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´╗┐Title: Lonesome Land
Author: Bower, B. M., 1874-1940
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 "Lonesome Land" ***

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



LONESOME LAND

By B. M. Bower


Author of "Chip, of the Flying U," etc.


With Four Illustrations (not included)

By Stanley L. Wood



[Illustration: As he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbled
with the saddle string]


_Contents_

CHAPTER
    I. THE ARRIVAL OF VAL
   II. WELL-MEANT ADVICE
  III. A LADY IN A TEMPER
   IV. THE "SHIVAREE"
    V. COLD SPRING RANCH
   VI. MANLEY'S FIRE GUARD
  VII. VAL'S NEW DUTIES
 VIII. THE PRAIRIE FIRE
   IX. KENT TO THE RESCUE
    X. DESOLATION
   XI. VAL'S AWAKENING
  XII. A LESSON IN FORGIVENESS
 XIII. ARLINE GIVES A DANCE
  XIV. A WEDDING PRESENT
   XV. A COMPACT
  XVI. MANLEY'S NEW TACTICS
 XVII. VAL BECOMES AN AUTHOR
XVIII. VAL'S DISCOVERY
  XIX. KENT'S CONFESSION
   XX. A BLOTCHED BRAND
  XXI. VAL DECIDES
 XXII. A FRIEND IN NEED
XXIII. CAUGHT!
 XXIV. RETRIBUTION


_List of Illustrations_

As he raced over the uneven prairie he fumbled with the saddle string

He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his crowd

"Little woman, listen here," he said. "You're playing hard luck, and I know
it"

To draw the red hot spur across the fresh VP did not take long



CHAPTER I. THE ARRIVAL OF VAL

In northern Montana there lies a great, lonely stretch of prairie land,
gashed deep where flows the Missouri. Indeed, there are many such--big,
impassive, impressive in their very loneliness, in summer given over to
the winds and the meadow larks and to the shadows fleeing always over the
hilltops. Wild range cattle feed there and grow sleek and fat for the fall
shipping of beef. At night the coyotes yap quaveringly and prowl abroad
after the long-eared jack rabbits, which bounce away at their hunger-driven
approach. In winter it is not good to be there; even the beasts shrink then
from the bleak, level reaches, and shun the still bleaker heights.

But men will live anywhere if by so doing there is money to be gained, and
so a town snuggled up against the northern rim of the bench land, where the
bleakness was softened a bit by the sheltering hills, and a willow-fringed
creek with wild rosebushes and chokecherries made a vivid green background
for the meager huddle of little, unpainted buildings.

To the passengers on the through trains which watered at the red tank near
the creek, the place looked crudely picturesque--interesting, so long as
one was not compelled to live there and could retain a perfectly impersonal
viewpoint. After five or ten minutes spent hi watching curiously the one
little street, with the long hitching poles planted firmly and frequently
down both sides--usually within a very few steps of a saloon door--and the
horses nodding and stamping at the flies, and the loitering figures
that appeared now and then in desultory fashion, many of them imagined
that they understood the West and sympathized with it, and appreciated its
bigness and its freedom from conventions.

One slim young woman had just told the thin-faced school teacher on a
vacation, with whom she had formed one of those evanescent traveling
acquaintances, that she already knew the West, from instinct and from
Manley's letters. She loved it, she said, because Manley loved it, and
because it was to be her home, and because it was so big and so free.
Out here one could think and grow and really live, she declared, with
enthusiasm. Manley had lived here for three years, and his letters, she
told the thin-faced teacher, were an education in themselves.

The teacher had already learned that the slim young woman, with the
yellow-brown hair and yellow-brown eyes to match, was going to marry
Manley--she had forgotten his other name, though the young woman had
mentioned it--and would live on a ranch, a cattle ranch. She smiled with
somewhat wistful sympathy, and hoped the young woman would be happy; and
the young woman waved her hand, with the glove only half pulled on, toward
the shadow-dappled prairie and the willow-fringed creek, and the hills
beyond.

"Happy!" she echoed joyously. "Could one be anything else, in such a
country? And then--you don't know Manley, you see. It's horribly bad form,
and undignified and all that, to prate of one's private affairs, but I just
can't help bubbling over. I'm not looking for heaven, and I expect to have
plenty of bumpy places in the trail--trail is anything that you travel
over, out here; Manley has coached me faithfully--but I'm going to be
happy. My mind is quite made up. Well, good-by--I'm so glad you happened
to be on this train, and I wish I might meet you again. Isn't it a funny
little depot? Oh, yes--thank you! I almost forgot that umbrella, and I
might need it. Yes, I'll write to you--I should hate to drop out of
your mind completely. Address me Mrs. Manley Fleetwood, Hope, Montana.
Good-by--I wish--"

She trailed off down the aisle with eyes shining, in the wake of the
grinning porter. She hurried down the steps, glanced hastily along the
platform, up at the car window where the faded little school teacher was
smiling wearily down at her, waved her hand, threw a dainty little kiss,
nodded a gay farewell, smiled vaguely at the conductor, who had been
respectfully pleasant to her--and then she was looking at the rear platform
of the receding train mechanically, not yet quite realizing why it was that
her heart went heavy so suddenly. She turned then and looked about her in
a surprised, inquiring fashion. Manley, it would seem, was not at hand to
welcome her. She had expected his face to be the first she looked upon in
that town, but she tried not to be greatly perturbed at his absence; so
many things may detain one.

At that moment a young fellow, whose clothes emphatically proclaimed him a
cowboy, came diffidently up to her, tilted his hat backward an inch or so,
and left it that way, thereby unconsciously giving himself an air of candor
which should have been reassuring.

"Fleetwood was detained. You were expecting to--you're the lady he was
expecting, aren't you?"

She had been looking questioningly at her violin box and two trunks
standing on their ends farther down the platform, and she smiled vaguely
without glancing at him.

"Yes. I hope he isn't sick, or--"

"I'll take you over to the hotel, and go tell him you're here," he
volunteered, somewhat curtly, and picked up her bag.

"Oh, thank you." This time her eyes grazed his face inattentively. She
followed him down the rough steps of planking and up an extremely dusty
road--one could scarcely call it a street--to an uninviting building with
crooked windows and a high, false front of unpainted boards.

The young fellow opened a sagging door, let her pass into a narrow hallway,
and from there into a stuffy, hopelessly conventional fifth-rate parlor,
handed her the bag, and departed with another tilt of the hat which placed
it at a different angle. The sentence meant for farewell she did not catch,
for she was staring at a wooden-faced portrait upon an easel, the portrait
of a man with a drooping mustache, and porky cheeks, and dead-looking eyes.

"And I expected bearskin rugs, and antlers on the walls, and big
fireplaces!" she remarked aloud, and sighed. Then she turned and pulled
aside a coarse curtain of dusty, machine-made lace, and looked after her
guide. He was just disappearing into a saloon across the street, and she
dropped the curtain precipitately, as if she were ashamed of spying. "Oh,
well--I've heard all cowboys are more or less intemperate," she excused,
again aloud.

She sat down upon an atrocious red plush chair, and wrinkled her
nose spitefully at the porky-cheeked portrait. "I suppose you're the
proprietor," she accused, "or else the proprietor's son. I wish you
wouldn't squint like that. If I have to stop here longer than ten minutes,
I shall certainly turn you face to the wall." Whereupon, with another
grimace, she turned her back upon it and looked out of the window. Then she
stood up impatiently, looked at her watch, and sat down again upon the red
plush chair.

"He didn't tell me whether Manley is sick," she said suddenly, with some
resentment. "He was awfully abrupt in his manner. Oh, you--" She rose,
picked up an old newspaper from the marble-topped table with uncertain
legs, and spread it ungently over the portrait upon the easel. Then she
went to the window and looked out again. "I feel perfectly sure that cowboy
went and got drunk immediately," she complained, drumming pettishly upon
the glass. "And I don't suppose he told Manley at all."

The cowboy was innocent of the charge, however, and he was doing his
energetic best to tell Manley. He had gone straight through the saloon and
into the small room behind, where a man lay sprawled upon a bed in one
corner. He was asleep, and his clothes were wrinkled as if he had lain
there long. His head rested upon his folded arms, and he was snoring
loudly. The young fellow went up and took him roughly by the shoulder.

"Here! I thought I told you to straighten up," he cried disgustedly. "Come
alive! The train's come and gone, and your girl's waiting for you over to
the hotel. D' you hear?"

"Uh-huh!" The man opened one eye, grunted, and closed it again.

The other yanked him half off the bed, and swore. This brought both eyes
open, glassy with whisky and sleep. He sat wobbling upon the edge of the
bed, staring stupidly.

"Can't you get anything through you?" his tormentor exclaimed. "You want
your girl to find out you're drunk? You got the license in your pocket.
You're supposed to get spliced this evening--and look at you!" He turned
and went out to the bartender.

"Why didn't you pour that coffee into him, like I told you?" he demanded.
"We've got to get him steady on his pins _somehow!_"

The bartender was sprawled half over the bar, apathetically reading the
sporting news of a torn Sunday edition of an Eastern paper. He looked up
from under his eyebrows and grunted.

"How you going to pour coffee down a man that lays flat on his belly and
won't open his mouth?" he inquired, in an injured tone. "Sleep's all he
needs, anyway. He'll be all right by morning."

The other snorted dissent. "He'll be all right by dark--or he'll feel a
whole lot worse," he promised grimly. "Dig up some ice. And a good jolt of
bromo, if you've got it--and a towel or two."

The bartender wearily pushed the paper to one side, reached languidly under
the bar, and laid hold of a round blue bottle. Yawning uninterestedly, he
poured a double portion of the white crystals into a glass, half filled
another under the faucet of the water cooler, and held them out.

"Dump that into him, then," he advised. "It'll help some, if you get it
down. What's the sweat to get him married off to-day? Won't the girl wait?"

"I never asked her. You pound up some ice and bring it in, will you?" The
volunteer nurse kicked open the door into the little room and went in,
hastily pouring the bromo seltzer from one glass to the other to keep it
from foaming out of all bounds. His patient was still sitting upon the edge
of the bed where he had left him, slumped forward with his head in his
hands. He looked up stupidly, his eyes bloodshot and swollen of lid.

"'S the train come in yet?" he asked thickly. "'S you, is it, Kent?"

"The train's come, and your girl is waiting for you at the hotel. Here,
throw this into you--and for God's sake, brace up! You make me tired. Drink
her down quick--the foam's good for you. Here, you take the stuff in the
bottom, too. Got it? Take off your coat, so I can get at you. You don't
look much like getting married, and that's no josh."

Fleetwood shook his head with drunken gravity, and groaned. "I ought to be
killed. Drunk to-day!" He sagged forward again, and seemed disposed to shed
tears. "She'll never forgive me; she--"

Kent jerked him to his feet peremptorily. "Aw, look here! I'm trying
to sober you up. You've got to do your part--see? Here's some ice in a
towel--you get it on your head. Open up your shirt, so I can bathe your
chest. Don't do any good to blubber around about it. Your girl can't hear
you, and Jim and I ain't sympathetic. Set down in this chair, where we can
get at you." He enforced his command with some vigor, and Fleetwood groaned
again. But he shed no more tears, and he grew momentarily more lucid, as
the treatment took effect.

The tears were being shed in the stuffy little hotel parlor. The young
woman looked often at her watch, went into the hallway, and opened the
outer door several times, meditating a search of the town, and drew back
always with a timid fluttering of heart because it was all so crude and
strange, and the saloons so numerous and terrifying in their very bald
simplicity.

She was worried about Manley, and she wished that cowboy would come out
of the saloon and bring her lover to her. She had never dreamed of being
treated in this way. No one came near her--and she had secretly expected to
cause something of a flutter in this little town they called Hope.

Surely, young girls from the East, come out to get married to their
sweethearts, weren't so numerous that they should be ignored. If there were
other people in the hotel, they did not manifest their presence, save by
disquieting noises muffled by intervening partitions.

She grew thirsty, but she hesitated to explore the depths of this dreary
abode, in fear of worse horrors than the parlor furniture, and all the
places of refreshment which she could see from the window or the door
looked terribly masculine and unmoral, and as if they did not know there
existed such things as ice cream, or soda, or sherbet.

It was after an hour of this that the tears came, which is saying a good
deal for her courage. It seemed to her then that Manley must be dead. What
else could keep him so long away from her, after three years of impassioned
longing written twice a week with punctilious regularity?

He knew that she was coming. She had telegraphed from St. Paul, and had
received a joyful reply, lavishly expressed in seventeen words instead of
the ten-word limit. And they were to have been married immediately upon her
arrival.

That cowboy had known she was coming; he must also have known why Manley
did not meet her, and she wished futilely that she had questioned him,
instead of walking beside him without a word. He should have explained. He
would have explained if he had not been so very anxious to get inside that
saloon and get drunk.

She had always heard that cowboys were chivalrous, and brave, and
fascinating in their picturesque dare-deviltry, but from the lone specimen
which she had met she could not see that they possessed any of those
qualities. If all cowboys were like that, she hoped that she would not be
compelled to meet any of them. And _why_ didn't Manley come?

It was then that an inner door--a door which she had wanted to open, but
had lacked courage--squeaked upon its hinges, and an ill-kept bundle of
hair was thrust in, topping a weather-beaten face and a scrawny little
body. Two faded, inquisitive eyes looked her over, and the woman sidled in,
somewhat abashed, but too curious to remain outside.

"Oh yes!" She seemed to be answering some inner question. "I didn't know
you was here." She went over and removed the newspaper from the portrait.
"That breed girl of mine ain't got the least idea of how to straighten up
a room," she observed complainingly. "I guess she thinks this picture was
made to hang things on. I'll have to round her up again and tell her a few
things. This is my first husband. He was in politics and got beat, and so
he killed himself. He couldn't stand to have folks give him the laugh." She
spoke with pride. "He was a real handsome man, don't you think? You mighta
took off the paper; it didn't belong there, and he does brighten up the
room. A good picture is real company, seems to me. When my old man gets on
the rampage till I can't stand it no longer, I come in here and set, and
look at Walt. 'T ain't every man that's got nerve to kill himself--with a
shotgun. It was turrible! He took and tied a string to the trigger--"

"Oh, please!"

The landlady stopped short and stared at her. "What? Oh, I won't go into
details--it was awful messy, and that's a fact. I didn't git over it for a
couple of months. He coulda killed himself with a six-shooter; it's always
been a mystery why he dug up that old shotgun, but he did. I always thought
he wanted to show his nerve." She sighed, and drew her fingers across her
eyes. "I don't s'pose I ever will git over it," she added complacently. "It
was a turrible shock."

"Do you know," the girl began desperately, "if Mr. Manley Fleetwood is in
town? I expected him to meet me at the train."

"Oh! I kinda _thought_ you was Man Fleetwood's girl. My name's Hawley. You
going to be married to-night, ain't you?"

"I--I haven't seen Mr. Fleetwood yet," hesitated the girl, and her eyes
filled again with tears. "I'm afraid something may have happened to him.
He--"

Mrs. Hawley glimpsed the tears, and instantly became motherly in her
manner. She even went up and patted the girl on the shoulder.

"There, now, don't you worry none. Man's all right; I seen him at dinner
time. He was--" She stopped short, looked keenly at the delicate face,
and at the yellow-brown eyes which gazed back at her, innocent of evil,
trusting, wistful. "He spoke about your coming, and said he'd want the use
of the parlor this evening, for the wedding. I had an idea you was coming
on the six-twenty train. Maybe he thought so, too. I never heard you come
in--I was busy frying doughnuts in the kitchen--and I just happened to come
in here after something. You'd oughta rapped on that door. Then I'd 'a'
known you was here. I'll go and have my old man hunt him up. He must be
around town somewheres. Like as not he'll meet the six-twenty, expecting
you to be on it."

She smiled reassuringly as she turned to the inner door.

"You take off your hat and jacket, and pretty soon I'll show you up to a
room. I'll have to round up my old man first--and that's liable to take
time." She turned her eyes quizzically to the porky-cheeked portrait. "You
jest let Walt keep you company till I get back. He was real good company
when he was livin'."

She smiled again and went out briskly, came back, and stood with her hand
upon the cracked doorknob.

"I clean forgot your name," she hinted. "Man told me, at dinner time, but
I'm no good on earth at remembering names till after I've seen the person
it belongs to."

"Valeria Peyson--Val, they call me usually, at home." The homesickness of
the girl shone in her misty eyes, haunted her voice. Mrs. Hawley read it,
and spoke more briskly than she would otherwise have done.

"Well, we're plumb strangers, but we ain't going to stay that way, because
every time you come to town you'll have to stop here; there ain't any other
place to stop. And I'm going to start right in calling you Val. We don't
use no ceremony with folk's names, out here. Val's a real nice name, short
and easy to say. Mine's Arline. You can call me by it if you want to. I
don't let everybody--so many wants to cut it down to Leen, and I won't
stand for that; I'm _lean_ enough, without havin' it throwed up to me. We
might jest as well start in the way we're likely to keep it up, and you
won't feel so much like a stranger.

"I'm awful glad you're going to settle here--there ain't so awful many
women in the country; we have to rake and scrape to git enough for three
sets when we have a dance--and more likely we can't make out more 'n two.
D' you dance? Somebody said they seen a fiddle box down to the depot, with
a couple of big trunks; d' you play the fiddle?"

"A little," Valeria smiled faintly.

"Well, that'll come in awful handy at dances. We'd have 'em real often in
the winter if it wasn't such a job to git music. Well, I got too much to do
to be standin' here talkin'. I have to keep right after that breed girl all
the time, or she won't do nothing. I'll git my old man after your fellow
right away. Jest make yourself to home, and anything you want ask for it
in the kitchen." She smiled in friendly fashion and closed the door with a
little slam to make sure that it latched.

Valeria stood for a moment with her hands hanging straight at her
sides, staring absently at the door. Then she glanced at Walt, staring
wooden-faced from his gilt frame upon his gilt easel, and shivered. She
pushed the red plush chair as far away from him as possible, sat down with
her back to the picture, and immediately felt his dull, black eyes boring
into her back.

"What a fool I must be!" she said aloud, glancing reluctantly over her
shoulder at the portrait. She got up resolutely, placed the chair where it
had stood before, and stared deliberately at Walt, as if she would prove
how little she cared. But in a moment more she was crying dismally.



CHAPTER II. WELL-MEANT ADVICE

Kent Burnett, bearing over his arm a coat newly pressed in the Delmonico
restaurant, dodged in at the back door of the saloon, threw the coat down
upon the tousled bed, and pushed back his hat with a gesture of relief at
an onerous duty well performed.

"I had one hell of a time," he announced plaintively, "and that Chink will
likely try to poison me if I eat over there, after this--but I got her
ironed, all right. Get into it, Man, and chase yourself over there to the
hotel. Got a clean collar? That one's all-over coffee."

Fleetwood stifled a groan, reached into a trousers pocket, and brought up a
dollar. "Get me one at the store, will you, Kent? Fifteen and a half--and a
tie, if they've got any that's decent. And hurry! Such a triple-three-star
fool as I am ought to be taken out and shot."

He went on cursing himself audibly and bitterly, even after Kent
had hurried out. He was sober now--was Manley Fleetwood--sober and
self-condemnatory and penitent. His head ached splittingly; his eyes
were heavy-lidded and bloodshot, and his hands trembled so that he could
scarcely button his coat. But he was sober. He did not even carry the odor
of whisky upon his breath or his person; for Kent had been very thoughtful
and very thorough. He had compelled his patient to crunch and swallow many
nauseous tablets of "whisky killer," and he had sprinkled his clothes
liberally with Jockey Club; Fleetwood, therefore, while he emanated odors
in plenty, carried about him none of the aroma properly belonging to
intoxication.

