Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Ben Blair - The Story of a Plainsman
Author: Lillibridge, Will (William Otis), 1878-1909
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Ben Blair - The Story of a Plainsman" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration: Florence touched his arm. "Ben," she pleaded, "Ben,
forgive me. I've hurt you. I can't say I love you." Page 114.]

BEN BLAIR
THE STORY OF A PLAINSMAN

By WILL LILLIBRIDGE

Author of "Where the Trail Divides," etc.

A. L. BURT COMPANY, PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK

       *       *       *       *       *

COPYRIGHT BY
A. C. MCCLURG & CO.
A. D. 1905

Entered at Stationers' Hall, London

_All rights reserved_


Published October 21, 1905
Second Edition October 28, 1905
Third Edition November 29, 1905
Fourth Edition December 9, 1905
Fifth Edition December 14, 1905
Sixth Edition February 28, 1907

       *       *       *       *       *

_To My Wife_

       *       *       *       *       *

CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                     PAGE

    I. IN RUDE BORDER-LAND                     1
   II. DESOLATION                              9
  III. THE BOX R RANCH                        23
   IV. BEN'S NEW HOME                         37
    V. THE EXOTICS                            44
   VI. THE SOIL AND THE SEED                  53
  VII. THE SANITY OF THE WILD                 66
 VIII. THE GLITTER OF THE UNKNOWN             74
   IX. A RIFFLE OF PRAIRIE                    83
    X. THE DOMINANT ANIMAL                    94
   XI. LOVE'S AVOWAL                         106
  XII. A DEFERRED RECKONING                  117
 XIII. A SHOT IN THE DARK                    134
  XIV. THE INEXORABLE TRAIL                  148
   XV. IN THE GRIP OF THE LAW                164
  XVI. THE QUICK AND THE DEAD                185
 XVII. GLITTER AND TINSEL                    193
XVIII. PAINTER AND PICTURE                   204
  XIX. A VISITOR FROM THE PLAINS             217
   XX. CLUB CONFIDENCES                      230
  XXI. LOVE IN CONFLICT                      242
 XXII. TWO FRIENDS HAVE IT OUT               258
XXIII. THE BACK-FIRE                         270
 XXIV. THE UPPER AND THE NETHER MILLSTONES   287
  XXV. OF WHAT AVAIL?                        304
 XXVI. LOVE'S SURRENDER                      318

       *       *       *       *       *



BEN BLAIR

CHAPTER I

IN RUDE BORDER-LAND


Even in a community where unsavory reputations were the rule, Mick
Kennedy's saloon was of evil repute. In a land new and wild, his
establishment was the wildest, partook most of the unsubdued, unevolved
character of its surroundings. There, as irresistibly as gravitation
calls the falling apple, came from afar and near--mainly from afar--the
malcontent, the restless, the reckless, seeking--instinctively
gregarious--the crowd, the excitement of the green-covered table, the
temporary oblivion following the gulping of fiery red liquor.

Great splendid animals were the men who gathered there; hairy, powerful,
strong-voiced from combat with prairie wind and frontier distance;
devoid of a superfluous ounce of flesh, their trousers, uniformly baggy
at the knees, bearing mute testimony to the many hours spent in the
saddle; the bare unprotected skin of their hands and faces speaking
likewise of constant contact with sun and storm.

By the broad glow of daylight the place was anything but inviting. The
heavy bar, made of cottonwood, had no more elegance than the rude sod
shanty of the pioneer. The worn round cloth-topped tables, imported at
extravagant cost from the East, were covered with splashes of grease and
liquor; and the few fly-marked pictures on the walls were coarsely
suggestive. Scattered among them haphazard, in one instance through a
lithographic print, were round holes as large as a spike-head, through
which, by closely applying the eye, one could view the world without.
When the place was new, similar openings had been carefully refilled
with a whittled stick of wood, but the practice had been discontinued;
it was too much trouble, and also useless from the frequency with which
new holes were made. Besides, although accepted with unconcern by
_habitués_ of the place, they were a source of never-ending interest to
the "tenderfeet" who occasionally appeared from nowhere and disappeared
whence they had come.

But at night all was different. Encircling the room with gleaming points
of light were a multitude of blazing candles, home-made from tallow of
prairie cattle. The irradiance, almost as strong as daylight, but
radically different, softened all surrounding objects. The prairie dust,
penetrating with the wind, spread itself everywhere. The reflection from
cheap glassware, carefully polished, made it appear of costly make; the
sawdust of the floor seemed a downy covering; the crude heavy chairs, an
imitation of the artistic furniture of our fathers. Even the face of
bartender Mick, with its stiff unshaven red beard and its single
eye,--merciless as an electric headlight,--its broad flaming scar
leading down from the blank socket of its mate, became less repulsive
under the softened light.

With the coming of Fall frosts, the premonition of Winter, the
frequenters of the place gathered earlier, remained later, emptied more
of the showily labelled bottles behind the bar, and augmented when
possible their well-established reputation for recklessness. About the
soiled tables the fringe of bleared faces and keen hawk-like eyes was
more closely drawn. The dull rattle of poker-chips lasted longer,
frequently far into the night, and even after the tardy light of morning
had come to the rescue of the sputtering stumps in the candlesticks.

On such a morning, early in November, daylight broadened upon a
characteristic scene. Only one table was in use, and around it sat four
men. One by one the other players had cashed out and left the game. One
of them was snoring in a corner, his head resting upon the sawdust.
Another leaned heavily upon the bar, a half-drained glass before him.
Even the four at the table were not as upon the night before. The hands
which held the greasy cards and toyed with the stacks of chips were
steady, but the heads controlling them wavered uncertainly; and the hawk
eyes were bloodshot.

A man with a full beard, roughly trimmed into the travesty of a Vandyke,
was dealing. He tossed out the cards, carefully inclining their faces
downward, and returned the remainder of the pack softly to the table.

"Pass, damn it!" growled the man at the left.

"Pass," came from the next man.

"Pass," echoed the last of the quartette.

Five blue chips dropped in a row upon the cloth.

"I open it."

The dealer took up the pack lovingly.

"Cards?"

The man at the left, tall, gaunt, ill-kempt, flicked the pasteboards in
his hand to the floor and ground them beneath his heavy boots.

"Give me five."

The point of the Vandyke beard was aimed straight past the speaker.

"Cards?" repeated the dealer.

"Five! Can't you hear?"

The man braced against the bar looked around with interest. In the mask
of Mick Kennedy the single eye closed almost imperceptibly. Slowly the
face of the dealer turned.

"I can hear you pretty well when you cash into the game. You already owe
me forty blues, Blair."

The long figure stiffened, the face went pale.

"You--mean--you--" the tongue was very thick. "You cut me out?"

For a moment there was silence; then once more the beard pointed to the
player next beyond.

"Cards?" for the third time.

Five chips ranged in a row beside their predecessors.

"Three."

A hand, almost the hand of a gentleman, went instinctively to the gaunt
throat of the ignored gambler and jerked at the close flannel shirt;
then without a word the owner got unsteadily to his feet and followed
an irregular trail toward the interested spectator at the bar.

"Have a drink with me, pard," said the gambler, as he regarded the
immovable Mick. "Two whiskeys, there!"

Kennedy did not stir, and for five seconds Blair blinked his dulled eyes
in wordless surprise; then his fist came down upon the cottonwood board
with a mighty crash.

"Wake up there, Mick!" he roared. "I'm speaking to you! A couple of
'ryes' for the gentleman here and myself."

Another pause, momentary but effective.

"I heard you." The barkeeper spoke quietly but without the slightest
change of expression, even of the eye. "I heard you, but I'm not dealing
out drinks to deadbeats. Pay up, and I'll be glad to serve you."

Swift as thought Blair's hand went to his hip, and the rattle of
poker-chips sympathetically ceased. A second, and a big revolver was
trained fair at the dispenser of liquors.

"Curse you, Mick Kennedy!" muttered a choking voice, "when I order
drinks I want drinks. Dig up there, and be lively!"

The man by the speaker's side, surprised out of his intoxication, edged
away to a discreet distance; but even yet the Irishman made no move.
Only the single headlight shifted in its socket until it looked
unblinkingly into the blazing eyes of the gambler.

"Tom Blair," commanded an even voice, "Tom Blair, you white livered
bully, put up that gun!"

Slowly, very slowly, the speaker turned,--all but the terrible
Cyclopean eye,--and moved forward until his body leaned upon the bar,
his face protruding over it.

"Put up that gun, I tell you!" A smile almost fiendish broke over the
furrows of the rugged face. "You wouldn't dast shoot, unless perhaps it
was a woman, you coward!"

For a fraction of a minute there was silence, while over the visage of
the challenged there flashed, faded, recurred the expression we pay good
dollars to watch playing upon the features of an accomplished actor;
then the yellow streak beneath the bravado showed, and the menacing hand
dropped to the holster at the hip. Once again Kennedy, who seldom made a
mistake, had sized his man correctly.

"What do I owe you altogether, Mick?" asked a changed and subdued voice.
"Make it as easy as you can."

Kennedy relaxed into his lounging position.

"Thirty-five dollars. We'll call it thirty. You've been setting them up
to everybody here for a week on your face."

"Can't you give me just a little more credit, Mick?" An expression meant
to be a smile formed upon the haggard face. "Just for old time's sake?
You know I've always been a good customer of yours, Kennedy."

"Not a cent."

"But I've got to have liquor!" One hand, ill-kept, but long of fingers
and refined of shape, steadied the speaker. "I can't get along without
it!"

"Sell something, then, and pay up."

The man thought a moment and shook his head.

"I haven't anything to sell; you know that. It's the wrong time of the
year." He paused, and the travesty of a smile reappeared. "Next
Winter--"

"You've got a horse outside."

For an instant Blair's gaunt face darkened at the insult; he grew almost
dignified; but the drink curse had too strong a grip upon him and the
odor of whiskey was in the air.

"Yes, I've a good horse," he said slowly. "What'll you give for him?"

"Seventy dollars."

"He's a good horse, worth a hundred."

"I'm glad of that, but I'm not dealing in horses. I make the offer just
to oblige you. Besides, as you said, it's an off season."

"You won't give me more?"

"No."

Blair looked impotently about the room, but his former companions had
returned to their game. Filling in the silence, the dull clatter of
chips mingled with the drunken snores of the man on the floor.

"Very well, give me forty," he said at last.

"You accept, do you?"

"Yes."

"All right."

Blair waited a moment. "Aren't you going to give me what's coming?" he
asked.

Slowly the single eye fixed him as before.

"I didn't know you had anything coming."

"Why, you just said forty dollars!"

There was no relenting in Kennedy's face.

"You owe that gentleman over there at the table for forty blues. I'll
settle with him."

Instinctively, as before, Blair's thin hand went to his throat,
clutching at the coarse flannel. He saw he was beaten.

"Well, give me a drink, anyway!"

Silently Mick took a big flask from the shelf and set it with a decanter
upon the bar. Filling the glass, Blair drained it at a gulp, refilled
and drained it--and then again.

"A little drop to take along with me," he whined.

Kennedy selected a pint bottle, filled it from the big flask, and
silently proffered it over the board.

Blair took the extended favor, glanced once more about the room, and
stumbled toward the exit. Mick busied himself wiping the soiled bar with
a towel, if possible, even more filthy. At the threshold, his hand upon
the knob, Blair paused, stiffened, grew livid in the face.

"May Satan blister your scoundrel souls, all of you!" he cursed.

Not a man within sound of his voice gave sign that he had heard, as the
opened door returned to its casing with a crash.



CHAPTER II

DESOLATION


Ten miles out on the prairies,--not lands plane as a table, as they are
usually pictured, but rolling like the sea with waves of tremendous
amplitude--stood a rough shack, called by courtesy a house. Like many a
more pretentious domicile, it was of composite construction, although
consisting of but one room. At the base was the native prairie sod,
piled tier upon tier. Above this the superstructure, like the bar of
Mick Kennedy's resort, was of warping cottonwood. Built out from this
single room and forming a part of it was what the designer had called a
woodshed; but as no tree the size of a man's wrist was within ten miles,
or a railroad within fifty, the term was manifestly a misnomer. Wood in
any form it had never contained; instead, it was filled with that
providential fuel of the frontiersman, found superabundantly upon the
ranges,--buffalo chips.

From the main room there was another and much smaller opening into the
sod foundation, and below it,--a dog-kennel. Slightly apart from the
shack stood a twin structure even less assuming, its walls and roof
being wholly built of sod. It was likewise without partition, and was
used as a barn. Hard by was a corral covering perhaps two acres,
enclosed with a barbed-wire fence. These three excrescences upon the
face of nature comprised the "improvements" of the "Big B Ranch."

Within the house the furnishings accorded with their surroundings. Two
folding bunks, similar in conception to the upper berths of a Pullman
car, were built end to end against the wall; when they were raised to
give room, four supports dangled beneath like paralyzed arms. A
home-made table, suggesting those scattered about country picnic
grounds, a few cheap chairs, a row of chests and cupboards variously
remodelled from a common foundation of dry-goods boxes, and a stove,
ingeniously evolved out of the cylinder and head of a portable engine,
comprised the furniture.

The morning sunlight which dimmed the candles of Mick Kennedy's saloon
drifted through the single high-set window of the Big B Ranch-house,
revealing there a very different scene. From beneath the quilts in one
of the folding bunks appeared the faces of a woman and a little boy. At
the opening of the dog-kennel the head of a mottled yellow-and-white
mongrel dog projected into the room, the sensitive muzzle pointing
directly at the occupied bunk. The eyes of woman, child, and beast were
open and moved restlessly about.

"Mamma," and the small boy wriggled beneath the clothes, "Mamma, I'm
hungry."

The white face of the woman turned away, more pallid than before. An
unfamiliar observer would have been at a loss to guess the age of the
owner. In that haggard, non-committal countenance there was nothing to
indicate whether she was twenty-five or forty.

"It is early yet, son. Go to sleep."

The boy closed his eyes dutifully, and for perhaps five minutes there
was silence; then the blue orbs opened wider than before.

"Mamma, I can't go to sleep. I'm hungry!"

"Never mind, Benjamin. The horses, the rabbits, the birds,--all get
hungry sometimes." A hacking cough interrupted her words. "Snuggle close
up to me, little son, and keep warm."

"But, mamma, I want something to eat. Won't you get it for me?"

"I can't, son."

He waited a moment. "Won't you let me help myself, then, mamma?"

The eyes of the mother moistened.

"Mamma," the child repeated, gently shaking his mother's shoulder,
"won't you let me help myself?"

"There's nothing for you to eat, sonny, nothing at all."

The blue child-eyes widened; the serious little face puckered.

"Why ain't there anything to eat, mamma?"

"Because there isn't, bubby."

The reasoning was conclusive, and the child accepted it without further
parley; but soon another interrogation took form in his active brain.

"It's cold, mamma," he announced. "Aren't you going to build a fire?"

Again the mother coughed, and a flush of red appeared upon her cheeks.

"No," she answered with a sigh.

"Why not, mamma?"

There was not the slightest trace of irritation in the answering voice,
although it was clearly an effort to speak.

"I can't get up this morning, little one."

Mysteries were multiplying, but the small Benjamin was equal to the
occasion. With a spring he was out of bed, and in another moment was
stepping gingerly upon the cold bare floor.

"I'm going to build a fire for you, mamma," he announced.

The homely mongrel whined a welcome to the little lad's appearance, and
with his tail beat a friendly tattoo upon the kennel floor; but the
woman spoke no word. With impassive face she watched the shivering
little figure as it hurried into its clothes, and then, with celerity
born of experience, went about the making of a fire. Suddenly a hitherto
unthought-of possibility flashed into the boy's mind, and leaving his
work he came back to the bunk.

"Are you sick, mamma?" he asked.

Instantly the woman's face softened.

"Yes, laddie," she answered gently.

Carefully as a nurse, the small protector replaced the cover at his
mother's back, where his exit had left a gap; then returned to his work.

"You must have it warm here," he said.

Not until the fire in the old cylinder makeshift was burning merrily did
he return to his patient; then, standing straight before her, he looked
down with an air of childish dignity that would have been comical had it
been less pathetic.

"Are you very sick, mamma?" he said at last, hesitatingly.

"I am dying, little son." She spoke calmly and impersonally, without
even a quickening of the breath. The thin hand, lying on the tattered
cover, did not stir.

"Mamma!" the old-man face of the boy tightened, as, bending over the
bed, he pressed his warm cheek against hers, now growing cold and white.

At the mouth of the kennel two bright eyes were watching curiously.
Their owner wriggled the tip of his muzzle inquiringly, but the action
brought no response. Then the muzzle went into the air, and a whine,
long-drawn and insistent, broke the silence.

The boy rose. There was not a trace of moisture in his eyes, but the
uncannily aged face seemed older than before. He went over to a peg
where his clothes were hanging and took down the frayed garment that
answered as an overcoat. From the bunk there came another cough, quickly
muffled; but he did not turn. Cap followed coat, mittens cap; then,
suddenly remembering, he turned to the stove and scattered fresh chips
upon the glowing embers.

"Good-bye, mamma," said the boy.

The mother had been watching him, although she gave no sign. "Where are
you going, sonny?" she asked.

"To town, mamma. Someone ought to know you're sick."

There was a moment's pause, wherein the mongrel whined impatiently.

"Aren't you going to kiss me first, Benjamin?"

The little lad retraced his steps, until, bending over, his lips touched
those of his mother. As he did so, the hand which had lain upon the
coverlet shifted to his arm detainingly.

"How were you thinking of going, son?"

A look of surprise crept into the boy's blue eyes. A question like this,
with its obvious answer, was unusual from his matter-of-fact mother. He
glanced at her gravely.

"I'm going afoot, mamma."

"It's ten miles to town, Benjamin."

"But you and I walked it once together. Don't you remember?"

An expression the lad did not understand flashed over the white face of
Jennie Blair. Well she remembered that other occasion, one of many like
the present, when she and the little lad had gone in company to the
settlement of which Mick Kennedy's place was a part, in search of
someone whom after ten hours' delay they had succeeded in bringing
home,--the remnant and vestige of what was once a man.

"Yes, I know we did, Bennie."

The boy waited a moment longer, then straightened himself.

"I think I'd better be starting now."

But instead of loosening its hold, the hand upon the boy's shoulder
tightened. The eyes of the two met.

"You're not going, sonny. I'm glad you thought of it, but I can't let
you go."

Again there was silence for so long that the waiting dog, impatient of
the delay, whined in soft protest.

"Why not, mamma?"

"Because, Benjamin, it's too late now. Besides, there wouldn't be a
person there who would come out to help me."

The boy's look of perplexity returned.

"Not if they knew you were very sick, mamma?"

"Not if they knew I was dying, my son."

The boy took off hat, mittens, and coat, and returned them to their
places. Never in his short life had he questioned a statement of his
mother's, and such heresy did not occur to him now. Coming back to the
bunk, he laid his cheek caressingly beside hers.

"Is there anything I can do for you, mamma?" he whispered.

"Nothing but what you are doing now, laddie."

Tired of standing, the mongrel dropped within his tracks flat upon his
belly, and, his head resting upon his fore-paws, lay watching intently.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the door of Mick Kennedy's saloon closed with an emphasis that
shook the very walls, it shut out a being more ferocious, more evil,
than any beast of the jungle. For the time, Blair's alcohol-saturated
brain evolved but one chain of thought, was capable of but one
emotion--hate. Every object in the universe, from its Creator to
himself, fell under the ban. The language of hate is curses; and as he
moved out over the prairie there dripped from his lips continuously,
monotonously, a trickling, blighting stream of malediction. Swaying,
stumbling, unconscious of his physical motions, instinct kept him upon
the trail; a Providence, sometimes kindest to those least worthy,
preserved him from injury.

Half way out he met a solitary Indian astride a faded-looking mustang,
and the current of his wrath was temporarily diverted by a surly "How!"
Even this measure of friendliness was regretted when the big revolver
came out of the rancher's holster like a flash, and, head low on the
neck of the mustang, heels in the little beast's ribs, the aborigine
retreated with a yell, amid a shower of ill-aimed bullets. Long after
the figure on the pony had passed out of range, Blair stood pulling at
the trigger of the empty repeater and cursing louder than before because
it would not "pop."

Two hours later, when it was past noon, an uncertain hand lifted the
wooden latch of the Big B Ranch-house door, and, heralded by an inrush
of cold outside air, Tom Blair, master and dictator, entered his domain.
The passage of time, the physical exercise, and the prairie air, had
somewhat cleared his brain. Just within the room, he paused and looked
about him with surprise. With premonition of impending trouble, the
mongrel bristled the yellow hair of his neck, and, retreating to the
mouth of his kennel, stood guard; but otherwise the scene was to a
detail as it had been in the morning. The woman lay passive within the
bunk. The child by her side, holding her hand, did not turn. The very
atmosphere of the place tingled with an ominous quiet,--a silence such
as one who has lived through a cyclone connects instinctively with a
whirling oncoming black funnel.

The new-comer was first to make a move. Walking over to the centre of
the room, he stopped and looked upon his subjects.

"Well, of all the infernally lazy people I ever saw!" he commented, "you
beat them, Jennie! Get up and cook something to eat; it's way after
noon, and I'm hungry."

The woman said nothing, but the boy slid to his feet, facing the
intruder.

"Mamma's sick and can't get up," he explained as impersonally as to a
stranger. "Besides, there isn't anything to cook. She said so."

The man's brow contracted into a frown.

"Speak when you're spoken to, young upstart!" he snapped. "Out with you,
Jennie! I don't want to be monkeyed with to-day!"

He hung up his coat and cap, and loosened his belt a hole; but no one
else in the room moved.

"Didn't you hear me?" he asked, looking warningly toward the bunk.

"Yes," she replied.

Autocrat under his own roof, the man paused in surprise. Never before
had a command here been disobeyed. He could scarcely believe his own
senses.

"You know what to do, then," he said sharply.

For the first time a touch of color came into the woman's cheeks, and
catching the man's eyes she looked into them unfalteringly.

"Since when did I become your slave, Tom Blair?" she asked slowly.

The words were a challenge, the tone was that of some wild thing,
wounded, cornered, staring death in the face, but defiant to the end.
"Since when did you become my owner, body and soul?"

Any sportsman, any being with a fragment of admiration for even animal
courage, would have held aloof then. It remained for this man, bred amid
high civilization, who had spent years within college halls, to strike
the prostrate. As in the frontier saloon, so now his hand went
involuntarily to his throat, clutched at the binding collar until the
button flew; then, as before, his face went white.

"Since when!" he blazed, "since when! I admire your nerve to ask that
question of me! Since six years ago, when you first began living with
me. Since the day when you and the boy,--and not a preacher within a
hundred miles--" Words, a flood of words, were upon his lips; but
suddenly he stopped. Despite the alcohol still in his brain, despite the
effort he made to continue, the gaze of the woman compelled silence.

"You dare recall that memory, Tom Blair?" The words came more slowly
than before, and with an intensity that burned them into the hearer's
memory. "You dare, knowing what I gave up for your sake!" The eyes
blazed afresh, the dark head was raised on the pillows. "You know that
my son stands listening, and yet you dare throw my coming to you in my
face?"

White to the lips went the scarred visage of the man, but the madness
was upon him.

"I dare?" To his own ears the voice sounded unnatural. "I dare? To be
sure I dare! You came to me of your own free-will. You were not a
child!" His voice rose and the flush returned to his face. "You knew the
price and accepted it deliberately,--deliberately, I say!"

Without a sound, the figure in the rough bunk quivered and stiffened;
the hand upon the coverlet was clenched until the nails grew white, then
it relaxed. Slowly, very slowly, the eyelids closed as though in sleep.

Impassive but intent listener, an instinct now sent the boy Benjamin
back to his post.

"Mamma," he said gently. "Mamma!"

There was no answer, nor even a responsive pressure of the hand.

"Mamma!" he repeated more loudly. "Mamma! Mamma!"

Still no answer, only the limp passivity. Then suddenly, although never
before in his short life had the little lad looked upon death, he
recognized it now. His mamma, his playmate, his teacher, was like this;
she would not speak to him, would not answer him; she would never speak
to him or smile upon him again! Like a thunderclap came the realization
of this. Then another thought swiftly followed. This man,--one who had
said things that hurt her, that brought the red spots to her
cheeks,--this man was to blame. Not in the least did he understand the
meaning of what he had just heard. No human being had suggested to him
that Blair was the cause of his mother's death; but as surely as he
would remember their words as long as he lived, so surely did he
recognize the man's guilt. Suddenly, as powder responds to the spark,
there surged through his tiny body a terrible animal hate for this man,
and, scarcely realizing the action, he rushed at him.

"She's dead and you killed her!" he screamed. "Mamma's dead, dead!" and
the little doubled fists struck at the man's legs again and again.

Oblivious to the onslaught, Tom Blair strode over to the bunk.

"Jennie," he said, not unkindly, "Jennie, what's the matter?"

Again there was no response, and a shade of awe crept into the man's
voice.

"Jennie! Jennie! Answer me!" A hand fell upon the woman's shoulder and
shook it, first gently, then roughly. "Answer me, I say!"

With the motion, the head of the dead shifted upon the pillow and turned
toward the man, and involuntarily he loosened his grasp. He had not
eaten for twenty-four hours, and in sudden weakness he made his way to
one of the rough chairs, and sat down, his face buried in his hands.

Behind him the boy Benjamin, his sudden hot passion over, stood watching
intently,--his face almost uncanny in its lack of childishness.

For a time there was absolute silence, the hush of a death-chamber; then
of a sudden the boy was conscious that the man was looking at him in a
way he had never looked before. Deep down below our consciousness, far
beneath the veneer of civilization, there is an instinct, relic of the
vigilant savage days, that warns us of personal danger. By this instinct
the lad now interpreted the other's gaze, and knew that it meant ill for
him. For some reason which he could not understand, this man, this big
animal, was his mortal enemy; and, in the manner of smaller animals, he
began to consider an avenue of escape.

"Ben," spoke the man, "come here!"

Tom Blair was sober now, and wore a look of determination upon his face
that few had ever seen there before; but to his surprise the boy did not
respond. He waited a moment, and then said sharply:

"Ben, I'm speaking to you. Come here at once!"

For answer there was a tightening of the lad's blue eyes and an added
watchfulness in the incongruously long childish figure; but that was
all.

Another lagging minute passed, wherein the two regarded each other
steadily. The man's eyes dropped first.

"You little devil!" he muttered, and the passion began showing in his
voice. "I believe you knew what I was thinking all the time! Anyway,
you'll know now. You said awhile ago that I was to blame for your mother
being--as she is. You're liable to say that again." A horror greater
than sudden passion was in the deliberate explanation and in the slow
way he rose to his feet. "I'm going to fix you so you can't say it
again, you old-man imp!"

Then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of running away, the boy took a
step forward, and the man paused, scarcely believing his eyes. Another
step forward, and yet another, came the diminutive figure, until almost
within the aggressor's reach; then suddenly, quick as a cat, it veered,
dropped upon all fours to the floor, and head first, scrambling like a
rabbit, disappeared into the open mouth of the dog-kennel.

Too late the man saw the trick, and curses came to his lips,--curses fit
for a fiend, fit for the irresponsible being he was. He himself had
built that kennel. It extended in a curve eight feet into the solid sod
foundation, and to get at the spot where the boy now lay he would have
to tear down the house itself. The temper which had made the man what he
now was, a drunkard and fugitive in a frontier country, took possession
of him wholly, and with it came a madman's cunning; for at a sudden
thought he stopped, and the cursing tongue was silent. Five minutes
later he left the place, closing the door carefully behind him; but
before that time a red jet of flame, like the ravenous tongue of a
famished beast, was lapping at a hastily assembled pile of tinder-dry
furniture in one corner of the shanty.



CHAPTER III

THE BOX R RANCH


Mr. Rankin moved back from a well-discussed table, and, the room being
conveniently small, tilted his chair back against the wall. The
protesting creak of the ill-glued joints under the strain of his
ponderous figure was a signal for all the diners, and five other men
likewise drew away from around the board. Rankin extracted a match and a
stout jack-knife from the miscellaneous collection of useful articles in
his capacious pocket, carefully whittled the bit of wood to a point, and
picked his teeth deliberately. The five "hands," sun-browned, unshaven,
dissimilar in face as in dress, waited in expectation; but the
housekeeper, a shapeless, stolid-looking woman, wife of the foreman,
Graham, went methodically about the work of clearing the table. Rankin
watched her a moment indifferently; then without turning his head, his
eyes shifted in their narrow slits of sockets until they rested upon one
of the cowboys.

"What time was it you saw that smoke, Grannis?" he asked.

The man addressed paused in the operation of rolling a cigarette.

"'Bout an hour ago, I should say. I was just thinking of coming in to
dinner."

The lids met over Rankin's eyes, then the narrow slit opened.

"It was in the no'thwest you say, and seemed to be quite a way off?"

Grannis nodded.

"Yes; I couldn't make out any fire, only the smoke, and that didn't last
long. I thought at first maybe it was a prairie fire, and started to
see; but it was getting thinner before I'd gone a mile, so I turned
round and by the time I got back to the corral there wasn't nothing at
all to see."

Two of the other hands solemnly exchanged a wink.

"Think you must have eaten too many of Ma Graham's pancakes this
morning, and had a blur over your eyes," commented one, slyly. "Prairie
fires don't stop that sudden when the grass is like it is now."

The portly housewife paused in her work to cast a look of scorn upon the
speaker, but Grannis rushed into the breach.

"Don't you believe it. There was a fire all right. Somebody stopped it,
or it stopped itself, that's all."

Tilting his chair forward with an effort, Rankin got to his feet, and,
as usual, his action brought the discussion to an end. The woman
returned to her work; the men put on hats and coats preparatory to going
out of doors. Only the proprietor stood passive a moment absently
drawing down his vest over his portly figure.

"Graham," he said at last, "hitch the mustangs to the light wagon."

"All right."

"And, Graham--"

The man addressed paused.

"Throw in a couple of extra blankets."

"All right."

Out of doors the men took up the conversation where they had left off.

"You better begin to hope the old man finds something that's been afire
up there, Grannis," said the joker of the house. "If he don't, you've
cooked your goose proper."

Grannis was a new-comer, and looked his surprise.

"Why so?" he asked.

"You'll find out why," retorted the other. "Fire here's 'most as
uncommon as rain, and the boss don't like them smoky jokes."

"But I saw smoke, I tell you," reiterated Grannis, defensively; "smoke,
dead sure!"

"All right, if you're certain sure."

"Marcom knows what he's talking about, Grannis," said Graham. "He tried
to ginger things up a bit when he was new here, like you are; found a
litter of coyotes one September--thought they were timber wolves, I
guess, and braced up with his story to the old man." The speaker paused
with a reflective grin.

"Well, what happened?" asked Grannis.

"What happened? The boss sent me dusting about forty miles to get some
hounds. Nearly spoiled a good team to get back inside sixteen hours,
and--they found out Bill here in the next thirty minutes, that was all!"
Once more the story ended in a grin.

"What'd Rankin say?" asked Grannis, with interest.

"How about it, Bill?" suggested Graham.

The big cowboy looked a trifle foolish.

"Oh, he didn't say much; 'tain't his way. He just remarked, sort of
off-hand, that as far as I was concerned the next year had only about
four pay-months in it. That was all."

       *       *       *       *       *

Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing at once. This was the
motto of the master of the Box R Ranch. In ten minutes' time Rankin's
big shapeless figure, seated in the old buckboard, was moving northwest
at the steady jog-trot typical of prairie travel, and which as the hours
pass by annihilates distance surprisingly. Simply a fat, an abnormally
fat, man, the casual observer would have said. It remained for those who
came in actual contact with him to learn the force beneath the
forbidding exterior,--the relentless bull-dog energy that had made him
dictator of the great ranch, and kept subordinate the restless, roving,
dissolute men-of-fortune he employed,--the deliberate and impartial
judgment which had made his word as near law as it was possible for any
mandate to be among the motley inhabitants within a radius of fifty
miles. Had Rankin chosen he could have attained honor, position, power
in his native Eastern home. No barrier built of convention or of
conservatism could have withstood him. Society reserves her prizes
largely for the man of initiative; and, uncomely block as he was, Rankin
was of the true type. But for some reason, a reason known to none of his
associates, he had chosen to come to the West. Some consideration or
other had caused him to stop at his present abode, and had made him
apparently a fixture in the midst of this unconquered country.

There was no road in the direction Rankin was travelling,--only the
unbroken prairie sod, eaten close by the herds that grazed its every
foot. Even under the direct sunlight the air was sharp. The regular
breath of the mustangs shot out like puffs of steam from the exhaust of
an engine, and the moisture frosted about their flanks and nostrils. But
the big man on the seat did not notice temperature. He had produced a
pipe from the depths beneath the wagon seat, and tobacco from a jar
cunningly fitted into one corner of the box, both without moving from
his place, the seat being hinged and divided in the centre to facilitate
the operation. More a home to him than the ranch-house itself was that
battered buckboard. Here, on an average, he spent eight hours out of the
twenty-four, and that seat-box was a veritable storehouse of articles
used in his daily life. As the jog-trot measured off the miles he
replenished the pipe again and again, leaving behind him the odor of
strong tobacco.

Not until he was within a mile of the "Big B" property, and a rise in
the monotonous roll of the land brought him in range of vision, did
Rankin show that he felt more than ordinary interest in his expedition;
then, shading his eyes, he looked steadily ahead. The sod barn stood in
its usual place; the corral, with its posts set close together,
stretched by its side; but where the house had stood there could not be
distinguished even a mound. The hand on the reins tightened meaningly,
and in sympathy the mustangs moved ahead at a swifter pace, leaving
behind a trail of tobacco-smoke denser than before.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the little Benjamin Blair, fugitive, had literally taken to the
earth, it was with definite knowledge of the territory he was entering.
He had often explored its depths with childish curiosity, to the
distress of his mother and the disgust of the rightful owner, the
mongrel dog. Retreating to the farther end of the cave, the instinct of
self-preservation set hands and feet to work like the claws of a gopher,
filling with loose dirt the narrow passage through which he had entered.
Panting and perspiring with the effort, choked with the dust he raised,
all but suffocated, he dug until his strength gave out; then, curling up
in his narrow quarters, he lay listening. At first he heard nothing, not
even a sound from the dog; and he wondered at the fact. He could not
believe that Tom Blair would leave him in peace, and he breathlessly
awaited the first tap of an instrument against his retreat. A minute
passed, lengthened to five--to ten--and with the quick impatience of
childhood he started to learn the reason of the delay. His active little
body revolved in its nest. In the darkness a wiry arm scratched at the
recently erected barricade. A head with a tousled mass of hair poked its
way into the opening, crowded forward a foot--two feet, then stopped,
the whole body quivering. He had passed the curve, and of a sudden it
was as though he had opened the door of a furnace and gazed inside.
Instead of the familiar room, a great sheet of flame walled him in.
Instead of silence, a roar as of a hurricane was in his ears. Never in
his life had he seen a great fire, but instantly he understood.
Instantly the instinctive animal terror of fire gripped him; he
retreated to the very depths of the kennel, and burying his small head
in his arms lay still. But not even then, child though he was, did he
utter a cry. The endurance which had made Jennie Blair stare death
impassively in the face was part and parcel of his nature.

For the space of perhaps a minute Ben lay motionless. Louder than before
came to his ears the roar of the fire. Occasionally a hot tongue of
flame intruded mockingly into the mouth of his retreat. The confined air
about him grew close, narcotic. He expected to die, and with the
premonition of death an abnormal activity came to the child-brain.
Whatever knowledge he possessed of death was connected with his mother.
It was she who had given him his vague impression of another life. She
herself, as she lay silent and unresponsive, had been the first concrete
example of it. Inevitably thought of her came to him now,--practical,
material thought, crowding from his brain the blind terror that had been
its predecessor. Where was his mother now? He pictured again the furnace
into which he had gazed from the mouth of the kennel. Though perhaps she
would not feel it, she would be burned--burned to a crisp--destroyed
like the fuel he had tossed into the makeshift stove! Instinctively he
felt the sacrilege, and the desire to do something to prevent it.
Something--yes, but what? He was himself helpless; he must seek outside
aid--but where? Suddenly there occurred to the child-mind a suggestion
applicable to his difficulty, an adequate solution, for it involved
everything he had learned to trust in life. He remembered a Being more
powerful than man, more powerful than fire or cold,--a Being whom his
mother had called God. Believing in Him, it was necessary only to ask
for whatever one wished. For himself, even to save his life, he would
not call upon this Being; but for his mamma! In childish faith he folded
his hands and closed his eyes in the darkness.

"God," he prayed, "please put out this fire and save my mamma from
burning!"

The small hands loosened and the lips parted to hear the first
diminution in the growl of the flame. But it roared on.

"God!" The hands were clasped again, the voice vibrant with pleading.
"God, please put out the fire! Please put it out!"

Silence again within, but without only the steady roaring crackle. Could
it be possible the petition had not been heard? The childish hands met
more tightly than before. The small body fairly writhed.

"God! God!" he implored for the third time. "Listen to me, please! Save
my mamma, my mamma!"

For a moment the little figure lay still. Surely there would be an
answer now. His mamma had said there would be, and whatever his mamma
had told him had always come true. The air about him was so close he
could scarcely breathe; but he did not notice it. Reversing head and
feet, he started out of the kennel. It was certainly time to leave. The
roar he had heard must have been of the wind. Assuredly God had acted
before this. Head first, gasping, he moved on, reached the curve, and
looked out.

Indignation took possession of the little figure. The fingers clinched
until the nails bit deep into the soft palms. The whole body trembled in
impotent anger and outraged self-respect. Upon the face of the small man
was suddenly written the implacable defiance which one sees in carnivora
when wounded and cornered--intensified as an expression can only be
intensified upon a human face--as, almost unconsciously, he returned to
the hollow he had left, and fairly thrust his tousled head into the
kindly earth.

How long he remained there he did not know. The stifling atmosphere of
the place gradually overcame him. Anger, wonder, the multitude of
thoughts crowding his child-brain, slowly faded away; consciousness
lapsed, and he slept.

When he awoke it was with a start and a vague wonder as to his
whereabouts. Then memory returned, and he listened intently. Not a sound
could he distinguish save his own breathing, as he slowly made his way
to the mouth of the kennel. Before him was the opposite sod wall of the
house standing as high as his head; above that, the blue of the sky;
upon what had been the earthen floor, a strewing of ashes; over all,
calm, glorious, the slanting rays of the low afternoon sun. A moment the
boy lay gazing out; then he crawled to his feet, shaking off the dirt as
a dog does. One glance about, and the blue eyes halted. A moisture came
into them, gathered into drops, and then, breaking over the barrier of
the long lashes, tears flowed through the accumulated grime, down the
thin cheeks, leaving a clean pathway behind. That was all, for an
instant; then a look--terrible in a mature person and doubly so in a
child--came over the long face,--an expression partaking of both hate
and vengeance. It mirrored an emotion that in a nature such as that of
Benjamin Blair would never be forgotten. Some day, for some one, there
would be a moment of reckoning; for the child was looking at the
charred, unrecognizable corpse of his mother.

       *       *       *       *       *

A half-hour later, Rankin, steaming into the yard of the Big B Ranch,
came upon a scene that savored much of a play. It was so dramatic that
the big man paused in contemplation of it. He saw there the sod and
ashes of what had once been a home. The place must have burned like
tinder, for now, but a few hours from the time when Grannis had first
given the alarm, not an atom of smoke ascended. At one end of the
quadrangular space enclosed by the walls stood the makeshift stove,
discolored with the heat, as was the length of pipe by its side. Near by
was a heap of warped iron and tin cooking utensils. At one side, covered
by an old gunny-sack and a boy's tattered coat, was another object the
form of which the observer could not distinguish.

In the middle of the plat, standing a few inches below the surface, was
a small boy, and in his hands a very large spade. He wore a man's
discarded shirt, with sleeves rolled up at the wrist, and neck-band
pinned tight at one side. Obviously, he had been digging, for a small
pile of fresh dirt was heaped at his right. Now, however, he was
motionless, the blue eyes beneath the long lashes observing the
new-comer inquiringly. That was all, save that to the picture was added
the background of the unbroken silence of the prairie.

The man was the first to break the spell. He got out of the wagon
clumsily, walked around the wall, and entered the quadrangle by what had
been the door.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Digging," replied the boy, resuming his work.

"Digging what?"

The boy lifted out a double handful of dirt upon the big spade.

"A grave."

The man glanced about again.

"For some pet?"

The boy shook his head.

"No--sir," the latter word coming as an after-thought. His mother had
taught him that title of respect.

Rankin changed the line of interrogation.

"Where's Tom Blair, young man?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Your mother, then, where is she?"

"My mother is dead."

"Dead?"

The child's blue eyes did not falter.

"I am digging her grave, sir."

For a time Rankin did not speak or stir. Amid the stubbly beard the
great jaws closed, until it seemed the pipe-stem must be broken. His
eyes narrowed, as when, before starting, he had questioned the cowboy
Grannis; then of a sudden he rose and laid a detaining hand upon the
worker's shoulder. He understood at last.

"Stop a minute, son," he said. "I want to talk with you."

The lad looked up.

"How did it happen--the fire and your mother's death?"

No answer, only the same strangely scrutinizing look.

Rankin repeated the question a bit curtly.

Ben Blair calmly removed the man's hand from his shoulder and looked him
fairly in the eyes.

"Why do you wish to know, sir?" he asked.

The big man made no answer. Why did he wish to know? What answer could
he give? He paced back and forth across the narrow confines of the four
sod walls. Once he paused, gazing at the little lad questioningly, not
as one looks at a child but as man faces man; then, tramp, tramp, he
paced on again. At last, as suddenly as before, he halted, and glanced
sidewise at the uncompleted grave.

"You're quite sure you want to bury your mother here?" he asked.

The lad nodded silently.

"And alone?"

Again the nod.

"Yes, I heard her say once she wished it so."

Without comment, Rankin removed his coat and took the spade from the
boy's hand.

"I'll help you, then."

For a half-hour he worked steadily, descending lower and lower into the
dry earth; then, pausing, he wiped the perspiration from his face.

"Are you cold, son?" he asked directly.

"Not very, sir." But the lad's teeth were chattering.

"A bit, though?"

"Yes, sir," simply.

"All right, you'll find some blankets out in the wagon, Ben. You'd
better go out and get one and put it around you."

The boy started to obey. "Thank you, sir," he said.

Rankin returned to his work. In the west the sun dropped slowly beneath
the horizon, leaving a wonderful golden light behind. The waiting
horses, too well trained to move from their places, shifted uneasily
amid much creaking of harness. Within the grave the digger's head sunk
lower and lower, while the mound by the side grew higher and higher. The
cold increased. Across the prairie, a multitude of black specks
advanced, grew large, whizzed overhead, then retreated, their wings
cutting the keen air, and silence returned.

Darkness was falling when at last Rankin clambered out to the surface.

"Another blanket, Ben, please."

Without a glance beneath, he wrapped the object under the old gunny-sack
round and round with the rough wool winding-sheet, and, carrying it to
the edge of the grave, himself descended clumsily and placed it gently
at his feet. The pit was deep, and in getting out he slipped back twice;
but he said nothing. Outside, he paused a moment, looking at the boy
gravely.

"Anything you wish to say, Benjamin?"

The lad returned the gaze with equal gravity.

"I don't know of anything, sir."

The man paused a moment longer.

"Nor I, Ben," he said gently.

Again the spade resumed its work; and the impassive earth returned dully
to its former resting-place. Dusk came on, but Rankin did not look about
him until the mound was neatly rounded; then he turned to where he had
left the little boy so bravely erect. But the small figure was not
standing now; instead, it was prone on the ground amid the dust and
ashes.

"Ben!" said Rankin, gently. "Ben!"

No answer.

"Ben!" he repeated.

"Yes, sir."

For a moment a small thin face appeared above the dishevelled figure,
and a great sob shook the little frame. Then the head disappeared again.

"I can't help it, sir," wailed a muffled voice. "She was my mamma!"



CHAPTER IV

BEN'S NEW HOME


Supper was over at the Box R Ranch. From the tiny lean-to the muffled
rattle of heavy table-ware proclaimed the fact that Ma Graham was
putting things in readiness for breakfast. Beside the sheet-iron heater
in the front room, her husband, carefully swaddled in a big checked
apron with the strings tied in a bow under his left ear, was busily
engaged in dressing the half-dozen prairie chickens he had trapped that
day. As fast as he removed the feathers he thrust them into the stove,
and the pungent odor mingled with the suggestive tang of the bacon that
had been the foundation of the past supper, and with the odor of
cigarettes with which the other four men were permeating the place.

Graham critically held up to the light the bird upon which he had just
been operating, removed a few scattered feathers, and, with practised
hand, attacked its successor.

"If I were doing this job for myself," he commented, "I'd skin the
beasts. Life is too blamed short to waste it in pulling out feathers!"

Grannis, the new-comer from no one knew where, smiled.

"It would look to me that you were doing it," he remarked. "I'd like to
ask for information, who is if you ain't?"

The clatter of dishes suddenly ceased, and Graham's labor stopped in
sympathy.

"My boy," he asked in reply, "were you ever married?"

Beneath its coat of tan, Grannis's face flushed; but he did not answer.

A second passed; then the plucking of feathers was continued.

"I reckon you've never been, though," Graham went on, "else you'd never
ask that question."

During the remainder of the evening, Grannis sought no further
information; and to Ma Graham's narrow life a new interest was added.

Ordinarily the cowboys went to their bunks in an adjoining shed almost
directly after supper, but this evening, without giving a reason, they
lingered. The housekeeper finished her work, and, coming into the main
room, took a chair and sat down, her hands folded in her lap. The grouse
dressed, Graham ranged them in a row upon the lean-to table, removed the
apron, and lit his pipe in silence. The cowboys rolled fresh cigarettes
and puffed at them steadily, the four stumps close together glowing in
the dimness of the room. As everywhere upon the prairie, the quiet was
almost a thing to feel.

At last, when the silence had become oppressive, the foreman took the
pipe from his mouth and blew a short puff of smoke.

"Seems like the boss ought to've got back before this," he said with a
sidelong glance at his wife.

Ma Graham nodded corroboration.

"Yes; must have found something wrong, I guess." She refolded her
hands, and once more relapsed into silence.

It was the breaking of the ice, however.

"Where d'ye suppose the trouble could have been, Graham?" It was another
late-comer, Bud Buck, young and narrow of hips, who spoke.

"At Blair's," was the answer. "The Big B is the closest."

"Blair?" The questioner puffed at his cigarette thoughtfully. "Guess I
never heard of him."

"Must be a stranger in these parts, then," said Marcom. "Most everybody
knows Tom Blair." He paused to give an all-including glance. "At least
well enough to get a slice of his dough," he finished with a sarcastic
laugh.

"Does he handle the pasteboards?" asked Buck, with interest.

"Tries to," contemptuously.

The curiosity of the youthful Bud was now thoroughly aroused.

"What kind of a fellow is he, anyway?" he went on. "Does he go it alone
up at his ranch?"

At the last question Bill Marcom, discreetly silent, shifted his eyes in
the direction of the foreman, and, following them, Bud surprised a
covert glance between Graham and his wife. It was the latter who finally
answered.

"Not _exactly_."

Buck was not without intuition, and he shifted to safer ground.

"Got much of a herd, has he?"

Marcom rolled a fresh cigarette skilfully, and drew the string of the
tobacco pouch taut with his teeth.

"He did have, one time, but I don't believe he's got many left now.
There's been a bunch lost there every storm I can remember. He don't
keep any punchers to look after 'em, and he's never on hand himself. The
woman and the kid," with a peculiar glance at the stout housekeeper,
"saved 'em part of the time, but mostly they just drifted." The speaker
blew a great cloud of smoke, and the veins at his temples swelled. "It's
a shame, the way he neglects his stock and lets 'em starve and freeze!"

The blood coursed hot in the veins of Bud Buck.

"Why don't somebody step in?"

There was a meaning silence, broken at last by Graham.

"We would've--with a rope--if it hadn't been for the boss. He tried to
help the fellow; went over there lots of times himself--weather colder
than the devil, too, and with the wind and sleet so bad you couldn't see
the team ahead of you--until one time last Winter Blair came home full,
and caught him there." The narrative paused, and the black pipe puffed
reminiscently. "The boss never said much, but I guess they must have had
quite a session. Anyway, Rankin never went again, and from the way he
looked when he got back here, half froze, and the mustangs beat out, I
reckon Blair never knew how close he come to a necktie party that day."

Again silence fell, and remained unbroken until Graham suddenly sprang
to his feet, and with "That's him now! I could tell that old buckboard
if I was in my grave!" hurried on coat and hat and disappeared into the
night. A minute more and the door through which he had passed opened
slowly, and the figure of a small boy, wrapped like an Indian in a big
blanket, stepped timidly inside and stood blinking in the light.

In anticipation of a very different arrival the housekeeper had risen to
her feet, and now in surprise, arms akimbo, she stood looking curiously
at the stranger. In this land at this time the young of every other
animal native thereto was common, but a child, a white child, was a
novelty indeed. Many a cow-puncher, bachelor among bachelors, could
testify that it had been years since he had seen the like. But Ma Graham
was not a bachelor, and in her the maternal instinct, though repressed,
was strong. It was barely an instant before she was at the little lad's
side, unwinding the blanket with deft hands.

"Who be you, anyway, and where'd you come from?" she exclaimed.

The child observed her gravely.

"Benjamin Blair's my name. I came with the man."

The husk was off the lad ere this, and the woman was rubbing his small
hands vigorously.

"Cold, ain't you? Come right over to the fire!" herself leading the way.
"And hungry--I'll bet you're hungrier than a wolf!"

The lad nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

The woman straightened up and looked down at her charge.

"Of course you are. All little boys are hungry." She cast a challenging
glance around the group of interested spectators.

"Fix the fire, one of you, while I get something hot for the kid," she
said, and ambled toward the lean-to.

If the men thought to have their curiosity concerning the youngster
satisfied by word of mouth, however, they were doomed to be
disappointed; for when Rankin himself entered it was as though nothing
out of the ordinary had happened. He hung up his coat methodically, and,
with the boy by his side, partook of the hastily prepared meal
impassively, as was his wont. It could not have escaped him that the
small Benjamin ate and ate until it seemed marvellous that one stomach
could accommodate so much food; but he made no comment, and when at last
the boy succumbed to a final plateful, he tilted back against the wall
for his last smoke for the day. This was the usual signal of dismissal,
and the hands put on their hats and filed silently out.

Without more words the foreman and his wife prepared for the night. The
dishes were cleared away and piled in the lean-to. From either end of
the room bunks, broad as beds, were let down from the wall, and the
blankets that formed their linings were carefully smoothed out. Along
the pole extending across the middle of the room, another set was drawn,
dividing the room in two. Then the two disappeared with a simple
"Good-night."

Rankin and the boy sat alone looking at each other. From across the
blanket partition there came the muffled sound of movement, the impact
of Graham's heavy boots, as they dropped to the floor, and then
silence.

"Better go to bed, Ben," suggested Rankin, with a nod toward the bunk.

The boy at once went through the process of disrobing, and, crawling in
between the blankets, pulled them up about his chin. But the blue eyes
did not close. Instead, they rested steadily upon the man's face. Rankin
returned the look, and then the stubby pipe left his mouth.

"What is it, Ben?"

The boy hesitated. "Am I to--to stay with you?" he asked at last.

"Yes."

For an instant the questioner seemed satisfied; then the peculiar
inquiring look returned.

"Anything else, son?"

The lad hesitated longer than before. Beneath the coverings his body
moved restlessly.

"Yes, sir, I want to know why nobody would come to help my mamma if
she'd sent for them. She said they wouldn't."

The pipe left Rankin's mouth, his great jaws closing with an audible
click.

"You wish to know--what did you say, Ben?"

The boy repeated the question.

For a minute, and then another, Rankin said nothing; then he knocked the
ashes from the bowl of his brier and laid it upon the table.

"Never mind now why they wouldn't, son." He arose heavily and drew off
his coat. "You'll find out for yourself quickly enough--too quickly, my
boy. Now go to sleep."



CHAPTER V

THE EXOTICS


Some men acquire involuntary prominence by being democratic amid
aristocratic surroundings. Others, on the contrary, but with the same
result, continue to live the life to which they were born, even when
placed amid surroundings that make their actions all but grotesque. An
example of this latter class was Scotty Baker, whose ranch, as the wild
goose flies, was thirteen miles west of the Box R.

