?" rejoined Trueman.
"Have you been--wholly honest in coming out here to Sunset Pass?"
"Honest! What do you mean?" flashed Rock, his pride cut.
"What did you tell father?"
"I asked fora job."
"Did you let him believe the job was your sole reason for coming?"
"No. He said I hadn't been long in trailin' you up. I didn't deny it. I laughed and agreed with him.
"Oh--you did!" she exclaimed, somehow shaken out of her reserve. "That's different. I apologize. I thought you'd deceived Dad--the same as so many riders have done.
"Mr. Rock, please don't misunderstand," she said, looking up.
"I was far from being offended that day in the store and at the corral. At the last, there, you meant you'd see me again. And you've done it. Now we're concerned with that."
"Reckon I might have waited a decent little while," responded Rock. "But I never met a girl like you. I wanted to see you again--soon. Where's the harm?"
"Indeed there isn't any halm in it, Mr. Rock, but harm can come from it."
"Through my brother, Ash."
"Well, that's not hard to believe," rejoined Rock, with sharpness. "The other day he was a drunken, vulgar lout. Today, when he was sober, he was cold, mean, vicious. He had no hospitality of the West--no idea what was due a tired and hungry stranger. In my day on the range I've met some--"
Trueman bit his tongue. The girl had suddenly covered her face with her hands.
"Aw, Miss Preston, forgive me," he burst out. "I spoke out quick, without thinkin'--"
She drew her hands away and lifted her head. "You're quite right--Mr. Rock," she said unsteadily. "Ash is--all that you say. To my shame I confess it. All my life I've made excuses for him. It's no use. I--I cannot do it any more. But that's not the point."
Rock sat down beside her, his anger flown. "I know. The point was the harm that might come through Ash. Please be frank with me. If I've brought this distress upon you I'm entitled to know why."
"I've always been very--very fond of Ash," she said tremulously, struggling for composure. "Partly because he was always so bad--and I seemed the only one who could influence him for good. Ash cares for nothing but me. He hates men--he hates horses--he hates cattle. I--I've stuck to him until now. I--I--Mr. Rock, I can't tell you."
"Spare yourself, Miss Preston," returned Rock impulsively. "It's wonderful--beautiful of you. I admire and respect you for it. But I can't understand."
"I would dare tell you, but would only make this unfortunate situation worse. I only hint of it because it's not fair to let You think we--or I--dislike you."
"Oh, then you don't?"
"No. I--I think I really like you, though it's such short notice. And Mr. Rock, if I had my way, I'd like to be friends with you."
"Thank you, Miss Thiry," he returned gratefully, swayed by her unexpected avowal. "Honest, I didn't hope for so much. All I wanted was a chance to prove I could deserve you--your friendship."
"I--I dare say you could," she returned, looking away. "But the thing is I can't be friends with you."
"Because of Ash?"
"Yes. He will not let any boy or man be friends with me--at least out here at Sunset. Cowboys have called on me here and many have come to ride for Dad. Ash soon got rid of them."
"I wonder how he did all that. I know cowboys well, where a pretty girl is concerned.. And I'm just curious."
"I'll tell you. He's lied. He'd coolly invite them to leave. He'd bluff. He'd threaten. He'd cripple and shoot their horses. Oh, that was the vilest thing! He'd get them drunk while on guard--which Dad couldn't forgive. He'd ridicule any sensitive cowboy before the outfit--so terribly that the poor fellow would leave. He'd concoct devilish schemes to make a cowboy seem negligent or crooked. And as a last resource he'd pick fights. Then worst of all--he has thrown his gun on more than one."
"How very interestin'! Yet you love him!" ejaculated Rock bitterly.
"I do--more because I seem the only one. But it's not so much that. I've kept him from going to the bad.".
"How could he be any worse?"
"Oh, he could be. You can't understand. But I do."
"Miss Thiry, have you been so vastly concerned for the good health of all these poor lovesick cowboys as you seem about mine?" asked Rock.
"You are sarcastic again. Yes, I was concerned--worried about these boys. But I've never been so--so scared as I am over your coming."
"Scared for me?"
"Yes. I can't lie to you. I'm scared because of the--the harm that may come--if you stay."
"What is the reason you want me to run off like a coward?"
"I've been trying to tell you," she replied. "But I don't want you to be a coward. I'd think it brave, generous to help me. I told you and I tell you again, harm, terrible harm, might come of this, if you stay. Ash will not try any of his tricks on you. For you are different. Why, my Dad said to me, not an hour ago: 'There, lass, is a cowboy whose face Ash won't rub in the dirt. An' he won't be throwin' guns around so careless. True Rock is a different kind of a hombre from all those Ash has stacked up against.' I was thunderstruck. It seemed almost as if Dad was glad. I never heard him speak like that."
She was in the grip of some strong emotion now, beautiful and soul moving to Rock. "You wouldn't stay here--with--us--and--and leave me alone?" she asked, with a simplicity wholly free of vanity.
"Yes, I might--if you cut me cold or slammed the door in my face."
"That I couldn't do. If you stay on, living here and eating at our table, I could not help but talk to you, be with you some. I think it would be nice--if Ash wasn't around. I--I'm afraid I might like you. Now, if you stayed--you'd--you'd--"
"Yes, Miss Thiry, I would," he returned swiftly. "I would be a very great, deal worse than any cowboy you ever knew."
"So--you see," she said, entreatingly. "Then you and Ash would fight over me. First with fists, probably like, a couple of beasts. Then with guns! Oh, that's the horror of it--there would be blood spilled. He might kill you. But most likely you would kill him."
"I'll just make up my mind I won't fight. I'll keep out of his way. I'll do anythin' for you."
"But you've only seen me once!"
"I'm not committin' myself yet. But I'm afraid, if seein' you the other day wasn't enough, this time is."
"Oh, please go away to-morrow--before it's too late," she implored. "You're so sharp--so keen. You'll-" Suddenly in her agitation, she jerked a hand to her lips, as if to silence them. Her eyes dilated. She stared up at Rock like a child who had almost betrayed herself.
Rock had intuition enough to grasp that part of Thiry's fear, perhaps the greater, was not due to the inevitable clash between him and Ash. She was afraid he would find out something.
"Afraid of me," he ejaculated hurriedly. "Why, Thiry--Miss Thiry, that's absurd! Right this minute I'm the best friend you have in the world."
"Then prove it," she said, bending closer. "Go away tomorrow."
"And never see you again?"
"It would be best," she returned, and, looked away. "But perhaps I--we might meet in town. I'm going in over the Fourth. Mrs. Dabb is to give a dance. I could see you there. I--I'll go with you--if you ask me."
"Don't bribe me to run off from Sunset Pass," he said. "But thank you for sayin' you'd go with me. I'd like to. I'd almost give my head to take you to a dance."
"Please, Mr. Rock, go away tomorrow before trouble comes. I'll never be able to thank you enough. It's the only chance you have to be my--my friend."
"You're a queer, wonderful girl," he replied, puzzled and sad.
"I will come to town oftener--then," she almost whispered.
"You'd meet me in town and hope to deceive Ash?"
"Yes. I--I'll try," she faltered.
"But he'd find it out. Then he would have a real case against me. He'd hunt me down, force me to meet him."
"If I give in to you and leave Sunset Pass, I'd never willingly see you again," he went on, with more bitterness.
"Mr. Rock, that wouldn't be such a--a loss to you as you imagine now," she answered.
"I don't know. All I know is that I hate to refuse you anythin'. Listen. There's two sides to this deal, and here's mine." He leaned close so that he could see her better in the pale shadow. "I want you to know about me. For sixteen years I've lived the life of a wanderin', ridin', drinkin', fightin' cowboy. I stuck here on this range longest of all. I don't say I was bad, but I wasn't much good. I was always gettin' in trouble for other people. That's how I came to shoot Pickins. It was a good riddance. But the sheriff then--Cass Seward--was a friend of Picking's. I didn't want to kill Seward, so I left Wagontongue. I stayed away six years, then had to come back. I got there the day I met you. Found out Seward was gone. Found out a lot of other things. I wanted to know about my old girls.
"I had always been crazy over pretty girls. Sol Winter told me a lot of bad news about the girls--and about his son Nick. So I lost my happy mood. I wanted to go out and get drunk. Sol asked me to keep store for him. And I sat there sinkin' into one of the old black spells that had kept me from makin' someone out of myself. Then you walked into that store. And somethin' happened. I don't know yet what it was. But it was wonderful. It's been such a tearin', changin' somethin' that I don't know myself. I'm findin' out little by little. Seein' you this second time has helped a lot. I'll make a clean breast of all--soon as I know. But right now I know--if you don't turn your back on me--I'll never drink again. Or hunt for a fight! Or waste my time and money!"
"Mr.--Rock!" she exclaimed, low-voiced and trembling. "Are you telling me you--you love me?"
"No, I'm not tellin' you that," he returned doggedly. "But I'm sure afraid somethin's terrible wrong. Miss Thiry, please--please don't make me go away."
"Could I make you do anything? How silly! But if you're manly enough to save me misery, you will go."
"That's hittin' hard. Suppose I get it into my mind that by stayin' I can save you more misery?"
"Mr. Rock!" she cried, shocked.
His sudden query had been a random shot, but it struck home.
Rock's heart leaped. He had to stifle a wild impulse. "Quien Sabe! I might," he returned, almost coldly. "Give me a day to think over whether I'll go or stay. I'll meet you tomorrow night and tell you."
"Tomorrow night. Here at this hour?" she returned, rising.
"Yes. Good night, Miss Preston."
"I'm very, very sorry--Good night."
Rock gave her one long look as she stood now in the moonlight. He would carry that picture in his heart of hearts all his days. Then he strode away, and when he turned she was still standing like a white statue.
Rock made short work of his breakfast, and hurried away down toward the corrals. At the barn-yard Rock found Al Preston leading in some horses; and one of his brothers was jacking up a hind wheel of a green wagon.
"Mornin' boss," drawled Al.
The other boy nodded at Rock.
"Are you Tom or Harry?" asked Rock, reminded of the twins.
"All right, Harry, I'll know you tomorrow or bust. Where's Tom?"
"He left us to grease the wagon and went off after a horse for you."
"For my horse, Egypt?"
"No--I'm--sorry to say. Ash saddled him and rode of on him."
Rock for the moment succumbed to a silent fury. But seeing the grey-eyed brothers watching him curiously, he thought he had better explode naturally and wholesomely as might any cowboy. "-- -- -- --!" he yelled lustily. "He took my new white horse! And my saddle that I wouldn't lend to the King of England! Doggone! Boys, was it supposed to be a joke?"
"Take it as a joke. Or better be nice about it," added Harry. "That always stumps Ash. If he can't make you mad he lets up--for a while, anyway."
"Thanks, boys. I'll think it over," rejoined Rock.
While Rock and Al greased the wagon wheels, Harry hitched up, and by the time this task was done Tom rode in, leading a horse. It was a bay that instantly took Rock's eye.
"You boys rustle along. I'll catch up." When Rock rode around the barn he espied the wagon far ahead down the gentle slope. He moved on at a trot, his mind busy. He came to the forks of the road, and taking the left one he entered the cedars, climbed the ridge, and descended to a grassy open meadow, only, to mount another cedared ridge. It was not long until the sweet sage-wind became tainted. Rock rode up a sparsely cedared slope to a level bench, and soon came upon the site that had once been Slagle's ranch. The boys were halting before the several cabins. As Rock rode up, the stench unmistakably heralded a slaughter-house. Skins of cattle hung everywhere.
The horses were turned loose to graze, and Rock, with the three boys, set to work. It was no easy task for one man, or even two men, to fold a stiff hide and compress it into small space. But that was what they had to do.
Nevertheless, during this labour, and while joking with the brothers, Rock was bending all his keen faculties toward the end that he had determined upon. Nothing escaped his sharp eye. Toward late afternoon he happened to kick a piece of white substance, not stone, and of a colour markedly contrasting with the red earth, smelled it--tasted it. Quicklime! Rock put it in his pocket.
In due time Tom mounted the loaded wagon to drive home, while the other brothers rode off toward the woods, and Rock was left alone.
He took out the piece of quick, lime. It did not appear to be very old. After diligent search he found a smaller piece. Quicklime in any quantity there might be used to deaden the stench of decaying offal, blood and bones. Rock searched the cabins, sheds, bins without finding any more. None had ever been used upon the horrible pile that had accumulated in the hollow below the slaughter-house.
Manifestly the Prestons left the entrails and skeletons of their cattle there on the ground to rot. But they might have left something here that they wanted to destroy quickly. Hides! Cow hides they could not sell because they did not bear their brands!
All of a sudden, into Rock's searching mind there flashed memory of a deep well he had once helped to dig on these premises. Slagle wanted to get water close at hand. But they never struck water, and at 80 feet abandoned the effort.
Since that time brush had grown heavily all around the ranch-houses, but after some search Rock located the well. The edges had weathered, widening the mouth. He could not get right to the brink at this point. On the opposite side, however, opened a break in the brush. He was about to crash his way through the bushes, around to this opening, when his caution urged him not to leave a trail. Carefully he retracted his steps, worked around into a narrow path, in which he saw boot tracks.
Reaching the well, Rock peered down. He saw only the gravel sides and the black hole. He dropped a stone into it. No sound! Selecting a larger one he leaned over and let it fall. The hole certainly was deep. A low soft thud came to his taut ears.
"By gum! That well had a rock bottom." Rock cautiously stretched himself on the ground, and putting his head over the brink of the well he sniffed like a tracking hound. He caught a faint scent of something that was not earth or brush and certainly not rotting hides, and it was rotting cattle hides which he expected to smell.
Resting a moment, he tried again. This time he caught the scent strongly enough to recognize it. Quicklime! Rock sat up, suddenly sweating, though he felt a cold chill. He felt no doubt that down this well hundreds, perhaps thousands of cattle hides had been dropped--not one of which bore the Preston brand.
Rock crawled on hands and knees back along the edge of the path, making certain not to leave the slightest mark. He found another piece of quicklime, and several smaller pieces. When he got to the boot tracks he scrutinized them with the photographing eyes of a trailer of long experience. He cut twigs from the under side of a bush, and with minute care measured the length and breadth of the most clearly defined print. These twigs he stored in his pocket.
He retraced his steps back to the open, mounted, and rode quickly away.
Rock shaved and changed his clothes. He made sure, this evening, to be on hand before the first supper bell rang.
The moon appeared long in rising, and Rock both longingly and fearfully watched for the silver radiance over the rim. It came at last and found him unprepared. How could he bear to terrorize Thiry Preston by confessing his determination to stay?
At length he could no longer procrastinate. Skirting the edge of the pines, he circled the slope and soon found the great pine under which he had talked with Thiry the night before.
He heard her cabin door open. A broad light flared out into the gloom. Then Thiry appeared in the doorway, clearly defined. She wore white. Trueman's heart gave a leap and then seemed to stand still while she stood peering out into the night. She closed the door behind her--vanished. But Rock heard quick light footfalls. She was coming.
Presently her pale form grew more distinct. Rock saw her put out her hands, feeling for the tree or the bench. He reached up to take them.
"Oh!" she cried, evidently startled. "It's you, Mr. Rock. You're--late. I--I've been here twice," she said.
"I'm sorry, but it took courage to come at all," returned Rock.
"Didn't it, though? Mr. Rock, you--you are holding my hands. Please let go so I may sit down."
Rock, his own features in shadow, watched her and waited. The hour seemed to be the most momentous of his life.
"Ash stole your horse?" she began tentatively.
"Reckon I wouldn't say stole. But he sure borrowed Egypt."
"I asked Al what you did when you found out Ash took your horse," went on Thiry.
"What did Al say?"
"He said you were thunderstruck. And you swore something terrible. Mr. Rock, you see, then--how impossible Ash is!"
"Nobody or nothin' is impossible."
"Dad says the man doesn't live who can stand Ash's meanness."
"Well, I'm livin' and maybe I can. You saw him this mornin'?"
"Yes. I was up early, helping Ma get breakfast. When the horses came up it wasn't light yet. I heard Dad jawing somebody. Then Range came in and told us. At the table I asked Ash why he'd stolen your horse and--what he meant--to do with him."
Here Thiry's speech grew husky. "Luce told me he'd called the boss Egypt, which was your pet name," said Ash. "That's why I took him an why I'm goin' to break a leg for him."
Only Rock's powerful hold upon himself, fortified by hours of preparation for anything, kept his anger within bounds. "All because I gave him your pretty name! Tough on the horse--and you were afraid to open your mouth! Much you love Egypt!"
"Wait a minute, will you;" she answered, not without anger. "I pitched into Ash Preston as never before in our lives. I--I don't know what all I called him. He took it--and, oh, he looked dreadful. But he never said a word. He got up, nearly overturning the table, jumped on the horse and was gone like a white streak."
"I stand corrected," replied Rock thickly. "I talk too quick I'm sure glad you had the nerve to call him. If you hadn't--Well, Thiry, I suppose you want to know what I'm goin' to do about this horse deal?"
"Worry over that has made me sick all day."
"When Ash gets back, I'll go up to him nice and pleasant. I'll say 'Look here, cowboy, if you want to borrow my horse, ask me for him.'"
"Suppose he comes back without Egypt?"
"Then I think I'd better pass it off as if nothin' had happened. I'd ask your' father. And if Egypt was crippled I'd go find him and end his misery."
Then followed a long silence.
"Mr. Rock, you--you were to tell me something tonight?" she began nervously.