In ten minutes Kent was back, with a celluloid collar and two ties of
questionable taste. Manley just glanced at them, waved them away with
gloomy finality, and swore.

"They're just about the limit, and that's no dream," sympathized Kent, "but
they're clean, and they don't look like they'd been slept in for a month.
You've got to put 'em on--by George, I sized up the layout in both those
imitation stores, and I drew the highest in the deck. And for the Lord's
sake, get a move on. Here, I'll button it for you."

Behind Fleetwood's back, when collar and tie were in place, Kent grinned
and lowered an eyelid at Jim, who put his head in from the saloon to see
how far the sobering had progressed.

"You look fine!" he encouraged heartily. "That green-and-blue tie's just
what you need to set you off. And the collar sure is shiny and nice--your
girl will be plumb dazzled. She won't see anything wrong--believe _me_.
Now, run along and get married. Here, you better sneak out the back way; if
she happened to be looking out, she'd likely wonder what you were doing,
coming out of a saloon. Duck out past the coal shed and cut into the street
by Brinberg's. Tell her you're sick--got a sick headache. Your looks'll
swear it's the truth. Hike!" He opened the door and pushed Fleetwood out,
watched him out of sight around the corner of Brinberg's store, and turned
back into the close-smelling little room.

"Do you know," he remarked to Jim, "I never thought of it before, but I've
been playing a low-down trick on that poor girl. I kinda wish now I'd put
her next, and given her a chance to draw outa the game if she wanted to.
It's stacking the deck on her, if you ask _me_!" He pushed his hat back
upon his head, gave his shoulders a twist of dissatisfaction, and told Jim
to dig up some Eastern beer; drank it meditatively, and set down the glass
with some force.

"Yes, sir," he said disgustedly, "darn my fool soul, I stacked the deck on
that girl--and she looked to be real nice. Kinda innocent and trusting,
like she hasn't found out yet how rotten mean men critters can be." He took
the bottle and poured himself another glass. "She's sure due to wise up a
lot," he added grimly.

"You bet your sweet life!" Jim agreed, and then he reconsidered. "Still, I
dunno; Man ain't so worse. He ain't what you can call a real booze fighter.
This here's what I'd call an accidental jag; got it in the exuberance of
the joyful moment when he knew his girl was coming. He'll likely straighten
up and be all right. He--" Jim broke off there and looked to see who had
opened the door.

"Hello, Polly," he greeted carelessly.

The man came forward, grinning skinnily. Polycarp Jenks was the outrageous
name of him. He was under the average height, and he was lean to the point
of emaciation. His mouth was absolutely curveless--a straight gash across
his face; a gash which simply stopped short without any tapering or any
turn at the corners, when it had reached as far as was decent. His nose was
also straight and high, and owned no perceptible slope; indeed, it seemed
merely a pendant attached to his forehead, and its upper termination was
indefinite, except that somewhere between his eyebrows one felt impelled to
consider it forehead rather than nose. His eyes also were rather long and
narrow, like buttonholes cut to match the mouth. When he grinned his face
appeared to break up into splinters.

He was intensely proud of his name, and his pleasure was almost pathetic
when one pronounced it without curtailment in his presence. His skinniness
was also a matter of pride. And when you realize that he was an
indefatigable gossip, and seemed always to be riding at large, gathering or
imparting trivial news, you should know fairly well Polycarp Jenks.

"I see Man Fleetwood's might' near sober enough to git married," Polycarp
began, coming up to the two and leaning a sharp elbow upon the bar beside
Kent. "By granny, gitting married'd sober anybody! Dinner time he was so
drunk he couldn't find his mouth. I met him up here a little ways just now,
and he was so sober he remembered to pay me that ten I lent him t' other
day--_he-he!_ Open up a bottle of pop, James.

"His girl's been might' near crying her eyes out, 'cause he didn't show
up. Mis' Hawley says she looked like she was due at a funeral 'stid of a
weddin'. 'Clined to be stuck up, accordin' to Mis' Hawley--shied at hearin'
about Walt--_he-he!_ I'll bet there ain't been a transient to that hotel in
the last five year, man or woman, that ain't had to hear about Walt and the
shotgun--Pop's all right on a hot day, you bet!

"She's got two trunks and a fiddle over to the depot--don't see how 'n the
world Man's going to git 'em out to the ranch; they're might' near as big
as claim shacks, both of 'em. Time she gits 'em into Man's shack she'll
have to go outside every time she wants to turn around--_he-he!_ By
granny--two trunks, to one woman! Have some pop, Kenneth, on me.

"The boys are talkin' about a shivaree t'-night. On the quiet, y' know.
Some of 'em's workin' on a horse fiddle now, over in the lumber yard.
Wanted me to play a coal-oil can, but I dunno. I'm gittin' a leetle old for
sech doings. Keeps you up nights too much. Man had any sense, he'd marry
and pull outa town. 'Bout fifteen or twenty in the bunch, and a string of
cans and irons to reach clean across the street. By granny, I'm going to
plug m' ears good with cotton when it comes off--_he-he!_ 'Nother bottle of
pop, James."

"Who's running the show, Polycarp?" Kent asked, accepting the glass of soda
because he disliked to offend. "Funny I didn't hear about it."

Polycarp twisted his slit of a mouth knowingly, and closed one slit of an
eye to assist the facial elucidation.

"Ain't funny--not when I tell you Fred De Garmo's handing out the
_in_vites, and he sure aims to have plenty of excitement--_he-he!_
Betcher Manley won't be able to set on the wagon seat an' hold the lines
t'-morrow--not if he comes out when he's called and does the thing
proper--_he-he!_ An' if he don't show up, they aim to jest about pull the
old shebang down over his ears. Hope'll think it's the day of judgment,
sure--_he-he!_ Reckon I might's well git in on the fun--they won't be no
sleepin' within ten mile of the place, nohow, and a feller always sees the
joke better when he's lendin' a hand. Too bad you an' Fred's on the outs,
Kenneth."

"Oh, I don't know--it suits me fine," Kent declared easily, setting down
his glass with a sigh of relief; he hated "pop."

"What's it all about, anyway?" quizzed Polycarp, hungering for the details
which had thus far been denied him. "De Garmo sees red whenever anybody
mentions your name, Kenneth--but I never did hear no particulars."

"No?" Kent was turning toward the door. "Well, you see, Fred claims he
can holler louder than I can, and I say he can't." He opened the door and
calmly departed, leaving Polycarp looking exceedingly foolish and a bit
angry.

Straight to the hotel, without any pretense at disguising his destination,
marched Kent. He went into the office--which was really a saloon--invited
Hawley to drink with him, and then wondered audibly if he could beg some
pie from Mrs. Hawley.

"Supper'll be ready in a few minutes," Hawley informed him, glancing up at
the round, dust-covered clock screwed to the wall.

"I don't want supper--I want pie," Kent retorted, and opened a door which
led into the hallway. He went down the narrow passage to another door,
opened it without ceremony, and was assailed by the odor of many
things--the odor which spoke plainly of supper, or some other assortment of
food. No one was in sight, so he entered the dining room boldly, stepped to
another door, tapped very lightly upon it, and went in. By this somewhat
roundabout method he invaded the parlor.

Manley Fleetwood was lying upon an extremely uncomfortable couch, of the
kind which is called a sofa. He had a lace-edged handkerchief folded upon
his brow, and upon his face was an expression of conscious unworthiness
which struck Kent as being extremely humorous. He grinned understandingly
and Manley flushed--also understandingly. Valeria hastily released Manley's
hand and looked very prim and a bit haughty, as she regarded the intruder
from the red plush chair, pulled close to the couch.

"Mr. Fleetwood's head is very bad yet," she informed Kent coldly. "I really
do not think he ought to see--anybody."

Kent tapped his hat gently against his leg and faced her unflinchingly,
quite unconscious of the fact that she regarded him as a dissolute, drunken
cowboy with whom Manley ought not to associate.

"That's too bad." His eyes failed to drop guiltily before hers, but
continued to regard her calmly. "I'm only going to stay a minute. I came to
tell you that there's a scheme to raise--to 'shivaree' you two, tonight. I
thought you might want to pull out, along about dark."

Manley looked up at him inquiringly with the eye which was not covered by
the lace-edged handkerchief. Valeria seemed startled, just at first. Then
she gave Kent a little shock of surprise.

"I have read about such things. A _charivari_, even out here in this
uncivilized section of the country, can hardly be dangerous. I really do
not think we care to run away, thank you." Her lip curled unmistakably.
"Mr. Fleetwood is suffering from a sick headache. He needs rest--not a
cowardly night ride."

Naturally Kent admired the spirit she showed, in spite of that eloquent
lip, the scorn of which seemed aimed directly at him. But he still faced
her steadily.

"Sure. But if I had a headache--like that--I'd certainly burn the earth
getting outa town to-night. _Shivarees_"--he stuck stubbornly to his own
way of saying it--"are bad for the head. They aren't what you could call
silent--not out here in this uncivilized section of the country. They're
plumb--" He hesitated for just a fraction of a second, and his resentment
of her tone melted into a twinkle of the eyes. "They've got fifty coal-oil
cans strung with irons on a rope, and there'll be about ninety-five
six-shooters popping, and eight or ten horse-fiddles, and they'll all be
yelling to beat four of a kind. They're going," he said quite gravely, "to
play the full orchestra. And I don't believe," he added ironically, "it's
going to help Mr. Fleetwood's head any."

Valeria looked at him doubtingly with steady, amber-colored eyes before she
turned solicitously to readjust the lace-edged handkerchief. Kent seized
the opportunity to stare fixedly at Fleetwood and jerk his head meaningly
backward, but when, warned by Manley's changing expression, she glanced
suspiciously over her shoulder, Kent was standing quietly by the door with
his hat in his hand, gazing absently at Walt in his gilt-edged frame upon
the gilt easel, and waiting, evidently, for their decision.

"I shall tell them that Mr. Fleetwood is sick--that he has a horrible
headache, and mustn't be disturbed."

Kent forgot himself so far as to cough slightly behind his hand. Valeria's
eyes sparkled.

"Even out here," she went on cuttingly, "there must be some men who are
gentlemen!"

Kent refrained from looking at her, but the blood crept darkly into his
tanned cheeks. Evidently she "had it in for him," but he could not see why.
He wondered swiftly if she blamed him for Manley's condition.

Fleetwood suddenly sat up, spilling the handkerchief to the floor. When
Valeria essayed to push him back he put her hand gently away. He rose and
came over to Kent.

"Is this straight goods?" he demanded. "Why don't you stop it?"

"Fred De Garmo's running this show. My influence wouldn't go as far--"

Fleetwood turned to the girl, and his manner was masterful. "I'm going out
with Kent--oh, Val, this is Mr. Burnett. Kent, Miss Peyson. I forgot you
two aren't acquainted."

From Valeria's manner, they were in no danger of becoming friends. Her
acknowledgment was barely perceptible. Kent bowed stiffly.

"I'm going to see about this, Val," continued Fleetwood. "Oh, my head's
better--a lot better, really. Maybe we'd better leave town--"

"If your head is better, I don't see why we need run away from a lot of
silly noise," Valeria interposed, with merciless logic. "They'll think
we're awful cowards."

"Well, I'll try and find out--I won't be gone a minute, dear." After that
word, spoken before another, he appeared to be in great haste, and pushed
Kent rather unceremoniously through the door. In the dining room, Kent
diplomatically included the landlady in the conference, by a gesture of
much mystery bringing her in from the kitchen, where she had been curiously
peeping out at them.

"Got to let her in," he whispered to Manley, "to keep her face closed."

They murmured together for five minutes. Kent seemed to meet with some
opposition from Fleetwood--an aftermath of Valeria's objections to
flight--and became brutally direct.

"Go ahead--do as you please," he said roughly. "But you know that bunch.
You'll have to show up, and you'll have to set 'em up, and--aw, thunder!
By morning you'll be plumb laid out. You'll be headed into one of your
four-day jags, and you know it. I was thinking of the girl--but if you
don't care, I guess it's none of my funeral. Go to it--but darned if I'd
want to start my honeymoon out like that!"

Fleetwood weakened, but still he hesitated. "If I didn't show up--" he
began hopefully. But Kent wittered him with a look.

"That bunch will be two-thirds full before they start out. If you don't
show up, they'll go up and haul you outa bed--hell, Man! You'd likely start
in to kill somebody off. Fred De Garmo don't love you much better than he
loves me. You know what him and his friends would do then, I should think."
He stopped, and seemed to consider briefly a plan, but shook his head
over it. "I could round up a bunch and stand 'em off, maybe--but we'd be
shooting each other up, first rattle of the box. It's a whole lot easier
for you to get outa town."

"I'll tell somebody you got the bridal chamber," hissed Arline, in a very
loud whisper. "That's number two, in front. I can keep a light going and
pass back 'n' forth once in a while, to look like you're there. That'll
fool 'em good. They'll wait till the light's been out quite a while before
they start in. You go ahead and git married at seven, jest as you was going
to--and if Kent'll have the team ready somewheres, I can easy sneak you out
the back way."

"I couldn't get the team out of town without giving the whole deal away,"
Kent objected. "You'll have to go horseback.".

"Val can't ride," Fleetwood stated, as if that settled the matter.

"Damn it, she's got to ride!" snapped Kent, losing patience. "Unless you
want to stay and go on a toot that'll last a week, most likely."

"Val belongs to the W.C.T.U.," shrugged Fleetwood. "She'd never--"

"Well, it's that or have a fight on your hands you maybe can't handle. I
don't see any sense in haggling about going, now you know what to expect.
But, of course," he added, with some acrimony, "it's your own business. I
don't know what the dickens I'm getting all worked up over it for. Suit
yourself." He turned toward the door.

"She could ride my Mollie--and I got a sidesaddle hanging up in the coal
shed. She could use that, or a stock saddle, either one," planned Mrs.
Hawley anxiously. "You better pull out, Man."

"Hold on, Kent! Don't rush off--we'll go," Fleetwood surrendered. "Val
won't like it, but I'll explain as well as I can, without--Say! you stay
and see us married, won't you? It's at seven, and--"

Kent's fingers curled around the doorknob. "No, thanks. Weddings and
funerals are two bunches of trouble I always ride 'way around. Time enough
when you've got to be _it_. Along about nine o'clock you try and get out to
the stockyards without letting the whole town see you go, and I'll have the
horses there; just beyond the wings, by that pile of ties. You know the
place. I'll wait there till ten, and not a minute longer. That'll give you
an hour, and you won't need any more time than that if you get down to
business. You find out from her what saddle she wants, and you can tell me
while I'm eating supper, Mrs. Hawley. I'll 'tend to the rest." He did not
wait to hear whether they agreed to the plan, but went moodily down the
narrow passage, and entered frowningly the "office." Several men were
gathered there, waiting the supper summons. Hawley glanced up from wiping a
glass, and grinned.

"Well, did you git the pie?"

"Naw. She said I'd got to wait for mealtime. She plumb chased me out."

Fred De Garmo, sprawled in an armchair and smoking a cigar, lazily fanned
the smoke cloud from before his face and looked at Kent attentively.



CHAPTER III. A LADY IN A TEMPER

To saddle two horses when the night has grown black and to lead them,
unobserved, so short a distance as two hundred yards or so seems a simple
thing; and for two healthy young people with full use of their wits and
their legs to steal quietly away to where those horses are waiting
would seem quite as simple. At the same time, to prevent the successful
accomplishment of these things is not difficult, if one but fully
understands the designs of the fugitives.

Hawley Hotel did a flourishing business that night. The two long tables in
the dining room, usually not more than half filled by those who hungered
and were not over-nice concerning the food they ate, were twice filled to
overflowing. Mrs. Hawley and the "breed" girl held hasty consultations in
the kitchen over the supply, and never was there such a rattling of dishes
hurriedly cleansed for the next comer.

Kent managed to find a chair at the first table, and eyed the landlady
unobtrusively. But Fred De Garmo sat down opposite, and his eyes were
bright and watchful, so that there seemed no possible way of delivering a
message undetected--until, indeed, Mrs. Hawley in desperation resorted to
strategy, and urged Kent unnecessarily to take another slice of bacon.

"Have some more--it's _side_!" she hissed in his ear, and watched anxiously
his face.

"All right," said Kent, and speared a slice with his fork, although his
plate was already well supplied with bacon. Then, glancing up, he detected
Fred in a thoughtful stare which seemed evenly divided between the landlady
and himself. Kent was conscious of a passing, mental discomfort, which he
put aside as foolish, because De Garmo could not possibly know what Mrs.
Hawley meant. To ease his mind still further he glared insolently at Fred,
and then at Polycarp Jenks _te-hee_ing a few chairs away. After that he
finished as quickly as possible without exciting remark, and went his way.

He had not, however, been two minutes in the office before De Garmo
entered. From that time on through the whole evening Fred was never far
distant; wherever he went, Kent could not shake him off though De Garmo
never seemed to pay any attention to him, and his presence was always
apparently accidental.

"I reckon I'll have to lick that son of a gun yet," sighed Kent, when a
glance at the round clock in the hotel office told him that in just twenty
minutes it would strike nine; and not a move made toward getting those
horses saddled and out to the stockyards.

There was much talk of the wedding, which had taken place quietly in the
parlor at the appointed hour, but not a man mentioned a _charivari_. There
were many who wished openly that Fleetwood would come out and be sociable
about it, but not a hint that they intended to take measures to bring him
among them. He had caused a box of cigars to be placed upon the bar of
every saloon in town, where men might help themselves at his expense.
Evidently he had considered that with the cigars his social obligations
were canceled. They smoked the cigars, and, with the same breath, gossiped
of him and his affairs.

At just fourteen minutes to nine Kent went out, and, without any attempt
at concealment, hurried to the Hawley stables. Half a minute behind him
trailed De Garmo, also without subterfuge.

Half an hour later the bridal couple stole away from the rear of the hotel,
and, keeping to the shadows, went stumbling over the uneven ground to the
stockyards.

"Here's the tie pile," Fleetwood announced, in an undertone, when they
reached the place. "You stay here, Val, and I'll look farther along the
fence; maybe the horses are down there."

Valeria did not reply, but stood very straight and dignified in the shadow
of the huge pile of rotting railroad ties. He was gone but a moment, and
came anxiously back to her.

"They're not here," he said, in a low voice. "Don't worry, dear. He'll
come--I know Kent Burnett."

"Are you sure?" queried Val sweetly. "From what I have seen of the
gentleman, your high estimate of him seems quite unauthorized. Aside from
escorting me to the hotel, he has been anything but reliable. Instead of
telling you that I was here, or telling me that you were sick, he went
straight into a saloon and forgot all about us both. You know that. If he
were your friend, why should he immediately begin carousing, instead of--"

"He didn't," Fleetwood defended weakly.

"No? Then perhaps you can explain his behavior. Why didn't he tell me you
were sick? Why didn't he tell you I came on that train? Can you tell me
that, Manley?"

Manley, for a very good reason, could not; so he put his arms around her
and tried to coax her into good humor.