Scotty was a very English Englishman, with an inborn love of fine
horse-flesh and a guileless nature. Some years before he had fallen into
the hands of a promoter, and had bartered a goodly proportion of his
worldly belongings for a horse-ranch in Dakota, to be taken possession
of immediately. Long indeed was the wail which went up from his home in
Sussex when the fact was made known. Neighbors were fluent in
denunciation, relatives insistent in expostulation; his wife, and in
sympathy their baby daughter, copious in the argument of tears; but the
die was irrevocably cast. Go he would,--not from voluntary stubbornness,
but because he must.

The actual departure of the Bakers was much like the sailing of
Columbus. Probably not one of the friends who saw them off for their
new home expected ever to see the family again. Indians they were
confident were rampant, and frantic for scalps. Should any by a miracle
escape the savages, the tremendous herds of buffalo, running amuck, here
and there, could not fail to trample the survivors into the dust of the
prairie. By comparison, war was a benignant prospect; and sighs mingled
until the sound was as the wailing of winds.

Scotty was very cheerful through it all, very encouraging even in the
face of incontestibly unfavorable evidence, until, with the few remnants
of civilization they had brought with them, the family arrived at the
wind-beaten terminus, a hundred miles from his newly acquired property.
Then for the first time he wilted.

"I've been an ass," he admitted bitterly, as he glanced in impotent
contempt at the handful of weather-stained buildings which on the map
bore the name of a town; "an ass, an egregious, abominable, blethering
ass!"

But, notwithstanding his lack of the practical, Scotty was made of good
stuff. It was not an alternative but a necessity that faced him now, and
he arose right manfully to the occasion. Despite his wife's assertion
that she "never, never would go any farther into this God-forsaken
country," he succeeded in getting her into a lumber-wagon and headed for
what he genially termed "the interior." At last he even succeeded in
making her smile at his efforts to make the disreputable mule pack-team
he had secured move faster than a walk.

Once in possession of his own, however, he returned to his customary
easy manner of life. It took him a very short time to discover that he
had purchased a gold brick. Horses, especially fine horses, were in no
demand there; but this fact did not alter his course in the least. A
horse-ranch he had bought, a horse-ranch he would run, though every man
west of the Mississippi should smile. He enlarged his tiny shack to a
cottage of three rooms; put in floor and ceiling, and papered the walls.
Out of poles and prairie sod he fashioned a serviceable barn, and built
an admirable horse paddock. Last of all he planted in his dooryard, in
artistic irregularity, a wagon-load of small imported trees. The fact
that within six months they all died caused him slight misgiving. He at
least had done what he could to beautify the earth; that he failed was
nature's fault, not his.

Once settled, he began to make acquaintances. Methodically, to the
members of one ranch at a time, he sent invitations to dinner, and upon
the appointed date he confronted his guests with a spectacle which made
them all but doubt their identity, the like of which most of them had
never even seen before. Fancy a cowboy rancher, clad in flannel and
leather, welcomed by a host and hostess in complete evening dress,
ushered into a room which contained a carpet and a piano, and had lace
curtains at the windows; seated later at a table covered with pure linen
and set with real china and cut-glass. The experience was like a dream
to the visitor. Temporarily, as in a dream, the evening would pass
without conscious volition upon the latter's part; and not until later,
when he was at home, would the full significance of the experience
assert itself, and his wonder and admiration find vent in words. Then
indeed would the fame of Scotty Baker, his wife, and little daughter,
be heard in the land.

Early in his career, Scotty began to cultivate the impassive Rankin. He
fairly bombarded the big rancher with courtesies and invitations. No
holiday (and Scotty was an assiduous observer of holidays) was complete
unless Rankin was present to help celebrate. No improvement about the
ranch was definitely undertaken until Rankin had expressed a favorable
opinion concerning the project. Gradually, so gradually that the big man
himself did not realize the change, he fell under Scotty's influence,
and more and more frequently he was to be found headed toward the cosey
Baker cottage. Now, for a year or more, scarcely a Sunday had passed
without one or the other of the men finding it possible to traverse the
thirty miles intervening between them, to spend a few hours in each
other's company.

It was in pursuance of this laudable intention that on the second
morning following Ben Blair's adoption into the Box R Ranch--a
Sunday--the Englishman hitched a team of his best blooded trotters to
the antiquated phaeton, which was the only vehicle he possessed, and
started across country at a lively clip. Thus it came to pass that about
two hours later, having tied his team at the barn and started for the
ranch-house, the visitor saw squarely in his path upon the sunny south
doorstep an object that made him pause and blink his near-sighted eyes.
Under the concentration of his vision, the object resolved itself into a
small boy perched like a frog upon a rock, his fingers locked across his
shins, his chin upon his knees. For an instant the Englishman
hesitated. Courtesy was instinctive with him.

"Can you tell me whether Mr. Rankin is at home?" he asked.

The lad calmly disentangled himself and stood up.

"You mean the big man, sir?"

Again Scotty was guilty of a breach of etiquette. He stared.

"Certainly," he replied at last.

Ben Blair stepped out of the way.

"Yes, sir, he is."

Within the ranch-house Scotty dropped into the nearest chair.

"Tell me, Rankin," he began, "who is the new-comer, and where did you
get him?" A long leg swung comfortably over its mate. "And, by the way,
while you're about it, is he six or sixty? By Jove, I couldn't tell!"

The host looked at his visitor quizzically.

"Ben, I suppose you mean?"

"Ben, or _Tom_, I don't know. I mean the gentleman on the front steps,
the one who didn't know your name," and the Englishman related the
recent conversation.

The corners of Rankin's eyes tightened into an unwonted smile as he
listened, and then contracted until the corner of the large mouth drew
upward in sympathy.

"I'm not surprised, Baker," he admitted, "that you're in doubt about
Ben's age. He's eight; but I'd be uncertain myself if I didn't
absolutely know. As to his not knowing my name--it's just struck me that
I've never introduced myself to the little fellow."

"But how did you come to get him? This isn't a country where one sees
many children roaming around."

"No," the big mouth dropped back into its normal shape; "that's a fact.
He didn't just drop in. I got him by adoption, I suppose; least ways, I
asked him to come and live with me, and he accepted." The speaker turned
to his companion directly. "You knew Jennie Blair, did you?"

Scotty looked interested.

"Knew of her, but never had the pleasure of an acquaintance. I always--"

"Well," interrupted Rankin impassively, "Ben's her son. She died awhile
ago, you remember, and somehow it seemed to break Blair all up. He
wouldn't stay here any longer, and didn't want to take the kid with him,
so I took the youngster in. As far as I know, the arrangement will
stick."

For a minute there was silence. Scotty observed his host shrewdly,
almost sceptically.

"That's all of the story, is it?" he asked at last.

"All, as far as I know."

Scotty continued his observation a moment longer.

"But not all the kid knows, I judge."

The host made no comment, and in a distinctively absent manner the
Englishman removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses upon the tail of
his Sunday frock-coat.

"By the way,"--Scotty returned the glasses to his nose and sprung the
bows over his ears with a snap,--"what day was it that Blair left? Did
it happen to be Friday?"

"Yes, Friday."

"And he doesn't intend ever to return?"

"I believe not."

The visitor's eyes flashed swiftly around the room. The two men were
alone.

"I think, then, I see through it." The voice was lower than before. "One
of my best mares disappeared night before last, and I haven't been able
to get trace of a hoof or hair since."

"What?" Rankin was interested at last.

Scotty repeated the statement, and his host eyed him a full half minute
steadily.

"And you just--tell of it?" he said at last.

The Englishman shifted uneasily in his seat.

"Yes." Forgetting that he had just polished his glasses, he took them
off and went through the process again.

"Yes, I may as well be honest, I've seen a bit of these Westerners about
here, and I don't really agree with their scheme of justice. They're apt
to put two and two together and make eight where you know it's only
four." For the second time he sprung the bows back over his ears. "And
when they find out their beastly mistake--why--oh--it's too late then,
perhaps, for some poor devil!"

For another half minute Rankin hesitated; then he reached over and
grasped the other man by the hand.

"Baker," he said, "you ain't very practical, but you're dead square."
And he shook the hand again.

Of a sudden a twinkle came into the Britisher's eyes and he tore himself
loose with an effort.

"By the way," he said, "I'd like to ask a question for future guidance.
What would you have done if you'd been in my place?"

Rankin stiffened in his seat, and a color almost red surged beneath the
tan of his cheeks; then, as suddenly as his companion had done, he
smiled outright.

"I reckon I'd have done just what you did," he admitted; and the two men
laughed together.

"Seriously, though," said Scotty, after a moment, "and as long as I've
told you anyway, what ought I to do under the circumstances? Should I
let Blair off, do you think?"

For a moment Rankin did not answer; then he faced his questioner
directly, and Scotty knew why the big man's word was so nearly law in
the community.

"Under the circumstances," he repeated, "I'd let him go; for several
reasons. First of all, he's got such a start of you now that you
couldn't catch him, anyway. Then he's a coward by nature, and it'll be a
mighty long time before he ever shows up here again. And last of all,"
the speaker hesitated, "last of all," he repeated slowly, "though I
don't know, I believe you were right when you said the boy could tell
more about it than the rest of us; and if what we suspect is true, I
think by the time he comes back, if he ever does come, Ben will be old
enough to take care of him." Again the speaker paused, and his great
jowl settled down into his shirt-front. "If he doesn't, I can't read
signs when I see 'em."

For a moment the room was silent; then Scotty sprang to his feet as if a
load had been taken off his mind.

"All right," said he, "we'll forget it. And, speaking of forgetting,
I've nearly got myself into trouble already. I have an invitation from
Mrs. Baker for you to take dinner with us to-day. In fact, I was sent on
purpose to bring you. Not a word, not a word!" he continued, at sight of
objections gathering on the other's face; "a lady's invitations are
sacred, you know. Get your coat!"

Rankin arose with an effort and stood facing his visitor.

"You know I'm always glad to visit you, Baker," he said. "I wasn't
thinking of holding off on my own account, but I've got someone else to
consider now, you know. Ben--"

"Certainly, certainly!" Scotty's voice was eloquent of comprehension.
"Throw the kiddie in too. He can play with Flossie; they're about of an
age, and she'll be tickled to death to have him."

Rankin looked at his friend a moment peculiarly. "I know Ben's going
would be all right with you, Baker," he explained at last, "but how
about your wife? Considering--everything--she might object."

The smile left the Englishman's face, and a look of perplexity took its
place.

"By Jove!" he said, "you're right! I never thought of that." He shifted
from one foot to the other uneasily. "But, pshaw! What's the use of
saying anything whatever about the boy's connections? He's nothing but a
youngster,--and, besides, his mother's actions are no fault of his."

Rankin took his top-coat off its peg deliberately.

"All right," he said. "I'll call Ben." At the door he paused, looking
back, the peculiar expression again upon his face. "As you say, the
faults of Ben's mother are not his faults, anyway."



CHAPTER VI

THE SOIL AND THE SEED


Within the Baker home three persons, a woman and two men, were sitting
beside a well-discussed table in the perfect content that follows a good
meal. Strange to say, in this frontier land, the men had cigars, and
their smoke curled slowly toward the ceiling. Intermittently, with the
unconscious attitude of indifference we bestow upon happenings remote
from our lives, they were discussing the month-old news of the world,
which the messenger from town, who supplied at stated intervals the
family wants, had brought the day before.

Out of doors, in the warm sunny plat south of the barn, a small boy and
a still smaller girl were engaged in the fascinating occupation of
becoming acquainted. The little girl was decidedly taking the
initiative.

"How's it come your name is Blair?" she asked, opening fire as soon as
they were alone.

The boy pondered the question. It had never occurred to him before. Why
should he be called Blair? No adequate reason suggested itself.

"I don't know," he admitted.

The little girl wrinkled her forehead in thought.

"It's funny, isn't it?" she said. "Now, my papa's name is Baker, and my
name's Florence Baker. You ought to be Ben Rankin--but you aren't." She
stroked a diminutive nose with a fairy forefinger. "It's funny," she
repeated.

"Oh!" commented Benjamin. He understood now, but explanations were not a
part of his philosophy. "Oh!" and the subject dropped.

"Let's play duck on the rock," suggested Florence.

The boy's hands were deep in the recesses of his pockets.

"I don't know how."

"That's nothing." The small brunette had the air of one to whom
difficulties were unknown. "I'll show you. Papa and I play, and it's
lots of fun--only he beats me." She looked about for available material.

"You get that little box up by the house," she directed, "and we'll have
that for the rock."

Ben did as ordered.

"Now bring two tin cans. You'll find a pile back of the barn."

Once more the boy departed, to return a moment later with a pair of
"selects," each bearing in gaudy illumination a composite picture of the
ingredients of succotash.

"Now watch me," said Florence.

She carried the box about a rod away and planted it firmly on the
ground. "This is the rock," she explained. On the top of the box she
perched one of the cans, open end up. "And this is the duck--my duck. Do
you see?"

The boy had watched the proceedings carefully. "Yes, I see," he said.

Florence came back to the barn. "Now the game is for you to take this
other can and knock my duck off. Then we both run, and if you get your
can on the box ahead of me, I'm _it_, and I'll have to knock off your
duck. Are you ready?"

"Yes."

"All right." And the sport was on.

Ben poised his missile and carefully let fly.

"He, he!" tittered Florence. "You missed!"

He retrieved his duck without comment.

"Try again; you've got three chances."

More carefully than before Ben took aim and tossed his can.

"Missed again!" exulted the little brunette. "You've only one more try."
And the brown eyes flashed with mischief.

For the last time Ben stood at position.

"Be careful! you're out if you miss."

Even more slowly than before the boy took aim, swung his arm overhead
clear from the shoulder, and threw with all his might. There was a flash
of gaudy paper through the air, a resounding impact of tin against wood,
and the make-believe duck skipped away as though fearful of danger.

For a moment Florence stood aghast, but only for a moment; then she
stamped a tiny foot imperiously.

"Oh, you naughty boy!" she exclaimed. "You naughty, naughty boy!"

Once more Ben's hands were in his pockets. "Why?" he asked innocently.

"Because you don't play right!"

"You told me to knock the duck off, and I did!"

"But not that way." Florence's small chin was high in the air. "I'm
going in the house."

Ben made no motion to follow her, none to prevent her going.

"I'm sorry," he said simply.

The little girl took two steps decidedly, a third haltingly, a fourth,
then stopped and looked back out of the corner of her eye.

"Are you very sorry?" she asked.

Ben nodded his head gravely.

There was a moment of indecision. "All right," she said, with apparent
reluctance; "but we won't play duck any more. We'll play drop the
handkerchief."

The boy discreetly ignored the change of purpose.

"I don't know how," he admitted once more.

Such deplorable ignorance aroused her sympathy.

"Don't Mr. Rankin, or--or anyone--play with you?" she asked.

Ben shook his head.

"All right, then," she said obligingly, "I'll show you."

With her heel she drew upon the ground a rough circle about ten feet in
diameter.

"You can't cross that place in there," she said.

The boy looked at the bare ground critically. No visible barrier
presented itself to his vision.

"Why not?" he asked.

Florence made a gesture of disapproval. "Because you can't," she
explained. Then, some further reason seeming necessary, she added,
"Perhaps there are red-hot irons or snakes, or something, in there.
Anyway, you can't cross!"

Ben made no comment, and his instructor looked at him a moment
doubtfully.

"Now," she went on, "I stand right here close to the line, and you take
the handkerchief." She produced a dainty little kerchief with a "B"
embroidered in the corner. "Drop it behind me, and get in my place if
you can before I touch you. If you get clear around and catch me before
I notice you--you can kiss me. Do you see?"

Ben could see.

"All right, then." And the little girl stood at attention, very prim,
apparently very watchful, toes touching the line.

The nature of Benjamin Blair was very direct. The first time he passed,
he dropped the handkerchief and proceeded calmly on his journey. His
back toward her, the little girl turned and gave a surreptitious glance
behind; then quickly shifted to her original position, a look of
innocence upon her face. Straight ahead went Ben around the circle--that
contained hot irons, or snakes, or something--back to his
starting-point, touched the small fragment of femininity upon the
shoulder gingerly, as though afraid she would fracture.

"Here's your handkerchief," he said, stooping to recover the bit of
linen. "You're it."

"Oh, dear!" she said, in mock despair; "you dropped it the first time,
didn't you?"

Ben agreed to the statement.

An unaccountable lull followed. In it he caught a curious sidelong
glance from the brown eyes under the drooping lashes.

"I didn't suppose you'd do that the first time," said the little girl.
"Papa never does."

The observation seemed irrelevant to Ben Blair, at least inadequate to
halt the game; but he made no comment.

Again there was a lull.

"Well," suggested Florence, and a tinge of red surged beneath the soft
brown skin.

Ben began to feel uncomfortable. He had a premonition that all was not
well.

"You're _it_, ain't you?" he hesitated at last.

This time, full and fair, the tiny woman looked at him. The color which
before had stood just beneath the skin rose burning to her ears, to the
roots of her hair. Her big brown eyes flashed fire.

"Ben Blair," she flamed, "you're a 'fraid cat!" Tears welled up into her
voice, into her eyes, and she made a motion as if to leave; but the
sudden passion of a spoiled child was too strong upon her, the mystified
face of the other too near, too tempting. With a motion which was all
but involuntary, a tiny brown hand shot out and struck the boy fair on
the mouth. "A 'fraid cat, 'fraid cat, and I hate you!"

Never before in his short life had Benjamin Blair met a girl. The ethics
of sex was a thing unknown to him, but nevertheless some instinct
prevented his returning the insult. Except for the red mark upon his
lips, his face grew very white.

"What am I afraid of?" he asked steadily.

Defiant still, the girl held her ground.

"Afraid of what?" she jeered. "You're afraid of everything! 'Fraid cats
always are!"

"But what?" pressed the boy. "Tell me something I'm afraid of."

Florence glanced about her. The tall roof of the barn caught her vision.

"You wouldn't dare jump off the roof there, for one thing," she
ventured.

Ben looked up. The point mentioned arose at least sixteen feet, and the
earth beneath was frozen like asphalt, but he did not hesitate. At the
north end, a stack of hay piled against the wall formed a sort of
inclined plane, and making a detour he began to climb. Half-way up he
lost his footing and came tumbling to the ground; but still he said
nothing. The next time he was more careful, and reached the ridge-pole
without accident. Below, the little girl, brilliant in her red jacket,
stood watching him; but he never even glanced at her. Instead, he raised
himself to his full height, looked once at the ground beneath, and
jumped.

That instant a wave of contrition swept over Florence. In a sort of
vision she saw the boy lying injured, perhaps dead, upon the frozen
ground,--and all through her fault! She shut her eyes, and clasped her
hands over her face.

A few seconds passed, bringing with them no further sound, and she
slowly opened her fingers. Through them, instead of a prostrate corpse,
she saw the boy standing erect before her. There was a smear of dust
upon his coat and face where he had fallen, and a scratch upon his
cheek, which bled a bit, but otherwise he was apparently unhurt. From
beneath his long lashes as she looked, the blue eyes met hers,
deliberate and unsmiling.

As swiftly as it had come, the mood of contrition passed. In an
indefinite sort of way the girl experienced a sensation of
disappointment,--a feeling of being deprived of something which was her
due. She was only a child, a spoiled child, and her defiance arose anew.
A moment so the children faced each other.

"Do you still think I'm afraid?" asked the boy at last.

Again the hot color flamed beneath the brown skin.

"Pooh!" said the girl, "_that_ was nothing!" She tossed her head in
derision. "Anyone could do that!"

Ben slowly took off his cap, slapped it against his knee to shake off
the dust, and put it back upon his head. The action took only a half
minute, but when the girl looked at him again it hardly seemed he was
the same boy with whom she had just played. His eyes were no longer
blue, but gray. The chin, too, with an odd trick,--one she was destined
to know better in future,--had protruded, had become the dominant
feature of his face, aggressive, almost menacing. Except for the size,
one looking could scarcely have believed Ben's visage was that of a
child.

"What," the boy's hands went back into his pockets, "what wouldn't
anyone do, then?" he asked directly.

At that moment Florence Baker would have been glad to occupy some other
person's shoes. Obviously, the proper thing for her to do was to admit
her fault and clear the atmosphere, but that did not accord with her
disposition, and she looked about for a suggestion. One came promptly,
but at first she did not speak. Then the brown head tossed again.

"Some folks would be afraid to ride one of those colts out there!" She
indicated the pasture near by. "Papa said the other day he'd rather not
be the first to try."

The colts mentioned were a bunch of four-year-olds that Scotty had just
imported from an Eastern breeder. They were absolutely unbroken, but
every ounce thoroughbreds, and full to the ear-tips of what the
Englishman expressively termed "ginger."

To her credit be it said, the small Florence had no idea that her
challenge would be accepted. Implicit trust in her father was one of her
virtues, and the mere suggestion that another would attempt to do what
he would not, was rankest heresy. But the boy Benjamin started for the
barn, and, securing a bridle and a pan of oats, moved toward the gate.
Instinctively Florence took a step after him.

"Really, I didn't mean for you to try," she explained in swift
penitence. "I don't think you're afraid!"

Ben opened and closed the gate silently.

"Please don't do it," pleaded the girl. "You'll be hurt!"

But for all the effect her petition had, she might as well have asked
the sun to cease shining. Nothing could stop that gray-eyed boy. Without
a show of haste he advanced toward the nearest colt, shook the oats in
the pan, and whistled enticingly. Full often in his short life he had
seen the trick done before, and he waited expectantly.

Florence, forgetting her fears, watched with interest. At first the
colt was shy, but gradually, under stimulus of its appetite, it drew
nearer, then ran frisking away, again drew near. Ben held out the pan,
shook it at intervals, displaying its contents to the best advantage.
Colt nature could not resist the appeal. The sleek thoroughbred cast
aside all scruples, came close, and thrust a silken muzzle deep into the
grain.

Still without haste, the boy put on the bridle, holding the pan near the
ground to reach the straps over the ears; then, pausing, looked at the
back far above his head. How he was to get up there would have perplexed
an observer. For a moment it puzzled the boy; then an idea occurred to
him. Once more holding the remnants of the oats near the ground, he
waited until the hungry nose was deep amongst them, the head well
lowered; then, improving his opportunity, he swung one leg over the
sleek neck and awaited developments.

He was not long in suspense. The action was like touching flame to
powder; the resulting explosion was all but simultaneous. With a snort,
the head went high in air, tossing the grain about like seed, and down
the inclined plane of the neck thus formed the long-legged Benjamin slid
to the slippery back. Once there, an instinct told him to grip the
rounding flank with his ankles, and clutch the heavy mane.

And he was none too quick. For a moment the colt paused in pure wonder
at the audacity of the thing; then, with a neigh, half of anger and half
of fear, it sprang away at top speed, circling and recircling, flashing
in and out among the other horses, the fragment of humanity on its back
meanwhile clinging to his place like a monkey. For a minute, then
another, the youngster kept his seat, pulling upon the reins at
intervals, gripping together his small knees until the muscles ached.
Then suddenly the colt, changing its tactics, planted its front feet
firmly into the ground, stopped short, and the small Benjamin shot
overhead, to strike the turf beyond with an impact which fairly drove
the breath from his body. But even then, half unconscious as he was, he
wouldn't let loose of the reins. Not until the now thoroughly aroused
colt had dragged him for rods, did the leather break, leaving the boy
and the bridle in a most disreputable-looking heap upon the earth.

Florence had watched the scene with breathless interest. While Ben was
making his mount, she observed him doubtfully. While he retained his
seat, she clapped her hands in glee. Then, with his downfall, a great
lump came chokingly into her throat, and, without waiting to see the
outcome, she ran sobbing to the house. A moment later she rushed into
the little parlor where her father and Rankin, their cigars finished,
were sitting and chatting.

"Papa," she pleaded, "papa, go quick! Ben's killed!"

"Great Cæsar's ghost!" exclaimed Scotty, springing up nervously, and
holding the little girl at arm's length. "What's the matter?"

"Ben, Ben, I told you! He tried to ride one of the colts, and he's
killed--I know he is!"

"Holy buckets!" Genuine apprehension was in the Englishman's voice.
Without waiting for further explanation he shot out of the door, and
ran full tilt to the paddock behind the barn. There he stopped, and
Rankin coming up a moment later, the two men stood side by side watching
the approach of a small figure still some rods away. The boy's face and
hands were marked with bloodstains from numerous scratches; one leg of
his trousers was torn disclosing the skin, and upon that side when he
walked he limped noticeably. All these things the two men observed at a
distance. When he came closer, they were forgotten in the look upon his
small face. The odd trick the boy had of throwing his lower jaw forward
was now emphasized until the lower teeth fairly overshot the upper. In
sympathy, the eyes had tightened, not morosely or cruelly, but with a
fixed determination which was all but uncanny. Scotty shifted a bit
uncomfortably.

"By Jove!" he remarked, with his usual unconscious expletive, "I'd
rather have a tiger-cat on my trail than that youngster, if he was to
look that way. What do you suppose he's got in his cranium now?"

Rankin shook his head. "I don't know. He's beyond me."

Scarcely a minute passed before the boy returned. He had another bridle
in his hand and a fresh pan of oats. As before, he started to pass
without a word, but Rankin halted him. "What's the matter with your
clothes, Ben?" he queried.

The lad looked at his questioner. "Horse threw me, sir."

"And what are you going to do now?"

"Going to try to ride him again, sir."

Rankin paused, his face growing momentarily more severe.

"Ben," he said at last, "did Mr. Baker hire you to break his horses? If
I were you I'd put those things away and ask his pardon."

The boy looked from one man to the other uncertainly. Obviously, this
phase of the matter had not occurred to him. Obviously, too, the point
of view must be correct, for both Rankin and Scotty were solemn as the
grave. The lad shot out toward the pasture a glance that spoke volumes;
then he turned to Baker.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he said.

Scotty caught his cue. "Granted--this time," he answered.

A half-hour later, Rankin and Ben, the latter carefully washed, the
rents in his trousers temporarily repaired, were ready to go home. Not
until the very last moment did Florence appear; then, her face a bit
flushed, she came out to the buckboard.

"Good-bye," she said simply. There was a moment's pause; then, with a
deepening color, she turned to Ben Blair. "Come again soon," she added
in a low tone.



CHAPTER VII

THE SANITY OF THE WILD


Summer, tan-colored, musical with note of katydid and cicada, and the
constant purr of the south wind, was upon the prairie country. Under the
eternal law of necessity,--the necessity of sunburnt, stunted
grass,--the boundaries of the range extended far in every direction. The
herds bearing the Box R brand no longer fed in one body, but scattered
far and wide. Often for a week at a time the men did not sleep under
cover. Morning and night, when a semblance of dew was upon the blighted
grass, the cattle grazed. The life was primitive and natural almost
beyond belief in a world of artificial civilization; but it was
independent, care-free, and healthy.

The land surrounding the ranch-house was now almost as bare as the palm
of a hand. Only one object relieved the impression of desolation, and
that was a tree. It stood carefully fenced about in the drain from the
big artesian well,--a vivid blot of green against the dun background.
The first year after he came, Rankin had imported it,--a goodly sized
soft maple; and in the pathway of constantly trickling water, it had
grown and prospered. It was the only tree for miles and miles about,
except the scrawny scrub-oaks, cotton-woods, and wild plums that flanked
the infrequent creeks,--creeks which in Summer, save in deepest holes,
reverted to mere dry runs. Beneath its shade Rankin had constructed a
rough bench, and therein Ma Graham, day after day when her housework was
finished, dozed and sewed and dozed again, apparently as forgetful as
the cowboys upon the prairies that beyond her vision were great cities
where countless thousands of human beings sweltered and struggled in
desperate competition for daily bread.

So much for the day. With the coming of dusk, a coolness like a
benediction took the place of heat. The south wind gradually died down
with the descending sun, until immediately following the setting it was
absolutely still; now it sprang up anew, and wandered on until the break
of day.

Such an evening in late July found Rankin and Baker stretched out like
boys upon a pile of hay in the latter's yard. The big man had just
arrived; the old buckboard, with its mouse-colored mustangs, stood just
as he had driven it up. Scotty knew him well enough to know that he had
come for a purpose, and he awaited its revelation. Rankin slowly filled
and lit his pipe, drew thereon until the glow from the bowl was
reflected upon his face, and blew a great cloud of smoke out into the
gathering dusk.

"Baker," he asked at last, "what are we going to do for the education of
these youngsters of ours? We can't let them grow up here like savages."

Scotty rolled over on his side, and leaned his head comfortably in his
hand.

"I've thought of that," he answered, "and there seems to me only one of
two things to do--either move into civilization, or import a pedagogue."
A pause, and a whimsical inflection came into his voice. "Unfortunately,
however, neither plan seems exactly practical at this time."

Rankin smoked a minute in silence. "How would it do to move into
civilization six months of the year--the Winter six?" he suggested.

Scotty considered for a moment. "Do you mean that seriously?" he asked.

"Yes."

By the sense of feeling alone, the Englishman rolled a cigarette
skilfully. "How about the stock here while we're gone," he said
hesitatingly. "Do you suppose we'd find anything left when we came back
in the Spring?"

Rankin crowded the half-burned tobacco down into the pipe-bowl with his
little finger. "I don't think you got the idea," he explained. "My plan
was for you to go East in the Fall and put the kids in school. I'd stay
here and see that everything ran smoothly while you were gone. Mrs.
Baker has said a dozen times that she wanted a change--for a time,
anyway."

Scotty threw one long leg over the other. "As usual you're right,
Rankin," he said slowly. "The Lord knows Mollie gets restless enough at
times. People were like ants in a hill where she was raised, and that
life was a part of her." He took a last puff at the cigarette, and with
a toss sent the smoking stump spinning like a firefly into the darkness.
"And Flossie can't grow up wild--I know that. I'll talk your suggestion
over with Mollie first, but I think I'd be safe in saying right now
that we'll accept."

For a moment Rankin did not speak; then he knocked the ashes out of his
pipe upon his heel.

"Excuse me if I keep going back to something unpleasant, Baker," he said
slowly, "but in considering the matter there's one thing I don't want
you to forget." Then, after a meaning pause, he went on: "It's the same
reason I had for not introducing Ben in the first place."

Scotty drew out his book of rice-paper again almost involuntarily.

"I'd thought of that this time," he said; then paused to finger a gauzy
sheet absently. "I don't see why I should consider it now,
though--seeing I didn't before."

Rankin said nothing, and conversation lapsed. Irresistibly, but so
gradually as to be all but unconscious, the spirit of the prairie
night--a sensation, a conception of infinite vastness, of unassailable
serenity--stole over and took possession of the men. The ambitious and
manifold artificial needs for which men barter their happiness, their
sense of humanity, even life itself, seemed beyond belief out there
alone with the stars, with the prairie night-wind singing in the ears;
seemed so puny that they elicited only a smile. The lust of show, of
extravagance, follies, wisdoms, man's loves and hates--how their true
proportions stand revealed against the eternal background of
immeasurable distance, in nature's vast scheme!

Scotty cleared his throat. "I used to think, when I first came here,
that I'd been a fool; but now, somehow, at times like this, I wonder if
I didn't blunder into the wisest act of my life." The prairie spirit
had taken hold of him. "And the longer I stay the more it grows upon me
that such a life as this, where one's success is not the measure of
another's failure, is the only one to live. It is the only life," he
added after a pause.

Rankin said nothing.

Scotty was silent for a moment, but the mood was too strong for him to
remain so, and he went on.

"I know the ordinary person would laugh if I said it, but really, I
believe I'm developing a distaste for money. It's simply another term
for caste; and that word, with the unreasoning superiority it implies,
has somehow become hateful to me." He looked up into the night.

"I used to think I was happy back in England. I had my home and my
associates; born so, because their fathers were friends of my father,
their grandfathers of my grandfather's class. As a small landlord I had
my gentlemanly leisure; but as well as I know my name, I realize now
that I could never return to that life again. Looking back, I see its
intolerable narrowness, its petty smugness. By comparison it's like the
relative clearness of the atmosphere there and here. There, perhaps I
could see a few miles: here, I look away over leagues and leagues of
distance. It's symbolic." The voice paused; the face, turned directly
toward his companion's, tried in the half-darkness to read its
expression. "I've been in this prairie country long enough now to
realize that financially I've made a mistake. I can earn a living, and
that's all; but nevertheless I'm happy--happier than I ever realized it
was possible for me to be. I've got enough--more would be a burden to
me. If I have a trouble in the world, it's because I see the inevitable
prospect of money in the future,--money I don't want, for I'm an only
son and my father is comparatively wealthy. Without turning his hand,
his rent-roll is five thousand pounds a year. He's getting along in
life. Some day--it may be five years, it may be fifteen--he will die and
leave it to me. I am to maintain and pass on the family name, the family
dignity. It was all cut and dried generations back, generations before I
was born."

Still Rankin said nothing. For any indication he gave, the other's
revelation might have been only that he had a hundred dollars deposited
in the savings bank against a rainy day.

But Scotty was now fairly under headway. He stripped his reserve and
confidence bare.

"You see now why I'm glad to consider your proposition. Whatever I
believe myself must be of secondary importance. I've others to think
about--Florence and her mother. Flossie is only a child, but Mollie is a
woman, and has lived her life in sight of the brazen calf. She doesn't
realize, she never can realize, that it is of brass and not of gold.
Personally, I believe, as I believe in my own existence, that Flossie
would be immeasurably happier if she never saw the other side of
life,--the artificial side,--but lived right here, knowing what we
taught her and developing like a healthy animal; perhaps, when the time
came, marrying a rancher, having her own home, her own family interests,
and living close to nature. But it can't be. I've got to develop her,
cultivate her, fit her for any society." The voice paused, and the
speaker turned his face away.

"God knows,--and He knows also that I love her dearly,--that looking
into the future I wish sometimes she were the daughter of another man."

The minutes passed. The ponies shifted restlessly and then were still.
In the lull, the soft night-breeze crooned its minor song, while near or
far away--no human ear could measure the distance--a prairie owl gave
its weird cry. Then silence fell as before.

Once more Scotty turned, facing his companion.

"I've a question to ask you, Rankin; may I ask it without offence?"

The big man nodded. By the starlight Baker caught the motion.

"You told me once that you were a college man, and that you had a
Master's degree. From the very first you started cattle-raising on a big
scale. You must have had money. Still, such being the case, you left
culture and civilization far behind and came here to choose a life
absolutely different. I have told you why I wish to educate my daughter.
But why, feeling as you must have felt and must still feel, since you're
here, why do you wish to educate this waif boy you've picked up? By all
the standards of convention, he is at the very bottom of the social
scale. Why do you want to do this?"

It was a psychological moment. Even in the semi-darkness, Rankin felt
the other's eyes fixed piercingly upon him. He passed his hand over his
face; he seemed about to speak. But the habit of reticence was too
strong upon him. Even the inspiration of the Englishman's confidence
was not sufficient to break the seal of his own reserve. He arose slowly
and shook the clinging wisps of hay from his clothes.

"For somewhat the same reason as your own," he answered at last. "Ben,
like Flossie, is a child, an odd old child to be sure, but nevertheless
a child. I have no reason to know that when he grows up his beliefs will
be my beliefs. He must see both sides of the coin, and judge for
himself."

The speaker paused, then walked slowly over to the old buckboard. "It's
getting late, and I've got a long drive home." With an effort he mounted
into the seat and picked up the reins. "Good-night."

Scotty hesitated a moment, and then said, "Good-night."



CHAPTER VIII

THE GLITTER OF THE UNKNOWN


Twelve years slipped by. Short as they seemed to those actually living
them, they had brought great material changes. No longer did the ranch
cattle graze at the will of their owners, but, under stress of
competition, they browsed within the confines of miles upon miles of
galvanized fencing. Neighbors, as Rankin said, were near now. There were
four within a radius of twenty miles. To be sure, there was still plenty
of land west of them, beyond the broad muddy Missouri,--open rough land,
gradually rising in elevation, where a traveller could journey for days
and days without seeing a human face. But this was not then a part of
the so-called "cattle ranges." In the parlance of the country, that was
"West,"--a place to hunt in, a refuge for criminals, but as yet giving
no indication of ever becoming of practical use.

The Box R Ranch had evolved along with the others, and always well in
advance. The house now boasted six rooms; the barn and stock-sheds had
at a distance the appearance of a town in themselves; the collection of
haying implements--mowers, loaders, stackers--was almost complete enough
to stock a jobbing house. The herd itself had augmented, despite its
annual reduction, until one artesian well was inadequate to supply
water; and fifteen miles north, at the extreme limit of his home-ranch,
Rankin had sunk another well, making a sort of sub-station of that
point. From it an observer with good eyes could see the outlines of the
modern Big B Ranch property, built on the old site, and ostensibly
operated by a long-legged Yankee, Rob Hoyt by name, but in reality
owned, as had been the remnant of stock Tom Blair left behind him, by
saloon-keeper Mick Kennedy.

The ranch force had changed very little. Rankin, stouter by a
quarter-hundred weight, shaggier of eyebrows and with an accentuated
droop in the upper eyelids, and if possible an increased taciturnity,
still lived his daytime life mainly on wheels. The old buckboard had
finally succumbed, but its counterpart, mud-spattered and
weather-bleached, had taken its place. In the kitchen, Ma Graham still
presided, her accumulated avoirdupois seeming to have been gathered at
the expense of her lord, who in equal ratio thinner and more weazened,
danced attendance as of old. Only one of the former cowboys now
remained. That one, strange to say, was Grannis, the "man from nowhere,"
who had apparently taken root at last. Regularly on the last day of each
month he drew his pay, and without a word of explanation or comment
disappeared upon the back of a cow-pony, to reappear, perhaps in ten
hours, perhaps in sixty, dead broke, with a thirst seemingly
unappeasable, but quite non-committal concerning his experience,
apparently satisfied and ready to take up the dull routine of his life
again.

Last of all, Benjamin Blair. Precisely as the boy had given promise, the
youth had developed. He was now mature in size, in poise, in action.
Long of leg, long of arm, long of face, he stood a half head above
Rankin, who had been the tallest man upon the place. Yet he was not
awkward. Physically he was of the type, but magnified, to which all
cowboys belong; and no one would ever call him awkward or uncouth.

There had been less change upon the Baker ranch. Scotty was not an
expansionist. Scarcely a score more horses grazed in his paddock than of
old. The barn, though often repaired, was still of sod and thatch. The
house contained the original number of rooms. The experiment with trees
had never been repeated. If possible, the man himself had altered even
less than his surroundings. Scrupulously fresh-shaven each day,
fortified beyond the compound lenses of his spectacles, a stranger would
have guessed him anywhere from thirty-five to fifty.

Time had not dealt as kindly with Mrs. Baker. She seemed to have aged
enough for both herself and her husband. Notwithstanding the fact that
for the first eight years of the twelve, the family had spent half their
time in the East, she had grown careless of her appearance. True to his
instincts, Scotty still dressed for dinner in his antiquated evening
clothes; but pathetic as was the example, it had long ceased to
stimulate her. The last four years had been dead years with Mollie
Baker. The future held but one promise. She referred to it daily, almost
hourly; and at such times only would a trace of youth and beauty return
to the one-time winsome face. She looked forward and dreamed of an
event after which she would do certain things upon which she had set her
heart; when, as she said, she would begin to live. It seemed to Scotty
ghastly to speak about that event, for it was the death of his father.

The last member of the family had developed with the child's promise,
and at seventeen Florence was beautiful; not with a conventional
prettiness, but with a vital feminine attraction. All that the mother
had been, with her dark, oval face, her mass of walnut-brown hair, her
great dark eyes, her uptilted chin, the daughter was now; but with added
health and an augmented femininity that the mother had never known.
Moreover, she had an independence, a dominance, born perhaps of the wild
prairie influence, that at times made her parents almost gasp. Except in
the minute details of their daily existence, which habit had made
unchangeable, she ruled them absolutely. Even Rankin had become a
secondary factor. Scotty probably would have denied the assertion
emphatically, yet at the bottom of his consciousness he realized that
had she told him to sell everything he possessed for what he could get
and return to old Sussex he would have complied. Considering Mollie's
daily plaint, it was a constant source of wonder to him that the girl
did not do this; but she seemed wholly satisfied with things as they
were. For exercise and excitement she rode almost every horse upon the
place--rode astride like a man. For amusement she read everything she
could lay hands upon, both from the modest Baker library and from the
larger and more creditable collection which Rankin had imported from
the East. This was the first real library that had ever entered the
State, and, subject for speculation, it had uniformly the front
fly-leaves remaining as mere stubs, as though the pages had been torn
out by a hurried hand. What name was it that had been in those hundreds
of volumes? For what reason had it been so carefully removed? The girl
had often speculated thereon, and fitted theory after theory; but never
yet, wilful as she was, had she had the temerity to ask the only person
who could have given explanation,--Rankin himself.

In common with her sisters everywhere, Florence had an instinctive love
of a fad. Realizing this fact, Scotty was not in the least deceived
when, during a lull at the dinner-table one evening late in the Fall,
she broke in with an irrelevant though seemingly innocent remark.

"I saw several big jack-rabbits when I was out riding this morning." The
dark eyes turned upon her father quizzically, humorously. "They seem to
be very plentiful."

"Yes," said Scotty; "they always are in the Fall."

Florence ate for a moment in silence.

"Did you ever think how much sport we could have if we owned a couple of
hounds?" she asked.

Scotty was silent; but Mollie threw up her hands in horror. "You don't
really mean that you want any of those hungry-looking dogs around, do
you, Flossie?" she protested pettishly. "Seems as though you'd be
satisfied with riding the horses tomboy style without going to hunting
rabbits that way."

The daughter's color heightened and the matter dropped; but Scotty knew
the main attack was yet to come. He had learned from experience the
methods of his daughter in attaining an object.

Later in the evening father and daughter were alone beside a well-shaded
lamp in the cosey sitting-room. Mollie had retired early, complaining of
a headache, and carrying with her an air of martyrdom even more
pronounced than usual; so noticeable, in fact, that, absently watching
the door through which she had left, an expression of positive gloom
formed over Scotty's thin face. Two strong young arms fell suddenly
about his neck and abruptly changed his thoughts. A soft warm cheek was
laid against his own.

"Poor old daddy!" whispered a caressing voice.

For a moment Scotty did not move; then, turning, he looked into the
brown eyes. "Why?" he asked.

"Because,"--her voice was low, her answering look was steady,--"because
it won't be but a little while until he'll have to move away--move back
into civilization."

For a moment neither spoke; then, with a last pressure of her cheek
against her father's, the girl crossed the room and took another chair.
Scotty followed her with his eyes.

"Are you against me, too, little girl?" he asked.

Florence reached over to the table, took up an ever-ready strip of
rice-paper, and, rolling a cigarette, tendered it with the air of a
peace-offering.

"No, I'm not against you; but it's got to come. Mamma simply can't
change. She can't find anything here to interest her, and we've got to
take her away--for good."

Scotty slowly struck a sulphur match, waited until the flame had burned
well along the wood, then deliberately lit his cigarette and burned it
to a stump.

"Aren't you happy here, Flossie?" he asked gently.

The girl's hands were folded in her lap, her eyes looked past him
absently.

"Really, for once in my life," she answered seriously, "I spoke quite
unselfishly. I was thinking only of mamma." There was a pause, and a
deeper concentration in the brown eyes. "As for myself, I hardly know.
Yes, I do know. I'm happy now, but I wouldn't be long. The life here is
too narrow; I'd lose interest in it. At last I'd have a frantic desire,
one I couldn't resist, to peep just over the edge of the horizon and
take part in whatever is going on beyond." She smiled. "I might run
away, or marry an Indian, or do something shocking!"

Scotty flicked off a bit of ashes with his little finger.

"Can't you think of anything that would interest you and broaden your
life enough to make it pleasant?" he ventured.

This time mirth shone upon the girl's face, and a laugh sounded in her
voice.

"Papa, papa," she said, "I didn't think that of you! Are you so anxious
to get rid of your daughter?" As swiftly as it had come, the smile
vanished, leaving in its place a softer and warmer color.

"I'm not enough of a hypocrite," she added slowly, "to pretend not to
understand what you mean. Yes, I believe if there is a man in the world
I could care enough for to marry, I could live here or anywhere with him
and be perfectly happy; but that isn't possible. I'm of the wrong
disposition." The soft color in the cheek grew warmer, the brown eyes
sparkled. "I know myself well enough to realize that any man I could
care for wouldn't live out here. He'd be one who did things, and did
them better than others; and to do things he'd have to be where others
are. No, I never could live here."

Scotty dropped the dead cigarette stump into an ash-tray, and brushed a
stray speck of dust from his sleeve.

"In other words, you could never care for such a man as your father," he
remarked quietly.

The girl instantly realized what she had said, and springing up she
threw her arms impulsively about her father's neck.

"Dear old daddy!" she said. "There isn't another man in the world like
you! I love you dearly, dearly!" The soft lips touched his cheek again
and again. But for the first time in her life that Florence could
remember, her father did not respond. Instead, he gently freed himself.

"Nevertheless," he said, steadily, "the fact remains. You could never
marry a man like your father,--one who had no desire to be known of men,
but who simply loved you and would do anything in his power to make you
happy. You have said it." Scotty rose slowly, the youthfulness of his
movements gone, the expression of age unconsciously creeping into the
wrinkles at his temples and at the corners of his mouth. "You have hurt
me, Florence."

The girl was at once repentant, but her repentance came too late. She
dropped her face into her hands.

"Oh, daddy, daddy!" she pleaded, but could not say another word. Indeed,
there was nothing to be said.

Scotty moved silently about the room, closed a book he had laid face
downward upon the table, picked up a paper which had fallen to the
floor, and wound the clock for the night. At the doorway to his
sleeping-room he paused.

"You said something at dinner to-night about wanting some hounds,
Florence. I know where I can buy a pair, and I'll see that you have
them." He opened the door slowly, then quietly closed it. "And about our
leaving here. I have always expected to go sometime, but I hoped it
wouldn't be necessary for a while yet." He paused, fingering the knob
absently. "I'm ready, though, whenever you and your mother wish."

This time the door closed behind him, and, alone within the room, the
girl sobbed as though her heart would break.



CHAPTER IX

A RIFFLE OF PRAIRIE


Florence got her dogs promptly. They were two big mouse-colored
grayhounds, with tails like rats and protruding ribs. They were named
"Racer" and "Pacer," and were warranted by their late owner to
out-distance any rabbit that ever drew breath. The girl felt that an
event as important as a coursing should be the occasion of a gathering
of the neighboring ranchers; but at the mere suggestion her conventional
mother threw up her hands in horror. It was bad enough for her daughter
to go out alone, but as the one woman among all that lot of cowboys--it
was too much for her to endure. Finally, as a compromise, Florence
agreed to invite only the people of the Box R Ranch to the first event.
So the invitations for a certain day, composed with fitting formality,
were sent, and in due time were ceremoniously accepted.

The chase was scheduled to begin soon after daybreak, and before that
time Rankin and Ben Blair were at the Baker house. They wore their
ordinary clothes of wool and leather, but Scotty appeared in a wonderful
red hunting-coat, which, though a bit moth-eaten in spots, nevertheless
showed glaringly against the brown earth of the ranch-house yard.

With the exception of the dogs, which were kept properly hungry for the
hunt, and Mollie, who had washed her hands of the whole affair, the
party all had breakfast, Scotty himself serving the coffee with the
skill of a head-waiter. Then the old buckboard, carefully oiled and
tightened for the occasion, was gotten out, a team of the fastest,
wiriest mustangs the Box R possessed was attached, and Rankin and Baker
upon the seat, Florence and Ben, well-mounted, trailing behind, the
party sallied forth. In order to avoid fences they had agreed to go ten
miles to the south before beginning operations. There a great tract of
government land, well grazed but untouched by the hand of man, gave all
but unlimited room.

The morning was beautiful and clear beyond the comprehension of city
dwellers, a typical day of prairie Dakota in late Fall. Far out over the
broad expanse, indefinite as to distance, the rising sun seemed resting
upon the very rim of the world. All about, near at hand, stretching into
the horizon, glistening, sparkling, innumerable frost crystals, product
of the past night, gleamed like scattered gems, showing in their
coloring every blended shade of the rainbow. The glory of it all
appealed to the girl, and throwing back her head she drew in deep
breaths of the tonic air.

"I'm going to miss these mornings terribly when I'm gone," she said
soberly.

Ben Blair scrutinized the backs of the two men in the buckboard with
apparent interest.

"I didn't know you intended leaving," he said. "Where are you going?"

Florence regarded her companion from the corner of her eye.

"I'm going away for good," she said.

Ben shifted half around in the saddle and folded back the rim of his big
sombrero.

"For good, you say?"

The girl's brown eyes were cast down demurely. "Yes, for good," she
repeated.

They had been losing ground. Now in silence they galloped ahead, the
regular muffled patter of their horses' feet upon the frozen sod
sounding like the distant rattle of a snare-drum. Once again even with
the buckboard, they lapsed into a walk.

"You haven't told me where you're going," repeated Blair.

The question seemed to be of purest politeness, as a host inquires if
his visitor has rested well; yet for a dozen years they two had lived
nearest neighbors, and had grown to maturity side by side. She concluded
there were some phases of this silent youth which she had not yet
learned.

"We haven't decided where we're going yet," she replied. "Mamma wants to
go to England, but papa and I refuse to leave this country. Then daddy
wants to live in a small town, and I vote for a big one. Just now we're
at deadlock."

A smile started in Ben's blue eyes and spread over his thin face.

"From the way you talk," he said, "I have a suspicion the deadlock won't
last long. If I stretch my imagination a little I can guess pretty close
to the decision."

Florence was sober a moment; then a smile flashed over her face and left
the daintiest of dimples in either cheek.

"Maybe you can," she said.

For the second time they galloped ahead and caught up with the slower
buckboard.

"Florence," Ben threw one leg over the pommel of his saddle and faced
his companion squarely, "I've heard your mother talk, and of course I
understand why she wants to go back among her folks, but you were raised
here. Why do you want to leave?"

The girl hesitated, and ran her fingers through her horse's mane.

"Mamma's been here against her will for a good many years. We ought to
go for her sake."

Ben made a motion of deprecation. "What I want to know is the real
reason,--your own reason," he said.

The warm blood flushed Florence's face. "By what right do you ask that?"
she retorted. "You seem to forget that we've both grown up since we went
to school together."

Ben looked calmly out over the prairie.

"No, I don't forget; and I admit I have no right to ask. But I may ask
as a friend, I am sure. Why do you want to go?"

Again the girl hesitated. Logically she should refuse to answer. To do
otherwise was to admit that her first answer was an evasion; but
something, an influence that always controlled her in Ben's presence,
prevented refusal. Slow of speech, deliberate of movement as he was,
there was about him a force that dominated her, even as she dominated
her parents, and, worst of all--to her inmost self she admitted the
fact--it fascinated her as well. With all her strength she rebelled
against the knowledge and combated the influence, but in vain. Instead
of replying, she chirruped to her horse. "It seems to me," she said,
"it's just as well to begin hunting here as to go further. I'm going on
ahead to ask papa and Mr. Rankin."

With a grave smile, Blair reached over and caught her bridle-rein,
saying carelessly: "Pardon me, but you forget something you were going
to tell me."

The girl's brown cheeks crimsoned anew, but this time there was no
hesitation in her reply.

"Very well, since you insist, I'll answer your question; but don't be
surprised if I offend you." A dainty hand tugged at the loosened button
of her riding-glove. "I'm going away, for one reason, because I want to
be where things move, and where I don't always know what is going to
happen to-morrow." She turned to her companion directly. "But most of
all, I'm going because I want to be among people who have ambitions, who
do things, things worth while. I am tired of just existing, like the
animals, from day to day. I was only a young girl when we were going to
school, but now I know why I liked that life so well. It was because of
the intense activity, the constant movement, the competition, the
evolution. I like it! I want to be a part of it!"

"Thank you for telling me," said Ben, quietly.

But now the girl was in no hurry to hasten on. She forgot that her
explanation was given under protest. It had become a confession.

"Up to the last few years I never thought much about the future--I took
it for granted; but since then it has been different. Unconsciously,
I've become a woman. All the little things that belong to women's lives,
too small to tell, begin to appeal to me. I want to live in a good house
and have good clothes and know people. I want to go to shops and
theatres and concerts; all these things belong to me and I intend to
have them."

"I think I understand," said Ben, slowly. "Yes, I'm sure I understand,"
he repeated.

But the girl did not heed him. "Last of all, there's another reason,"
she went on. "I don't know why I shouldn't speak it, as well as think
it, for it's the greatest of all. I'm a young woman. I won't remain such
long. I don't want to be a spinster. I know I'm not supposed to say
these things, but why not? I want to meet men, men of my own class, my
parents' class, men who know something besides the weight of a steer and
the value of a bronco,--some man I could respect and care for." Again
she turned directly to her companion. "Do you wonder I want to change,
that I want to leave these prairies, much as I like them?"

It was long before Ben Blair spoke. He scarcely stirred in his seat;
then of a sudden, rousing, he threw his leg back over the saddle.