"Thiry," said Rock, with deep feeling, "last night I almost gave in to you. It was terribly hard not to. But tonight I have hold of myself. You can't persuade me. I shall stay. I've thought all night and all day. Out of this torture has come two facts, which I believe as I do my own soul."
"What are they?" she asked.
"I believe I can serve you best by stayin' at Sunset Pass."
"And the other?"
"I love you."
She flung out her hands, protestingly, imploringly, and as if to ward off some incomprehensible peril. "Mr.--Rock!" she gasped. "You dare make love to me--when we've never been together an hour--when I'm insisting you leave my home!"
"I'd dare that, yes, under any circumstances," he retorted, coolly. "But as it happens, I'm not makin' love to you. I'm tellin' you a simple fact. I'm not likely to annoy you with it soon again. But I sort 'of welcome this chance to prove somethin' to myself. You'll hear gossip about me and my love affairs, which you can believe if you like. But I know now I never had a real one before.
"I shall leave you blissfully alone. I shall hardly be even polite if I see you at mealtime. Your brother Ash will soon see that there's one rider who's not mushy over you."
"To what end?" she went on sharply. "Is that to deceive Ash, so you can stay here?"
"Partly. But I'm bound to confess that it's to spare you."
"Oh, you're not going to spare me," she cried. "You'll not leave me alone. And even if you did Ash would believe it only a blind--that you were with me during his absence. It's a poor plan. Please give it up."
She began to twist her hands in her white gown. The idea that he had decided to stay at Sunset Pass held some singular dread for her. And while he weighed this in mind he watched her with penetrating gaze, steeling his heart against the tenderness that threatened to overwhelm him.
"Trueman Rock, I want you to leave Sunset Pass," she said, leaning to him. "Let's risk being discovered meeting at Wagontongue. You can get work anywhere. We'll take Mr. Winter into our confidence. We can meet in his office. Then I'll arrange to stay with Mrs. Winter all night when I come to town. You can meet me there, too. I will go to Wagontongue every week."
"Thiry, I ask you again--why do you want me to leave?"
"To keep you and Ash apart."
"Is that the only reason?"
"It's the--the big one," she replied with both voice and glance unsteady.
"But that won't keep Ask and me apart. He will come to town when you do. He'll watch you."
"I'll choose the time when he is away with Dad on the range."
"You would risk so much for me?"
"It's not for you, though I know I--I--will like you, if you let me. It's for Ash and Dad all of us."
"It's very sweet of you, Thiry," he said, with just enough satire to belie the portent of his words, "but very little to risk my life, for."
"No, Trueman, it may save your life."
"Hove long would you expect this sort of thing to go on? We couldn't keep it up forever, could we? And when it came to an end--and I worshipped you--what then?"
"I'd run the same risk as you."
"What of? Being killed?"
"No! No! No! You're tantalizing me. You know what I mean."
"Indeed I don't. Reckon some locoed cowboys would think you meant that you risked the danger of love."
"I mean just that, Mr. Trueman Rock," she blazed. "I'm human. And surely it is not beyond the bound of possibility for me to--to love someone. Especially if he sacrificed for me--proved himself a man.
"Thiry, are you offerin' such a hope to me?" he asked huskily.
"It's not hope, but a chance--only a chance--and all I can offer."
"But a chance--that means a lot," he went on, without remorse. "I could be with you alone?"
"Yes, as long as you wished."
"Could I make love to you?"
"How could I keep you--from it?"
"Would you let me kiss you?"
"Yes," she replied, calm.
"Would you kiss me--now--to seal the compact?" he went on, as mad in the ecstasy of the moment, as stern to convict her.
"You drive a hard bargain," she murmured bitterly. "I've never kissed any man save Ash and Dad---but I will kiss you." She stood up, took brave, but hesitating steps, until her knees pressed against his, and as she bent over, instinctively her hands went out. Rock saw them trembling. She was going through with it.
Rock seized her hands, and bending his head, he kissed, one and then the other. "Thiry," he whispered, "I would give almost my very life to have you kiss me. But not for this--I led you on. I wanted to see how far you would go. You poor, loving, blinded girl! What would you not sacrifice for this damned Ash Preston? I will stay here. You have no idea what a horrible temptation you gave me. To meet you often--to have you alone--to be able to kiss you! Thiry! I could make you love me--but so help me God, I wouldn't have your love at such sacrifice. I'll win it square and fair--or never. Now, I'll go, and I'll nor speak to you soon again. Trust me, Thiry. Good night."
He kissed her hands again and rushed away into the shadows.
By doing most of the fence work he made himself more than solid with the three brothers. He let them ride off up into the timber to cut pine saplings and snake them down to the pasture, while he dug the post holes and built the fence.
On the fifth morning Al remarked, laconically: "We sure gotta hustle today, for Pa will be home."
"Why the particular hustle today, Al?" queried Rock.
"Pa has a way of slippin' up on us, an' it'd sure never do to be ketched loafin'. He wouldn't let us go to the rodeo and dance on the Fourth."
"I'd forgotten about that. Are all the folks goin'?"
"Pa and Ma ain't goin', but sure the rest of us Prestons are."
"Includin' Ash?" asked Rock.
"He never missed one yet that Thiry went to--leastways a dance. Allie and the kids will stop at Leslie's. Thiry said she was goin' to Winter's. Reckon you'll ride in with us?"
"I'll ask your dad," returned Rock, thoughtfully. It would be very much better, perhaps, for him to remain on the ranch. Yet the urge laid hold of him. He could take just a peep in at the dance to see Thiry in a party dress.
"Reckon, on second thought, I will go," he said to Al.
Late in the afternoon the brothers left off work and rode home. Rock went with them. While he was cleaning up for supper he heard the clip-clop of trotting horses, then rattle of wheels. With a start he went to the door. Scoot Preston was driving up on the seat of a big empty wagon. Two more wagons had topped the slope. Rock waited for riders to appear, and he was not disappointed. The burly form of the older Preston hove in sight, riding a roan and leading two saddle-horses. A little afterwards, sight of Ash on Egypt shot a quick stab through Rock. The next instant he relaxed. The white horse appeared tired, but none the worse for the absence.
"Aw!" exclaimed Trueman with relief. "Reckon I might as well go out and get it over."
But first he went inside. While pondering over how bests to meet this situation, he had buckled on his gun belt. Whereupon he strolled out leisurely. As he came in sight of the arriving Prestons, halfway between the cabins, Gage spied him, and with a start he wheeled about from the family, who were welcoming him to dismount like any cowboy, and hurried to intercept Rock. As he drew near, his deep grey eyes betrayed considerable anxiety. "Wal, Rock, how are you?" was his greeting, accompanied by extended, hand. "The boys say you all got on, fine. I'm sure glad."
"Howdy, boss!" returned Rock cordially. "We got the fence job 'most done."
Preston fell in step with, Rock, and they approached the double cabin, where on the wide porch were collected the women and children. Ash was the only one of the returning brothers who got down on the ground.
"Cowboy, I shore hope you won't rile Ash--leastways hyar before the women," said Preston hurriedly.
"Don't worry, boss," returned Rock with a genial laugh. He had caught a glimpse of Thiry, who kept somewhat in the background.
Egypt was standing, bridle down, halfway between Ash and the porch. One glance told Rock that he was gaunt, dirty, and rough, but apparently as sound as ever.
"Howdy, boys!" said Rock, nodding to the drivers on the wagons. Then, halting beside Egypt, he turned to face Ash Preston. Despite his iron control a slight quiver strung his frame. How cool, intent, potential of evil menace this man! He stood at ease, hands on his hips, his black sombrero slouched back, his blue-flame eyes piercing Rock, as if to read his mind. Rock had met penetrating glances before, and this one shot little cold sparks along his marrow.
"Howdy, Ash! Did you like my horse?"
"He's got any outlaw beat I ever rode."
"Dog-gone! Leslie swore this horse never pitched in his life."
"Reckon thet was no lie, Rock. But I nagged him. He threw me, an' I couldn't get near him again thet day."
"Served you right," responded Rock naturally. "It doesn't pay to be mean to horses. And see here, Ash, don't go borrowin' a horse from a rider without askin' him."
The tension relaxed, the charged atmosphere lost its fullness and suspense. Ash eyed Rock with slow, cool smile, and slouched with clinking steps to the porch.
Rock spent so much time caring for Egypt, cleaning and brushing him, and making him a comfortable bed of grass in a stall, that it was dark when he got back to his cabin. The supper bell rang. He hurried out, and arrived as the Prestons were just seating themselves at table.
Afterward, Preston called him into his cabin. "Have a drink with me, Rock," invited Preston.
"Sorry, boss, but I've quit."
"Have a cigar, then."
"Thanks," replied Rock. "Did you have a successful trip?"
"Best ever, but thet won't interest you," returned Preston briefly. "I'll say, though, thet when the trip ended hyar I was some worried. An' when I seen you packin' a gun, I was scared stiff."
"Sorry, boss. It's just habit."
"Ahuh!" returned Preston giving Rock a dubious look. "But it was hard to figger you. Ash shore wasn't able to. An' you clean knocked the pins from under him. He didn't an' neither did any of us, expect you to take thet dirty deal so nice an' friendly."
"What else could I do?" demanded Rock, spreading wide his hands. "I came out here to make friends, not enemies."
"Wal, I'm shore thankin' you. You've got Ash stumped. I heard him ask Lucy if you'd been runnin' after Thiry."
"Humph! What did Lucy say?"
"Lucy said you hadn't--thet you were seldom hyar, an' then never paid no attention to Thiry. Is thet so, Rock?"
"Reckon it is, since you left."
"You an' Thiry quarrelled, I take it," went on Preston. "She has a way of makin' the boys leave her alone. I didn't think you'd be so easy. Just before supper Thiry told me you'd acted wonderful with Ash--thet she'd misjudged you. The truth is, Rock, I think she likes you. You've shore begun right, if you're in earnest about her."
Rock could scarcely believe his ears. "In earnest? Good Lord! I wish I knew how to tell you how earnest I am."
"Wal, I reckon now I savvy why you met Ash that way. Rock, you're an upstandin fine, chap an' I like you. So don't be backward tellin' me just how you feet about Thiry."
"Preston, the minute I laid eyes on Thiry I fell in love with her. It's changed my whole life. I used to be a free, careless hombre, runnin' after girls, drinkin', gamblin', fightin'. But that's past."
"Thanks fer talkin out," rejoined Preston, bending deep, inscrutable eyes upon Rock. "Course you mean marriage, cowboy?"
Rock jerked in his chair; his face reddened. "Preston--I never let myself have such hope," he burst out.
"But you'd like to marry her?" queried this astounding ranchman.
Rock stared a moment. "I'd be the happiest and luckiest fellow on earth."
"Wal, thet's talkin'," returned Preston gruffly. "Do you want my advice?"
"Preston, I--I'd be most grateful for anythin'."
"Thiry ought to be told."
"Aw, no! So soon? It'd only distress her--do my cause harm."
"Cowboy, you don't know women," said Preston. "The very fact thet you came to me an' declared yourself, straight like your name, will go far with Thiry, an' all of us 'ceptin' Ash. An' even Ash couldn't help but see thet was right. Wal, I'm appreciatin' your fine feelin's, Rock, so I'll tell her myself," replied the rancher, and turning to the open door he called, "Thiry!"
"Preston!" gasped Rock, rising. Standing as if paralyzed, he heard light quick footfalls. Immediately the dark doorway framed a slender form in white, with wistful, expectant face and great, doubtful eyes.
"Come in, lass, an' shut the door," said her father.
She complied hesitatingly, her glance going from her father to Rock.
"Thiry," he went on, and when she drew close he put an arm around her. "Do you see thet big cowpuncher standin' over there?"
"Yes, Dad--I couldn't very well help it," she replied.
"Sort of pale round the gills, ain't he?"
"Dad, I--I'm afraid he looks a little guilty."
"Wal, it's not exactly guilt," laughed Preston. "Lass, Rock has asked your hand in marriage--an' I've given it."
"Father!" cried Thiry incredulously, almost with horror.
In that exclamation of protest, of unbelief, of consternation, Rock delved further into this Preston mystery. It seemed to betray Preston's guilt along with that of his son, and Thiry's knowledge of it.
"Wal, lass, will you answer Rock now or do you want some time to think it over?" asked Preston coolly, unabashed or unconcerned by her agitation.
"Mr. Rock, I thank you," said Thiry, through trembling pale lips, "for the honour you do me. I'm sorry I cannot accept."
Rock bowed, with what little dignity he could assume.
"Thiry, wait a minute," said her father, as she made for the door. He caught her and held her. "I'm sorry to upset you. Don't think your dad wants to get rid of you. I'm powerful fond of you, Thiry. It's only thet lately--wal, I don't want to worry you about what might happen to me. I might not always be hyar to take care of you. I'd like to have your future settled before--before long. An' Rock struck me about right. Aw, there you're cryin'. Wal, run along. I shore cain't stand a cryin' woman, not even you. An' it's no great compliment to Rock."
Thiry held her head high as she walked by Rock without giving him another word or glance; and he saw that she was weeping.
"Preston, I ought to knock the daylights out of you," declared Rock wrathfully, when Thiry was gone. "If I ever had any hope to win Thiry, it's sure gone now."
"Much you know about women," said Preston. "I had a hunch Thiry took a shine to you; now I know it."
"Preston, I can't be mad at you, but I sure want to be," returned Rock, resigning himself.
"Set down," said the rancher. "You'll shore be goin' in to town with the rest of the outfit. They're leavin' day after tomorrow. Thet reminds me. I run into thet pretty Mrs. Dabb, an' she said to tell you to be shore an' come to her dance. She's havin' the new town hall decorated."
"Boss, you must have been a devil amongst the women, in your day," said Rock slyly. "How would you handle this particular case of mine, regardin the dance?"
"Wal, as you're a handsome cuss, you want to make the most of your chance. It's to be a masquerade, you know."
"Masquerade? I sure didn't know."
"You get yourself up in some dandy outfit. Then first off be cold to Thiry an' sweeter'n pie to your old girl. But you want to be slick, cowboy. Don't overdo it."
"Old-timer, I'm afraid I couldn't do it," replied Rock with a grimace. "It'd be funny; it'd be great, if I dared. But I think I'll rustle now, before you get me locoed. Good night."
As he opened the door abruptly he almost bumped into Ash Preston. Rock could not help wondering if Ash had been eavesdropping.
Rock awakened at dawn with an idea which must have generated in his subconscious mind while asleep. It was that he should start toward Wagontongue ahead of the Prestons. He wanted to stop long enough with Slagle to dig through the husk of that rancher's provocative reticence. Likewise, he wanted to ride over that part of the range which had been the scene of Preston's latest labours. With Preston at home and his family on the road, there would be opportunity for Rock to confirm or disprove his suspicions.
At breakfast Rock asked permission to leave that day, and it was readily given. Saddling Egypt, and leading the rested and mettlesome horse up to the cabin, Rock tied a couple of blankets behind the cantle, and rode away under the pines, without being noticed, so far as he could tell, by any of the family.
He found where the wagon had left the road to halt in the first clump of cedars, and then had gone on again, back to the road. A mile or more this side of Slagle's ranch, which was hidden in the rough hilly country west of the Flats, the wagon tracks and hoof tracks of saddle-horses turned off the road. Rock did not care to follow them until the Prestons had passed, and even then he would be extremely careful how he did follow.
To Rock's disappointment, he found that Slagle was not at home, and he could do nothing but ride on. A couple of miles down the road Rock met the wagon tracks again, coming from across the Flats. C
The wind carried more than heat, and as he gained his objective point he both smelled and saw dust in the air. Then something raw--an odour that was tainted!
Eagerly Rock came up behind a cedar, and from this cover he peered out and down. The slope on that side sheered steep and rough down to an open draw which appeared pale green, with a dry winding wash in the centre. It led up to a wide pocket, where yellow water gleamed. Cows were bawling. White objects flashed in the sunlight. Rock discerned a cabin and corral, covered with white spots, also men on horses and on foot. Rock slipped to his knees, and crawling to a low thick cedar bush he half buried himself in it, and peered out. The white objects were cowhides; thrown over the corral fence, and nailed on the cabin, hair side down. There were seven riders, several still sitting their saddles, the others walking around.
One of the cowboys, a tall fellow wearing a red scarf, turned same of the cowhides over to look at the under sides. Presently he and the others on foot collected in a group round their mounted comrades, and talked. Watching like a hawk, Rock convinced himself that these riders were curious about Preston's butchering business.
Presently the mounted riders galloped off, and those on foot took to their horses and followed. They rode up the ridge, westward from the cabin. The fellow with the red scarf, following last, halted on the brink of that pocket and took final survey of the scene. Then he followed after his comrades.
"Dog-gone!" muttered Rock, rolling out of his uncomfortable covert and wiping his perspiring face. "What to make of that? Maybe means nothin an then again--"
No doubt at all was there that the cowhides in plain sight over in the draw bore one of several of Preston's brands. If other stock betides Preston's had been butchered, which Rock did not doubt in the least, the hides with their tell-tale brands had of course been well hidden.
Straddling Egypt once more Rock rode down the hill toward Wagontongue. Cedars and brush grew densely at the foot of this slope, where the road crossed a culvert ever a deep wash. Rock's eyes, bent on the ground, suddenly spied the heel imprint of a rider's boot. It stopped Rock. He had seen that heel track before. Slipping out of the saddle, Rock bent to scrutinize it. And he experienced a queer little cold chill.