"Sweetheart, let's not quarrel so soon--why, we're only two hours married!
I want you to be happy, and if you'll only be brave and--"

"Brave!" Mrs. Fleetwood laughed rather contemptuously, for a bride. "Please
to understand, Manley, that I'm not frightened in the least. It's you and
that horrid cowboy--_I_ don't see why we need run away, like criminals.
Those men don't intend to _murder_ us, do they?" Her mood softened a
little, and she squeezed his arm between her hands. "You dear old silly,
I'm not blaming _you_. With your head in such a state, you can't think
things out properly, and you let that cowboy influence you against your
better judgment. You're afraid I might be annoyed--but, really, Manley,
this silly idea of running away annoys me much more than all the noise
those fellows could possibly make. Indeed, I don't think I would mind--it
would give me a glimpse of the real West; and, perhaps, if they grew
too boisterous, and I spoke to them and asked them not to be quite so
rough--and, really, they only mean it as a sort of welcome, in their crude
way. We could invite some of the nicest in to have cake and coffee--or
maybe we might get some ice cream somewhere--and it might turn out a very
pleasant little affair. I don't mind meeting them, Manley. The worst of
them can't be as bad as that--but, of course, if he's your friend, I
suppose I oughtn't to speak too freely my opinion of him!"

Fleetwood held her closely, patted her cheek absently, and tried to think
of some effective argument.

"They'll be drunk, sweetheart," he told her, after a silence.

"I don't think so," she returned firmly. "I have been watching the street
all the evening. I saw any number of men passing back and forth, and I
didn't see one who staggered. And they were all very quiet, considering
their rough ways, which one must expect. Why, Manley, you always wrote
about these Western men being such fine fellows, and so generous and
big-hearted, under their rough exterior. Your letters were full of it--and
how chivalrous they all are toward nice women."

She laid her head coaxingly against his shoulder. "Let's go back, Manley.
I--_want_ to see a _charivari_, dear. It will be fun. I want to write all
about it to the girls. They'll be perfectly wild with envy." She struggled
with her conventional upbringing. "And even if some of them are slightly
under the influence--of liquor, we needn't _meet_ them. You needn't
introduce those at all, and I'm sure they will understand."

"Don't be silly, Val!" Fleetwood did not mean to be rude, but a faint
glimmer of her romantic viewpoint--a viewpoint gained chiefly from current
fiction and the stage--came to him and contrasted rather brutally with the
reality. He did not know how to make her understand, without incriminating
himself. His letters had been rather idealistic, he admitted to himself.
They had been written unthinkingly, because he wanted her to like this big
land; naturally he had not been too baldly truthful in picturing the place
and the people. He had passed lightly over their faults and thrown the
limelight on their virtues; and so he had aided unwittingly the stage and
the fiction she had read, in giving her a false impression.

Offended at his words and his tone, she drew away from him and glanced
wistfully back toward the town, as if she meditated a haughty return to the
hotel. She ended by seating herself upon a projecting tie.

"Oh, very well, my lord," she retorted, "I shall try and not be silly, but
merely idiotic, as you would have me. You and your friend!" She was very
angry, but she was perfectly well-bred, she hoped. "If I might venture a
word," she began again ironically, "it seems to me that your friend has
been playing a practical joke upon you. He evidently has no intention of
bringing any fleet steeds to us. No doubt he is at this moment laughing
with his dissolute companions, because we are sitting out here in the dark
like two silly chickens!"

"I think he's coming now," Manley said rather stiffly. "Of course, I don't
ask you to like him; but he's putting himself to a good deal of trouble for
us, and--"

"Wasted effort, so far as I am concerned," Valeria put in, with a chirpy
accent which was exasperating, even to a bridegroom very much in love with
his bride.

In the darkness that muffled the land, save where the yellow flare of lamps
in the little town made a misty brightness, came the click of shod hoofs.
Another moment and a man, mounted upon a white horse, loomed indistinct
before them, seeming to take substance from the night. Behind him trailed
another horse, and for the first time in her life Valeria heard the soft,
whispering creak of saddle leather, the faint clank of spur chains, and the
whir of a horse mouthing the "cricket" in his bit. Even in her anger, she
was conscious of an answering tingle of blood, because this was life in
the raw--life such as she had dreamed of in the tight swaddlings of a smug
civilization, and had longed for intensely.

Kent swung down close beside them, his form indistinct but purposeful. "I'm
late, I guess," he remarked, turning to Fleetwood. "Fred got next, somehow,
and--I was detained."

"Where is he?" asked Manley, going up and laying a questioning hand upon
the horse, by that means fully recognizing it as Kent's own.

"In the oats box," said Kent laconically. He turned to the girl. "I
couldn't get the sidesaddle," he explained apologetically. "I looked where
Mrs. Hawley said it was, but I couldn't find it--and I didn't have much
time. You'll have to ride a stock saddle."

Valeria drew back a step. "You mean--a man's saddle?" Her voice was
carefully polite.

"Why, yes." And he added: "The horse is dead gentle--and a sidesaddle's no
good, anyhow. You'll like this better." He spoke, as was evident, purely
from a man's viewpoint.

That viewpoint Mrs. Fleetwood refused to share. "Oh, I couldn't ride a
man's saddle," she protested, still politely, and one could imagine how her
lips were pursed. "Indeed, I'm not sure that I care to leave town at all."
To her the declaration did not seem unreasonable or abrupt but she felt
that Kent was very much shocked. She saw him turn his head and look back
toward the town, as if he half expected a pursuit.

"I don't reckon the oats box will hold Fred very long," he observed
meditatively. He added reminiscently to Manley: "I had a deuce of a time
getting the cover down and fastened."

"I'm very sorry," said Valeria, with sweet dignity, "that you gave yourself
so much trouble--"

"I'm kinda sorry myself," Kent agreed mildly, and Valeria blushed hotly,
and was glad he could not see.

"Come, Val--you can ride this saddle, all right. All the girls out here--"

"I did not come West to imitate all the girls. Indeed, I could never think
of such a thing. I couldn't possibly--really, Manley! And, you know, it
does seem so childish of us to run away--"

Kent moved restlessly, and felt to see if the cinch was tight.

Fleetwood took her coaxingly by the arm. "Come, sweetheart, don't be
stubborn. You know--"

"Well, really! If it's a question of obstinacy--You see, I look at the
matter in this way: You believe that you are doing what is best for my
sake; I don't agree with you--and it does seem as if I should be permitted
to judge what I desire." Then her dignity and her sweet calm went down
before a flash of real, unpolished temper. "You two can take those nasty
horses and ride clear to Dakota, if you want to. I'm going back to the
hotel. And I'm going to tell somebody to let that poor fellow out of that
box. I think you're acting perfectly horrid, both of you, when I don't want
to go!" She actually started back toward the scattered points of light.

She did not, however, get so faraway that she failed to hear Kent's "Well,
I'll be damned!" uttered in a tone of intense disgust.

"I don't care," she assured herself, because of the thrill of compunction
caused by that one forcible sentence. She had never before in her life
heard a man really swear. It affected her very much as would the accidental
touch of an electric battery. She walked on slowly, stumbling a little and
trying to hear what it was they were saying.

Then Kent passed her, loping back to the town, the led horse shaking his
saddle so that it rattled the stirrups like castanets as he galloped. "I
don't care," she told herself again very emphatically, because she was
quite sure that she did care--or that she would care if only she permitted
herself to be so foolish. Manley overtook her then, and drew her hand under
his arm to lead her. But he seemed quite sullen, and would not say a word
all the way back.



CHAPTER IV. THE "SHIVAREE"

Kent jerked open the stable door, led in his horses, turned them into their
stalls, and removed the saddles with quick, nervous movements which told
plainly how angry he was.

"I'll get myself all excited trying to do her a favor again--I don't
think!" he growled in the ear of Michael, his gray gelding. "Think of me
getting let down on my face like that! By a woman!"

He felt along the wall in the intense darkness until his fingers touched
a lantern, took it down from the nail where it hung, and lighted it. He
carried it farther down the rude passage between the stalls, hung it high
upon another nail, and turned to the great oats box, from within which came
a vigorous thumping and the sound of muttered cursing.

Kent was not in the mood to see the humor of anything in particular. Had he
known anything about Pandora's box he might have drawn a comparison very
neatly while he stood scowling down at the oats box, for certainly he was
likely to release trouble in plenty when he unfastened that lid. He felt of
the gun swinging at his hip, just to assure himself that it was there
and ready for business in case Fred wanted to shoot, and rapped with his
knuckles upon the box, producing instant silence within.

"Don't make so much noise in there," he advised grimly, "not unless you
want the whole town to know where you are, and have 'em give you the laugh.
And, listen here: I ain't apologizing for what I done, but, all the same,
I'm sorry I did it. It wasn't any use. I'd rather be shut up in an oats box
all night than get let down like I was--and I'm telling you this so as to
start us off even. If you want to fight about it when you come out, all
right; you're the doctor. But I'm just as sorry as you are it happened.
I lay down my hand right here. I hope you shivaree Man and his wife--and
shivaree 'em good. I hope you bust the town wide open."

"Why this sudden change of heart?" came muffled from within.

"Ah--that's my own business. Well, I don't like you a little bit, and you
know it; but I'll tell you, just to give you a fair show. I wanted to keep
Man sober, and I tried to get him and his wife out of town before that
shivaree of yours was pulled off. But the lady wouldn't have it that way.
I got let right down on my face, and I'm done. Now you know just where I
stand. Maybe I'm a fool for telling you, but I seem to be in the business
to-night. Come on out."

He unfastened the big iron hasp, which was showing signs of the strain put
upon it, and stepped back watchfully. The thick, oaken lid was pushed up,
and Fred De Garmo, rather dusty and disheveled and purple from the
close atmosphere of the box and from anger as well, came up like a
jack-in-the-box and glared at Kent. When he had stepped out upon the stable
floor, however, he smiled rather unpleasantly.

[Illustration: He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his crowd]

"If you've told the truth," he said maliciously, "I guess the lady has
pretty near evened things up. If you haven't--if I don't find them both at
the hotel--well--Anyway," he added, with an ominous inflection, "there'll
be other days to settle this in!"

"Why, sure. Help yourself, Fred," Kent retorted cheerfully, and stood where
he was until Fred had gone out. Then he turned and closed the box. "Between
that yellow-eyed dame and the chump that went and left this box wide open
for me to tip Fred into," he soliloquized, while he took down the lantern,
and so sent the shadows dancing weirdly about him, "I've got a bunch of
trouble mixed up, for fair. I wish the son of a gun would fight it out now,
and be done with it; but no, that ain't Fred. He'd a heap rather wait and
let it draw interest!"

Over in the hotel the "yellow-eyed dame" was doing her unsophisticated best
to meet the situation gracefully, and to realize certain vague and rather
romantic dreams of her life out West. She meant to be very gracious, for
one thing, and to win the chivalrous friendship of every man who came to
participate in the rude congratulations that had been planned. Just how
she meant to do this she did not know--except that the graciousness would
certainly prove a very important factor.

"I'm going to remain downstairs," she told Manley, when they reached the
hotel. It was the first sentence she had spoken since he overtook her. "I'm
so glad, dear," she added diplomatically, "that you decided to stay. I want
to see that funny landlady now, please, and get her to serve coffee and
cake to our guests in the parlor. I wish I might have had one of my trunks
brought over here; I should like to wear a pretty gown." She glanced down
at her tailored suit with true feminine dissatisfaction. "But everything
was so--so confused, with your being late, and sick--is your head better,
dear?"

Manley, in very few words, assured her that it was. Manley was struggling
with his inner self, trying to answer one very important question, and to
answer it truthfully: Could he meet "the boys," do his part among them, and
still remain sober? That seemed to be the only course open to him now, and
he knew himself just well enough to doubt his own strength. But if Kent
would help him--He felt an immediate necessity to find Kent.

"You'll find Mrs. Hawley somewhere around," he said hurriedly. "I've got to
see Kent--"

"Oh, Manley! Don't have anything to do with that horrid cowboy! He's
not--nice. He--he swore, when he must have known I could hear him; and he
was swearing about _me_, Manley. Didn't you hear him?" She stood in the
doorway and clung to his arm.

"No," lied Manley. "You must have been mistaken, sweetheart."

"Oh, I wasn't; I heard him quite plainly." She must have thought it a
terrible thing, for she almost whispered the last words, and she released
him with much reluctance. It seemed to her that Manley was in danger of
falling among low associates, and that she must protect him in spite of
himself. It failed to occur to her that Manley had been exposed to that
danger for three years, without any protection whatever.

She was thankful, when he came to her later in the parlor, to learn from
him that he had not held any speech with Kent. That was some comfort--and
she felt that she needed a little comforting, just then. Her consultation
with Arline had been rather unsatisfactory. Arline had told her bluntly
that "the bunch" didn't want any coffee and cake. Whisky and cigars, said
Arline, without so much as a blush, was what appealed to them fellows. If
Manley handed it out liberal enough, they wouldn't bother his bride. Very
likely, Arline had assured her, she wouldn't see one of them. That, on the
whole, had been rather discouraging. How was she to show herself a gracious
lady, forsooth, if no one came near her? But she kept these things
jealously tucked away in the remotest corner of her own mind, and managed
to look the relief she did not feel.

And, after all, the _charivari_, as is apt to be the case when the plans
are laid so carefully, proved a very tame affair. Valeria, sitting rather
dismally in the parlor with Mrs. Hawley for company, at midnight heard a
banging of tin cans somewhere outside, a fitful popping of six-shooters,
and an abortive attempt at a procession coming up the street. But the lines
seemed to waver and then break utterly at the first saloon, where drink was
to be had for the asking and Manley Fleetwood was pledged to pay, and the
rattle of cans was all but drowned in the shouts of laughter and talk which
came from the "office," across the hall. For where is the pleasure or the
profit in _charivaring_ a bridal couple which stays up and waits quite
openly for the clamor?

"Is it always so noisy here at night?" asked Valeria faintly when Mrs.
Hawley had insisted upon her lying down upon the uncomfortable sofa.

"Well, no--unless a round-up pulls in, or there's a dance, or it's
Christmas, or something. It's liable to keep up till two or three o'clock,
so the sooner you git used to it, the better off you'll be. I'm going to
leave you here, and go to bed--unless you want to go upstairs yourself.
Only it'll be noisier than ever up in your room, for it's right over the
office, and the way sound travels up is something fierce. Don't you be
afraid--I'll lock this door, and if your husband wants to come in he can
come through the dining room." She looked at Valeria and hesitated before
she spoke the next sentence. "And don't you worry a bit over him, neither.
My old man was in the kitchen a minute ago, when I was out there, and he
says Man ain't drinking a drop to-night. He's keeping as straight as--"

Valeria sat up suddenly, quite scandalized. "Oh--why, of course Manley
wouldn't drink with them! Why--who ever heard of such a thing? The idea!"
She stared reproachfully at her hostess.

"Oh, sure! I didn't say such a thing was liable to happen. I just thought
you might be--worrying--they're making so much racket in there," stammered
Arline.

"Indeed, no. I'm not at all worried, thank you. And please don't let me
keep you up any longer, Mrs. Hawley. I am quite comfortable--mentally and
physically, I assure you. Good night."

Not even Mrs. Hawley could remain after that. She went out and closed the
door carefully behind her, without even finding voice enough to return
Valeria's sweetly modulated good night.

"She's got a whole lot to learn," she relieved her feelings somewhat by
muttering as she mounted the stairs.

What it cost Manley Fleetwood to abstain absolutely and without even the
compromise of "soft" drinks that night, who can say? Three years of free
living in Montana had lowered his standard of morality without giving him
that rugged strength of mind which makes a man master of himself first of
all. He had that day lain, drunken and sleeping, when he should have been
at his mental and physical best to meet the girl who would marry him. It
was that very defection, perhaps, which kept him sober in the midst of his
taunting fellows. Now that Valeria was actually here, and was his wife, he
was possessed by the desire to make some sacrifice by which he might prove
his penitence. At any cost he would spare her pain and humiliation, he told
himself.

He did it, and he did it under difficulty. He was denied the moral support
of Kent Burnett, for Kent was sulking over his slight, and would have
nothing to say to him. He was jeered unmercifully by Fred De Garmo and his
crowd. He was "baptized" by some drunken reveler, so that the stench of
spilled whisky filled his nostrils and tortured him the night through.
He was urged, he was bullied, he was ridiculed. His head throbbed, his
eyeballs burned. But through it all he stayed among them because he feared
that if he left them and went to Val, some drunken fool might follow him
and shock her with his inebriety. He stayed, and he stayed sober. Val was
his wife. She trusted him, and she was ignorant of his sins. If he went to
her staggering and babbling incoherent foolishness, he knew it would break
her heart.

When the sky was at last showing faint dawn tints and the clamor had worn
itself out perforce--because even the leaders were, after all, but men, and
there was a limit to their endurance--Manley entered the parlor, haggard
enough, it is true, and bearing with him the stale odor of cigars long
since smoked, and of the baptism of bad whisky, but also with the air
of conscious rectitude which sits so comically upon a man unused to the
feeling of virtue.

As is so often the case when one fights alone the good fight and manages to
win, he was chagrined to find himself immediately put upon the defensive.
Val, as she speedily demonstrated, declined to look upon him as a hero, or
as being particularly virtuous. She considered herself rather neglected and
abused. She believed that he had stayed away because he was angry with her
on account of her refusal to leave town, and she thought that was rather
brutal of him. Also, her head ached from tears and lack of sleep, and she
hated the town, the hotel--almost she hated Manley himself.

Manley felt the rebuff of her chilling silence when he came in, and when
she twitched herself loose from his embrace he came near regretting his
extreme virtue. He spent ten minutes trying to explain, without telling all
of the truth, and he felt his good opinion of himself slipping from him
before her inexorable disfavor.

"Well, I don't blame you for not liking the town, Val," he said at last,
rather desperately. "But you mustn't judge the whole country by it. You'll
like the ranch, dear. You'll feel as if you were in another world--"

"I hope so," Val interrupted quellingly.

"We'll drive out there just as soon as we have breakfast." He laid his hand
diffidently upon her tumbled hair. "I _had_ to stay out there with those
fellows. I didn't want to--"

"I don't want any breakfast," said Val, getting up and going over to the
window--it would seem to avoid his caress. "The odor of that dining room is
enough to make one fast forever." She lifted the grimy lace curtain with
her finger tips and looked disconsolately out upon the street. "It's just a
dirty, squalid little hamlet. I don't suppose the streets have been
cleaned or the garbage removed from the back yards since the place was
first--founded." She laughed shortly at the idea of "founding" a wretched
village like that, but she had no other word at hand.

"_Arline_," she remarked, in a tone of drawling recklessness. "Arline
swears. Did you know it? I suppose, of course, you do. She said something
that struck me as being shockingly true. She said I'm 'sure having a hell
of a honeymoon.'" Then she bit her lips hard, because her eyelids were
stinging with the tears she refused to shed in his presence.

"Oh, Val!" From the sofa Manley stared contritely at her back. She must
feel terrible, he thought, to bring herself to repeat that sentence--Val,
so icily pure in her thoughts and her speech.

Val was blinking her tawny eyes--like the eyes of a lion in color--at the
street. Not for the world would she let him see that she wanted to cry! A
figure, blurred to indistinctness, appealed in a doorway nearly opposite,
stood for a moment looking up at the reddened sky, and came across the
street. As the tears were beaten back she saw and recognized him, with a
curl of the lip.

"Here comes your cowboy friend--from a saloon, of course." Her voice
was lazily contemptuous. "Only his presence in the street was needed to
complete the picture of desolation. He has been in a fight, judging from
his face. It is all bruised and skinned, and one eye is swollen--ugh! My
guide, my adviser--is it possible, Manley, that you couldn't find a _nice_
man to meet me at the train?" She turned from the disagreeable sight of
Kent and faced her husband. "Are all the men like that? And are all the
women like--Arline?"