"No," he said slowly, "I don't wonder--looking at things your way. It's
all in the point of view. But perhaps yours is wrong, maybe you don't
think of the other side of that life. There usually is another side to
everything, I've noticed." He glanced ahead. A half-mile on, the
blackboard had stopped, and Scotty was standing up on the seat and
motioning the laggards energetically.

"I think we'd better dust up a little. Your father seems to have struck
something interesting."

Florence seemed inclined to linger, but Scotty's waving cap was
insistent, and they galloped ahead.

They found Rankin sitting upon the wagon seat, smoking impassively as
usual; but the Englishman was upon the ground holding the two hounds by
the collars. Behind the big compound lenses his eyes were twinkling
excitedly, and he was smiling like a boy.

"Look out there!" he exclaimed with a jerk of his head, "over to the
west. We all but missed him! Are you ready?"

They all looked and saw, perhaps thirty rods away, a grayish-white
jack-rabbit, distinct by contrast with the brown earth. The hounds had
also caught sight of the game and pulled lustily at their collars.

Instantly Florence was all excitement. "Of course we're ready! No, wait
a second, until I see about my saddle." She dismounted precipitately.
"Tighten the cinch a bit, won't you, Ben? I don't mind a tumble, but it
might interfere at a critical moment." She put her foot in his extended
hand, and sprang back into her seat. "Now, I'm ready. Come on, Ben! Let
them go, papa! Be in at the finish if you can!" and, a second behind the
hounds, she was away. Simultaneously, the great jack-rabbit, scenting
danger, leaped forward, a ball of animate rubber, bounding farther and
farther as he got under full motion, speeding away toward the blue
distance.

The chase that followed was a thing to live in memory. From the nature
of the land, gently rolling to the horizon without an obstruction the
height of a man's hand, there was no possibility of escape for the
quarry. The outcome was as mathematically certain as a problem in
arithmetic; the only uncertain element was that of time. At first the
jack seemed to be gaining, but gradually the greater endurance of the
hounds began to count, and foot by foot the gap between pursuers and
pursued lessened. In the beginning the rabbit ran in great leaps, as
though glorying in the speed that it would seem no other animal could
equal, but very soon his movements changed; his ears were flattened
tight to his head, and, with every muscle strained to the utmost, he ran
wildly for his life.

Meanwhile, the four hunters were following as best they might. In the
all but soundless atmosphere, the rattle of the old buckboard could be
heard a quarter of a mile. Alternately losing and gaining ground as they
cut off angles and followed the diameter instead of the circumference of
the great circles the rabbit described, the drivers were always within
sight. Closer behind the hounds and following the same course, Florence
rode her thoroughbred like mad, with Ben Blair at her side. The pace was
terrific. The rush of the crisp morning air sang in their ears and cut
keenly at their faces. The tattoo of the horses' feet upon the hard
earth was continuous. Beneath her riding-cap, the girl's hair was
loosened and swept free in the wind. Her color was high, her eyes
sparkled. Never before had the man at her side seen her so fair to gaze
upon; but despite the excitement, despite the rush of action, there was
a jarring note in her beauty. Deep in his nature, ingrained, elemental,
was the love of fair play. Though he was in the chase and a part of it,
his sympathies were far from being with the hounds. That the girl should
favor the strong over the weak was something he could not understand--a
blemish that even her beauty did not excuse.

A quarter-hour passed. The sun rose from the lap of the prairie and
scattered the frost-crystals as though they had been mist. The chase was
near its end. All moved more slowly. A dozen times since they had
started, it seemed as if the hounds must soon catch their prey, that in
another second all would be over; but each time the rabbit had escaped,
had at the last instant shot into the air, while the hounds rushed
harmlessly beneath, and, ere they recovered, had gained a goodly lead
again in a new course. But now that time was past, and he was tired and
weak. It was a straight-away race, with the hounds scarcely twenty feet
behind. Back of the latter, perhaps ten rods, were the riders, still
side by side as at first. Their horses were covered with foam and
blowing steadily, but nevertheless they galloped on gallantly. Bringing
up the rear, just in sight but now out of sound, was the buckboard. Thus
they approached the finish.

Inch by inch the dogs gained upon the rabbit. Standing in his stirrups,
Ben Blair, the seemingly stolid, watched the scene. The twenty feet
lessened to eighteen, to fifteen, and, turning his head, the man looked
at his companion. Beautiful as she was, there now appeared to his eye an
expression of anticipation,--anticipation of the end, anticipation of a
death,--the death of a weaker animal!

A determination which had been only latent became positive with Blair.
He urged on his horse to the uttermost and sprang past his companion.
His right hand went to his hip and lingered there. His voice rang out
above the sound of the horses' feet and of their breathing.

"Hi, there, Racer, Pacer!" he shouted. "Come here!"

There was no response from the hounds; no sign that they had heard him.
They were within ten feet of the rabbit now, and no voice on earth could
have stopped them.

"Pacer! Racer!" shouted Ben. There was a pause, and then the quick bark
of a revolver. A puff of dust arose before the nose of the leading dog.

Again no response, only the steadily lessening distance.

For a second Ben Blair hesitated; but it was for a second only. Florence
watched him, too surprised to speak, and saw what for a moment made her
doubt her own eyes. The hand that held the big revolver was raised,
there was a report, then another, and the two dead hounds went tumbling
over and over with their own momentum upon the brown prairie. Beyond
them the rabbit bounded away into distance and safety.

Without a word Ben Blair drew rein, returned the revolver to its
holster, and came back to where the girl had stopped.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I'll pay you for the dogs, if you like."
A pause and a straight glance from out the blue eyes. "I couldn't help
doing what I did."

Having in mind the look he had last seen upon the girl's face, he
expected an explosion of wrath; but he was destined to surprise. There
was silence, instead, while two great tears gathered slowly in her soft
eyes, and brimmed over upon the brown cheeks.

"I don't want you to pay for the dogs; I'm glad they're gone." She
brushed back a straggling lock of hair. "It's a horrid sport, and I'll
never have anything to do with it again." A look that set the youth's
heart bounding shot out sideways from beneath the long lashes. "I'm very
glad you did--what you did."

Just then the noisy old buckboard, with Rankin and Scotty clinging to
the seat, drove up and stopped short, with a protest from every joint of
the ancient vehicle.



CHAPTER X

THE DOMINANT ANIMAL


The chance to sell his stock, ostensibly his reason for delaying
departure, came to Scotty Baker much more quickly than he had
anticipated. Within a week after the hunt--in the very first mail he
received, in fact--came an offer from a Minneapolis firm to take every
scrap of horse-flesh he could spare. With much compunction and a doleful
face he read the letter aloud in the family council.

"That means 'go' for sure, I suppose," he commented at its conclusion.

Involuntarily Florence laughed. "You look as though you'd just got word
that the whole herd had stampeded over a ravine, instead of having had a
wave of good fortune," she bantered. "I believe you'd still back out if
you could."

Scotty's face did not lighten. "I know I would," he admitted.

"We'll not give you the chance, though," broke in Mollie, with the first
indication of enthusiasm she had shown in many a day. "Florence and I
will begin packing right away, and you can carry the things along with
you when you drive the horses to town."

Scotty looked at his wife steadily and caught the trace of excitement in
her manner.

"Yes, that is a good suggestion," he replied slowly. "It's liable to
turn cold any time now, and as long as we're going it may as well be
before Winter sets in." He filled a stubby meerschaum pipe with tobacco,
and put on cap and coat preparatory to going out of doors. "I spoke to
Rankin about the place the other day," he added, "and he says he'll take
it and pay cash whenever I'm ready. I'll drive over and see him this
morning."

Rankin was not at home--so Ma Graham told Scotty when he arrived--and
probably he wouldn't return till afternoon; but Ben was around the barn
somewhere, more than likely out among the broncos. He usually was, when
he had nothing else in particular to do.

Following her direction the Englishman loitered out toward the stock
quarters, looked with interest into the big sheds where the haying
machinery was kept, stopped to listen to the rush of water through the
four-inch pipe of the artesian well, lit his pipe afresh, and moved on
reflectively to the first of the great stock-yards that stretched
beyond. A tight board fence, ten feet high, built as a windbreak on two
sides, obstructed his way; and he started to walk around it. At the end
the windbreak merged into a well-built fence of six wires, and, a
wagon's breadth between, a long row of haystacks, built as a further
protection against the wind. These, together with the wires, formed the
third side of the yard. Leaning on the latter, Scotty looked into the
enclosure, at first carelessly, then with interest. A moment later,
without making his presence known, he stepped back to the hay, and,
selecting a pile of convenient height, sat down in the sunshine to
watch.

What he saw was a tall slim young man, in chaparejos and sombrero, the
inevitable "repeater" at his hip, solitarily engaged in the process of
breaking a bronco. Ordinarily in this cattle-country the first time one
of these wiry little ponies is ridden is on a holiday or a Sunday,
whenever a company of spectators can be secured to assist or to applaud;
but this was not Ben Blair's way. By nature solitary, whenever possible
he did his work as he took his pleasure, unseen of men. At present, as
he went methodically about his business, he had no idea that a person
save Ma Graham was within miles, or that anyone anywhere had the
slightest interest in what he was doing.

"Yard One," as the cowboys designated this corral, was the most used of
any on the ranch. Save for a single stout post set solidly in its
centre, it was entirely clear, and under the feet of hundreds of cattle
had been tramped firm as a pavement. At present it contained a
half-dozen horses, and one of these, a little mustang that was Ben's
particular pride, he was just saddling when Scotty appeared; the others,
a wild-eyed, evil-looking lot, scattering meantime as far as the
boundaries of the corral would permit.

Very deliberately Ben mounted the pony, hitched up the legs of his
leather trousers, folded back the brim of the big sombrero, and
critically inspected the ponies before him. One of them, a demoniacal
looking buckskin, appeared more vixenish than the others, and very
promptly the youth made this selection; but to get in touch of the wily
little beast was another matter. Every time the rancher made a move
forward the herd found it convenient likewise to move, and to the limit
of the corral fence. Once clear around the yard the rider humored them;
and Scotty, the spectator, felt sure he must be observed. But Ben never
looked outside the fence.

Starting to make the circle a second time, the rancher spoke a single
word to the little mustang and they moved ahead at a gallop. Instantly
responsive, the herd likewise broke into a lope, maintaining their lead.
Twice, three times, faster and faster, the rider and the riderless
completed the circle, the hard ground ringing with the din, the dust
rising in a filmy cloud; then of a sudden the figure on the mustang
passed from inaction into motion, the left hand on the reins tightened
and turned the pony's head to the side, straight across the diameter of
the circle. Simultaneously the right dropped to the lariat coiled on the
pummel of the saddle, loosed it, and swung the noose at the end freely
in air. On galloped the broncos, unmindful of the trick--on around the
limiting fence, until suddenly they found almost in their midst the
animal, man, whom they so feared, whom they were trying so to escape.
Then for a moment there was scattering, reversal, confusion, a denser
cloud of dust; but for one of their number, the buckskin, it was too
late. Ben Blair rose in his stirrups, the rawhide rope that had been
circling above his sombrero shot out, spread, dropped over the uplifted
yellow head. The little mustang the man rode recognized the song of the
lariat; well he knew what would follow. In anticipation he stopped dead;
his front legs stiffened. There was a shock, a protest of straining
leather which Scotty could hear clear beyond the corral, as, checked
under speed, the buckskin rose on his hind-feet and all but lost his
balance. That instant was Blair's opportunity. He turned his mustang
swiftly and headed straight for the centre-post, dragging the struggling
and half-strangled bronco; he rode around the post, sprang from the
saddle, took a skilful half-hitch in the lariat--and the buckskin was a
prisoner.

Scotty polished his glasses excitedly. He was wondering how the sleek
young men with whom he would soon be mingling in the city would go at a
job like that; and he smiled absently.

To "snub" the bronco up to the post so that he could scarcely turn his
head was an easy matter. To exchange the bridle to the new mount was
also comparatively simple. To adjust the great saddle, with the
unwilling victim struggling like mad, was a more difficult task; but
eventually all these came to pass, and Ben paused a moment to inspect
his handiwork. To a tenderfoot observer it might have seemed that the
battle was about over; but as a matter of fact it had scarcely begun. To
chronicle on paper that a certain person on a certain day rode a certain
bronco for the first time sounds commonplace; but to one who has seen
the deviltry lurking in those wild prairie ponies' eyes, who knows their
dogged fighting disposition, the reality is very different.

Only a moment Ben Blair paused. Almost before Scotty had got his
spectacles back to his nose he saw the long figure spring into the
saddle, observed that the lariat which had held the bronco helpless to
the post had been removed, and knew that the fight was on in earnest.

And emphatically it was on. With his first leap the pony went straight
into the air, to come down with a mighty jolt, stiff-legged; but Ben
Blair sat through it apparently undisturbed. If ever an animal showed
surprise it was the buckskin then. For an instant he paused, looked back
at the motionless rider with eyes that seemed almost green, then
suddenly started away at full speed around the corral as though Satan
himself were in pursuit.

Instantly with the diminutive horse swift anger took the place of
surprise. Scotty, the spectator, could read it in the tightening of the
rippling muscles beneath the skin, in the toss of the sleek head. Fear
had passed long ago, if the little beast had ever really known the
sensation. It was now merely animal against animal, dogged obstinacy
against dogged tenacity, a fight until one or the other gave in, no
quarter asked or accepted.

As before, the bronco was the aggressor. One by one, so swiftly that
they formed a continuous movement, he tried all the tricks which
instinct or ingenuity suggested. He bucked, his hind-quarters in the air
until it seemed he would reverse. He reared up until his front feet were
on the level of a man's head, until Scotty held his breath for fear the
animal would lose his balance backward; but when he resumed the normal
he found the man, ever relentless, firmly in place, impassively awaiting
the next move. He grew more furious with each failure. The sweat oozed
out in drops that became trickling streams beneath the short hair. His
breath came more quickly, whistling through the wide nostrils. A new
light came into the gray-green eyes and flashed from them fiendishly. As
suddenly as he had made his previous attacks he played his last trump.
Like a ball of lead he dropped in his tracks and tried to roll; but the
great saddle prevented, and when he sprang up again, there, as firmly
seated as before, was the hated man upon his back.

Then overpowering and unreasoning anger, the wrath of a frenzied lion in
a cage, of a baited bull in a ring, took possession of the buckskin. He
went through his tricks anew, not methodically as before, but furiously,
desperately. The sweat churned into foam beneath the saddle and between
his legs. He screamed like a demon, until the other broncos retreated in
terror, and Scotty's hair fairly lifted on his head. But one idea
possessed him--to kill this being on his back, this hated thing he could
not move or dislodge. A suggestion of means came to him, and straight as
a line he made for the high board fence. There was no misunderstanding
his purpose.

Then for the first time Ben Blair roused himself. The hand on the rein
tightened, as the lariat had tightened, until the small head with the
dainty ears curled back in a half-circle. Simultaneously the long rowels
of a spur bit deep into the foaming flank, the swish of a quirt sounded
keenly, a voice broke out in one word of command, "Whoa!" and repeated,
"Whoa!"

It was like thunder out of a clear sky, like an unseen blow in the dark.
Within three feet of the fence the bronco stopped and stood trembling in
every muscle, expecting he knew not what.

It was the man's time now--the beginning of the end.

"Get up!" repeated the same authoritative voice, and the hand on the bit
loosened. "Get up!" and rowel and quirt again did their work.

In terror this time the bronco plunged ahead, felt the guiding rein, and
started afresh around the circle of the corral fence. "Get up!" repeated
Ben, and like a streak of yellowish light they spun about the trail.
Round and round they went, the body of the man and horse alike tilted in
at an angle, the other ponies plunging to clear the way. Scotty counted
ten revolutions; then he awaited the end. It was not long in coming. Of
a sudden, as before, directly in front of where he sat, the bridle-reins
tightened, and he heard the one word, "Whoa!" and pony and rider stopped
like figures in clay. For a moment they stood motionless, save for their
labored breathing; then very deliberately Ben Blair dismounted. Not a
movement did the buckskin make, either of offence or to escape; he
merely waited. Still deliberately, the man removed the saddle and
bridle, while not a muscle of the bronco's body stirred. Scotty watched
the scene in fascination. Every trace of anger was out of the pony's
gray-green eyes now, every indication of terror as well. Dozens of
horses the Englishman had seen broken; but one like this--never before.
It was as though in the last few minutes an understanding had come about
between this fierce wild thing and its conqueror; as though, like every
human being with whom he came in contact, the latter had dominated by
the sheer strength of his will. It was all but uncanny.

Slowly Blair laid the bridle beside the saddle, and stepping over to his
late mount he patted the damp neck and gently stroked the silken muzzle.

"I think, old boy, you'll remember me when we meet again," Scotty heard
him say. "Good luck to you meantime," and with a last pat he picked up
his riding paraphernalia and started for the sheds.

Scotty stood up. "Hello," he called.

Ben halted and turned about, looking his surprise.

"Well, in the name of all that's proper!" he ejaculated slowly; "where'd
you drop down from?"

Scotty smiled broadly; frank admiration for the dusty cowboy was in his
gaze.

"I didn't drop down at all; I walked around here about half an hour ago.
You were rather preoccupied at the time and didn't notice me."

Blair came back to the fence and swung over the saddle and bridle. "You
took in the whole show then?" he asked. A trace of color came into his
face, as he vaulted over the rails. "I hope you enjoyed it."

Scotty observed the latest feat, unconscious as its predecessor, with
augmented admiration. "I certainly did," he said, and the subject was
dropped.

The two men walked together toward the ranch-house.

"I came over to see Rankin," remarked the Englishman, "but I'm afraid
I'll have to wait a bit."

"I guess you will," replied Ben. "He went up to the north well this
morning. They're building some sheds up there, and he's superintending
the job. He's as liable to forget about dinner as not. Nothing I can do
for you, is there?"

Scotty thrust his hands into his pockets.

"No, I guess not. I came over to see about selling him my place. We're
going to leave in a few days."

Ben Blair made no comment, and for a moment they walked on in silence;
then an idea suddenly occurred to the Englishman.

"Come to think of it," he said, "there is something you can do for me.
Bill and I have got to drive all the stock over to the station. I'd be a
thousand times obliged if you would help us."

For a half-dozen steps Blair did not answer; then he turned fairly to
his companion.

"You won't be offended if I refuse?" he asked.

"No, certainly not."

"Well, then, I don't want to help you myself, but I'll get Grannis to go
with you. He'll be just as useful."

Ordinarily, despite his assertion to the contrary, Scotty would have
been offended; but he knew this long youth quite too well to
misunderstand.

"Would you mind telling me why you refuse?" he said at last.

Ben shifted the heavy saddle to his other shoulder.

"No, I don't mind," he said bluntly. "I won't help you because I don't
want you to go."

Scotty pondered, and a light dawned on his slow-moving brain. He looked
at Ben sympathetically. "My boy," he said, "I'm sorry for you; by Jove!
I am."

They were even with the horse-barn now, and without a word Ben went in
and hung up the saddle, each stirrup upon a nail. Relieved of his load
he came back, slapping the dust from his clothes with his big gauntlets.

"If it's a fair question," he asked, "why do I merit your sympathy?"

The Englishman's hands went deeper into his pockets.

"Why?" He all but stared. "Because you haven't a ghost of a chance with
Florence. She'd laugh at you!"

Ben's blue eyes were raised to a level with the other's glasses. "She'd
laugh at me, you think?" he asked quietly.

Scotty shifted uneasily. "Well, perhaps not that," he retracted, "but
anyway, you haven't a chance. I like you, Ben, and I'm dead sorry that
she is different. She comes, if I do say it, of a good family, and
you--" of a sudden the Englishman found himself floundering in deep
water.

"And I am--an unknown," Ben finished for him.

At that moment Scotty heartily wished himself elsewhere, but wishing did
not help him. "Yes, to put it baldly, that's the word. It's unfortunate,
damned unfortunate, but true, you know."

Ben's eyes did not leave the other man's face. "You've talked with her,
have you?" he asked.

Scotty fidgeted more than before, and swore silently that in future he
would keep his compassions to himself.

"No, I've never thought it necessary so far; but of course--"

Ben Blair lifted his head. "Don't worry, Mr. Baker, I'll tell her my
pedigree myself. I supposed she already knew--that everybody who had
ever heard of me knew."

Scotty forgot his nervousness. "You'll--tell her yourself, you say?"

"Certainly."

The Englishman said nothing. It seemed to him there was nothing to say.

For a moment there was silence. "Mr. Baker," said Blair at last, "as
long as we've started on this subject I suppose we might as well finish
it up. I love your daughter; that you've guessed. If I can keep her
here, I'll do so. It's my right; and if there's a God who watches over
us, He knows I'll do my best to make her happy. As to my mother, I'll
tell her about that myself--and consider the matter closed."

Again there was silence. As before, there seemed to the Englishman
nothing to say.

Blair turned toward the ranch-house. "I saw Ma Graham motioning for
dinner quite a while ago," he said. "Let's go in and eat."



CHAPTER XI

LOVE'S AVOWAL


A distinct path, in places almost a beaten road, connected the Box R and
the Baker ranches. Along it a tall slim youth was riding a buckskin
pony. He was clean-shaven and clean-shirted; but the shirt was of rough
brown flannel. His leather trousers were creased and baggy at the knees.
At his hip protruded the butt of a big revolver. Upon his head,
seemingly a load in itself, was a broad sombrero; and surrounding it,
beneath a band which at one time had been very gaudy but was now sobered
by sun and rain, were stuck a score or more of matches. Despite the
motion of the horse the youth was steadily smoking a stubby bull-dog
pipe.

The time was morning, early morning; it was Winter, and the sun was
still but a little way up in the sky. The day, although the month was
December, was as warm as September. There had not even been a frost the
previous night. Mother Nature was indulging in one of her many whims,
and seemed smiling broadly at the incongruity.

Though the rider was out thus early, his departure had been by no means
surreptitious. "I'm going over to Baker's, and may not be back before
night," he had said at the breakfast table; and, impassive as usual, the
older man had made no comment, but simply nodded and went about his
work. Likewise there was no subterfuge when the youth arrived at his
destination. "I came to see Florence," he announced to Scotty in the
front yard; then, as he tied the pony, he added: "I spoke to Grannis,
and he said he'd come over and help you. Do you know exactly when you'll
want him?"

"Yes, day after to-morrow. This weather is too good to waste."

Ben turned toward the house. "All right. I'll see that he's over here
bright and early."

The visitor found the interior of the Baker home looking like a corner
in a storage warehouse. Florence, in a big checked apron reaching to her
chin, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, was busily engaged in still
further dismantling the once cosey parlor. Amidst the confusion, and
apparently a part of it, Mrs. Baker wandered aimlessly about. The front
door was wide open, letting in a stream of sunlight.

"Good-morning," said Ben, appearing in the doorway.

Mrs. Baker stopped long enough to nod, and Florence looked up from her
work.

"Good-morning," she replied. A deliberate glance took in the new-comer's
dress from head to foot, and lingered on the exposed revolver hilt. "Are
you hunting Indians or bear?"

Ben Blair returned the look, even more deliberately.

"Bear, I judge from the question. I came in search of you."

There was no answer, and the man came in and sat down on the corner of
a box. "You seem to be very busy," he said.

The girl went on with her packing. "Yes, rather busy," she said
indifferently.

Ben dangled one long leg over the side of the box.

"Are you too busy to take a ride with me? I want to talk with you."

"I'm pretty busy," non-committally.

"Suppose I should ask it as a favor?"

"Suppose I should decline?"

The long leg stopped its swinging. "You wouldn't, though."

The girl's brown eyes flashed. "How do you know I wouldn't?"

Ben stood up and folded his arms. "Because it would be the first favor I
ever asked of you, and you wouldn't refuse that."

They eyed each other a moment.

"Where do you want to go?" temporized Florence.

"Anywhere, so it's with you."

"You don't want to stay long?"

"I'll come back whenever you say."

Florence rolled down her sleeves and sighed with assumed regret. "I
ought to stay here and work."

"I'll help you when we come back, if you like."

"Very well." She said it hesitatingly.

"All right. I'll get your horse ready for you."

Scotty watched them peculiarly, Molly doubtfully, as they rode out of
the ranch yard; but neither made any comment, and they moved away in
silence.

"That's an odd looking pony you've got there," remarked the girl
critically, when they had turned into the half-beaten trail which led
south. "How does it happen you're on him instead of the other?"

Ben patted the smooth neck before him, and the pony twitched his ears
appreciatively.

"Buckskin and I had the misfortune not to meet until lately. We just got
acquainted a few days ago."

The girl glanced at her companion quickly and caught the look upon his
face.

"I believe you're fonder of your horses and cattle and things than you
are of people," she flashed.

The man's hand continued patting the pony's yellow neck.

"More fond than I am of some people, maybe you meant to say."

"Perhaps so," she conceded.

"Yes, I think I am," he admitted. "They're more worthy. They never abuse
a kindness, and never come down to the insult of class distinctions.
They're the same to-day, to-morrow, a year from now. They'll work
themselves to death for you, instead of sacrificing you to their
personal gain. Yes, they make better friends than some people."

Florence smiled as she glanced at her companion.

"Is that what you want to tell me? If it is, seeing I've just made my
choice and decided to return to civilization and mingle with human
beings of whom you have such a poor opinion, I think we may as well go
back. Mamma and I have been racking our brains for two days to find a
place for the china, and I've just thought of one."

Blair was silent a moment; then he said, "I promised to return whenever
you wished, but I've not said what I wanted to say yet."

Florence looked at the speaker with feigned surprise. "Is that so? I'm
very curious to hear!"

Ben returned the look deliberately. "You'd like to hear now what I have
to say?"

The girl's breath came more quickly, but she persisted in her banter. "I
can scarcely wait!"

The line of the youth's big jaw tightened, "I won't keep you in suspense
any longer then. First of all, I want to relate a little personal
history. I was eight years old, as you know, when I was taken into the
Box R ranch. In those eight years, as far as I can remember, not one
person except Mr. Rankin ever called at my mother's home."

Again the girl felt a thrill of anticipation, but the brown eyes opened
archly. "You must have kept a big fierce dog, or--or something."

"No, that was not the reason."

"I can't imagine what it could be, then."

"The explanation is simple. My mother and Tom Blair were never married."

Swiftly the color mounted into Florence's cheeks, and she drew up her
horse with a jerk.

"So that is what you brought me out here to tell me!" she blazed.

Ben drew up likewise, and wheeled his pony facing hers.

"I beg your pardon, but I'm not to blame for the way I told you--of
myself. You forced it. For once in my life at least, Florence, I'm in
dead earnest to-day."

The girl hesitated. Tears of anger, or of something else, came into her
eyes. "I'm going home," she announced briefly, and turned back the way
they had come.

The man silently wheeled his buckskin and for five minutes, ten minutes,
they rode toward home together.

"Florence," said the youth steadily, "I had something more I wished to
say to you; will you listen?"

No answer--only the sound of the solid steps of the thoroughbred and the
daintier tread of the mustang.

"Florence," he repeated, "I asked you a question."

The girl's face was turned away. "Oh, you are cruel!" she said.

Ben touched his pony, advanced, caught the bridle of the girl's horse,
and brought both to a standstill. The girl did not turn her head to look
at him, but she did not resist. Deliberately the man dismounted, loosed
the rolled blanket he carried back of his saddle, spread it upon the
ground, then looked fairly up into her brown eyes.

"Florence," he said, as he held out his hand to assist her to dismount,
"I've something I wish very much to say to you. Won't you listen?"

Florence Baker looked steadily down into the clear blue eyes. Why she
did not refuse she could not have told, could never tell. As well as she
knew her own name she realized what was coming--what it was the man
wished to say to her; but she did not refuse to listen.

"Florence," he said gently, "I'm waiting," and as in a dream she
stepped into the proffered hand, felt herself lowered to the ground,
followed the young man over to the blanket, and sat down. The sun, now
high above them, shone down warmly and approvingly. Scarcely a breath of
air was stirring. Not a sound came from over the prairies. As completely
as though they were the only two people on the earth, they were alone.

The man stretched himself at his companion's feet, where he could look
into her face and catch its every expression.

"Florence Baker," his voice came to her ears like the sound of one
speaking afar off, "Florence Baker, I love you. In all that I'm going to
say, bear this in mind; don't forget it for a moment. To me you will
always be the one woman on earth. Why I haven't told you this before,
why I waited until you were passing from my life before I said it, I
don't know; but now I'm as sure as that I'm looking at you that it is
so." The blue eyes never shifted. Presently one big strong hand reached
over and enfolded within its grasp another tiny resistless hand, which
lay there passive.

"You're getting ready to go away, Florence," he went on, "leaving this
country where you've spent almost your life, changing it for an
uncertainty. Don't do it--not for my sake, but for your own. You know
nothing of the city, its pleasures, its rush, its excitement, its
ambitions. Granted that you've been there, that we've both been there;
but we were only children then and couldn't see beneath the thinnest
surface. Yet there must be something beneath the glitter, something
you've never thought of and cannot realize; something which makes the
life hateful to those who have felt and known it. I don't know what it
is, you don't; but it must be there. If it weren't so, why would men
like your father, like Mr. Rankin, college men, men of wealth, men who
have seen the world, leave the city and come here to stay? They were
born in cities, raised in cities. The city was a part of their life; but
they left it, and are glad." The man clasped the little hand more
tightly, shook it gently. "Florence, are you listening?"

"Yes, I'm listening."

"I repeat then, don't go. You belong here. This life is your life.
Everything that is best for your happiness you will find here. You spoke
the other day of your birthright--to love and to be loved--as though
this could only be realized in a city. Do you think I don't care for you
as much as though my home were in a town?"

Passive, motionless, Florence listened, feeling the subtle sympathy
which ever existed between her and this boy-man drawing them closer
together. His strong magnetism, never before so potent, gripped her
almost like a physical force. His personality, original, masterful,
convincing, fascinated her. For the time the tacit consent of her
position never occurred to her. It seemed but natural and fitting that
he should hold her hand. She had no desire to speak or move, merely to
listen.

"Florence," the voice was very near now, and very low. "Florence, I love
you. I can't have you go away, can't have you pass out of my life. I'll
do anything for you,--live for you, die for you, fight for you, slave
for you,--anything but give you up." Of a sudden his arms were about
her, his lips touched her cheek. "Can't you love me in return? Speak to
me, tell me--for I love you, Florence!"

The girl started, and drew away involuntarily. "Oh, don't, don't! please
don't!" she pleaded. The dream faded, and she awoke to the reality of
her position. The brown head bowed, dropped into her hands. Her whole
body shook. "Oh, what have I done!" she sobbed. "Oh, what have I done!
Oh--oh--oh--"

For a time, neither of them realized nor cared how long, they sat side
by side, though separate now. Warmly and brightly as before, the sun
shone down upon them. A breath of breeze, born of the heated earth,
wandered gently over the land. The big thoroughbred shifted on its feet
and whinnied suggestively.

Gradually the girl's hysterical weeping grew quieter. The sobs came less
frequently, and at last ceased. Ben Blair slowly arose, folded his arms,
and waited. Another minute passed. Florence Baker, the storm over,
glanced up at her companion--at first hesitatingly, then openly and
soberly. She stood up, almost at his side; but he did not turn. Awe,
contrition, strange feelings and emotions flooded her anew. She reached
out her hand and touched him on the arm; at first hesitatingly, then
boldly, she leaned her head against his shoulder.

"Ben," she pleaded, "Ben, forgive me. I've hurt you terribly; but I
didn't mean to. I am as I am; I can't help it. I can't promise to do
what you ask--can't say I love you now, or promise to love you in the
future." She looked up into his face. "Won't you forgive me?"

Still the man did not turn. "There's nothing to forgive, Florence," he
said sadly. "I misunderstood it all."

"But there is something for me to say," she went on swiftly. "I knew
from the first what you were going to tell me, and knew I couldn't give
you what you asked; yet I let you think differently. It's all my fault,
Ben, and I'm so sorry!" She gently and timidly stroked the shoulder of
the rough flannel shirt. "I should have stopped you, and told you my
reasons; but they seemed so weak, and somehow I couldn't help listening
to you." There was a hesitating pause. "Would you like to hear my
reasons now?"

"Just as you please." There was no unkindness in the voice--only
resignation and acceptance of the hard fact she had already made known
to him.

Florence hesitated. A catch came into her throat, and she dropped her
head to the broad shoulder as before.

"Ben, Ben!" she almost sobbed, "I can't tell you, after all. It'll only
hurt you again."

He was looking out over the prairies, watching the heat-waves that arose
in fantastic circles, as in Spring. "You can't hurt me again," he said
wearily.

The vague feeling of irreparable loss gripped the girl anew; but this
time she rushed on desperately, in spite of it. "Oh, why couldn't I have
met you somewhere else, under different circumstances?" she wailed. "Why
couldn't your mother have been--different?" She paused, the brown head
raised, the loosened hair tossed back in abandon. "Maybe, as you say,
it's a rainbow I'm seeking. Maybe I'll be sorry; but I can't help it. I
want them all--the things of civilization. I want them all," she
finished abruptly.

Gently the man disengaged himself. "Is that all you wished to say?"

"Yes," hesitatingly, "I guess that's all."

Ben picked up the blanket and returned it to his saddle; then he led the
horse to the girl's side. "Can I help you up?"

His companion nodded. The youth held down his hand, and upon it Florence
mounted to the saddle as she had done many times before. The thought
came to her that it might be the last time.

Not a word did Ben speak as they rode back to the ranch-house; not once
did he look at his companion. At the door he held out his hand.

"Good-bye," he said simply.

"Good-bye," she echoed feebly.

Ben made his adieu to Mrs. Baker, and then rode out to the barn where
Scotty was working. "Good-bye," he repeated. "We'll probably not meet
again before you go." The expression upon the Englishman's face caught
his eye. "Don't," he said. "I'd rather not talk now."

Scotty gripped the extended hand and shook it heartily.

"Good-bye," he said, with misty eyes.

The youth wheeled the buckskin and headed for home. Florence and her
mother were still standing in the doorway watching him, and he lifted
his big sombrero; but he did not glance at them, nor turn his head in
passing.



CHAPTER XII

A DEFERRED RECKONING


Time had dealt kindly with the saloon of Mick Kennedy. A hundred
electric storms had left it unscathed. Prairie fires had passed it by.
Only the relentless sun and rain had fastened the mark of their
handiwork upon it and stained it until it was the color of the earth
itself. Within, man had performed a similar office. The same old
cottonwood bar stretched across the side of the room, taking up a third
of the available space; but no stranger would have called it cottonwood
now. It had become brown like oak from continuous saturation with
various colored liquids; and upon its surface, indelible record of the
years, were innumerable bruises and dents where heavy bottles and
glasses had made their impress under impulse of heavier hands. The
continuous deposit of tobacco smoke had darkened the ceiling, modulating
to a lighter tone on the walls. The place was even gloomier than before,
and immeasurably filthier under the accumulated grime of a dozen years.
Once in their history the battered tables had been recovered, but no one
would have guessed it now. The gritty decks of cards had been often
replaced, but from their appearance they might have been those with
which Tom Blair long ago bartered away his honor.

Time had left its impress also on bartender Mick. A generous sprinkling
of gray was in his hair; the single eye was redder and fiercer, seeming
by its blaze to have consumed the very lashes surrounding it; the cheeks
were sunken, the great jaw and chin prominent from the loss of teeth.
Otherwise Mick was not much changed. The hand which dealt out his wares,
which insisted on their payment to the last nickel, was as steady as of
yore. His words were as few, his control of the reckless and often
drunken frequenters was as perfect. He was the personified spirit of the
place--crafty, designing, relentless.

Bob Hoyt, the foreman, shambled into Mick's lair at the time of day when
the lights were burning and smoking on the circling shelf. He peered
through the haze of tobacco smoke at the patrons already present,
received a word from one and a stare from another, but from none an
invitation to join the circle.

Bob sidled up to the bar where Kennedy was impassively waiting. "Warmer
out," he advanced.

Mick made no comment. "Something?" he suggested.

Bob's colorless eyes blinked involuntarily. "Yes, a bit of rye."

Mick poured a very small drink into a whiskey glass, set it with another
of water before the customer, on a big card tacked upon the wall added a
fresh line to those already succeeding the other's name, and leaned his
elbows once more upon the bar.

Upon the floor of his mouth Bob Hoyt laid a foundation of water, over
this sent down the fiery liquor with a gulp, and followed the retreat
with the last of the water, unconsciously making a wry face.

Kennedy whisked the empty glasses through the doubtful contents of a
convenient pail, and set them dripping upon a perforated shelf. "Found
the horses yet?" he queried, in an undertone.

Bob shifted uncomfortably and searched for a place for his hands, but
finding none he let them hang awkwardly over the rail of the bar.

"No, not even a trail."

"Looked, have you?" The single searchlight turned unwinkingly upon the
other's face.

"Yes, I've been out all day. Made a circle of the places within forty
miles--Russel's of the Circle R, Stetson's of the 'XI,' Frazier's,
Rankin's--none of them have seen a sign of a stray."

"That settles it, then. Those horses were stolen." The red face with its
bristle of buff and gray came closer. "I didn't think they'd strayed.
The two best horses on a ranch don't wander off by chance; if they'd
been broncos it might have been different. It's the same thing as three
years ago; pretty nearly the same date too--early in January it was, you
remember!"

Bob's long head nodded confirmation. "Yes. We thought then they'd come
around all right in the next round up, but they didn't, and never have."

Kennedy stepped back, spread his hands palm down upon the bar, leaned
his full weight upon them, and gazed meditatively at the other occupants
of the room. A question was in his mind. Should he take these men into
his confidence and trust to their well-known method of dealing with
rustlers--a method very effective when successful in catching the
offender, but infinitely deficient in finesse--or depend wholly upon his
own ingenuity? He decided that in this instance the latter offered
little hope. His province was in dealing with people at close range.

"Boys,"--his voice was normal, but not a man in the room failed to give
attention,--"boys, line up! It's on the house."

Promptly the card games ceased. In one, the pot lay as it was, its
ownership undecided, in the centre of the table. The loungers' feet
dropped to the floor. An inebriate, half dozing in the corner, awoke.
Well they knew it was for no small reason that Mick interrupted their
diversions. Up they came--Grover of the far-away "XXX" ranch, who had
been here for two days now, and had lost the price of a small herd;
Gilbert of the "Lost Range," whose brand was a circle within a circle;
Stetson of the "XI," a short heavy-set man, with an immovable pugilist's
face, to-night, as usual, ahead of the game; Thompson, one-armed but
formidable, who drove the stage and kept the postoffice and inadequate
general store just across to the north of the saloon; McFadden, a wiry
little Scotchman with sandy whiskers, Rankin's nearest neighbor to the
south; a half-dozen lesser lights, in distinction from the big ranchers
called by their first names, "Buck" or "Pete" or "Bill" as the case
might be, mere cowmen employed at a salary. Elbow to elbow they leaned
upon the supporting bar, awaiting with interest the something they knew
Kennedy had to say.

Kennedy did not ask a single man what he would have. It was needless.
Silently he placed a glass before each, and starting a bottle of red
liquor at one end of the line, he watched it, as, steadily emptying, it
passed on down to the end.

"I never use it, you know," he explained, as, the preparation complete,
they looked at him expectantly.

"Take something else, then," pressed McFadden.

Mick poured out a glass of water and set it on the bar before him; but
not an observer smiled. They knew the man they were dealing with.

"All right, boys,"--McFadden's glass went up on a level with his eye,
and one and all the others followed the motion,--"all right, boys!
Here's to you, Kennedy!"--mouthing the last word as though it were a hot
pebble, and in unison the dozen odd hands led the way to their
respective owners' mouths. There was a momentary pause; then a musical
clinking, as the empty glasses returned to the board. Silence, expectant
silence, returned.

"Boys,"--Mick looked from face to face intimately,--"we've got work
ahead. Hoyt here reported this morning that two of the best horses on
the Big B were missing. He's made a forty-mile circuit to-day, and no
one has seen anything of them. You all know what that means."

Stetson turned to the foreman. "What time did you see them last, Hoyt?"

"About nine last evening."

"Sure?"

Bob's long head nodded emphatically. "Yes, one of the boys had the team
out mending fence in the afternoon, and when he was through he turned
them into the corral with the broncos. I'm sure they were there."

"I'm not surprised," commented Thompson, swinging on his single elbow to
face the others. "It's been some time now since we've had a necktie
party and it's bound to come. The wonder is it hasn't come before."

Gilbert and Grover, comparatively elderly men, said nothing, looked
nothing; but upon the faces of the half-dozen cowboys there appeared
distinct anticipation. The hunt of a "rustler" appealed to them as a
circus does to a small boy, as the prospect of a football game does to a
college student.

Meanwhile, McFadden had been thinking. One could always tell when this
process was taking place with the Scotchman, from his habit of tapping
his chest with his middle finger as though beating time to the movement
of his mental machinery.

"Got any plan, Kennedy?" he queried. "Whoever's done you has got a good
start by this time; but if we're going to do anything, there's no use in
giving him longer. How about it?"

Mick's single eye shifted as before, and went from face to face. "No, I
haven't; but I've got an idea." A pause. "How many of you boys remembers
Tom Blair?" he digressed.

"I do," said Grover.

"Same here." It was Gilbert of the Lost Range who spoke.

"I've heard of him," commented one of the cowboys.

"I guess we all have," added another.

Again Mick's eye, like a flashlight, passed from man to man.

"Well," he announced, "I may be wrong, but I've got reason to believe it
was Tom Blair who did the job last night, and that he's somewhere this
side the river right now."

For a moment there was silence, while the idea took root.

"I supposed he was dead long ago," remarked Stetson at last.

"So did I, until a month ago--until the last time I was in town stocking
up. I met a fellow there then from the country west of the river, and it
all came out. Blair's been stampin' that range for a year, and they're
suspicious of him. He disappears every now and then, and they think he
keeps in with a gang of rustlers who have their headquarters over in the
Johnson's Hole country in Wyoming. The fellow said he kept up
appearances by claiming he owned a ranch on this side--the Big B. That's
how we came to speak of him."

"Queer," commented Stetson, "that if it's Blair, he hasn't been around
before. It's been ten years now since he disappeared, hasn't it?"

"More than that," corrected Mick. "That's another reason I believe it's
him; that, and the fact that I didn't do nothin' the last time I was
held up. It must be one lone rustler who's operating or there'd be
more'n a couple of hosses missing. Then it must be some feller that
knows the Big B, and has a particular grudge against it, or why would
they have passed the Broken Kettle or the Lone Buffalo on the west?
Morris has a whole herd, and his main hoss sheds are in an old creek-bed
a mile away from the ranch-house. I tell you it's some feller who knows
this country and knows me."

"I believe you're right about him being this side of the river," broke
in Thompson. "When I was over after the mail two days ago there was
water running on the ice; and it's been warmer since. It must be wide
open in spots now. A man who knows the crossings might make it afoot,
but he couldn't take a hoss over."

Mick's lone eye burned more ominously than before. "Of course he can't.
He's run into a trap, and all we've got to do is to make a spread and
round him up. I'll bet a hundred to one we find him somewhere this side,
waiting for a freeze." Again the half-emptied bottle came from the shelf
and passed to the end of the line. "Have another whiskey on me, boys."

They silently drank. Then grim Stetson suggested that they drink
again--"to our success"; and cowboy Buck, not to be outdone, proposed
another toast--"to the necktie party--after." The big bottle, empty now,
dinned on the surface of the bar.

"By God! I hope we get him," flamed Grover. "He ought to be hung,
anyway. He killed his wife and burned up the body, they say, before he
left!"

"Someone must call for Rankin and Ben," suggested another, "Ben
particularly. He ought to be there at the finish. Lord knows he's got
grudge enough."

"We'll let him pull the trap," broke in Stetson grimly.

Of a sudden above the confusion there sounded a snarl, almost like the
cry of an animal. Surprised, for the moment silenced, the men turned in
the direction whence it had come.

"Rankin!" It was Mick Kennedy who spoke, but it was Mick transformed.
"Rankin!" The great veins of the bartender's neck swelled; the red face
congested until it became all but purple. "No! We won't go near him!
He'd put a stop to the whole thing. What we want is men, not cowards!"

A moment only the silence lasted. "All right," agreed Stetson. "Have
another, boys! We'll drop Rankin!"

Anew, louder than before, broke forth the confusion. The games of a
short time ago were forgotten. A heap of coin lay on the shelf behind
the bar where Mick, the banker, had placed it; but winner and loser
alike ignored its existence. The savage, ever so near the surface of
these rough frontiersmen, had taken complete possession of them. Drop
Rankin--forget civilization--ignore the slow practices of law and order!

"Come on!" someone yelled. "We're enough to do the business. To the
river!"

Instantly the crowd burst through the single front door. Momentarily
there followed a lull, while in the half darkness each rider found his
mount. Then sounded an "All ready!" from cowboy Buck, first in motion, a
straining of leather, a swish of quirts, a grunting of ponies as the
spurs dug into their flanks, a rush of leaping feet, a wild medley of
yells, and westward across the prairie, beneath the stars, there passed
a swiftly moving black shadow that grew momentarily lighter, and back
from which came a patter, patter, patter, that grew softer and softer;
until at last over the old saloon and its companion store fell silence
absolute.

It was 10:28 when they left Kennedy's place. It was 12:36 when, without
having for a moment stopped their long swinging gallop, they pulled up
at the "Lone Buffalo" ranch, twenty-five miles away, and the last ranch
before they reached the river. The house was dark and silent as the
grave at their approach; but it did not remain so long. The display of
fireworks with which they illumined the night would have done credit to
an Independence Day celebration. The yells which accompanied it were
hair-raising as the shrieks from a band of maniacs. Instantly lights
began to burn, and the proprietor himself, Grey--a long Southerner with
an imperial--came rushing to the door, a revolver in either hand.

But the visitors had not waited for him. With one impulse they had
ridden straight into the horse corral, had thrown off saddles and
bridles from their steaming mounts, and, every man for himself, had
chosen afresh from the ranch herd. Passing out in single-file through
the gate, they came upon Grey; but still they did not stop. The one word
"rustler" was sufficient password, and not five minutes from the time
they arrived they were again on the way, headed straight southwest for
their long ride to the river.

Hour after hour they forged ahead. The mustangs had long since puffed
themselves into their second wind, and, falling instinctively into their
steady swinging lope, they moved ahead like machines. The country grew
more and more rolling, even hilly. From between the tufts of buffalo
grass now and then protruded the white face of a rock. Over one such,
all but concealed in the darkness, Grover's horse stumbled, and with a
groan, the rancher beneath, fell flat to earth. By a seeming miracle the
man arose, but the horse did not, and an examination showed the jagged
edge of a fractured bone protruding through the hide at the shoulder.
There was but one thing to do. A revolver spoke its message of relief, a
hastily-cast lot fell to McFadden, and without a word he faced his own
mount back the way they had come, assisted Grover to a place behind him,
turned to wish the others good luck, and found himself already too late.
Where a minute ago they had been standing there was now but vacancy. The
night and the rolling ground had swallowed the avengers up as completely
as though they had never existed; and the Scotchman rode slowly back.

It was yet dark, but the eastern sky was reddening, when they reached
the chain of bluffs bordering the great river. They had made their plans
before, so that now without hesitating they split as though upon the
edge of a mighty wedge, half to the right, half to the left, each
division separating again into its individual members, until the whole,
like two giant hands whereof the cowboys, half a mile apart from each
other, were the fingers, moved forward until the end finger all but
touched the river itself.

Still there was no pause. The details had been worked out to a nicety.
They had bent far to the south, miles farther than any man aiming at the
Wyoming border would have gone, and now, having arrived at the barrier,
they wheeled north again. It was getting daylight, and cowboy Pete,--in
our simile the left little finger,--first to catch sight of the surface
of the stream, waved in triumph to the nearest rider on his right.

"We've got him, sure!" he yelled. "She's open in spots"; and though the
others could not hear, they understood the meaning, and the message went
on down the line.

On, on, more swiftly now, at a stiff gallop, for it was day, the riders
advanced. As they moved, first one rider and then another would
disappear, as a depression in the uneven country temporarily swallowed
them up--but only to reappear again over a prominent rise, still
galloping on. They watched each other closely now, searching the
surrounding country. They were nearing a region where they might expect
action at any moment,--the remains of a camp-fire, a clue to him they
sought,--for it was on a line directly west of the Big B ranch.

And they were not to be disappointed. Observing closely, Stetson, who
was nearest to Pete, saw the latter suddenly draw up his horse and come
to a full stop. At last the end had arrived--at last; and the rancher
turned to motion to his right. Only a moment the action took, but when
he shifted back he saw a sight which, stolid gambler as he was, sent a
thrill through his nerves, a mumbling curse to his lips. Coming toward
him, crazy-scared, bounding like an antelope, mane flying, stirrups
flapping, was the pony Pete had ridden, but now riderless. Of the cowboy
himself there was not a sign. Stetson had not heard a sound or caught a
motion. Nevertheless, he understood. Somewhere near, just to the west,
lay death, death in ambush; but he did not hesitate. Whatever his
faults, the man was no coward. A revolver in either hand, the reins in
his teeth, he spurred straight for the river.

It took him but a minute to cover the distance--a minute until, almost
by the rivers bank, he saw ahead on the brown earth the sprawling form
of a dead man. With a jerk he drew up alongside, and, the muzzles of big
revolvers following his eye, sent swiftly about him a sweeping glance.
Of a sudden, three hundred yards out, seemingly from the surface of the
river itself, he caught a tiny rising puff of smoke, heard
simultaneously a sound he knew so well,--the dull spattering impact of a
bullet,--realized that the pony beneath him was sinking, felt the shock
as his own body came to earth, and heard just over his head the singing
passage of a rifle-ball.

Unconscious profanity flowed from the rancher's lips in a stream; but
meanwhile his brain worked swiftly, and, freeing himself, he crawled
back hand over hand until a wave in the ground covered the river from
view; then springing to his feet he ran toward the others, approaching
now as fast as spurs would bring them, waving, shouting a warning as he
went. Within a minute they were all together listening to his story.
Within another, the rifles from off their saddles in their hands, the
ponies left in charge of lank Bob Hoyt, the eight others now remaining
moved back as Stetson had come: at first upright, then, crawling, hand
over hand until, peeping over the intervening ridge, they saw lying
before them the mingled ice patches and open running water of the
low-lying Missouri. Beside them at their left, very near, was the body
of Pete; but after a first glance and an added invective no man for the
present gave attention. He was dead, dead in his tracks, and their
affair was not with such, but with the quick.

At first they could see nothing which explained the mystery of death,
only the forbidding face of the great river; then gradually to one after
another there appeared tell-tale marks which linked together into clues.

"Ain't that a hoss-carcass?" It was cowboy Buck who spoke. "Look, a
hundred yards out, down stream."

Gilbert's swift glance caught the indicated object.

"Yes, and another beyond--farther down--amongst that ice-pack! Do you
see?"

"Where?" Mick Kennedy trained his one eye like a fieldpiece upon the
locality suggested. "Where? Yes! I see them now--both of them. Blair's
own horse, if he had one, is probably in there too, somewhere."

Meanwhile Stetson had been scrutinizing the spot on the river's face
from which had come the puff of smoke.

"Say, boys!" a ring as near excitement as was possible to one of his
temperament was in his voice. "Ain't that an island, that brown patch
out there, pretty well over to the other side? I believe it is."

The others followed his glance. Near the farther bank was a long
low-lying object, like a jam of broken ice-cakes, between which and them
the open water was flowing. At first they thought it was ice; then under
longer observation they knew better. They had seen too many other
formations of the kind in this shifting treacherous stream to be long
deceived. A flat sandy island it was, sure enough; and what they thought
was ice was driftwood.

Almost simultaneously from the eight there burst forth an exclamation, a
rumbling curse of comprehension. They understood it all now as plainly
as though their own eyes had seen the tragedy. Blair had reached the
river and, despite its rotten ice, had tried to cross. One by one the
horses had broken through, had been abandoned to their fate. He alone,
somehow, had managed to reach this sandy island, and he was there now,
intrenched behind the driftwood, waiting and watching.

In the brain of every cowboy there formed an unuttered curse. Their
impotence to go farther, to mete out retribution to this murderer of
their companion, came over them in a blind wave of fury. The sun, now
well above the horizon, shone warmly down upon them. They were in the
midst of an infrequent Winter thaw. The full current of the river was
between them and the desperado. It might be days, a week, before ice
would again form; yet, connecting the island with the western bank, it
was even now in place. Blair had but to wait until cover of night, and
depart in peace--on foot, to be sure, but in the course of days a man
could travel far afoot. Doubtless he realized all this. Doubtless he was
laughing at them now. The curses redoubled.