The impression of the heel was well defined, but the toe part was dim. It pointed off the road. Rock found another, like it, though not so plain. But for his trained eyes the trail might as well have been made in snow: It led into the coarse white grass, down over the bank, to the edge of the culvert, where it vanished.
The culvert was not the handiwork of masons. The aperture was large. Crude walls of heavy stone had been laid about ten feet high and the same distance apart. Logs and brush had been placed across the top. Above this a heavy layer of earth formed the road.
When Rock stepped into the mouth of the culvert he saw a lumpy floor, which at first glance he thought consisted of rocks lying on dried mud. A foot track, the one he was trailing, brought a low exclamation from his lips. Bending quickly with his little sticks he tried them. They fitted perfectly. Moreover, this one had been made recently.
When Rock rose from that track he knew what he was going to find. The tunnel appeared about a hundred feet long, with light shining in at both ends, and the middle dark. The numerous stones on the floor were of uniform size and shape. Rock kicked one. It was soft. Bending to feel it and to look at it more closely, he ascertained that it was a burlap sack tied 'round something. He laughed sardonically.
"Cowhides," he said. These stonelike objects were all hides tied up in burlap sacks. They were old. Some of them were rotting. Then toward the middle of the culvert, where the bags were thickest, he found that those in sight were lying on a bed of bags, flat, decomposed. Altogether, hundreds, perhaps thousands of hides had been destroyed there.
Rock went back to the point where he had found the boot track. If fresh cowhides had lately been deposited in this hiding-place where were they? Rock searched the ground more carefully. Back from the opening it was difficult to see well. Nevertheless, he trailed the heel track a third of the length of the culvert, toward its centre.
Naturally then he reached up to feel where he could not see. He had to put his toes in crevices between the stones to climb up and reach over the top of the wall. The thick logs placed across from wall to wall, and far apart, left considerable room along the top.
When Rock's groping hand came in contact with a sack he felt no surprise. This one was not soft. It appeared to hold heat. Grasping it firmly, Rock dropped to the ground and hurried with it to the light. He ripped it open. Quicklime, hot and moist! A fresh cow-hide, wrapped with hair inside! With hands hands that actually shook, Rock unfolded the hide. No slight thing was this proof of somebody's guilt--about to be disclosed! The brand was clear--a half moon. Rock had never heard of it.
He rolled up the hide, stuffed it in the sack, with the little quicklime he had spilled, and put it back where he had found it. Then he struck a match. By the dim light he saw rows of burlap sacks, neatly stowed away. Rock sneaked out of that culvert and up to his horse as if indeed he were the guilty one himself. Not until he was riding away, positive that he had been unseen, did he recover his equanimity.
That boot track had been made by Ash Preston. Rock knew it. Gage Preston was growing rich by butchering other ranchers' cattle. The very least implication Rock accorded to Thiry Preston was that she shared the secret, and therefore indirectly, the guilt.
And Rock loved her--loved her terribly now, in view of her extremity. When he got to that confession he seemed unable to escape from the tumult and terror it roused in his mind.
Rock had no idea how far this extraordinary dealing of the Prestons had gone. It would take considerable time to find that out, if it were possible at all. But it had proceeded far enough to be extremely hazardous for them, and in fact for any riders connected with them. The situation would certainly become a delicate one for Rock unless he betrayed Preston at once. This was unthinkable. Rock knew his own reputation had always been above reproach, as far as honesty was concerned. It would still hold good with the old cattlemen who knew him. But that could scarcely apply to new ranchers, new outfits, who had come into the Wagontongue range of late years.
Rock believed that before another year was out, if the Prestons kept up this amazing and foolhardy stealing, they would be found out.
It was long past dark when Rock arrived at Wagontongue. He found a stable where Egypt would be well looked after. Next he hunted up a restaurant to appease his own hunger, and then he went to the hotel and to bed.
The sawmill whistle disrupted his deep dumber at six o'clock, but he enjoyed the luxury of the soft bed, and linen sheets awhile before rising. After breakfast he went round to see Sol Winter.
Winter was sweeping out the store. "My, you look good! All browned up. Dog-gone. I'm glad to see you!"
"Same here, old-timer," replied Rock heartily. "Any news, Sol?"
"Not much. Everybody comin' in for the Fourth. Amy Dabb's givin' the biggest dance ever held in these parts. How're things generally out Sunset Pass way?"
"Preston drove in here a couple of day's ago," went on Rock, lowering his voice. "In the outfit were three wagons I know of. One was full of hides, which I helped pack. The other two were loaded with meat. Beeves! Now I want to find out how many beeves there were and where they went. But I don't want this information unless we can get it absolutely without rousin' the slightest curiosity or questions. Savvy, old partner?"
"Wal, i'll be darned if that ain't funny, for I shore can tell you right now what you're so keen about knowin'. Heard it quite by accident. Jackson, who runs Dabb's butcher shop, once worked for me. Wal, I went in last night to buy some beef-steak to take home. An' I seen a lot of fresh meat hangin up. Shore I always was curious, but I never let on I was. All I said was: 'See you're stocked up plenty an' fresh. How're you ever goin' to sell all that meat before it spoils?"
"'It won't last over the Fourth,' he said. 'Long as I got plenty an' can sell cheap to the Mexicans an' lumbermen, it shore goes fast. Wagontongue will soon stand another butcher shop, Sol, an' any time you want to talk business with me I'm ready.'
"'I'll think it over, Jackson,' I said. 'But where'll we get the meat? Reckon we couldn't cut in on Dabb's supply?'
"'No, we can't,' he told me, 'but Preston is killin' now altogether instead of sellin' any more on the hoof. He's gettin' thirty dollars more by killin, on each head of stock. He'll sell to anybody. Today he shipped thirty-six beeves. Driscoll told me. Shipped them to Marigold.'"
"Thirty-six!" muttered Rock, with unreadable face and voice.
"Yep. An' I counted ten beeves hangin' up on Jackson's hooks. All fresh. So that makes forty-six. What you want to know all this for?"
"Gee Sol, you're a gabby old lady!" returned Rock. "I was just askin', because you and I might go into the meat business. And say, who runs the Half Moon brand?"
"New cattleman named Hesbitt," replied Winter. "He's been on the range over two years. They say he hails from Wyomin', has got lots of money, an' runs a hard outfit. Clink Peeples is foreman. You ought to know him, Rock."
"Clink Peeples. By gum! that sounds familiar. What does he look like, Sol?"
"Unusual tall puncher. Sandy-complected. Eyes sharp like a hawk's, but tawny. Somethin' of a dandy, leastways in town. Always wears a red scarf. An' he's one of the gun-packin' fraternity. Clink will be in town shore over the Fourth."
"Red scarf? Ahum!" said Rock. "Well, Sol, I'll run along, and drop in again."
Reaching Dabb's new store, Rock hunted up the suit department. It chanced that there was in stock a black broadcloth suit, with frock coat, which might have been made for him, so well did it fit. Rock purchased it and an embroidered vest of fancy design, a white shirt with ruffles in the bosom, a wide white collar and a black flowing bow tie to go with it. Lastly he bought shiny leather shoes, rather light and soft, which augured well for dancing. Not forgetting a mask, he asked for a plain black one. None of any kind was available.
Rock carried his possessions back to the hotel. While in his room he cut a pattern of a mask out of paper, and taking this back to the store he bought a piece of black cloth and fashioned it after the pattern he had cut.
After supper the hotel man, Clark, got hold of him and in a genial way tried to pump him about the Prestons. Rock did not commit himself. Then who but Jess Slagle stamped into the hotel lobby, in his rough range garb.
Slagle had been trifling with the bottle, but he was not by any means drunk. He was, however, under the influence of rum, and his happened to be a disposition adversely affected by it. "Howdy, than Sunset Pass puncher!" he said, loud and leering.
"Hello, Jess! How are you? I called on the way in."
"Left home yesterday. Stayin' till after the fireworks. Are you goin' back to Preston?"
"Why, certainly! Like my new job fine," responded Rock. "I'm sort of a foreman over the younger Prestons."
"Rock, it was a hell of a good bet that Gage Preston would never put you to butcherin'. Want a drink with me?"
"No, thanks. I've sworn off," replied Rock shortly, and he went out to walk in the darkness. Slagle's remarks were trenchant with meaning. Slagle, of course, hated Preston, and naturally would be prone to cast slurs. But would he make two-sided remarks like that, just out of rancour? It would go severely with him if one of them ever came to Preston's ears. And rattlesnake Ash Preston would strike at less than that.
Rock strolled to and fro between the hotel lights and those on the corner.
As he came into the yellow flare of light, a hand, small, eager and strong, seized his arm, and a feminine voice he knew rang under his ear. "True Rock, I've been on your trail all afternoon."
Rock stared down into the piquant flushed face of his old sweetheart, Amy Wund.
"Now I've got you and I'm going to hang on to you," she said, with a roguishness that did not conceal a firm determination.
"Why--how do--Mrs. Dabb? You sure--"
"Oh, Mrs. Dabb," she interrupted, flashing dark passionate eyes at him. "Call me Amy, can't you? What's the sense of being so formal? You used to call me 'darling Amy.'"
There was no gainsaying that. "Well, good evenin', Amy," he drawled. "I've forgotten what I used to call you. Reckon it's not just good taste for you to remind me."
"Perhaps not, True. But you make me furious. Let's get out of the light. I've got to talk to you." Pressing his arm tight she hurried him down the dark street.
"Amy, listen to sense. Oughtn't you be home?" asked Rock gravely.
"Sense from True Rock? Ye gods! When I was sixteen you made me meet you out, at night, because my father wouldn't let you come to our house," she retorted.
"That's so, Amy. I guess I was no good. But I've learned a little in all these years--at least enough to consider a woman's name."
"Thank you. I believe you have. And it's not true you were no good. Now about my being at home. I suppose I ought to be there. But it's an empty home, Trueman. I am alone most of the time. John has men come there to drink and play cards and talk business. He objects to my friends. He is as jealous as the devil. Just a selfish rich old man!"
"Aw, too bad, Amy," replied Rock, deeply touched: "You never should have married Dabb."
"Father was in debt to John and I had to foot that bill, True," she returned bitterly. "But I didn't waylay you to talk about myself. Did you get the invitation to my dance?"
"I did. Many thanks, Amy. It was good of you."
"Trueman, I'd like you to come for several reasons. First for old times' sake. Then because certain of my friends say you won't come. Next because--well, True, I've been a darned fool. I've gone--a--little too far with a certain cowboy. And I'm afraid of him. He's coming to my dance. And I thought--if you were there--I'd not be afraid, anyhow."
"Who is he, Amy?"
"I don't know his real first name, His last is Peeples. Clink they call him."
"Clink Peeples. I've sure heard of him. Rides for this new rancher, Hesbitt."
"Yes. And Hesbitt--"
"One thing at a time, Amy. Is this the last reason you have for wanting me at that dance?"
"No, Trueman, there's another. A woman's reason, and therefore the most important."
"What is it?"
"I won't tell you."
"Very well, I reckon your third reason is enough to fetch me. I'll come."
"Oh, thank you, Trueman," she replied in delight, squeezing his hand. "You always were the dearest, kindest fellow when anyone was in trouble. Trueman, you could steady me. God knows I need it."
"Don't talk nonsense," he returned sharply. "Amy, will you consent to my callin' on your husband?"
"You want to see John?" she queried, astounded, her eyes opening wide. "What on earth for? All right, go ahead. You have my consent. Tell him anything you want, except I was once in love with you and that it's not utterly impossible for me to be so foolish again."
"I'll take good care you don't do that," he laughed.
"Truman, I have something more to say," she said, hesitatingly. "I think you'd better quit riding for the Prestons."
"Why?" he inquired, freezing a little.
"I'm afraid I can't explain what may be only my intuition. But I believe the Prestons are going to get more than the ill will of the range."
"That's a strong statement, Amy. On what do you base it?"
"True, I can't trace it down. But it must come from many little bits of gossip I've heard. Some of it, by the way, from Peeples. Everyone knows, of course, that you took the job to be near Thiry Preston. It's a joke already. That's your side of it. Trueman, you have a reputation. Oh, I don't mean as a gunslinger. That's old. Nor do I mean as a great rider, roper, and all such cowboy qualities. It's that you're true blue, honest, a man of your word. I could tell you a lot of things, if I could remember. One is--Clink Peeples said he reckoned Gage Preston would profit by your honest name. Isn't that a queer remark, Trueman?"
"It is--a little," Rock admitted.
"And here's another--more of a stumper," went on Amy. "Last night John had some men out to the house. They talked and smoked. When I heard your name I listened. Someone, I think Mr. Hesbitt, answered whoever had used your name first. 'I don't know this great cowboy Rock,' he said. But if he stays on ridin' for Preston, I'll not share the opinion you men have of him.' Trueman, there's something wrong about this Preston outfit. There's an undercurrent of feeling against them. It'll spread, if there's any reason for it. And then you'd be dragged in. True, will you leave Preston? Please! You can get three times the money."
"No. I'll stick, Amy. If there's anythin' in these hints I reckon the Prestons need me all the more."
She did not speak again for several blocks. She held his arm closely. Rock did not have anything to say.
"True, I like you better than I used to," she said softly. "What will you wear at my masquerade?"
"Look here, little lady, that's not fair. I won't tell you."
"You must. I'll never be able to recognize you. I remember how clever you used to be. The unmasking will not take place until dinner. That'll be late, Trueman. And I'll want to know you, in case I need you. You may have to throw Clink Peeples out."
"So the honour of protectin' you falls to me," laughed Rock. "I've half a mind you're lyin'. But I'll stifle my suspicions. Amy, I've bought a dandy broadcloth frock suit, black. Also a fancy vest, shirt with ruffles, flowin' black tie and black mask I'll come as a flash gambler."
"You'll look grand. Bet you make more than one heart ache," she returned, with a glance of mischief and regret.
Next morning about eleven o'clock, Rack strolled out of the hotel on his way to see John Dabb. He was shown into that individual's private office, and walked into a richly furnished room, where two men sat smoking.
"Howdy, Mr. Dabb!" said Rock, easily. "Reckon you know me."
"Trueman Rock!" exclaimed Dabb in great surprise. "Hesbitt, this is True Rock, one of the real riders we used to have. Rock, shake hands with Hesbitt, one of our new ranchers."
Hesbitt bowed stiffly and spoke without offering his hand.
Rock looked squarely at him. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Hesbitt."
"Well, Rock, to what am I indebted for this call?" queried Dabb.
"Remains to be seen whether you'll be indebted to me or not. Reckon that's up to you," replied Rock. "Mr. Hesbitt, I heard this mornin' that your foreman Peeples was in town wantin' to see me.
"Yes, he got in early, and I believe does want to look you up."
"Reckon he can't be particular eager," drawled Rock. "I've been up and down street, and in and out of the hotel all mornin'--lookin' for Mr. Peeples."
"Ah! I see. I dare say he's very busy buyin' supplies," replied Hesbitt, nervously. "May I inquire--er--what you want of my foreman?"
"Nothin' so important--that is, to me," said Rock. "I just wanted to give Peeples opportunity to meet me. And to tell him somethin'."
"What?" asked Hesbitt, whose sallow face slightly paled.
"Reckon I'd sure like you to know as well. I just want to give you a hunch. Not till two days ago did I ever hear of the Half Moon brand. And not till yesterday did I learn what outfit ran it."
Manifestly Rock's cold, biting speech impressed Hesbitt, but scarcely to the acceptance of its content. He picked up his hat from the desk. "Dabb, your former cowboy's talk is queer, if true," he said curtly. "I'll leave you to renew old acquaintance. Good day."
"Hesbitt, you're new to this range," rejoined Dabb, a little caustic. "I've told you! before. And your Wyoming cowboy foreman needs to be told--or he'll get into trouble. This is not Wyoming. I'm bound to tell you that Rock's talk is not queer. I'll gamble it's true. I never knew him to lie. And no old rider or cattleman on this range would say it, even if he thought it."
Hesbitt bowed and went out, jarring the door.
Dabb bit viciously at his cigar. "Some of these new cowmen make me sick. Rock, help yourself to a smoke and sit down."
"Dabb, I sure appreciate what you said to him about me," replied Rock. "Fact is I'm surprised, too. I'd been told you had no use for me."
"Rock, that's not the point," returned Dabb quickly. "When I knew you were honest, I was bound to say so. Your connection with Preston has started rumours. Hesbitt has been losing more stock than any of us. His outfit is a hard-nut bunch from Wyoming. They think you're--well. I don't want to repeat gossip. But whether or not I have any use for you I'd sure need to see proof of your dishonesty."
"That's straight talk. I like it and thank you. Dabb, did I ever do you any dirt?"
"You quit me, left me in the lurch," replied Dabb testily.
"But be fair, at least," responded Rock earnestly. "I had to leave quick--or kill another man, and one generally liked here, Cass Seward."
"You may have thought so. Cass told me once you didn't need to run off. He could have fixed it up. Arrested you--and let you off. It was an even break, you knew. Anyway, I know everybody was glad you bumped that fellow off."
"Ahuh! I'm sorry I didn't know that," said Rock. Then he shook off dark thoughts. "Dabb, did you have anythin' else against me?"
The rancher thrummed on ins desk while revolving this query.
"Look me straight in the eye," went on Rock. "Man to man, Dabb. If you have cards on me lay them down. I'm comin' clean honest--and a lot might depend on you doin' the same."