Manley looked at her dumbly from the sofa. Would Val ever come to
understand the place, and the people, he was wondering.

She laughed suddenly. "I'm beginning to feel very sorry for Walt," she said
irrelevantly, pointing to the easel and the expressionless crayon portrait
staring out from the gilt frame. "He has to stay in this room always. And
I believe another two hours would drive me hopelessly insane." The word
caught her attention. "Hope!" she laughed ironically. "What imbecile ever
thought of hope in the same breath with this place? What they really ought
to do is paint that 'Abandon-hope' admonition across the whole front of the
depot!"

Manley, because he had lifted his head too suddenly and so sent white-hot
irons of pain clashing through his brain, turned sullen. "If you hate it as
bad as all that," he said, "why, there'll be a train for the East in about
two hours."

Val stiffened perceptibly, though the petulance in her face changed to
something wistful. "Do you mean--do you want me to go?" she asked very
calmly.

Manley pressed his fingers hard against his temples. "You know I don't. I
want you to stay and like the country, and be happy. But--the way you have
been talking makes it seem--a-ah!" He dropped his tortured head upon his
hands and did not trouble to finish what he had intended to say. Nervous
strain, lack of sleep, and a headache to begin with, were taking heavy toll
of him. He could not argue with her; he could not do anything except wish
he were dead, or that his head would stop aching.

Val took one of her unexpected changes of mood. She went up and laid her
cold fingers lightly upon his temples, where she could see the blood
beating savagely in the swollen veins. "What a little beast I am!" she
murmured contritely. "Shall I get you some coffee, dear? Or some headache
tablets, or--You know a cold cloth helped you last evening. Lie down for a
little while. There's no hurry about starting, is there? I--I don't hate
the place so awfully, Manley. I'm just cross because I couldn't sleep for
the noise. Here's a cushion, dear. I think it's stuffed with scrap iron,
for there doesn't seem to be anything soft about it except the invitation
to 'slumber sweetly,' in red and green silk; but anything is better than
the head of that sofa in its natural state."

She arranged the cushion to her own liking, if not to his, and when it
was done she bent down impulsively and kissed him on the cheek, blushing
vividly the while.

"I won't be nasty and cross any more," she promised. "Now, I'm going to
interview Arline. I hear dishes rattling somewhere; perhaps I can get a cup
of real coffee for you." At the door she shook her finger at him playfully.
"Don't you dare stir off that sofa while I'm gone," she admonished. "And,
remember, we're not going to leave town until your head stops aching--not
if we stay here a week!"

She insisted upon bringing him coffee and toast upon a tray--a battered old
tray, purloined for that purpose from the saloon, if she had only known
it--and she informed him, with a pretty, domestic pride, that she had made
the toast herself.

"Arline was going to lay slices of bread on top of the stove," she
explained. "She said she always makes toast that way, and no one could tell
the difference! I never heard of such a thing--did you, Manley? But I've
been attending a cooking school ever since you left Fern Hill. I didn't
tell you--I wanted it for a surprise. I could have done better with the
toast before a wood fire--I think poor Arline was nearly distracted at the
way I poked coals down from the grate; but she didn't say anything. Isn't
it funny, to have cream in cans! I don't suppose it ever saw a cow--do you?
The coffee's pretty bad, isn't it? But wait until we get home! I can make
lovely coffee--if you'll get me a percolator. You will, won't you? And I
learned now to make the most delicious fruit salad, just before I left. A
cousin of Mrs. Forman's taught me how. Could you drink another cup, dear?"

Manley could not, and she deplored the poor quality, although she
generously absolved Arline from blame, because there seemed so much to do
in that kitchen. She refused to take any breakfast herself, telling him
gayly that the odor in the kitchen was both food and drink.

Because he understood a little of her loathing for the place, Manley lied
heroically about his headache, so that within an hour they were leaving
town, with the two great trunks roped securely to the buckboard behind the
seat, and with Val's suitcase placed flat in the front, where she could
rest her feet upon it. Val was so happy at the prospect of getting away
from the town that she actually threw a kiss in the direction of Arline,
standing with her frowsy head, her dough-spotted apron, and her tired face
in the parlor door.

Her mood changed immediately, however, for she had no more than turned from
waving her hand at Arline, when they met Kent, riding slowly up the street
with his hat tilted over the eye most swollen. Without a doubt he had seen
her waving and smiling, and so he must have observed the instant cooling of
her manner. He nodded to Manley and lifted his hat while he looked at her
full; and Val, in the arrogant pride of virtuous young womanhood, let her
golden-brown eyes dwell impersonally upon his face; let her white, round
chin dip half an inch downward, and then looked past him as if he were a
post by the roadside. Afterwards she smiled maliciously when she saw, with
a swift, sidelong glance, how he scowled and spurred unnecessarily his gray
gelding.



CHAPTER V. COLD SPRING RANCH

For almost three years the letters from Manley had been headed "Cold
Spring Ranch." For quite as long Val had possessed a mental picture of the
place--a picture of a gurgly little brook with rocks and watercress and
distracting little pools the size of a bathtub, and with a great, frowning
boulder--a cliff, almost--at the head. The brook bubbled out and formed
a basin in the shadow of the rock. Around it grew trees, unnamed in the
picture, it is true, but trees, nevertheless. Below the spring stood a
picturesque little cottage. A shack, Manley had written, was but a synonym
for a small cottage, and Val had many small cottages in mind, from which
she sketched one into her picture. The sun shone on it, and the western
breezes flapped white curtains in the windows, and there was a porch where
she would swing her hammock and gaze out over the great, beautiful country,
fascinating in its very immensity.

Somewhere beyond the cottage--"shack," she usually corrected herself--were
the corrals; they were as yet rather impressionistic; high, round,
mysterious inclosures forming an effective, if somewhat hazy, background to
the picture. She left them to work out their attractive details upon closer
acquaintance, for at most they were merely the background. The front yard,
however, she dwelt upon, and made aglow with sturdy, bright-hued flowers.
Manley had that spring planted sweet peas, and poppies, and pansies, and
other things, he wrote her, and they had come up very nicely. Afterward,
in a postscript, he answered her oft-repeated questions about the flower
garden:

The flowers aren't doing as well as they might. They need your tender care.
I don't have much time to pet them along. The onions are doing pretty well,
but they need weeding badly.

In spite of that, the flowers bloomed luxuriantly in her mental picture,
though she conscientiously remembered that they weren't doing as well as
they might. They were weedy and unkempt, she supposed, but a little time
and care would remedy that; and was she not coming to be the mistress of
all this, and to make everything beautiful? Besides, the spring, and the
brook which ran from it, and the trees which shaded it, were the chief
attractions.

Perhaps she betrayed a lack of domesticity because she had not been able
to "see" the interior of the cottage--"shack"--very clearly. Sunny rooms,
white curtains, bright cushions and books, pictures and rugs mingled
together rather confusingly in her mind when she dwelt upon the inside of
her future home. It would be bright, and cozy, and "homy," she knew. She
would love it because it would be hers and Manley's, and she could do with
it what she would. She bothered about that no more than she did about the
dresses she would be wearing next year.

Cold Spring Ranch! Think of the allurement of that name, just as it
stands, without any disconcerting qualification whatever! Any girl with
yellow-brown hair and yellow-brown eyes to match, and a dreamy temperament
that beautifies everything her imagination touches, would be sure to build
a veritable Eve's garden around those three small words.

With that picture still before her mental vision, clear as if she had all
her life been familiar with it in reality, she rode beside Manley for three
weary hours, across a wide, wide prairie which looked perfectly level when
you viewed it as a whole, but which proved all hills and hollows when
you drove over it. During those three hours they passed not one human
habitation after the first five miles were behind them. There had been a
ranch, back there against a reddish-yellow bluff. Val had gazed upon it,
and then turned her head away, distressed because human beings could
consent to live in such unattractive surroundings. It was bad in its way as
Hope, she thought, but did not say, because Manley was talking about his
cattle, and she did not want to interrupt him.

After that there had been no houses of any sort. There was a barbed-wire
fence stretching away and away until the posts were mere pencil lines
against the blue, where the fence dipped over the last hill before the sky
bent down and kissed the earth.

The length of that fence was appalling in a vague, wordless way, Val
unconsciously drew closer to her husband when she looked at it, and
shivered in spite of the midsummer heat.

"You're getting tired." Manley put his arm around her and held her there.

"We're over half-way now. A little longer and we'll be home." Then he
bethought him that she might want some preparation for that home-coming.
"You mustn't expect much, little wife. It's a bachelor's house, so far.
You'll have to do some fixing before it will suit you. You don't look
forward to anything like Fern Hill, do you?"

Val laughed, and bent solicitously over the suitcase, which her feet had
marred. "Of course I don't. Nothing out here is like Fern Hill. I know our
ranch is different from anything I ever knew--but I know just how it will
be, and how everything will look."

"Oh! Do you?" Manley looked at her a bit anxiously.

"For three years," Val reminded him, "you have been describing things
to me. You told me what it was like when you first took the place. You
described everything, from Cold Spring Coulee to the house you built, and
the spring under the rock wall, and even the meadow lark's nest you found
in the weeds. Of _course_ I know."

"It's going to seem pretty rough, at first," he observed rather
apologetically.

"Yes--but I shall not mind that. I want it to be rough. I'm tired to death
of the smug smoothness of my life so far. Oh, if you only knew how I have
hated Fern Hill, these last three years, especially since I graduated. Just
the same petty little lives lived in the same petty little way, day in and
day out. Every Sunday the class in Sunday school, and the bells ringing
and the same little walk of four blocks there and back. Every Tuesday and
Friday the club meeting--the Merry Maids, and the Mascot, both just alike,
where you did the same things. And the same round of calls with mamma,
on the same people, twice a month the year round. And the little social
festivities--ah, Manley, if you only knew how I tong for something rough
and real in my life!" It was very nearly what she said to the tired-faced
teacher on the train.

"Well, if that's what you want, you've come to the right place," he told
her dryly.

Later, when they drew close to a red coulee rim which he said was the far
side of Cold Spring Coulee, she forgot how tired she was, and felt every
nerve quiver with eagerness.

Later still, when in the glare of a July sun they drove around a low knoll,
dipped into a wide, parched coulee, and then came upon a barren little
habitation inclosed in a meager fence of the barbed wire she thought so
detestable, she shut her eyes mentally to something she could not quite
bring herself to face.

He lifted her out and tumbled the great trunks upon the ground before he
drove on to the corrals. "Here's the key," he said, "if you want to go in.
I won't be more than a minute or two." He did not look into her face when
he spoke.

Val stood just inside the gate and tried to adjust all this to her mental
picture. There was the front yard, for instance. A few straggling vines
against the porch, and a sickly cluster or two of blossoms--those were the
sweet peas, surely. The sun-baked bed of pale-green plants without so much
as a bud of promise, she recognized, after a second glance, as the poppies.
For the rest, there were weeds against the fence, sun-ripened grass trodden
flat, yellow, gravelly patches where nothing grew--and a glaring, burning
sun beating down upon it all.

The cottage--never afterward did she think of it by that name, but always
as a shack--was built of boards placed perpendicularly, with battens nailed
over the cracks to keep out the wind and the snow. At one side was a
"lean-to" kitchen, and on the other side was the porch that was just
a narrow platform with a roof over it. It was not wide enough for a
rocking-chair, to say nothing of swinging a hammock. In the first hasty
inspection this seemed to be about all. She was still hesitating before the
door when Manley came back from putting up the horses.

"I'm afraid your flowers are a lost cause," he remarked cheerfully. "They
were looking pretty good two or three weeks ago. This hot weather has dried
them up. Next year we'll have water down here to the house. All these
things take time."

"Oh, of course they do." Val managed to smile into his eyes. "Let's see how
many dishes you left dirty; bachelors always leave their dishes unwashed on
the table, don't they?"

"Sometimes--but I generally wash mine." He led the way into the house,
which smelled hot and close, with the odor of food long since cooked
and eaten, before he threw all the windows open. The front room was
clean--after a man's idea of cleanliness. The floor was covered with an
exceedingly dusty carpet, and a rug or two. Her latest photograph was
nailed to the wall; and when Val saw it she broke into hysterical laughter.

"You've nailed your colors to the mast," she cried, and after that it was
all a joke. The home-made couch, with the calico cushions and the cowhide
spread, was a matter for mirth. She sat down upon it to try it, and was
informed that chicken wire makes a fine spring. The rickety table, with
tobacco, magazines, and books placed upon it in orderly piles, was
something to smile over. The chairs, and especially the one cane rocker
which went sidewise over the floor if you rocked in it long enough, were
pronounced original.

In the kitchen the same masculine idea of cleanliness and order obtained.
The stove was quite red, but it had been swept clean. The table was pushed
against the only window there, and the back part was filled with glass
preserve jars, cans, and a loaf of bread wrapped carefully in paper; but
the oilcloth cover was clean--did it not show quite plainly the marks of
the last washing? Two frying pans were turned bottom up on an obscure table
in an obscure corner of the room, and a zinc water pail stood beside them.

There were other details which impressed themselves upon her shrinking
brain, and though she still insisted upon smiling at everything, she stood
in the middle of the room holding up her skirts quite unconsciously, as if
she were standing at a muddy street crossing, wondering how in the world
she was ever going to reach the Other side.

"Isn't it all--deliciously--primitive?" she asked, in a weak little voice,
when the smile would stay no longer. "I--love it, dear." That was a lie;
more, she was not in the habit of fibbing for the sake of politeness or
anything else, so that the words stood for a good deal.

Manley looked into the zinc water pail, took it up, and started for an
outer door, rattling the tin dipper as he went. "Want to go up to the
spring?" he queried, over his shoulder, "Water's the first thing--I'm
horribly thirsty."

Val turned to follow him. "Oh, yes--the spring!" She stopped, however, as
soon as she had spoken. "No, dear. There'll be plenty of other times. I'll
stay here."

He gave her a glance bright with love and blind happiness in her presence
there, and went off whistling and rattling the pail at his side.

Val did not even watch him go. She stood still in the kitchen and looked at
the table, and at the stove, and at the upturned frying pans. She watched
two great horseflies buzzing against a window-pane, and when she could
endure that no longer, she went into the front room and stared vacantly
around at the bare walls. When she saw her picture again, nailed
fast beside the kitchen door, her face lost a little of its frozen
blankness--enough so that her lips quivered until she bit them into
steadiness.

She went then to the door and stood looking dully out into the parched
yard, and at the wizened little pea vines clutching feebly at their
white-twine trellis. Beyond stretched the bare hills with the wavering
brown line running down the nearest one--the line that she knew was the
trail from town. She was guilty of just one rebellious sentence before she
struggled back to optimism.

"I said I wanted it to be rough, but I didn't mean--why, this is just
squalid!" She looked down the coulee and glimpsed the river flowing calmly
past the mouth of it, a majestic blue belt fringed sparsely with green.
It must be a mile away, but it relieved wonderfully the monotony of brown
hills, and the vivid coloring brightened her eyes. She heard Manley enter
the kitchen, set down the pail of water, and come on to where she stood.

"I'd forgotten you said we could see the river from here," she told him,
smiling over her shoulder. "It's beautiful, isn't it? I don't suppose,
though, there's a boat within millions of miles."

"Oh, there's a boat down there. It leaks, though. I just use it for ducks,
close to shore. Admiring our view? Great, don't you think?"

Val clasped her hands before her and let her gaze travel again over the
sweep of rugged hills. "It's--wonderful. I thought I knew, but I see I
didn't. I feel very small, Manley; does one ever grow up to it?"

He seemed dimly to catch the note of utter desolation. "You'll get used to
all that," he assured her. "I thought I'd reached the jumping-off place, at
first. But now--you couldn't dog me outa the country."

He was slipping into the vernacular, and Val noticed it, and wondered dully
if she would ever do likewise. She had not yet admitted to herself that
Manley was different. She had told herself many times that it would take
weeks to wipe out the strangeness born of three years' separation. He was
the same, of course; everything else was new and--different. That was all.
He seemed intensely practical, and he seemed to feel that his love-making
had all been done by letter, and that nothing now remained save the
business of living. So, when he told her to rest, and that he would get
dinner and show her how a bachelor kept house, she let him go with no reply
save that vague, impersonal smile which Kent had encountered at the depot.

While he rattled things about in the kitchen, she stood still in the
doorway with her fingers doubled into tight little fists, and stared out
over the great, treeless, unpeopled land which had swallowed her alive. She
tried to think--and then, in another moment, she was trying not to think.

Glancing quickly over her shoulder, to make sure Manley was too busy to
follow her, she went off the porch and stood uncertain in the parched
inclosure which was the front yard.

"I may as well see it all, and be done," she whispered, and went stealthily
around the corner of the house, holding up her skirts as she had done in
the kitchen. There was a dim path beaten in the wiry grass--a path which
started at the kitchen door and wound away up the coulee. She followed it.
Undoubtedly it would lead her to the spring; beyond that she refused to let
her thoughts travel.

In five minutes--for she went slowly--she stopped beside a stock-trampled
pool of water and yellow mud. A few steps farther on, a barrel had been
sunk in the ground at the base of a huge gray rock; a barrel which filled
slowly and spilled the overflow into the mud. There was also a trough, and
there was a barrier made of poles and barbed wire to keep the cattle from
the barrel. One crawled between two wires, it would seem, to dip up water
for the house. There were no trees--not real trees. There were some
chokecherry bushes higher than her head, and there were other bushes that
did not look particularly enlivening.

With a smile of bitter amusement, she tucked her skirts tightly around her,
crept through the fence, and filled a chipped granite cup which stood upon
a rock ledge, and drank slowly. Then she laughed aloud.

"The water really _is_ cold," she said. "Anywhere else it would be
delicious. And that's a spring, I suppose." Mercilessly she was stripping
her mind of her illusions, and was clothing it in the harsher weave of
reality. "All these hills are Manley's--our ranch." She took another sip
and set down the cup. "And so Cold Spring Ranch means--all this."

Down the coulee she heard Manley call. She stood still, pushing back a
fallen lock of fine, yellow hair. She turned toward the sound, and the sun
in her eyes turned them yellow as the hair above them. She was beautiful,
in an odd, white-and-gold way. If her eyes had been blue, or gray--or even
brown--she would have been merely pretty; but as they were, that amber tint
where one looked for something else struck one unexpectedly and made her
whole face unforgettably lovely. However, the color of her eyes and her
hair did not interest her then, or make life any easier. She was quite
ordinarily miserable and homesick, as she went reluctantly back along the
grassy trails The odor of fried bacon came up to her, and she hated bacon.
She hated everything.

"I've been to the spring," she called out, resolutely cheerful, as soon as
she came in sight of Manley, waiting in the kitchen door; she ran toward
him lightly. "However does the water keep so deliciously cool through this
hot weather? I don't wonder you call this Cold Spring Ranch."

Manley straightened proudly. "I'm glad you like it; I was afraid you might
not, just at first. But you're the right stuff--I might have known it. Not
every woman could come out here and appreciate this country right at the
start."

Val stopped at the steps, panting a little from her run, and smiled
unflinchingly up into his face.



CHAPTER VI. MANLEY'S FIRE GUARD

Hot sunlight, winds as hot, a shimmering heat which distorted objects at a
distance and made the sky line a dazzling, wavering ribbon of faded blue;
and then the dull haze of smoke which hung over the land, and, without
tempering the heat, turned the sun into a huge coppery balloon, which
drifted imperceptibly from the east to the west, and at evening time
settled softly down upon a parched hilltop and disappeared, leaving behind
it an ominous red glow as of hidden fires.