Stetson had been taking off his coat. He now draped it about his
rifle-stock, and placed his sombrero on top. "All ready, boys," he
cautioned, and raised it slowly into view.

Instantly from the centre of the driftwood heap there arose a tracing of
blue smoke. Simultaneously, irregular in outline as though punched by a
dull instrument, a jagged hole appeared in the felt of the hat.

As instantly, eight rifles on the bank began to play. The crackling of
their reports was like infantry, the sliding click of the ejecting
mechanism as continuous and regular as the stamp-stamp of many presses.
The smoke rose over their heads in a blue cloud. Far out on the river,
under impact of the bullets, splinters of the rotted driftwood leaped
high into the air. Now and then the open water in front splashed into
spray as a ball went amiss. Not until the rifle magazines were empty did
they cease, and then only to reload. Again and once again they repeated
the onslaught, until it would seem no object the size of a human being
upon the place where they aimed could by any possibility remain alive.
Then, and not until then, did silence return, did the dummy upon
Stetson's rifle again raise its head.

But this time there was no response. They waited a minute, two
minutes--tried the ruse again, and it was as before. Had they really hit
the man out there, as they hoped, or was he, conscious of a trick,
merely lying low? Who could tell? The uncertainty, the inaction, goaded
all that was reckless in cowboy Buck's nature, and he sprang to his
feet.

"I'm going out there if I have to walk on the bottom of the river!" he
blazed.

Instantly Stetson's hands were on his legs, pulling him, prostrate.

"Down, you fool!" he growled. "At the bottom of the river is where you'd
be quick enough." The speaker turned to the others. "One of us is done
for already. There's no use for the rest to risk our lives without a
show. We've either potted Blair or we haven't. There's nothing more to
be done now, anyway. We may as well go back."

For a moment there was a murmur of dissent, but it was short-lived. One
and all realized that what the rancher said was true. For the present at
least, nature was against them, on the side of the outlaw; and to combat
nature was useless. Another time--yes, there would surely be another
time; and grim faces grew grimmer at the thought. Another time it would
be different.

"Yes, we may as well go." It was Mick Kennedy who spoke. "We can't stay
here long, that's sure." He tossed his rifle over to Stetson. "Carry
that, will you?" and rising, regardless of danger, he walked over to
cowboy Pete, took the dead body in his arms, without a glance behind
him, stalked back to where the horses were waiting, laid his burden
almost tenderly across the shoulder of his own mustang, and mounted
behind. Coming up, the others, likewise in silence, got into their
saddles, not as at starting, with one bound, but heavily, by aid of
stirrups. Still in silence, Mick leading, the legs of dead Pete dangling
at the pony's shoulder, they faced east, and started moving slowly along
the backward trail.



CHAPTER XIII

A SHOT IN THE DARK


Winter, long delayed, came at last in earnest. On the morning of the
seventeenth of January--the ranchers did not soon forget the date--a
warm snow, soft with moisture, drove tumbling in from the east. All the
morning it came, thicker and thicker, until on the level, several inches
had fallen; then, so rapidly that one could almost discern the change,
the temperature began lowering, the wind shifting from the east to the
north, from north to west, and steadily rising. The surface of the snow
froze to ice, the snowflakes turned to sleet, and went bounding and
grinding, forming drifts but to disperse again, journeying aimlessly on,
cutting viciously at the chance animal who came in their path like a
myriad of tiny knives.

All that day the force of the Box R ranch labored in the increasing
storm to get the home herds safely behind the shelter of the corral. It
was impossible for cattle long to face such a storm; but with this very
emergency in mind, Rankin had always in Winter kept the scattered
bunches to the north and west, and under these conditions the feat was
accomplished by dusk, and the half-frozen cowboys tumbled into their
bunks, to fall asleep almost before they assumed the horizontal. The
other ranchers wondered why it was that Rankin was so prosperous and why
his herd seldom diminished in Winter. Had they been observant, they
could have learned one reason that day.

All the following night the storm moaned and raged, and the cold became
more and more intense. It came in through the walls of houses and
through bunk coverings, and bit at one like a living thing. Nothing
could stop it, nothing unprotected could withstand it. In the great
corral behind the windbreak, the cattle, all headed east, were jammed
together for warmth, a conglomerate mass of brown heads and bodies from
which projected a wilderness of horns.

The next morning broke with a clear sky but with the thermometer marking
many degrees below zero. Out of doors, when the sun had arisen, the
light was dazzling. As far as eye could reach not a spot of brown
relieved the white. The layer of frozen snow lay like a vast carpet
stretched tight from horizon to horizon. Although it was only snow, yet
so far as the herds of the ranchers were concerned it might have been a
protecting armor of steel. Well did the tired cowboys, stiff from the
previous day's struggle, know what was before them, when at daylight
Graham routed them out. Food the helpless multitude must have. If they
could not find it for themselves it must be found for them; and in
stolid disapproval the men ate a hasty breakfast by the light of a
kerosene lamp and went forth to the inevitable.

Rankin and Ben and Graham were already astir, and under their
supervision the campaign was rapidly begun. For a few days the stock
must be fed on hay, and seven of the available fifteen men of the ranch
force were detailed to keep full the great racks in the cattle
stockade--a task in itself, with the myriad hungry mouths swarming on
every hand, all but Herculean. The others, Rankin himself among the
number, undertook the greater feat of in a measure opening the range for
the future.

The device which the big man had evolved for this purpose, and had used
on previous similar occasions, was a simple triangular snow-plough
several feet in width, with guiding handles behind. Comparatively narrow
as was the ribbon path cleared by this appliance, its length was only
limited by the endurance of the horses and the driver, and in the course
of the day many an acre could be uncovered. Half an hour after sunrise,
the eight outfits thus equipped were lined up side by side and headed
due northwest to a range which had been but little pastured.

For five miles straight as a taut line they went, leaving behind them
eight brown stripes alternating with bands of white between. Then back
and forth, back and forth, for the distance of another mile they
vibrated until it was noon, when eight more connecting brown ribbons
were stretched beside their predecessors back to the ranch-house. In the
afternoon the labor was repeated, until by night the clearing, a
gigantic mottled fan with an abnormally long handle, lay in vivid
contrast against the surrounding white.

The second day was the same, except that but seven bands stretched out
behind the moving squad. Rankin, game as he was, could scarcely put one
foot ahead of the other, and in consequence, changing his tactics, he
mounted the old buckboard and departed on a tour of inspection toward
the north range. He was late in returning, and, as usual, very taciturn;
but after supper, as he and Ben were smoking in friendly silence by the
kitchen fire, he turned to the younger man.

"Someone stayed at the north range last night," he announced abruptly.
"He slept there and had a fire."

Ben showed no surprise. "I thought so, probably," he replied. "Late this
afternoon I ran across a trail leading in from the west along our
clearing, and headed that way. It was one lone chain of footprints."

Rankin shivered, and replenished the fire. His long drive had chilled
him through and through.

"I suppose you have an idea who made that trail?" he said.

Though each knew that the other had heard the details of Pete's death,
neither had mentioned the incident. To do so had seemed superfluous.
Now, however, each realized the thought in the other's mind, and chose
not to avoid it.

"Yes," answered Ben, simply. "I suppose it was made by Tom Blair."

Never before had Rankin heard Benjamin Blair speak that name. He
stretched back heavily in his chair and lit his pipe afresh.

"Ben," he said, "I'm getting old. I never began to realize the fact
until this Winter; but I sha'n't last many more years." Puff, puff went
two twin clouds of smoke toward the ceiling. "Civilization has some
advantages over the frontier, and this is one of them: it's kinder to
the old."

Never before had Rankin spoken in this way, and the other understood the
strength of his conviction.

"You work too hard," he said soberly, though he felt the inadequacy of
the trite remark. "It's unnecessary. I wish you wouldn't do it."

Rankin threw an outward motion with his powerful hand. "Yes, I know; but
when I quit moving I want to die. I know I could get a steam-heated back
room in a quiet street of a sleepy town somewhere and coddle myself into
a good many years yet; but it isn't worth the price. I love this big
free life too well ever to leave it. Most of the people one meets here
are rough, but in time that will all change. It's changing now; and
meantime nature compensates for everything."

There was a moment's silence, and then, as though there had been no
digression, Rankin went back to the former subject. "Yes," he said
slowly, "I think you're right about those being Tom Blair's tracks." He
turned and faced the younger man squarely. "If it is, Ben, it means he's
been frozen out from his hiding-place, wherever that is, and he's crazy
desperate. He'd do anything now. He wouldn't ever come back here
otherwise."

Ben Blair's blue eyes tightened until the lashes were all but parallel.

"Yes," Rankin repeated, "he's crazy desperate to come here at
all--especially so now." A pause, but the eyes did not shift. "God knows
I'm sorry he ever came back. I was glad we found that trail too late to
follow it to-day; but it's only postponing the end. I believe he'll be
here at the ranch to-night. He's got to get a horse--he's got to do
something right away; and I'm going to watch. If he don't come I'll take
up the old trail in the morning."

Once more the pause, more intense than words. "He can't escape again,
unless--unless he gets me first--He must be desperate crazy."

Rankin arose heavily and knocked the ashes out of his pipe preparatory
to bed.

"There are a lot of things I might say now, Ben, but I won't say them.
We're not living in a land of law. We haven't someone always at hand to
shift our responsibility onto. In self-protection, we've got to take
justice more or less into our own hands. One thing I will say, though,
and I hope you'll never forget it. Think twice before you ever take the
life of another human being, Ben; think twice. Be sure your reasons are
mighty good--and then think again. Don't ever act in hot blood, or as
long as you live you'll know remorse." The speaker paused and his breath
came fast. Something more--who knew how much?--trembled on the end of
his tongue. He roused himself with an effort and turned toward his bunk.
"Good-night, Ben. I trust you as I'd trust my own son."

The younger man watched the departing figure and felt the irony of the
separation that keeps us silent even when we wish to be nearest and most
helpful to our friends and makes our words a mockery.

"Thank you, sir, I shall not forget. Good-night," he said.

When a few minutes later the young man sauntered out to the barns,
everything was peaceful as usual. From the horse-stalls came the steady
monotonous grind of the animals at feed. In the cattle-yards was heard
the sleepy breathing of the multitude of cattle. Perfect contentment and
oblivion was the keynote of the place, and the watcher looked at the
lethargic mass thoughtfully. He had always responded instinctively to
the moods of dumb animals. He did so now. The passive trustfulness of
the great herd affected him deeply. Twice he made the circuit of the
buildings, but finding nothing amiss returned to his place. The sound of
the horses feeding had long since ceased. The sleepy murmur of the
cattle was lower and more regular. In the increasing coldness the vapor
of their breath, even though the night was dark and moonless, arose in
an indistinct cloud, like the smoke of smouldering camp-fires over the
tents of a sleeping army. For two days the man had been doing the
heaviest kind of work. Gradually, amid much opening and closing of
eyelids, consciousness lapsed into semi-consciousness, and he dozed.

Suddenly--whether it was an hour or a minute afterwards, he did not
know--he awoke and sat up listening. Some sound had caught and held his
sub-conscious attention. He waited a moment, intent, scarcely breathing,
and then sprang swiftly to his feet. The sound now came definitely from
the sheds at the left. It was the deep chesty groan of a horse in pain.

Once upon his feet, Ben Blair ran toward the barn, not cautiously but
precipitately. He had not grown to maturity amid animals without
learning something of their language; but even if such had been the
case, he could scarcely have mistaken that sound. Mortal pain and mortal
terror vibrated in those tones. No human being could have cried for help
more distinctly. The frozen snow squeaked under the rancher's feet as he
ran. "Stop there!" he shouted. "Stop there!" and throwing open the
nearest door, unmindful of danger, he dashed into the interior darkness.

The barn was eighty odd feet in length, and as Ben swung open the door
at the east corner there was a flash of fire from the extreme west end,
and a bullet splintered the wood just back of his head. His precipitate
entry had been his salvation. He groped his way ahead, the groans of the
horses in his ears--for now he detected more than one voice. A growing
realization of what he would find was in his mind, and then a dark form
shot through the west door, and he was alone. Impulse told him to
follow, but the sound of pain and struggle kept him back. He struck a
match, held it like a torch above him, moved ahead, stopped. The flame
burned down the dry pine until it reached his fingers, blackened them,
went out; but he did not stir. He had expected the thing he saw,
expected it at the first cry he heard; yet infinitely more horrible than
a picture of imagination was the reality. He did not light another
match, he did not wish to see. To hear was bad enough--to hear and to
know. He started for the door; and behind him three great horses,
hopelessly maimed and crippled, struggled to rise, and failing, groaned
anew.

It seemed Ben's fate this night to be just too late for service. Before
he reached the exit there sounded, spattering and intermittent, like the
first popping kernels of corn in a pan, a succession of pistol-shots
from the ranch-house. There was no answer, and as he stepped out into
the air the sound ceased. As he did so, the kitchen of the house sprang
alight from a lamp within. There was a moment of apparent inactivity,
and then, the door swinging open, fair against the lighted background,
shading his eyes to look into the outer darkness, stood Rankin.
Instantly a wave of premonition flooded the watching Benjamin.

"Go back!" he shouted. "Go back! Back, quick!" and careless of personal
danger, he started running for the ranch-house as before he had raced
for the barn.

The warning might as well have been ungiven. Almost before the last
words were spoken there came from the darkness at Ben's right the sound
he had been expecting--a single vicious rifle report; and as though a
mighty invisible weight were crushing him down, Rankin sank to the
floor.

Then for the first time in his history Ben Blair lost self-control.
Quick as thought he changed his course from the house to the direction
from which the shot had come. The great veins of his throat swelled
until it seemed he could scarcely breathe. Curses, horrible, blighting
curses, combinations of malediction which had never even in thought
entered his mind before, rolled from his lips. His brain seemed afire.
But one idea possessed him--to lay hands upon this intruding being who
had in cold blood done that fiendish deed in the barn, and now had shot
his best friend on earth. The rage of primitive man who knew not steel
or gunpowder was his; the ferocity of the great monkey, the aborigine's
predecessor, whose means of offence were teeth and nails. Straight ahead
the man rushed, seeming not to run, but fairly to bound, turned suddenly
the angle at the corner of the machinery shed, stumbled over a
snow-plough drawn up carelessly by one of the men, fell, regained his
feet, and heard in his ears the thundering hoof-beats of a horse urged
away at full speed.

For a moment Ben Blair stood as he had risen, gazing westward where the
other had departed, but seeing nothing, not even a shadow. Clouds had
formed over the sky, and the night was of intense darkness. To attempt
to follow a trail now was waste of time; and gradually, as he stood
there, the unevolved fury of the man transformed. His tongue became
silent; not a human being had heard the outburst. The physical paroxysm
relaxed. As he returned to the ranch-house no observer would have
detected in him other than the usual matter-of-fact rancher; yet beneath
that calm was a purpose infinitely more terrible than the animal blaze
of a few minutes before, a tenacity more relentless than a tiger on the
trail of its quarry, than an Indian stalking his enemy; a formulated
purpose which could patiently wait, but eventually and inevitably would
grind its object to powder.

Meanwhile, back at the scene of the tragedy, there had been feverish
action. Many of the cowboys were already about the barns, and lanterns
gleamed in the horse corral. Within the house, in the nearest bunk where
they had laid him, stretched the proprietor of the ranch. About him
were grouped Grannis, Graham, and Ma Graham. The latter was weeping
hysterically--her head buried in her big checked apron, the great mass
of her body vibrating with the effort. As Ben approached, her husband
glanced up. Upon his face was the dull unreasoning indecision of a steer
which had lost its leader; an animal passivity which awaited command.

"Rankin's dead," he announced dully. "He's hit here." A withered hand
indicated a spot on the left breast. "He went quick."

Grannis said nothing, and walking up Ben Blair stopped beside the bunk.
He took a long look at the kindly heavy face of the only man he had ever
called friend; but not a feature of his own face relaxed, not a muscle
quivered. Grannis watched him fixedly, almost with fascination.
Gray-haired gambler and man of fortune that he was, he realized as
Graham could never do the emotions which so often lie just back of the
locked countenance of a human being; realized it, and with the grim
carelessness of a frontiersman admired it.

Of a sudden there was a grinding of frosty snow in the outer yard, a
confused medley of human voices, a snorting of horses; and, turning, Ben
went to the door. One glance told him the meaning of the cluster of
cowboys. He walked out toward them deliberately.

"Boys," he said steadily, "put up your horses. You couldn't find a
mountain in the darkness to-night." A pause. "Besides," slowly, "this is
my affair. Put them up and go to bed."

For a moment there was silence. The hearers could scarcely believe their
ears.

"You mean we're to let him go?" queried a hesitating voice at last.

Blair folded up the broad brim of his hat and looked from face to face
as it was revealed by the uncertain light from the window.

"I mean what I said," he repeated evenly. "I'll attend to this matter
myself."

For a moment again there was silence, but only for a moment.

"No you won't!" blazed a voice suddenly. "Rankin was the whitest man
that ever owned a brand. Just because the kyote that shot him lived with
your mother won't save him. I'm going--and now."

Quicker than a cat, so swiftly that the other cowboys scarcely realized
what was happening, the long gaunt Benjamin was at the speaker's side.
With a leap he had him by the throat, had dragged him from the back of
the horse, and held him at arm's length.

"Freeman,"--the voice was neither raised nor lowered, but steady as the
drip of falling water,--"Freeman, you know better than that, and you
know you know better." The grip of the long left hand on the throat
tightened. The fingers of the right locked. "Say so--quick!"

Face to face, looking fair into each other's eyes, stood the two men,
while the spectators watched breathlessly as they would have done at a
climax in a play. It was a case of will against will, elemental man
against his brother.

"I'm waiting," suggested Blair, and even in the dim light Freeman saw
the blue eyes beneath the long lashes darken. Instinctively the victim's
hand went to his hip and lingered there; but he could no more have
withdrawn the weapon which he felt there than he could have struck his
own mother. He started to speak; but his lips were dry, and he moistened
them with his tongue.

"Yes, I know better," he admitted low.

Ben Blair dropped his hand and turned to the spectators. "Men," he said
slowly and distinctly, "for the present at least I'm master of this
ranch, and when I give an order I expect to be obeyed." Again his eye
went from face to face fearlessly, dominantly. "Does any other man doubt
me?"

Not a voice broke the stillness of the night. Only the restless movement
of the impatient mustangs answered.

"Very well, then, you heard what I said. Go to bed, and to-morrow go on
with your work as usual. Grannis will be in charge while I'm gone," and
without a backward glance the long figure returned to the ranch-house.

The weazened foreman and the tall adventurer had been watching him
impassively from the doorway. In silence they made room for him to pass.

"Grannis," he asked directly, "have those horses been taken care of?"

"No, sir."

"See to it at once then."

"Yes, sir."

The blue eyes rested for a moment on the other's face.

"You heard who I said would be in charge while I'm away?"

"Yes, sir," again.

Ben moved over to the bunk opposite to that in which lay the dead man
and took off his hat and coat.

"Graham!"

The foreman came close, stood at attention.

"Keep awake and call me before daylight, will you?"

"I will."

"And, Graham!"

"Yes."

"I may be gone several days. You and Ma attend to the--burial. Dig the
grave out under the big maple." A pause. "I think," steadily, "he would
have liked it there."

The foreman nodded silently.

Benjamin Blair dropped into the bunk, drew the blankets over him and
closed his eyes. As he did so, from the direction of the barn there came
a succession of pistol shots--one, two, three. Then again silence fell.



CHAPTER XIV

THE INEXORABLE TRAIL


Once more, westward across the prairie country, there moved a tall and
sinewy youth astride a vicious looking buckskin. This time, however, it
was very early in the morning. The rider moved slowly, his eyes on the
ground. His outfit was more elaborate than on the former journey. A
heavy blanket and a light camp kit were strapped behind his saddle, and
so attached that they could be quickly transferred to his back. A big
rifle was stretched across his right knee and the saddle-horn. At either
hip rode a great holster. The air, despite the cloudiness, was bitter
cold; and he wore a heavy sheepskin coat with the wool turned in, and
long gauntlets reaching half-way to his elbows. A broad leather belt
held the heavy coat in place, and attached to it was a thin sheath from
which protruded the stout handle of a hunting-knife. He also wore
another belt, fitted with many loops, each holding a gleaming little
brass cylinder. No one seeing the man this morning could have made the
mistake of considering him, as before, on a journey to see a lady.

Slowly day advanced. The east resolved itself from flaming red into the
neutral tint of the remainder of the sky. The sun shone through the
clouds, dissipated them, was obscured, and shone again. The something
which the man had been watching so intently gradually grew clearer. It
was the trail of another horse--a galloping horse. It was easy to
follow, and the rider looked about him. After a few miles, when the
mustang had warmed to his second wind, a gauntleted hand dropped to the
yellow neck and stroked it gently.

"Let 'em out a bit, Buck," said a voice, "let 'em out!" and with a flick
of the dainty ears, almost as if he understood, the little beast fell
into the steady swinging lope which was his natural gait, and which he
could follow if need be without a break from sun to sun.

On they went, the trail they were following unwinding like a great tape
steadily before them, the crunch of the frozen snow in their ears, tiny
particles of it flying to the side and behind like spray. But, bravely
as they were going, the horse ahead which had unwound that band of
tracks had moved more swiftly. Not within inches did the best efforts of
the buckskin approach those giant strides. It had been a desperate rider
who had urged such a pace; and the grim face of the tall youth grew
grimmer at the thought.

Not another sound than of their own making did they hear. Not an object
uncovered of white did they see, until, thirteen miles out, they passed
near the deserted Baker ranch; but the trail did not stop, nor did they,
and ere long it faded again from view. The course was dipping well to
the north now, and Ben realized that not again on his journey would he
pass in sight of a human habitation.

All that mortal day the buckskin pounded monotonously ahead. The sun
rose to the meridian, gazed warmly down upon them, softened the surface
of the frozen snow until the crunch sounded mellower, and slowly
descended to their left. The dainty ears of the pony, as the day waned,
flattened close to his head. Foam gathered beneath the saddle and
between the animal's legs; but doggedly relentless as his rider, he
forged ahead. Much in common had these two beings; more closely than
ever was their comradery cemented that day. Many times, with the same
motion as at first, the man had leaned over and patted that muscular
neck, dark and soiled now with perspiration. "Good old Buck," he said as
to a fellow, "good old Buck!" and each time the set ears had flicked
intelligently in response.

It was nearing sunset when they came in sight of the hills bordering the
river, and the last mile Ben drew the buckskin to a walk. The chain of
hoof-tracks had changed much since the morning. The buckskin could equal
the strides of the other now, and the follower was content. The evenings
were very short at this season of the year, and they would not attempt
to go farther to-night. At the margin of the stream Ben rode along until
he found a spot where the full strength of the current ate into the
bank. There on the thinner ice he hammered with the butt of his heavy
rifle until he broke a hole; then, the dumb one first, the two friends
drank their fill. After that, side by side, they walked back until in
the shelter of a high knoll the man found a space of perhaps half an
acre where the grass, thick and unpastured, was practically bare of
snow. Here he removed saddle and bridle, and without lariat or
hobble--for they knew each other now, these two--he turned the pony
loose to graze. He himself, with the kit and blanket and a handful of
dead wood, went to the hill-top, where he could see for miles around,
built a tiny fire, an Indian's fire, made a can of strong black coffee,
and ate of the jerked beef he had brought. Later, he cleared a spot the
size of a man's grave, and with grass and the blanket built a shallow
nest, in which he stretched himself, his elbow on the earth, his face in
his hand, thinking, thinking.

The night came on. As the eastern sky had done in the morning, so now
the west crimsoned gloriously, became the color of blood, then gradually
shaded back until it was neutral again, and the stars from a few
scattering dots increased in numbers and filled the dome as scattered
sand-grains cover a floor. Darkness came, and with it the slight wind of
the day died down until the air was perfectly still. The cold, which had
retreated for a time, returned, augmented. As though it were a live
thing moving about, its coming could be heard in the almost
indistinguishable crackling of the snow-crust. As beneath a crushing
weight, the ice of the great river boomed and crackled from its touch.

Wide-eyed but impassive, the man watched and listened. Scarcely a muscle
of his body moved. Not once, as the hours slipped by, did he drowse; not
for an instant was he off his guard. With the first trace of morning in
the east, he was astir. As on the night before, he made his Indian's
fire, ate his handful of beef, and drank of the strong black coffee.
The pony, sleepy as a child, was aroused and saddled. The ice which had
frozen during the night over their drinking-hole was broken. Then, both
man and horse stiff and sore from the exposure and the previous
exertion, the trail was taken up anew.

For five miles, until both were warmed to their work, the man and beast
trotted along side by side. "Now, Buck, old boy!" said Ben, and
mounting, they were off in earnest. At first the trail they were
following was that of a horse that walked; but later it stretched out
into the old long-strided gallop, and the pursuer read the tale of quirt
and spur which had forced the change.

Three hours out, thirty odd miles from the river as the rider calculated
the distance, he came to the first break in the seemingly endless trail
of hoofprints he was following. A heap of snow scraped aside and two
brown spots on the earth told the story of where the pursued man and
horse had paused to rest and sleep. No water was near. Neither the human
nor the beast had strayed from the direct line; they had merely halted
and dropped almost within their tracks. Just beyond was the spot where
the man had remounted, where the flight began anew; and again a tale lay
written on the surface of the snow. The prints of the horse's feet were
now unsteady and irregular. Within a few rods there was on the right a
red splash of blood; then others, a drop at a time. Very hard it had
been to put life into the beast at starting; deep the rowels of the
great spur had been dug. Ben Blair lightly touched the neck of his
buckskin and gave the word to go.

"They were only thirty miles ahead last night, Buck, old chap," he said,
"and very tired. We'll gain on them fast to-day."

But though they gained--the record of the tracks told that--they did not
gain fast. Notwithstanding he still galloped doggedly ahead, the gallant
little buckskin was plainly weakening. The eternal pounding through the
snow was eating up his strength, and though his spirit was indomitable
the end of his endurance was in sight. No longer would the dainty ears
respond to a touch on the neck. With head lowered he moved forward like
a machine. While the sun was yet above the horizon, the lope diminished
to a trot, the trot to a walk--a game walk, but only a walk.

Then, for the second time that day, Ben dismounted. Silently he removed
saddle and bridle, transferred the blanket and kit to his own back, and
then, the rifle under his arm, stopped a moment by the pony's side and
laid the dainty muzzle against his face.

"Buck, old boy," he said, "you've done mighty well--but I can beat you
now. Maybe some day we'll meet again. I hope we shall. Anyway, we're
better for having known each other. Good-bye."

A moment longer his face lay so, as his hand would have lain in a
friend's hand at parting; then, with a last pat to the silken nose, he
started on ahead.

At first the man walked steadily; then, warming to the work, he broke
into the swinging jog-trot of the frontiersman, the hunter who travels
afoot. Many Indians the youth had known in his day, and from them he had
learned much; one thing was that in walking or running to step
straight-footed instead of partially sideways, as the white man plants
his sole, was to gain inches at every motion, besides making it easier
to retrace his steps should he wish to do so. This habit had become a
part of him, and now the marks of his own trail were like the
alternately broken line which represents a railroad on a map.

As long as he could see to read from the white page of the snow-blanket,
Ben Blair jogged ahead. Hot anger, that he could not repress, was with
him constantly now, for the trail before him was very fresh, and,
distinct beside it, more and more frequent were the red marks of an
animal's suffering. He knew what horse it was the other had stolen. It
was "Lady," one of Scotty's prize thoroughbred mares, the one Florence
had ridden so many times. Often during those last hours the man wondered
at the endurance of the mare. None but a thoroughbred would have stood
up this long; and even she, if she ever stopped,--but the man ahead
doubtless knew this also, for he would not let her stop, not so long as
life remained and spur and quirt had power to torture.

Thus night came on, folding within its concealing arms alike the hunter
and the pursued. Ben did not build a fire this night. First of all,
though during the day at different times he had been able to see the
bordering trees of the White River at his left and the Bad River at his
right, the trail hung to the comparatively level land of the great
divide between, and not a scrap of wood was within miles. Again,
although he did not actually know, he could not believe he was far
behind, and he would run no risk of giving a warning sign to eyes which
must be watching the backward trail. The fierce hunger of a healthy
animal was his; but his supply of beef was limited, and he ate a meagre
allowance, washing it down with a draught of river water from his
canteen. Rolled up in the blanket, through which the stinging cold
pierced as though it were gossamer, shivering, beating his hands and
feet to prevent their stiffening, longing for protecting fur like a wolf
or a buffalo, keeping constant watch about him as does a great prairie
owl, the interminably long hours of his second night dragged by.

"The beginning of the end," he soliloquized, when once more it was light
enough so that standing he could see the earth at his feet. Well he knew
that ere this the other horse was eliminated from the chase--that it was
now man against man. God! how his joints ached when he stretched
them!--how his muscles pained at the slightest motion! He ground his
teeth when he first began to walk, and hobbled like a rheumatic cripple;
but within a half-hour tenacity had won, and the relentless jog-trot of
the interrupted line was measuring off the miles anew.

The chase was nearing an end. Long ere noon, in the distance toward
which he was heading, Blair detected a brown dot against the white.
Steadily, as he advanced, it resolved itself into the thing he had
expected, and stood revealed before him, the centre of a horribly
legible page, the last page in the biography of a noble horse. Let us
pass it by: Ben did, looking the other way. But a new and terrible
vitality possessed him. His weariness left him, as pain passes under an
opiate. He did not pause to eat, to drink. Tireless as a waterfall,
watchful as a hawk, he jogged on, on, a mile--two miles--five--came to a
rise in the great roll of the lands--stopped, his heart suddenly
pounding the walls of his chest. Before him, not half a mile away,
moving slowly westward, was the diminutive black shape of a man
travelling afoot!

Instantly the primal hunting instinct of the Anglo-Saxon awoke in the
lank Benjamin. The incomparable fascination which makes man-hunting the
sport supreme of all ages gripped him tight. The stealthy cunning of a
savage became on the moment his. A plan of ambush, one which could
scarcely fail, flashed into his mind. The trail of the divide narrowing
now, stretched for miles and miles straight before them. That black
figure would scarcely leave it. The pursuer had but to make a great
detour, get far in advance, find a point of concealment, and wait.

Swift as thought was action. Back on his trail until he was out of sight
went Ben Blair; then, turning to his right, he made straight for the
concealing bed of Bad River. Once there, he turned west again, following
the winding course of the stream toward its source. Faster than ever he
moved, the pat-pat of his feet on the deadening snow drowning the sound
of the great breaths he drew into his lungs and sent whistling out again
through his nostrils. As with the horse, the sweat oozed at every pore.
Collecting on his brow and face, it dripped slowly from his great chin.
Dampening, his clothes clung binding-tight to his body; but he never
noticed. He looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor behind
him; but, like a sprinter approaching the wire, only straight ahead.

Under him the miles flowed past like water. Five, ten, a dozen he
covered; then of a sudden he turned again to the south, quitting his
shelter of the river-bed. For a time the country was very rough, but he
scarcely slackened his pace. Once he fell through the crust of a drift,
and went down nearly to his neck; but he crowded his way through by
sheer strength, emerging a powdered figure from the snow which clung to
his damp clothes. The sun was down now, and he knew darkness would come
very quickly and he must reach the divide, the probable trail, before it
fell, and there select his point of waiting.

As he moved on, he saw some miles ahead that which decided him. A low
chain of hills, stretching to the north and south, crossed the great
divide as a fallen log spans a path. In these hills, appreciable even at
this distance, there was a dip, an almost level pass. A small diversity
it was on the face of nature, but to a weary man, fleeing afoot, seen in
the distance it would irresistibly appeal. Almost as certain as though
he saw the black figure already heading for it, the hunter felt it would
be utilized. Anyway, he would take the chance; and with a last spurt of
speed he put himself fairly in its way. To clear a narrow strip of
ground the length of his body, and build around it like a breastwork a
border of snow, was the work of but a few minutes; then, wrapped in his
blanket, too deadly tired to even attempt to eat, he dropped behind the
cover like a log. At first the rest was that of Paradise; but swiftly
came the reaction, the chill. To lie there in his present condition
meant but one thing, that never would he arise again; and with an effort
the man got to his feet and started walking. It was dark again now, and
the sky was becoming rapidly overcast. Within an hour it began to snow,
a steady big-flaked snow that fairly filled the air and lay where it
fell. The night grew slightly warmer, and, rolling in the blanket once
more, Ben lay down; but the warning chill soon had him again upon his
feet, walking back and forth in the one beaten path.

Very long the two previous nights had been. Interminable seemed this
third. As long as the sun or moon or stars were shining, the man never
felt completely alone; but in this utter darkness the hours seemed like
days. The steadily falling snowflakes added to the impression of
loneliness and isolation. They were like the falling clods of earth in a
grave: something crowding between him and life, burying and suffocating
him where he stood. Try as he might, the man could not shake off the
weird impression, and at last he ceased the effort. Grimly stolid, he
lit his pipe, and, his damp clothing having dried at last, cleared a
fresh spot and lay down, the horrible loneliness still tugging at his
heart.

Finally, after an eternity of waiting, the morning came. With it the
storm ceased and the sun shone brightly. Behind the barricade, Ben Blair
ate the last of his beef and drank the few remaining swallows of water
from his canteen. His muscles were stiff from the inaction, and, not
wishing to show himself, he kicked vigorously into space as he lay. At
intervals he made inspection of the east, looking out over the glitter
of white; but not a living thing was in sight. An hour he watched, two
hours, while the sun, beating down obliquely, warmed him back into
activity; then of a sudden his eyes became fixed, the grip upon his
rifle tightened. Far to the southeast, something dark against the snow
was moving,--was coming toward him.

Rapidly the figure approached, while lower behind the barricade dropped
the body of Benjamin Blair. The sun was in his eyes, so that as yet he
could not make out whether it was man or beast. Not until the object was
within three hundred yards, until it passed by to the north, did Ben
make out that it was a great gray wolf headed straight for the bed of
Bad River.

Again two hours of unbroken monotony passed. The sun had almost reached
the meridian, and the man behind the barricade had all but decided he
must have miscalculated somehow, when in the dim distance as before
there appeared a tiny dark object, but this time directly from the east.
For five minutes Ben watched it fixedly, his hand shading his eyes;
then, slowly as moves the second-hand of a great clock, a change
indescribable came over his face. No need was there now to ask whether
it was a human being that was approaching. There was no mistaking that
slow, swinging man-motion. At last the moment was approaching for which
the youth had been striving so madly for the last few days, the moment
he had for years been conscious would some day come. It would soon be
his; and with the thought his teeth set firmer, and a fierce joy tugged
at his heart.

Five minutes, ten minutes dragged by; yet no observer, however close,
could have seen a muscle stir in the long body of the waiting man. Like
a great panther cat he lay there, the blue eyes peering just over the
surface of the ambush. Not ten paces away could an observer have told
the tip of that motionless sombrero from the protruding top of a
boulder. Gradually the approaching figure grew more distinct. A red
handkerchief showed clearly about the man's neck. Then a slight limp in
the left leg intruded itself, and a droop of the shoulders that spoke
weariness. He was very near by this time, so near that the black beard
which covered his face became discernible, likewise the bizarre breadth
of the Mexican belt above the baggy chaperejos. The crunch of the
snow-crust marked his every foot-fall.

And still Ben Blair had not stirred. Slowly, as the other had
approached, the big blue eyes had darkened until they seemed almost
brown. Involuntarily the massive chin had moved forward; but that was
all. On the surface he was as calm as a lake on a windless night; but
beneath,--God! what a tempest was raging! Each one of those minutes he
waited so impassively marked the rush of a year's memories. Human hate,
primal instinct all but uncontrollable, throbbed in his accelerated
pulse-beats. Like the continuous shifting scenes in a panorama, the
incidents of his life in which this man had played a part appeared
mockingly before his mind's eye. Plainly, as though in his physical ear,
he heard the shuffle of an uncertain hand upon a latch; he saw a figure
with bloodshot eyes lurch into a rude floorless room, saw it approach a
bunk whereon lay a sick woman, his mother; heard the swift passage of
angry words, words which had branded themselves into his memory forever.
Once more he was on all fours, scurrying for his life toward the dark
opening of a protecting kennel. As plainly as though the memory were of
yesterday, he gazed into the blazing mouth of a furnace, felt its
scorching breath on his cheek. Swiftly the changing scenes danced before
his eyes. A rifle-shot, real almost as though he could smell the burning
powder, sounded in his brain. Within the circle of light from a kerosene
lamp a great figure sank in a heap to a ranch house floor. Against a
background of unbroken white a trail of red blotches ended in the mutely
pathetic figure of a prostrate dying horse--a noble thoroughbred. What
varied horrors seethed in the watcher's brain, crowded each other,
recurred and again recurred! How the long sinewy fingers itched to
clutch that throat above the red neckerchief! He could see the man's
face now, as, ignorant of danger so close, he was passing by fifty feet
to the left, looking to neither side, doggedly heading toward the pass.
With the first motion since the figure had appeared, the hand of the
watcher tightened on the rifle, raised it until its black muzzle peeped
over the elevation of snow. A pair of steady blue eyes gazed down the
long barrel, brought the sights in line with a spot between the
shoulders and the waist of the unsuspecting man, the trigger-finger
tightened, almost--

A preventing something, something not primal in the youth, gripped him,
held him for a second motionless. To kill a man from an ambush, even
such a one as this without giving him a chance--no, he could not quite
do that. But to take him by the throat with his bare hands, and then
slowly, slowly--

As noiselessly as the rifle had raised, it dropped again. The muscles of
the long legs tightened as do those of a sprinter awaiting the starting
pistol. Then over the barricade, straight as a tiger leaps, shot a tall
youth with steel-blue eyes, hatless, free of hand, straight for that
listless, moving figure; the scattered snow flying to either side, the
impact of the bounding feet breaking the previous stillness. Tom Blair,
the outlaw, could not but hear the rush. Instinctively he turned, and in
the fleeting second of that first glance Ben could see the face above
the beard-line blanch. As one might feel should the Angel of Death
appear suddenly before him, Tom Blair must have felt then. As though
fallen from the sky, this avenging demon was upon him. He had not time
to draw a revolver, a knife; barely to swing the rifle in his hand
upward to strike, to brace himself a little for the oncoming rush.

With a crash the two bodies came together. Simultaneously the rifle
descended, but for all its effectiveness it might have been a dead
weed-stalk in the hands of a child. It was not a time for artificial
weapons, but only for nature's own; a war of gripping, strangling hands,
of tooth and nail. Nearly of a size were the two men. Both alike were
hardened of muscle; both realized the battle was for life or death. For
a moment they remained upright, clutching, parrying for an advantage;
then, locked each with each, they went to the ground. Beneath and about
them the fresh snow flew, filling their eyes, their mouths. Squirming,
straining, over and over they rolled; first the beardless man on top,
then the bearded. The sound of their straining breath was continuous,
the ripping of coarse cloth an occasional interruption; but from the
first, a spectator could not but have foreseen the end. The elder man
was fighting in self-defence: the younger, he of the massive protruding
jaw--a jaw now so prominent as to be a positive disfigurement--in
unappeasable ferocity. Against him in that hour a very giant could not
have held his own. Merely a glimpse of his face inspired terror. Again
and again as they struggled his hand had clutched at the other's throat,
but only to have his hold broken. At last, however, his adversary was
weakening under the strain. Blind terror began to grip Tom Blair. At
first a mere suggestion, then a horrible certainty, possessed him as to
the identity of the relentless being who opposed him. Again the other's
hand, like the creeping tentacle of an octopus, sought his throat, would
not be stayed. He struggled with all his might against it, until it
seemed the blood-vessels of his neck would burst, but still the hold
tightened. He clutched at the long fingers desperately, bit at them,
felt his breath coming hard. Freeing his own hand, he smashed with his
fist again and again into that long thin face so near his own, knew that
another tentacle had joined with the first, felt the impossibility of
drawing air into his lungs, realized that consciousness was deserting
him, saw the sun over him like a mocking face--then knew no more.



CHAPTER XV

IN THE GRIP OF THE LAW


How long Tom Blair was unconscious he did not know. When he awoke he
could scarcely believe his own senses; and he looked about him dazedly.
The sun was shining down as brightly as before. The snow was as white.
He had for some reason been spared, after all, and hope arose in his
breast. He began to look around him. Not two rods away, his face clearly
in sight, his eyes closed, dead asleep, lay the figure of the man who
had waylaid him. For a moment he looked at the figure steadily; then, in
distinct animal cunning, the lids of the close-set eyes tightened.
Stealthily, almost holding his breath, he started to rise, then fell
back with a jerk. For the first time he realized that he was bound hand
and foot, so he could scarcely stir. He struggled, at first cautiously,
then desperately, to be free; but the straps which bound him, those
which had held his own blanket, only cut the deeper; and he gave it up.
Flat on his back he lay watching the sleeper, his anger increasing.
Again his eyes tightened.

"Wake up, curse you!" he yelled suddenly.

No answer, only the steady rise and fall of the sleeper's chest.

"Wake up, I say!" repeated the voice, in a tone to raise the dead.

This time there was response--of action. Slowly Ben Blair roused, and
got up. A moment he looked about him; then, tearing a strip off his
blanket, he walked over, and, against the other's protests and promises
of silence, forced open the bearded lips, as though giving a horse the
bit, and tied a gag full in the cursing mouth. Without a word or a
superfluous look he returned and lay down. Another minute, and the
regular breathing showed he was again asleep.

During all the warmth of that day Ben Blair slept on, as a child sleeps,
as sleep the very aged; and although the bearded man had freed himself
from the gag at last, he did not again make a sound. Too miserable
himself to sleep, he lay staring at the other. Gradually through the
haze of impotent anger a realization of his position came to him. He
could not avoid the issue. To be sure, he was still alive; but what of
the future? A host of possibilities flashed into his mind, but in every
one there faced him a single termination. By no process of reasoning
could he escape the inevitable end; and despite the chilliness of the
air a sweat broke out over him. Contrition for what he had done he could
not feel--long ago he had passed even the possibility of that; but fear,
deadly and absorbing fear, had him in its clutch. The passing of the
years, years full of lawlessness and violence, had left him the same man
whom bartender "Mick" had terrorized in the long ago; and for the first
time in his wretched life, personal death--not of another but of
himself--looked at him with steady eyes, and he could not return the
gaze. All he could do was to wait, and think--and thoughts were madness.
Again and again, knowing what the result would be, but seeking merely a
diversion, he struggled at the straps until he was breathless; but
relentless as time one picture kept recurring to his brain. In it was a
rope, a stout rope, dangling from something he could not distinctly
recognize; but what he could see, and see plainly, was a figure of a
man, a bearded man--_himself_--at its end. The body swayed back and
forth as he had once seen that of a "rustler" whom a group of cowboys
had left hanging to the scraggly branch of a scrub-oak; as a pendulum
marks time, measuring the velocity of the prairie wind.

With each recurrence of the vision the perspiration broke out over the
man anew, the sunburned forehead paled. This was what it was coming to;
he could not escape it. If ever purpose was unmistakably written on a
human face, it had been on the face of the man who lay sleeping so near,
the man who had trailed him like a tiger and caught him when he thought
he was safe. From another, there might still be hope; but from this one,
Jennie Blair's son--The vision of a woman lying white and motionless on
the coarse blankets of a bunk, of a small boy with wonderfully clear
blue eyes pounding harmlessly at the legs of the man looking down; the
sound of a childish voice, accusing, menacing, ringing out over all,
"You've killed her! You've killed her!"--this like a chasm stood between
them, and could never be crossed. Clasped together, the long nervous
fingers, a gentleman's fingers still, twined and gripped each other.
No, there was no hope. Better that the hands he had felt about his
throat in the morning had done their work. He shut his eyes. A hot wave
of anger, anger against himself, swept all other thoughts before it.
Why, having gotten safely away, having successfully hidden himself, had
he ever returned? Why, having in the depths of his nest in the middle of
the island escaped once, had a paltry desire for revenge against the man
he fancied had led the attack sent him back? What satisfaction was it,
if in taking the life of the other man it cost him his own? Fool that he
had been to imagine he could escape where no one had ever escaped
before! Fool! Fool! Thus dragged by the long hours of the afternoon.

With the coming of the chill of evening, Ben Blair awoke and rubbed his
eyes. A moment later he arose, and, walking over to his captive, looked
down at him, steadily, peculiarly. So long as he could, Tom Blair
returned the gaze; but at last his eyes fell. A voice sounded in his
ears, a voice speaking low and clearly.

"You're a human being," it said. "Physically, I'm of your species,
modelled from the same clay." A long pause. "I wonder if anywhere in my
make-up there's a streak of such as you!" Again a moment of silence, in
which the elder man felt the blue eyes of the younger piercing him
through and through. "If I thought there was a trace, or the suggestion
of a trace, before God, I'd kill you and myself, and I'd do it now!" The
speaker scanned the prostrate figure from head to foot, and back again.
"And do it now," he repeated.

Silence fell; and in it, though he dared not look, coward Tom Blair
fancied he heard a movement, imagined the other man about to put the
threat into execution.

"No, no!" he pleaded. "People are different--different as day and night.
You belong to your mother's kind, and she was good and pure." Every
trace of the man's nerve was gone. But one instinct was active--to
placate this relentless being, his captor. He fairly grovelled. "I swear
she was pure. I swear it!"

Without speaking a word, Ben turned. Going back to his snow-blind, he
packed his blanket and camp kit swiftly and strapped them to his
shoulders. Returning, he gathered the things he had found upon the
other's person--the rifle, the revolvers, the sheath-knife--into a pile;
then deliberately, one against the other, he broke them until they were
useless. Only the blanket he preserved, tossing it down by the side of
the prostrate figure.

"Tom Blair," he said, no indication now that he had ever been nearer to
the other than a stranger, "Tom Blair, I've got a few things to say to
you, and if you're wise you'll listen carefully, for I sha'n't repeat
them. You're going with me, and you're going free; but if you try to
escape, or cause me trouble, as sure as I'm alive this minute I'll strip
off every stitch of clothing you wear and leave you where I catch you
though the snow be up to your waist."

Slowly he reached over and untied first the feet then the hands. "Get
up," he ordered.

Tom Blair arose, stretched himself stiffly.

"Take that," Ben indicated the blanket, "and go ahead straight for the
river."

The bearded man obeyed. To have secured his freedom he could not have
done otherwise.

For ten minutes they moved ahead, only the crunching snow breaking the
stillness.

"Trot!" said Ben.

"I can't."

"Trot!" There was no misunderstanding the tone.

In single file they jogged ahead, reached the river, and descended to
the level surface of its bed.

"Keep to the middle, and go straight ahead."

On they went--jog, jog, jog.

Of a sudden from under cover of the bank a frightened cottontail sprang
forth and started running. Instantly there was the report of a big
revolver, and Tom jumped as though he felt the bullet in his back. Again
the report sounded, and this time the rabbit rolled over and over in the
snow.

Without stopping, Ben picked up the still struggling game and slipped a
couple of fresh cartridges into the empty revolver chambers. The banks
were lined with burrows and tracks, and within five minutes a second
cottontail met the fate of the first.

"Come back!" called Ben to the man ahead.

Again Tom obeyed. He would have gone barefoot in the snow without a
question now.

"Can you make a fire?"

"Yes."

"Do it, then. I left the matches in your pocket."

On opposite sides of the fire, from long forked sticks of green ash,
they broiled strips of the meat which Ben dressed and cut. Likewise
fronting each other, they ate in silence. Darkness was falling, and the
glow from the embers lit their faces like those of two friends camping
after a day's hunt. Had it not all been such deadly earnest, the scene
would have been farce-comedy. Suddenly Tom Blair raised his eyes.

"What are you going to do with me?" he asked directly.

Ben said nothing.

The question was not repeated, but another trembled on the speaker's
lips. At last it found words.

"When you had me down I--I thought you had done for me. Why did you--let
me up?"

A pause followed. Then Ben's blue eyes raised and met the other's.

"You'd really like to know?"

"Yes."

Another moment of hesitation, but the youth's eyes did not move. "Very
well, I'll tell you." More to himself than to the other he was speaking.
His voice softened unconsciously. "A girl saved you that time, Tom
Blair, a girl you never saw. You haven't any idea what it means, but I
love that girl, and I could never look her in the face again with blood
on my hands, even such blood as yours. That's the reason."

For a moment Tom Blair was silent; then into his brain there flashed a
suggestion, and he grasped at it as a drowning man at a straw.

"Wouldn't it be blood on your hands just the same if you take me back
where we're headed, back to Mick Kennedy and--"

With a single motion, swift as though raised by a spring, Ben was upon
his feet.

"Pick up your blanket!"

"But--"

"Silence!" The big square jaw shot forward like the piston of an engine.
"Not another word of that, now or ever. Not another word!"

For a second the other paused doggedly, then taking up his load he moved
ahead into the shadow.

Hour after hour they advanced, alternately walking and trotting,
following the winding bed of the stream. Darkness fell, until they could
not see each other's faces, until they were merely two black passing
shadows; but the figure behind was relentless. Stimulating, compelling,
he forced himself close. Ever and anon they could hear the frightened
dash of a rabbit away from their path. More than once a snow-owl
fluttered over their heads; but they took no notice. Twice the man in
advance stumbled and fell; but though Ben paused he spoke no word. Like
a soldier of the ranks on secret forced march, ignorant of his
destination, given only conjecture as to what the morrow would bring
forth, Tom Blair panted ahead.

With the coming of daylight Ben slowed to a walk, and looked about in
quest of breakfast. Game was plentiful along the shelter of the stream,
and before they had advanced a half-mile farther he saw ahead a flock of
grouse roosting in the diverging branches of a cottonwood tree. At two
hundred yards, selecting those on the lowest branches, he dropped half a
dozen, one after the other, with the rifle; and still the remainder of
the flock did not fly. Very different were they from the open-land
prairie chicken, whom a mere sound will send a-wing.

As on the night before, they broiled each what he wished, and, carefully
cleaning the others, Ben packed them with his kit. Then, stolid as an
Indian, he cleared a spot of earth, and wrapping himself in his blanket
lay down full in the sunshine, smoking his pipe impassively. Taking the
cue, Tom Blair likewise curled up like a dog near at hand.

Slowly and more slowly came the puffs of smoke from the captor's pipe;
at last they ceased entirely. The lids of the youth's eyes closed, his
breath came deep and regular. Beneath the blanket a muscle here and
there twitched involuntarily, as in one who is very weary and asleep.

An hour passed, an hour without a sound; then, looking closely, a
spectator could have seen one of Tom Blair's eyes open and close
furtively. Again it opened, and its mate as well--to remain so. For a
minute, two minutes, they studied the companion face uncertainly,
suspiciously, then savagely. Another minute, and the body had risen to
hands and knees. Still Ben did not stir, still the great expanse of his
chest rose and fell. Tom Blair was satisfied. Hand over hand, feeling
his way like a cat, he advanced toward the prostrate figure. Despite his
caution, the crust of the snow crackled once beneath his touch, and he
paused, a soundless curse forming upon his lips; but the warning passed
unheeded, and, bolder than before, he padded on.

Eight feet he gained, then ten. His color heightened, the repressed
arteries throbbed above the gaudy neckerchief, the skulking animal
intensified in the tightened muscles of the temples. As many feet again;
but a few more minutes--then liberty and life. The better to guard his
movements, his gaze fell. Out and down went his right hand, then his
left, as his lithe body slid forward. Again he glanced up, paused--and
on the instant every muscle of his tense body went suddenly lax. Instead
of the closed eyes and sleeping face he had expected, two steady eyes
were giving him back look for look. There had not been a motion; the
face was yet that of a sleeper; the chest still rose and fell steadily;
but the eyes!

Tom Blair's teeth ground each other like those of a dog with rabies. The
suggestion of froth came to his lips.

"Curse you!" he cried. "Curse you forever!"

A moment they lay so, a moment wherein the last vestige of hope left the
mind of the captive; but in it Ben Blair spoke no word. Maddening,
immeasurably worse than denunciation, was that relentless silence. It
was uncanny; and the bearded man felt the hairs of his head rising as
the mane of a dog or a wolf lifts at a sound it does not understand.

"Say something," he pleaded desperately. "Shoot me, kill me, do
anything--but don't look at me like that!" and, fairly writhing, he
crawled back to his blanket and buried his head in its depths.