"All right, Rock, I'll meet you," replied Dabb, flushing darkly. "Straight out then. I've sort of held against you--that old affair of yours and Amy's."
"Good!" exclaimed Rock, cracking a fist in his palm. "That's just what I wanted you to admit. The old women gossips gave Amy the worst of that affair. She was pretty and vain--and had a way with the boys. But she was good and if they ever said otherwise they lied. I was in love with Amy. Perhaps a little more so than I was with two other girls. But what I want to make clear to you Dabb, is that Amy was never serious about me. I mean never in love as it was in her to be. And I'm satisfied that she never has been yet. Even with you--her husband. You'll excuse me, Dabb, but this is blunt straight talk."
"It is, by God! And to what end, Rock?"
"Amy's happiness," flashed Rock "I met Amy the day I arrived in Wagontongue and again yesterday. Dabb, she'd scalp me alive if she ever found out I told you this. She's lonesome and unhappy. I don't believe Amy ever would have married you if she hadn't cared somethin' for you. But you've failed to win the best in her. Dabb, I don't suppose anyone ever dared to hit you this way. I don't care a damn how angry you get, if I can only make you see."
"You're makin' me see red, cowboy," replied Dabb hoarsely. "But go ahead. I've not the nerve to pull a gun on you."
"Dabb, I always had a hunch you weren't a bad fellow, under your skin. The range claimed you drove hard bargains, and the cowboys didn't exactly like you. Maybe that was justified. All the same as ranchers go, you sure were white. You're rich now. You don't have to eat, sleep, drink and smoke business. Pay some attention to your young and pretty wife! Take the girl away occasionally, to Kansas City or Denver. California in winter. And before long, old-timer, you'll be glad. If you don't do this, sure as I'm sittin' here, Amy is goin' to the bad. That's what I came to say and that's all." Rock ended abruptly.
Dabb writhed in his chair, fury and shame contested with the sense of fairness that seemed dragged out of his depths. "You are a--queer one--Rock," he stammered. "You've hit me where I live, and it hurts like sixty. But you talk like a man. And I'm not yet so set in my mind that I can't learn from any man. If the truth turns out as straight as your talk--well, young man, you're on parole till I find out. Now since you've presumed to advise me on a delicate matter, I'll retaliate. Quit Preston!"
"Why?" snapped Rock.
"You know the range, Rock. Some things just can't be said."
"Because they can't be proved."
"Well, Ill stick to Preston until these damned underhand rumours are proved--or until somebody suffers for startin' them."
"That may work out too late for you. I think I ought to tell you I've broken business relations with Preston last Friday."
"May I ask what were the business relations?"
"Preston had the small end of a cattle deal with me. I bought him out. And then I cancelled all beef orders."
"How did Preston take that?"
"Kicked about the cattle deal. But I took it he was relieved to get out of selling me more beef."
"Relieved--what you mean?"
"He just struck me that way. Didn't ask me why. I was glad. My reason was good, but I could scarcely divulge it to him."
"Mind tellin' me?"
"Yes. I'd mind. It would necessitate violating someone's confidence. You'll have to find out for yourself, Rock."
"Reckon so. By the way, Dabb, are you still head of the Territory Cattle Association?"
"No, I resigned. Nesbitt was recently elected."
"Gee! Sorry to hear it," returned Rock. "Good day, Dabb. Reckon I'll meet up with you at the rodeo and the dance."
In the afternoon, rather late, Rock walked round to see Winter.
"Hey, you been drinkin'?" expostulated Rock, holding his friend at arm's length.
"Nope. That is, not red liquor. But I shore been drinkin' in Thiry's sweet smiles an' words."
"Dog-gone! I didn't expect her till tomorrow."
"True, she has been in half a dozen times," went on Winter. "Asked for you every time!"
"Sol, you lyin' old geezer! My heart might stand her askin' once. But six times!"
"Son, mebbe it's not all gospel truth. When she first run in she was her old nice sweet cool self. Kissed me. Said she an' Alice were out at my house. She asked if I'd seen you. An' I told her I hadn't yet today, but thet you'd be in. An hour later she came in again, somehow different. She bought buntin'. She was helpin' Amy Dabb decorate the dance hall. Asked had I seen you yet, an' I said no. She went out an' pretty soon came back, a little more different She had a red spot in each cheek. An' so she came an' went, till the last time, a little while ago, when she was with Amy. Then you bet she didn't ask about you. True, shore as you're born, Amy had been fillin' poor Thiry full of guff about how wild you was over her, an' mebbe was yet."
Rock heard Winter, but only vaguely, for he was rushing out to the door, where through the window he had espied Thiry Preston. "Why, hello!" he said, forcing a pleasant surprise to hide his rapture, as he doffed his sombrero. "Heard you were here. Really didn't expect you till tomorrow."
"We started at daybreak yesterday morning," she was saying. "The boys were no good at all, and the youngsters simply mad to come--so Dad sent us off a day ahead. Ash stayed home."
Rock felt in with her short quick steps and made careful remarks about the weather, and the town being full of people, until they reached the baker's, where she was to order things for Mrs. Winter.
"I'll wait for you," said Rock.
"Are you afraid to walk into a bakeshop with a girl?" she asked, and the bonnet-brim tilted just far enough and long enough for him to catch a flash of grey eyes. "From what I've heard--recently--you could march into a lion's den--for a---for certain people."
"Ahuh, reckon I could--for--for a certain person," replied Rock. That brought the blue bonnet-brim down to hide most of her face. Rock, however, thought he caught a glimpse of a colouring cheek. He escorted her into the store, stood beside her while she gave her orders, and accompanied her out.
"I'm to wait here for Allie," said Thiry, stopping outside.
"Hope she'll be late," returned Rock, trying vainly to find himself.
Presently she lifted her head and Rock devoured her lovely face before he realized it had never worn such an expression for him: doubt, disdain, petulance!
"You're going to the dance," she said. It was not a question.
"Reckon I'll drop in for a peep."
"Would you tell me what you'll wear?"
"Thiry, that'd spoil the fun. I sure want to fool you," he said.
"Have you not already fooled me?"
"I have not!" he shot at her, swift to speak his sudden passion.
"Trueman Rock, you have a great deal to disprove and more to prove," she said, wide strange eyes on his.
"You would not tell me what you were going to wear--so I'd recognize you first."
"Of course I'll tell you," he burst out.
"I don't care to know now. You would not see me, anyhow."
He could only stare mutely.
"Mr. Rock," she went on, without the scorn, "I had better explain my rather bold words. This dance was to be the first gay happy time for me since I grew up. Dad somehow prevented Ash from coming to town. He filled me with--with beliefs about how you would make it wonderful for me. I have no one but my brothers, and they all have their girls. I--I dreamed myself into--no matter what. Then I come to town to have my ears filled to burning--all day long. The dance was to be given for you! You wouldn't even dance with any other woman but her! You were an old lover renewing his vows! You--"
"Thiry, hush!" interposed Trueman in rage, despair, and exaltation, all bewilderingly mingled. "I told you I didn't care what anyone said to you about my old affairs. But if you care, then I hate the very thought of them."
"Trueman, I trusted you and that woman has killed it."
"Oh no, Thiry, don't say that," he implored.
"But there's a secret understanding between you and her--for this dance."
"Yes, there is. But it's sure not sentiment on my part," he replied humbly. "Thiry, if you won't trust me, I shall have to give her away. And I never did that to a girl in my life."
"How could I trust a man who would betray any woman--much less her?"
"You couldn't. And I deserve that rebuke. But, Thiry, please be reasonable. Why, I was going to get my happy time just spying upon you from some corner. I never dared hope to get to dance with you. Good Heavens!"
"Trueman, I meant to dance only with my brothers, and perhaps one or two of the boys I know--and all the rest with you."
"Thiry Preston, you tell me this--this--"
"Yes, I tell you," she retorted. "I couldn't do it at home, because I didn't know. But that's no difference."
"Of course it isn't. I should have made some wild dream come true. But, Thiry, it's not too late."
"Oh. it is," she said disconsolately, yet she seemed to hunger to be persuaded. "She has spoiled--"
"Listen," he broke in. "I meant to befriend Amy Dabb. She needs it, heaven knows, as you will see for yourself to-morrow night. But if you let her jealous tongue spoil anythin' for you, I'm through."
"Trueman, I could forgive a great deal, but no bold lie."
"Thiry, did she destroy what little there might have been?" asked Rock.
She averted her face. "I don't know. I'm all excited. But, oh, I--I want to have this dance! You'll understand me, Trueman, won't you? That's one thing I do trust."
The arrival of Alice Preston checked Rock's impassioned reply that otherwise he could not have resisted. The girls, laughing and talking, started for home, and Rock accompanied them to the corner.
Just before they arrived there, a man and a woman hove in sight. Evidently she was trying to hurry away from him.
"I tell you no--no!" she cried, in a rage. Then Rock recognized Amy Dabb! The man was a tall rider. He wore a red scarf, and his face was almost as red.
"See heah, sweetheart, you cain't come thet with me." he drawled, blocking her way.
"Shut up, you crazy fool! Someone might hear you," she cried.
Rock with a stride and a leap was upon them. "Somebody did hear you, Amy. Rustle now, with, the girls," said Rock, sharply, as he gave the rider a hard thrust backward and then confronted him. "Howdy, Mister Red Scarf!"
"Howdy, Mister Big Hat!" he replied.
"My name is Rock. You're Hesbitt's foreman, Peeples," went on Rock curtly. "He told me you were lookin' for me."
"I shore was."
"You're not drunk," replied Rock. "How's it you insult a married woman on the street?"
"Is thet any of your bizness?"
"It shore is. I'm an old friend of Amy Dabb's. Rode for her husband. Reckon it's not exaggeratin' to claim I'm his friend, too."
"All right, Rock, I apologize," returned the foreman readily, though resentfully.
"All right, Peeples. We're gettin' somewhere. Now tell me why you were lookin' for me?"
"I kept hearin' aboot you out on the range. Then lately you come back an' went to ride for Preston. Thet made me curious, an' I reckon I jest wanted to meet up with you an' see for myself."
"Wal, Rock, do you know one of them queer range shadows is creep-in' over the Prestons?"
"Peeples, I like Gage Preston. Do you know him?"
"Shore. Like him fine, too."
"I didn't take to Hesbitt," mused Rock, as if making comparisons.
"Shore I never did, either," admitted Peeples. "But--wal, I'm responsible for his stock. An' you can bet your bottom dollar I'd never be responsible for Preston's. Now about your connection with Preston. Speaks high for him to have you in his outfit. True Rock, clean an' square range-rider! Old hand at the game! Sounds awful good when some new cattleman like Nesbitt or some wonderin' puncher gets to talkin'. Rock, if Preston keeps you out there it's a safe bet he is rustlin' an' will ring you in with him, by hook or crook."
* * *
The new town hall was the finest structure in Wagontongue. It was of Spanish design, low, rambling, many arched and aisled, painted white, with red tiled roof. The outside had been draped with flags and bunting in celebration of the national holiday. Two aisles with arched walls formed the outside of a large patio, Here and everywhere gay many-coloured Chinese lanterns hung. Flowers and desert shrubbery lined the walks and circled the fountain where water tinkled musically.
Rock ran the gauntlet of merry jests, admiring glances from dusky eyes, laughter and query, to the entrance at the main corridor of the hall. Inside the door was a gate, guarded by men, one of whom was the town sheriff, very important and pompous, with his silver badge conspicuous. Two placards struck Rock's eye. One read: No ADMITTANCE TO ANYONE NOT IN MASQUERADE. And the other sign, larger, read: CHECK YOUR HARDWARE AND BOTTLE.
"Howdy, gambler!" greeted the sheriff. "'Scuse me while I search you. Mrs. Dabb's orders."
His second slap at Rock located the gun under the long frock coat. "Ha! Not on the hip! Hangin' low, eh? Wal, cowboy, unbuckle an' pass."
A girl, slight of stature, passed Rock to peer at him with challenging eyes, disguised if not hidden by a red mask. Her costume was Spanish, gold and black, very graceful and pretty. A masker in cowboy attire accosted her, to be gayly repulsed. She passed on, and Rock forgot her in his growing, searching gaze for someone he would know the instant she appeared.
Someone took his arm lightly, "Buenas tardes, senor," said a low voice at his elbow.
Rock bowed gallantly to the slim creature on his arm. He saw that she was the Spanish girl in gold and black.
"Buenas tardes, senorita," replied Rock, peering into the black holes in the red mask.
She averted her face and walked with him, surely aware of the attention they roused. Rock grasped suddenly that there appeared to be a little pressure on his arm, a gradual but sure guidance of his steps. He was to find that they were entering the dance-hall, where many masqueraders had assembled.
The orchestra burst into music, a languorous Spanish waltz, once Rock's great favourite.
The girl who had led him there swayed to the rhythm toward him, slowly lifting her hand to his shoulder. "You handsome gambler!"
"You don't know me!" she cried in arch reproach.
"Amy!" exclaimed Rock incredulously. "You sure are a Spanish girl. Fooled me plumb good.
"Not a soul recognised me," she said, in delight. "I'll tell no one but you. Come, this is your old favourite waltz."
Before Rock knew what was happening she was in his arms, light as thistle-down, and they were whirling, gliding to dreamy strains that found the old chord deep in his memory.
"Trueman, hold me tighter," she whispered, and leaned back against his arm, to look up at him.
"Behave yourself, Mrs. Dabb," he returned warningly, with a laugh. "Reckon I don t know quite all due my hostess, but sure not that."
"Well, if you won't, I'll have to hug you," she went on. "Oh, I could hug you and kiss you before everybody! Trueman, what did you do to my husband?"
"Did I do anythin'?" asked Rock, helpless in the unexpectedness of this attack.
"Did you? Trueman, he came home the other day, at noon--something unheard of," she went on swiftly. "He told me you'd been in to see him. That you had raked him over the coals. That you had cleared up something about you and me! Then he told me he had been sore and jealous for a long time. He admitted being mean, selfish, suspicious. He'd neglected me shamefully. He would turn over a new leaf. He would try to be young again. Oh, he knocked me cold! Since then he has been like he was when he courted me. And most amazing of all, he's to drop in here to-night--in masquerade. He wouldn't even tell what he'd wear."
"Good Lord!" said Rock.
"You should say thank the good Lord, Trueman. I'm happy to-night--as I haven't been in years." Then, leaning her head forward to his shoulder she grew silent. Rock was reminded that the better side of Amy had always come uppermost when she was dreamily, happily excited. When she was jealously excited she was about as tractable as a wildcat. Round and round they swung amid the colourful murmuring throng. The scrape and thud of cowboy boots drowned the patter and slide of lighter-footed dancers. Then suddenly the music eased.
Amy must have had certain duties as a hostess, for she slipped away from Rock and mingled with the assemblage. He made no effort to follow, but haunted the long corridor, studying the new arrivals. He was at the entrance of the patio, standing close to the wall, when a small party entered the corridor.
"Look!" spoke up a woman to her neighbour. "That girl in white. Colonial wedding-gown! Isn't she just lovely? Who can she be?"
This remark caused Rock to take a second glance at the entering petty. It struck him that the girl in the wedding-gown was certainly worth looking at.
Her hair was done up in some amazing style and as colourless as snow. Arms and neck, of exquisite contour, likewise were of a dazzling whiteness. The gown, a hoop-skirted, many ruffled affair, took up the space of three ordinary dressed women.
Trueman flattened himself against the wall. Nevertheless, the young lady so marvellously gowned was forced to sweep her skirts aside to avoid contact. The momentary halting of the party, evidently to choose a direction, brought this Colonial masquerader so close to Rock that he meant to step forward and allow her more room. But she seemed to be looking at him and he felt suddenly rooted to the spot.
As the soft, fluffy, perfumed gown swept him, Rock felt a hand touch his--slip a folded paper into his palm with quick pressure. Then she passed and he leaned there staring.
Rock's trembling fingers tightened on the paper. It was a note. That girl had been Thiry. In one glance she had pierced his disguise. Rock peered into his palm at the note, then rushed off to find a light by which he could read it. Finally he found one, and here, after a keen glance around, he opened the note.
I am in terrible fear, but I will come to the dance, cost what it may.
Ash is in town, hiding. I do not know what he means. Allie and I will go to the Farrell's to dress, and come with their crowd.
Ash never saw my great-grandmother's wedding-dress. He won't recognise me, when he comes. For he will come! You must keep close watch over me, else I would not dare take the risk. He is capable of stripping' me before the crowd. I will dance with the Farrell boys a little--the rest with you. I shall not stay till they unmask. I want to go before he knows me. You must take me away before that.
It may be madness. But I let my heart become set on this one dance. I grow furious at the thought of giving it up. I don't know myself of late. I will come--if only to--
Rock placed the note inside his vest and strode back toward the corridor. As he entered it, Thiry came toward him. Rock, removing his hat, made her an elaborate bow.
"Lady from Virginia, I salute you," he said gallantly.
"Sir knight of the Card Table," she replied, and offered her hand.
Rock clasped it and kissed it with the old-fashioned courtesy due the character she personified. But they acted no more. She seemed silently confused as he led her to the patio. There in the subdued glow of the lanterns they were comparatively alone.
"Thiry! You paralysed me," he said. "I didn't know you. I didn't know you. And, oh, how lovely you look!"
She murmured her thanks. They stood under an archway beside the fountain.
"How ever did you know me?" he asked.
"It was the way you stood."