When the wind blew, the touch of it seared the face, as the smoke tang
assailed the nostrils. All the world was a weird, unnatural tint, hard to
name, never to be forgotten. The far horizons drew steadily closer as the
days passed slowly and thickened the veil of smoke. The distant mountains
drew daily back into dimmer distance; became an obscure, formless blot
against the sky, and vanished completely. The horizon crouched then upon
the bluffs across the river, moved up to the line of trees along its banks,
blotted them out one day, and impudently established itself half-way up the
coulee.

Time ceased to be measured accurately; events moved slowly in an unreal
world of sultry heat and smoke and a red sun wading heavily through the
copper-brown sky from the east to the west, and a moon as red which
followed meekly after.

Men rode uneasily here and there, and when they met they talked of prairie
fires and of fire guards and the direction of the wind, and of the faint
prospect of rain. Cattle, driven from their accustomed feeding grounds,
wandered aimlessly over the still-unburned range, and lowed often in the
night as they drifted before the flame-heated wind.

Fifteen miles to the east of Cold Spring Coulee, the Wishbone outfit
watched uneasily the deepening haze. Kent and Bob Royden were put to riding
the range from the river north and west, and Polycarp Jenks, who had taken
a claim where were good water and some shelter, and who never seemed to
be there for more than a few hours at a time, because of his boundless
curiosity, wandered about on his great, raw-boned sorrel with the white
legs, and seemed always to have the latest fire news on the tip of his
tongue, and always eager to impart it to somebody.

To the northwest there was the Double Diamond, also sleeping with both eyes
open, so to speak. They also had two men out watching the range, though
the fires were said to be all across the river. But there was the railroad
seaming the country straight through the grassland, and though the company
was prompt at plowing fire guards, contract work would always bear
watching, said the stockmen, and with the high winds that prevailed there
was no telling what might happen.

So Fred De Garmo and Bill Madison patrolled the country in rather desultory
fashion, if the truth be known. They liked best to ride to the north and
east--which, while following faithfully the railroad and the danger line,
would bring them eventually to Hope, where they never failed to stop as
long as they dared. For, although they never analyzed their feelings, they
knew that as long as they kept their jobs and their pay was forthcoming, a
few miles of blackened range concerned them personally not at all.
Still, barring a fondness for the trail which led to town, they were not
unfaithful to their trust.

One day Kent and Polycarp met on the brink of a deep coulee, and, as is the
way of men who ride the dim trails, they stopped to talk a bit.

Polycarp, cracking his face across the middle with his habitual grin,
straightened his right leg to its full length, slid his hand with
difficulty into his pocket, brought up a dirty fragment of "plug" tobacco,
looked it over inquiringly, and pried off the corner with his teeth. When
he had rolled it comfortably into his cheek and had straightened his leg
and replaced the tobacco in his pocket, he was "all set" and ready for
conversation.

Kent had taken the opportunity to roll a cigarette, though smoking on the
range was a weakness to be indulged in with much care. He pinched out the
blaze of his match, as usual, and then spat upon it for added safety before
throwing it away.

"If this heat doesn't let up," he remarked, "the grass is going to blaze up
from sunburn."

"It won't need to, if you ask me. I wouldn't be su'prised to see this hull
range afire any time. Between you an' me, Kenneth, them Double Diamond
fellers ain't watching it as close as they might. I was away over Dry Creek
way yesterday, and I seen where there was two different fires got through
the company's guards, and kited off across the country. It jest _happened_
that the grass give out in that red day soil, and starved 'em both out.
They wa'n't _put_ out. I looked close all around, and there wasn't nary a
track of man or horse. That's their business--ridin' line on the railroad.
The section men's been workin' off down the other way, where a culvert got
scorched up pretty bad. By granny, Fred 'n' Bill Madison spend might' nigh
all their time ridin' the trail to town. They're might' p'ticular about
watchin' the railroad between the switches--_he-he!_"

"That's something for the Double Diamond to worry over," Kent rebuffed. He
hated that sort of gossip which must speak ill of somebody. "Our winter
range lays mostly south and east; we could stop a fire between here and the
Double Diamond, even if they let one get past 'em."

Polycarp regarded him cunningly with his little, slitlike eyes. "Mebbe you
could," he said doubtfully. "And then again, mebbe you couldn't. Oncet
it got past Cold Spring--" He shook his wizened head slowly, leaned, and
expectorated gravely.

"Man Fleetwood's keeping tab pretty close over that way."

Polycarp gave a grunt that was half a chuckle. "Man Fleetwood's keeping tab
on what runs down his gullet," he corrected. "I seen him an' his wife out
burnin' guards t' other day--over on his west line--and, by granny, it
wouldn't stop nothing! A toad could jump it--_he-he!_" He sent another
stream of tobacco juice afar, with the grave air as before.

"And I told him so. 'Man,' I says, 'what you think you're doing?'

"'Buildin' a fire guard,' he says. 'My wife, Mr. Jenks.'

"'Polycarp Jenks is my cognomen,' I says. 'And I don't want no misterin'
in mine. Polycarp's good enough for me,' I says, and I took off my hat and
bowed to 'is wife. Funny kinda eyes, she's got--ever take notice? Yeller,
by granny! first time I ever seen yeller eyes in a human's face. Mebbe it
was the sun in 'em, but they sure was yeller. I dunno as they hurt her
looks none, either. Kinda queer lookin', but when you git used to 'em you
kinda like 'em.

"'N' I says: 'Tain't half wide enough, nor a third'--spoke right up to 'im!
I was thinkin' of the hull blamed country, and I didn't care how he took
it. 'Any good, able-bodied wind'll jump a fire across that guard so quick
it won't reelize there was any there,' I says.

"Man didn't like it none too well, either. He says to me: 'That guard'll
stop any fire I ever saw,' and I got right back at him--_he-he!_ 'Man,' I
says, 'you ain't never saw a prairie fire'--just like that. 'You wait,' I
says, 'till the real thing comes along. We ain't had any fires since you
come into the country,' I says, 'and you don't know what they're like. Now,
you take my advice and plow another four or five furrows--and plow 'em out,
seventy-five or a hundred feet from here,' I says, 'an' make sure you
git all the grass burned off between--and do it on a still day,' I says.
'You'll burn up the hull country if you keep on this here way you're
doing,' I told him--straight out, just like that. 'And when you do it,' I
says, 'you better let somebody know, so's they can come an' help,' I says.
''Tain't any job a man oughta tackle alone,' I says to him. 'Git help, Man,
git help.'

"Well, by granny--_he-he!_ Man's wife brustled up at me like a--a--" He
searched his brain for a simile, and failed to find one. "'I have been
helping Manley, Mr. Polycarp Jenks,' she says to me, 'and I flatter myself
I have done as well as any _man_ could do.' And, by granny! the way them
yeller eyes of hern blazed at me--_he-he!_ I had to laugh, jest to look
at her. Dressed jest like a city girl, by granny! with ruffles on her
skirts--to ketch afire if she wasn't mighty keerful!--and a big straw hat
tied down with a veil, and kid gloves on her hands, and her yeller
hair kinda fallin' around her face--and them yeller eyes snappin' like
flames--by granny! if she didn't make as purty a picture as I ever want
to set eyes on! Slim and straight, jest like a storybook woman--_he-he!_
'Course, she was all smoke an' dirt; a big flake of burned grass was on her
hair, I took notice, and them ruffles was black up to her knees--_he-he!_
And she had a big smut on her cheek--but she was right there with her stack
of blues, by granny! Settin' into the game like a--a--" He leaned and
spat "But burnin' guards ain't no work for a woman to do, an' I told Man
so--straight out. 'You git help,' I says. 'I see you're might' near through
with this here strip,' I says, 'an' I'm in a hurry, or I'd stay, right
now.' And, by granny! if that there wife of Man's didn't up an' hit me
another biff--_he-he!_

"'Thank you very much,' she says to me, like ice water. 'When we need
your help, we'll be sure to let you know--but at present,' she says, 'we
couldn't think of troubling you.' And then, by granny! she turns right
around and smiles up at me--_he-he!_ Made me feel like somebody'd tickled
m' ear with a spear of hay when I was asleep, by granny! Never felt
anything like it--not jest with somebody smilin' at me.

"'Polycarp Jenks,' she says to me, 'we do appreciate what you've told us,
and I believe you're right,' she says. 'But don't insiniwate I'm not as
good a fighter as any man who ever breathed,' she says. 'Manley has another
of his headaches to-day--going to town always gives him a sick headache,'
she says, 'and I've done nearly all of this my own, lone self,' she says.
'And I'm horribly proud of it, and I'll never forgive you for saying I--'
And then, by granny! if she didn't begin to blink them eyes, and I felt
like a--a--" He put the usual period to his hesitation.

"Between you an' _me_, Kenneth," he added, looking at Kent slyly, "she
ain't having none too easy a time. Man's gone back to drinkin'--I knowed
all the time he wouldn't stay braced up very long--lasted about six weeks,
from all I c'n hear. Mebbe she reely thinks it's jest headaches ails him
when he comes back from town--I dunno. You can't never tell what idees a
woman's got tacked away under her hair--from all I c'n gether. I don't
p'tend to know nothing about 'em--don't want to know--_he-he!_ But I
guess," he hinted cunningly, "I know as much about 'em as you do--hey,
Kenneth? You don't seem to chase after 'em none, yourself--_he-he!_"

"Whereabouts did Man run his guards?" asked Kent, passing over the
invitation to personal confessions.

Polycarp gave a grunt of disdain. "Just on the west rim of his coulee.
About forty rod of six-foot guard, and slanted so it'll shoot a fire right
into high grass at the head of the coulee and send it kitin' over this way.
That's supposin' it turns a fire, which it won't. Six feet--a fall like
this here! Why, I never see grass so thick on this range--did you?"

"I wonder, did he burn that extra guard?" Kent was keeping himself rigidly
to the subject of real importance.

"No, by granny! he didn't--not unless he done it since yest'day. He went
to town for suthin, and he might' nigh forgot to go home--_he-he!_ He was
there yest'day about three o'clock, an' I says to him--"

"Well, so-long; I got to, be moving." Kent gathered up the reins and went
his way, leaving Polycarp just in the act of drawing his "plug" from his
pocket, by his usual laborious method, in mental preparation for another
half hour of talk.

"If you're ridin' over that way, Kenneth, you better take a look at Man's
guard," he called after him. "A good mile of guard, along there, would
help a lot if a fire got started beyond. The way he fixed it, it ain't no
account at all."

Kent proved by a gesture that he heard him, and rode on without turning to
look back. Already his form was blurred as Polycarp gazed after him, and
in another minute or two he was blotted out completely by the smoke veil,
though he rode upon the level. Polycarp watched him craftily, though there
was no need, until he was completely hidden, then he went on, ruminating
upon the faults of his acquaintances.

Kent had no intention of riding over to Cold Spring. He had not been there
since Manley's marriage, though he had been a frequent visitor before, and
unless necessity drove him there, it would be long before he faced again
the antagonism of Mrs. Fleetwood. Still, he was mentally uncomfortable, and
he felt much resentment against Polycarp Jenks because he had caused that
discomfort. What was it to him, if Manley had gone bock to drinking? He
asked the question more than once, and he answered always that it was
nothing to him, of course. Still, he wished futilely that he had not been
quite so eager to cover up Manley's weakness and deceive the girl. He ought
to have given her a chance--

A cinder like a huge black snowflake struck him suddenly upon the cheek. He
looked up, startled, and tried to see farther into the haze which closed
him round. It seemed to him, now that his mind was turned from his musings,
that the smoke was thicker, the smell of burning grass stronger, and the
breath of wind hotter upon his face. He turned, looked away to the west,
fancied there a tumbled blackness new to his sight, and put his horse to a
run. If there were fire close, then every second counted; and as he raced
over the uneven prairie he fumbled with the saddle string that held a
sodden sack tied fast to the saddle, that he might lose no time.

The cinders grew thicker, until the air was filled with them, like a
snowstorm done in India ink. A little farther and he heard a faint
crackling; topped a ridge and saw not far ahead, a dancing, yellow line.
His horse was breathing heavily with the pace he was keeping, but Kent,
swinging away from the onrush of flame and heat, spurred him to a greater
speed. They neared the end of the crackling, red line, and as Kent swung in
behind it upon the burned ground, he saw several men beating steadily at
the flames.

He was hardly at work when Polycarp came running up and took his place
beside him; but beyond that Kent paid no attention to the others, though he
heard and recognized the voice of Fred De Garmo calling out to some one.
The smoke which rolled up in uneven volumes as the wind lifted it and bore
it away, or let it suck backward as it veered for an instant, blinded him
while he fought. He heard other men gallop up, and after a little some one
clattered up with a wagon filled with barrels of water. He ran to wet
his sack, and saw that it was Blumenthall himself, foreman of the Double
Diamond, who drove the team.

"Lucky it ain't as windy as it was yesterday and the day before,"
Blumenthall cried out, as Kent stepped upon the brake block to reach a
barrel. "It'd sweep the whole country if it was."

Kent nodded, and ran back to the fire, trailing the dripping sack after
him. As he passed Polycarp and another, he heard Polycarp saying something
about Man Fleetwood's fire guard; but he did not stop to hear what it was.
Polycarp was always talking, and he didn't always keep too closely to
facts.

Then, of a sudden, he saw men dimly when he glanced down the leaping fire
line, and he knew that the fire was almost conquered. Another frenzied
minute or two, and he was standing in a group of men, who dropped their
charred, blackened fragments of blanket and bags, and began to feel for
their smoking material, while they stamped upon stray embers which looked
live enough to be dangerous.

"Well, she's out," said a voice, "But it did look for a while as if it'd
get away in spite of us."

Kent turned away, wiping an eye which held a cinder fast under the lid. It
was Fred De Garmo who spoke.

"If somebody'd been watchin' the railroad a leetle might closer--" Polycarp
began, in his thin, rasping voice.

Fred cut him short. "I thought you laid it to Man Fleetwood, burning fire
guards," he retorted. "Keep on, and you'll get it right pretty soon. This
never come from the railroad; you can gamble on that."

Blumenthall had left his team and come among them. "If you want to know how
it started, I can tell you. Somebody dropped a match, or a cigarette, or
something, by the trail up here a ways. I saw where it started when I went
to Cold Spring after the last load of water. And if I knew who it was--"

Polycarp launched his opinion first, as usual. "Well, I don't _know_ who
done it--but, by granny! I can might' nigh guess who it was. There's jest
one man that I know of been traveling that trail lately when he wa'n't in
his sober senses--"

Here Manley Fleetwood rode up to them, coughing at the soot his horse
kicked up. "Say! you fellows come on over to the house and have something
to eat--and," he added significantly, "something _wet_. I told my wife,
when I saw the fire, to make plenty of coffee, for fighting fire's hungry
work, let me tell. Come on--no hanging back, you know. There'll be lots of
coffee, and I've got a quart of something better cached in the haystack!"

As he had said, fighting fire is hungry work, and none save Blumenthall,
who was dyspeptic and only ate twice a day, and then of certain foods
prepared by himself, declined the invitation.



CHAPTER VII. VAL'S NEW DUTIES

To Val the days of heat and smoke, and the isolation, had made life seem
unreal, like a dream which holds one fast and yet is absurd and utterly
improbable. Her past was pushed so far from her that she could not even
long for it as she had done during the first few weeks. There were nights
of utter desolation, when Manley was in town upon some errand which
prevented his speedy return--nights when the coyotes howled much louder
than usual, and she could not sleep for the mysterious snapping and
creaking about the shack, but lay shivering with fear until dawn; but not
for worlds would she have admitted to Manley her dread of staying alone.
She believed it to be necessary, or he would not require it of her, and she
wanted to be all that he expected her to be. She was very sensitive, in
those days, about doing her whole duty as a wife--the wife of a Western
rancher.

For that reason, when Manley shouted to her the news of the fire as he
galloped past the shack, and told her to have something for the men to eat
when the fire was out, she never thought of demurring, or explaining to
him that there was scarcely any wood, and that she could not cook a meal
without fuel. Instead, she waved her hand to him and let him go; and when
he was quite out of sight she went up to the corrals to see if she could
find another useless pole, or a broken board or two which her slight
strength would be sufficient to break up with the axe. Till she came to
Montana, Val had never taken an axe in her hands; but its use was only
one of the many things she must learn, of which she had all her life been
ignorant.

There was an old post there, lying beside a rusty, overturned plow. More
than once she had stopped and eyed it speculatively, and the day before she
had gone so far as to lift an end of it tentatively; but she had found
it very heavy, and she had also disturbed a lot of black bugs that went
scurrying here and there, so that she was forced to gather her skirts close
about her and run for her life.

Where Manley had built his hayrack she had yesterday discovered some ends
of planking hidden away in the rank, ripened weeds and grass. She went
there now, but there were no more, look closely as she might. She circled
the evil-smelling stable in discouragement, picked up one short piece of
rotten board, and came back to the post. As she neared it she involuntarily
caught her skirts and held them close, in terror of the black bugs.

She eyed it with extreme disfavor, and finally ventured to poke it with her
slipper toe; one lone bug scuttled out and away in the tall weeds. With
the piece of board she turned it over, stared hard at the yellowed grass
beneath, discovered nothing so very terrifying after all, and, in pure
desperation, dragged the post laboriously down to the place where had been
the woodpile. Then, lifting the heavy axe, she went awkwardly to work
upon it, and actually succeeded, in the course of half an hour or so, in
worrying an armful of splinters off it.

She started a fire, and then she had to take the big zinc pail and carry
some water down from the spring before she could really begin to cook
anything. Manley's work, every bit of it--but then Manley was so very busy,
and he couldn't remember all these little things, and Val hated to keep
reminding him. Theoretically, Manley objected to her chopping wood or
carrying water, and always seemed to feel a personal resentment when he
discovered her doing it. Practically, however, he was more and more often
making it necessary for her to do these things.

That is why he returned with the fire fighters and found Val just laying
the cloth upon the table, which she had moved into the front room so that
there would be space to seat her guests at all four sides. He frowned when
he looked in and saw that they must wait indefinitely, and her cheeks took
on a deeper shade of pink.

"Everything will be ready in ten minutes," she hurriedly assured him. "How
many are there, dear?"

"Eight, counting myself," he answered gruffly. "Get some clean towels, and
we'll go up to the spring to wash; and try and have dinner ready when we
get back--we're half starved." With the towels over his arm, he led the way
up to the spring. He must have taken the trail which led past the haystack,
for he returned in much better humor, and introduced the men to his wife
with the genial air of a host who loves to entertain largely.

Val stood back and watched them file in to the table and seat themselves
with a noisy confusion. Unpolished they were, in clothes and manner, though
she dimly appreciated the way in which they refrained from looking at her
too intently, and the conscious lowering of their voices while they talked
among themselves.

They did, however, glance at her surreptitiously while she was moving
quietly about, with her flushed cheeks and her yellow-brown hair falling
becomingly down at the temples because she had not found a spare minute in
which to brush it smooth, and her dainty dress and crisp, white apron. She
was not like the women they were accustomed to meet, and they paid her the
high tribute of being embarrassed by her presence.

She poured coffee until all the cups were full, replenished the bread plate
and brought more butter, and hunted the kitchen over for the can opener,
to punch little holes in another can of condensed cream; and she rather
astonished her guests by serving it in a beautiful cut-glass pitcher
instead of the can in which it was bought.

They handled the pitcher awkwardly because of their mental uneasiness,
and Val shared with them their fear of breaking it, and was guilty of an
audible sigh of relief when at last it found safety upon the table.