With the coming of evening coolness, Ben again made preparation for the
journey. Neither of the men made reference to the incidents of the day,
but on Tom Blair's face there was a new expression, like that of a
criminal on his passage from the cell to the hangman's trap. If the
younger man saw it, he gave no sign; and as on the night before, they
jogged ahead. Before daylight broke, the comparatively smooth bed of Bad
River merged into the irregular surface of the Missouri. Then they
halted. Why they stopped there, Tom Blair could not at the time tell;
but with the coming of daylight he understood. Where he had crossed and
Ben had followed there was not now a single track, but many--a score at
least. At the margin of the stream, where the cavalcade had stopped, the
snow was tramped hard as a stockade; and in the centre of the beaten
place, distinct against the white, was a dark spot where a great
camp-fire had been built. At the river the party had stopped. Obviously,
there the last snow had obliterated the trail, and, seeing that they had
turned back, Tom Blair gave a sigh of relief. Whatever the future had in
store for him, it could reveal nothing so fearful as a meeting with
those whom intuition told him had made up that party.

But his relief was short-lived. Again, after they had breakfasted from
the grouse in the pack, Ben ordered the onward march, along the bank of
the great river. As they moved ahead, a realization of their destination
at last came to the captive, and for the first time he balked.

"Do what you wish with me," he cried. "I'll not go a step farther."

They were perhaps a mile down the river. The bordering hills enclosed
them like an arena.

"Very well." Ben Blair spoke as though the occurrence were one of
every-day repetition. "Give me your clothes!"

Tom's face settled stubbornly.

"You'll have to take them."

The youth's hand sought his hip, and a bullet spat at the snow within
three inches of the other's feet. There was a meaning pause. Slowly the
bravado left the other's face.

"Don't keep me waiting!" urged Ben.

Slowly, very slowly, off came the captive's coat and vest. Despite his
efforts, the hands which loosened the buttons trembled uncontrollably.
Following the vest came the shirt, then a shoe, and the sock beneath.
His foot touched the snow. For the first time a faint realization of the
thing he was choosing came to him. The vicious bite of the frost upon
the bare skin was not a possibility of the future, but a condition of
the immediate now; and he weakened. But in the moment of his indecision,
the wave of stubbornness and of blinding hate again flooded him, and a
rush of hot curses left his lips.

For a moment, the last time in their lives, the two men eyed each other
fairly. Indescribable hate was written upon one face; the other was as
blank as the surrounding snow. Its very immobility chilled Tom Blair and
cowed him into silence. Without a word he replaced shoe and coat and
took up his blanket. An advancing step sounded behind him, and,
understanding, he moved ahead. After a while the foot-fall again gained
upon him, and once more the walk merged into the interminable jog-jog of
the back-trail.

It was morning when the two began that last relay. It was four o'clock
in the afternoon when they arrived amid the outskirts of the scattered
prairie terminus which was their destination. Within ten minutes
thereafter the two had separated. The older man, in charge of a lank,
unshaven frontiersman, chiefly noticeable from a quid of tobacco which
swelled one cheek like an abscess, and a nickle-plated star which he
wore on the lapel of his coat, was headed for the pretentious white
painted building known as the court-house. The younger, catching sight
of a wind-twisted sign lettered "Hotel," made for it as though sighting
the promised land. In the office, as he passed through, was a crowd of
men entirely too large to have gathered by chance in a frontier
hostelry, who eyed him peculiarly; but he took no notice, and five
minutes later, upon the bedraggled bed of the unplastered upper room
that the landlord gave him, without even his boots removed, he was deep
in the realm of oblivion.

Some time later--he had no idea of the hour save that all was dark--he
was awakened by a confusion of voices in the room below, a slamming of
doors, a thumping of great boots upon the bare floor. Scarcely
remembering his whereabouts, he rolled from his bed and thrust his head
out of the narrow window. Here and there about the town were scattered
lights--some stationary, others, which he took to be lanterns, moving.
On the street beneath his window two men went by on a run. Half way up
the block, before the well-lighted front of a saloon, a motley crowd was
shifting back and forth, restless as ants in a hill, the murmur of their
voices sounding menacing as the distant hum of swarming bees. All at
once from out the door there burst fair into the crowd a heavy man with
great shoulders and a bull neck. About him, even in the uncertain light,
there seemed to the watcher something very familiar. What he said, Ben
could not understand; but he turned his head this way and that, and his
motions were unmistakable. The crowd made way before him as sheep before
a dog, and closing behind followed steadily in his wake. Gradually as
the leader advanced the mass gained momentum. At first the pace had been
a slow walk. In the space of seconds it became a swift one, then a run,
with a wild scramble by those in the rear to gain front place. The
frozen ground rumbled under their rushing feet. The direction of their
movement, at first uncertain, became definite. It was a direct line for
the centrally located court-house; and, no longer doubtful of their
purpose, Ben left the window, fairly tumbled downstairs, and rushed
through the now deserted office into the equally deserted street.

The court-house square was but two blocks away; but the mob had a good
lead, and when the youth arrived he found the space within the
surrounding chain fence fairly covered. Where the people could all have
come from struck him even at that moment as a mystery. Certainly all
told the town could not in itself have mustered half the number.
Elbowing his way among them, however, he began soon to understand. Here
and there among the mass he caught sight of familiar faces,--Russell of
the Circle R Ranch, Stetson of the "XI," each taking no part, but with
hats slouched low over their eyes watching every movement of the drama.
Passing around a jam he could not press through, Ben felt a detaining
hand upon his arm, and turning, he was face to face with Grannis. The
grip of the overseer tightened.

"I've been looking for you, Blair," he said, "I know what you've been
trying to do, but most of the crowd don't and won't. They're ugly. You'd
better keep back."

For answer Ben eyed the cowboy squarely.

"I thought I left you in charge of the ranch," he said evenly.

The weather-stained face of the foreman reddened in the shifting lantern
light, but the eyes did not drop.

"I have been. I just got here." A dignity which well became him spoke in
the steady voice. "I had a reason for coming."

Ben released his gaze.

"The others are here too?"

"No, they're all at the ranch. Graham and I attended to that."

"I just saw Russell and Stetson. They couldn't possibly have got here
to-day from home. Has--has this been planned?"

Grannis nodded. "Yes. Kennedy and his gang have been watching here and
at the ranch for days. They thought you'd show up at one place or the
other. The whole country is out. There are lots of strangers here, from
ranches I never heard of before. Seems as though everybody knew Rankin
and heard of his being shot. You'd better let them have it their way.
It'll amount to the same in the end, and death itself couldn't stop them
now."

He took a step forward; for Ben, understanding all, had at last moved
on.

"Blair!" he called after him, again extending a detaining hand. His
voice took on a new note--intimate, personal, a tone of which no one
would have thought it capable. "Blair, listen to me! Stop!"

But he might as well have spoken to the swiftly flowing water beneath
the ice of the great river. Of a sudden, from out a passage leading into
the cell-room of the court-house basement, a black swarm of men had
emerged, bearing by sheer animal force a struggling object in their
midst. The silence of those who waited, the lull before the storm, on
the instant ended. A very Babel of voices took its place. By common
consent, as though drawn by centripetal force, actors and spectators
crowded together until they were a solid block of humanity. Caught in
the midst, Grannis and Ben alike could for a moment but move with the
mass. So fierce was the crush that their very breath seemed imprisoned
in their lungs.

Like molten metal the crowd began to flow--to the right, in the
direction of the railroad track. With each passing moment the confusion
was, if possible, greater than before. Here and there a cowboy, unable
to control his excess of feeling, emptied his revolver into the air.
Once Ben heard the wailing yelp of a dog caught under foot of the mass.
To his left, a little man with a white collar, obviously a mere
spectator, pleaded loudly to be released from the pressure. Adding to
the confusion, the bell on the town-hall began ringing furiously.

On they went, a hundred yards, two hundred, reached the railroad track,
stopped. In the midst of the leaders, looming over their heads, was a
whitened telegraph pole. Of a sudden a lariat shot up over the painted
cross-arm, and dropped, the two ends dangling free; and, understanding
it all, the spectators again became silent. Everything moved like
clockwork. From somewhere in the darkness a bare-backed pony was
produced and brought directly under the dangling rope. Astride him a
dark-bearded figure with hands tied behind his back was placed and
firmly held. Swiftly a running noose, fashioned from the ends of the
lariat, was slipped over the captive's neck. A man grasped the bit of
the mustang. Before him, the crowd began to give way. The great
bull-necked leader--Mick Kennedy, every one now saw it was--held up his
hand for silence, and turned to the helpless figure astride the pony.

"Tom Blair!" he said,--and such was now the silence that a whisper would
have been audible,--"Tom Blair, have you anything you wish to say?"

The dark shape took no notice. Apparently it did not hear.

Mick Kennedy hesitated. Upon his lips a repetition of the question was
forming--but it got no farther. In the midst of the mass of spectators
there was a sudden tumult, a scattering from one spot as from a lighted
bomb.

"Make way!" demanded an insistent voice. "Let me through!" And
for a moment, forgetting the other interest, the spectators turned to
this newer one.

At first they could distinguish nothing perfectly; then amidst the
confusion they made out the form of a long-armed, long-faced youth, his
head lowered, his shoulder before him like a wedge, crowding his way to
the fore.

"Make room there!" he repeated. "Make room!" and again into the crowd,
like a snow-plough into a drift, he penetrated until his momentum was
exhausted, then paused for a fresh plunge.

But before him a pathway was forming. Seemingly the thing was
impossible, but the trick of a spoken name was sufficient.

"It's Ben Blair!" someone had announced, and others had loudly taken up
the cry. "It's Ben Blair! Let him through!"

Along the pathway thus cleared the youth made his way and approached the
centre of activity. Previously the drama had moved swiftly,--so swiftly
that the spectators could merely watch developments, but under the
interruption it halted. The man at the pony's bridle--cowboy Buck it
was--paused, uncertain what to do, doubtful of the intent of the
long-faced man who so suddenly had come beside him. Not so Mick Kennedy.
Well he knew what was in store, and reaching over he gave the pony a
resounding slap on the flank.

"Let him go, Buck!" he commanded of the cowboy. "Hurry!"

But already he was too late. With a grip like a trap, Ben's hand was
likewise on the rein, holding the little beast, despite his struggles,
fairly in his tracks. Ben's head turned, met the bartender's Cyclopean
eye squarely, and held it with a look this bulldozer of men had never
before received in all his checkered career.

"Mick Kennedy," he said quietly, "another move like that, and in five
minutes you'll be hanging from the other side."

For the fraction of a second there was a pause; but, short as it was,
the Irishman felt the sweat start. "The day of such as you has passed,
Mick Kennedy."

There was no time for more. As bystanders gather around a street fight,
the grim cowmen had closed in from all sides. On the outskirts men
mounted each other's shoulders the better to see. Of a sudden, from
behind, Ben felt himself grasped by a multitude of hands. Angry voices
sounded in his ears.

"String him up too if he interferes!" suggested one.

"That's the talk!" echoed a third. "Swing him, too!"

The lust of blood was upon the crowd, crying to be satisfied. But they
had reckoned wrongly, and were soon to learn their error. Every atom of
the long youth's fighting blood was raised to boiling pitch. On the
instant, the all but superhuman strength at which we marvel in the
insane was his. Like flails, his doubled fists shot out in every
direction, meeting resistance at each blow. By the dim light he caught
the answering glint on sheath knives, but he took no notice. His hat had
come off, and his abundant brown hair shook about his shoulders. His
blue eyes blazed. A figure of war incarnate he stood, and a vacant
circle which no one cared to cross formed about him. One long hand, with
fingers outstretched, was raised above his head. The brilliant eyes
searched the surrounding sea of faces for those he knew; as one by one
he found them, lingered, conquered. Silence fell intense.

"Men! Gentlemen!" The words went out like pistol-shots reaching every
acute ear. "Listen to me. I've a right to speak. Stop a moment, all of
you, and think. This is the twentieth century, not the first. We're in
America, free America. Think, I say, think! Don't act blindly! Think!
This man is guilty. We all know it. He's caught red-handed. But he can't
escape. Remember this, men, and think! As you value your own
self-respect, as you honor the country you live in, don't be savages,
don't do this deed you contemplate, this thing you've started doing. Let
the law take its course!"

The speaker paused for breath, and, as though fascinated by his audacity
or something else, friend and enemy remained motionless and waiting.
Well fitting the drama was its setting: the darkness of night broken by
the flickering lanterns; on the pony the huddled helpless figure with a
running noose about its neck; the row upon row of rugged faces, of
gleaming eyes!

"Ranchers, stockmen!" rushed on the insistent voice, "you know
responsibility; it's to you I'm talking. A principle is at stake
here,--the principle of law or of lawlessness. One of these--you know
which--has run this range too long; it's gripping us at this moment.
Before we can be free we must call it halt. Let's do it now; don't wait
for the next time or the next, but now, now!" Once more he paused, his
eyes for the last time making the circle swiftly, his hand in the air,
palm forward. "For law, the law of J. L. Rankin, instead of Judge
Lynch!" he challenged. "For civilization instead of savagery--not
to-morrow but now, now! Help me to uphold the law!"

So swiftly that the spectators scarcely realized what he was doing, he
stepped over to the limp figure upon the pony, loosed the noose from
around the neck, and lifted him to the ground.

"Sheriff Ralston!" he called; "come and take your prisoner! Russell!
Stetson! Grannis!" designating each by name, "every man who values life,
help me now!"

The cry was the trumpet for action. Instantly every one was in motion.
Again arose the Babel of voices,--voices cursing, arguing, encouraging.
The circle of malevolent faces which had surrounded the youth would not
longer be stayed, closed hotly in. He felt the press of their bodies
against his, their breath in his face. With an effort, marking his
place, the extended right hand went up once more into the air. The
slogan again sprang to his tongue.

"For the law of J. L. Rankin, men! The law of--"

The sentence died on his lips. Suddenly, something lightning-like,
scorching hot, caught him beneath his right shoulder-blade. Before his
eyes the faces, the lighted lanterns, faded into darkness. A sound like
falling waters roared in his ears.



CHAPTER XVI

THE QUICK AND THE DEAD


When Ben Blair again woke to consciousness the sunlight was pouring upon
him steadily. He was in a strange bed in a strange room; and he looked
about him perplexedly. Amid the unfamiliarity his eye caught an object
he recognized,--the broad angular back of a man. Memory slowly adjusted
itself.

"Grannis--"

The back reversed, showing a rather surprised face.

"Where am I, Grannis?"

The foreman came over to the bed. "In the hotel. In the bridal chamber,
they informed me, to be exact."

Ben did not smile. Memory was clear now. "What happened after they--got
me last night?"

Grannis's face showed distinct animation. "A lot of things--and mighty
fast. You missed the best part." Of a sudden he paused and looked at his
charge doubtfully. "But I forgot. You're not to talk: the doctor said
so."

Ben made a grimace. "But I can listen, can't I?"

"I suppose so," still doubtfully.

"Well--"

Grannis hearkened equivocally. No one was about, likely to overhear him
disobeying instructions, and the temptation was strong.

"You know McFadden?" he queried suddenly.

Blair nodded.

"Well, say, that Scotchman is a tiger. He got to the front somehow when
you called for reinforcements, and when you went down he was
Johnny-on-the-spot taking your place. Some of the rest of us got in
there pretty soon, and for a bit things was lively. It was rather close
range for gun-work, but knives were as thick as frogs after a shower."
With a sudden movement Grannis slipped up the sleeve of his left arm,
showing a bandage through which the blood had soaked and dried. "All of
us got scratched some. One fellow of the opposition--Mick Kennedy--met
with an accident."

"Serious?"

"Rather. We planted him after things had quieted down."

For a moment the two men looked at each other steadily, and the subject
was dropped.

"Well," suggested Blair once more.

"That's all, I guess--except that Ralston has the prisoner." A grim
reminiscent smile came to the speaker's lips. "That is, he's got him if
the floors of the cells here are paved good and thick. Last time I saw
T. Blair he was fairly shaking post-holes into the ground with his
feet."

Ben tried to shift in bed, but with the movement a sudden pain made him
grit his teeth to keep from uttering a groan. For the first time he
thought of himself.

"How much am I hurt, Grannis?" he queried directly.

The foreman busied himself doing nothing about the room. "You?"
cheerfully. "Oh, you're all right."

Ben looked at the other narrowly. "Nothing to bother about, I judge?"

"No, certainly not."

Beneath the bedclothes the long body lifted, but despite anything it
could do the face went pale.

"Very well, I guess I'll get up then."

Instantly Grannis was beside him, motioning him back, genuine concern
upon his face.

"No, please don't. Not yet."

"But if I'm not hurt much--"

Grannis fingered his forelock in obvious discomfort.

"Well, between you and me, it's this way. They ripped a seam for you--so
far," he indicated, "and it's open yet."

Turning his free left arm, Ben touched the bandage at his side, and the
hand came back moist and red. Now that it occurred to him, he was
ridiculously weak.

"I see. I'm liable to rip it more," he commented slowly.

The other nodded. "Yes; don't talk. I ought to have stopped you before
this."

"Grannis!" There was no escaping the blue eyes this time. "Honestly,
now, am I liable to be--done for, or not?"

The foreman became instantly serious. "Honest, if you keep quiet you're
all right. Doc said so not an hour ago. At first he thought different,
that you'd never wake up; you bled like a pig with its throat cut; but
this is what he told me when he left. 'Keep him quiet. It may take a
month for that gap to heal, but if you're careful he'll pull through.'"
Again the look of concern, and this time of contrition as well. "I ought
to be ashamed of myself for letting you talk at all; but this is
straight. Now don't say any more."

This time Ben obeyed. He couldn't well do otherwise. He had suddenly
grown weak and drowsy, and almost before Grannis was through speaking he
was again asleep.

The doctor was right about the time of healing. During the remainder of
that month and well into the next, despite his restless protests, Ben
Blair was a prisoner in that dull little room; and through it all
Grannis remained with him.

"You don't have to stay with me unless you like," Ben had said more than
once; but each time Grannis had displayed his own wound, at first
openly, at last, carefully concealed by bandages, whimsically.

"Got to take good care of this arm of mine," he explained. "Blood
poisoning's liable to set in at any minute, and that's something awful,
they tell me."

The invalid made no comment.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was the evening following the afternoon of Blair's return to the Box
R ranch. In the cosey kitchen, around the new range which Rankin had
imported the previous Fall, sat three people,--Grannis, Graham, and Ma
Graham. The two men were smoking steadily and silently. The woman, her
hands folded in her lap, her eyes glued to the floor, was breathing
loudly with the difficulty of the very corpulent. Of a sudden,
interrupting, the door connecting with the room adjoining opened and Ben
Blair appeared.

"Grannis," he requested, "come here a moment, please."

In silence Blair closed the door behind them, motioned his companion to
a seat, and took another opposite him. He was very quiet, even for his
taciturn self; and, glancing at a heap of papers on a nearby table,
Grannis understood. For a long minute the two men eyed each other
silently. Not without result had they lived the events of the last
months together. It was the younger man who first spoke.

"Grannis," he said impassively, "I'm going to ask you a question, and I
want an honest answer. Whatever you may think it leads to must cut no
figure. Will you give it?"

Equally impassively the elder man nodded, "Yes."

Blair selected a paper from the litter, and looked at it steadily. "What
I want to know is this: have I, has anyone, no matter what the incentive
may be, the right to make known after another's death things which
during that person's life were carefully concealed?"

The steady gaze shifted to his companion, held there compellingly. "In
other words, is a tragedy any less a tragedy, any more public property,
because the actors are dead? Answer me honest, Grannis."

Impassively as before the overseer shook his head. "No, I think not,"
he said. "Let the dead past bury its dead."

A moment longer the other remained motionless, then, before his
companion realized what he was doing, Ben had opened the door of the
sheet-iron heater and tossed the paper in his fingers fair among the
glowing coals.

"Thank you, Grannis," he said, "I agree with you." He stood a second
looking into the suddenly kindled blaze. "As you say, to the living,
life. Let the dead past bury its dead."

The flame died down until upon the coals lay a thin, curling film of
carbon. Grannis shifted in his seat.

"Nevertheless," he commented indifferently, "you've done a foolish act."
A pause; then he went on deliberately as before. "You've destroyed the
only evidence that proves you Rankin's son."

Involuntarily Blair stiffened, seeming about to speak. But he did not.
Instead, he closed the stove and resumed his former seat.

"By the way," he digressed, "I just received a letter from Scotty Baker.
I wrote him some time ago about--Mr. Rankin. He answered from England."

Grannis made no comment, and, the conversation being obviously at an
end, after a bit he rose, and with a taciturn "Good-night," left the
room.

       *       *       *       *       *

Days and weeks passed. The dead rigor of Winter gave way to traces of
Spring. On the high places the earth began to turn brown, the buffalo
grass to peep into view. By day the water slushed under the feet of the
cattle, and ran merrily in the draws of the rolling country. By night
it froze into marvellous frost-work; daintier and more intricate of
pattern than any made by man. Overhead, flocks of wild ducks in
irregular geometric patterns sailed north at double the speed of express
trains. With their mellow "Honk--honk," sweetest sound of all to a
frontiersman's ears, harbingers of Spring indeed, far above the level of
the ducks, amid the very clouds themselves, the geese, in regular
triangles, winged their way toward the snow-lands. At first they seemed
to pass only by day; then, as the season advanced, the nights were
melodious with the sound of their voices. Themselves invisible, far
below on the surface of earth the swish of their migratory wings sounded
so distinctly that to a listening human ear it almost seemed it were a
troop of angels passing overhead.

After them came the myriad small birds of the prairie,--the countless
flocks of blackbirds, whose "fl-ee-ce," in continuous chorus filled all
the daylight hours; the meadow-larks, singly or in pairs, announcing
their arrival with a guttural "tuerk" and a saucy flit of the tail, or
admonishing "fill your tea-kettle, fill your tea-kettle" with a
persistence worthy a better cause.

Ere this the earth was bare and brown. The chatter of the snow streams
had ceased. In the high places, on southern slopes, there was even a
suggestion of green. At last, on the sunny side of a knoll, there peeped
forth the blue face of an anemone. The following day it had several
companions. Within a week a very army of blue had arrived, stood erect
at attention so far as the eye could reach and beyond. No longer was
there a doubt of the season. Not precursors of Spring, but Spring
itself had come.

Meanwhile, on the Box R ranch everything moved on as of yore. Save on
that first night, Ben Blair made no man his confidant, accepted without
question his place as Rankin's successor. Most silent of these silent
people, he did his work and did it well, burying deep beneath an
impenetrable mask his thoughts and feelings. Not until an early Summer
was almost come did he make a move. Then at last a note of three
sentences went eastward:

     "Miss Baker: I'll be in New York in a few days, and if
     convenient to you will call. The prairies send greetings in
     advance. I saw the first wild rose of the season to-day.

                                                    "Ben Blair."

A week later, after giving directions for the day's work to Grannis one
morning, Ben added some suggestions for the days to follow. As to time,
they were rather indefinite, and the overseer looked a question.

"I'm going away for a bit," explained Ben, simply, in answer. Then he
turned to Graham. "Hitch up the buckboard right away, please. I want you
to take me to town in time to catch the afternoon train East."



CHAPTER XVII

GLITTER AND TINSEL


Clarence Sidwell--Chad, his friends called him--leaned farther back in
the big wicker chair, with an involuntary motion adjusted his
well-creased trousers so there might be no tension at the knees, and
looked across the tiny separating table at his _vis-a-vis_, while his
eyelids whimsically tightened.

"Well," he queried, "what do you think of it?"

The little brunette, his companion, roused herself almost with a start,
while a suggestion of conscious red tinged her face. "I beg your
pardon?" she said, inquiringly.

The man smiled. "Forgotten already, wasn't I?" he bantered.

"No, certainly not. I--"

A hand, delicate and carefully manicured as a woman's, was raised in
protest. "Don't prevaricate, please. The occasion isn't worth it." The
hand returned to the chair-arm with a play of light upon the solitaire
it bore. The smile broadened. "You were caught. Confess, and the
sentence will be lighter."

As a wave recedes, the red flood began to ebb from the girl's face. "I
confess, then. I was--thinking."

"And I was--forgotten. My statement was correct."

She looked up, and the two smiled companionably.

"Admitted. I await the penalty."

The man's expression changed into mock sternness. "Very well, Miss
Baker; having heard your confession and remembering a promise to
exercise clemency, this court is about to impose sentence. Are you
prepared to listen?"

"I'm growing stronger every minute."

The court frowned, the heavy black eyebrows making the face really
formidable.

"I fear the defendant doesn't realize the enormity of the offence.
However, we'll pass that by. The sentence, Miss Baker, brings me back to
the starting-point. You are directed to answer the question just
propounded, the question which for some inexplicable reason you didn't
hear. What do you think of it--this roof-garden, and things in general?"
The stern voice paused; the brows relaxed, and he smiled again. "But
first, you're sure you won't have something more--an ice, a wee
bottle--anything?"

The girl shook her head.

"Then let's make room here at this table for a better man; to hint at
vacating for a better woman would be heresy! It's pleasanter over there
in the corner out of the light, where one can see the street."

They found a vacant bench behind a skilfully arranged screen of palms,
and Sidwell produced a cigar.

"In listening to a tale or a confession," he explained, "one should
always call in the aid of nicotine. I fancy Munchausen's listeners must
have been smokers."

The girl steadily inspected the dark mobile face, half concealed in the
shadow. "You're making sport of me," she announced presently.

Instantly her companion's smile vanished. "I beg your pardon, Miss
Baker, but you misunderstood. I thought by this time you knew me better
than that."

"You really are interested, then? Would you truly like to know--what you
asked?"

"I truly would."

Florence hesitated. Her breath came a trifle more quickly. She had not
yet learned the trick of repression of the city folk.

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "Everything is wonderful. I feel
like a child in fairyland; only the fairies must be giants. This great
building, for instance,--I can't make it seem a product of mere six-foot
man! In spite of myself, I keep expecting a great genie to emerge
somewhere. I suppose this seems silly to you, but it's the feeling I
have, and it makes me realize my own insignificance."

Sidwell smoked in silence.

"That's the first impression--the most vivid one, I think. The next is
about the people themselves. I've been here nearly a half-year now, but
even yet I stare at them--as you caught me staring to-night--almost with
open mouth. To see these men in the daylight hours down town one would
think they cared more for a minute than for their eternal happiness. I'm
almost afraid to speak to them, my little affairs seem so tiny in
comparison with the big ones it must take to make men work as they do.
And then, a little later,--apparently for no other reason than that the
sun has ceased to shine,--I see them, as here, for instance, unconscious
that not minutes but hours are going by. They all seem to have double
lives. I get to thinking of them as Jekylls and Hydes. It makes me a bit
afraid."

Still Sidwell smoked in silence, and Florence observed him doubtfully.
"You really wish me to chatter on in this way?" she asked.

"I was never more interested in my life."

The girl felt her face grow warm. She was glad they were in the shadow,
so the man could not see it too clearly. For a moment she looked about
her, at the host of skilful waiters, at the crowd of brightly dressed
pleasure-seekers, at the kaleidoscopic changes, at the lights and
shadows. From somewhere invisible the string orchestra, which for a time
had been silent, started up anew, while her answering pulses beat to
swifter measure. The air was a familiar one, heard everywhere about
town; and she was conscious of a childish desire to join in singing it.
The novelty of the scene, the sparkle, the animation, the motion
intoxicated her. She leaned back in her seat luxuriously.

"This is life," she murmured. "I never grasped the meaning of the word
until within the last few months, but now I begin to understand. To work
mightily when one works, to abandon one's self completely when one
rests--that is the secret of life."

The man in the shadow shifted his position, and, looking up, Florence
found his eyes upon her. "Do you really believe that?" he asked.

"I do, most certainly."

Sidwell lit a fresh cigar, and for a moment the light of the burning
match showed his face clearly. He seemed about to say more; but he did
not, and Florence too was silent. In the pause that followed, the great
express elevator stopped softly at the roof floor. The gate opened with
a musical click, and a woman and a man stepped out. Both were
immaculately dressed, both had the unmistakable air of belonging to the
leisure class. They spied the place Florence and Sidwell had left
vacant, and leisurely made their way to it. A waiter appeared, a coin
changed hands, an order was given. The man drew out a cigarette case
that flashed in colors from the nearby arc-light. Smilingly the woman
held a match, and a moment later wreath after wreath of curling blue
smoke floated above them into the night.

Florence Baker watched the scene with a strange fascination. She was
conscious of having at some time visited a play wherein a similar action
had taken place. She had thought it merely a creation of the writer's
imagination at the time, but in her present broadened experience she
knew better. It was real,--real as the air she breathed. She simply had
not known the meaning of life then; she was merely existing. Now she
knew!

The waiter returned, bearing something in a cooler. There were a few
swift motions, a pop distinctly heard above the drone of the orchestra.
The man tossed aside his cigarette and leaned forward. Two glasses with
slender stems, each containing a liquid that effervesced and sparkled,
one in the man's hand, one in the woman's, met midway of the board. The
empty glasses returned to the table.

Many other seekers of pleasure were about, but Florence had no eyes for
them. This pair alone, so indifferent to their surroundings, so
thoroughly a part of them, perfectly fulfilled her newly formed
conception. They had solved this puzzle of existence, solved it so
completely that she wondered it could ever have appealed to her as a
puzzle at all. Again the formula, distinct as the handwriting upon the
wall, stood revealed before her. One had but to _live_ life, not reason
it, and all would be well.

Again and again, the delicate glasses sparkled to waiting lips, and
returned empty to the table. The man lit another cigarette, and its
smoke mingled with the darkness above. In the hands of the waiter the
cooler disappeared, and was returned; a second cork popped as had the
first. The woman's eyes sparkled as brilliantly as the gems upon her
fingers. The languor of the man had passed. With the old action
repeated, the brimming glasses touched across the board, were exchanged
after the foreign fashion, and again were dry. The figure of the man
leaned far over the table. He spoke earnestly, rapidly. Unconscious
motions of his hands added emphasis to his words. Neither he nor she who
listened was smiling now. Instead, there was a look, identical upon
either face, a look somehow strangely familiar to the watcher, one she
had met with before, somewhere--somewhere. Memory flew back on lightning
wings, searched all the paths of her experience, the dim
all-but-forgotten crannies, stopped with pointing finger; and with a tug
at her very being, she looked, and unbelieving looked again. Ah, could
it be possible--could it? Yes, there it was, unmistakable; the same
expression as this before her--there, blazing from the eyes of a group
of strange street-loafers, as she herself, she, Florence Baker, passed
by!

In the shadow the face of the spectator crimsoned, the hot flood burned
at her ears, a tightness like a physical hand gripped at her throat; but
it seemed that her eyes could not leave the figures before her. Not the
alien interest of a watcher at the play, but a more intense, a more
personal meaning, was in her gaze now. Something of vital moment to her
own life was taking place out there so near, and she must see. A
fleeting wonder as to whether her own companion was likewise watching
came to her, but she did not turn to discover. The denouement,
inevitable as death, was approaching, might come if she for an instant
looked away.

The man out there under the electric globe was still talking; the woman,
his companion, still listened. Florence caught herself straining her
ears to hear what he was saying; but to no purpose. She heard only the
repressed murmur of his well-modulated, resonant voice; yet that in
itself was enough. The old song of the sirens was flowing from his lips,
and passion flamed in his eyes. Farther and farther across the tiny
intervening table, nearer the woman's face, his own approached. The last
empty bottle, the thin-stemmed glasses, stood in his way, and he moved
them aside with his elbow. So near now was he that their breaths
mingled, and as the drone of his voice ceased, the music of the
orchestra, a waltz, flowed into the rift with its steady one-two-three.
He was motionless; but his eyes, intense blue eyes under long lashes,
were fixed absorbingly on hers.

It was the woman's turn to move. Gradually, gracefully, unconsciously,
her own face came forward toward his. Sparkling in the light, a jewelled
hand rested on the surface of the table. A tinge of crimson mounted the
long white neck, and colored it to the roots of her hair. The arteries
at the throat throbbed under the thin skin. Simultaneously, the opening
gate of the elevator clicked, and a man--another with that unmistakable
air of leisure--approached; but still she did not notice, did not hear.
Instead, with a sudden motion, heedless of surroundings, reckless of
spectators, her face crossed the gap intervening between her and her
companion; her lips touched his lips, caught fire with the contact, met
them again and again.

Watching, scarcely breathing, Florence saw the figure of the man come
closer. His eyes also were upon the pair. He caught their every motion;
but he did not hurry. On he came, leisurely, impassively, as though out
for a stroll. He stopped by their side, a darkening shadow with a
mask-like face. Instinctively the two glanced up. There was a crash of
glassware, as the tiny table lurched in the woman's hand--and they were
on their feet. A moment the three looked into each others' eyes, looked
deep and long; then together, without a word, they turned toward the
elevator. Again, droning monotonously, the car appeared and disappeared.
After them, vibrant, mocking, there beat the unvarying rhythm of the
waltz, one-two-three, one-two-three.

In the shadow, Florence Baker's face dropped into her hands. When at
last she glanced up another couple, likewise immaculate of attire,
likewise debonair and smiling, were seated at the little table. She
turned to her companion. His cigar was still glowing brightly. He had
not moved.

"I think I'll go home now, if you please," she said, and every trace of
animation had left her voice. "I'm rather tired."

The man roused himself. "It's early yet. There'll be vaudeville here in
a little while, after the theatre."

The girl observed him curiously. "It's early, did you say?"

Sidwell smiled indulgently. "Beg your pardon. I had forgotten our
standards were not yet in conformity. It is so considered--here."

Florence was very quiet until they reached the steps of her own home. A
light was in the open vestibule, another in the library, where Scotty,
his feet comfortably enclosed in carpet-slippers and elevated above his
head, was reading. Then she turned to her escort.

"You won't be offended, Mr. Sidwell, if I ask you a question?"

The electric light on the nearby corner shone full upon her soft brown
face, a very serious face now, and the man's glance lingered there.
"Certainly not," he answered.

Florence hesitated. Somehow, now that the moment for speaking had
arrived, the thing she had in mind to say did not seem so easy after
all. At last she spoke, hesitatingly: "You seem to be interested in me,
seem to take pleasure in being in my company. For the last few months we
have been together almost daily, but up to that time we had lived lives
as unlike as--as the city is from the prairie. I know you have many
other friends, friends you've known all your life, whose ideals and
points of view came from the same experience as your own." She
straightened with dignity. "Why is it that you leave those friends to
come here? Why do you find pleasure in taking me about as you do? Why is
it?"

Not once while she was speaking had the man's eyes left her face; not
once had he stirred. Even after she was silent he remained so; and
despite the compelling influence which had prompted the question,
Florence could not but realize what she had done, what she had all but
suggested. The warm color flooded her face, though she held her eyes up
bravely. "Tell me why," she repeated firmly.

Sidwell still hesitated. Complex product of the higher civilization,
mixture of good and bad, who knows what thoughts were running riot in
his brain? At last he aroused and came closer. "You ask me a very hard
question," he said steadily; "the most difficult, I think, you could
have chosen; one, also, which perhaps I have already asked myself."
Again he took a step nearer. "It is a question, Florence, that admits of
but one answer; one both adequate and inadequate. It is because you are
you and woman, and I am I and man." Of a sudden his dark face grew
swarthier still, his voice lapsed from its customary impersonal. "It
means, Florence Baker--"

But the sentence was not completed. As suddenly as the change had come
to the man's face, the girl had understood. With an impulse she could
not have explained to herself, she had drawn away and swiftly mounted
the steps of the house. Not until she reached the porch did she turn.

"Don't, don't, please!" she urged. "I beg your pardon. I shouldn't have
asked what I did. Forget that I spoke at all." She was struggling for
words, for breath. Her color came and went. "Good-night." And not
trusting herself to look back, oblivious of courtesy, she almost ran
into the house.

Standing as she had left him, his hat in his hand, Clarence Sidwell
watched her pass through the lighted vestibule into the darkness
beyond.



CHAPTER XVIII

PAINTER AND PICTURE


Scotty Baker dropped a lump of sugar into his coffee and stirred the
mixture carefully, glancing the while smilingly at his wife and
daughter.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed; "it seems good to be back here again."

Mrs. Baker was deep in a letter she had just opened, but Florence
returned the smile companionably.

"And it seems mighty good to have you back, daddy," she replied. "Just
think of our being alone, a pair of poor defenceless women, three whole
months without a man about the house! If you ever dare do it again
you're liable to find one in your place when you return. Isn't he,
mamma?"

Her mother looked up reproachfully. "For shame, Florence!" she cried.

But Scotty only observed his daughter quizzically. "I did--almost, this
time, didn't I?" he bantered. "By the way, who is this wonderful being,
this Sidwell, I've heard so much about the last few hours?" He was as
obtuse as a post to his wife's meaning look. "Tell me about him, won't
you?"

Florence laughed a bit unnaturally. It seemed her words had a way of
returning like a boomerang.

"He's a writer," she explained laconically.

"A writer?" Scotty paused, a teaspoonful of coffee between the cup and
his mouth. "A real one?"

The smile left the girl's face. "His family is one of the oldest in the
city," she explained coldly. "His work sells by the thousand. You can
judge for yourself."

Scotty sipped his coffee impassively, but behind the big glasses the
twinkle left his eyes.

"The inference you suggest would have been more obvious if you hadn't
made the first remark," he said a little sharply. "I've noticed the
matter of good family has quite an influence in this world."

The subject was dropped, but nevertheless it left its aftermath.
Easy-going Scotty did not often say an unpleasant thing, and for that
very reason Florence knew that when he did it had an especial
significance.

"By the way," he observed after a moment, "we ought to celebrate to-day
in some manner. I rather expected to find a band at the station to
welcome me yesterday upon my return, but I didn't, and I fear there's
been no public demonstration arranged. What do you say to our packing up
our dinner, taking the elevated, and spending the day in the country?
What say you, Mollie?"

His wife looked at her daughter helplessly. "Just as Florence says. I'm
willing," she replied.

"What speaks the oracle?" smiled Scotty. "Shall we or shall we not?
Personally, I feel a desire for cooling springs, to step on a good-sized
plat of green without having a watchful bluecoat loom in the distance."

Florence fingered the linen of the tablecloth with genuine discomfort.
"You two can go. I'll help you get ready," she ventured at last. "I'm
sorry, but I promised Mr. Sidwell last night I'd visit the art gallery
with him this afternoon. He says they've some new canvases hung lately,
one of them by a particular friend of his. He's such a student of art,
and I know so little about it that I hate to miss going."

Again the smile left Scotty's eyes. "Can't you write a note explaining,
and postpone the visit until some other time?" It took quite an effort
for this undemonstrative Englishman to make the request.

The girl glanced out the window with a look her father understood very
well. "I hardly think so," she said. "He's going away for the Summer
soon, and his time is limited."

Scotty said no more, and soon after he left the table and went into the
library. Florence sat for a moment abstractedly; then with her old
impulsive manner she followed him.

"Daddy," the girl's arms clasped around his neck, her cheek pressed
against his, "I'm awful sorry I can't go with you to-day. I'd like to,
really."

But for one of the very few times that Florence could remember her
father did not respond. Instead, he removed her arms rather coldly.

"Oh, that's all right," he said; "I hope you'll have a good time." And
picking up the morning paper he lit a cigar and moved toward the shady
veranda.

Watching him, the girl had a desire to follow, to prevent his leaving
her in that way. But she hesitated and the moment passed.

Yet, although a cloud shadowed Florence Baker's morning, by afternoon it
had departed. Sidwell's carriage came promptly, creating something of a
stir behind the drawn shades of the adjoining residences--for the Bakers
were not located in a fashionable quarter. Sidwell himself, immaculate,
smiling, greeted her with the deference which became him well, and in
itself conveyed a delicate compliment. Neither made any reference to the
incident of the night before. His manner gave no hint of the constraint
which under the circumstances might have been expected. A few months
before, the girl would have thought he had taken her request literally,
and had forgotten; but now she knew better. In this fascinating new life
one could pass pleasantries with one's dearest enemy and still smile. In
the old life, under similar circumstances, there would have been
gun-play, and probably later a funeral; but here--they knew better how
to live. Already, in the few social events she had attended, she had
seen them juggle with emotions as a conjurer with knives--to emerge
unhurt, unruffled. To be sure, she could not herself do it--yet; but she
understood, and admired.

Out of doors the sun was uncomfortably hot, but within the high walled
gallery it was cool and pleasant. Florence had been there before, but
earlier in the season, and many other visitors were present. To-day she
and Sidwell were practically alone, and she faced him with a little
receptive gesture.

"You're always getting me to talk," she said. "To-day I'm going to
exchange places. Don't expect me to do anything but listen."

Sidwell smiled. "Won't you even condescend to suggest channels in which
my discourse may flow?" he bantered.

The girl hesitated. "Perhaps," she ventured, "if I find it necessary."

For an hour they wandered about, moving slowly, and pausing often to
rest. Sidwell talked well, but somewhat impersonally. At last, in an
out-of-the-way corner, they came to the modest canvas of his friend, and
they sat down before it. The picture was unnamed and unsigned. Without
being extraordinary as a work of art, its subject lent its chief claim
to distinction. Interested because her companion seemed interested,
Florence looked at it steadily. At first there appeared to her nothing
but a mountain, steep and rugged, and a weary man who, climbing it, had
lain down to rest. Far down at the mountain's base she saw where the
figure had begun its ascent. The way was easy there, and the trail,
through the abundant grasses crushed underfoot, was of one who had moved
rapidly. Gradually, with the upward incline, obstacles had increased,
and the footprints drew nearer together. Still higher, from a straight
line the trail had become tortuous and irregular. Here the climber had
passed around a thicket of trees; there a great boulder had stood in the
path; but, ever indomitable, the way had been steadily upward toward
some point the climber had in view. Steeper and steeper the way had
grown. The prints on the rocky mountain-side, from being those of feet
only, merged into those made by hands. The man had begun to crawl,
making his way inch by inch. Fragments of his torn clothing hung on the
points of rocks. Dim brown lines showed the path his body had taken, as
he sometimes slipped back. Breaks in the scant vegetation told where his
fingers had clutched desperately to halt his descent. Yet each time the
reverse had been but temporary; he had returned, and mounted higher and
higher. But at last there had come the end. He had reached his present
place in the picture. By gripping tightly he could hold his own, but to
advance was impossible. Straight above him, a sheer wall, many times his
own height, was the blank, unbroken face of the rock. That he had tried
to scale even this was evident, for finger-marks from bleeding hands
were thick thereon; but he had finally abandoned the effort. Physically,
he was conquered. It seemed that one could almost hear the quick coming
and going of his breath. Yet, prostrate as he lay, his eyes were turned
toward the barrier his body could not scale, to a something which
crowned its utmost height,--something indefinite and unattainable,--the
supreme desire and purpose of his life.

The two spectators sat silent. Other visitors came near, glanced at the
canvas and at the pair of observers, and passed on with muffled
footsteps.

The girl turned, and, as on the night at the roof-garden, found the
man's eyes upon her.

"What name does your friend give to his work?" she asked.

"He calls it 'The Unattainable.'"

"And what is its meaning?"

"Ambition, perfection, complete happiness--anything striven for with
one's whole soul."

Florence was studying her companion now as steadily as he had been
studying her a moment before. "To your--friend it meant--"

"Happiness."

The girl's hands were clasped in her lap in a way she had when her
thoughts were concentrated. "And he never found it?" she asked.

Unconsciously one of Sidwell's hands made a downward motion of
deprecation. "He did not. We made the circuit of the earth together in
pursuit of it--but all was useless. It seemed as though the more he
searched the more he was baffled in his quest."

For a moment the girl made no reply, but in her lap her hands clasped
tighter and tighter. A thought that made her finger-tips tingle was
taking form in her mind. A dim comprehension of the nature of this man
had first suggested it; the fact that the canvas was unsigned had helped
give it form. The speaker's last words, his even tone of voice, had not
passed unnoticed. She turned to the canvas, searched the skilfully
concealed outlines of the tattered figure with the upturned eyes. The
clasped hands grew white with the tension.

"I didn't know before you were an artist as well as a writer," she said
evenly.

Sidwell turned quickly. The girl could feel his look. "I fear," he said,
"I fail to grasp your meaning. You think--"

Florence met the speaker's look steadily. "I don't think," she said, "I
know. You painted the picture, Mr. Sidwell. That man there on the
mountain-side is you!"

Her companion hesitated. His face darkened; his lips opened to speak and
closed again.

The girl continued watching him with steady look. "I can hardly believe
it," she said absently. "It seems impossible."

Sidwell forced a smile. "Impossible? What? That I should paint a daub
like that?"

The girl's tense hands relaxed wearily.

"No, not that you paint, but that the man there--the one finding
happiness unattainable--should be you."

The lids dropped just a shade over Sidwell's black eyes. "And why, if
you please, should it be more remarkable that I am unhappy than
another?"

This time Florence took him up quickly. "Because," she answered, "you
seem to have everything one can think of that is needed to make a human
being happy--wealth, position, health, ability--all the prizes other
people work their lives out for or die for." Again the voice dropped. "I
can't understand it." She was silent a moment. "I can't understand it,"
she repeated.

From the girl's face the man's eyes passed to the canvas, and rested
there. "Yes," he said slowly, "I suppose it is difficult, almost
impossible, for you to realize why I am--as I am. You have never had the
personal experience--and we only understand what we have felt. The
trouble with me is that I have experienced too much, felt too much. I've
ceased to take things on trust. Like the youth and the key flower I've
forgotten the best." The voice paused, but the eyes still kept to the
canvas.

"That picture," he went on, "typifies it all. I painted it, not because
I'm an artist, but because in a fashion it expresses something I
couldn't put into words, or express in any other way. When I began to
climb, the object above me was not happiness but ambition. Wealth and
social place, as you say, I already had. They meant nothing to me. What
I wanted was to make a name in another way--as a literary man." The dark
eyes shifted back to the listener's face, the voice spoke more rapidly.

"I went after the thing that I wanted with all the power and tenacity
that was in me. I worked with the one object in view; worked without
resting, feverishly. I had successes and failures, failures and
successes--a long line of both. At last, as the world puts it, I
_arrived_. I got to a position where everything I wrote sold, and sold
well; but in the meantime the thing above me, which had been ambition,
gradually took on another shape. Perfection it was I longed for now,
perfection in my art. It was not enough that the public had accepted me
as I was; I was not satisfied with my work. Try as I might, nothing that
I wrote ever reached my own standard in its execution. I worked harder
than ever; but it was useless. I was confronting the blank wall--the
wall of my natural limitations."

The voice paused, and for a moment lowered. "I won't say what I did
then; I was--mad almost--the finger-marks of it are on the rock."

The girl could not look longer into the speaker's eyes. She felt as if
she were gazing upon a naked human soul, and turned away.

"At last," he went on in his confession, "I came to myself, and was
forced to see things as they were. I saw that as well as I thought I had
understood life I had not even grasped its meaning. I had fancied the
attainment of my object the supreme end, and by every human standard I
had succeeded in my purpose; but the thing I had gained was trash.
Wealth, power, notoriety--what were they? Bubbles, nothing more; bubbles
that broke in the hand of him who clasped them. The real meaning and
object of existence lay deeper, and had nothing whatever to do with the
estimate of a person by his fellows. It was a frame of mind of the
individual himself."

Florence's face turned farther away, but Sidwell did not notice. "Then,
for the last time," he hurried on, "the unattainable changed form for
me, and became what it seems now--happiness. For a little time I think I
was happy--happy in merely having made the discovery. Then came the
reaction. I was as I was, as I am now--a product of my past life, of a
civilization essentially artificial. In striving for a false ideal I had
unfitted myself for the real when at last I discovered it."

Unconsciously the man had come closer, and his eyes glowed. At last his
apathy was shaken off, and his words came in a torrent. "What I was then
I am to-day. Mentally, I am like an inebriate, who no longer finds
satisfaction in plain food and drink, but craves stimulants. I demand
activity, excitement, change. In every hour of my life I realize the
narrowness and artificiality of it all; but without it I am unhappy. I
sometimes think Mother Nature herself has disowned me; when I try to get
near her she draws away--I fancy with a shudder. Solitude of desert, of
forest, or of prairie is no longer solitude to me. It is filled with
voices--accusing voices; and I rush back to the crowd and the unrest of
the city. Even my former pleasures seem to have deserted me. You have
spoke often of accomplishing big things, doing something better than
anyone else can do it, as an example of pleasure supreme. If you
realized what you were saying you would know its irony. You cannot do a
thing better than anyone else. People, like water, strike a dead level.
No matter how you strive, dozens of others can do the thing you are
doing. Were you to die, your place would be filled to-morrow, and the
world would wag on just the same. There is always someone just beneath
you watchfully waiting, ready to seize your place if you relax your
effort for a moment. The term 'big things' is relative. To speak it is
merely to refer to something you do not personally understand. Nothing
seems really big to the one who does it. Nothing is difficult when you
understand it. The growing of potatoes in a backyard is just as
wonderful a performance as the painting of one of these pictures; it
would be more so were it not so common and so necessary. The
construction of a steam-engine or an electric dynamo is incomparably
more remarkable than the merging of separate thousands of capital into
millions of combination, yet multitudes of men everywhere can do either
of the former things and are unnoticed. We worship what we do not
understand, and call it big; but the man in the secret realizes the
mockery and smiles."

Closer came the dark face. The black eyes, intense and flashing, held
the listener in their gaze.

"I said that even my pleasures seem to have deserted me. It is true. I
used to like to wander about the city, to see it at its busiest, to
loiter amid the hum and the roar and the ceaseless activity. I saw in it
then only friendly rivalry, like a hurdle race or a football
game--something pleasing and stimulating. Now it all affects me in just
the reverse way. I look beneath the surface, and my heart sinks to find
not friendly competition, but a battle, where men and women fight for
daily bread, where the weak are crowded and trampled upon by the strong.
In ordinary battle the maimed and the crippled are spared, but here they
still fight on. Mercy or quarter is unknown. Oh, it is ghastly! I used
to take pleasure in books, in the work of others; but even this
satisfaction has been taken from me--except such grim satisfaction as a
physician may feel at a _post mortem_. The very labor that made me a
success in literature caused me to be a dissector of things around me.
To learn how others attained their ends I must needs tear their work
apart and study the fragments. This habit has become a part of me. I
overlook the beauty of the product in the working of the machinery that
produced it. I watch the mixing of literary confections, served to the
reader so that upon laying down the book he may have a good taste in his
mouth. People themselves, those I meet from day to day, inevitably go
through the same metamorphosis. I see them as characters in a book.
Their foibles and peculiarities are grist for my mill. Everything,
everyone, when I appear, slips into the narrow confines of a printed
page. I can't even spare myself. Fragments of me can be had for a price
at any of the book-stalls. I've become public property--and with no one
to blame but myself."

The flow of speech halted. The speaker's face was so near now that the
girl could not avoid looking at it.

"Do you wonder," he concluded, "that I am not happy?"

The girl looked up. The two pairs of brown eyes met. Outwardly, she who
answered was calm; but in her lap the small hands were clasping each
other tightly, so that the blood had left the fingers.

"No, I do not wonder now," she answered simply.

"And you understand?"

"Yes, I--no, there's so much--Oh, take me home, please!" The sentence
ended abruptly in a plea. The slender body was trembling as with cold.
"Take me home, please. I want to--to think."

"Florence!" The word was a caress. "Florence!"

But the girl was already on her feet. "Don't say any more to-day! I
can't stand it. Take me home!"

Sidwell looked at her closely for a moment; then the mask of
conventionality, which for a time had lifted from his face, dropped once
more, and he also arose. In silence, side by side, the two made their
way down the long hall to the exit. Out of doors, the afternoon sun,
serene and smiling, gave them a friendly greeting.



CHAPTER XIX

A VISITOR FROM THE PLAINS


"Papa," said Florence, next morning, as they two sat alone at breakfast,
her mother having reported a headache and failed to appear, "let's go
somewhere, away from folks, for a week or so."

"Why this sudden change of front?" her father queried. "Not being of the
enemy I'm entitled to the plan of campaign, you know."

Florence observed him steadily, and the father could not but notice how
much more mature she seemed than the prairie girl of a few months ago.

"There is no change of front or plan of campaign as far as I know," she
replied. "I simply want to get away a bit, that's all." She returned to
her neglected breakfast. "There's such a thing as mental dyspepsia, you
know, and I feel a twinge of it now and then. I think this new life is
being fed to me in doses too large for my digestion."

Mr. Baker eventually acquiesced, as anyone who knew him could have
foretold he would do. His wife, also, when the plan was broached to her,
hesitatingly agreed, but at the last moment balked and declined to go;
so they left without her.

The small town to which they went had ample grass and trees, and a small
lake convenient. A farmer's family reluctantly consented to board and
lodge them; also to give them the use of a bony horse and a disreputable
one-seated wagon. After their arrival they promptly proceeded to
segregate themselves from their fellow-boarders. The first day they
fished a little, talked, read, slept, meditated, and smoked--that is,
Mr. Baker did, enough for two; and Florence assisted by rolling
cigarettes when the bowl of the meerschaum grew uncomfortably hot. The
next day they repeated the programme, and also the next, and the next.