"Reckon that makes me awful happy--an' fearful, too, Thiry."
"You! You have little to be fearful about. But I--"
"Never mind. If I ever had eyes I'll use them tonight. I'll let no insult, no humiliation touch you."
The music ceased and the gay dancers poured out of the hall to promenade in couples and quartets and crowds.
"My brothers--the twins and Al--and the Farrell boys know me, of course," said Thiry, as if remembering where she was. "We must find them. Then after a few dances I'll be free--if--if you--"
"Thiry, there's no if--now or ever," he replied unsteadily.
"Will you dance while I dance?"
"No. I'll watch you--and see if anyone else is watchin' you."
"Oh, but surely you must want to dance some?" she queried.
"Only with you."
"Not Amy Dabb?" she flashed.
"Not Amy Dabb," he said, turning to find, her face averted.
"But, Trueman, she is your hostess. If I remember correctly, she meant to embody the duty of all her masculine guests in your attendance."
"Did she?" replied Rock, a little nettled at her satire. "You mean she gave you a hunch I'd dance all my dances with her?"
"Something or other like that," murmured Thiry.
"Reckon she was just talkin'."
"Then I was wrong to believe her. Forgive me. But I didn't see how you could be so--so--such a liar."
"Thiry, I couldn't lie to you," he returned, with low voice ringing. "Save me agony by believing that now. For some day you'll know."
"But you must dance with, your hostess--at least once."
"Once. Would you stand for it once?--I mean, straight out--do you want me to dance with you instead of Amy Dabb?"
"Yes, I do," she returned hotly. "She hurt me. She said catty things all in a nice way. She offered to lend me a dress. She made me feel a--a country bumpkin. I told you before, what she hinted about you. It's selfish, little, miserable of me to want to show her. But she made me almost hate her."
"Thiry, my obligation is paid," replied Rock. "I have had that one dance with Mrs. Dabb. I didn't recognise her until she made herself known. It's over. So there."
"I'd like you to dance with Allie," returned Thiry shyly. "She won't tell on you. For that matter, it'd be fun, if we can fool her."
"Fine. Let's find her and your friends."
The dance was soon over, and Rock surrendered Allie to her next partner. He became all eyes then. He was no longer a masquerader. He shifted in one moment to the cool, searching cowboy on a trail. His searching gaze was concerned with the masculine element of that gay crowd.
He lounged around the door of the hall during two dances before he convinced himself that Ash was not among the cowboys dancing. Then he strolled down one long aisle and up the other, peering at every man and into every shadow. Likewise he searched the patio. Returning to his post just inside the dance-hall door, he took up his vigil there.
Another dance had just started. The big hall was a wonderful spectacle of movement, colour, youth, beauty, and humour.
Then Rock espied Thiry. "Senor del Toro, you look lonesome," she said gayly. "Are there no charming senoritas here?"
"I can see only one.
"Come. The rest is yours," she said, and took his arm.
"Has anyone discovered you?"
"Only one I know of, Amy Dabb. She was quick to see through it."
"Well. Did she say anythin'?"
"I rather think so. She said: 'Hello, Thiry! You look great. But wedding-gowns don't always mean wedding-bells."
Again they strolled under the magic rose and purple of the dimming lanterns, and on to the secluded bower in the patio. Here the stars shone white and watchful through the foliage.
"It's very--warm," murmured Thiry, as Rock leaned over her in the shadow.
"Take off your mask," he suggested.
Trueman took her hand in his. It was an almost instinctive action on his part. She made no attempt to withdraw it, greatly to his surprise and joy.
"Trueman you must take me home soon," she said, as if coming out of a spell.
"Oh no, not now. Just one more dance," pleaded Rock. "You said the rest were mine."
"But I'd forgotten. Ash will come any moment. I feel it--here," she whispered, her hand on her breast.
"Thiry, he is not here now. I've looked clear through every man in the outfit. Please risk it."
"Well, then--one more."
But at the end of this dance she forgot again or could not resist the joy of the hour. Once more Rock led her to their shadowed corner.
"Take off your mask," he begged again.
"Can you put it back on--right?" she asked a little tremulously.
"Sure I can."
Then she was unmasked under his worshipping eyes, under the dim rose light of the lantern above and the far, white, and knowing stars. Once she lifted her eyes to him--eyes that betrayed the spell of the moment--then no more.
Rock won her to stay one more dance, revelled in his power to persuade her, though his conscience flayed him. What risk' he might incur for her! But he gambled with his happiness.
"Trueman, we must go now," she said nervously.
"Yes. But don't you hate to?"
"No. I'm too thankful for--for all it's been."
They reached the patio. Something had happened, as Rock guessed from excited voices. A girl cried out in dismay.
"Hey, look out there!" called someone, unmistakably a cowboy.
"He snatched at my mask," replied a girl, angrily.
"He got mine," added another.
Rock drew Thiry out of the press. "Some cowboy snatchin' masks," he said hurriedly.
Suddenly into the open space before him leaped a lithe figure of a cowboy, wearing a red handkerchief as a mask. He was as quick as light--so quick that Rock scarcely guessed his purpose in time to thwart it. One sweep of hand tore Thiry's mask from her white face! She cried out and spasmodically clutched Rock's arm.
The cowboy appeared to leap up. He snatched off the red handkerchief that masked him, to disclose the livid face of Ash Preston. His evil eyes, like coals of blue fire, flashed over her face, her bare neck and arms, her ruffled gown.
"Ash," gasped Thiry, clutching Rock's arm tighter, "meet Senor del Toro--my masquerade partner!"
"Senor Hell!" Like a snake's head his hand shot out, to fasten in Thiry's bodice and tear with fiendish swiftness.
In one single action Rock freed himself from Thiry and struck Preston on the side of the face. He went down with a thud. Women screamed; men shouted excitedly. Up bounded Preston, with catlike quickness, his hand flashing back for his gun. But it was not there. He had passed the sheriff and had forgotten. His wolfish face gleamed fiercer. His tawny hair stood up.
"Greaser, I'll kill you for thet!" he groaned out.
"Caramba!" replied Rock, and made at Preston with terrific fury. His onslaught was like a battering-ram. He cared nothing for Preston's sudden blows. He broke through them, beat him back, and knocked him against the wall. Ash fell, but got up cursing, to come back wilder than ever, his face the redder for blood. There vaas a swift interchange of blows, then one from Rock staggered Preston. Another, swift and hard, sent Preston in a long fall.
Before he could rise Rock plunged upon him, beat him with right, left, right, left--tremendous blows that made Ash sink limp. Rock seized him by the neck, choked and shook him as a terrier with a rat, and rising, dragged him to the fountain and threw him bodily into the shallow water. Ash lay on his back, his head just above the surface.
Rock, remembering his mask, felt for it and found it intact. Thiry's white mask lay where Preston had dropped it. Snatching it up, Rock whirled to see some woman in the act of covering Thiry's naked shoulders and bosom with a shawl.
"Come--we'll get out--of here," he panted hoarsely, and placing a firm hand under her arm he led her away from the gaping crowd, down the corridor toward the outlet. The voices of excited people grew fainter. Rock halted long enough to produce his check and get his gun belt, which he threw over his left arm.
Thiry was weak. She leaned on his arm. Still she kept up with his rapid steps. Not for three blocks did Rock speak, nor did she.
"He--didn't know you," she burst out, then, "Called you greaser!"
"Yes, that's the only good thing about it," returned Rock.
Her grief tortured Rock, but he did not have it in him to retract his words. They hurried on to Winter's house. Rock saw a light. He wanted to say good night to Thiry at the gate, but could not. She still clung to him. At the porch he halted, and helped her up.
It was shaded there by trees, but he could still see her pale face and the great eyes, strange and dark in the night. Before he knew what he was doing he clasped his arms round her, as she stood a little above him. She did not repulse him, but she pressed her hands, against his shoulders. Thus they looked at each other in the shadow.
"Forgive me, Thiry," he implored "I'll go to my room before anyone sees me. Ash didn't know me. He never will."
"She will tell," said Thiry hopelessly.
"Amy Dabb!" exclaimed Rock, with a start. "She did know. But she'll have no chance tonight. They'll pack him out of there pronto. Tomorrow I'll find some way to shut her mouth."
"Yes, you will," said Thiry, with sad derision. "Don't waste your breath, Trueman. Perhaps it will not occur to her that Ash didn't know you."
"Then let's hope for the best," Rock tightened his arms a little, drew her closer. "Thiry, kiss me good night," he whispered.
"No!" Yet she seemed weakening. He felt her quiver in his arms.
"Then let me kiss you? It might be the first and last time. For if Ash finds me out I'll have to leave this country. Else I'd have to kill him!"
"You'd go away for me?" she flashed, suddenly quickened.
"I promise you."
"You love me so much?"
"Thiry girl, I love you more than I can prove."
Blindly, with unreckoning pulse, she bent and met his upturned lips with her own. Quickly, with a gasp, she broke away to stare a moment, as if some realization had stricken her, then she fled into the house.
* * *
Ash Preston did not return to Sunset Pass for a week. Rumour drifted down by a rider that Preston was hunting for the Mexican who had beaten him at the dance.
It was an anxious and brooding time for Trueman. Rock, more, perhaps, because of Thiry's unconcealed dread than for his own sake. Nevertheless, he never drew an easy breath until Ash returned, sober yet showing the effects of a prolonged debauch.
One moment Rock stood on the porch, his hand quivering, while Ash strode over from his cabin. Sullen, his face black and blue, still swollen, he presented no encouraging aspect. But manifestly that moment proved he did not know or suspect Rock had been his assailant. Then the suspense of this meeting for Rock ended when Thiry almost fainted in Ash's arms.
"Aw, Thiry, I'm sorry," rasped out Ash.
Rock did not tarry with the family after supper that night. He carried away with him a look from Thiry's eyes--the first since that unforgettable last moment on Winter's porch--and it drove him to pace under the pines to cast exultant defiance up at the silent, passionless white stars.
He paced a beat from the open back to the gloom of the thick-spreading trees. Against the black shadow of the slope his figure could not be seen. But his own sharp eye caught a dark form crossing in front of a cabin light. He heard a voice low but clear--Gage Preston's. "Ash, come hyar."
Suddenly he made them out, perilously close upon him. Silently he sank behind a log.
"What do you want?" growled Ash.
"Sit there," ordered Preston.
Rock felt the jar of the log where evidently Preston had pushed Ash. Noiselessly craning his neck, Rock saw the dim figure of the father bending over. Then Rock espied Ash sitting not ten feet from where he lay.
"What the hell's got into you?" demanded Ash.
"What the hell's got into you--thet you hang on in town, lookin' for trouble, makin' more fer me?" countered the father sternly. "I needed you hyar. There's work no one else can do."
"But, Pa, I wanted to kill thet Senor del Toro," protested Ash.
"Bah! Senor del Toro? Why, you lunkhead, thet make-believe Spaniard was Truman Rock!"
"Hell, no!" snapped Ash, hotly. "I had thet hunch. Next mornin' I went to Thiry. I told her thet black-masked pardner of hers was Rock an' I was a-goin' to kill him. She fell on her knees. An' she wrapper her arms around me. An' she swore to God it wasn't Rock. Pa, I had to believe her. Thiry never lied in her life."
"Mebbe I'm wrong," choked Preston. "But whoever he was he gave you plumb what I'd have given you. You disgraced Thiry. You shamed her. You hurt her so she's been ill. She--who's loved you all her life."
"Shet up, Pa," wailed Ash, writhing. "I can stand anythin' but thet."
"Wal, you shore have a queer streak in you. Yellow clear through when it comes to Thiry. But fer her you'd be a man. An' we could go on with our work that's callin' for all a man's brains. You can't be relied upon, as you used to be. Now listen, somethin's up out there on the range. I've done some scoutin' around lately. Too many riders snoopin' around Sunset Pass! To-day I seen some of Hesbitt's outfit. An' Slagle asked me sarcastic like why Clink Peeples was over hyar so much. Ash, there's a nigger in the wood-pile. I shore don't like the smell."
"Clink Peeples had better keep away from the Pass."
"There you go again. What good will it do to throw a gun on Peeples? If they're suspicious, thet'd only make them worse. What'd you do with them last Half Moon hides?"
"I hid them."
"Where? Didn't you take them to Tutestone Cave, as I ordered you?"
"I packled some there. It was too far, an' I was tuckered out. I hid the rest under the culvert."
"But I told you not to hide any more there. I always was scared of thet culvert. Once a big rain washed some out. It could happen again."
"Wal, it ain't too late. I'll take Boots tomorrow night, an well pack the fresh ones over to Limestone."
"No. The ground's soft since it rained. You'd leave tracks. An' thet's too risky. Better leave them. An' we'll lay off butcherin' fer a spell."
"Lay off nothin'. With all them orders fer beef? I guess not. Pa, there's room fer a thousand hides down in the old well."
"Ash, I tell you we'll lay off killin' till this suspicion dies down."
"Wal, I won't lay off, an' I reckon I can boss the boys," replied Ash.
Then Preston cursed him, cursed him with every hard word known to the range, and some besides.
"This hyar rider, Rock," spoke up Ash, as if he had never heard the storm of profanity, "when yon goin' to fire him?"
"Rock? Not at all."
"Wal, then, I will. He's been around too long, watchin' Thiry, an' mebbe us, too."
"Ash, haven't you sense enough to see thet Rock's bein' hyar is good fer us?" asked Preston, girding himself afresh. "Never was a rider hyar so trusted as Rock. Thet diverts suspicion from us."
"But he might find us out."
"It ain't likely. Shore he doesn't want to."
"He might stumble on to it by accident. Or get around Thiry an' scare it out of her."
"Wal, if he did, thet wouldn't be so bad. He loves her well enough to come in with us."
"An' if she did win him over, what would he want?" hissed Ash.
"Huh! Reckon thet's easy to answer. An' I'm tellin' you, Ash, Thiry would like Rock if she had half a chance."
A knife plunged into Ash's vitals could scarcely have made him bend double and rock to and fro, like that thrust of Preston's.
"She'd like him, huh? So thet's why she made me promise not to pick a fight with him--"
"Wal, Ash, if circumstances come up we can't help or beat, what'n hell can we do? I told you ages ago thet Thiry is bound some day to love some lucky rider. It can't be helped. An' it might be Rock. Which'd be most infernal lucky fer us."
"Lucky fer him! Haw! Haw!--I'd shoot his heart out."
Preston rose to loom menacingly over his son. "You can't murder him in his sleep or shoot him in the back. Thet'd look bad in Wagontongue. It'd just about ruin us. An' if you call him out to an even break--why, Ash, he'll kill you! Savvy? Rock is cold as ice, as quick as lightnin'. He has a hawk eye. I'm warnin' you, Ash."
Preston came out while Rock was eating and said, "Rock, I've a job for you, that'll take you away some time. The boys are gettin' a pack outfit ready. I want five hundred head of two-year-old steers in the flat down there by Slagle's ranch. By August."
"You're the boss, Preston. But are you sure you won't need me more right here?"
Preston lowered his voice. "It ain't what I'd like or need. I had no idee last night thet I'd send you off this mornin'. But it popped into my head."
"Ahuh! Who popped it?"
"Thiry. She asked me to. Ash is wuss than ever before. An' fer once Thiry seemed to be' thinkin' of somebody else but him."
Rock repaired to his cabin and rolled his bed and packed the things he would need. He wavered between two strong desires--to see Thiry before he left and write to her. The better course would be to write. Therefore, with pencil and paper he sat down at his little table and began, with hand that he could not keep steady and heart which accelerated a beat for every word.
Your Dad has ordered me away for several weeks, maybe more. I am glad to go, though not to see your sweet face for so long will be terrible. But I shall work like a beaver, and content myself with thinking of you by day and dreaming of you by night--with praying for your happiness and welfare.
Don't worry, Thiry dear, about Ash, or me, or whatever it is that is wrong. You can't help it, it will not turn out so bad as you think. I believe that if you were to fall into some really dreadful trouble I could save you. Of course by trouble, I mean something concerning Ash. I must not deceive you, dearest, your brother is the kind of range man that comes to a bad end. You must face this with courage. You must realize that he might involve your father, you, and all of your people in something through which you could suffer.
It is no use to try to change Ash. You waste your strength. I think you can only pray and hope for the best.
I shall think of you every sunset, and see you come out to watch the pass.
Returning to the Preston cabin, Rock looked for Alice to deliver his note, but as she was not there he ventured of his own accord. Slipping it under the door of Thiry's cabin, he beat a rather precipitate retreat.
In half an hour he sat astride Egypt, bound down the Pass. This trip would be a welcome respite, and from every angle favourable for him. Two hours later he was climbing the benches into the black timber, and late that afternoon he halted with the boys in a sylvan spot to make a permanent camp.
"Boys, your dad has stuck us with a job he thinks we can't do," observed Rock at the campfire. "Five hundred head of two-year-olds by August."
"Can't be did," replied Tom.
"Let's fool him once," added Al, with spirit. "There's another dance in town along early in August. An' if you all want a hunch--there's somebody who says I gotta be on hand."
"That's the talk, Al," said Rock. "If we can find a canyon or draw somewhere close we'll drive what we round up each day, and fence them in."
Before they went to bed Rock had imbued the brothers with something of his own will to do or die. Next morning they were up in the dark and on the drive when the first tinges of rose coloured the rims of the Pass.
One night Al got in latest of all, weary and sullen. Rock knew something untoward had happened.
"What did you run up on today, cowboy?" queried Rock, at length.