So perturbed was she that even when she decided that she could do no more
for their comfort and retreated to the kitchen, she failed to realize that
the one extra plate meant an absent guest, and not a miscount in placing
them, as she fancied.

She remembered that she would need plenty of hot water to wash all those
dishes, and the zinc pail was empty; it always was, it seemed to her, no
matter how often she filed it. She took the tin dipper out of it, so that
it would not rattle and betray her purpose to Manley, sitting just inside
the door with his back toward her, and tiptoed quite guiltily out of the
kitchen. Once well away from the shack, she ran.

She reached the spring quite out of breath, and she actually bumped into
a man who stood carefully rinsing a bloodstained handkerchief under the
overflow from the horse trough. She gave a little scream, and the pail went
rolling noisily down the steep bank and lay on its side in the mud.

Kent turned and looked at her, himself rather startled by the unexpected
collision. Involuntarily he threw out his hand to steady her. "How do you
do, Mrs. Fleetwood?" he said, with all the composure he could muster to his
aid. "I'm afraid I scared you. My nose got to bleeding--with the heat, I
guess. I just now managed to stop it." He did not consider it necessary to
explain his presence, but he did feel that talking would help her recover
her breath and her color. "It's a plumb nuisance to have the nosebleed so
much," he added plaintively.

Val was still trembling and staring at him with her odd, yellow-brown eyes.
He glanced at her swiftly, and then bent to squeeze the water from his
handkerchief; but his trained eyes saw her in all her dainty allurement;
saw how the coppery sunlight gave a strange glint to her hair, and how
her eyes almost matched it in color, and how the pupils had widened with
fright. He saw, too, something wistful in her face, as though life was
none too kind to her, and she had not yet abandoned her first sensation of
pained surprise that it should treat her so.

"That's what I get for running," she said, still panting a little as she
watched him. "I thought all the men were at the table, you see. Your dinner
will be cold, Mr. Burnett."

Kent was a bit surprised at the absence of cold hauteur in her manner; his
memory of her had been so different.

"Well, I'm used to cold grub," he smiled over his shoulder. "And, anyway,
when your nose gets to acting up with you, it's like riding a pitching
horse; you've got to pass up everything and give it all your time and
attention." Then, with the daring that sometimes possessed him like a
devil, he looked straight at her.

"Sure you intend to give me my dinner?" he quizzed, his lips' lifting
humorously at the corners. "I kinda thought, from the way you turned me
down cold when we met before, you'd shut your door in my face if I came
pestering around. How _about_ that?"

Little flames of light nickered in her eyes. "You are the guest of my
husband, here by his invitation," she answered him coldly. "Of course I
shall give you your dinner, if you want any."

He inspected his handkerchief critically, decided that it was not quite
clean, and held it again under the stream of water. "If I want it--yes," he
drawled maliciously. "Maybe I'm not sure about that part. Are you a pretty
fair cook?"

"Perhaps you'd better interview your friends," she retorted, "if you are so
very fastidious. I--" She drew her brows together, as if she was in doubt
as to the proper method of dealing with this impertinence. She suspected
that he was teasing her purposely, but still--

"Oh, I can eat 'most any old thing," he assured her, with calm effrontery.
"You look as if you'd learn easy, and Man ain't the worst cook I ever ate
after. If he's trained you faithful, maybe it'll be safe to take a change.
How _about_ that? Can you make sour-dough bread yet?"

"No!" she flung the word at him. "And I don't want to learn," she added, at
the expense of her dignity.

Kent shook his head disapprovingly. "That sure ain't the proper spirit to
show," he commented. "Man must have to beat you up a good deal, if you talk
back to _him_ that way." He eyed her sidelong. "You're a real little wolf,
aren't you?" He shook his head again solemnly, and sighed. "A fellow sure
must build himself lots of trouble when he annexes a wife--a wife that
won't learn to make sour-dough bread, and that talks back. I'm plumb sorry
for Man. We used to be pretty good friends--" He stopped short, his face
contrite.

Val was looking away, and she was winking very fast. Also, her lips were
quivering unmistakably, though she was biting them to keep them steady.

Kent stared at her helplessly. "Say! I never thought you'd mind a little
joshing," he said gently, when the silence was growing awkward. "I ought to
be killed! You--you must get awful lonesome--"

She turned her face toward him quickly, as if he were the first person
who had understood her blank loneliness. "That," she told him, in an
odd, hesitating manner, "atones for the--the 'joshing.' No one seems to
realize--"

"Why don't you get out and ride around, or do something beside stick right
here in this coulee like a--a cactus?" he demanded, with a roughness that
somehow was grateful to her. "I'll bet you haven't been a mile from the
ranch since Man brought you here. Why don't you go to town with him when
he goes? It'd be a whole lot better for you--for both of you. Have you got
acquainted with any of the women here yet? I'll gamble you haven't!" He was
waving the handkerchief gently like a flag, to dry it.

Val watched him; she had never seen any one hold a handkerchief by the
corners and wave it up and down like that for quick drying, and the
expedient interested her, even while she was wondering if it was quite
proper for him to lecture her in that manner. His scolding was even more
confusing than his teasing.

"I've been down to the river twice," she defended weakly, and was angry
with herself that she could not find words with which to quell him.

"Really?" He down at her indulgently. "How did you ever manage to get so
far? It must be all of half a mile!"

"Oh, you're perfectly horrible!" she flashed suddenly. "I don't see how it
can possibly concern you whether I go anywhere or not."

"It does, though. I'm a lot public-spirited. I hate to see taxes go up, and
every lunatic that goes to the asylum costs the State just that much more.
I don't know an easier recipe for going crazy than just to stay off alone
and think. It's a fright the way it gets sheep-herders, and such."

"I'm _such_, I suppose!"

Kent glanced at her, approved mentally of the color in her cheeks and the
angry light in her eyes, and laughed at her quite openly.

"There's nothing like getting good and mad once in a while, to take
the kinks out of your brain," he observed. "And there's nothing like
lonesomeness to put 'em in. A good fighting mad is what you need, now and
then; I'll have to put Man next, I guess. He's too mild."

"No one could accuse you of that," she retorted, laughing a little in spite
of herself. "If I were a man I should want to blacken your eyes--" And she
blushed hotly at being betrayed into a personality which seemed to her
undignified, and, what was worse, unrefined. She turned her back squarely
toward him, started down the path, and remembered that she had not filled
the water bucket, and that without it she could not consistently return to
the house.

Kent interpreted her glance, went sliding down the steep bank and recovered
the pail; he was laughing to himself while he rinsed and filled it at the
spring, but he made no effort to explain his amusement. When he came back
to where she stood watching him, Val gave her head a slight downward tilt
to indicate her thanks, turned, and led the way back to the house without
a word. And he, following after, watched her slim figure swinging lightly
down the hill before him, and wondered vaguely what sort of a hell her life
was going to be, out here where everything was different from what she had
been accustomed to, and where she did not seem to "fit into the scenery,"
as he put it.

"You ought to learn to ride horseback," he advised unexpectedly.

"Pardon me--you ought to learn to wait until your advice is wanted," she
replied calmly, without turning her head. And she added, with a sort of
defiance: "I do not feel the need of either society or diversion, I assure
you; I am perfectly contented."

"That's real nice," he approved. "There's nothing like being satisfied with
what's handed out to you." But, though he spoke with much unconcern, his
tone betrayed his skepticism.

The others had finished eating and were sitting upon their heels in the
shade of the house, smoking and talking in that desultory fashion common to
men just after a good meal. Two or three glanced rather curiously at Kent
and his companion, and he detected the covert smile on the scandal-hungry
face of Polycarp Jenks, and also the amused twist of Fred De Garmo's lips.
He went past them without a sign of understanding, set the water pail down
in its proper place upon a bench inside the kitchen door, tilted his hat
to Val, who happened to be looking toward him at that moment, and went out
again.

"What's the hurry, Kenneth?" quizzed Polycarp, when Kent started toward the
corral.

"Follow my trail long enough and you'll find out--maybe," Kent snapped in
reply. He felt that the whole group was watching hum, and he knew that if
he looked back and caught another glimpse of Fred De Garmo's sneering face
he would feel compelled to strike it a blow. There would be no plausible
explanation, of course, and Kent was not by nature a trouble hunter; and so
he chose to ride away without his dinner.

While Polycarp was still wondering audibly what was the matter, Kent passed
the house on his gray, called "So-long, Man," with scarcely a glance at his
host, and speedily became a dim figure in the smoke haze.

"He must be runnin' away from you, Fred," Polycarp hinted, grinning
cunningly. "What you done to him--hey?"

Fred answered him with an unsatisfactory scowl. "You sure would be wise, if
you found out everything you wanted to know," he said contemptuously, after
an appreciable Wait. "I guess we better be moving along, Bill." He rose,
brushed off his trousers with a downward sweep of his hands, and strolled
toward the corrals, followed languidly by Bill Madison.

As if they had been waiting for a leader, the others rose also and prepared
to depart. Polycarp proceeded, in his usual laborious manner, to draw his
tobacco from his pocket, and pry off a corner.

"Why don't you burn them guards now, Manley, while you got plenty of help?"
he suggested, turning his slit-lidded eyes toward the kitchen door, where
Val appeared for an instant to reach the broom which stood outside.

"Because I don't want to," snapped Manley: "I've got plenty to do without
that."

"Well, they ain't wide enough, nor long enough, and they don't run in the
right direction--if you ask me." Polycarp spat solemnly off to the right.

"I don't ask you, as it happens." Manley turned and went into the home.

Polycarp looked quizzically at the closed door. "He's mighty touchy about
them guards, for a feller that thinks they're all right--_he-he!_" he
remarked, to no one in particular. "Some of these days, by granny, he'll
wisht he'd took my advice!"

Since no one gave him the slightest attention, Polycarp did not pursue the
subject further. Instead, with both ears open to catch all that was said,
he trailed after the others to the corral. It was a matter of instinct,
as well as principle, with Polycarp Jenks, to let no sentence, however
trivial, slip past his hearing and his memory.



CHAPTER VIII. THE PRAIRIE FIRE

A calamity expected, feared, and guarded against by a whole community does
sometimes occur, and with a suddenness which finds the victims unprepared
in spite of all their elaborate precautions. Compared with the importance
of saving the range from fire, it was but a trivial thing which took nearly
every man who dwelt in Lonesome Land to town on a certain day when the wind
blew free from out the west. They were weary of watching for the fire which
did not come licking through the prairie grass, and a special campaign
train bearing a prospective President of our United States was expected to
pass through Hope that afternoon.

Since all trains watered at the red tank by the creek, there would be a
five-minute stop, during which the prospective President would stand upon
the rear platform and deliver a three-minute address--a few gracious words
to tickle the self-esteem of his listeners--and would employ the other two
minutes in shaking the hand of every man, woman, and child who could reach
him before the train pulled out. There would be a cheer or two given as he
was borne away--and there would be something to talk about afterward in the
saloons. Scarce a man of then had ever seen a President, and it was worth
riding far to look upon a man who even hoped for so exalted a position.

Manley went because he intended to vote for the man, and called it an act
of loyalty to his party to greet the candidate; also because it took very
little, now that haying was over and work did not press, to start him down
the trail in the direction of Hope.

At the Blumenthall ranch no man save the cook remained at home, and he only
because he had a boil on his neck which sapped his interest in all things
else. Polycarp Jenks was in town by nine o'clock, and only one man remained
at the Wishbone. That man was Kent, and he stayed because, according to his
outraged companions, he was an ornery cuss, and his bump of patriotism was
a hollow in his skull. Kent had told them, one and all, that he wouldn't
ride twenty-five miles to shake hands with the Deity Himself--which,
however, is not a verbatim report of his statement. The prospective
President had not done anything so big, he said, that a man should want to
break his neck getting to town just to watch him go by. He was dead sure
he, for one, wasn't going to make a fool of himself over any swell-headed
politician.

Still, he saddled and rode with his fellows for a mile or two, and called
them unseemly names in a facetious tone; and the men of the Wishbone
answered his taunts with shrill yells of derision when he swung out of the
trail and jogged away to the south, and finally passed out of sight in the
haze which still hung depressingly over the land.

Oddly enough, while all the able-bodied men save Kent were waiting
hilariously in Hope to greet, with enthusiasm, the brief presence of the
man who would fain be their political chief, the train which bore him
eastward scattered fiery destruction abroad as it sped across their range,
four minutes late and straining to make up the time before the next stop.

They had thought the railroad safe at last, what with the guards and the
numerous burned patches where the fire had jumped the plowed boundary and
blackened the earth to the fence which marked the line of the right of way,
and, in some places, had burned beyond. It took a flag-flying special train
of that bitter Presidential campaign to find a weak spot in the guard, and
to send a spark straight into the thickest bunch of wiry sand grass, where
the wind could fan it to a blaze and then seize it and bend the tall flame
tongues until they licked around the next tuft of grass, and the next,
and the next--until the spark was grown to a long, leaping line of fire,
sweeping eastward with the relentless rush of a tidal wave upon a low-lying
beach.

Arline Hawley was, perhaps, the only citizen of Hope who had deliberately
chosen to absent herself from the crowd standing, in perspiring
expectation, upon the depot platform. She had permitted Minnie, the "breed"
girl, to go, and had even grudgingly consented to her using a box of
cornstarch as first aid to her complexion. Arline had not approved,
however, of either the complexion or the occasion.

"What you want to go and plaster your face up with starch for, gits me,"
she had criticised frankly. "Seems to me you're homely enough without
lookin' silly, into the bargain. Nobody's going to look at you, no matter
what you do. They're out to rubber at a higher mark than you be. And what
they expect to see so great, gits me. He ain't nothing but a man--and, land
knows, men is common enough, and ornery enough, without runnin' like a band
of sheep to see one. I don't see as he's any better, jest because he's
runnin' for President; if he gits beat, he'll want to hide his head in a
hole in the ground. Look at my Walt. _He_ was the biggest man in Hope, and
so swell-headed he wouldn't so much as pack a bucket of water all fall, or
chop up a tie for kindlin'--till the day after 'lection. And what was he
then but a frazzled-out back number, that everybody give the laugh--till he
up and blowed his brains out! Any fool can _run_ for President--it's the
feller that gits there that counts.

"Say, that red-white-'n'-blue ribbon sure looks fierce on that green
dress--but I reckon blood will tell, even if it's Injun blood. G'wan, or
you'll be late and have your trouble for your pay. But hurry back soon's
the agony's over; the bread'll be ready to mix out."

Even after the girl was gone, her finery a-flutter in the sweeping west
wind, Arline muttered aloud her opinion of men, and particularly of
politicians who rode about in special trains and expected the homage of
their fellows.

She was in the back yard, taking her "white clothes" off the line, when the
special came puffing slowly into town. To emphasize her disapproval of the
whole system of politics, she turned her back square toward it, and laid
violent hold of a sheet. There was a smudge of cinders upon its white
surface, and it crushed crisply under her thumb with the unmistakable feel
of burned grass.

"Now, what in time--" began Arline aloud, after the manner of women whose
tongues must keep pace with their thoughts. "That there feels fresh
and"--with a sniff at the spot--"_smells_ fresh."

With the wisdom of much experience she faced the hot wind and sniffed
again, while her eyes searched keenly the sky line, which was the ragged
top of the bluff marking the northern boundary of the great prairie land. A
trifle darker it was there, and there was a certain sullen glow discernible
only to eyes trained to read the sky for warning signals of snow, fire, and
flood.

"That's a fire, and it's this side of the river. And if it is, then the
railroad set it, and there ain't a livin' thing to stop it. An' the wind's
jest right--" A curdled roll of smoke showed plainly for a moment in the
haze. She crammed her armful of sheets into the battered willow basket,
threw two clothespins hastily toward the same receptacle, and ran.

The special had just come to a stop at the depot. The cattlemen, cowboys,
and townspeople were packed close around the rear of the train, their backs
to the wind and the disaster sweeping down upon them, their browned faces
upturned to the sleek, carefully groomed man in the light-gray suit, with a
flaunting, prairie sunflower ostentatiously displayed in his buttonhole and
with his campaign smile upon his lips and dull boredom looking out of his
eyes.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he was saying, as he smiled, "you favoured ones
whose happy lot it is to live in the most glorious State of our glorious
union, I greet you, and I envy you--"

Arline, with her soiled kitchen apron, her ragged coil of dust-brown hair,
her work-drawn face and faded eyes which blazed with excitement, pushed
unceremoniously through the crowd and confronted him undazzled.

"Mister Candidate, you better move on and give these men a chancet to save
their prope'ty," she cried shrilly. "They got something to do besides stand
around here and listen at you throwin' campaign loads. The hull country's
afire back of us, and the wind bringin' it down on a long lope."

She turned from the astounded candidate and glared at the startled crowd,
every one of whom she knew personally.

"I must say I got my opinion of a bunch that'll stand here swallowin' a lot
of hot air, while their coat tails is most ready to ketch afire!" Her voice
was rasping, and it carried to the farthest of them. "You make me _tired!_
Political slush, all of it--and the hull darned country a-blazin' behind
you!"

The crowd moved uneasily, then scattered away from the shelter of the depot
to where they could snuff inquiringly the wind, like dogs in the leash.

"That's right," yelled Blumenthall, of the Double Diamond. "There's a fire,
sure as hell!" He started to run.

The man behind him hesitated but a second, then gripped his hat against the
push of the wind, and began running. Presently men, women, and children
were running, all in one direction.

The prospective President stood agape upon the platform of his
bunting-draped car, his chosen allies grouped foolishly around him. It
was the first time men had turned from his presence with his gracious,
flatteringly noncommittal speech unuttered, his hand unshaken, his smiling,
bowing departure unmarked by cheers growing fainter as he receded. Only
Arline tarried, her thin fingers gripping the arm of her "breed girl," lest
she catch the panic and run with the others.

Arline tilted back her head upon her scrawny shoulders and eyed the
prospective President with antagonism unconcealed.

"I got something to say to you before you go," she announced, in her
rasping voice, with its querulous note. "I want to tell you that the
chances are a hundred to one you set that fire yourself, with your engine
that's haulin' you around over the country, so you can jolly men into
votin' for you. Your train's the only one over the road since noon, and
that fire started from the railroad. The hull town's liable to burn, unless
it can be stopped the other side the creek, to say nothing of the range,
that feeds our stock, and the hay, and maybe houses--and maybe _people!_"

She caught her breath, and almost shrieked the last three words, as a
dreadful probability flashed into her mind.

"I know a woman--just a girl--and she's back there twenty mile--_alone_,
and her man's here to look at you go by! I hope you git beat, just for
that!

"If this town ketches afire and burns up, I hope you run into the ditch
before you git ten mile! If you was a man, and them fellers with you was
men, you'd hold up your train and help save the town. Every feller counts,
when it comes to fightin' fire."

She stopped and eyed the group keenly. "But you won't. I don't reckon you
ever done anything with them hands in your life that would grind a little
honest dirt into your knuckles and under them shiny nails!"

The prospective President turned red to his ears, and hastily removed his
immaculate hands from where they had been resting upon the railing. And he
did not hold up the train while he and his allies stopped to help save the
town. The whistle gave a warning toot, the bell jangled, and the train slid
away toward the next town, leaving Arline staring, tight-lipped, after it.

"The darned chump--he'd 'a' made votes hand over fist if he'd called my
bluff; but, I knew he wouldn't, soon as I seen his face. He ain't man
enough."