"I think I could stay here always," said Mr. Baker.

"I rather like it myself," Florence admitted.

Nevertheless, they returned promptly on schedule-time. Mrs. Baker was
awaiting them, her stiff manner indicating that she had not been doing
much else while they were away. Without finesse, one member of the two
delinquents was informed that a certain man of considerable social
prominence, Clarence Sidwell by name, had called daily, and, Mrs. Baker
fancied, with increasing dissatisfaction at their absence. Florence
found in her mail a short note, which after some consideration she
handed without comment to her father.

He read--and read again. "When was this mailed?" he asked.

"Over a week ago," answered Florence. "It has been here for several
days."

It was therefore no surprise to the Englishman when that very evening,
as he sat on the front veranda, his heels on the railing, watching the
passage of equipages swift and slow, he saw a tall young man, at whom
passers-by stared more than was polite, coming leisurely up the
sidewalk, inspecting the numbers on the houses. As he came closer, Mr.
Baker took in the details of the long free stride, of the broad chest,
the square uplifted chin, with something akin to admiration. Vitality
and power were in every motion of the supple body; health--a life free
as the air and sunshine--was written in the brown of the hands, the tan
of the face. Even his clothes, though not the conventional costume of
city streets, seemed a part of their wearer, and had a freedom all their
own. The broad-brimmed felt hat was obviously for comfort and
protection, not for show. The light-brown flannel shirt was the color of
the sinewy throat. The trousers, of darker wool, rolled up at the
bottom, exposed the high-heeled riding-boots. About the whole man--for
he was very near now--there was that immaculate cleanliness which the
world prizes more than godliness.

Scotty dropped his feet from the railing and advanced to the steps.
"Hello, Ben Blair!" he said.

The visitor paused and smiled. "How do you do, Mr. Baker?" he answered.
"I thought I'd find you along here somewhere." He swung up the short
walk, and, mounting the steps, grasped the Englishman's extended hand.
For a moment the two said nothing. Then Scotty motioned to a chair. "Sit
down, won't you?" he invited.

Ben stood as he was. The smile left his face. "Would you really--like me
to?" he asked directly.

"I really would, or I wouldn't have asked you," Scotty returned, with
equal directness.

Ben took the proffered chair, and crossed his legs comfortably. The two
sat for a moment in silent companionship.

"Tell me about Rankin," suggested Scotty at last.

Ben did so. It did not take long, for he scarcely mentioned himself, and
quite omitted that last incident of which Grannis had been witness.

"And--the man who shot him?" Scotty found it a bit difficult to put the
query into words.

"They swung him a few days later. Things move rather fast out there when
they move at all."

"Were 'they' the cowboys?"

"No, the sheriff and the rest. It was all regular--scarcely any
spectators, even, I heard."

"And now about yourself. Shall you be in the city long?"

"I hardly know. I came partly on business--but that won't take me long."
He looked at his host significantly. "I also had another purpose in
coming."

Scotty moved uncomfortably in his seat. "Ben," he said at last, "I'd
like to ask you to stay with us if I could, but--" he paused, looking
cautiously in at the open door--"but Mollie, you know--It would mean the
dickens' own time with her."

Ben showed neither surprise nor resentment. "Thank you," he replied. "I
understand. I couldn't have accepted had you invited me. Let's not
consider it."

Again the seat which usually fitted the Englishman so well grew
uncomfortable. He was conscious that through the curtains of the library
window some one was watching him and the new-comer. He had a mortal
dread of a scene, and one seemed inevitable.

"How's the old ranch?" he asked evasively.

"It's just as you left it. I haven't got the heart somehow to change
anything. We use up a good many horses one way and another during a
year, and when I get squared around I'm going to start a herd there with
one of the boys to look after it. It was Rankin's idea too."

"You expect to keep on ranching, then?"

"Why not?"

"I thought, perhaps, now that you had plenty to do with--You're young,
you know."

Ben looked out across the narrow plat of turf deliberately.

"Am I--young? Really, I'd never thought of it in that way."

The Englishman's feet again mounted the railing in an attempt at
nonchalance.

"Well, usually a man at your age--" He laughed. "If it were an old
fellow like me--"

"Mr. Baker, I thought you said you really wished me to sit down and chat
awhile?"

Scotty colored. "Why, certainly. What makes you think--"

"Let's be natural then."

Scotty stiffened. His feet returned to the floor.

"Blair, you forget--" But somehow the sentence, bravely begun, halted.
Few people in real life acted a part with Benjamin Blair's blue eyes
upon them. "Ben," he said instead, "I'm an ass, and I beg your pardon.
I'll call Florence."

But the visitor's hand restrained him.

"Don't, please. She knows I am here. I saw her a bit ago. Let her do as
she wishes." He drew himself up in the cane rocker. "You asked me a
question. As far as I know I shall ranch it always. It suits me, and
it's the thing I can do best. Besides, I like being with live things.
The only trouble I have," he smiled frankly, "is in selling stock after
I raise them. I want to keep them as long as they live, and put them in
greener pastures when they get old. It's the off season, but I brought a
couple of car-loads along with me to Chicago, to the stock-yards. I'll
never do it again. It has to be done, I know; people have to be fed; but
I've watched those steers grow from calves."

Scotty searched his brain for something relevant and impersonal, but
nothing suggested itself. "Ben Blair," he ventured, "I like you."

"Thank you," said Ben.

They were silent for a long time. Pedestrians, singly and in pairs,
sauntered past on the walk. Vehicle after vehicle scurried by in the
street. At last a team of brown thoroughbreds, with one man driving,
drew up in front of the house. The man alighted, tied the horses to the
stone hitching-post, and came up the walk. Simultaneously Ben saw the
curtains at the library window sway as though in a sudden breeze.

"Splendid horses, those," he commented.

"Yes," answered Scotty, wishing he were somewhere else just then. "Yes,"
he repeated, absently.

"Good-evening, Mr. Baker!" said the smiling driver of the thoroughbreds.

"Good-evening," echoed Scotty. Then, with a gesture, he indicated the
passive Benjamin. "My friend Mr. Blair, Mr. Sidwell."

Sidwell mounted the steps. Ben arose. The library curtains trembled
again. The two men looked each other fairly in the eyes and then shook
hands.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Blair," said Sidwell.

"Thank you," responded Ben, evenly.

Down in the depths of his consciousness, Scotty was glad this frontier
youth had seen fit to come to town. Taking off his big glasses he
polished them industriously.

"Won't you sit down?" he invited the new-comer.

Sidwell moved toward the door. "No, thank you. With your permission I'll
go inside. I presume Miss Baker--"

But the Englishman was ahead of him. "Yes," he said, "she's at home.
I'll call her," and he disappeared.

Watching the retreating figure, Sidwell's black eyes tightened, but he
returned and took the place Scotty had vacated. He gave his companion a
glance which, swift as a flash of light upon a sensitized plate, took in
every detail of the figure, the bizarre dress, the striking face.

"You are from the West, I judge, Mr. Blair?" he interrogated.

"Dakota," said Ben, laconically.

Sidwell's gaze centred on the sombrero. "Cattle raising, perhaps?" he
ventured.

Ben nodded. "Yes, I have a few head east of the river." He returned the
other's look, and Sidwell had the impression that a searchlight was
suddenly shifted upon him. "Ever been out there?"

The city man indicated an affirmative. "Yes, twice: the last time about
four years ago. I went out on purpose to see a steer-roping contest, on
the ranch of a man by the name of Gilbert, I remember. A cowboy they
called Pete carried off the honors; had his 'critter' down and tied in
forty-two seconds. They told me that was slow time, but I thought it
lightning itself."

"The trick can be done in thirty-five with the wildest," commented Ben.

Sidwell looked out on the narrow street meditatively. "I think that
cowboy exhibition," he went on slowly, "was the most typically American
scene I have ever witnessed. The recklessness, the dash, the splendid
animal activity--there's never been anything like it in the world." His
eyes returned to Ben's face. "Ever hear of Gilbert, did you?"

"I live within twenty-three miles of him."

Sidwell looked interested. "What ranch, if I may ask?"

"The Right Angle Triangle we call it."

"Oh, yes," Sidwell nodded in recollection. "Rankin is the proprietor--a
big man with a grandfather's-shay buckboard. I saw him while I was
there."

Involuntarily one of Ben's long legs swung over the other. "That's the
place! You have a good memory."

Sidwell smiled. "I couldn't help having in this case. He reminded me of
the satraps of ancient Persia. He was monarch of all he surveyed."

Ben said nothing.

"He's still the big man of the country, I presume?"

"He is dead."

"Dead?"

"I said so."

The light of understanding came to the city man. "I see," he observed.
"He is gone, and you--"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Sidwell," interrupted the other, "but suppose we
change the subject?"

Sidwell colored, then he laughed. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Blair. No
offence was intended, I assure you. Mr. Rankin interested me, that was
all."

Again Ben said nothing, and the conversation lapsed.

Meanwhile within doors another drama had been taking place. A very
discomposed young lady had met Scotty just out of hearing.

"What made you stop Mr. Sidwell, papa?" she asked indignantly. "Why
didn't you let him come in?"

"Because I didn't choose to," explained Scotty, bluntly.

"But I wanted him to," she said imperiously. "I don't care to see Ben
to-night."

Her father looked at her steadily. "And I wish you to see him," he
insisted. "You must be hypnotized to behave the way you're doing! You
forget yourself completely!"

The brown eyes of the girl flashed. "And you forget yourself! I'm no
longer a child! I won't see him to-night unless I wish to!"

Easy-going Scotty was aroused. His weak chin set stubbornly.

"Very well. You will see neither of them, then. I won't have a man
insulted without cause in my own house. I'll tell them both you're
sick."

"If you do," flamed Florence, "I'll never forgive you! You're--horrid,
if you are my father. I--" She took refuge in tears. "Oh, you ought to
be ashamed to treat your daughter so!"

The Englishman flicked a speck of ash off his lounging coat. "I _am_
ashamed," he admitted; "but not of what you suggest." He turned toward
the door.

"Daddy," said a pleading voice, "don't you--care for me any more?"

An expression the daughter had never seen before, but one that ever
after haunted her, flashed over the father's face.

"Care for you?" he exclaimed. "Care for you? That is just the trouble! I
care for you--have always cared for you--too much. I have sacrificed my
self-respect to humor you, and it's all been a mistake. I see it now too
late."

For a moment the two looked at each other; then the girl brushed past
him. "Very well," she said calmly, "if I must see them both, at least
permit me to see them by myself."

The men on the porch arose as Florence appeared. Their manner of doing
so was characteristic of each. Sidwell got to his feet languidly, a bit
stiffly. He had not forgotten the past week. Ben Blair arose
respectfully, almost reverently, unconscious that he was following a
mere social form. Six months had passed since he had seen this little
woman, and his soul was in his eyes as he looked at her.

Just without the door the girl halted, her color like the sunset. It was
the city man she greeted first.

"I'm very glad to see you again," she said, and a dainty hand went out
to meet his own.

Sidwell was human. He smiled, and his hand detained hers longer than was
really necessary.

"And I'm happy indeed to have you back," he responded. "I missed you."

The girl turned to the impassive but observing Benjamin.

"I am glad to see you, too, Mr. Blair," she said, but the voice was as
formal as the handshake. "Papa introduced you to Mr. Sidwell, I
suppose?"

Her reserve was quite unnecessary. Outwardly, Ben was as coldly polite
as she. He placed a chair for her deferentially and took another
himself, while Sidwell watched the scene with interest. Somewhere, some
time, if he lived, that moment would be reproduced on a printed page.

"Yes," responded Ben, "Mr. Sidwell and I have met." He turned his chair
so that he and the girl faced each other. "You like the city, your new
life, as well as you expected, I trust?"

They chatted a few minutes as impersonally as two chance acquaintances
meeting by accident; then again Ben arose. "I judge you were going
driving," he said simply. "I'll not detain you longer."

Florence melted. Such delicate consideration was unexpected.

"You must call again while you are in town," she said.

"Thank you, I shall," Ben responded.

Sidwell felt that he too could afford to be generous.

"If there's anything in the way of amusement or otherwise that I can do
for you, Mr. Blair, let me know," he said, proffering his address. "I am
at your service at any time."

Ben had reached the walk, but he turned. For a moment wherein Florence
held her breath he looked steadily at the city man.

"We Western men, Mr. Sidwell," he said at last slowly, "are more or less
solitaries. We take our recreation as we do our work, alone. In all
probability I shall not have occasion to accept your kindness. But I may
call on you before I leave." He bowed to both, and replaced his hat. A
"good-night" and he was gone.

Watching the tall figure as it disappeared down the street, Sidwell
smiled peculiarly. "Rather a positive person, your friend," he remarked.

Like an echo, Florence took up the word. "Positive!" The small hands
pressed tightly together in the speaker's lap. "Positive! You didn't get
even a suggestion of him by that. I saw a big prairie fire once. It
swept over the country for miles and miles, taking everything clean; and
the men fighting it might have been so many children in arms. I always
think of it when I think of Ben Blair. They are very much alike."

The smile left Sidwell's face. "One can start a back-fire on the
prairie," he said reflectively. "I fancy the same process might work
successfully with Blair also."

"Perhaps," admitted Florence. The time came when both she and Sidwell
remembered that suggestion.

But the subject was too large to be dropped immediately.

"Something tells me," Sidwell added, after a moment, "that you are a bit
fearful of this Blair. Did the gentleman ever attempt to kidnap you--or
anything?"

Florence did not smile. "No," she answered.

"What was it, then? Were you in love, and he cold--or the reverse?"

Florence dropped her chin into her hands. "To be frank with you, it
was--the reverse; but I would rather not speak of it." She was silent
for a moment. "You are right, though," she continued, rather recklessly,
"when you say I'm afraid of him. I don't dare think of him, even. I want
to forget he was ever a part of my life. He overwhelms me like sleep
when I'm tired. I am helpless."

Unconsciously Sidwell had stumbled upon the closet which held the
skeleton. "And I--" he queried, "are you afraid of me?"

The girl's great brown eyes peered out above her hands steadily.

"No; with us it is not of you I'm afraid--it's of myself." She arose
slowly. "I'm ready to go driving if you wish," she said.



CHAPTER XX

CLUB CONFIDENCES


Late the same evening, in the billiard-room of the "Loungers Club"
Clarence Sidwell met one Winston Hough, seemingly by chance, though in
fact very much the reverse. Big and blonde, addicted to laughter, Hough
was one of the few men with whom Sidwell fraternized,--why, only the
Providence which makes like and unlike attract each other could have
explained. However, it was with deliberate intent that Sidwell entered
the most brilliantly lighted room in the place and sought out the group
of which Hough was the centre.

"Hello, Chad!" the latter greeted the new-comer. "I've just trimmed up
Watson here, and I'm looking for new worlds to conquer. I'll roll you
fifty points to see who pays for a lunch afterward."

Sidwell smiled tolerantly. "I think it would be better for my reputation
to settle without playing. Put up your stick and I'm with you."

Hough shook his head. "No," he objected, "I'm not a Weary Willie. I
prefer to earn my dole first. Come on."

But Sidwell only looked at him. "Don't be stubborn," he said. "I want to
talk with you."

Hough returned his cue to the rack lingeringly. "Of course, if you put
it that way there's nothing more to be said. As to the stubbornness,
however--" He paused suggestively.

Sidwell made no comment, but led the way directly toward the street.

"What's the matter?" queried Hough, when he saw the direction they were
taking. "Isn't the club grill-room good enough for you?"

Sidwell pursued his way unmoved. "I said I wished to talk with you."

"I guess I must be dense," Hough answered gayly. "I certainly never saw
any house rules that forbid a man to speak."

Sidwell looked at his companion with a whimsical expression. "The
trouble isn't with the house rules but with you. A fellow might as well
try to monopolize the wheat-pit on the board of trade as to keep you
alone here. You're too confoundedly popular, Hough! You draw people as
the proverbial molasses-barrel attracts flies."

The big man laughed. "Your compliment, if that's what it was, is a bit
involved, but I suppose it'll have to do. Lead on!"

Sidwell sought out a modest little _café_ in a side street and selected
a secluded booth.

"What'll you have?" he asked, as the waiter appeared.

Hough's blue eyes twinkled. "Are you with me, whatever I order?"

Sidwell nodded.

"Club sandwiches and a couple of bottles of beer," Hough concluded.

His companion made no comment.

"Been some time, hasn't it, since you surprised your stomach with
anything like this?" bantered the big man, when the order had arrived
and the waiter departed.

Sidwell smiled. "I shall have to confess it," he admitted.

"I thought so," remarked Hough dryly. "Next time you depict a plebeian
scene you can remember this and thank me."

This time Sidwell did not smile. "You're hitting me rather hard, old
man," he said.

"You deserve it," laconically answered Hough.

"But not from you!"

Hough meditatively watched the beads bursting on the surface of the
liquor.

"Admitted," he said; "but the people who ought to touch you up are
afraid to do so, and someone ought to." He smiled across the table.
"Pardon the brutal frankness, but it's true."

Sidwell returned the glance. "You think it's the duty of some intimate
to perform the kindness of this--touching up process occasionally, do
you?"

Hough drank deep and sighed with satisfaction. "Jove! that tastes good!
I limbered up my joints with a two-mile walk before I went to the club
this evening, and I've been as dry as a harvest-hand ever since. All the
wine in France or elsewhere won't touch the spot like a little good old
brew when a man is really healthy." He recalled himself. "Your pardon,
Sidwell. Seriously, I do think it's the duty of our best friends to
bring us back to earth now and then when we've strayed too far away. No
one who doesn't care for us will take the trouble."

"Our _very_ best friends, I judge," suggested Sidwell.

"Certainly." The big man wondered what was coming next.

"A--wife, for instance."

Hough straightened in his chair. His jolly face grew serious.

"Are you in earnest, Chad," he queried, "or are you just drawing me
out?"

"I never was more in earnest in my life."

Hough lost sight of the original question in the revelation it
suggested.

"Do you mean you're really going to get married at last?"

Sidwell forced a smile. "If the matter were already settled, it would be
too late to consider the advisability of the move, wouldn't it?" he
returned. "It would be an established fact, and as such useless to
discuss. I haven't asked the lady, if that answers your question."

Hough made a gesture of impatience. "Theoretically, yes, but
practically, no. In your individual case, desire and gratification
amount to the same. You're mighty fascinating with the ladies, Chad. Few
women would refuse you, if you made an effort to have them do the
reverse."

"Thank you," said Sidwell, equivocally.

His companion scowled. "Appreciation is unnecessary. I'm not even sure
the remark was complimentary."

They sat a moment in silence, while the beer in their glasses grew
stale.

"Suppose I were to consider marriage, as you suggest," said Sidwell at
last. "What do you think would be the result? Judging from your
expression, some opinion thereon is weighing heavily upon your mind."

The blonde man looked up keenly. One would hardly have recognized him as
the easy-going person of a few moments before.

"It will, of course, depend entirely upon whom you choose. That's
hackneyed. From the motions of straws, though, this Summer, I presume
it's admissible that I jump at conclusions concerning the lady."

The other nodded.

"In that case, Chad, as surely as night follows day it'll be a failure."
The blue eyes all but flashed. "Moreover, it's a hideous injustice to
the girl."

Sidwell stiffened involuntarily.

"Your prediction sounds a bit strong from one who is himself a
benedict," he returned coldly. "Upon what, if you please, do you base
your opinion?"

Hough fidgeted in his chair.

"You want me to be frank, brutally frank, once more?"

"Anything you wish. I'd like to know why you spoke as you did."

"The reason, then, is this. You two would no more mix than oil and
water."

Sidwell's face did not change. "You and Elise seem to jog along fairly
well together," he observed.

Hough scowled as before. "Yes, but there's no possible similarity
between the cases. You and I are no more alike than a dog and a rabbit.
To come down to the direct issue, you're city bred, and Miss Baker has
been reared in the country. She--"

Sidwell held up his hand deprecatingly. "To return to the illustration,
Elise was originally from the country."

"And to repeat once more," exclaimed Hough, "there's again no
similarity. Elise and I have been married eight years. We met at
college, and grew together normally. We were both young and adaptable.
Besides, at the risk of being tedious, I reiterate that you and I are
totally unlike. I'm only partially urban; you are completely so--to your
very finger-tips. I'm half savage, more than half. I like to be out in
the country, among the mountains, upon the lakes. I like to hunt and
fish, and dawdle away time; you care for none of these things. I can
make money because I inherited capital, and it almost makes itself; but
it's not with me a definite ambition. I have no positive object in life,
unless it is to make the little woman happy. You have. Your work absorbs
the best of you. You haven't much left for friendships, even mild ones
like ours. I've been with you for a good many years, old man, and I know
what I'm talking about. You are old, older than your years, and you're
not young even in them. You're selfish--pardon me, but it's
true--abominably selfish. Your character, your point of view, your
habits--are all formed. You'll never change; you wouldn't if you could.
Miss Baker is hardly more than a child. I know her--I've made it a
point to know her since I saw you were interested in her. Everything in
the world rings genuine to her as yet. She hasn't learned to detect the
counterfeit, and when the knowledge does come it will hurt her cruelly.
She'll want to get back to nature as surely as a child with a bruised
finger wants its mother; and you can't go with her. Most of all, Chad,
she's a woman. You don't know what that means--no unmarried man does
know. Even we married ones never grasp the subtleties of woman-nature
completely. I've been studying one for eight years, and at times she
escapes me. But one thing I have learned; they demand that they shall be
first in the life of the man they love. Florence Baker will demand this,
and after the first novelty has worn off you won't satisfy her. I repeat
once more, you're too selfish for that. As sure as anything can be, Chad
Sidwell, if you marry that girl it will end in disaster--in divorce, or
something worse."

The voice ceased, and the place was of a sudden very quiet. Sidwell
tapped on his thin drinking-glass with his finger-nail. His companion
had never seen him nervous before. At last he looked up unshiftingly.
"You've given me a pretty vivid portrait of myself, of what I'm good
for, and what not," he said. "Would you like me to return the
compliment?"

Again Hough wondered what was coming. "Yes, I suppose so," he answered
hesitatingly.

"You've often remarked," said Sidwell, slowly, "that you knew of no work
for which you were especially adapted. I think I could fit you out
exactly to your liking. Just get a position as guard to a lake of
brimstone in the infernal regions."

Hough laughed, but Sidwell did not. "I fancy," he continued
monotonously, "I see you now, a long needle-pointed spear in your hands,
jabbing back the poor sinners who tried to crawl out."

"Chad!" interrupted the other reproachfully. "Chad!" But Sidwell did not
stop.

"You'd stand well back, so that the sulphur fumes wouldn't irritate your
own nostrils, and so that when the bubbles from the boiling broke they
wouldn't spatter you, and with the finest kind of intuition and the most
delicate aim you'd select the tenderest place in your intended victim's
anatomy for your spear-point." He smiled ironically at the picture.
"Gad! you'd be a howling success there, old man!"

An expression of genuine contrition formed on Hough's jolly face. "I'm
dead sorry I hurt you, Chad," he said, "but you asked me to be frank."

"You certainly were frank," rejoined the other bluntly.

"What I said, though, was true," reiterated Hough.

Sidwell leaned a bit forward, his face, handsome in spite of its
shadings of discontent, clear in the light.

"Perhaps," he went on. "The trouble with you is that you don't give me
credit for a single redeeming virtue. No one in this world is wholly
good or wholly bad. You forget that I'm a human being, with natural
feelings and desires. You make me out a sort of machine, cunningly
constructed for a certain work. You limit my life to that work alone. A
human being, even one born of the artificial state called civilization,
isn't a contrivance like a typewriter which you can make work and then
shut up in a box until it is wanted again. There are certain emotions,
certain wants, you can't suppress by logic. Even a dog, if you imprison
him alone, will go mad in time. I'm a living man, with red blood instead
of ink in my veins, not an abstract mathematical problem. I've had my
full share of work and unhappiness. You'll have to give me a better
reason for remaining without the gate of the promised land than you've
yet done."

Hough looked at the speaker impotently. "You misunderstood me, Chad, if
you thought I was trying to keep you from your due, or from anything
which would really make for your happiness. I was simply trying to
prevent something I feel morally certain you'll regret. Because one
isn't entirely happy is no adequate reason why he should make himself
more unhappy. I can't say any more than I've already said; there's
nothing more to say. My best reason for disapproving your contemplated
action I gave you first, and you've not considered it at all. It's the
injustice you do to a girl who doesn't realize what she is doing. With
your disposition, Chad, you'd take away from her something which neither
God nor man can ever give her back--her trust in life."

Sidwell's long fingers restlessly twirled the glass before him. The
remainder of the untouched beer was now as so much stagnant water.

"If I don't undeceive her someone else will," he said. "It's inevitable.
She'll have to adjust herself to things as they are, as we all have to
do."

Hough made a motion of deprecation.

"Miss Baker is no longer a child," continued Sidwell. "If you've studied
her as you say you've done, you've discovered that she has very definite
ideas of her own. It's true that I haven't known her long, but she has
had an opportunity to know me well such as no one else has ever had, not
even you. No one can say that she is leaping in the dark. Time and time
again, at every opportunity, I have stripped my very soul bare for her
observation. The thing has not been easy for me; indeed, I know of
nothing I could have done that would have been more difficult. Though
the present instance seems to give the statement the lie, I am not
easily confidential, my friend. I have had a definite object in doing as
I have done with Miss Baker. I am trying, as I never tried before in my
life, to get in touch with her--as I'll never try again, no matter how
the effort results, to get in touch with a person. She knows the good
and bad of me from A to Z. She knows the life I lead, the kind of people
who make up that life, their aims, their amusements, their standards,
social and moral, as thoroughly as I can make her know them. I have
taken her everywhere, shown her every phase of my surroundings. For once
in my life at least, Hough, I have been absolutely what I
am,--absolutely frank. Farther than that I cannot go. I am not my
brothers keeper. She is an individual in a world of individuals; a free
agent, mental, moral, and physical. The decision of her future actions,
the choice she makes of her future life, must of necessity rest with
her. For some reason I cannot point to a definite explanation and say
this or that is why she is attractive to me. She seems to offer the
solution of a want I feel. No system of logic can convince me that,
after having been honest as I have been with her, if she of her own free
will consents to be my wife, I have not a moral right to make her so."

Again Hough made a deprecatory motion. "It is useless to argue with
you," he said helplessly, "and I won't attempt it. If I were to try, I
couldn't make you realize that the very methods of frankness you have
used to make Miss Baker know you intimately have defeated their own
purpose, and have unconsciously made you an integral part of her life. I
said before that when you wish you're irresistibly fascinating with
women. All that you have said only exemplifies my statement. It does
not, however, in the least change the homely fact that oil and water
won't permanently mix. You can shake them together, and for a time it
may seem that they are one; but eventually they'll separate, and stay
separate. As I said before, though, I do not expect you to realize this,
or to apply it. I can't make what I know by intuition sufficiently
convincing. I wish I could. I feel that somehow this has been my
opportunity and I have failed."

For the instant Sidwell was roused out of himself. He looked at his
companion with appreciation. "At least you can have the consolation of
knowing you have honestly tried," he said earnestly.

Hough returned the look with equal steadiness. "But nevertheless I have
failed."

Sidwell put on his hat, its broad brim shading his eyes and concealing
their expression.

"Providence willing," he said finally, "I shall ask Miss Baker to be my
wife."



CHAPTER XXI

LOVE IN CONFLICT


The habits of a lifetime are not changed in a day. Ben Blair was
accustomed to rising early, and he was astir next morning long before
the city proper was thoroughly awake. In the hotel where he was
stopping, the night clerk looked his surprise as he nodded a stereotyped
"Good-morning." The lobby was in confusion, undergoing its early morning
scrubbing, and the guest sought the street. The sun was just risen, but
the air was already sultry, casting oppression and languor over every
detail of the scene. The bare brick and stone fronts of the buildings,
the brown cobblestones of the pavements, the dull gray of the sidewalks,
all looked inhospitable and forbidding. Few vehicles were yet in
motion--distributors of necessities, of ice, of milk, of vegetables--and
they partook of the general indolence. The horses' ears swayed
listlessly, or were set back in dogged endurance. The drivers lounged
stolidly in their seats. Even the few passengers on the monotonously
droning cars but added to the impression of tacit conformity to the
inevitable. Poorly dressed as a rule, tired looking, they gazed at their
feet or glanced out upon the street with absent indifference. It was all
depressing.

Ben, normal, vigorous, country bred, shook himself and walked on. He was
as susceptible as a child to surrounding influences, and to those now
about him he was distinctly antagonistic. Life, as a whole, particularly
work, the thing that does most to fill life, he had found good. That
others should so obviously find it different grated upon him. He wanted
to get away from their presence; and making inquiry of the first
policeman he met, he sought the nearest park.

All his life he had heard of the beauty of the New York parks. The few
people he knew who had visited them emphasized this beauty above all
other features. Perhaps in consequence he was expecting the impossible.
At least, he was disappointed. Here was nature, to be sure, but nature
imprisoned under the thumb of man. The visitor had a healthy desire to
roll on the grass, to turn himself loose, to stretch every joint and
muscle; yet signs on each side gave warning to "keep off." The trees, it
must be admitted, were beautiful and natural,--they could not live and
be otherwise; but somehow they had the air of not being there of their
own free-will.

Ben chose a bench and sat down. A listlessness was upon him that the
ozone of the prairies had never let him feel. He felt cramped for room,
as though, should he draw as full a breath as he wished, it would
exhaust the supply. A big freshly-shaven policeman strolled by, eying
him suspiciously. It gave the young man the impression of being a
prisoner out on good behavior; and in an indefinite way it almost
insulted his self-respect. For the lack of something better to do he
watched the minion of the law as he pursued his beat. Not Ben Blair
alone, but every person the officer passed, went through this
challenging inspection. The countryman had been too much preoccupied to
notice that he had companions; but now that his interest was aroused, he
began inspecting the occupants of the other benches. The person nearest
him was a little old man in a crumpled linen suit. Most of the time his
nose was close to his morning paper; but now and then he raised his face
and looked away with an absent expression in his faded near-sighted
eyes. Was he enjoying his present life? Ben would have taken his oath to
the contrary. Again there flashed over him the impression of a prison
with this fellow-being in confinement. There was indescribable pathos in
that dull retrospective gaze, and Ben looked away. In the land from
which he came there could not be found such an example of hopeless and
useless age. There the aged had occupation,--the care of their
children's children, a garden, an interest in crops and growing things,
a fame as prophets of weather,--but such apathy as this, never.

A bit farther away was another type, also a man, badly dressed and
unshaven. His battered felt hat was drawn low over the upper half of his
face, and he was stretched flat upon the narrow bench. He was far too
long for his bed, and to accommodate his superfluous length his knees
were bent up like a jack-knife. Carrying with them the baggy
trousers,--he wore no underclothes,--they left a hairy expanse between
their ends and the yellow, rusty shoes. His chest rose and fell in the
motion of sleep.

Ben Blair had seen many a human derelict on the frontier; the country
was full of them,--adventurers, searchers after lost health--popularly
denominated "one-lungers"--soldiers of fortune; but he had never known
such a class as this man represented,--useless cumberers of the earth,
wanderers by day, sleepers on the benches of public parks by night. Had
he been a student of sociology he might have found a certain morbid
interest in the spectacle; but it was merely depressing to him; it
destroyed what pleasure he might otherwise have taken in the place. This
man was but a step beneath those dull toilers he had seen on the cars.
They had not yet given up the struggle against the inevitable, or were
too stolid to rebel; while he--

Ben sprang to his feet and began retracing his steps. People bred in the
city might be callous to the miseries of their fellows; those provided
with plenty might be content to live their lives side by side with such
hopeless poverty, might even apply to their own profit the necessities
of others; but his was the hospitality and consideration of the
frontier, the democracy that shares its last loaf with its fellow no
matter who he may be, and shares it without question. The heartless
selfishness of the conditions he was observing almost made his blood
boil. He felt that he was amid an alien people: their standards were not
as his standards, their lives were not of his life, and he wanted to
hurry through with his affairs and get away. He returned to the hotel.

Breakfast was ready by this time, and after some exploration he
succeeded in finding the dining-room. The head-waiter showed him to a
seat and held his chair obsequiously. Another, a negro of uncertain
age, fairly exuding dignity and impassive as a sphinx, poured water over
the ice in his glass with a practised hand, produced the menu, and
waited for his order. Without intending it, the countryman had selected
a rather fashionable place, and the bill of fare was unintelligible as
Sanskrit to him. He looked at it helplessly. A man across the table,
observing his predicament, smiled involuntarily. Ben caught the
expression, looked at its bearer meaningly, looked until it vanished,
and until a faint red, obviously a stranger to that face, took its
place. By a sudden inspiration Blair's hand went to his pocket and
returned with a silver coin.

"Bring me what a healthy man usually eats at this time of day, and
plenty of it," he said. He glanced absently, blandly past his companion.

The gentleman of color looked at the speaker as though he were a strange
animal in a "zoo."

"Yes, sah," he said.

While he was waiting, Ben looked around him with interest. The room was
big, high, massive of pillars and of beams. Every detail had been
carefully arranged. The heavy oak tables, the spotless linen, the
sparkling silver and glassware appealed to the sense of luxury. The
coolness of the place, due to unseen ventilating fans which he heard
faintly droning somewhere in the ceiling, and increased by the tile
floor and the skilfully adjusted shades, was delightful. The few other
people present were as immaculate as bath, laundry, tailor, and modiste
could make them. From one group at which Ben looked came the suppressed
sound of a woman's laugh; from another, a man's voice, well modulated,
illustrated a point with a story. At a small table in an alcove sat four
young men, and notwithstanding the fact that for them it was yet very
early in the day, the pop of a champagne cork was heard, and soon
repeated. Blair, fresh from a glimpse of the outer and under world,
observed it all, and drew comparisons. Again he saw the huddled figure
of the tramp on the bench; and again he heard the careless music of the
woman's laugh. He saw the dull animal stare of workers on their way to
uncongenial toil; the hands still unsteady from yesterday's excesses
lifting to dry lips the wine that would make them still more unsteady on
the morrow. Could these contrasts be forever continued? he wondered.
Would they be permitted to exist indefinitely side by side? Again,
problem more difficult, could it be possible that the condition in which
they existed was life? He could not believe it. His nature rebelled at
the thought. No; life was not an artificial formula like this. It was
broad and free and natural, as the prairies, his prairies, were natural
and free. This other condition was a delirium, a momentary oblivion, of
which the four young men in the alcove were a symbol. Transient
pleasure, the life might mean; but the reverse, the inevitable reaction
as from all intoxication, that--

Finishing his breakfast, Ben lit a cigar and sauntered out to the
street. He had intended spending the morning seeing the town; but for
the present he felt he had had enough--all he could mentally digest.
Without at first any definite destination, in mere excess of healthy
animal activity, he began to walk; but his principal object in coming
to the city, the object he made no effort to conceal, acted upon him
like a lodestone, and almost ere he was aware he was well out in the
residence portion of the city and headed directly for the Baker home. He
was unaware that morning was not the fashionable time to call upon a
lady. To him the fact of inclination and of presence in the vicinity was
sufficient justification; and mounting the well-remembered steps he rang
the doorbell stoutly. A prim maid in cap and diminutive apron, a recent
addition to the household, answered his ring.

"I'd like to see Miss Baker, if you please," said Ben.

The girl inspected the visitor critically. Beneath her surface decorum
he had a suspicion that she was inclined to smile.

"I hardly think Miss Baker is up yet," she announced at last. "Will you
leave your card?"

Ben looked at the sun, now well elevated in the sky, with an eye trained
in the estimate of time. He drew mental conclusions silently.

"No," he said. "I will call later."

He did call later,--two hours later,--to receive from Scotty himself the
intelligence that Florence was out but would soon return. Evidently the
Englishman had been instructed; for, though he added an invitation to
wait, it was only half-hearted, and being declined the matter was not
pressed.

Ben returned to the hotel, ate his lunch, and considered the situation.
A lesser man would have given up the fight and hidden his bruise; but
Benjamin Blair was in no sense of the word a little man. He had come to
town with definite intent of seeing a certain girl alone, and see her
alone he would. At four o'clock in the afternoon he again pressed the
button on the Baker door-post, and again waited.

Again it was the maid who answered, and at the expected query she smiled
outright. It seemed to her a capital joke that she was assisting in
playing upon this man of unusual attire.

"Miss Baker is engaged," she announced, with the glibness of previous
preparation.

To her surprise the visitor did not depart. Instead, he gave her a look
which sent her mirth glimmering.

"Very well," he said. The door leading into the vestibule and from
thence into the library was open, and without form of invitation he
entered. "Tell her, please, that I will wait until she is not engaged."

The girl hesitated. This particular exigency had not been anticipated.

"Shall I give her a name?" she suggested, with an attempt at formality.

Ben Blair did not turn. "Tell her what I said."

He chose a chair facing the entrance and sat down. Departing on her
mission, he heard the maid open another door on the same floor. There
was for a moment a murmur of feminine voices, one of which he
recognized; then silence again, as the door closed.

A half-hour passed, lengthened into an hour, all but repeated itself,
and still apparently Florence was engaged; and still the visitor sat on.
No power short of fire or an earthquake could have moved him now. Every
fragment of the indomitable perseverance of his nature was aroused, and
instead of discouraging him each minute as it passed only made his
determination the stronger. He shifted his chair so that it faced the
window and the street, crossed his legs comfortably, half closed his
eyes, resting yet watchful, and meditatively observed the growing
procession of homeward bound wage-earners in car and on foot.

Suddenly there was the rustle of a woman's skirts, and he was conscious
that he was no longer alone. He turned as he saw who it was, sprang to
his feet, and despite the intentional slight of the long wait, a smile
flashed to his face. He started to advance, but stopped.

"You wished to see me, I understand," a voice said coldly, as the
speaker halted just within the doorway.

Ben Blair straightened. The hot blood mounted to his brain, throbbing at
his throat and temples. It was not easy for him to receive insult; but
outwardly he gave no sign.

"I think I have demonstrated the fact you mention," he replied calmly.

Florence Baker clasped her hands together. "Yes, your persistency is
admirable," she said.

Ben Blair caught the word. "Persistency," he remarked, "seems the only
recourse when past friendship and common courtesy are ignored."

Florence made no reply, and going forward Ben placed a chair
deferentially. "It seems necessary for me to reverse the position of
host and guest," he said. "Won't you be seated?"

The girl did not stir.

"I hardly think it necessary," she answered.

"Florence," Ben Blair's great chin lifted meaningly, "I will not be
offended whatever you may do. I have something I wish to say to you.
Please sit down."

The girl hesitated, and almost against her will looked the man fairly in
the eyes, while her own blazed. Once more she felt his dominance
controlling her, felt as she did when, in what seemed the very long ago,
he had spread his blanket for her upon the prairie earth.

She sat down.

Ben drew up another chair and sat facing her. "Why," he was leaning a
bit forward, his elbow on his knee, "why, Florence Baker, have you done
everything in your power to prevent my seeing you? What have I done of
late, what have I ever done, to deserve this treatment from you?"

The girl evaded his eyes. "It is not usually considered necessary for a
lady to give her reasons for not wishing to see a gentleman," she
parried. The handkerchief in her lap was being rolled unconsciously into
a tight little ball. "The fact itself is sufficient."

Ben's free hand closed on the chair-arm with a mighty grip. "I beg your
pardon," he said, "but I cannot agree with you. There's a certain amount
of courtesy due between a woman and a man, as there is between man and
man. It is my right to repeat the question."

The girl felt the cord drawing tighter, felt that in the end she would
bend to his will.

"And should I refuse?" she asked.

"You won't refuse."

The girl's eyes returned to his. Even now she wondered that they did so,
that try as she might she could not deny him. His dominance over her was
well-nigh absolute. Yet she was not angry. An instinct that she had felt
before possessed her; the longing of the weaker for the stronger--the
impulse to give him what he wished. Her whole womanhood went out to him,
with an entire confidence that she would never give to another human
being. Naturally, he was her mate; naturally,--but she was not natural.
She hesitated as she had done once before, a multitude of conflicting
desires and ambitions seething in her brain. If she could but eliminate
the artificial in her nature, the desire for the empty things of the
world, then--But she could not yet give them up, and he could never be
made to care for them with her. She was nearer now to giving them up, to
giving up everything for his sake, than when she had sat alone with him
out on the prairie. She realized this with an added complexity of
emotion; but even yet, even yet--

A minute passed in silence, a minute of which the girl was unconscious.
It was Ben Blair's voice repeating his first question that recalled her.
This time she did not hesitate.

"I think you know the reason as well as I do. If we were mere friends or
acquaintances I would be only too glad to see you; but we are not, and
never can be merely friends. We have got to be either more or less." The
voice, brave so far, dropped. A mist came over the brown eyes. "And we
can't be more," she added.

The man's grip on the chair-arm loosened. He bent his face farther
forward. "Miss Baker," he exclaimed. "Florence!"

Interrupting, almost imploring, the girl drew back. "Don't! Please
don't!" she pleaded; then, as she saw the futility of words, with the
old girlish motion her face dropped into her hands. "Oh, I knew it would
mean this if I saw you!" she wailed. "You see for yourself we cannot be
mere friends!"

The man did not stir, but his eyes changed color and seemed to grow
darker. "No," he said, "we cannot be mere friends; I care for you too
much for that. And I cannot be silent when I came away off here to see
you. I would never respect myself again if I were. You can do what you
please, say what you please, and I'll not resent it--because it is you.
I will love you as long as I live. I am not ashamed of this, because it
is you I love, Florence Baker." He paused, looking tenderly at the
girl's bowed head.

"Florence," he went on gently, "you don't know what you are to me, or
what your having left me means. I often go over to your old ranch of a
night and sit there alone, thinking of you, dreaming of you. Sometimes
it is all so vivid that I almost feel that you are near, and before I
know it I speak your name. Then I realize you are not there, and I feel
so lonely that I wish I were dead. I think of to-morrow, and the next
day, and the next--the thousands of days that I'll have to live through
without you--and I wonder how I am going to do it."

The girl's face sank deeper into her hands. A muffled sob escaped her.
"Please don't say any more!" she pleaded. "Please don't! I can't stand
it!"

But the man only looked at her steadily.

"I must finish," he said. "I may never have a chance to say this to you
again, and something compels me to tell you of myself, for you are my
good angel. In many ways it is of necessity a rough life I lead, but you
are always with me, and I am the better for it. I haven't drank a drop
since I came to know that I loved you, and we ranchers are not
accustomed to that, Florence. But I never will drink as long as I live;
for I'll think of you, and I couldn't then if I would. Once you saved me
from something worse than drink. There was a man who shot Mr. Rankin and
before this, from almost the first thought I can remember, I had sworn
that if I ever met him I would kill him. We did meet. I followed him day
after day until at last I caught up with him, until he was down and my
hands were upon his throat. But I didn't hurt him, Florence, after all;
I thought of you just in time."

He was silent, and suddenly the place seemed as still as an empty
church. The girl's sobs were almost hysterical. The man's mood changed;
he reached over and touched her gently on the shoulder.

"Forgive me for hurting you, Florence," he said. "I--I couldn't help
telling you."

Involuntarily the girlish figure straightened.

"Forgive you!" A tear-stained face was looking into his. "Forgive you!
I'll never be able to forgive myself! You are a million times too good
for me, Ben Blair. Forgive you! I ought never to cease asking you to
forgive me!"

"Florence!" pleaded the man. "Florence!"

But the girl, in her turn, went on. "I have felt all the while that
certain things I saw here were unreal, that they were not what they
seemed. I have prevaricated to you deliberately. I haven't really been
here long, but it seems to me now that it's been years. As you said I
would, I've looked beneath the surface and seen the sham. At first I
wouldn't believe what I saw; but at last I couldn't help believing it,
and, oh, it hurt! I never expect to be so hurt again. I couldn't be. One
can only feel that way once in one's life." The small form trembled with
the memory, and the listener made a motion as if to stop her; but she
held him away.

"It isn't that I'm any longer blind; I am acting now with my eyes wide
open. It is something else that keeps me from you now, something that
crept in while I was learning my lesson, something I can't tell you."
Once more the girl could not control herself, and sobbing, trembling,
she covered her face. "Ben, Ben," she wailed, "why did you ever let me
come here? You could have kept me if you would--you can do--anything. I
would have loved you--I did love you all the time; only, only--" She
could say no more.

For a second the man did not understand; then like a flash came
realization, and he was upon his feet pacing up and down the narrow
room. To lose an object one cares for most is one thing; to have it
filched by another is something very different. He was elemental, this
man from the plains, and in some phases very illogical. The ways of the
higher civilization, where man loves many times, where he dines and
wines in good fellowship with him who is the husband of a former
love--these were not his ways. White anger was in his heart, not against
the woman, but against that other man. His fingers itched to be at his
throat, regardless of custom or law. Temporarily, the rights and wishes
of the woman, the prize of contention, were forgotten. Two young bucks
in the forest do not consider the feelings of the doe that is the reward
of the victor in the contest when they meet; and Ben Blair was very like
these wild things. Only by an effort of the will could he keep from
going immediately to find that other man,--intuition made it unnecessary
to ask his name. As it was, he wanted now to be away. The tiny room
seemed all at once stifling. He wanted to be out of doors where the sun
shone, out where he could think. He seized his hat, then suddenly
remembered, paused to glance--and that instant was his undoing, and
another man's--Clarence Sidwell's--salvation.

And Florence Baker, at whom he had glanced? She was not tearful or
hysterical now. Instead, she was looking at him out of wide-open eyes.
Well she knew this man, and knew the volcano she had aroused.

"You won't hurt him, Ben!" she said. "You won't hurt him! For my sake,
say you won't!"

The devil lurking in the cowboy's blue eyes vanished, but the great jaw
was still set. He reached out and caught the girl by the shoulder.
"Florence Baker," he said, "on your honor, is he worth it--is he worth
the sacrifice you ask of me? Answer!"

But the girl did not answer, did not stir. "You won't hurt him!" she
repeated. "Say you won't!"

A moment longer Ben Blair held her; then his hands dropped and he turned
toward the vestibule.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know."



CHAPTER XXII

TWO FRIENDS HAVE IT OUT


Clarence Sidwell was alone in his down-town bachelor quarters; that is,
alone save for an individual the club-man's friends termed his "Man
Friday," an undersized and very black negro named Alexander Hamilton
Brown, but answering to the contraction "Alec." Valet, man of all work,
steward, Alec was as much a fixture about the place as the floor or the
ceiling; and, like them, his presence, save as a convenience, was
ignored.

The rooms themselves were on the eleventh floor of a down-town
office-building, as near the roof as it had been possible for him to
secure suitable quarters. For eight years Sidwell had made them his home
when he was in town. The circle of his friends had commented, his mother
and sisters (his father had been long dead) had protested, when, a much
younger man, he first severed himself from the semi-colonial mansion
which for three generations had borne the name of Sidwell; but as usual,
he had had his own way.

"I want to work when I feel so inclined, when the mood is on me, whether
it's two o'clock of the afternoon or of the morning,'" he had explained;
"and I can't do it without interruption here with you and your
friends."

For the same reason he had chosen to live near the sky. There, high
above the noise and confusion, he could observe and catch the influence
of the activity which is in itself a powerful stimulant, without
experiencing its unpleasantness. Essentially, the man was an æsthete. If
he went to a race or a football game he wished to view it at a distance.
To be close by, to mingle in the dust of action, to smell the sweat of
conflict, to listen to the low-voiced imprecations of the defeated,
detracted from his pleasure. He could not prevent these
features--therefore he avoided them.

This particular evening he was doing nothing, which was very unusual for
him. The necessity for society, or for activity, physical or mental, had
long ago become as much a part of his nature as the desire for food.
Dilettante musician as well as artist, when alone at this time of the
evening he was generally at the upright piano in the corner. Even Alec
noticed the unusual lack of occupation on this occasion, and exposed the
key-board suggestively; but, observing the action, Sidwell only smiled.

"Think I ought to, Alec?" he queried.

The negro rolled his eyes. Despite his long service, he had never quite
lost his awe of the man he attended.

"Sho, yo always do that, or something, sah," he said.

Sidwell smiled again; but it was not a pleasant smile. So this was the
way of it! Even his servant had observed his habitual restlessness, and
had doubtless commented upon it to his companions in the way servants
have of passing judgment upon their employers. And if Alec had noticed
this, then how much more probable it was that others of Sidwell's
numerous acquaintances had noticed it also! He winced at the thought.
That this was his skeleton, and that he had endeavored to keep it
hidden, Sidwell did not attempt to deny to himself. One of the reasons
he had _not_ given to his family for establishing these down-town
quarters was this very one. Time and again, when he had felt the mood of
protest strong upon him, he had come here and locked the doors to fight
it out alone. But after all, it had been useless. The fact had been
obvious, despite the trick; mayhap even more so on account of it. Like
the Wandering Jew he was doomed, followed by a relentless curse.

He shook himself, and walking over to the sideboard poured out a glass
of Cognac and drank it as though it were wine. Sidwell did not often
drink spirits. Experience had taught him that to begin usually meant to
end with regret the following day; but to-night, with his present mood
upon him, the action was as instinctive as breathing. He moved back to
his chair by the window.

The evening was hot, on the street depressingly so, but up here after
the sun was set there was always a breeze, and it was cool and
comfortable. The man looked out over the sooty, gravelled roofs of the
surrounding lower buildings, and down on the street, congested with its
flowing stream of cars, equipages, and pedestrians. Times without number
he had viewed the currents and counter-currents of that scene, but never
before had he so caught its vital spirit and meaning. Born of the
elect,--reared and educated among them,--the supercilious superiority of
his class was as much a part of him as his name. While he realized that
physically the high and the low were constructed on practically the same
plan, he had been wont to consider them as on totally separate mental
planes. That the clerk and the roustabout on ten dollars a week,
breathing the same atmosphere,--seeing daily, hourly, minute by minute,
from separate viewpoints, the same life,--that they should have in
common the constant need of diversion had never before occurred to him.
Multitudes of times, as a sociologist, or as a literary man in search of
realism, he had visited the haunts of the under-man. Languidly,
critically, as he would have observed at the "zoo" an animal with whose
habits he was unacquainted, he had watched this rather curious under-man
in his foolish, or worse than foolish, endeavor to find amusement or
oblivion. He had often been interested, as by a clown at a circus; but
more frequently the sight had merely inspired disgust, and he had
returned to his own diversions, his own efforts to secure the same end,
with an all but unconscious thankfulness that he was not such as that
other. To-night, for the first time, and with a wonder we all feel when
the obvious but long unseen suddenly becomes apparent, the primary fact
of human brotherhood, irrespective of caste, came home to him. To-night
and now he realized, diminutive in the distance as they were, that the
swarm of figures that he had hitherto considered mere animals vain of
display were impelled upon the street, compelled to keep moving, moving,
without a pre-arranged destination, by the same spirit of unrest that
had sent him to the buffet. At that moment he was probably nearer to his
fellow-man than ever before in his life; but the truth revealed made
him the more unhappy. He had grown to consider his own unhappiness
totally different and infinitely more acute than that of others; he had
even taken a sort of morbid, paradoxical pleasure in considering it so;
and now even this was taken from him. Not only had his own secret
skeleton been visible when he believed it concealed, but all around him
there suddenly sprang up a very cemetery of other skeletons, grinning at
his blindness and discomfiture. His was not a nature to extract content
from common discomfort, and but one palliative suggested itself,--the
dull red decanter on the sideboard. Rising again and filling a glass, he
returned and stood for a moment full before the open casement of the
window gazing down steadily.

How long he stood there he hardly knew. Once Alec's dark face peered
into the room, and disappeared as suddenly. At last there was a knock at
the door.

"Come in," invited Sidwell, without moving. The door opened and closed,
and Winston Hough stood inside. The big man gave one glance at the
surroundings, saw the empty glass, and backed away. "Pardon my
intrusion," he said with his hand on the knob.

Sidwell turned. "Intrusion--nothing!" He placed the decanter with
glasses and a box of cigars on a convenient table. "Come and have a
drink with me," and the liquor flowed until both glasses were nearly
full.

Hough hesitated in a reluctance that was not feigned. He felt that
discretion was the better part of valor, and that it would be well to
escape while he could, even at the price of discourtesy.

"Really," he said, "I only dropped in to say hello. I--"

"Nonsense!" interrupted Sidwell. "You must think I'm as innocent as a
new-born lamb. Come over here and sit down."

Hough hesitated, but yielded.

Sidwell lifted his glass. "Here's to--whatever the trouble may be that
brought you here. People don't visit me for pleasure, or unless they
have nowhere else to go. Drink deep!"

They drank; and then Sidwell looking at Hough said, "Well, what is it
this time? Going to reform again, or something of that kind, are you?"