"I was up under the Notch," replied Al, "an' first thing I seen a couple of riders high up, watchin' me. Reckon they never lost sight of me all day."
Three days later, miles east of the Notch, Rock's alert eye caught sight of riders above him on a slope, keeping behind the trees, and no doubt spying upon him with a glass.
Then, a couple of days before the full 500 head had been herded into the canyon-corral, the thing Rock expected came to pass. Early in the morning a group of riders, five in number, rode down upon the camp.
"Boys, reckon I don't like this," said Rock gruffly. "But you take it natural-like, and I'll do the talkin'."
As the riders entered camp Rock rose to to greet the visitors. They were seasoned range-riders, a hard-looking quintet, not one of whom Rock had ever seen.
"Howdy! just in time for grub," he said heartily.
"Much obliged, but we had ourn," replied the leader, a bronzed, rugged cowman with bright bold eyes that roved everywhere. "Gage Preston outfit?"
"Part of it," replied Rock.
"Round-up or drivin' a herd?" went on the interlocutor.
"We're drivin' 500 head of two-years-olds down the Pass. Reckon another day or so will make the full Count."
"Big job for so few punchers. Where you got the herd bunched?"
"We fenced a canyon across the creek," returned Rock, pointing eastward.
"Don't know the lay of the land," went on the leader. "Haven't rid long on this range."
"Shore you didn't have to tell me that," replied Rock bluntly. "You're from Wyomin', an ridin' for Nesbitt."
"How'd you know thee?"
"Reckon nobody else would brace me this way."
"You? Which one of the Prestons might you be? I've seen Ash Preston, an' you're shore not him."
"I might be any one of the other six Prestons," rejoined Rock with dry sarcasm. "Hadn't you better hand over your callin' card before askin' me to introduce thyself?"
"I'm Jim Dunne, foreman for Hesbitt," replied the rider.
"All right. How do, Mr. Dunne? A blind cowboy could see your call isn't friendly. Now what do you want?"
"Wal, we've come over to have a look at your herd."
"Ahuh!" Rock strode halfway across the camp space to confront Dunne. "Just to see if by accident we didn't round up a couple of Half Moon steers? Dunne, you bet your life you're goin' to look over our herd. Then I'll call you plumb straight."
One of Dunne's men whispered to him, with visible effect.
"Say, are you this fellar Rock?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes, I'm Rock. Reckon that doesn't mean apythin' to you. But maybe it will later."
"Wal, I can't see as there's any reason to be riled," returned Dunne, evidently now' wanting to conciliate Rock.
"That's because you don't know the range," said Rock curtly and then turned to the Preston brothers. "Boys, we'll drive the steers out of the canyon for inspection. We'll head them down into the Pass. Then we'll pack and go on in."
Rock relentlessly held the Half Moon outfit on both sides of the corral gate while the cowboys drove the steers out. It was Rock's task to head them down toward the Pass, which was easy after the leaders got started.
Dunne made several weak attempts to call off the inspection but Rock rigorously held him and his men to a count of every steer that passed the gateway. It was a long tedious job.
"Dunne, between you all you've seen every head of stork we've driven," said Rock, when he has dismounted to face the men. "You didn't see one Half Moon, brand did you?"
"Can't say I did."
"And you punchers? Did you?"
"No, Rock, we didn't," replied the one who had whispered to Dunne. "An' if we'd had our way this deal wouldn't hev come off."
"All right. Dunne, go for your gun!" commanded Rock.
"What!" ejaculated Dunne hoarsely, his face turning yellow.
"Can't you hear? 'Any man who thinks me a rustler, has got to back it with his gun."
"Rock, I--I--we--throwin' guns wasn't in my orders."
"Dunne, you don't fit on this range," replied Rock, in bitter scorn. "Keep out of my way hereafter." Then he turned to the other riders. "Reckon you're not willin' parties to this raw deal Dunne gave me. Any self-respectin' cowboy, if he calls another a rustler, knows it's true and is ready to fight. Tell Hesbitt exactly what happened here. Tell him rotten gossip on the range isn't proof of an outfit's guilt."
"All right, Rock, we'll shore give Hesbitt the straight of this."
The four mounted men rode away, and Dunne made haste to get astride and follow.
On the third day following, Rock and his cowboys left the herd of steers in the meadowland below Slagle's ranch, and rode on home, a weary and silent four.
Rock asked the brothers to keep their mouths shut about the advent of the Half Moon outfit, but strict observance of their promises was not likely. Indeed, by the time he had shaved and changed his clothes, there came a thump on his cabin door.
Rock slid back the bar, whereupon Preston stamped in, with Ash close behind him.
"Howdy, boss!" said Rock cheerfully, and nodded to Ash.
"Al busted in with a wild story," broke out Preston. "Said Hesbitt's outfit spied on you, then rode into your camp. Five of them. Feller named Dunne in charge. He was mean as a skunk an' said he'd look your herd over. But when you called him an' he found out who you was he tried to hedge. Al says you made him inspect every steer you had--an' after that dared him to throw a gun. Al was terrible excited. Darn fool blurted thet all out in front of the folks. Rock, was he just loco, or he is exaggeratin' a little run-in you had with one of Hesbitt's outfits?"
"Boss, Al told the truth, and put it mild at that," replied Rock, and turned to tie his scarf before the mirror. In the glass he saw Preston's eyes roll and fix with terrible accusation upon his son. "Sit down, both of you," went on Rock.
Ash was coolly rolling a cigarette, his face a mask. Preston had been drinking of late, but appeared sober, and now, though grim and angry, met Rock's glance steadily. "Wal, thet's short an' sweet," he said. "Rock, suppose you tell us everythin' thet come off."
Thus adjured, Rock began a minute narrative of the situation.
"Rock, suppose Dunne couldn't have been bluffed? What then?"
"I'd have bored him," answered Rock. "And I told Dunne to keep out of my way. If I meet him--"
"Wal, Rock," interposed Ash in a voice that made Rock's flesh creep, "I'll see to it I'll meet him first."
"Cowboy, I never expected you'd stand up fer me thet way," burst out Preston, genuinely moved. "It means more'n I can tell you, havin' my youngsters be with you then. I just can't thank you."
Preston paced the room, gazing down at the floor. "Reckon this hyar deal wouldn't be particular bad fer me if it wasn't fer our butcherin' bizness," he remarked, as if thoughtfully to himself.
Rock, however divined that was a calculating speech. "Yon hit it, Gage. There's' the rub. My hunch is you must quit the butcherin'," said Rock deliberately.
"I will by thunder!" replied, the rancher, wheeling to face his son.
Ash rose out of the cloud of smoke. At that moment, for Trueman Rock, nothing in the world could have been so desirable as to smash that face. Ash took no notice of his father's decision. He flipped his cigarette butt almost at Rock. "I'm butcherin' to-morrow, Mister Rock," he asserted.
"Butcher and be darned," retorted Rock, absolutely mimicking the other's tone.
"You're gettin' too thick out here," said Ash, backing to the door. "I told you once to clear out. This's the second time. There won't never be no third." He backed out the door, his blue eyes like fire under ice.
"Gage, that bullheaded son of yours will be the ruin of you," said Rock, turning to the rancher.
"Lord! don't I know it!" groaned Preston from under his huge hands.
Rock remained away from supper. He found in his pack enough to satisfy him. It was a trying hour as he watched from his window.
Presently Rock saw Preston, accompanied by Thiry, come out of his cabin and cross over to enter Ash's. Rock decided to go down through the grove and come up between Ash's cabin and Thiry's, and wait for her.
It must have been long after midnight when Rock heard a door close. He waited, straining eyes and ears. How pitch black it was at a little distance! Then out of the blackness a slender vague shape glided, like a spectre.
Rock let her get right upon him, so close he could have touched her, and his heart suddenly contracted violently. "Thiry! Thiry!" he whispered.
He heard her gasp. Like a statue she stood. "Thiry! Don't be frightened, I waited. It's Truman," he whispered.
"You!" she cried and seemed to loom on him out of the shadows. Her arms swept wide and that extraordinary action paralyzed Rock. The next instant they closed round his neck.
Scarcely had Thiry clasped him when she uttered a cry and released the convulsive hold. "Oh--I'm beside myself!" she whispered.
Taking her hand, Rock led her to the bench under the pine, where she sank almost in collapse, her head bowed.
"Thiry, why did you--do that?"
"I--I don't know. What must you think of me?"
"Reckon I think all that's wonderful and beautiful. But I think also I'm entitled to an explanation."
"Trueman how can I explain what I scarcely realize?" she said with pathos. "I've been hours with Dad and Ash. Oh, it was sickening. We begged--we prayed Ash to give up--plans he has. He was a fiend. But I kept trying till I was exhausted. As I came across to my cabin I was thinking of how you met that Half Moon outfit. How you resented suspicion against Dad. I was wondering how I should thank you--to-morrow. Then you rose right out the black ground. What a fright you gave me! And when you spoke I--I just--"
Rock's compassion overcame his more powerful emotions. He grasped her arm, and pulled her closer to him, and he held her. "You stay here. Reckon I might remind you that Ash is not the only bad hombre on the range."
To Judge from her shrinking, and the trembling of her arm, his speech both frightened and angered her. "Very well, if you detain me by force," Thiry said coldly. "Why were you waiting for me at this unheard-of hour?"
"I saw you go into Ash's cabin, and I thought I'd wait till you came out."
"Then you were spying on me, on us?"
"Reckon so, if you want to use hard words. But sure my strongest motive was just to see you, talk to you a minute."
"Well, since you've done that, please let me go."
"Thiry, you upset everythin' when you put your arms round my neck," he said. "I love you. Tell me what weighs so upon you. Tell me your secret."
"I--I have no secret."
"Don't you trust my love?"
"Oh, I would if I dared."
Rock had wrenched that truth from her. Therein lay her weakness, the vulnerable spot upon which he must remorselessly make his attack. He must play upon her weakness, force her to confession, betray his knowledge of her guilty sharing of Preston's secret.
"Thiry, you might dare anything on my love," he began.
"Oh no--no! If it were only myself!"
"Thiry, there are only two people in all the world--you and me."
"How silly, Trueman. You are selfish."
"Well, if it's selfish to love you, worship you, to want your burdens on my shoulders, to save you from trouble, disgrace--to make you happy--then indeed I am sure selfish."
Through her wrist, which he held, he felt at the word 'disgrace' a distinct shock. Hurriedly she rose.
"Do you speak of love and--disgrace in one breath?"
"Yes. And you understand," he replied sharply. "Thiry darling, I can forgive your falsehood to all except me."
It did not take much of a pull to get her into his arms, and in another moment he had her helpless, lifting her from the ground, her fate close under his.
"Thiry, don't you love me a very little?" he asked, deep tenderness thrilling in his voice.
"No! Oh, let me go!" she implored.
"Thiry, I love you so wonderfully. Ever since that minute you stepped in Winter's store, Didn't you like me then--or afterwards?"
"I suppose I did. But what's the use to talk of it? You're holding me in a--a most shameless manner. Let me go."
"Reckon I'll hold you this way a long time. Till you say you love me a little. I must make sure. Reckon first off kiss you a couple of thousand times and see if I can tell by that."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Wouldn't I, though? Sure I'm a reckless cowboy. Now watch. And he bent to kiss her hair again and again and again, and then her ear, and last het cheek that changed its coolness under his lips.
"There!" he whispered, and drew her head back, on his shoulder. "Sure they were only worshipful kisses--do you hate me for them?"
"I couldn't hate you. Please let me go--before it's too--"
"It is too late, Thiry, for both of us," he Whispered passionately, and he kissed her lips--and then again, with all the longing that consumed him.
"Now will you confess you love me--a little?" he asked huskily.
"O God help me--I do--I do!"
"More than a little? Thiry, I didn't expect much. Sure I don't deserve it--but tell me."
"Yes, more." And she twisted to hide her face, while her left arm slowly crept up his shoulder, and went half 'round his neck.
"Thiry, bless you! If this's not a one-sided affair, kiss me."
"No--no--if I give up--we're ruined," she whispered tragically.
"Sure we're ruined if you don't. So let's have the kisses anyhow."
"Truman, since I never can--marry you--I--I mustn't kiss you."
"Darling, one thing at a time. By and by well tackle the marryin' problem. I'd go loco if I thought you'd be my wife some day. But just now make this dream come true. I want your kisses, Thiry. I'll compromise. I'll be generous. Just one--but not like that fairy kiss you gave me on Winter's porch."
"Trueman, if give one--it means all," she said tremulously.
Lifting her head he turned her face to his.
"You are wrong to--to master me this way," she said, mournfully. "If you knew--you might not want it."
"Master nothin'! I am your slave. But kiss me. Settle it forever."
How slowly she lifted her pale face, with eyes like black stars! In the sweet fire of her lips Rock gained his heart's desire.
Then she lay in his arms, her face hidden, while he gazed out into the stormy night, across the black Pass to the dim flares along the battlements of the range.
"Now Trueman, explain what you meant by my--falsehood to all?" she asked presently.
"Are you quite prepared?" he returned gravely "Sure it's not easy to rush from joy to trouble."
She sat up, startled.
"Thiry, you are keepin' Ash's and your father's secret from all. They are cattle thieves. Beef thieves. So are your brothers Range, Scoot and Boots, along with them."
"O my God! You know!" she almost screamed, and slipped to her knees before him.
"Hush! Not so loud! You'll wake someone," he said sternly, placing a firm hand over her mouth. "Get up off your knees."
But she only leaned forward, clutching him, peering up into his face. "Trueman, how do--you know?"
"I suspected it when I first came. I found signs. Quicklime! That made me suspicious. Slagle's well is half full of hides. Sure those hides have not the Preston brand. Then over near where they butchered last I came on the same boot track that I'd seen down near the slaughterhouse. It led under a culvert. There I found hundreds of hides, tied up in burlap sacks. I opened one. That hide had a Half Moon brand! Down here at your barn I measured Ash's boot track. It was the same as that one I'd trailed. But for real proof, I heard your Dad and Ash talkin' together. They gave it all away."
"I knew--it would come. It will--kill me," she wailed brokenly. "Oh, to make love to me--while you were spying on my brother--my father!"
"Little girl, I told you to speak low. Reckon it does look pretty bad to you. But it's not so bad as it looks--so far as I'm concerned. But, Thiry, you're in this secret and you would be held guilty in some degree in court, if your part in it was found out. And let me tell you Ash would hold no secret. And there's the danger for you."
"Court! Danger? You mean they'll be arrested--and I will be dragged in with them?"
"Reckon that is liable to happen," he replied.
"You'd betray us!" Swift as a striking snake her hand darted out and snatched his gun. Leaning back, she extended it with both hands. "I'll kill you!"
"Thiry, if you believe I--could betray you or them--shoot!"
"You will not tell?" she flushed.
"Never. You sure got me wrong."
She gave vent to a suddering sound. The gun fell from her hands. She swayed. Then she sank forward, her face on his knees, and clinging to him she broke into low sobs, every one of which was like a knife thrust to Rock.
He let her have it out, and stroked her hair. She did not recover soon, though presently the sobs gave way to soft weeping. Then he held her closer, scarcely seeing her or the black pine-streaked gloom. He was seeing something blacker than the night, more sinister than the shadows. As a last resource, to save her and her father, he could kill Ash Preston. But for Ash, this blundering, thieving work could be halted in time to prevent discovery.
At this brooding juncture of Rock's meditations he became aware that Thiry was stirring. She rose from her knees while still clinging to him, and she sank beside him on the bench, to lean against him, face uplifted. "Can you forgive me?" she whispered. "I was out of my head. I should have known you would never betray us. Oh, Trueman, can anything be done to save us?"
"It must be done, Thiry. Sure I don't know what."
"I dare not breathe a word of this. They would kill you:"
"Never give Ash a hunch that I know. Don't tell your father anythin'. There's no great hurry. We've got time. I'll find some way."
"Oh. Trueman, you are my one hope. To think I've tried to drive you away! That I nearly shot you! How little I know myself. But I do know this--if you stop this selling of stolen beef--if you prevent it before they're arrested--I'll--I'll love you with h all my heart and soul."
"Darling, I will do it somehow."
"I'll go now," she said, rising and swaying unsteadily.
He lifted her in his arms and walked toward her cabin. At the door of the cabin he set her gently upon her feet.
"I'm glad now you came to Sunset Pass," she whispered.
* * *
Forty-eight hours later Rock rode into Wagontongue, the old-True Rock of earlier and wilder range days. Yet no day of his life had ever seen the passion, the will to invent and achieve, that one single moment now embodied.
When Rock dropped in to see Winter it was not with any definite purpose; but that night he and his old friend locked themselves in a room at the hotel.
"Sol, old-timer, I'm in deep," said Rock, and he opened his palms expressively. "Thiry loves me!"
"Shore," replied Winter, sagely wagging his head. "But you wouldn't take her an' leave the country?"
"Reckon I couldn't yet."
"Do you know anythin' thet makes Preston's guilt shore?"
"Yes, but I promised Thiry not to tell it."
"But you can go to Preston an tell him you know. Scare him to sense."
"Yes, I can. More--I know I can stop him. Sol, Gage Preston can't call his soul his own. I reckon Ash led him into this, and nothin' on earth or in heaven can stop Ash Preston."
"Nothin'?" echoed Winter. "Nothing but lead!"