"He's real good-lookin'," sighed Minnie, feebly attempting to release her
arm from the grasp of her mistress. "And did you notice the fellow with the
big yellow mustache? He kept eyin' me--"

"Well, I don't wonder--but it ain't anything to your credit," snapped
Arline, facing her toward the hotel, "You do look like sin a-flyin', in
that green dress, and with all that starch on your face. You git along to
the house and mix that bread, first thing you do, and start a fire. And if
I ain't back by that time, you go ahead with the supper; you know what to
git. We're liable to have all the tables full, so you set all of 'em."

She was hurrying away, when the girl called to her.

"Did you mean Mis' Fleetwood, when you said that about the woman burning?
And do you s'pose she's really in the fire?"

"You shut up and go along!" cried Arline roughly, under the stress of her
own fears. "How in time's anybody going to tell, that's twenty miles away?"

She left the street and went hurrying through back yards and across vacant
lots, crawled through a wire fence, and so reached, without any roundabout
method, the trail which led to the top of the bluff, where the whole town
was breathlessly assembling. Her flat-chested, un-corseted figure merged
into the haze as she half trotted up the steep road, swinging her arms like
a man, her skirts flapping in the wind. As she went, she kept muttering to
herself:

"If she really is caught by the fire--and her alone--and Man more'n half
drunk--" She whirled, and stood waiting for the horseman who was galloping
up the trail behind her. "You going home, Man? You don't think it could
git to your place, do you?" She shouted the questions at him as he pounded
past.

Manley, sallow white with terror, shook his head vaguely and swung his
heavy quirt down upon the flanks of his horse. Arline lowered her head
against the dust kicked into her face as he went tearing past her, and
kept doggedly on. Some one came rattling up behind her with empty barrels
dancing erratically in a wagon, and she left the trail to make room. The
hostler from their own stable it was who drove, and at the creek ahead of
them he stopped to fill the barrels. Arline passed him by and kept on.

At the brow of the hill the women and children were gathered in a
whimpering group. Arline joined them and gazed out over the prairie, where
the smoke was rolling toward them, and, lifting here and there, let a flare
of yellow through.

"It'll show up fine at dark," a fat woman in a buggy remarked. "There's
nothing grander to look at than a prairie fire at night. I do hope," she
added weakly, "it don't do no great damage!"

"Oh, it won't," Arline cut in, with savage sarcasm, panting from her climb.
"It's bound to sweep the hull country slick an' clean, and maybe burn us
all out--but that won't matter, so long as it looks purty after dark!"

"They say it's a good ten mile away yet," another woman volunteered
encouragingly. "They'll git it stopped, all right. There's lots of men here
to fight it, thank goodness!"

Arline moved on to where a plow was being hurriedly unloaded from a wagon,
the horses hitched to it, and a man already grasping the handles in an
aggressive manner. As she came up he went off, yelling his opinions and
turning a shallow, uneven furrow for a back fire. Within five minutes
another plow was tearing up the sod in an opposite direction.

"If it jumps here, or they can't turn it, the creek'll help a lot," some
one was yelling.

The plowed furrows lengthened, the horses sweating and throwing their heads
up and down with the discomfort of the pace they must keep. Whiplashes
whistled and the drivers urged them on with much shouting. Blumenthall, cut
off, with his men, from reaching his own ranch, was directing a group
about to set a back fire. His voice boomed as if he were shouting across a
milling herd. A roll of his eye brought his attention momentarily from the
work, and he ran toward a horseman who was gesticulating wildly and seemed
on the point of riding straight toward the fire.

"Hi! Fleetwood, we need you here!" he yelled. "You can't get home now, and
you know it. The fire's past your place already; you'd have to ride through
it, you fool! Hey? Your wife home alone--_alone!_"

He stood absolutely still and stared out to the southwest, where the smoke
cloud was rolling closer with every breath. He drew his fingers across his
forehead and glanced at the men around him, also stunned into inactivity by
the tragedy behind the words.

"Well--get to work, men. We've got to save the town. Fine time to burn
guards--when a fire's loping up on you! But that's the way it goes,
generally. This ought to've been done a month ago. Put it off and put it
off--while they haggle over bids--Brinberg, you and I'll string the fire.
The rest of you watch it don't jump back. And, say!" he shouted to the
group around Manley. "Don't let that crazy fool start off now. Put him to
work. Best thing for him. But--my God, that's awful!" He did not shout the
last sentence. He spoke so that only the nearest man heard him--heard, and
nodded dumb assent.

Manley raged, sitting helpless there upon his horse. They would not let him
ride out toward that sweeping wave of fire. He could not have gone five
miles toward home before he met the flames. He stood in the stirrups
and shook his fists impotently. He strained his eyes to see what it was
impossible for him to see--his ranch and Val, and how they had fared. He
pictured mentally the guard he had burned beyond the coulee to protect them
from just this danger, and his heart squeezed tight at the realization of
his own shiftlessness. That guard! A twelve-foot strip of half-burned sod,
with tufts of grass left standing here and there--and he had meant to burn
it wider, and had put it off from day to day, until now. _Now!_

His clenched fist dropped upon the saddle horn, and he stared dully at the
rushing, rolling smoke and fire. It was not _that_ he saw--it was Val, with
cinder-blackened ruffles, grimy face, and yellow hair falling in loose
locks upon her cheeks--locks which she must stop to push out of her eyes,
so that she could see where to swing the sodden sack while she helped
him--him, Manley, who had permitted her to do work it for none but a man's
hard muscles, so that he might finish the sooner and ride to town upon some
flimsy pretext. And he could not even reach her now--or the place where she
had been!

The group had thinned around him, for there was something to do besides
give sympathy to a man bereaved. Unless they bestirred themselves, they
might all be in need of sympathy before the day was done. Manley took his
eyes from the coming fire and glanced around him, saw that he was alone,
and, with a despairing oath, wheeled his horse and raced back down the hill
to town, as if fiends rode behind the saddle.

At the saloon opposite the Hawley Hotel he drew up; rather, his horse
stopped there of his own accord, as if he were quite at home at that
particular hitching pole. Manley dismounted heavily and lurched inside. The
place was deserted save for Jim, who was paid to watch the wares of his
employer, and was now standing upon a chair at the window, that he might
see over the top of Hawley's coal shed and glimpse the hilltop beyond. Jim
stepped down and came toward him.

"How's the fire?" he demanded anxiously. "Think she'll swing over this
way?"

But Manley had sunk into a chair and buried his face in his arms, folded
upon a whisky-spotted card table.

"Val--my Val!" he wailed, "Back there alone--get me a drink," he added
thickly, "or I'll go crazy!"

Jim hastily poured a full glass, and stood over him anxiously.

"Here it is. Drink 'er down, and brace up. What you mean? Is your wife--"

Manley lifted his head long enough to gulp the whisky, then dropped it
again upon his arms and groaned.



CHAPTER IX. KENT TO THE RESCUE

The fire had been burning a possible half-hour when Kent, jogging aimlessly
toward a log ridge with the lazy notion of riding to the top and taking
a look at the country to the west before returning to the ranch, first
smelled the stronger tang of burned grass and swung instinctively into the
wind. He galloped to higher ground, and, trained by long watching of the
prairie to detect the smoke of a nearer fire in the haze of those long
distant, saw at once what must have happened, and knew also the danger. His
horse was fresh, and he raced him over the uneven prairie toward the blaze.

It was tearing straight across the high ground between Dry Creek and Cold
Spring Coulee when he first saw it plainly, and he altered his course
a trifle. The roar of it came faintly on the wind, like the sound of
storm-beaten surf pounding heavily upon a sand bar when the tide is out,
except that this roar was continuous, and was full of sharp cracklings and
sputterings; and there was also the red line of flame to visualize the
sound.

When his eyes first swept the mile-long blaze, he felt his helplessness,
and cursed aloud the man who had drawn all the fighting force from the
prairie that day. They might at least have been able to harry it and hamper
it and turn the savage sweep of it into barren ground upon some rock-bound
coulee's rim. If they could have caught it at the start, or even in the
first mile of its burning--or, even now, if Blumenthall's outfit were on
the spot--or if Manley Fleetwood's fire guards held it back--He hoped some
of them had stayed at home, so that they could help fight it.

In that brief glimpse before he rode down into a hollow and so lost sight
of it, he knew that the fire they had fought and vanquished before had been
a puny blaze compared with this one. The ground it had burned was not broad
enough to do more than check this fire temporarily. It would simply burn
around the blackened area and rush on and on, until the bend of the river
turned it back to the north, where the river's first tributary stream would
stop it for good and all. But before that happened it would have done its
worst--and its worst was enough to pale the face of every prairie dweller.

Once more he caught sight of the fire as he was riding swiftly across
the level land to the east of Cold Spring Coulee. He was going to see if
Manley's fire guards were any good, and if anyone was there ready to fight
it when it came up; they could set a back fire from the guards, he thought,
even if the guards themselves were not wide enough to hold the main fire.

He pounded heavily down the long trail into the coulee, passed close by the
house with a glance sidelong to see if anybody was in sight there, rounded
the corral to follow the trail which wound zigzag up the farther coulee
wall, and overtook Val, running bareheaded up the hill, dragging a wet sack
after her. She was panting already from the climb, and she had on thin
slippers with high heels, he noticed, that impeded her progress and
promised a sprained ankle before she reached the top. Kent laughed grimly
when he overtook her; he thought it was like a five-year-old child running
with a cup of water to put out a burning house.

"Where do you think you're going with that sack?" he called out, by way of
greeting.

She turned a pale, terrified face toward him, and reached up a hand
mechanically to push her fair hair out of her eyes. "So much smoke was
rolling into the coulee," she panted, "and I knew there must be a fire. And
I've never felt quite easy about our guards since Polycarp Jenks said--Do
you know where it is--the fire?"

"It's between here and the railroad. Give me that sack, and you go on back
to the house. You can't do any good." And when she handed the sack up to
him and then kept on up the hill, he became autocratic in his tone. "Go on
back to the house, I tell you!"

"I shall not do anything of the kind," she retorted indignantly, and Kent
gave a snort of disapproval, kicked his horse into a lunging gallop, and
left her.

"You'll spoil your complexion," he cried over his shoulder, "and that's
about all you will do. You better go back and get a parasol."

Val did not attempt to reply, but she refused to let his taunts turn her
back, and kept stubbornly climbing, though tears of pure rage filled her
eyes and even slipped over the lids to her cheeks. Before she had reached
the top, he was charging down upon her again, and the pallor of his face
told her much.

"All hell couldn't stop that fire!" he cried, before he was near her, and
the words were barely distinguishable in the roar which was growing louder
and more terrifying. _"Get back!_ You want to stand there till it comes
down on you?" Then, just as he was passing, he saw how white and trembling
she was, and he pulled up, with Michael sliding his front feet in the loose
soil that he might stop on that steep slope.

"You don't want to go and faint," he remonstrated in a more kindly tone,
vaguely conscious that he had perhaps seemed brutal. "Here, give me your
hand, and stick your toe in the stirrup. Ah, don't waste time trying to
make up your mind--up you come! Don't you want to save the house and
corrals--and the haystacks? We've got our work cut out, let me tell you, if
we do it."

He had leaned and lifted her up bodily, helped her to put her foot in the
stirrup from which he had drawn his own, and he held her beside him while
he sent Michael down the trail as fast as he dared. It was a good deal of
a nuisance, having to look after her when seconds were so precious, but
he couldn't go on and leave her, though she might easily have reached the
bottom as soon as he if she had not been so frightened. He was afraid to
trust her; she looked, to him, as if she were going to faint in his arms.

"You don't want to get scared," he said, as calmly as he could. "It's back
two or three miles on the bench yet, and I guess we can easy stop it from
burning anything but the grass. It's this wind, you see. Manley went to
town, I suppose?"

"Yes," she answered weakly. "He went yesterday, and stayed over. I'm all
alone, and I didn't know what to do, only to go up and try--"

"No use, up there."

They were at the corral gate then, and he set her down carefully, then
dismounted and turned Michael into the corral and shut the gate.

"If we can't step it, and I ain't close by, I wish you'd let Michael out,"
he said hurriedly, his eyes taking in the immediate surroundings and
measuring the danger which lurked in weeds, grass, and scattered hay. "A
horse don't have much show when he's shut up, and--Out there where that dry
ditch runs, we'll back-fire. You take this sack and come and watch out my
fire don't jump the ditch. We'll carry it around the house, just the other
side the trail." He was pulling a handful of grass for a torch, and while
he was twisting it and feeling in his pocket for a match, he looked at her
keenly. "You aren't going to get hysterics and leave me to fight it alone,
are you?" he challenged.

"I hope I'm not quite such a silly," she answered stiffly, and he smiled to
himself as he ran along the far side of the ditch with his blazing tuft
of grass, setting fire to the tangled, brown mat which covered the coulee
bottom.

Val followed slowly behind him, watching that the blaze did not blow back
across the ditch, and beating it out when it seemed likely to do so. Now
that she could actually do something, she was no more excited than he, if
one could judge by her manner. She did look sulky, however, at his way of
treating her.

To back-fire on short notice, with no fresh-turned furrow of moist earth,
but only a shallow little dry ditch with the grass almost meeting over its
top in places, is ticklish business at best. Kent went slowly, stamping out
incipient blazes that seemed likely to turn unruly, and not trusting
Val any more than he was compelled to do. She was a woman, and Kent's
experience with women of her particular type had not been extensive enough
to breed confidence in an emergency like this.

He had no more than finished stringing his line of fire in the irregular
half circle which enclosed house, corral, stables, and haystacks, and had
for its eastern half the muddy depression which, in seasons less dry, was
a fair-sized creek fed by the spring, when a jagged line of fire with an
upper wall of tumbling, brown smoke, leaped into view at the top of the
bluff.

One thing was in his favor: The grass upon the hillside was scantier
than on the level upland, and here and there were patches of yellow soil
absolutely bare of vegetation, where a fire would be compelled to halt and
creep slowly around. Also, fire usually burns slower down a hill than over
a level. On the other hand, the long, seamlike depressions which ran to the
top were filled with dry brush, and even the coulee bottom had clumps of
rosebushes and wild currant, where the flames would revel briefly.

But already the black, smoking line which curved around the haystacks to
the north, and around the house toward the south, was widening with every
passing second.

Val had a tub half filled with water at the house, and that helped
amazingly by making it possible to keep the sacks wet, so that every blow
counted as they beat out the ragged tongues of flame which, in that wind,
would jump here and there the ditch and the road, and go creeping back
toward the stacks and the buildings. For it was a long line they were
guarding, and there was a good deal of running up and down in their
endeavor to be in two places at once.

Then Val, in turning to strike a new-born flame behind her, swept her
skirt across a tuft of smoldering grass and set herself afire. With the
excitement of watching all points at once, and with the smoke and smell of
fire all about her, she did not see what had happened, and must have paid a
frightful penalty if Kent had not, at that moment, been running past her to
reach a point where a blaze had jumped the ditch.

He swerved, and swung a newly wet sack around her with a force which would
have knocked her down if he had not at the same time caught and held her.
Val screamed, and struggled in his arms, and Kent knew that it was of
him she was afraid. As soon as he dared, he released her and backed away
sullenly.

"Sorry I didn't have time to say please--you were just ready to go up in
smoke," he flung savagely over his shoulder. But he found himself shaking
and weak, so that when he reached the blaze he must beat out, the sack was
heavy as lead. "Afraid of _me_--women sure do beat hell!" he told himself,
when he was a bit steadier. He glanced back at her resentfully. Val was
stooping, inspecting the damage done to her dress. She stood up, looked
at him, and he saw that her face was white again, as it had been upon the
hillside.

A moment later he was near her again.

"Mr. Burnett, I'm--ashamed--but I didn't know, and you--you startled me,"
she stopped him long enough to confess, though she did not meet his eyes.
"You saved--"

"You'll be startled worse, if you let the fire hang there in that bunch of
grass," he interrupted coolly. "Behind you, there."

She turned obediently, and swung her sack down several times upon a
smoldering spot, and the incident was closed.

Speedily it was forgotten, also. For with the meeting of the fires, which
they stood still to watch, a patch of wild rosebushes was caught fairly
upon both sides, and flared high, with a great snapping and crackling.
The wind seized upon the blaze, flung it toward them like a great, yellow
banner, and swept cinders and burning twigs far out over the blackened
path of the back fire. Kent watched it and hardly breathed, but Val was
shielding her face from the searing heat with her arms, and so did not
see what happened then. A burning branch like a long, flaming dagger flew
straight with the wind and lighted true as if flung by the hand of an
enemy. A long, neatly tapered stack received it fairly, and Kent's cry
brought Val's arms down, and her scared eyes staring at him.

"That settles the hay," he exclaimed, and raced for the stacks knowing all
the while that he could do nothing, and yet panting in his hurry to reach
the spot.

Michael, trampling uneasily in the corral, lifted his head and neighed
shrilly as Kent passed him on the run. Michael had watched fearfully the
fire sweeping down upon him, and his fear had troubled Val not a little.
When she saw Kent pass the gate, she hurried up and threw it open,
wondering a little that Kent should forget his horse. He had told her to
see that he was turned loose if the fire could not be stopped--and now he
seemed to have forgotten it.

Michael, with a snort and an upward toss of his head to throw the dragging
reins away from his feet, left the corral with one jump, and clattered
away, past the house and up the hill, on the trail which led toward home.
Val stood for a moment watching him. Could he out-run the fire? He was
holding his head turned to one side now, so that the reins dangled away
from his pounding feet; once he stumbled to his knees, but he was up in a
flash, and running faster than ever. He passed out of sight over the hill,
and Val, with eyes smarting and cheeks burning from the heat, drew a long
breath and started after Kent.

Kent was backing, step by step, away from the heat of the burning stacks.
The roar, and the crackle, and the heat were terrific; it was as if the
whole world was burning around them, and they only were left. A brand flew
low over Val's head as she ran staggeringly, with a bewildered sense that
she must hurry somewhere and do something immediately, to save something
which positively must be saved. A spark from the brand fell upon her hand,
and she looked up stupidly. The heat and the smoke were choking her so that
she could scarcely breathe.

A new crackle was added to the uproar of flames. Kent, still backing from
the furnace of blazing hay, turned, and saw that the stable, with its roof
of musty hay, was afire. And, just beyond, Val, her face covered with her
sooty hands, was staggering drunkenly. He reached her as she fell to her
knees.

"I--can't--fight--any more," she whispered faintly.

He picked her up in his arms and hesitated, his face toward the house; then
ran straight away from it, stumbled across the dry ditch and out across the
blackened strip which their own back fire had swept clean of grass. The hot
earth burned his feet through the soles of his riding boots, but the wind
carried the heat and the smoke away, behind them. Clumps of bushes were
still burning at the roots, but he avoided them and kept on to the far side
hill, where a barren, yellow patch, with jutting sandstone rocks, offered
a resting place. He set Val down upon a rock, placed himself beside her so
that she was leaning against him, and began fanning her vigorously with his
hat.

"Thank the Lord, we're behind that smoke, anyhow," he observed, when he
could get his breath. He felt that silence was not good for the woman
beside him, though he doubted much whether she was in a condition to
understand him. She was gasping irregularly, and her body was a dead weight
against him. "It was sure fierce, there, for a few minutes."

He looked out across the coulee at the burning stables, and waited for the
house to catch. He could not hope that it would escape, but he did not
mention the probability of its burning.

"Keep your eyes shut," he said. "That'll help some, and soon as we can
we'll go to the spring and give our faces and hands a good bath." He untied
his silk neckerchief, shook out the cinders, and pressed it against her
closed eyes. "Keep that over 'em," he commanded, "till we can do better. My
eyes are more used to smoke than yours, I guess. Working around branding
fires toughens 'em some."