Hough did not attempt evasion. He knew it would be useless. "No," he
said; "to tell you the truth, I'm lonesome--beastly lonesome."

Sidwell smiled. "Ah, I thought so. But why, pray? Aren't you a married
man with an ark of refuge always waiting?"

Hough made a grimace. "Yes, that's just the trouble. I'm too much
married, too thoroughly domesticated."

The other looked blank. "I fail to understand. Certainly you and Elise
haven't at last--"

"No, no; not that." Hough repelled the suggestion with a gesture as
though it were a tangible object. "Elise left to-day to spend a month
with her uncle up in northern Wisconsin, and I can't get out of town for
a week. I feel as I fancy a small bird feels when it has fallen out of
the nest while its mother is away. The bottom seems to have dropped out
of town and left me stranded."

The host observed his guest humorously--a bit maliciously. "It is good
for you, you complacent benedict," he remarked unsympathetically. "You
can understand now the normal state of mind of bachelors. Perhaps after
a few more days you'll have been tortured enough to retract the argument
you made to me about matrimony. I repeat, it's poetic justice, and good
for a man now and then to have a dose of his own medicine."

Hough smiled as at an oft-heard joke. "All right, old man, have it as
you please; only let's steer clear of a useless discussion of the
subject to-night."

"With all my heart," said Sidwell. The decanter was once more in his
hand. "Let's drink to the very good health of Elise on her journey."

Hough hesitated. He had a feeling that there was an obscure desecration
in the toast, but it was not tangible enough to resent. "To her very
good health," he repeated in turn.

For a moment he looked steadily into the face of his companion, now a
trifle flushed. Again an inward monitor warned him it were better to go;
but the first flood of the liquor had reached his brain, and the
temptation to remain was strong.

"By the way, how are you coming on with your own affair of the heart?
Have you propounded the momentous question to the lady?"

Sidwell pulled forward the box of cigars and helped himself to one.
"No," he returned with deliberation. "I haven't had a good opportunity.
A gentleman from the West, where they wear their hair long and their
coat-tails short, has suddenly appeared like an obscuring cloud on the
Baker sky. I have a suspicion that he has aspirations for the hand of
the lady in question. Anyhow, he's haunted the house like a ghost
to-day. Mother Baker has for some reason taken a fancy to your humble
servant, and over the 'phone she has kept me informed of the stranger's
tribulations. He seems to be meeting with sufficient difficulties
without my interposition, so out of the goodness of my heart I've given
him an open field. I hope you appreciate my consideration. I fear he's
not of a stripe to do so himself."

Hough lit his cigar. "Yes, it certainly was kind of you," he said. "Very
kind."

With a sweep of his hand Sidwell brought the two glasses together with a
click. "I think so. Kind enough to deserve commemoration by a taste of
the elixir of life, don't you agree?" and the liquor flowed beneath a
hand steady in the first stages of intoxication.

Hough pushed back his chair. "No," he protested. "I've had enough."

"Enough!" The other laughed unmusically. "Enough! You haven't begun yet.
Drink, and forget your loneliness, you benedict disconsolate!"

But again the big man shook his head. "No," he repeated. "I've had
enough, and so have you. We'll be drunk, both of us, if we keep up this
clip much longer."

The smile left the host's face. "Drunk!" he echoed. "Since when, pray,
has that exalted state of the consciousness begun to inspire terror in
you? Drunk! Winston Hough, you're the last man I ever thought would fail
to prove game on an occasion like this! We're no nearer being babes
than we were the last time we got together, unless the termination of
life approximates the beginning. Drink!"

But still, this time in silence, Hough shook his head. From a partially
open door leading into the adjoining room the negro's eyes peered out.

Sidwell shifted in his seat with exaggerated deliberation and leaned
forward. His dark mobile face worked passionately, compellingly.
"Winston Hough," he challenged, "do you wish to remain my friend?"

"I certainly do."

"Then you know what to do."

Deep silence fell upon the room. Not only the eyes but the whole of
Alec's face appeared through the doorway. Hough could no more have
resisted longer than he could have leaped from the open window. They
drank together.

"Now," said Sidwell, "just to show that you mean it, we'll have
another."

And soon the enemy that puerile man puts into his mouth to steal his
brains was enthroned.

Sidwell sank into his chair, and lighting his cigar sent a great cloud
of smoke curling up over his head. Hand and tongue were steady,
unnaturally so, but the mood of irresponsible confidence was upon him.

"Since you've decided to remain my friend," he said, "I'm going to tell
you something confidential, very confidential. You won't give it away?"

"Never!" Hough shook his head.

"On your honor?"

The big man crossed his hands over his heart in the manner of small
boys.

Sidwell was satisfied. "All right, then. This is the last time you and I
will ever get--this way together."

Hough looked as solemn as though at a funeral. "Why so?" he protested.
"Are you angry with me yet?"

"No, it's not that. I've forgiven you."

"What is it, then?" Hough felt that he must know the reason of his lost
position, and if in his power remove it.

"I'm going to quit drinking after to-night, for one thing," explained
Sidwell. "It isn't adequate. But even if I didn't, I don't expect we'll
ever be together again after a few days, after you go away."

The listener looked blank. Even with his muddled brains he had an
intimation that there was more in the statement than there seemed.

"I don't see why," he said bewilderedly.

Again Sidwell leaned forward. Again his face grew passionate and
magnetic.

"The reason why is this. I have had enough, and more than enough, of
this life I've been living. Unless I can find an interest, an
extenuation, I would rather be dead, a hundred times over. I've become a
nightmare to myself, and I won't stand it. In a few days you'll have
departed, and before you return I'll probably have gone too. Nothing but
an intervention of Providence can prevent my marrying Florence Baker
now. Life isn't a story-book or we who live it undiscerning clods. She
knows I am going to ask her to marry me, and I know what her answer
will be. We'll be away on our wedding-trip long before you and Elise
return in the Fall." The speaker's voice was sober. Only the heightened
color of his face betrayed him.

"I say I'm through with this sort of thing," he repeated, "and I mean
it. I've tried everything on the face of the earth to find an
interest--but one--and Florence Baker represents that one. I hope
against hope that I'll find what I'm searching for there, but I am
skeptical. I have been disappointed too many times to expect happiness
now. This is my last trump, old man, and I'm playing it deliberately and
carefully. If it fails, Florence will probably return; but before God, I
never will! I have thought it all out. I will leave her more money than
she can ever spend--enough if she wishes to buy the elect of the elect.
She is young, and she will soon forget--if it's necessary. With me, my
actions have largely ceased to be a matter of ethics. I am desperate,
Hough, and a desperate man takes what presents itself."

But Hough was in no condition to appreciate the meaning of the selfish
revelation of his friend's true character. Since he married his lapses
had been infrequent, and already his surroundings were becoming a bit
vague. His one ambition was to appear what he was not--sober; and he
straightened himself stiffly.

"I see," he said, "sorry to lose you, old pal, very sorry; but what must
be must be, I s'pose," and he drew himself together with a jerk.

Sidwell glanced at the speaker sarcastically, almost with a shade of
contempt. "I know you're sorry, deucedly sorry," he mocked. "So sorry
that you'd probably like to drown your excess of emotion in the flowing
bowl." Again the ironic glance swept the other's face. "Another smile
would be good for you, anyway. You're entirely too serious. Here you
are!" and the decanter once more did service.

Hough picked up his glass and nodded with gravity "Yes, I always was a
sad devil." By successive movements the liquor approached his lips.
"Lots of troubles and tribulations all my--"

The sentence was not completed; the Cognac remained untasted. At that
moment there was a knock upon the door.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE BACK-FIRE


When Ben Blair left the Baker home he went back to his room at the
hotel, closed and locked the door, and, throwing off coat and hat,
stretched himself full-length upon the floor, gazing up at the ceiling
but seeing nothing. It had been a hard fight for self-control there on
the prairie the day Florence rejected him, but it was as nothing to the
tumult that now raged in his brain. Then, despite his pain, hope had
remained. Now hope was lost, and in its place stood a maddening
might-have-been. Under the compulsion of his will, the white flood of
anger had passed, but it only made more difficult the solution of the
problem confronting him. Under the influence of passion the situation
would have been a mere physical proposition; but with opportunity to
think, another's wishes and another's rights--those of the woman he
loved--challenged him at every turn.

At first it seemed that a removal of his physical presence, a going away
never to return, was adequate solution of the difficulty; but he soon
realized that it was not. Deeper than his own love was his desire for
the happiness of the girl he had known from childhood. Had he been
certain that she would be happy with the man who had fascinated her, he
could have conquered self, could have returned to his prairies, his
cattle, his work, and have concealed his hurt. But it was impossible for
him to believe she would be happy. Without volition on his part he had
become an actor in this drama, this comedy, this tragedy,--whatever it
might prove to be; and he felt that it would be an act of cowardice upon
his part to leave before the play was ended. He was not in the least
religious in the sense of creed and dogma. In all his life he had
scarcely given a thought to religion. His knowledge of the Almighty by
name had been largely confined to that of a word to conjure with in
mastering an obstreperous bronco; but, in the broad sense of personal
cleanliness and individual duty, he was religious to the core. He would
not shirk a responsibility, and a responsibility faced him now.

Hour after hour he lay prone while his active brain suggested one course
after another, all, upon consideration, proving inadequate. Gradually
out of the chaos one fundamental fact became distinct in his mind. He
must know more of this man Clarence Sidwell before he could leave the
city, and this decision brought him to his feet. Under the
circumstances, a strategist might have employed others to gather
surreptitiously the information desired; but such was not the nature of
Benjamin Blair. One thing he had learned in dealing with his fellows,
which was that the most effective way to secure the thing one wished was
to go direct to the man who had it to give. In this case Sidwell was the
man. With a grim smile Ben remembered the invitation and the address he
had received the first night he was in town. He would avail himself of
both.

Night had fallen long ere this; when Ben arose the room was in darkness,
save for the reflected light which came through the heavily curtained
windows from the street lamps. He turned on an electric bulb and made a
hasty toilet. In doing so his eye fell upon the two big revolvers within
the drawer of the dresser; and the same impulse that had caused him to
bring them into this land of civilization made him thrust them into his
hip pockets. It was more habit than anything else, just as a man with a
dog friend feels vaguely uncomfortable unless his pet is with him. Blair
had the vigorously recurring appetite of a healthy animal, and it
suddenly occurred to him that he had not yet dined. Descending to the
street, he sought a _café_ and ate a hearty meal.

A half-hour later, the elevator boy of the Metropolitan Block, where
Sidwell had his quarters, was surprised, on answering the indicator, to
find a young man in an abnormally broad hat and flannel shirt awaiting
him. The youth was of vivid imagination, and knowing that a Wild West
troupe was performing in town, one glance at Ben's hat, his suspicions
became certainty.

"Eleventh floor," he announced, when the passenger had told his
destination; then as the car moved upward he gathered courage and looked
the rancher fair in the eye.

"Say, Mister," he ventured, "give me a pass to the show, will you?"

For an instant Ben looked blank; then he understood, and his hand
sought his trousers' pocket. "Sorry," he explained, "but I don't happen
to have any with me. Will this do instead?" and he produced a
half-dollar.

The boy brought the car deftly to a stop within a half-inch of the level
of the desired floor. "Thank you. Mr. Sidwell--straight ahead, and turn
to the left down the short hall," he said obligingly.

Blair stepped out, saying, "Don't fail to be around to-morrow when I do
my stunt."

With open-mouthed admiration the boy watched the frontiersman's long
free stride--a movement that struck the floor with the springiness of a
cat, very different from the flat-footed jar of pedestrians on paved
streets.

"I won't!" he called after him. "I'd rather see't than a dozen
ball-games! I'll look for you, Mister!"

At the interrupting tap upon the door, Sidwell voiced a languid "Come
in," and merely shifted in his seat; but his big companion, with the
hospitality of inebriation, had returned his glass unsteadily to the
table and arisen. He had taken a couple of uncertain steps, as if to
open the door, when, in answer to the summons, Ben Blair stepped inside.
Hough halted with a suddenness which all but cost him his equilibrium.
The expansive smile upon his face vanished, and he stared as though the
bottomless pit had opened at his feet. For a fraction of a minute not
one of the three men spoke or stirred, but in that time the steady blue
eyes of the countryman took in the details of the scene--the luxurious
furnishings, the condition of the two men--with the rapidity and
minuteness of a sensitized plate. Ironic chance had chosen an
unpropitious night for his call. Intoxication surrounding a bar, under
the stimulus of numbers, and preceding or following some exciting event,
he could understand, could, perhaps, condone; but this solitary
dissipation, drunkenness for its own sake, was something new to him. The
observing eyes fastened themselves upon the host's face.

"In response to your invitation," he said evenly, "I've called."

Sidwell roused himself. His face flushed. Despite the liquor in his
brain, he felt the inauspicious chance of the meeting.

"Glad you did," he said, with an attempt at ease. "Deucedly glad. I
don't know of anyone in the world I'd rather see. Just speaking of you,
weren't we?" he said, appealing to Hough. "By the way, Mr.--er--Blair,
shake hands with Mr. Hough, Mr. Winston Hough. Mighty good fellow,
Hough, but a bit melancholy. Needs cheering up a bit now and then.
Needed it badly to-night--almost cried for it, in fact"; and the speaker
smiled convivially.

Hough extended his hand with elaborate formality. "Delighted to meet
you," he managed to articulate.

"Thank you," returned the other shortly.

Sidwell meanwhile was bringing a third chair and glass. "Come over,
gentlemen," he invited, "and we'll celebrate this, the proudest moment
of my life. You drink, of course, Mr. Blair?"

Ben did not stir. "Thank you, but I never drink," he said.

"What!" Sidwell smiled sceptically. "A cattle-man, and not refresh
yourself with good liquor? You refute all the precedents! Come over and
take something!"

Ben only looked at him steadily. "I repeat, I never drink," he said
conclusively.

Sidwell sat down, and Hough followed his lead.

"All right, all right! Have a cigar, then. At least you smoke?"

"Yes," assented Blair, "I smoke--sometimes."

The host extended the box hospitably. "Help yourself. They're good ones,
I'll answer for that. I import them myself."

Ben took a step forward, but his hands were still in his pockets. "Mr.
Sidwell," he said, "we may as well save time and try to understand each
other. In some ways I am a bit like an Indian. I never smoke except with
a friend, and I am not sure you are a friend of mine. To be candid with
you, I believe you are not."

Hough stirred in his chair, but Sidwell remained impassive save that the
convivial smile vanished.

A quarter of a minute passed. Once the host took up his glass as if to
drink, but put it down untasted. At last he indicated the vacant chair.

"Won't you be seated?" he invited.

Ben sat down.

"You say," continued Sidwell, "that I am not your friend. The statement
and your actions carry the implication that of necessity, then, we must
be enemies."

The speaker was sparring for time. His brain was not yet normal, but it
was clearing rapidly. He saw this was no ordinary man he had to deal
with, no ordinary circumstance; and his plan of campaign was unevolved.

"I fail to see why," he continued.

"Do you?" said Ben, quietly.

Sidwell lit a cigar nonchalantly and smoked for a moment in silence.

"Yes," he reiterated. "I fail to see why. To have made you an enemy
implies that I have done you an injury, and I recall no way in which I
could have offended you."

Ben indicated Hough with a nod of his head. "Do you wish a third party
to hear what we have to say?" he inquired.

Sidwell looked at the questioner narrowly. Deep in his heart he was
thankful that they two were not alone. He did not like the look in the
countryman's blue eyes.

"Mr. Hough," he said with dignity, "is a friend of mine. If either of
you must leave the room, most assuredly it will not be he." His eyes
returned to those of the visitor, held there with an effort. "By the
bye," he challenged, "what is it we have to say, anyway? So far as I can
see, there's no point where we touch."

Ben returned the gaze steadily. "Absolutely none?" he asked.

"Absolutely none." Sidwell spoke with an air of finality.

The countryman leaned a bit forward and rested his elbow upon his knee,
his chin upon his hand.

"Suppose I suggest a point then: Miss Florence Baker."

Sidwell stiffened with exaggerated dignity. "I never discuss my
relations with a lady, even with a friend. I should be less apt to do so
in speaking with a stranger."

The lids of Ben's eyes tightened just a shade. "Then I'll have to ask
you to make an exception to the rule," he said slowly.

"In that case," Sidwell responded quickly, "I'll refuse."

For a moment silence fell. Through the open window came the ceaseless
drone of the shifting multitude on the street below.

"Nevertheless, I insist," said Ben, calmly.

Sidwell's face flushed, although he was quite sober now. "And I must
still refuse," he said, rising. "Moreover, I must request that you leave
the room. You forget that you are in my home!"

Ben arose calmly and walked to the door through which he had entered.
The key was in the lock, and turning it he put it in his pocket. Still
without haste he returned to his seat.

"That this is your home, and that you were its dictator before I came
and will be after I leave, I do not contest," he said; "but temporarily
the place has changed hands. I do not think you were quite in earnest
when you refused to talk with me."

For answer, Sidwell jerked a cord beside the table. A bell rang
vigorously in the rear of the apartments, and the big negro hurried into
the room.

"Alec," directed the master, "call a policeman at once! At once--do you
hear?"

"Yes, sah," and the servant started to obey; but the visitor's eye
caught his.

"Alec," said Ben, steadily, "don't do that! I'll be the first person to
leave this room!"

Instantly Sidwell was on his feet, his face convulsed with passion.
"Curse you!" he cried. "You'll pay for this! I'll teach you what it
means to hold up a man in his own house!" He turned to his servant with
a look that made the latter recoil. "I want you to understand that when
I give an order I mean it. Go!"

Blair was likewise on his feet, his long body stretched to its full
height, his blue eyes fastened upon the face of the panic-stricken
darky.

"Alec," he repeated evenly, "you heard what I said." Without a motion
save of his head he indicated a seat in the corner of the room. "Sit
down!"

Sidwell took a step forward, his clenched fists raised menacingly.

"Blair! you--you--"

"Yes."

"You--"

"Certainly, I--"

That was all. It was not a lengthy conversation, or a brilliant one, but
it was adequate. Face to face, the two men stood looking in each other's
eyes, each taking his opponent's measure. Hough had also risen; he
expected bloodshed; but not once did Blair stir as much as an eyelid,
and after that first step Sidwell also halted. Beneath his supercilious
caste dominance he was a physical coward, and at the supreme test he
weakened. The flood of anger passed as swiftly as it had come, leaving
him impotent. He stood for a moment, and then the clenched fist dropped
to his side.

For the first time, Ben Blair moved. Unemotionally as before, his nod
indicated the chair in the corner.

"Sit over there as long as I stay, Alec," he directed; and the negro
responded with the alacrity of a well-trained dog.

Ben turned to the big man. "And you, too, Hough. My business has nothing
to do with you, but it may be well to have a witness. Be seated,
please."

Hough obeyed in silence. Sober as Sidwell now, his mind grasped the
situation, and in spite of himself he felt his sympathy going out to
this masterful plainsman.

Ben Blair now turned to the host, and as he did so his wiry figure
underwent a transformation that lived long in the spectators' minds.
With his old characteristic motion, his hands went into his trousers'
pockets, his chest expanded, his great chin lifted until, looking down,
his eyes were half closed.

"You, Mr. Sidwell," he said, "can stand or sit, as you please; but one
thing I warn you not to do--don't lie to me. We're in the home of lies
just now, but it can't help you. Your face says you are used to having
your own way, right or wrong. Now you'll know the reverse. So long as
you speak the truth, I won't hurt you, no matter what you say. If you
don't, and believe in God, you'd best make your peace with Him. Do you
doubt that?"

One glance only Sidwell raised to the towering face, and his eyes fell.
Every trace of fight, of effrontery, had left him, and he dropped weakly
into his chair.

"No, I don't doubt you," he said.

Ben likewise sat down, but his eyes were inexorable.

"First of all, then," he went on, "you will admit you were mistaken when
you said there was no point where we touched?"

"Yes, I was mistaken."

"And you were not serious when you refused to talk with me?"

A spasm of repugnance shot over the host's dark face. He heard the
labored breathing of the negro in the corner, and felt the eyes of his
big friend upon him.

"Yes, I was not serious," he admitted slowly.

Ben's long legs crossed, his hands closed on the chair-arms.

"Very well, then," he said. "Tell me what there is between you and Miss
Baker."

Sidwell lit a cigar, though the hand that held the match trembled.

"Everything, I hope," he said. "I intend marrying her."

The ranchman's face gave no sign at the confession.

"You have asked her, have you?"

"No. Your coming prevented. I should otherwise have done so to-day."

The long fingers on the chair-arms tightened until they grew white.

"You knew why I came to town, did you not?"

Sidwell hesitated.

"I had an intuition," he admitted reluctantly.

Again silence fell, and the subdued roar of the city came to their ears.

"You have not called at the Baker home to-day," continued Blair. "Was it
consideration for me that kept you away?" The thin, weather-browned face
grew, if possible, more clean-cut. "Remember to talk straight."

Sidwell took the cigar from his lips. An exultation he could not quite
repress flooded him. His eyes met the other's fair.

"No," he said, "it was anything but consideration for you. I knew she
was going to refuse you."

In the corner the negro's eyes widened. Even Hough held his breath; but
not a muscle of Ben Blair's body stirred.

"You say you knew," he said evenly. "How did you know?"

Sidwell flicked the ash from his cigar steadily. He was regaining, if
not his courage, at least some of his presence of mind. This seeming
desperado from the West was a being upon whom reason was not altogether
wasted.

"I knew because her mother told me--about all there was to tell, I
guess--of your relations before Florence came here. I knew if she
refused you then she would be more apt to do so now."

Still the figure in brown was that of a statue.

"She told you--what--you say?"

Sidwell shifted uncomfortably. He saw breakers ahead.

"The--main reason at least," he modified.

"Which was--" insistently.

Sidwell hesitated, his new-found confidence vanishing like the smoke
from his cigar. But there was no escape.

"The reason, she said, was because you were--minus a pedigree."

The last words dropped like a bomb in the midst of the room. Ben Blair
swiftly rose from his seat. The negro's eyes rolled around in search of
some place of concealment. With a protesting movement Hough was on his
feet.

"Gentlemen!" he implored. "Gentlemen!"

But the intervention was unnecessary. Ben Blair had settled back in his
seat. Once more his hands were on the chair-arms.

"Do you," he insinuated gently, "consider the reason she gave an
adequate one? Do you consider that it had any rightful place in the
discussion?"

The question, seemingly simple, was hard to answer. An affirmative
trembled on the city man's tongue. He realized it was his opportunity
for a crushing rejoinder. But cold blue eyes were upon him and the
meaning of their light was only too clear.

"I can understand the lady's point of view," he said evasively.

Ben Blair leaned forward, the great muscles of his jaw and temples
tightening beneath the skin.

"I did not ask for the lady's point of view," he admonished, "I asked
for your own."

Again Sidwell felt his opportunity, but physical cowardice intervened.
No power on earth could have made him say "yes" when the other looked at
him like that.

"No," he lied, "I do not see that it should make the slightest
difference."

"On your honor, you swear you do not?"

Sidwell repeated the statement, and sealed it with his honor.

Ben Blair relaxed, and Hough mopped his brow with a sigh of relief. Even
Sidwell felt the respite, but it was short-lived.

"I think," Ben resumed, "that what you've just said and sworn to gives
the lie to your original statement that you have given me no cause for
enmity. According to your own showing you are the one existing obstacle
between Florence Baker and myself. Is it not so?"

Like a condemned criminal, Sidwell felt the noose tightening.

"I can't deny it," he admitted.

For some seconds Ben Blair looked at him with an expression almost
menacing. When he again spoke the first trace of passion was in his
voice.

"Such being the case, Clarence Sidwell," he went on, "caring for
Florence Baker as I do, and knowing you as I do, why in God's name
should I leave you, coward, in possession of the dearest thing to me in
the world?" For an instant the voice paused, the protruding lower jaw
advanced until it became a positive disfigurement. "Tell me why I should
sacrifice my own happiness for yours. I have had enough of this
word-play. Speak!"

In every human life there is at some time a supreme moment, a tragic
climax of events; and Sidwell realized that for him this moment had
arrived. Moreover, it had found him helpless and unprepared. Artificial
to the bone, he was fundamentally disqualified to meet such an
emergency; for artifice or subterfuge would not serve him now. One hasty
glance into that relentless face caused him to turn his own away. Long
ago, in the West, he had once seen a rustler hung by a posse of
ranchers. The inexorable expression he remembered on the surrounding
faces was mirrored in Ben Blair's. His brain whirled; he could not
think. His hand passed aimlessly over his face; he started to speak, but
his voice failed him.

Ben Blair shifted forward in his seat. The long sinewy fingers gripped
the chair like a panther ready to spring.

"I am listening," he admonished.

Sidwell felt the air of the room grow stifling. A big clock was ticking
on the wall, and it seemed to him the second-beats were minutes apart.
His downcast eyes just caught the shape of the hands opposite him, and
in fancy he felt them already tightening upon his throat. Like a
drowning man, scenes in his past life swarmed through his brain. He saw
his mother, his sisters, at home in the old family mansion; his friends
at the club, chatting, laughing, drinking, smoking. In an impersonal
sort of way he wondered how they would feel, what they would say, when
they heard. On the vision swept. It was Florence Baker he saw
now--Florence, all in fleecy white; the girl and himself were on the
broad veranda of the Baker home. They were not alone. Another
figure--yes, this same menacing figure now so near--was on the walk
below them, his broad-brimmed hat in his hand, but leaving. Florence
was speaking; a smile was upon her lips.

Like a flash of lightning the images of fancy passed, the present
returned. At last came the solution once before suggested,--the
back-fire! Sidwell straightened, every nerve in his body tense. He
spoke--and scarcely recognized his own voice.

"There is a reason," he said, "a very adequate reason, one which
concerns another more than it does us." With a supreme effort of will
the man met the blue eyes of his opponent squarely. "It is because
Florence Baker loves me and doesn't love you. Because she would never
forgive you, never, if you did--what you think of doing now."

For an instant the listening figure remained tense, and it seemed to
Sidwell that his own pulse ceased beating; then the long sinewy body
collapsed as under a physical blow.

"God!" said a low voice. "I forgot!"

Not one of the three spectators stirred or spoke. Like sheep, they
awaited the lead of their master.

And it came full soon. Stiffly, clumsily, still in silence, Ben Blair
arose. His face was drawn and old, his step was slow and halting. Like
one walking in his sleep, he made his way to the door, took the key from
his pocket, and turned the lock. Not once did he speak or glance back.
The door closed softly, and he was gone.

Behind him for a second there was silence, inactive incredulity as at a
miracle performed; then, in a blaze of long repressed fury, Sidwell
stood beside the table. Not pausing for a glass, he raised the red
decanter to his lips and drank, drank, as though the liquor were water.

"Curse him! I'll marry that girl now if for no other reason than to get
even with him. If it's the last act of my life, I swear I'll marry
her!"



CHAPTER XXIV

THE UPPER AND THE NETHER MILLSTONES


Out on the street once more, Ben Blair looked about him as one awakening
from a dream. From the darkened arch of a convenient doorway he watched
the endless passing throng with a dull sort of wonder. He was surprised
that the city should be awake at that late hour; and stepping out into
the light he held up his watch. The hands indicated a few minutes past
ten, and in surprise he carried the timepiece to his ear. Yes, it was
running, and must be correct. He had seemed to be up there on the
eleventh floor for hours; but as a matter of fact it had been only
minutes. Practically, the whole night was yet before him.

Slowly, in a listless way, he started to walk back to his hotel. Instead
of the night becoming cooler it had grown sultrier, and in places the
walk was fairly packed with human beings. More than once he had to turn
out of his way to pass the chattering groups. In so doing he was often
conscious that the flow of small talk suddenly ceased, and that, nudging
each other, the chatterers pointed his way. At first he looked about to
see what had attracted them, but he very soon realized that he himself
was the object of attention. Even here, cosmopolitan as were the
surroundings, he was a marked man, was recognized as a person from a
wholly different life; and his feeling of isolation deepened. He moved
on more swiftly.

The sidewalk in front of his hotel was fringed with a row of chairs, in
which sat guests in various stages of negligee costume. Nearly every man
was smoking, and the effect in the semi-darkness was like that of
footlights turned low. Steps and lobby were likewise crowded; but Ben
made his way straight to his room. One idea now possessed him. His
business was finished, and he wanted to be away. Turning on a light, he
found a railroad guide and ran down the columns of figures. There was no
late night train going West; he must wait until morning. Extinguishing
the light, he drew a chair to the open window and lit a cigar.

With physical inactivity, consciousness of his surroundings forced
themselves on his attention. Subdued, pulsating, penetrating, the murmur
of the great hotel came to his ears; the drone of indistinguishable
voices, the pattering footsteps of bell-boys and _habitués_, the purr of
the elevator as it moved from floor to floor, the click of the gate as
it stopped at his own level, the renewed monotone as it passed by.

Continuous, untiring, the sounds suggested the unthinking vitality of a
steam-engine or of a dynamo in a powerhouse. A mechanic by nature, as a
school-boy Ben had often induced Scotty to take him to the electric
light station, where he had watched the great machines with a
fascination bordering on awe, until fairly dragged away by the prosaic
Englishman. This feeling of his childhood recurred to him now with
irresistible force. The throb of the motor of human life was pulsating
in his ears; but added to it was something more, something elusive,
intangible, but all-powerful. The moment he had arrived within the city
limits he had felt the first trace of its presence. As he approached the
centre of congestion it had deepened, had become more and more a guiding
influence. Since then, by day or by night, wherever he went, augmenting
or diminishing, it was constantly with him. And it was not with him
alone. Every human being with whom he came in contact was likewise
consciously or unconsciously under the spell. The crowds he had passed
on the streets were unthinkingly answering its guidance. The trolley
cars echoed its voice. It was the spirit of unrest--a thing ubiquitous
and all-penetrating as the air that filled their lungs--a subtle
stimulant that they took in with every breath.

Ben Blair arose and put on his hat. He had been sitting only a few
minutes, but he felt that he could not longer bear the inactivity. To do
so meant to think; and thought was the thing that to-night he was
attempting to avoid. Moreover, for one of the few times in his life he
could remember he was desperately lonely. It seemed to him that nowhere
within a thousand miles was another of his own kind. Instinctively he
craved relief, and that alleviation could come in but one way,--through
physical activity. Again he sought the street.

To some persons a great relief from loneliness is found in mingling with
a crowd, even though it be of strangers; but Ben was not like these. His
desire was to be away as far as possible from the maddening drone.
Boarding a street car, he rode out into the residence section, clear to
the end of the loop; then, alighting, he started to walk back. A full
moon had arisen, and outside the shadow-blots of trees and buildings the
earth was all alight. The asphalt of the pavements and the cement of the
walks glistened white under its rays. Loth to sacrifice the comparative
out-of-door coolness for the heat within, practically every house had
its group on the doorsteps, or scattered upon the narrow lawns.
Accustomed to magnificent distances, to boundless miles of surrounding
country, to privacy absolute, Ben watched this scene with a return of
the old wonder,--the old feeling of isolation, of separateness. Side by
side, young men and women, obviously lovers, kept their places,
indifferent to his observation. Other couples, still more careless, sat
with circling arms and faces close together, returning his gaze
impassively. Nothing, apparently, in the complex gamut of human nature
was sacred to these folk. To the solitary spectator, the revelation was
more depressing than even the down-town unrest; and he hurried on.

Further ahead he came to the homes of the wealthy,--great piles of stone
and brick, that seemed more like hotels than residences. The forbidding
darkness of many of the houses testified that their owners were out of
town, at the seaside or among the mountains; but others were brilliantly
lighted from basement to roof. Before one a long line of carriages was
drawn up. Stiffly liveried footmen, impassive as automatons, waited the
erratic pleasure of their masters. A little group of spectators was
already gathered, and Ben likewise paused, observing the spectacle
curiously.

A social event of some sort was in progress. From some concealed place
came the music of a string orchestra. Every window of the great pile was
open for ventilation, and Ben could hear and see almost as plainly as
the guests themselves. For a time, deep, insistent, throbbing in
measured beat, came the drone of the 'cello, the wail of the clarionet,
and, faintly audible beneath, the rustle of moving feet. Then the music
ceased; and a few seconds later a throng of heated dancers swarmed
through the open doorway to the surrounding veranda, and simultaneously
a chatter broke forth. Fans, like gigantic butterfly wings, vibrated to
and fro. Skilful waiters, in black and white, glanced in and out.
Laughter, thoughtless and care-free, mingled in the general scene.

The music still, Ben Blair was about to move on, when suddenly a man and
a girl in the shadow of a window on the second floor caught and held his
attention. As far as he could see, they were alone. Evidently one or the
other of them knew the house intimately, and had deliberately sought the
place. From the veranda beneath, the flow of talk continued
uninterruptedly; but they gave it no attention. The spectator could
distinctly see the man as he leaned back in the light and spoke
earnestly. At times he gesticulated with rapid passionate motions, such
as one unconsciously uses when deeply absorbed. Now and again, with the
bodily motions that we have learned to connect with the French, his
shoulders were shrugged expressively. He was obviously talking against
time; for his every motion showed intense concentration. No spectator
could have mistaken the nature of his speech. Passion supreme, abandon
absolute, were here personified. As he spoke, he gradually leaned
farther forward toward the woman who listened. His face was no longer in
the light. Suddenly, at first low, as though coming from a distance,
increasing gradually until it throbbed into the steady beat of a waltz,
the music recommenced. It was the signal for action and for throwing off
restraint. The man leaned forward; his arm stretched out and closed
about the figure of the woman. His face pressed forward to meet hers,
again and again.

Not Ben alone, but a half-dozen other spectators had watched the scene.
An overdressed girl among the number tittered at the sight.

But Ben scarcely noticed. With the strength of insulted womanhood, the
girl had broken free, and now stood up full in the light. One look she
gave to the man, a look which should have withered him with its scorn;
then, gathering her skirts, she almost ran from the room.

Only a few seconds had the girl's face been clear of the shadow; yet it
had been long enough to permit recognition, and instantly liquid fire
flowed in the veins of Benjamin Blair. His breath came quick and short
as that of a runner passing under the wire, and his great jaw set. The
woman he had seen was Florence Baker.

With one motion he was upon the terrace leading toward the house.
Another second, and he would have been well upon his way, when a hand
grasped him from behind and drew him back. With a half-articulated
imprecation Ben turned--and stood fronting Scotty Baker. The
Englishman's face was very white. Behind the compound lenses his eyes
glowed in a way Ben had not thought possible; but his voice was steady
when he spoke.

"I saw too, Ben," he said, "and I understand. I know what you want to
do, and God knows I want to do the same thing myself; but it would do no
good; it would only make the matter worse." He looked at the younger man
fixedly, almost imploringly. His voice sank. "As you care for Florence,
Ben, go away. Don't make a scene that will do only harm. Leave her with
me. I came to take her home, and I'll do so at once." The speaker
paused, and his hand reached out and grasped the other's with a grip
unmistakable. "I appreciate your motive, my boy, and I honor it. I know
how you feel; and whatever I may have been in the past, from this time
on I am your friend. I am your friend now, when I ask you to go," and he
fairly forced his companion away.

Once outside the crowd, Ben halted. He gave the Englishman one long
look; his lips opened as if to speak; then, without a word, he moved
away.

There was no listlessness about him now. He was throbbing with repressed
energy, like a great engine with steam up. His feet tapped with the
regularity of clock-ticks over mile after mile of the city walks. He
longed for physical weariness, for sleep; but the day, with its manifold
mental exaltations and depressions, prevented. It seemed to him that he
could never sleep again, could never again be weary. He could only walk
on and on.

Down town again, he found the crowds smaller and the border of chairs in
front of his hotel largely empty. A few cigars still burned in the
half-light, but they were the last flicker of a conflagration now all
but extinguished. The restless throb of the human dynamo was lower and
more subdued. The street cars were practically empty. Instead of a
constant stream of vehicles, an occasional cab clattered past. The city
was preparing for its brief hours of fitful rest.

Straight on Ben walked, between the towering office buildings, beside
the now darkened department-store hives, past the giant wholesale
establishments and warehouses; until, quite unintentionally on his part,
and almost before he realized it, he found himself in another world,
another city, as distinct as though it were no part of the cosmopolitan
whole. Again he came upon throbbing life; but of quite another type.
Once more he met people in abundance, noisy, chattering human beings;
but more frequently than his own he now heard foreign tongues that he
did not understand, and did not even recognize. No longer were the
pedestrians well dressed or apparently prosperous. Instead, poverty and
squalor and filth were rampant. More loth even than the well-to-do of
the suburbs to go within doors, the swarming mass of humanity covered
the steps of the houses, and overflowed upon the sidewalk, even upon the
street itself. There were men, women, children; the lame, the halt, the
blind. The elders stared at the visitor, while the youngsters, secure
in numbers, guyed him to their hearts' content.

It was all as foreign to any previous experience of this countryman as
though he had come from a different planet. He had read of the city
slums as of Stanley's Central African negro tribes with unpronounceable
names; and he had thought of them in much the same way. To him they had
been something known to exist, but with which it was but remotely
probable he would ever come in contact. Now, without preparation or
premeditation, thrown face to face with the reality, it brought upon him
a sickening feeling, a sort of mental nausea. Ben was not a
philanthropist or a social reformer; the inspiring thought of the
inexhaustible field for usefulness therein presented had never occurred
to him. He wished chiefly to get away from the stench and ugliness; and,
turning down a cross street, he started to return.

The locality he now entered was more modern and better lighted than the
one he left behind. The decorated building fronts, with their dazzling
electric signs, partook of the characteristics of the inhabitants, who
seemed overdressed and vulgarly ostentatious. The gaudily trapped
saloons, _cafés_, and music halls, spoke a similar message. This was the
recreation spot of the people of the quarter; their land of lethe. So
near were the saloons and drinking gardens that from their open doorways
there came a pungent odor of beer. Every place had instrumental music of
some kind. Mandolins and guitars, in the hands of gentlemen of color,
were the favorites. Pianos of execrable tone, played by youths with
defective complexions, or by machinery, were a close second. Before one
place, a crowd blocked the sidewalk; and there Ben stopped. A vaudeville
performance was going on within--an invisible dialect comedian doing a
German stunt to the accompaniment of wooden clogs and disarranged verbs.
A barker in front, coatless, his collar loosened, a black string tie
dangling over an unclean shirt front, was temporarily taking a
much-needed rest. An electric sign overhead dyed his cheeks with
shifting colors--first red, then green, then white. Despite its veneer
of brazen effrontery, the face, with its great mouth and two days'
growth of beard, was haggard and weary looking. Ben mentally pictured,
with a feeling of compassion, other human beings doing their idiotic
"stunts" inside, sweltering in the foul air; and he wondered how, if an
atom of self-respect remained in their make-up, they could fail to
despise themselves.

But the comedian had subsided in a roar of applause, and again the
barker's hands were gesticulating wildly.

"Now's your time, ladies and gentlemen," he harangued. "It's continuous,
you know, and Madame--"

But Ben did not wait for more. Elbow first, he pushed into the crowd,
and as it instantly closed about him the odor of unclean bodies made him
fairly hold his breath.

Straight ahead, looking neither to right nor to left, went the
countryman; he turned the corner of the block, a corner without a light.
Suddenly, with an instinctive tightening of his breath, he drew back. He
had nearly stepped upon a man, dead drunk, stretched half in a darkened
doorway, half on the walk. The wretch's head was bent back over one of
the iron steps until it seemed as if he must choke, and he was snoring
heavily.

Not a policeman was in sight, and Ben, in great physical disgust,
carried the helpless hulk to one side, out of the way of pedestrians,
took off the tattered coat and rolled it into a pillow for the head, and
then moved on with the sound of the stertorous drunken breathing still
in his ears.

Still other experiences were in store for him. He made a half block
without further interruption; then he suddenly heard at his back a
frightened scream, and a young woman came running toward him, followed
at a distance by a roughly dressed man, the latter apparently the worse
for liquor. Blair stopped, and the girl coming up, caught him by the arm
imploringly.

"Help me, Mister, please!" she pleaded breathlessly. "He--Tom, back
there--insulted me. I--" A burst of hysterical tears interrupted the
confession.

Meanwhile, seeing the turn events had taken, the pursuer had likewise
stopped, and now he hesitated.

"All right," replied Ben. "Go ahead! I'll see that the fellow doesn't
trouble you again." And he started back.

But the girl's hand was again upon his arm. "No," she protested, "not
that way, please. He's my steady, Tom is, only to-night he's drank too
much, and--and--he doesn't realize what he's doing." The grip on his arm
tightened as she looked imploringly into his face. "Take me home,
please!" A catch was in her voice. "I'm afraid."

Ben hesitated. Even in the half-light the petitioner's face hinted
brazenly of cosmetics.

"Where do you live?" he asked shortly.

"Only a little way, less than a block, and it's the direction you're
going. Please take me!"

"Very well," said Blair, and they moved on, the girl still clinging to
him and sobbing at intervals. Before a dark three-story and basement
building, with a decidedly sinister aspect, she stopped and indicated a
stairway.

"This is the place."

"All right," responded Ben. "I guess you're safe now. Good-night!"

But she clung to him the tighter. "Come up with me," she insisted.
"We're only on the second floor, and I haven't thanked you yet. Really,
I'm so grateful! You don't know what it means to be a girl, and--and--"
Her feelings got the better of her again, and she paused to wipe her
eyes on her sleeve. "My mother will be so thankful too. She'd never
forgive me if I didn't bring you up. Please come!" and she led the way
up the darkened stair.

Again Ben hesitated. He did not in the least like the situation in which
circumstances had placed him. The prospect of the girl's mother, like
herself, scattering grateful tears upon him was not alluring; but it
seemed the part of a cad to refuse, and at last he followed.

His guide led him up a short flight of stairs and turned to the right,
down a dimly lighted hall. The ground-floor of the building was used for
store purposes. This second floor was evidently a series of apartments.
Lights from within the rooms crept over the curtained transoms. Voices
sounded; glasses clinked. A piano banged out ragtime like mad.

At the fourth door the girl stopped. "Thank you so much for coming," she
said. "Walk right in," and throwing open the door she fairly shoved the
visitor inside.

From out the semi-darkness, Ben now found himself in a well-lighted
room, and the change made him blink about him. Instead of the motherly
old lady in a frilled cap, whom he had expected to see, he found himself
in the company of a half-dozen coatless young men and under-dressed
women, lounging in questionable attitudes on chairs and sofas. At his
advent they all looked up. A sallow youth who had been operating the
piano turned in his seat and the music stopped. Not yet realizing the
trick that had been played upon him, Ben turned to look for his guide;
but she was nowhere in sight, and the door was closed. His eyes shifted
back and met a circle of amused faces, while a burst of mocking laughter
broke upon his ears.

Then for the first time he understood, and his face went white with
anger. Without a word he started to leave the room. But one of the women
was already at his side, her detaining hand upon his sleeve. "No, no,
honey!" she said, insinuatingly. "We're all good fellows! Stay awhile!"

Ben shook her off roughly. Her very touch was contaminating. But one of
the men had had time to get between him and the door; a sarcastic smile
was upon his face as he blocked the way.

"I guess it's on you, old man!" he bantered. "About a half-dozen quarts
will do for a starter!" He nodded to a pudgy old woman who was watching
interestedly from the background. "You heard the gent's order, mother!
Beer, and in a hurry! He looks dry and hot."

Again a gale of laughter broke forth; but Ben took no notice. He made
one step forward, until he was within arm's reach of the humorist.

"Step out of my way, please," he said evenly.

Had the man been alone he would have complied, and quickly. No human
being with eyes and intelligence could have misread the warning on Ben
Blair's countenance. He started to move, when the girl who had first
come forward turned the tide.

"Aw, Charley!" she goaded. "Is that all the nerve you've got!" and she
laughed ironically.

Instantly the man's face reddened, and he fell back into his first
position.

"Sorry I can't oblige you, pal," he said, "but you see it's agin de
house. Us blokes has got--"

The sentence was never completed. Ben's fist shot out and caught the
speaker fair on the point of his jaw, and he collapsed in his tracks.
For a second no one in the room stirred; then before Ben could open the
door, the other men were upon him. The women fled screaming to the
farthest corner of the room, where they huddled together like sheep.
Returning with the tray, the old woman realized an only too familiar
condition.

"Gentlemen!" she pleaded. "Gentlemen!"

But no one paid the slightest attention to her. Forced by sheer odds of
mass toward a corner, Ben's long arms were working like flails. Another
man fell, and was up again. The first one also was upon his feet now,
his face white, and a tiny stream of blood trickling from his bruised
jaw. A heavy beer-bottle flung by one of the women crashed on the wall
over the countryman's head, the contents spattering over him like rain.
One of the men had seized a chair and swung it high, to strike, with
murder in his eye. Attracted by the confusion, the other occupants of
the floor had rushed into the hall. The door was flung open and
instantly blocked with a mass of sinister menacing faces.

Until then, Ben had been silent as death, silent as one who realizes
that he is fighting for life against overwhelming odds. Now of a sudden
he leaped backward like a great cat, clear of all the others. From his
throat there issued a sound, the like of which not one of those who
listened had ever heard before, and which fairly lifted their hair--the
Indian war-whoop that the man had learned as a boy. With the old
instinctive motion, comparable in swiftness to nothing save the passage
of light, the cowboy's hands went to his hips, and as swiftly returned
with the muzzles of two great revolvers protruding like elongated index
fingers. With equal swiftness, his face had undergone a transformation.
His jaw was set and his blue eyes flashed like live coals.

"Stand back, little folks!" he ordered, while the twin weapons revolved
in circles of reflected flame about his trigger fingers. "You seem to
want a show, and you shall have it!" The whirling circles vanished. A
deep report fell upon the silence, and a gaudy vase on the mantle flew
into a thousand pieces. "Stand back, people, or you might get hurt!"

Awed into dumb helplessness, the spectators stared with widening eyes;
but the spectacle had only begun. Like the reports of giant
fire-crackers, only seconds apart, the great revolvers spoke. A nudely
suggestive cast in the corner followed the vase. A quaintly carved clock
paused in its measure of time, its hands chronicling the minute of
interruption. A decanter of whiskey burst spattering over a table. Two
bacchanalian pictures on the wall suddenly had yawning wounds in their
centre. The portrait of a queen of the footlights leaped into the air.
One of the beer-bottles, which the madame had placed on a convenient
table, popped as though it were champagne. Fragments of glass and
porcelain fell about like hail. The place was lighted by a tuft of three
big incandescent globes; and, last of all, one by one, they crashed into
atoms, and the room was in total darkness. Then silence fell, startling
in contrast to the late confusion, while the pungent odor of burnt
gunpowder intruded upon the nostrils.

For a moment there was inaction; then the assembly broke into motion. No
thought was there now of retaliation or revenge; only, as at a sudden
conflagration or a wreck, of individual safety and escape. The hallway
was cleared as if by magic. Within the room the men and women jostled
each other in the darkness, or jammed imprecating in the narrow doorway.
In a few seconds Ben was alone. Calmly he thrust the empty revolvers
back into his pockets and followed leisurely into the hall. There the
dim light revealed an empty space; but here and there a lock turned
gratingly, and from more than one room as he passed came the sound of
furniture being hastily drawn forward as a barricade.

No human being ever knew what occurred behind the locked door of Ben
Blair's room at the hotel that night. Those hours were buried as deep as
what took place in his mind during the months intervening between the
coming of Florence Baker to the city and his own decision to follow her.
By nature a solitary, he fought his battles alone and in silence. That
he never once touched his bed, the hotel maids could have testified the
next morning. As to the decision that followed those sleepless hours,
his own action gave a clue. He had left a call for an early train West,
and at daylight a tap sounded on his door, while a voice announced the
time.

"Yes," answered the guest; but he did not stir.

In a few minutes the tap was repeated more insistently. "You've only
time to make your train if you hurry," warned the voice.

For a moment Blair did not answer. Then he said: "I have decided not to
go."



CHAPTER XXV

OF WHAT AVAIL?


It was late next morning, almost noon in fact, when Florence Baker
awoke; and even then she did not at once rise. A physical listlessness,
very unusual to her, lay upon her like a weight. A year ago, by this
time of day, she would have been ravenously hungry; but now she had a
feeling that she could not have taken a mouthful of food had her life
depended on it. The room, although it faced the west and was well
ventilated, seemed hot and depressing. A breeze stirred the lace
curtains at the window, but it was heated by the blocks of city
pavements over which it had come. The girl involuntarily compared this
awakening with that of a former life in what now seemed to her the very
long ago. She remembered the light morning wind of the prairies, which,
always fresh with the coolness of dew and of growing things, had drifted
in at the tiny windows of the Baker ranch-house. She recalled the sweet
scent of the buffalo grass with a vague sense of depression and
irrevocable loss.

She turned restlessly beneath the covers, and in doing so her face came
in contact with the moistened surface of her pillow. Propping herself up
on her elbow, she looked curiously at the tell-tale bit of linen.
Obviously, she had been crying in her sleep; and for this there must
have been a reason. Until that moment she had not thought of the
previous night; but now the sudden recollection overwhelmed her. She was
only a girl-woman--a child of nature, incapable of repression. Two great
tears gathered in her soft brown eyes; with instinctive desire of
concealment the fluffy head dropped to the pillow, and the sobs broke
out afresh.

Minutes passed; then her mother's hesitating steps approached the door.

"Florence," called a voice. "Florence, are you well?"

The dishevelled brown head lifted, but the girl made no motion to let
her mother in.

"Yes--I am well," she echoed.

For a moment Mrs. Baker hesitated, but she was too much in awe of her
daughter to enter uninvited.

"I have a note for you," she announced. "Mr. Sidwell's man Alec just
brought it. He says there's to be an answer."

But still the girl did not move. It was an unpropitious time to mention
the club-man's name. The fascination of such as he fades at early
morning; it demands semi-darkness or artificial light. Just now the
thought of him was distinctly depressing, like the sultry breeze that
wandered in at the window.

"Very well," said Florence, at last. "Leave it, please, and tell Alec to
wait. I'll be down directly."

In response, an envelope with a monogram in the corner was slipped in
under the door, and the bearer's footsteps tapped back into silence.

Slowly the girl crawled from her bed, but she did not at once take up
the note. Instead, she walked over to the dresser, and, leaning on its
polished top, gazed into the mirror at the reflection of her
tear-stained face, with its mass of disarranged hair. It was not a happy
face that she saw; and just at this moment it looked much older than it
really was. The great brown eyes inspected it critically and
relentlessly.

"Florence Baker," she said to the face in the mirror, "you are getting
to be old and haggard." A prophetic glimpse of the future came to her
suddenly. "A few years more, and you will not be even--good-looking."

She stood a moment longer, then, walking over to the door, she picked up
the envelope and tore it open.

"Miss Baker," ran the note, "there is to be an informal little
gathering--music, dancing, and a few things cool--at the Country Club
this evening. You already know most of the people who will be there. May
I call for you?--Sidwell."

Florence read the missive slowly; then slowly returned it to its cover.
There was no need to tell her the meaning of the unwritten message she
read between the lines of those few brief sentences. It is only in
story-books that human beings do not even suspect the inevitable until
it arrives. As well as she knew her own name, she realized that in her
answer to that evening's invitation lay the choice of her future life.
She was at the turning of the ways--a turning that admitted of no
reconsideration. Dividing at her feet, each equally free, were the
trails of the natural and the artificial. For a time they kept side by
side; but in the distance they were as separate as the two ends of the
earth. By no possibility could both be followed. She must choose between
them, and abide by her decision for good or for ill.

As slowly as she had read the note, Florence dressed; and even then she
did not leave the room. Bathing her reddened eyes, she drew a chair in
front of the window and gazed wistfully down at the handful of green
grass, with the unhealthy-looking elm in its centre, which made the
Baker lawn. Against her will there came to her a vision of the natural,
impersonated in the form of Ben Blair as she had seen him yesterday.
Masterful, optimistic, compellingly honest, splendidly vital, with loves
and hates like elemental forces of nature, he intruded upon her horizon
at every crisis. Try as she would to eliminate him from her life, she
could not do it. With a little catch of the breath she remembered that
last night, when that man had done--what he did--it was not of what her
father or Clarence Sidwell would think, if either of them knew, but of
what Ben Blair would think, what he would do, that she most cared.
Reluctant as she might be to admit it even to herself, yet in her inner
consciousness she knew that this prairie man had a power over her that
no other human being would ever have. Still, knowing this, she was
deliberately turning away from him. If she accepted that invitation for
to-night, with all that it might mean, the separation from Ben would be
irrevocable. Once more the brown head dropped into the waiting hands,
and the shoulders rocked to and fro in indecision and perplexity.

"God help me!" she pleaded, in the first prayer she had voiced in
months. "God help me!"