"Ahuh! Wal, I never yet seen thet kind of a hombre miss meetin it. Leave him out. Now, Rock, I've an idee. If Dabb an' Lincoln know what I know, they will tell you. Thet obviates any broken promise on your part. An' they rule the Cattle Association. Hesbitt is only president. What Dabb an' Lincoln say is law. Now you go to them."
"But, Sol, what for?"
"Son, you are so deep in love thet you ain't practical. If you can get Dabb and Lincoln to sympathize with you an' Thiry, thet'll be sympathizin' with Preston. Ten years ago there was a case somethin' like this. Wal, his friends got him to make good what he'd stole, an' saved him from jail, if no worse. I've been raised with these ranchers, know them. If you've got the nerve an' the wit you can keep Preston from ruin an' Thiry from a broken heart."
Rock leaped up, inspired, suddenly on fire with the vision Winter's sagacity had conjured up. He hugged his startled friend. "Old-timer, I've sure got the nerve and you've supplied the wit."
Rock presented himself at Dabb's office the next morning.
"Hello. Rock! You sure look rocky," replied Dabb, in answer to his greeting. "Have a chair and a cigar. What's the trouble, Rock? Things goin' bad out there?"
"They've gone from bad to worse. John, I told you I was in love with Thiry. Well, that wasn't so bad. But now she's in love with me."
"Humph!" said Dabb, chewing at his cigar. "You goin' to stick out there? And go under with Preston?"
"Reckon I must--if he goes under."
"Naturally you have your hopes. Rock, some of us cattlemen know you haven't looked for anythin shady about Preston."
"How do you know?"
"Well, that question came up the other night at our Association meeting. Hesbitt gave you a hard rub. Over this Preston scandal. Tom Lincoln an' I an' one or two others took exception to Hesbitt. We claimed you not only weren't in with Preston on anythin' crooked, but you hadn't trailed around lookin for it. The reason, of course, was you were sweet on Thiry Preston."
"John, that was damned good of you," returned Rock warmly. "You an' Lincoln figured that if I had looked for shady work I'd have found it?"
"Sure. We knew that. No outfit could fool you. Now, tell me what's worryin' you, Rock?"
"Hesbitt's outfits are after Preston," replied Rock, and he gave Dabb a detailed account of Dunne's manoeuvre at the Notch camp, and what had come of it.
"Rock, that was a bold move an' a wise one. But suppose you meet this Dunne again, in more favourable circumstances for him, an' he shows fight?"
"I'd hate it, but I'll sure go through with my call. No cowman can insult me like that. He'll either crawl again, as he did then, or shoot."
"Rock, I'm darn glad you told me this. In the first place it vindicates Lincoln an' me in our stand for you. An' it will stump Hesbitt."
"Ahuh! Then this new rancher is dead set against Preston?"
"Is he? Well, I guess! An' he has his outfits r'arin'. Rock, the strange thing is, Hesbitt has been losin' a good deal of stock--most Half Moon brand--an' his men can't locate them. Hide nor hair! But other men have!"
"Dabb, what're you tellin' me?"
"Don't yell, cowboy," admonished Dabb. "Rock, now listen. You once rode for Jess Slagle. Preston ruined Slagle. An Slagle has hung around out there to get even. Reckon he's in a fair way to do it. For he has tracked the Prestons down. But he wants to get his money back, or some of it. Sure he knows if he threatens Preston with exposure he'll only get shot for his pains. So he came to me."
"Aw, this's awful!" groaned Rock. "Jess Slagle has tracked Preston down? What to, John?"
"Fresh Half Moon hides hidden close to where Preston last butchered. I called Tom Lincoln in to talk it over. We advised Slagle to keep mum an' wait."
"What was the idea in that?"
"Well, we're all ranchers, you know," replied Dabb meditatively. "In a little way, more or less, we ve all appropriated cattle not our own. Reckon we hate to make a move. The stolen cattle were not ours, you see. It'll mean a fight. An' we've passed the buck to Hesbitt."
"No, John; by heavens! you've passed it to me!" returned Rock.
"Now, Rock, you don't want to take this deal on your shoulders," protested Dabb.
"Would you? I put it up to you straight," demanded Rock eloquently. "Suppose you loved Thiry. Suppose she loved you, and you'd found out what a sweet girl she is--that if her father went to jail it'd break her heart--or kill her. Now what would you do?"
"Rock, I'm damned if I know," replied Dabb, red in the face.
"Dabb, here's what I'll do. I'll buy Slagle's silence. I've five thousand dollars in the bank. I'll stop Gage Preston's stealin' before it's too late. And if I have to, I'll call Ash Preston out!"
"No! No!" exclaimed Dabb violently. "Not that last, anyway. Rock, will you never settle down to peaceful ranchin'? You might be a credit to this range. Suppose you come to my house for dinner tonight. I'll have Tom Lincoln. We'll talk it over."
It was dusk when Rock walked out to the mansion that was John Dabb's home, and was admitted to a cheerful library and the presence of Dabb and Lincoln.
"Howdy, Rock!" was Dabb's greeting. "Tom, you remember True Rock, don't you?"
Lincoln was a little grey withered cattleman, bright of eye, lean of face. He looked like a Texas Ranger, and had been one in his day.
"I shore do," replied Lincoln, extending a hand. "Howdy, Rock!"
"Sit down, friends," said Dabb. "Now, Rock, I've talked your trouble over with Tom, an' here's his angle. I'm bound to say I think it a solution to a nasty problem. At that it hinges most on you. Go back to Preston an' tell him the truth. That he's found out by some cattlemen, an' he must quit his butcherin' stolen cattle before Hesbitt gets on to him.
"Tell him he's to come before the Cattle Association. We'll keep the deal out of Court an' Preston out of jail, provided he pays Slagle off, an' squares Nesbitt for the stock he has lost. Then Preston an' his four sons, especially this Ash Preston, who's the ringleader, no doubt, must leave the country."
"Wonderful fair and fine of you gentlemen," returned Rock. "Reckon I couldn't find words to thank you. I won't try."
"Wal, Rock, it's about this heah way," put in Lincoln, with his slow Southern accent. "We don't want the range slandered by such a raw case. Who'd ever think the Prestons would stoop to that? Mrs. Preston is a nice woman and the girls are ladies. Shore they cain't be in on the secret. We'd like to keep Preston out of jail for their sake."
"All right, Rock. What do you say?" queried Dabb. "Will you settle it?"
"Yes, with one reservation," replied Rock grimly. "I can manage Preston. But when Ash finds out, he'll fight. He can't be persuaded and he can't be frightened."
"Shore. An' your reservation is you'll have to kill him," interposed the imperturbable Texan, his bright eyes on Rock.
Rock did not make any reply.
"Darn tough on the girl. My wife says she loves this particular brother," added Dabb regretfully.
"Reckon it's tougher on Rock, but quien sabe? You shore cain't ever tell aboot a woman," rejoined Lincoln.
"Slagle, I want to talk Dutch to you," said Rock. "Dabb told me you'd come to him with proof of Preston's guilt."
"The devil he did!"
"Yes, and my business with you is to buy your silence."
Slagle listened intensely to Rocks story. "Say cowboy, air you makin' this offer on your own hook?" he queried.
"Sure. I told only Sol Winter, who had my money banked."
"What on earth fer? Rock, excuse me, but it looks darn queer."
"Jess, I'm not in on the Preston steal, and you sure know that. I'm tryin' to stall the thing off. Now I figure you as pretty sore, and I don't blame you. What'll you take to keep mum?"
"Rock, Lord knows I need money, but I ain't so low down I'd take a cowboy's savin's. What's your idee? You shore can't care thet much about Preston."
"Jess, I love Thiry Preston and I'm goin' to save her dad because of that."
"I savvy. Shore call it decent of you. Makes me want to act square with you. An' the fact is, Rock, I couldn't prove anythin' on Preston now. The Half Moon hides have been moved from where I found them."
"Well, no matter. My offer stands. What'll you take? Cash! Five thousand."
"Wal, I hate to take you up, Rock. Say I take half of what you got--twenty-five hundred. Preston will have to pay you. An' Rock, I'll pack an' rustle out of hyar pronto."
"That's fine. Here's your money, Jess. I'm askin' two promises. Keep Preston's secret, and don't get drunk before you leave."
"Reckon thet's easy. Rock, I'm much obliged to you. I've got another chance in life."
"I hope you'll be successful," returned Rock, stepping over to his horse and mounting.
Slagle followed him, and laid a red-haired hand on Rock's chaps. "Rock, I'd be willin' to bet all this hyar money, five to one, thet if you save Gage Preston, you'll hev to kill Ash."
Spurring Egypt sharply, Rock swore lustily at the vindictive homesteader and galloped away.
Though Rock put the white horse to a finish that concluded a wonderful day's travel, it was well after dark when they reached the Pass. Lights were burning in all the Preston cabins. At the barn Rock encountered one of the Mexican lads, and turned Egypt over to him. With that he stalked back through the grove. Peering into the kitchen door, he espied Mrs. Preston and Alice and Lucy at their evening chores.
"Howdy, folks! Is it too late for a bite and a cup of coffee? I've had nothin' since yesterday, Starved isn't the word!"
"Cowboy, it's never too late in this chuck-house," returned Mrs. Preston. "Come in and sit down."
Heavy boot thuds out on the porch attested to the approach of men.
"Who come in, Ma?" queried Preston outside.
"A poor starved cowpuncher," replied his wife.
"Dad, it's only Mr. Rock," added Alice quickly.
Outside someone violently slapped what sounded like a pair of gloves on the table.
"Pa, didn't I tell ye?" growled Ash Preston's unmistakable voice. "Thet hombre can't keep away from Thiry!"
Footfalls, sharp and quick, rang off the porch to thud on the ground. Then Preston's dragging steps approached. The doorway framed his burly form.
"Howdy, boss!" greeted Rock.
"Back so soon? Reckoned you'd stay out your leave," replied the rancher.
"I rustled back," said Rock meaningly.
"Reckon all I got is good."
"Ahuh. Wal, come in, soon as you want to," concluded Preston.
Soon afterwards Rock strode out to seek Preston.
"Rock, you didn't break any legs gettin' hyar with thet good news," growled Preston as Rock entered.
"Reckon you won't be r'arin' for me to hurry, after I start," replied Rock closing the door and facing the rancher. "Preston, not a whisper of what I say must be heard by anyone but you."
"Come close then, an' talk low." Whereupon Rock drew a chair up to Preston's, and eyeing him squarely, whispered, "Preston, the jig's up!"
"What you mean?" hoarsely rejoined the rancher.
"You're found out. Your butcherin' stolen cattle. Slagle found Half Moon hides under that culvert above his place. He told John Dabb. Dabb told Tom Lincoln. Then me."
"My Gawd!" Preston covered his face with nerveless hands.
Rock's first thrill came with the rancher's reception of this news. It augured well. But he let the revelation sink deep. He waited. At length Preston lifted his haggard countenance, "How can Slagle prove thet--on me?"
"He can't. The hides 've been moved."
"Ahuh. Wal, then, I'll deny everythin' and fight them."
"Gage, I can prove you guilty," whispered Rock.
"You can? How?"
"Ash's tracks. I trailed them. I measured them. I got his boot track here in the corral. I saw that same track leadin' down to the culvert and under it. I compared them, ripped open one of those burlap sacks. The Half Moon brand!"
The big hands opened wide. "Rock, you wouldn't ruin me?"
"An' you shore couldn't break Thiry's heart?"
"Do you need to ask?"
"Does anyone else have the proofs on me--like you?"
"No, not yet. But I'm not the only trailer on this range. Somebody will trail your sons, as I did Ash. If you don't stop them?"
"Does anybody else suspect--beside the four you named?"
"Hesbitt's outfits suspect. But they don't know. Reckon sooner or later they'll hit on somethin'. Old sign. It might not convict, but it'd ruin you just the same. And any fresh sign--Preston, you'll all go to jail!"
"Rock, are you comin' in with me--an' Ash--an' Thiry?" asked Preston.
"I'm in with you and Thiry now, not Ash. But clean and honest. Preston, I've laid my cards before Dabb and Lincoln. They know me. I couldn't be crooked now--not to save your life and Thiry's happiness."
"Ahuh! What's the deal?"
"Listen," whispered Rock bursting with his message. "I've shut Slagle's mouth. I've bought his silence. He's leavin' the range."
"Lord Almighty! How'd you do it. What'd you give him?"
"Twenty-five hundred dollars."
Preston whistled low. "Of all the fellars I ever seen, you--Rock, I'm goin' to square thet with you."
"Sure you are. You're goin to square it all. Listen. Come up town with me. Dabb will call a meetin' of the Cattle Association council. That means him, Lincoln, and Hesbitt. To keep this out of court you will agree to pay Hesbitt for his Half Moon stock. Dabb and Lincoln have promised me they'll handle Hesbitt. It will all be done in secret. Then you and your sons who were in this deal must leave the country. We all believe Ash roped you into this butcherin' stolen cattle."
"He shore did. He was killin' stolen steers long before I ever knew. Then it was too late to stop him. An' I drifted in myself. All so easy! An' now--Rock, I'd almost as lief croak as face thet council. They might let me off, but they'd tell. It'd leak out."
"Preston, you're not thinkin' clear. If you don't take this chance, for the sake of your womenfolk, you'll ruin them. And you'll be as bad as Ash. By heaven, Preston, I can't let you ruin Thiry!"
"Wal, I'll think your idee over good and hard, Rock. My not acceptin' it pronto doesn't mean I don't appreciate your wonderful offer an' all thet prompts you. I shore do. It may be the best way to save them. But the wife--Thiry, Allie, Lucy--they'd have to know, an' I'd almost shore rather die in my boots than tell them."
"Man, we don't have to tell. No one but Thiry will ever know."
"All right I'll think it over."
Meanwhile, I'll stop Ash if I have to hawg-tie him. An' you better take the boys an' go off in the woods somewhere. But no goin' in to town. Take then huntin'. It's most turkey season. An' let me know where you go."
Well as Trueman Rock knew that country, it was his fortune to be taken by the Preston boys to high hunting-grounds which he had never visited.
It was up in the mountains back of the Pass, about a day's climb on horseback, 8,000 feet above the low country. Up there early fall had set in and the foliage was one gorgeous array of colour. The camp lay in a mountain meadow, at the edge of a magnificent grove of quaking aspens. Behind on a gentler slope stood scattered silver spruces and yellow pines, growing larger as they climbed, until on the ridge above they massed in the deep timber line, which like a green-black belt circled the mountain under the grey, grisly, weathered and splintered peaks.
The days passed until Rock had no idea how long he had been absent from the Pass. Nearly a fortnight, he guessed. Then came Indian summer, that enchanting brief period of smoky, warm, still days, and floating amber and purple haze in the air.
Al Preston left to go down home for supplies. This threw Rock into a fever of uncertainty. What news would he fetch back? What message from Preston? Would Thiry write? The day was long, the night interminable, the second day unbearable. Rock wandered in the open forest across from camp, wanting always to be in sight of the trail that came up from below.
Then a grey-laden pack-horse emerged from the green wall across the meadow. Next came a dark horse holding a slight rider that could not be Al Preston. Who could it be? Another pack-horse cleft the dark green gap, where the trail emerged. And after it Al on his big bay. The foremost rider waved to the boys in camp. How they yelled! Rock watched with eyes starting. What was there strangely familiar about that rider? Yet he knew he had never seen him before. Rock never forgot a mounted rider. Suddenly he leaped up madly: Thiry!
He ran. He leaped the brook. He made the camp in bounds.
"Howdy, Trueman!" Her smile was strained, and she scarcely met his eager gaze. He had never seen her in rider garb. Could that make such difference? She wore a tan blouse, with blue scarf, fringed gauntlets, overalls, and high boots. She looked like a boy, until she dismounted. Rock had a wild desire to snatch her in his arms.
"Boys, throw my pack and unroll, my bed," she said. And while the boys obeyed with alacrity she led the stunned, Rock away from camp into the forest.
"Glad to see me?" she asked.
"Glad!" he echoed. "Thiry! I'm loco."
She still held his hand, that she had taken openly before her brothers. She halted beside a great fallen spruce with rugged seamed bark. "Lift me up," she said. And when he had complied she held him with strange hands, and looked in to his eyes as she had never before.
"Kiss me," this unknown Thiry said not shyly, nor yet boldly, but somehow unnaturally for her. When Rock obeyed, restraining himself in his bewilderment, she put her arms around him and her face against his neck.
"Bad news, Trueman dear," she said. "Ash made a killing of Half Moon steers and shipped the beef from Wagontongue."
Rock's frame jerked with the hot gush of blood through his veins, but he did not voice his anger and dismay.
"Dad wants you to come in with us--share our fortunes; our troubles--our sins--help us fight these enemy outfits. If we--"
"We?" he interrupted.
"Yes, we. Ash and Dad and I--and my brothers--and you."
"I! And what do I get for spillin' blood for thieves? Ah, that is Preston's game. He wants me to kill--to spread terror among those Wyomin' outfits. And my reward will be--"
"Me," she said.
"With Ash Preston's consent?" demanded Rock.
"Dad claims when you become one of us Ash will have to consent."
"Thiry Preston! You ask me to do this thing? You ask me to be a thief--a killer--to save your rotten brother, your weak and crooked father?"
Almost with brutal force, Rock shook her, as if to awaken her out of a torpor. "No! No, you poor driven girl!" he cried. "I would die for you, but I'll never let you ruin your soul by such dishonour. They have blinded you--preyed on your love. Your brother is mad. Your father desperate. They would sacrifice you. Ash would agree to this, meanin' to shoot me in the back. No, Thiry!"