Again footsteps approached her door, and a hand tapped insistently
thereon.

"Florence," said her father's voice. "Are you up?"

The girl lifted her head. "Yes," she answered.

"Let me in, then." The insistence that had been in the knock spoke in
the voice. "I wish to speak with you."

Instantly an expression almost of repulsion flashed over the girl's
brown face. Never in his life had the Englishman understood his
daughter. He was a glaring example of those who cannot catch the
psychological secret of human nature in a given situation. From the
girl's childhood he had been complaisant when he should have been
severe, had stepped in with the parental authority recognized by his
race when he should have held aloof.

"Some other time, please," replied Florence. "I don't feel like talking
to-day."

Scotty's knuckles met the door-panel with a bang. "But I do feel like
it," he responded; "and the inclination is increasing every moment. You
would try the patience of Job himself. Come, I'm waiting!" and he
shifted from one foot to the other restlessly.

Within the room there was a pause, so long that the Englishman thought
he was going to be refused point-blank; then an even voice said, "Come
in," and he entered.

He had expected to find Florence defiant and aggressive at the
intrusion. If he did not understand this daughter of his, he at least
knew, or thought he knew, a few of her phases. But she had not even
risen from her seat, and when he entered she merely turned her head
until her eyes met his. Scotty felt his parental dignity vanishing like
smoke,--his feelings very like those of a burglar who, invading a
similar boudoir, should find the rightful owner at prayer. His first
instinct was to beat a retreat, and he stopped uncertainly just within
the doorway.

"Well?" questioned Florence, and the pupils of her brown eyes widened.

Scotty flushed, but memory of the impassive Alec waiting below returned,
and his anger arose.

"How much longer are you going to keep that negro waiting?" he demanded.
"He has been here an hour already by the clock."

A look of almost childlike surprise came over the face of the girl, an
expression implying that the other was making a mountain out of a
mole-hill. "I really don't know," she said.

Scotty took a chair, and ran his long fingers through his hair
perplexedly. "Florence," he said, "at times you are simply maddening;
and I do not want to be angry with you. Alec says he is waiting for an
answer. What is it an answer to, please? It is my right to know."

Again there was a pause, so long that Scotty expected unqualified
refusal: and again he was disappointed. Without a word, the girl removed
the note from the envelope and passed it over to him.

Scotty read it and returned the sheet.

"You haven't written an answer yet, I judge?"

"No."

The Englishman's fingers were tapping nervously on the edge of the
chair-seat.

"I wish you to decline, then."

The childish expression left the girl's eyes, the listlessness left her
attitude.

"Why, if I may ask?" A challenge was in the query.

Scotty arose, and for a half-minute walked back and forth across the
disordered room. At last he stopped, facing his daughter.

"The reason, first of all, is that I do not like this man Sidwell in any
particular. If you respect my wishes you will have nothing to do with
him or with any of his class in future. The second reason is that it is
high time some one was watching the kind of affairs you attend." The
speaker looked down on the girl sternly. "I think it unnecessary to
suggest that neither of us desires a repetition of last night's
experience."

Of a sudden, her face very red, Florence was likewise upon her feet. In
the irony of circumstances, Sidwell could not have had a more powerful
ally. Her decision was instantly formed.

"I quite agree with you about the incident of last evening," she flamed.
"As to who shall be my associates, and where I shall go, however, I am
of age--" and she started to leave the room.

But preventing, Scotty was between her and the door. "Florence,"--his
face was very white and his voice trembled,--"we may as well have an
understanding now as to defer it. Maybe, as you say, I have no authority
over you longer; but at least I can make a request. You know that I
love you, that I would not ask anything which was not for your good.
Knowing this, won't you at my request cease going with this man? Won't
you refuse his invitation for to-night?"

Nearer than ever before in his life was the Englishman at that moment to
grasping the secret of control of this child of many moods. Had he but
learned it a few years, even a few months, sooner--But again was the
satire of fate manifest, the same irony which, jealously withholding the
rewards of labor, keeps the student at his desk, the laborer at his
bench, until the worse than useless prizes flutter about like Autumn
leaves.

For a moment following Scotty's request there was absolute silence and
inaction; then, with a little appealing movement, the girl came close to
him.

"Oh, daddy!" she cried. "Dear old daddy! You make it so hard for me! I
know you love me, and I do want to do as you wish; I want to be good;
but--but"--the brown head was upon Scotty's shoulder, and two soft arms
gripped him tight,--"but," the voice was all but choking, "I can't let
him go now. It's too late!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The driving of his own conveyance was to Sidwell a source of pride. It
was therefore no surprise to Florence that at dusk he and his pair of
thoroughbreds should appear alone. The girl, very grave, very quiet, had
been waiting for him, and was ready almost before he stopped. With a
smile of parental pride upon her face, Mollie was on the porch to say
good-bye. At the last moment she approached and kissed her daughter on
the cheek. Not in months before had the mother done such a thing as
that; and despite herself, as she walked toward the waiting carriage,
there came to the girl the thought of another historic kiss, and of a
Judas, the betrayer. Once within the narrow single-seated buggy she
looked back, hoping against hope; but her father was nowhere in sight.

After the first greeting, neither she nor Sidwell spoke for some
minutes. For a time Florence did not even look at her companion. She had
a suspicion that he already knew most if not all that had taken place in
the Baker home the last day; and the thought tinged her face scarlet. At
last she gave a furtive glance at him. He was not looking, and her eyes
lingered on his face. It was paler than she had ever seen it before;
there were deep circles under the eyes, and he looked nervous and tired;
but over it all there was an expression of exaltation that could have
but one meaning to her.

"You must let me read it when you get it in shape," she began suddenly.

Sidwell turned blankly. "Read what, please?" he asked.

The girl smiled triumphantly. "The story you have just written. I know
by your face it must be good."

The flame of exaltation vanished. The man understood now.

"What if I should refute your theory?" he asked.

"I hardly believe that is possible. I know of nothing else which could
make you look like that."

Sidwell hesitated. "There are but few things," he admitted, "but
nevertheless I spoke the truth. It was one of them this time."

Florence smiled interestedly. "I am very curious," she suggested.

The brown eyes and the black met steadily. "Very well, then," said the
man, "I'll tell you. The reason was, because I have with me the
handsomest girl in the whole city."

Instantly the brown eyes dropped; the face reddened, but not with the
flush of pleasure. Florence was not yet sufficiently artificial for such
empty compliment.

"I'd rather you wouldn't say such things," she said simply. "They hurt
me."

"But not when they're true," he persisted.

There was no answer, and they drove on again in silence; the tap of the
thoroughbreds' feet on the asphalt sounding regular as the rattle of a
snare-drum, the rows of houses at either side running past like the
shifting scenes of a panorama. They passed numbers of other carriages,
and to the occupants of several Sidwell lifted his hat. Each as he did
so glanced at his companion curiously. The man was far too well known to
have his actions pass without gossip. At last they reached a semblance
of the open country, and a few minutes later Sidwell pointed out the row
of lights on the broad veranda of the big one-story club-house. The
affair had begun in the afternoon with a golf tournament, and when the
two drove up and Sidwell turned over his trotters to a man in waiting,
the entertainment was in full blast, although the hour was still early.

The building itself, ordinarily ample for the organization's rather
exclusive membership, was fairly crowded on this occasion. The
club-house had been given up to the orchestra and dancers, and
refreshments were being served on the lawn and under the adjoining
trees. Even the veranda had been cleared of chairs.

As Sidwell and his companion approached the place, he said in an
undertone, "Let's not get in the crush yet; if we do, we won't escape
all the evening." His dark eyes looked into his companion's face
meaningly. "I have something I wish especially to say to you."

Florence did not meet his eyes, but she well knew the message therein.
She nodded assent to the request.

Making a detour, they emerged into the park, and strolled back to a
place where, seeing, they themselves could not be seen. Sidwell found a
bench, and they sat down side by side. The girl offered no suggestion,
no protest. Since that row of lights had appeared in the distance she
had become passive. She knew beforehand all that was to take place;
something that she had decided to accede to, the details of which were
unimportant. An apathy which she did not attempt to explain held her.
The music heard so near, the glimpses of shifting, faultlessly dressed
figures, the loveliness of a perfect night--things that ordinarily would
have been intensely exhilarating--now passed by her unnoticed. Her
senses were temporarily in lethargy. If she had a conscious wish, it was
that the inevitable would come, and be over with.

From without this land of unreality she was suddenly conscious of a
voice speaking to her. "Florence," it said, "Florence Baker, you know
before I say a word the thing I wish to tell you, the question I wish to
ask. You know, because more than once I've tried to speak, and at the
last moment you have prevented. But you can't stop me to-night. We have
run on understanding each other long enough; too long. I have never lied
to you yet, Florence, and I am not going to begin now. I will not even
analyze the feeling I have for you, or call it by name. I know this is
an unheard-of-way to talk to a girl, especially one so impressionable as
you; but I cannot help it. There is something about you, Florence, that
keeps me from untruth, when probably under the same circumstances I
would lie to any other woman in the world. I simply know that you
impersonate a desire of my nature ungratified; that without you I have
no wish to live."

Strange and cold-blooded as this proposal would have seemed to a
listener, Florence heard it without a sign. It did not even affect her
with the shock of the unexpected. It was merely a part of that
inevitable something she had anticipated, and had for months watched
slowly taking form.

"I suppose it seems unaccountable to you," the voice went on, "that I
should have been attracted to you in the first place. It has often been
so to me, and I've tried to explain it. Beautiful, you undeniably are,
Florence; but I do not believe it was that. It was, I think, because,
despite your ideals of something which--pardon me--doesn't exist, you
were absolutely natural; and the women I'd met before were the reverse
of that. Like myself, they had tasted of life and found it flat. I
danced with them, drank with them, went the round of so-called gayety
with them; but they repelled me. But you, Florence, are very different.
You make me think of a prairie anemone with the dew on its petals. I
haven't much to offer you save money, which you already have in plenty,
and an empty fame; but I'll play the game fair. I'll take you anywhere
in the world, do anything you wish." Out of the shadow an arm crept
around the girl's waist, closed there, and she did not stir. "I am
writing an English story now, and the principal character, a soldier,
has been ordered to India. To catch the atmosphere, I've got to be on
the spot. The boat I wish to take will leave in ten days. Will you go
with me as my wife?"

The voice paused, and the face so near her own remained motionless,
waiting. Into the pause crept the music of the orchestra--beat, beat,
beat, like the throbbing of a mighty heart. Above it, distinct for an
instant, sounded the tinkle of a woman's laugh; then again silence. It
was now the girl's turn to speak, to answer; but not a sound left her
lips. She had an odd feeling that she was playing a game of checkers,
and that it was her turn to play. "Move!" said an inward monitor. "Move!
move!" But she knew not where or how.

The man's arm tightened around her; his lips touched hers again and
again; and although she was conscious of the fact, it carried no
particular significance. It all seemed a part of the scene that was
going on in which she was a silent actor--of the game in which she was a
player.

"Florence," said an insistent voice, "Florence, Florence Baker! Don't
sit like that! For God's sake, speak to me, answer me!"

This time the figure stirred, the head drooped in assent.

"Yes," she said.

Again the circling arm tightened, and the man's lips touched her own,
again and again. The very repetition aroused her.

"And you will sail with me in ten days?"

Fully awake was Florence Baker now, fully conscious of all that had
happened and was happening.

"Yes," she said. "The sooner the better. I want to have it over with." A
moment longer she sat still as death; then suddenly the mood of apathy
departed, and in infinite weakness, infinite pathos, the dark head
buried itself on the man's shoulder. "Promise me," she pleaded brokenly,
"that you will be kind to me! Promise me that you always will be kind!"



CHAPTER XXVI

LOVE'S SURRENDER


Scotty Baker was not an adept at concealing his emotions, and he stared
in unqualified surprise at the long figure in brown which of a sudden
intruded into his range of vision. The morning paper upon his knees
fluttered unnoticed to the floor of the porch.

"Ben Blair, by all that's good and proper!" he exclaimed to the man who,
without a look to either side, turned up the short walk. "Where in
heaven's name did you come from? I supposed you'd gone home a week ago."

Blair stopped at the steps, and deliberately wiped the perspiration from
his face.

"You were misinformed about my going," he explained. "I changed hotels,
that was all."

Scotty stared harder than before.

"But why?" he groped. "I inquired of the clerk, and he said you had gone
by an afternoon train. I don't see--"

Ben mounted the steps and took a chair opposite the Englishman.

"If you will excuse me," he said, "I would rather not go into details.
The fact's enough--I am still here. Besides--pardon me--I did not call
to be questioned, but to question. You remember the last time I saw
you?"

Scotty nodded an affirmative. He had a premonition that the unexpected
was about to happen.

"Yes," he said.

Ben lit a cigar. "You remember, then, that you made me a certain
promise?"

Scotty threw one leg over the other restlessly. "Yes, I remember," he
repeated.

The visitor eyed him keenly. "I would like to know if you kept it," he
said.

Scotty felt the seat of his chair growing even more uncomfortable than
before, and he cast about for an avenue of escape. One presented itself.

"Is that what you stayed to find out?" he questioned in his turn.

Ben blew out a cloud of smoke, and then another.

"No, not the main reason. But that has nothing to do with the subject. I
have a right to ask the question. Did you or did you not keep your
promise?"

The Englishman's first impulse was to refuse point-blank to answer;
then, on second thought, he decided that such a course would be unwise.
The other really did have a right to ask.

"I--" he hesitated, "decided--"

But interrupting, Ben raised his hand, palm outward.

"Don't dodge the question. Yes or no?"

Scotty hesitated again, and his face grew red.

"No," he said.

The visitor's hand, fingers outspread, returned to his knee.

"Thank you. I have one more question to ask. Do you intend, without
trying to prevent it, to let your daughter throw away her every chance
of future happiness? Are you, Florence's father, going to let her marry
Sidwell?"

With one motion Scotty was on his feet. The eyes behind the thick lenses
fairly flashed.

"You are insulting, sir," he blazed. "I can stand much from you, Ben
Blair, but this interference in my family affairs I cannot overlook. I
request you to leave my premises!"

Blair did not stir. His face remained as impassive as before.

"Your pardon again," he said steadily, "but I refuse. I did not come to
quarrel with you, and I won't; but we will have an understanding--now.
Sit down, please."

The Englishman stared, almost with open mouth. Had any one told him he
would be coerced in this way within his own home he would have called
that person mad; nevertheless, the first flash of anger over, he said no
more.

"Sit down, please," repeated Ben; and this time, without a word or a
protest, he was obeyed.

Ben straightened in his seat, then leaned forward. "Mr. Baker," he said,
"you do not doubt that I love Florence--that I wish nothing but her
good?"

Scotty nodded a reluctant assent.

"No; I don't doubt you, Ben," he said.

The thin face of the younger man leaned forward and grew more intense.

"You know what Sidwell is--what the result will be if Florence marries
him?"

Scotty's head dropped into his hands. He knew what was coming.

"Yes, I know," he admitted.

Ben paused, and had the other been looking he would have seen that his
ordinarily passive face was working in a way which no one would have
thought possible.

"In heaven's name, then," he said, slowly, "why do you allow it? Have
you forgotten that it is only three days until the date set? God! man,
you must be sleeping! It is ghastly--even the thought of it!"

Surprised out of himself, Scotty looked up. The intensity of the appeal
was a thing to put life into a figure of clay. For an instant he felt
the stimulant, felt his blood quicken at the suggestion of action; then
his impotence returned.

"I have tried, Ben," he explained weakly, "but I can do nothing. If I
attempted to interfere it would only make matters worse. Florence is as
completely out of my control as--" he paused for a simile--"as the
sunshine. I missed my opportunity with her when she was young. She has
always had her own way, and she will have it now. It is the same as when
she decided to come to town. She controls me, not I her."

Blair settled back in his chair. The mask of impassivity dropped back
over his face, not again to lift. He was again in command of himself.

"You expect to do nothing more, then?" he asked finally.

Scotty did not look up. "No," he responded. "I can do nothing more. She
will have to find out her mistake for herself."

Ben regarded the older man steadily. It would have been difficult to
express that look in words.

"You'd be willing to help, would you," he suggested, "if you saw a way?"

The Englishman's eyes lifted. Even the incredible took on an air of
possibility in the hands of this strong-willed ranchman.

"Yes," he repeated. "I will gladly do anything I can."

For half a minute Ben Blair did not speak. Not a nerve twitched or a
muscle stirred in his long body; then he stood up, the broad sinewy
shoulders squared, the masterful chin lifted.

"Very well," he said. "Call a carriage, and be ready to leave town in
half an hour."

Scotty blinked helplessly. The necessity of sudden action always threw
him into confusion. His mind needed not minutes but days to adjust
itself to the unpremeditated.

"Why?" he queried. "What do you intend doing?"

But Ben did not stop to explain. Already he was at the door of the
vestibule. "Don't ask me now. Do as I say, and you'll see!" And he
stepped inside.

Within the entrance, he paused for a moment. He had never been in any
room of the house except the library adjoining; and after a few
seconds, walking over, he tapped twice on the door.

There was no answer, and he stepped inside. The place was empty, but,
listening from the dining-room on the left he heard the low intermittent
murmur of voices in conversation and the occasional click of china.
Sliding doors connected the rooms, and again for an instant he
hesitated. Then, pulling them apart, he stood fairly in the aperture.

As he had expected, Florence and her mother were at breakfast. The doors
had slid noiselessly, and for an instant neither observed him. Florence
was nearest, half-facing him, and she was the first to glance up. As she
did so, the coffee-cup in her hand shook spasmodically and a great brown
blotch spread over the white tablecloth. Simultaneously her eyes
widened, her cheeks blanched, and she stared as at a ghost. Her mother,
too, turned at the spectacle, and her color shifted to an ashen gray.

For some seconds not one of the three spoke or stirred. It was Mrs.
Baker who first arose and advanced toward the intruder, as threateningly
as it was possible for her to do.

"Who, if I might ask, invited you to come this way?" she challenged.

Ben took one step inside the room and folded his arms.

"I came without being asked," he explained evenly.

Mollie's weak oval face stiffened. She felt instinctively that her
chiefest desires were in supreme menace. But one defense suggested
itself--to be rid of the intruder at once.

"I trust, then, you are enough of a gentleman to return the way you
came," she said icily.

Ben did not even glance at her. He was looking at the dainty little
figure still motionless at the table.

"If that is the mark of a gentleman, I am not one," he answered.

The mother's face flamed. Like Scotty, her brain moved slowly, and on
the spur of the moment inadequate insult alone answered her call.

"I might have expected such a remark from a cowman!" she burst forth.

Instantly Florence was upon her feet; but Ben Blair gave no indication
that he had heard. His arms still folded, he took two steps nearer the
girl, then stopped.

"Florence," he said steadily, "I have just seen your father. We
three--he, you, and I--are going back home, back to the prairies. Our
train leaves at eleven o'clock. The carriage will be here in half an
hour. You have plenty of time if you hurry."

Again there was silence. Once more it was the mother who spoke first.

"You must be mad, both of you!" she cried. "Florence is to be married in
three days, and it would take two to go each way. You must be mad!"

It was the girl's turn to grow pale. She began to understand.

"You say you and papa evolved this programme?" she said sarcastically.
"What part, pray, did he take?"

Blair was as impassive as before.

"I suggested it, and your father acquiesced."

"And the third party, myself--" The girl's eyes were very bright.

"I undertook the task of having you ready when the carriage comes."

One of Florence's brown hands grasped the back of the chair before her.

"I trust you did not underestimate the difficulty," she commented
ironically. "Otherwise you might be disappointed."

Ben said nothing. He did not even stir.

Another group of seconds were gathered into the past. The inactivity
tugged at the girl's nerves.

"By the way," she asked, "where are we going to stay when we arrive, and
for how long?"

"You are to be my guests," answered Blair. "As to the length of time,
nothing has been arranged."

Florence made one more effort to consider the affair lightly.

"You speak with a good deal of assurance," she commented. "Did it never
occur to you that at this particular time I might decide not to go?"

Ben returned her look.

"No," he said.

Beneath the trim brown figure one foot was nervously tapping the floor.

"In other words, you expect to take me against my will,--by physical
force?"

"No." Ben again spoke deliberately. "You will come of your own choice."

"And leave Mr. Sidwell?"

"Yes."

"Without an explanation?"

"None will be necessary, I think. The fact itself will be enough."

"And never--marry him?"

"And never marry him."

"You think he would not follow?"

"I know he would not!"

There was a pause in the swift passage of words. The girl's breath was
coming with difficulty. The spell of this indomitable rancher was
settling upon her.

"You really imagine I will do such an unheard-of thing?" she asked
slowly.

"I imagine nothing," he answered quickly. "I know."

It was the crisis, and into it Mollie intruded with clumsy tread.
"Florence," she urged, "Florence, don't listen to him any longer. He
must be intoxicated. Come with me!" and she started to drag the girl
away.

Without a word, Ben Blair walked across to the door leading into the
room beyond, and stood with his hand on the knob.

"Mrs. Baker," he said slowly, "I thought I would not speak an unkind
word to-day, no matter what was said to me; but you have offended too
often." His glance took in the indolently shapeless figure from head to
toe, and back again until he met her eye to eye. "You are the
personification of cowardice, of selfishness and snobbery, that makes
one despise his kind. For mere personal vanity you would sacrifice your
own daughter--your own flesh and blood. Probably we shall never meet
again; but if we should, do not dare to speak to me. Do not speak to me
now!" He swung open the door, and indicated the passage with a nod of
his head. "Go," he said, "and if you are a Christian, pray for a better
heart--for forgiveness!"

The woman hesitated; her lips moved, but she was dumb. She wanted to
refuse, but the irresistible power in those relentless blue eyes
compelled her to obey. Without a word she left the room and closed the
door behind her.

Ben Blair came back. The girl had not moved.

"Florence," he said, "there are but twenty minutes left. I ask you again
to get ready."

The girl's color rose anew; her blood flowed tumultuously, until she
could feel the beating of the pulses at her wrists.

"Ben Blair," she challenged, "you are trying to prevent my marrying
another man! Is it not so?"

The rancher folded his arms again.

"I am preventing it," he said.

Florence's brown eyes blazed. She clasped her hands together until the
fingers were white.

"You admit it, then!" she cried, looking at her companion steadily, a
world of scorn in her face. "I never thought such a thing possible--that
you would let your jealousy get the better of you like this!" She
paused, and hurled the taunt she knew would hurt him most. "You are the
last person on earth I would have selected to become a dog in the
manger!"

Ben did not stir, although the brown of his sun-tanned face went white.

"I looked for that," he said simply.

Florence's brown eyes widened in wonder--and in something
more--something she did not understand. Her heart was beating more
wildly than before. She felt her self-control slipping from her grasp,
like a rope through her hands.

"There seems nothing more to be said, then," she said, "except that I
will not go."

Even yet Blair did not move.

"You will go. The carriage comes in ten minutes," he reiterated calmly.

The small figure stiffened, the dainty chin tilted in the air.

"I defy you to tell me how you can force me to go!"

It was the supreme moment, but Benjamin Blair showed no trace of
excitement or of passion. His folded arms remained passive across his
chest.

"Florence Baker, did I ever lie to you?"

The girl's lip trembled. She knew now what to expect.

"No," she said.

"You are quite sure?"

"Yes, I am quite sure."

"Did I ever say I would do anything that I did not do?"

The girl had an all but irrepressible desire to cry out, to cover her
face like a child. A flash of anger at her inability to maintain her
self-control swept over her.

"No," she admitted. "I never knew you to break your word."

"Very well, then," still no haste, no anger,--only the relentless calm
which was infinitely more terrible than either. "I will tell you why of
your own choice you will go with me. It is because you value the life of
Clarence Sidwell; because, as surely as I have not lied to you or to any
human being in the past, there is no power on earth that can otherwise
keep me away from him an hour longer."

Realization came instantaneously to Florence Baker and blotted out
self-consciousness. The nervous tension vanished as fog before the sun.

"You would not do it," she said, very steadily. "You could not do it!"

Ben Blair said not a word.

"You could not," repeated the girl swiftly; "could not, because
you--love me!"

One of the man's hands loosened in an unconscious gesture.

"Don't repeat that, please, or trust in it," he answered. "You misled me
once, but you can't mislead me again. It is because I love you that I
will do what I said."

There was but one weapon in the arsenal adequate to meet the emergency.
With a sudden motion, the girl came close to him.

"Ben, Ben Blair," her arms flashed around the man's neck, the brown
eyes--moist, sparkling--were turned to his face, "promise me you will
not do it." The dainty throat swelled and receded with her short quick
breaths. "Promise me! Please promise me!"

For a second the rancher did not stir; then, very gently, he freed
himself and moved a step backward.

"Florence," he said slowly, "you do not know me even yet." He drew out
his big old-fashioned silver watch, once Rankin's. "You still have four
minutes to get ready--no more, no less."

Silence like that of a death-chamber fell over the bright little
dining-room. From the outside came the sound of Mollie's step as she
moved back and forth, back and forth, but dared not enter. A boy was
clipping the lawn, and the muffled purr of the mower, accompanied by the
bit of popular ragtime he was whistling, stole into the room.

Suddenly a carriage drove up in front of the house, and leaping from his
seat the driver stood waiting. The door of the vestibule opened, and
Scotty himself stepped uncertainly within. At the library entrance he
halted, but the odor of the black cigar he was smoking was wafted in.

Through it all, neither of the two in that room had stirred. It would
have been impossible to tell what Ben Blair was thinking. His eyes never
left the watch in his hand. During the first minute the girl had not
looked at her companion. Unappeasable anger seemed personified in her.
For half of the next minute she still stood impassive; then she glanced
up almost surreptitiously. For the long third minute the eyes held where
they had lifted, and slowly over the soft brown face, taking the place
of the former expression, came a look that was not of anger or of
hatred, not even of dislike, but of something the reverse, something all
but unbelievable. Her dark eyes softened. A choking lump came into her
throat; and still, in seeming paradox, she was of a sudden happier than
at any time she could remember.

Before the last minute was up, before Ben Blair had replaced the watch,
she was in the adjoining room saying good-bye to Mollie hurriedly;
saying something more,--a thing that fairly took the mother's breath.

"Florence Baker!" she gasped, "you shall not do it! If you do, I will
disown you! I will never forgive you--never! never!"

But, unheeding, the girl was already back, and looking into Ben's face.
Her eyes were very bright, and there was about her a suppressed
excitement that the other did not clearly understand.

"I am ready," she said, "on one condition."

Blair's blue eyes looked a question. In any other mood he would have
recognized Florence, but this strange person he hardly seemed to know.

"I am listening," he said.

The girl hesitated, the rosy color mounting to her cheeks. Decision of
action was far easier than expression.

"I will go with you," she faltered, "but alone."

A suggestion of the flame on the other's face sprang to the man's also.

"I think, under the circumstances," he stammered, "it would be better to
have your father go too."

The dainty brown figure stiffened.

"Very well, then--I will not go!"

The man stood for a moment immovable, with unshifting eyes, like a
figure in clay; then, turning, without a word, he started to leave the
room. He had almost reached the door, when he heard a voice behind him.

"Ben Blair," it said insistently, "Ben Blair!"

He paused, glanced back, and could scarcely believe his eyes. The girl
was coming toward him; but it was a Florence he had not previously
known. Her face was rosier than before, red to her very ears and to the
waves of her hair. Her chin was held high, and beneath the thin brown
skin of the throat the veins were athrob.

"Ben Blair," she repeated intensely, "Ben Blair, can't you understand
what I meant? Must I put it into words?" The soft brown eyes were
looking at him frankly. "Oh, you are blind, blind!"

For a second, like the lull before the thunderclap, the man did not
move; then of a sudden he grasped the girl by the shoulders, and held
her at arm's length.

"Florence," he cried, "are you playing with me?"

She spoke no word, but her gaze held his unfalteringly.

Minutes passed, but still the man could not believe the testimony of his
eyes. The confession was too unexpected, too incredible. Unconsciously
the grip of his hands tightened.

"Am I--mad?" he gasped. "You care for me--you are willing to go--because
you love me?"

Even yet the girl did not answer; but no human being could longer
question the expression on her face. Ben Blair could not doubt it, and
the reflection of love glowing in the tear-wet eyes flashed into his
own. The past, with all that it had held, vanished like the memory of an
unpleasant dream. The present, the vital throbbing present, alone
remained. Suddenly the tense arms relaxed. Another second, and the brown
head was upon his shoulder.

"Florence," he cried passionately, "Florence, Florence!"

He could say no more, only repeat over and over her dear name.

"Ben," sobbed the girl, "Ben! Ben!" An interrupting memory drew her to
him closer and closer. "I loved you all the time!--loved you!--and yet I
so nearly--can you ever forgive me?"

Wondering at the prolonged silence, Scotty came hesitatingly into the
library, peered in at the open doorway, and stood transfixed.


                                THE END



POPULAR COPYRIGHT BOOKS
AT MODERATE PRICES

Any of the following titles can be bought of your
Bookseller at the price you paid for this volume

Adventures of Captain Kettle. Cutcliffe Hyne.
Adventures of Gerard. A. Conan Doyle.
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A. Conan Doyle.
Alton of Somasco. Harold Bindloss.
Arms and the Woman. Harold MacGrath.
Artemus Ward's Works (extra illustrated).
At the Mercy of Tiberius. Augusta Evans Wilson.
Battle Ground, The. Ellen Glasgow.
Belle of Bowling Green, The. Amelia E. Barr.
Ben Blair. Will Lillibridge.
Bob, Son of Battle. Alfred Ollivant.
Boss, The. Alfred Henry Lewis.
Brass Bowl, The. Louis Joseph Vance.
Brethren, The. H. Rider Haggard.
By Snare of Love. Arthur W. Marchmont.
By Wit of Woman. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Cap'n Erie. Joseph C. Lincoln.
Captain in the Ranks, A. George Cary Eggleston.
Cardigan. Robert W. Chambers.
Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine. Frank R. Stockton.
Circle, The. Katherine Cecil Thurston (author of "The Masquerader,"
"The Gambler").
Conquest of Canaan, The. Booth Tarkington.
Courier of Fortune, A. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Darrow Enigma, The. Melvin Severy.
Deliverance, The. Ellen Glasgow.
Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. A. Conan Doyle.
Fighting Chance, The. Robert W. Chambers.
For a Maiden Brave. Chauncey C. Hotchkiss.
For Love or Crown. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Fugitive Blacksmith, The. Charles D. Stewart.
Heart's Highway, The. Mary E. Wilkins.
Holladay Case, The. Burton Egbert Stevenson.
Hurricane Island. H. B. Marriott-Watson.
Indifference of Juliet, The. Grace S. Richmond.
Infelice. Augusta Evans Wilson.
In the Name of a Woman. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Lady Betty Across the Water. C. N. and A. M. Williamson.
Lane That Had No Turning, The. Gilbert Parker.
Leavenworth Case, The. Anna Katharine Green.
Lilac Sunbonnet, The. S. R. Crockett.
Lin McLean. Owen Wister.
Long Night, The. Stanley J. Weyman.
Maid at Arms, The. Robert W. Chambers.
Man from Red Keg, The. Eugene Thwing.
Marathon Mystery, The. Burton Egbert Stevenson.
Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A. Conan Doyle.
Millionaire Baby, The. Anna Katharine Green.
Missourian, The. Eugene P. Lyle, Jr.
My Friend the Chauffeur. C. N. and A. M. Williamson.
My Lady of the North. Randall Parrish.
Mystery of June 13th. Melvin L. Severy.
Mystery Tales. Edgar Allen Poe.
Nancy Stair. Elinor Macartney Lane.
None But the Brave. Hamblen Sears.
Order No. 11. Caroline Abbot Stanley.
Pam. Bettina von Hutten.
Pam Decides. Bettina von Hutten.
Partners of the Tide. Joseph C. Lincoln.
Phra the Phoenician. Edwin Lester Arnold.
President, The. Alfred Henry Lewis.
Princess Passes, The. C. N. and A. M. Williamson.
Private War, The. Louis Joseph Vance.
Prodigal Son, The. Hall Caine.
Queen's Advocate, The. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Quickening, The. Francis Lynde.
Richard the Brazen. Cyrus Townsend Brady and Edward Peple.
Rose of the World. Agnes and Egerton Castle.
Sarita the Carlist. Arthur W. Marchmont.
Seats of the Mighty, The. Gilbert Parker.
Sir Nigel. A. Conan Doyle.
Sir Richard Calmady. Lucas Malet.
Speckled Bird. Augusta Evans Wilson.
Spoilers, The. Rex Beach.
Sunset Trail, The. Alfred Henry Lewis.
Sword of the Old Frontier, A. Randall Parrish.
Tales of Sherlock Holmes. A. Conan Doyle.
That Printer of Udell's. Harold Bell Wright.
Throwback, The. Alfred Henry Lewis.
Trail of the Sword, The. Gilbert Parker.
Two Vanrevels, The. Booth Tarkington.
Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington.
Vashti. Augusta Evans Wilson.
Viper of Milan, The (original edition). Marjorie Bowen.
Voice of the People, The. Ellen Glasgow.
Wheel of Life, The. Ellen Glasgow.
When I Was Czar. Arthur W. Marchmont.
When Wilderness Was King. Randall Parrish.
Woman in Grey, A. Mrs. C. N. Williamson.
Woman in the Alcove, The. Anna Katharine Green.

       *       *       *       *       *

A. L. BURT CO., Publishers, 52-58 Duane St., New York City


BURT'S SERIES of STANDARD FICTION.

RICHELIEU. A tale of France in the reign of King Louis XIII. By G.P.R.
James. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson Davis. Price,
$1.00.

     In 1829 Mr. James published his first romance, "Richelieu," and was
     recognized at once as one of the masters of the craft.

     In this book he laid the story during those later days of the great
     cardinal's life, when his power was beginning to wane, but while it
     was yet sufficiently strong to permit now and then of volcanic
     outbursts which overwhelmed foes and carried friends to the topmost
     wave of prosperity. One of the most striking portions of the story
     is that of Cinq Mar's conspiracy; the method of conducting criminal
     cases, and the political trickery resorted to by royal favorites,
     affording a better insight into the state-craft of that day than
     can be had even by an exhaustive study of history. It is a powerful
     romance of love and diplomacy, and in point of thrilling and
     absorbing interest has never been excelled.


A COLONIAL FREE-LANCE. A story of American Colonial Times. By Chauncey
C. Hotchkiss. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson Davis.
Price, $1.00.

     A book that appeals to Americans as a vivid picture of
     Revolutionary scenes. The story is a strong one, a thrilling one.
     It causes the true American to flush with excitement, to devour
     chapter after chapter, until the eyes smart, and it fairly smokes
     with patriotism. The love story is a singularly charming idyl.


THE TOWER OF LONDON. A Historical Romance of the Times of Lady Jane
Grey and Mary Tudor. By Wm. Harrison Ainsworth. Cloth, 12mo. with four
illustrations by George Cruikshank. Price, $1.00.

     This romance of the "Tower of London" depicts the Tower as palace,
     prison and fortress, with many historical associations. The era is
     the middle of the sixteenth century.

     The story is divided into two parts, one dealing with Lady Jane
     Grey, and the other with Mary Tudor as Queen, introducing other
     notable characters of the era. Throughout the story holds the
     interest of the reader in the midst of intrigue and conspiracy,
     extending considerably over a half a century.


IN DEFIANCE OF THE KING. A Romance of the American Revolution. By
Chauncey C. Hotchkiss. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson
Davis. Price, $1.00.

     Mr. Hotchkiss has etched in burning words a story of Yankee
     bravery, and true love that thrills from beginning to end, with the
     spirit of the Revolution. The heart beats quickly, and we feel
     ourselves taking a part in the exciting scenes described. His whole
     story is so absorbing that you will sit up far into the night to
     finish it. As a love romance it is charming.


GARTHOWEN. A story of a Welsh Homestead. By Allen Raine. Cloth, 12mo.
with four illustrations by J. Watson Davis. Price, $1.00.

     "This is a little idyl of humble life and enduring love, laid bare
     before us, very real and pure, which in its telling shows us some
     strong points of Welsh character--the pride, the hasty temper, the
     quick dying out of wrath.... We call this a well-written story,
     interesting alike through its romance and its glimpses into another
     life than ours. A delightful and clever picture of Welsh village
     life. The result is excellent."--Detroit Free Press.


MIFANWY. The story of a Welsh Singer. By Allan Raine. Cloth, 12mo.
with four illustrations by J. Watson Davis. Price, $1.00.

     "This is a love story, simple, tender and pretty as one would care
     to read. The action throughout is brisk and pleasing; the
     characters, it is apparent at once, are as true to life as though
     the author had known them all personally. Simple in all its
     situations, the story is worked up in that touching and quaint
     strain which never grows wearisome, no matter how often the lights
     and shadows of love are introduced. It rings true, and does not tax
     the imagination."--Boston Herald.


DARNLEY. A Romance of the times of Henry VIII. and Cardinal Wolsey. By
G.P.R. James. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson Davis.
Price, $1.00.

     As a historical romance "Darnley" is a book that can be taken up
     pleasurably again and again, for there is about it that subtle
     charm which those who are strangers to the works of G.P.R. James
     have claimed was only to be imparted by Dumas.

     If there was nothing more about the work to attract especial
     attention, the account of the meeting of the kings on the historic
     "field of the cloth of gold" would entitle the story to the most
     favorable consideration of every reader.

     There is really but little pure romance in this story, for the
     author has taken care to imagine love passages only between those
     whom history has credited with having entertained the tender
     passion one for another, and he succeeds in making such lovers as
     all the world must love.


WINDSOR CASTLE. A Historical Romance of the Reign of Henry VIII.,
Catharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. By Wm. Harrison Ainsworth. Cloth.
12mo. with four illustrations by George Cruikshank. Price, $1.00.

     "Windsor Castle" is the story of Henry VIII., Catharine, and Anne
     Boleyn. "Bluff King Hal," although a well-loved monarch, was none
     too good a one in many ways. Of all his selfishness and
     unwarrantable acts, none was more discreditable than his divorce
     from Catharine, and his marriage to the beautiful Anne Boleyn. The
     King's love was as brief as it was vehement. Jane Seymour, waiting
     maid on the Queen, attracted him, and Anne Boleyn was forced to the
     block to make room for her successor. This romance is one of
     extreme interest to all readers.


HORSESHOE ROBINSON. A tale of the Tory Ascendency in South Carolina in
1780. By John P. Kennedy. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J.
Watson Davis. Price, $1.00.

     Among the old favorites in the field of what is known as historical
     fiction, there are none which appeal to a larger number of
     Americans than Horseshoe Robinson, and this because it is the only
     story which depicts with fidelity to the facts the heroic efforts
     of the colonists in South Carolina to defend their homes against
     the brutal oppression of the British under such leaders as
     Cornwallis and Tarleton.

     The reader is charmed with the story of love which forms the thread
     of the tale, and then impressed with the wealth of detail
     concerning those times. The picture of the manifold sufferings of
     the people, is never over-drawn, but painted faithfully and
     honestly by one who spared neither time nor labor in his efforts to
     present in this charming love story all that price in blood and
     tears which the Carolinians paid as their share in the winning of
     the republic.

     Take it all in all, "Horseshoe Robinson" is a work which should be
     found on every book-shelf, not only because it is a most
     entertaining story, but because of the wealth of valuable
     information concerning the colonists which it contains. That it has
     been brought out once more, well illustrated, is something which
     will give pleasure to thousands who have long desired an
     opportunity to read the story again, and to the many who have tried
     vainly in these latter days to procure a copy that they might read
     it for the first time.


THE PEARL OF ORR'S ISLAND. A story of the Coast of Maine. By Harriet
Beecher Stowe. Cloth, 12mo. Illustrated. Price, $1.00.

     Written prior to 1862, the "Pearl of Orr's Island" is ever new; a
     book filled with delicate fancies, such as seemingly array
     themselves anew each time one reads them. One sees the "sea like an
     unbroken mirror all around the pine-girt, lonely shores of Orr's
     Island," and straightway comes "the heavy, hollow moan of the surf
     on the beach, like the wild angry howl of some savage animal."

     Who can read of the beginning of that sweet life, named Mara, which
     came into this world under the very shadow of the Death angel's
     wings, without having an intense desire to know how the premature
     bud blossomed? Again and again one lingers over the descriptions of
     the character of that baby boy Moses, who came through the tempest,
     amid the angry billows, pillowed on his dead mother's breast.

     There is no more faithful portrayal of New England life than that
     which Mrs. Stowe gives in "The Pearl of Orr's Island."


BURT'S SERIES _of_ STANDARD FICTION.

THE SPIRIT OF THE BORDER. A Romance of the Early Settlers in the Ohio
Valley. By Zane Grey. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson
Davis. Price, $1.00.

     A book rather out of the ordinary is this "Spirit of the Border."
     The main thread of the story has to do with the work of the
     Moravian missionaries in the Ohio Valley. Incidentally the reader
     is given details of the frontier life of those hardy pioneers who
     broke the wilderness for the planting of this great nation. Chief
     among these, as a matter of course, is Lewis Wetzel, one of the
     most peculiar, and at the same time the most admirable of all the
     brave men who spent their lives battling with the savage foe, that
     others might dwell in comparative security.

     Details of the establishment and destruction of the Moravian
     "Village of Peace" are given at some length, and with minute
     description. The efforts to Christianize the Indians are described
     as they never have been before, and the author has depicted the
     characters of the leaders of the several Indian tribes with great
     care, which of itself will be of interest to the student.

     By no means least among the charms of the story are the vivid
     word-pictures of the thrilling adventures, and the intense
     paintings of the beauties of nature, as seen in the almost unbroken
     forests.

     It is the spirit of the frontier which is described, and one can by
     it, perhaps, the better understand why men, and women, too,
     willingly braved every privation and danger that the westward
     progress of the star of empire might be the more certain and rapid.
     A love story, simple and tender, runs through the book.


CAPTAIN BRAND, OF THE SCHOONER CENTIPEDE. By Lieut. Henry A. Wise,
U.S.N. (Harry Gringo). Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson
Davis. Price, $1.00.

     The re-publication of this story will please those lovers of sea
     yarns who delight in so much of the salty flavor of the ocean as
     can come through the medium of a printed page, for never has a
     story of the sea and those "who go down in ships" been written by
     one more familiar with the scenes depicted.

     The one book of this gifted author which is best remembered, and
     which will be read with pleasure for many years to come, is
     "Captain Brand," who, as the author states on his title page, was a
     "pirate of eminence in the West Indies." As a sea story pure and
     simple, "Captain Brand" has never been excelled, and as a story of
     piratical life, told without the usual embellishments of blood and
     thunder, it has no equal.


NICK OF THE WOODS. A story of the Early Settlers of Kentucky. By
Robert Montgomery Bird. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J.
Watson Davis. Price, $1.00.

     This most popular novel and thrilling story of early frontier life
     in Kentucky was originally published in the year 1837. The novel,
     long out of print, had in its day a phenomenal sale, for its
     realistic presentation of Indian and frontier life in the early
     days of settlement in the South, narrated in the tale with all the
     art of a practiced writer. A very charming love romance runs
     through the story. This new and tasteful edition of "Nick of the
     Woods" will be certain to make many new admirers for this
     enchanting story from Dr. Bird's clever and versatile pen.


GUY FAWKES. A Romance of the Gunpowder Treason. By Wm. Harrison
Ainsworth. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by George Cruikshank.
Price, $1.00.

     The "Gunpowder Plot" was a modest attempt to blow up Parliament,
     the King and his Counsellors. James of Scotland, then King of
     England, was weak-minded and extravagant. He hit upon the efficient
     scheme of extorting money from the people by imposing taxes on the
     Catholics. In their natural resentment to this extortion, a handful
     of bold spirits concluded to overthrow the government. Finally the
     plotters were arrested, and the King put to torture Guy Fawkes and
     the other prisoners with royal vigor. A very intense love story
     runs through the entire romance.

TICONDEROGA: A Story of Early Frontier Life in the Mohawk Valley. By
G.P.R. James. Cloth, 12mo. with four page illustrations by J. Watson
Davis. Price, $1.00.

     The setting of the story is decidedly more picturesque than any
     ever evolved by Cooper: The frontier of New York State, where dwelt
     an English gentleman, driven from his native home by grief over the
     loss of his wife, with a son and daughter. Thither, brought by the
     exigencies of war, comes an English officer, who is readily
     recognized as that Lord Howe who met his death at Ticonderoga. As a
     most natural sequence, even amid the hostile demonstrations of both
     French and Indians, Lord Howe and the young girl find time to make
     most deliciously sweet love, and the son of the recluse has already
     lost his heart to the daughter of a great sachem, a dusky maiden
     whose warrior-father has surrounded her with all the comforts of a
     civilized life.

     The character of Captain Brooks, who voluntarily decides to
     sacrifice his own life in order to save the son of the Englishman,
     is not among the least of the attractions of this story, which
     holds the attention of the reader even to the last page. The tribal
     laws and folk lore of the different tribes of Indians known as the
     "Five Nations," with which the story is interspersed, shows that
     the author gave no small amount of study to the work in question,
     and nowhere else is it shown more plainly than by the skilful
     manner in which he has interwoven with his plot the "blood" law,
     which demands a life for a life, whether it be that of the murderer
     or one of his race.

     A more charming story of mingled love and adventure has never been
     written than "Ticonderoga."


ROB OF THE BOWL: A Story of the Early Days of Maryland. By John P.
Kennedy. Cloth, 12mo. with four page illustrations by J. Watson Davis.
Price, $1.00.

     It was while he was a member of Congress from Maryland that the
     noted statesman wrote this story regarding the early history of his
     native State, and while some critics are inclined to consider
     "Horse Shoe Robinson" as the best of his works, it is certain that
     "Rob of the Bowl" stands at the head of the list as a literary
     production and an authentic exposition of the manners and customs
     during Lord Baltimore's rule. The greater portion of the action
     takes place in St. Mary's--the original capital of the State.

     As a series of pictures of early colonial life in Maryland, "Rob of
     the Bowl" has no equal, and the book, having been written by one
     who had exceptional facilities for gathering material concerning
     the individual members of the settlements in and about St. Mary's,
     is a most valuable addition to the history of the State.

     The story is full of splendid action, with a charming love story,
     and a plot that never loosens the grip of its interest to its last
     page.


BY BERWEN BANKS. By Allen Raine.

     It is a tender and beautiful romance of the idyllic. A charming
     picture of life in a Welsh seaside village. It is something of a
     prose-poem, true, tender and graceful.


IN DEFIANCE OF THE KING. A romance of the American Revolution. By
Chauncey C. Hotchkiss. Cloth, 12mo. with four illustrations by J. Watson
Davis. Price, $1.00.

     The story opens in the month of April, 1775, with the provincial
     troops hurrying to the defense of Lexington and Concord. Mr.
     Hotchkiss has etched in burning words a story of Yankee bravery and
     true love that thrills from beginning to end with the spirit of the
     Revolution. The heart beats quickly, and we feel ourselves taking a
     part in the exciting scenes described. You lay the book aside with
     the feeling that you have seen a gloriously true picture of the
     Revolution. His whole story is so absorbing that you will sit up
     far into the night to finish it. As a love romance it is charming.


POPULAR LITERATURE FOR THE MASSES, COMPRISING CHOICE SELECTIONS FROM THE
TREASURES OF THE WORLD'S KNOWLEDGE, ISSUED IN A SUBSTANTIAL AND
ATTRACTIVE CLOTH BINDING, AT A POPULAR PRICE

BURT'S HOME LIBRARY is a series which includes the standard works of the
world's best literature, bound in uniform cloth binding, gilt tops,
embracing chiefly selections from writers of the most notable English,
American and Foreign Fiction, together with many important works in the
domains of History, Biography, Philosophy, Travel, Poetry and the
Essays.

A glance at the following annexed list of titles and authors will
endorse the claim that the publishers make for it--that it is the most
comprehensive, choice, interesting, and by far the most carefully
selected series of standard authors for world-wide reading that has been
produced by any publishing house in any country, and that at prices so
cheap, and in a style so substantial and pleasing, as to win for it
millions of readers and the approval and commendation, not only of the
book trade throughout the American continent, but of hundreds of
thousands of librarians, clergymen, educators and men of letters
interested in the dissemination of instructive, entertaining and
thoroughly wholesome reading matter for the masses.


BURT'S HOME LIBRARY. Cloth. Gilt Tops. Price, $1.00

Abbe Constantin. By Ludovic Halevy.
Abbott. By Sir Walter Scott.
Adam Bede. By George Eliot.
Addison's Essays. Edited by John Richard Green.
Aeneid of Virgil. Translated by John Connington.
Aesop's Fables.
Alexander, the Great, Life of. By John Williams.
Alfred, the Great, Life of. By Thomas Hughes.
Alhambra. By Washington Irving.
Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass. By Lewis Carroll.
Alice Lorraine. By R. D. Blackmore.
All Sorts and Conditions of Men. By Walter Besant.
Alton Locke. By Charles Kingsley.
Amiel's Journal. Translated by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.
Andersen's Fairy Tales.
Anne of Geirstein. By Sir Walter Scott.
Antiquary. By Sir Walter Scott.
Arabian Nights' Entertainments.
Ardath. By Marie Corelli.
Arnold, Benedict, Life of. By George Canning Hill.
Arnold's Poems. By Matthew Arnold.
Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam. By Mrs. Brassey.
Arundel Motto. By Mary Cecil Hay.
At the Back of the North Wind. By George Macdonald.
Attic Philosopher. By Emile Souvestre.
Auld Licht Idylls. By James M. Barrie.
Aunt Diana. By Rosa N. Carey.
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. By O. W. Holmes.
Averil. By Rosa N. Carey.
Bacon's Essays. By Francis Bacon.
Barbara Heathcote's Trial. By Rosa N. Carey.
Barnaby Rudge. By Charles Dickens.
Barrack Room Ballads. By Rudyard Kipling.
Betrothed. By Sir Walter Scott.
Beulah. By Augusta J. Evans.
Black Beauty. By Anna Sewell.
Black Dwarf. By Sir Walter Scott.
Black Rock. By Ralph Connor.
Black Tulip. By Alexandre Dumas.
Bleak House. By Charles Dickens.
Blithedale Romance. By Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Bondman. By Hall Caine.
Book of Golden Deeds. By Charlotte M. Yonge.
Boone, Daniel, Life of. By Cecil B. Hartley.
Bride of Lammermoor. By Sir Walter Scott.
Bride of the Nile. By George Ebers.
Browning's Poems. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Browning's Poems. (selections.) By Robert Browning.
Bryant's Poems. (early.) By William Cullen Bryant.
Burgomaster's Wife. By George Ebers.
Burn's Poems. By Robert Burns.
By Order of the King. By Victor Hugo.
Byron's Poems. By Lord Byron.
Caesar, Julius, Life of. By James Anthony Froude.
Carson, Kit, Life of. By Charles Burdett.
Cary's Poems. By Alice and Phoebe Cary.
Cast Up by the Sea. By Sir Samuel Baker.
Charlemagne (Charles the Great), Life of. By Thomas Hodgkin, D.C.L.
Charles Auchester. By E. Berger.
Character. By Samuel Smiles.
Charles O'Malley. By Charles Lever.
Chesterfield's Letters. By Lord Chesterfield.
Chevalier de Maison Rouge. By Alexandre Dumas.
Chicot the Jester. By Alexandre Dumas.
Children of the Abbey. By Regina Maria Roche.
Child's History of England. By Charles Dickens.
Christmas Stories. By Charles Dickens.
Cloister and the Hearth. By Charles Reade.
Coleridge's Poems. By Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Columbus, Christopher, Life of. By Washington Irving.
Companions of Jehu. By Alexandre Dumas.
Complete Angler. By Walton And Cotton.
Conduct of Life. By Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Confessions of an Opium Eater. By Thomas de Quincey.
Conquest of Granada. By Washington Irving.
Conscript. By Erckmann-Chatrian.
Conspiracy of Pontiac. By Francis Parkman, Jr.
Conspirators. By Alexandre Dumas.
Consuelo. By George Sand.
Cook's Voyages. By Captain James Cook.
Corinne. By Madame de Stael.
Countess de Charney. By Alexandre Dumas.
Countess Gisela. By E. Marlitt.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's notes:

Punctuation normalized.

The phrase "Box R" has been used where a literal cattle brand symbol
of the letter R inside two sides of a box was used in the original text.
Similarly, an R within a circle indicating a ranch has been rendered as
the "Circle R" ranch in this transcription.

Page 113, "life" changed to "city" (The city was part of their life).

Page 210, "clapsed" changed to "clasped" (girls hands were clasped).

Page 341, "Sewall" changed to "Sewell" (Anna Sewell).





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Ben Blair - The Story of a Plainsman" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home