"You--will not? she sobbed.
"Never. Not even to have you."
Suddenly then he had a wild weeping creature in his arms, whose beating hands and shaking body wrought havoc to the iron of his mood.
"Oh, thank God--you won't!" she wept, lifting streaming eyes. "I prayed you'd--refuse. I told, Dad you'd never, never do it. I told Ash he lied--he'd never let you have me. But they made me--they drove me--all night they nagged me--until I gave in. Trueman darling, say you forgive. I was weak. I loved him so--and I'm almost broken. But you lift me from the depths. I love you more--a thousand times. Let come what will I can face it now."
Hours later Rock kept vigil over a sleeping camp, where near him lay Thiry, in deep slumber, her fair sweet face, sad in repose, upturned to the watching stars. Beyond, her brothers were stretched in a row.
In the rose light of dawn, Rock and Thiry again wandered under the silver spruces, the golden aspens, the scarlet maples, back to that bit of primal forestland.
"Don't go back to the Pass," Thiry was pleading.
"I must. I'll go alone."
"But I'm afraid. If you meet him--Oh--you will! Trueman, don't go!" She wound her arms around his neck and clung to him with all her might.
"Take me away--far away across the mountains," she begged, her lips parting from his to implore mercy, and then seeking them again. "It's the only way. I am yours body and soul. I ask nothing more of life but that you spare him--and take me. We can cross the mountains. Then somewhere we two will live for each other. I will forget, him and all this horror. And you--will never--kill another man."
"Thiry girl, hush, you are breakin' me," he cried, spent with the might of agonized will that denied her kisses. "That would be the worst for us both. It would brand me with their guilt and drag you down. No. I shall go alone--make one last stand to save your father."
Rock rode the zigzag descending trail down to the Pass in four hours. There did not appear to be any untoward condition at the ranch. Preston had ridden off early that morning to a general round-up out on the range, at a place called Clay Hill, Ash Preston and his three brothers were off somewhere, probably also at the round-up, on their return from Wagontongue. No, they had not driven the beef wagons to town this time.
"Reckon I'll ride over to Clay Hill," muttered Rock.
Rock's keen eye snapped at the old-time scene. Dust and colour and action! Herds of cattle, fields of horses! Not until he rounded the southern corner of Clay Hill, where the trail ran, and came abruptly upon the first cabin, horses, wagons, men, did he grasp that something was amiss. What could check a general round-up in the middle of the afternoon? No cowboy's' on guard! No cutting or branding! No movement, except a gradual straggling of the herds! The men he saw were in groups, and their postures were not expressive of the lazy, lounging, careless leisure attendant upon meal hours or cessation of work.
Rock was off, throwing bridle, gloves, and in two swift jerks, he got out of his chaps. "What's up?" he demanded of the six or eight cowmen who backed away.
"Fight busted the round-up," replied a lean-jawed rider.
"Jimmy Dunne shot," replied an older man warily.
"Who did it?"
"Where is Dunne?'
"Layin' in the cabin thar."
Rock brushed the men aside, and forcing entrance to the cabin, he surveyed the interior. A line of dusty, sweaty cowboys fell back, to disclose a man lying on the floor, with another kneeling in attendance. Rock saw a face of deathly-pallor, clammy and leaden, and eyes black with pain. He stepped in and knelt, to take up Dunne's inert wrist and felt for his pulse.
At that the other man looked up quickly. It was Clink Peeples. "Howdy, Rock. I'm afeared Jim is--still I'm no good hand at judgin' bullet holes."
"Let me see."
The angry wound was situated high up on the left side, and it was bleeding freely, though not dangerously. Rock saw that Preston had missed the heart by several inches. The bullet had no doubt nicked the lung. But there was no sign of internal hemorrhage.
"Did the bullet come out?"
"It went clean through, clean as a whistle."
"Good!" exclaimed Rock. "Dunne, can you hear me?"
"Why, sure," replied Dunne, faintly. A bloody froth showed on his lips. "Rock, reckon Preston--beat you--to this job."
"Reckon I'd never have done it. Listen Dunne. This is a bad gun-shot, but not necessarily fatal. If you do what you're told you'll live."
"You--think so, Rock? I've got--a wife--an' kid.
"I know it," returned Rock forcefully. "Understand? I know."
"Rock, thet's shore--good news," panted Peeples, wiping his face. "Tell us what to do."
"Make a bed for him here," replied Rock, rising. "But don't move him till he's bandaged tight. Heat water boilin' hot. Put salt in it. Wash your hands clean. Get clean bandages, clean shirt if there's nothin' else. Fold a pad and wet it. Bind it tight. Then to town for a doctor."
"Thet's tellin' us," returned Peeples gratefully. "Frank, you heard. Rustle some boys now."
"Peeples, was it an even break?" inquired Rock coolly.
"Wal, I'm bound to admit it was. So we've nothin' on Preston thet way."
Dunne spoke up for himself in stronger voice: "Rock, I had the--proofs on him--much as I didn't--have on you."
"Ahuh! Don't talk any more, Dunne," replied Rock, and turned to Peeples. "Did he accuse Ash?"
"He shore did. Beaded him soon as he got here. I didn't see the fight. But thar's a dozen fellers who did. You talk to them."
"Where are the Prestons?" asked Rock, stalking out.
"Over at the third cabin," replied someone. "Ash is stalkin' to an' fro over thar like a hyena behind bars."
Rock elbowed his way out of the crowd. Soon his glance fell upon those he sought, and in him surged the instinct of the lion that hated the hyena.
Ash, espying Rock, halted in his tracks. The two brothers rose in single action, as if actuated by the same spring. Range stepped outside to join his brothers. Gage Preston did not see, nor look up, until Rock, hailed them. Then, with a spasmodic start he staggered erect.
"Rock, I'm done," rasped Gage Preston. "So double-crossin' you like I did means nothin' to me.'
"Preston, have you been in any of these last butcherin' deals?" queried Rock.
"No. An' so help me heaven, I couldn't stop Ash."
"Why did you send Thiry--perauadin' me to come in with you?"
"Thet was why. I wasn't beat then. I figgered I could fight it out an' I wanted you. So I drove Thiry to it. But now! You had it figgered, Rock. I'm sorry--sorry most fer Thiry, an' Ma, an' the girls. If I had it to do over again, I'd--"
"Do it now," interrupted Rook ringingly. "Come with me to Wagontongue. Come, Preston, be quick. There'll be hell poppin' here in a minute. Will you give up--go with me?"
"Rock by heaven! I will--if you--"
"Yell that to Ash!" hissed Rock.
Preston, with face purpling, shouted to his son, "Hey Ash! I'm goin' to town with Rock."
"What fer?" yelled Ash.
"Wal, just off, I'm gettin' a marriage licence for Thiry! Haw! Haw! Haw!"
"I say what fer?" yelled Ash.
"To pay your thievin' debts, you--"
"Preston, get to one side. Quick!" warned Rock, risking one long stride forward, when he froze in his tracks, his right side toward Ash, his quivering hand low.
Ash Preston spat one curse at his father--then saw him no more. Again he began a strange sidelong stalk, only now he sheered a little, out toward Rock, forward a few strides, then backward the same, never turning that slim left side away from Rock.
Rock learned something then he never had known--Ash Preston was left-handed. He approached no closer than 30 paces. Then he did not or could not keep still. "Howdy spy!" he called.
"Glad to meet you, beef rustler," returned Rock.
"Am givin' you my card pronto," called Ash, louder.
"Gave you mine at the dance. But I got six left! Caramba!"
That stopped the restless crouching steps, but not the singular activity of body. Ash's muscles seemed to ripple. He crouched yet a little more. Rock could catch gleams of blue fire under the wide black brim of Ash's hat. "Senor del Toro!"
"Yes. And here's thiry's mask--where she put it herself," flashed Rock, striking his breast. "See if you can hit it!"
At the last he had the wit to throw Ash off a cool and deadly balance--so precious to men who live by the gun. When Ash jerked to his fatal move Rock was the quicker. His shot cracked a fraction of a second before his adversary's. Both took effect. Ash almost turned a somersault.
Rock felt a shock, but no pain. He did not know where he was hit until his right leg gave way under him. He fell, but caught himself with his left hand, and went no farther than his knees, the right of which buckled under him.
Ash bounded up as he had gone down, with convulsive tremendous power, the left side of his head shot away. Blood poured down. As he swept up his gun Rock shot him through the middle. The bullet struck up dust beyond and whined away. But Ash, sustaining the shock, fired again, and knocked Rock flat. The bullet struck high on his left shoulder. He heard two more heavy booms of Ash's gun, felt the sting of gravel on his face. Half rising, braced on his left hand, Rock fired again. He heard the bullet strike. Ash's fifth shot spanged off Rock's extended gun, knocked it flying, beyond reach.
Preston was sagging. Bloody, mortally stricken, he had no will except to kill. He saw his enemy prostrate, weaponless. He got his gun up, but could not align it, and his last bullet struck far behind Rock, to whine away. He swayed, all instinctive action ceasing, and with his ruthless eyes on his fallen foe, changing, glazing over, setting blank, he fell.
The little doctor was cheerful that day. "You're like an Indian," he said, rubbing his hands in satisfaction. "Another week will see you up. Then pretty soon you can fork a hoss."
"How is your other patient'?" asked Rock.
"Dunne is out of danger, I'm glad to say."
Sol Winter came bustling in, with an armful of firewood. "Mornin', son! You shore look fitter to me. How about him, Doc? Can we throw off the restrictions on grub an' talk?"
"I reckon," replied the physician, taking up his hat and satchel. "Now, Rock, brighten up. You've been so gloomy. Good day."
"Trueman, there's news," said Winter. "Might as well, get it over, huh?"
"I reckon so," rejoined Rock.
"Gage Preston paid me the money you gave Slagle. Yesterday, before he left."
"Left?" echoed` Rock.
"Yep, he left on Number Ten for Colorado," replied Winter, evidently gratified over the news he had to impart. "Rock, it ail turned out better 'n' we dared hope. They tell me Hesbitt was stubborn as a mule, but Dabb an Lincoln together flattened him out soft. Wal with the steer market jumpin' to seventy-five, even Hesbitt couldn't stay sore long. They fixed it up out of court. Dabb an' Lincoln made it easy for Preston. They bought him out, ranch, stock, an' all. Cost Preston somethin' big to square up, but at thet he went away heeled. I seen him at the station."
"Did he go--alone? asked Rock.
"No. His three grown sons were with him. The rest of the Prestons are in town, but I haven't seen them. Funny Thiry doesn't run in to see me. I met Sam Whipple's wife. She saw Thiry an' Alice, who are stayin' at Farrell's. She said she couldn't see much sign of Thiry's takin' Ash's death very hard. Thet shore stumped me. But Thiry is game."
He went out, leaving Rock prey to rediscovered emotions. He had sacrificed his love to save Thiry's father and therefore her, from ignominy. The thing could not have been helped. It had from the very first, that day in the corral here at Wagontongue, been fixed, and as fateful as the beautiful passion Thiry had roused in him. He had no regret.
But with the accepted catastrophe faced now, there came pangs that dwarfed those of gunshot wounds. His heart would not break, because he had wonderful assurance of her love, of the sacrifice she had tried to make for him. She would go away with her family, and in some other State recover from this disaster, forget, and touch happiness, perhaps with some fortunate man who might win her regard. But she owed that to him. And he realized that he would find melancholy, cconsolation in the memory of the service he had rendered her.
"Son, lady to see you," announced Winter.
"Who?" asked Rock, with a start.
"No one but Amy."
"Tell her I'm sleepin' or--or somethin'," implored Rock.
"Like hob he will," replied a gay voice from behind the door. And Amy entered, pretty and stylish, just a little fearful and pale, despite her nerve.
"Trueman, are you all right?" she asked timidly. "Oh, Trueman, I've been in a horrible state ever since I came home."
"Well! I'm sorry, Amy. How so?"
"I hate to tell you, but I've got to," 'she replied. "For it was my last miserable, horrible trick! Trueman, the day I got back I met Ash Preston on the street. I told him you--you were Senor del Toro. You cannot imagine what I felt when they fetched you here--all shot up. Trueman, I don't want to abase myself utterly in your sight, but--well I am a chastened woman. It opened my eyes. I told my husband, and since then we've grown closer than we ever were."
"Then Amy, I forgive you." Quick as a bird she pecked at his cheek, to lift a flushing, radiant face. "There! The first sisterly one I ever gave you. Trueman, I am the bearer of good news. You are a big man now: Yes, sir, in spite of--or perhaps because of--that awful gun of yours. But your honesty has gone farther with John and Tom Lincoln. I have the pleasure of telling you that you've been chosen to run the Sunset Pass Ranch for them. On shares."
"Never, Amy, never!" cried Rock, shivering. "I shall leave Wagontongue again--soon as I can walk."
"Not if we know it," she retorted as she rose. "You've got more friends than you think. Now I'll go. I've excited you enough to day. But I'll come again soon. Goodbye."
Amy had hardly gone when a squeak of the door and a deep expulsion of breath from someone entering aroused Rock.
"Thiry!--how good--of you!"
Haltingly she approached. "Trueman, are you--all right?" she asked, apparently awed at the helpless length of him there on the bed. She sat down beside him.
"Reckon I'm 'most all right--now," he replied.
"Mr. Winter told me everything," she went on, "but seeing you is so strange. Can you move?"
"Sure. All but my left leg."
"Was that broken?"
"No, I'm glad to tell you."
"And the other hurt--was that here?" she asked, pale, almost reverent, as she laid a soft hand high upon his left shoulder.
Fascinated, she gently slipped her hand down. Then she felt the throbbing of his heart. "But, Trueman--it couldn't be there."
"You bet it is."
"The hurt you asked about."
"I was speaking of your latest wounds," she replied. Then she looked him squarely in the face. "I had to fight myself to come," she said. "There was a cold, dead, horrible something inside me--but it's leaving! Trueman, you're so white and thin. So helpless lying there! I--I want to nurse you. I should have come. Have you suffered?"
"A little--I reckon," he replied unsteadily. "But it's--gone now."
"Has Amy Dabb been here?"
"Yes. Today. She was very nice."
"Nice! Because she wheedled John Dabb to offer you the running of Sunset Pass Ranch?"
"Oh no--I mean, just kind," returned Rock uncertainly.
"Trueman, you will accept that offer?" she queried earnestly. "I don't care what Amy says. I know it was my father's advice to Dabb."
"Me ever go to--Sunset Pass--again? Never in this world."
"Trueman, you would not leave this country?" she asked in alarm.
"Soon as I can walk."
"But I do not want to leave Sunset Pass," she returned with spirit.
"I'm glad you don't, Thiry. Perhaps, somehow, it can be arranged for you. Someone of course will take the place. Is your mother leavin' soon?"
"She is terribly angry with Dad," replied Thiry seriously. "But I think some day she'll get over it and go back to him."
She edged a little closer, grave and sweet, and suddenly bent over to kiss his knee where the bandage made a lump, and then she moved up to lay her cheek over his heart, with a long low sigh. "Trueman, did you think I'd--hate you for killing Ash?" she whispered.
He could not speak.
"I thought I would. And it was a sickening, terrible blow. But before that same night was over knew I couldn't hate you. And I believe, even if I hadn't learned what changed it all, I would have forgiven you--some day.
"What changed, all?"
"What Dad told me."
"Ash was not my brother," she said in a smothered voice.
Rising, Thiry slipped to the floor on her knees, and leaned upon her elbows, clasping his hands, regarding him with remorseful tenderness. "My brother Range beat the others home that night, with the news of the fight. I had my terrible black hours. I knew we were ruined--that Ash in some way had brought it about. Perhaps my love for him turned then. But I want you to know that even then believing Ash my brother I'd have forgiven you in time. I know it. After the agony was spent I was learning how deathlessly I loved you. Sometime in the night, late, Dad came to me. He told me not to take it too hard--not to visit the sins of others upon your head. You had been driven to kill Ash. Someone had to do it, for the good of all, and no one but you could.
"Then came the story, torn from his most secret heart. Ash was not his son, but the illegitimate son of a girl he had loved long ago, who abandoned and dying, gave him her child. Dad said he was what his father had been. Next day I went to mother, and she corroborated dad's story. It seemed I was delivered from hellish bonds."
"Thiry, darlin'--there must be somethin' in prayer," cried Rock.
"I was to learn how you had bought Slagle's silence--how you persuaded Dabb and Lincoln to force Hesbitt to settle out of court--oh, how from the very beginning you had meant good by all of us! Yet I could not drag myself to you. It took time. I had such dreadful fear of seeing you lying in danger of death, bloody, pale with awful eyes that would have accused me. Oh, I suffered! But now I'm here--on my knees."
"Please get up," said Rock, lifting her to a seat beside him.
"Now will you accept Dabb's offer and take me back to Sunset Pass?" she asked.
"Yes, Thiry, if you will have it so," he replied. "If you love me that well."
She gave him passionate proof of that "Dear, Dad told me you were one of the marked men of the ranges. Our West is in the making. Such men as Ash--and those others you--"
Sol Winter came in. He beamed down upon them. "Son an' lass, I'm glad to see you holden' each other thet way--as if now you'd never let go. For I've grown old on the frontier, an' I've seen but little of the love you have for each other. We Westerners are a hard pioneering outfit. I see in you, an Allie, an' some more of our young friends, a leanin' more to finer, better things."