Still she did not attempt to speak, and she did not seem to have energy
enough left to keep the silk over her eyes. The wind blew it off without
her stirring a finger to prevent, and Kent caught it just in time to save
it from sailing away toward the fire. After that he held it in place
himself, and he did not try to keep talking. He sat quietly, with his arm
around her, as impersonal in the embrace as if he were holding a strange
partner in a dance, and watched the stacks burn, and the stables. He saw
the corral take fire, rail by rail, until it was all ablaze. He saw hens
and roosters running heavily, with wings dragging, until the heat toppled
them over. He saw a cat, with white spots upon its sides, leave the bushes
down by the creek and go bounding in terror to the house.

And still the house stood there, the curtains flapping in and out through
the open windows, the kitchen door banging open and shut as the gusts of
wind caught it. The fire licked as close as burned ground and rocky creek
bed would let it, and the flames which had stayed behind to eat the
spare gleanings died, while the main line raged on up the hillside and
disappeared in a huge, curling wave of smoke. The stacks burned down
to blackened, smoldering butts. The willows next the spring, and the
chokecherries and wild currants withered in the heat and waved charred,
naked arms impotently in the wind. The stable crumpled up, flared, and
became a heap of embers. The corral was but a ragged line of smoking,
half-burned sticks and ashes. Spirals of smoke, like dying camp fires, blew
thin ribbons out over the desolation.

Kent drew a long breath and glanced down at the limp figure in his arms.
She lay so very still that in spite of a quivering breath now and then he
had a swift, unreasoning fear she might be dead. Her hair was a tangled
mass of gold upon her head, and spilled over his arm. He carefully picked a
flake or two of charred grass from the locks on her temples, and discovered
how fine and soft was the hair. He lifted the grimy neckerchief from her
eyes and looked down at her face, smoke-soiled and reddened from the heat.
Her lips were drooped pitifully, like a hurt child. Her lashes, he noticed
for the first time, were at least four shades darker than her hair. His
gaze traveled on down her slim figure to her ringed fingers lying loosely
in her lap, a long, dry-looking blister upon one hand near the thumb; down
to her slippers, showing beneath her scorched skirt. And he drew another
long breath. He did not know why, but he had a strange, fleeting sense of
possession, and it startled him into action.

"You gone to sleep?" he called gently, and gave her a little shake. "We can
get to the spring now, if you feel like walking that far; if you don't, I
reckon I'll have to carry you--for I sure do want a drink!"

She half lifted her lashes and let them drop again, as if life were not
worth the effort of living. Kent hesitated, set his lips tightly together,
and lifted her up straighter. His eyes were intent and stern, as though
some great issue was at stake, and he must rouse her at once, in spite of
everything.

"Here, this won't do at all," he said--but he was speaking to himself and
his quivering nerves, more than to her.

She sighed, made a conscious effort, and half opened her eyes again. But
she seemed not to share his anxiety for action, and her mental and physical
apathy were not to be mistaken. The girl was utterly exhausted with
fire-fighting and nervous strain.

"You seem to be all in," he observed, his voice softly complaining. "Well,
I packed you over here, and I reckon I better pack you back again--if you
_won't_ try to walk."

She muttered something, of which Kent only distinguished "a minute." But
she was still limp, and absolutely without interest in anything, and so,
after a moment of hesitation, he gathered her up in his arms and carried
her back to the house, kicked the door savagely open, took her in through
the kitchen, and laid her down upon the couch, with a sigh of relief that
he was rid of her.

The couch was gay with a bright, silk spread of "crazy" patchwork, and
piled generously with dainty cushions, too evidently made for ornamental
purposes than for use. But Kent piled the cushions recklessly around her,
tucked her smudgy skirts close, went and got a towel, which he immersed
recklessly in the water pail, and bathed her face and hands with clumsy
gentleness, and pushed back her tangled hair. The burn upon her hand showed
an angry red around the white of the blister, and he laid the wet towel
carefully upon it. She did not move.

He was a man, and he had lived all his life among men. He could fight
anything that was fightable. He could save her life, but after this slight
attention to her comfort he had reached the limitations set by his purely
masculine training. He lowered the shades so that the room was dusky and as
cool as any other place in that fire-tortured land, and felt that he could
no do more for her.

He stood for a moment looking down at the inert, grimy little figure
stretched out straight, like a corpse, upon the bright-hued couch, her eyes
closed and sunken, with blue shadows beneath, her lips pale and still with
that tired, pitiful droop. He stooped and rearranged the wet towel on her
burned hand, held his face close above hers for a second, sighed, frowned,
and tiptoed out into the kitchen, closing the door carefully behind him.



CHAPTER X. DESOLATION

For more than two hours Kent sat outside in the shade of the house, and
stared out over the black desolation of the coulee. His horse was gone, so
that he could not ride anywhere--and there was nowhere in particular to
ride. For twenty miles around there was no woman whom he could bring to
Val's assistance, even if he had been sure that she needed assistance.
Several times he tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the door into the front
room an inch or so, and peered in at her. The third time, she had relaxed
from the corpselike position, and had thrown an arm up over her face, as if
she were shielding her eyes from something. He took heart at that, and went
out and foraged for firewood.

There was a hard-beaten zone around the corral and stables, which had kept
the fire from spreading toward the house, and the wind had borne the sparks
and embers back toward the spring, so that the house stood in a brown oasis
of unburned grass and weeds, scanty enough, it is true, but yet a relief
from the dead black surroundings.

The woodpile had not suffered. A chopping block, a decrepit sawhorse,
an axe, and a rusty bucksaw marked the spot; also three ties, hacked
eloquently in places, and just five sticks of wood, evidently chopped from
a tie by a man in haste. Kent looked at that woodpile, and swore. He had
always known that Manley had an aversion to laboring with his hands, but he
was unprepared for such an exhibition of shiftlessness.

He savagely attacked the three ties, chopped them into firewood, and piled
them neatly, and then, walking upon his toes, he made a fire in the kitchen
stove, filled the woodbox, the teakettle, and the water pail, sat out in
the shade until he heard the kettle boiling over on the stove, took another
peep in at Val, and then, moving as quietly as he could, proceeded to cook
supper for them both.

He had been perfectly familiar with the kitchen arrangements in the days
when Manley was a bachelor, and it interested him and filled him with a
respectful admiration for woman in the abstract and for Val in particular,
to see how changed everything was, and how daintily clean and orderly.
Val's smooth, white hands, with their two sparkly rings and the broad
wedding band, did not suggest a familiarity with actual work about a house,
but the effect of her labor and thought confronted him at every turn.

"You can see your face in everything you pick up that was made to shine,"
he commented, standing for a moment while he surveyed the bottom of a
stewpan. "She don't look it, but that yellow-eyed little dame sure knows
how to keep house." Then he heard her cough, and set down the stewpan
hurriedly and went to see if she wanted anything.

Val was sitting upon the couch, her two hands pushing back her hair, gazing
stupidly around her.

"Everything's all ready but the tea," Kent announced, in a perfectly
matter-of-fact tone. "I was just waiting to see how strong you want it."

Val turned her yellow-brown eyes upon him in bewilderment. "Why, Mr.
Burnett--maybe I wasn't dreaming, then. I thought there was a fire. Was
there?"

Kent grinned. "Kinda. You worked like a son of a gun, too--till there
wasn't any more to do, and then you laid 'em down for fair. You were all
in, so I packed you in and put you there where you could be comfortable.
And supper's ready--but how strong do you want your tea? I kinda had an
idea," he added lamely, "that women drink tea, mostly. I made coffee for
myself."

Val let herself drop back among the pretty pillows. "I don't want any. If
there was a fire," she said dully, "then it's true. Everything's all burned
up. I don't want any tea. I want to die!"

Kent studied her for a moment. "Well, in that case--shall I get the axe?"

Val had closed her eyes, but she opened them again. "I don't care what you
do," she said.

"Well, I aim to please," he told her calmly. "What _I'd_ do, in your place,
would be to go and put on something that ain't all smoked and scorched like
a--a ham, and then I'd sit up and drink some tea, and be nice about it.
But, of course, if you want to cash in--"

Val gave a sob. "I can't help it--I'd just as soon be dead as alive. It
was bad enough before--and now everything's burned up--and all Manley's
nice--ha-ay--"

"Well," Kent interrupted mercilessly, "I've heard of women doing all kinds
of fool things--but this is the first time I ever knew one to commit
suicide over a couple of measly haystacks!" He went out and slammed the
door so that the house shook, and tramped three times across the kitchen
floor. "That'll make her so mad at me she won't think about anything else
for a while," he reasoned shrewdly. But all the while his eyes were shiny,
and when he winked, his lashes became unaccountably moist. He stopped and
looked out at the blackened coulee. "Shut into this hole, week after week,
without a woman to speak to--it must be--damned tough!" he muttered.

He tiptoed up and laid his ear against the inner door, and heard a
smothered sobbing inside. That did not sound as if she were "mad," and he
promptly cursed himself for a fool and a brute. With his own judgment to
guide him, he brewed some very creditable tea, sugared and creamed it
lavishly, browned a slice of bread on top of the stove--blowing off the
dust beforehand--after Arline's recipe for making toast, buttered it until
it dripped oil, and carried it in to her with the air of a man who will
have peace even though he must fight for it. The forlorn picture she made,
lying there with her face buried in a pink-and-blue cushion, and with her
shoulders shaking with sobs, almost made him retreat, quite unnerved. As it
was, he merely spilled a third of the tea and just missed letting the toast
slide from the plate to the floor; when he had righted his burden he had
recovered his composure to a degree.

"Here, this won't do at all," he reproved, pulling a chair to the couch by
the simple method of hooking his toe under a round and dragging it toward
him. "You don't want Man to come and catch you acting like this. He's
liable to feel pretty blue himself, and he'll need some cheering up--don't
you think? I don't know for sure--but I've always been kinda under the
impression that's what a man gets a wife for. Ain't it? You don't want to
throw down your cards now. You sit up and drink this tea, and eat this
toast, and I'll gamble you'll feel about two hundred per cent better.

"Come," he urged gently, after a minute. "I never thought a nervy little
woman like you would give up so easy. I was plumb ashamed of myself, the
way you worked on that back fire. You had me going, for a while. You're
just tired out, is all ails you. You want to hurry up and drink this,
before it gets cold. Come on. I'm liable to feel, insulted if you pass up
my cooking this way."

Val choked back the tears, and, without taking her face from the pillow,
put out the burned hand gropingly until it touched his knee.

"Oh, you--you're good," she said brokenly. "I used to think you
were--horrid, and I'm a--ashamed. You're good, and I--"

"Well, I ain't going to be good much longer, if you don't get your head
outa that pillow and drink this tea!" His tone was amused and half
impatient. But his face--more particularly his eyes--told another story,
which perhaps it was as well she did not read. "I'll be dropping the blamed
stuff in another minute. My elbow's plumb getting a cramp in it," he added
complainingly.

Val made a sound half-way between a sob and a laugh, and sat up. With more
haste than the occasion warranted, Kent put the tea and toast on the chair
and started for the kitchen.

"I was bound you'd eat before I did," he explained, "and I could stand a
cup of coffee myself. And, say! If there's anything more you want, just
holler, and I'll come on the long lope."

Val took up the teaspoon, tasted the tea, and then regarded the cup
doubtfully. She never drank sugar in her tea. She wondered how much of it
he had put in. Her head ached frightfully, and she felt weak and utterly
hopeless of ever feeling different.

"Everything all right?" came Kent's voice from the kitchen.

"Yes," Val answered hastily, trying hard to speak with some life and cheer
in her tone. "It's lovely--all of it."

"Want more tea?" It sounded, out there, as though he was pushing back his
chair to rise from the table.

"No, no, this is plenty." Val glanced fearfully toward the kitchen door,
lifted the teacup, and heroically drank every drop. It was, she considered,
the least that she could do.

When he had finished eating he came in, and found her nibbling
apathetically at the toast. She looked up at him with an apology in her
eyes.

"Mr. Burnett, don't think I am always so silly," she began, leaning back
against the piled pillows with a sigh. "I have always thought that I could
bear anything. But last night I didn't sleep much. I dreamed about fires,
and that Manley was--dead--and I woke up in a perfect horror. It was only
ten o'clock. So then I sat up and tried to read, and every five minutes I
would go out and look at the sky, to see if there was a glow anywhere.
It was foolish, of course. And I didn't sleep at all to-day, either. The
minute I would lie down I'd imagine I heard a fire roaring. And then it
came. But I was all used up before that, so I wasn't really--I must have
fainted, for I don't remember getting into the house--and I do think
fainting is the silliest thing! I never did such a thing before," she
finished abjectly.

"Oh, well--I guess you had a license to faint if you felt that way," he
comforted awkwardly. "It was the smoke and the heat, I reckon; they were
enough to put a crimp in anybody. Did Man say about when he would be back?
Because I ought to be moving along; it's quite a walk to the Wishbone."

"Oh--you won't go till Manley comes! Please! I--I'd go crazy, here alone,
and--and he might not come--he's frequently detained. I--I've such a
horror of fires--" She certainly looked as if she had. She was sitting up
straight, her hands held out appealingly to him, her eyes big and bright.

"Sure I won't go if you feel that way about it." Kent was half frightened
at her wild manner. "I guess Man will be along pretty soon, anyway. He'll
hit the trail as soon as he can get behind the fire, that's a cinch. He'll
be worried to death about you. And you don't need to be afraid of prairie
fires any more, Mrs. Fleetwood; you're safe. There can't be any more fires
till next year, anyway; there's nothing left to burn." He turned his face
to the window and stared out somberly at the ravaged hillside. "Yes--you're
dead safe, now!"

"I'm such a fool," Val confessed, her eyes also turning to the window, "If
you want to go, I--" Her mouth was quivering, and she did not finish the
sentence.

"Oh, I'll stay till Man comes. He's liable to be along any time, now." He
glanced at her scorched, smoke-stained dress. "He'll sure think you made a
hand, all right!"

Val took the hint, and blushed with true feminine shame that she was not
looking her best. "I'll go and change," she murmured, and rose wearily.
"But I feel as if the world had been 'rolled up in a scroll and burned,' as
the Bible puts it, and as if nothing matters any more."

"It does, though. We'll all go right along living the same as ever, and
the first snow will make this fire seem as old as the war--except to the
cattle; they're the ones to get it in the neck this winter."

He went out and walked aimlessly around in the yard, and went over to the
smoking remains of the stable, and to the heap of black ashes where the
stacks had been. Manley would be hard hit, he knew. He wished he would
hurry and come, and relieve him of the responsibility of keeping Val
company. He wondered a little, in his masculine way, that women should
always be afraid when there was no cause for fear. For instance, she had
stayed alone a good many times, evidently, when there was real danger of a
fire sweeping down upon her at any hour of the day or night; but now, when
there was no longer a possibility of anything happening, she had turned
white and begged him to stay--and Val, he judged shrewdly, was not the sort
of woman who finds it easy to beg favors of anybody.

There came a sound of galloping, up on the hill, and he turned quickly.
Dull dusk was settling bleakly down upon the land, but he could see three
or four horsemen just making the first descent from the top. He shouted a
wordless greeting, and heard their answering yells. In another minute or
two they were pulling up at the house, where he had hurried to meet them.
Val, tucking a side comb hastily into her freshly coiled hair, her pretty
self clothed all in white linen, appeased eagerly in the doorway.

"Why--where's Manley?" she demanded anxiously.

Blumenthall was dismounting near her, and he touched his hat before he
answered. "We were on the way home, and we thought we'd better ride around
this way and see how you came out," he evaded. "I see you lost your hay and
buildings--pretty close call for the house, too, I should judge. You must
have got here in time to do something, Kent."

"But where's Manley?" Val was growing pale again. "Has anything happened?
Is he hurt? Tell me!"

"Oh, he's all right, Mrs. Fleetwood." Blumenthall glanced meaningly at
Kent--and Fred De Garmo, sitting to one side of his saddle, looked at
Polycarp Jenks and smiled slightly. "We left town ahead of him, and knocked
right along."

Val regarded the group suspiciously. "He's coming, then, is he?"

"Oh, certainly. Glad you're all right, Mrs. Fleetwood. That was an awful
fire--it swept the whole country clean between the two rivers, I'm afraid.
This wind made it bad." He was tightening his cinch, and now he unhooked
the stirrup from the horn and mounted again. "We'll have to be getting
along--don't know, yet, how we came out of it over to the ranch. But our
guards ought to have stopped it there." He looked at Kent. "How did the
Wishbone make it?" he inquired.

"I was just going to ask you if you knew," Kent replied, scowling because
he saw Fred looking at Val in what he considered an impertinent manner. "My
horse ran off while I was fighting fire here, so I'm afoot. I was waiting
for Man to show up."

"You'll git all of that you want--_he-he!_" Polycarp cut in tactlessly.
"Man won't git home t'-night--not unless--"

"Aw, come on." Fred started along the charred trail which led across the
coulee and up the farther side. Blumenthall spoke a last, commonplace
sentence or two, just to round off the conversation and make the
termination not too abrupt, and they rode away, with Polycarp glancing
curiously back, now and then, as though he was tempted to stay and gossip,
and yet was anxious to know all that had happened at the Double Diamond.

"What did Polycarp Jenks mean--about Manley not coming to-night?" Val was
standing in the doorway, staring after the group of horsemen.

"Nothing, I guess, Polycarp never does mean anything half the time; he just
talks to hear his head roar. Man'll come, all right. This bunch happened to
beat him out, is all."

"Oh, do you think so? Mr. Blumenthall acted as if there was something--"

"Well, what can you expect of a man that lives on oatmeal mush and toast
and hot water?" Kent demanded aggressively. "And Fred De Garmo is always
grinning and winking at somebody; and that other fellow is a Swede and got
about as much sense as a prairie dog--and Polycarp is an old granny gossip
that nobody ever pays any attention to. Man won't stay in town--hell be too
anxious."

"It's terrible," sighed Val, "about the hay and the stables. Manley will
be so discouraged--he worked so hard to cut and stack that hay. And he was
just going to gather the calves together and put them in the river field,
in a couple of weeks--and now there isn't anything to feed them!"

"I guess he's coming; I hear somebody." Kent was straining his eyes to see
the top of the hill, where the dismal sight shadows lay heavily upon the
dismal black earth. "Sounds to me like a rig, though. Maybe he drove out."
He left her, went to the wire gate which gave egress from the tiny, unkempt
yard, and walked along the trail to meet the newcomer.

"You stay there," he called back, when he thought he heard Val following
him. "I'm just going to tell him you're all right. You'll get that white
dress all smudged up in these ashes."

In the narrow little gully where the trail crossed the half-dry channel
from the spring he met the rig. The driver pulled up when he caught sight
of Kent.

"Who's that? Did she git out of it?" cried Arline Hawley, in a breathless
undertone, "Oh--it's you, is it, Kent? I couldn't stand it--I just had to
come and see if she's alive. So I made Hank hitch right up--as soon as we
knew the fire wasn't going to git into all that brush along the creek, and
run down to the town--and bring me over. And the way--"

"But where's Man?" Kent laid a hand upon the wheel and shot the question
into the stream of Arline's talk.

"Man! I dunno what devil gits into men sometimes. Man went and got drunk
as a fool soon as he seen the fire and knew what coulda happened out here.
Started right in to drownd his sorrows before he made sure whether he had
any to drown! If that ain't like a man, every time! Time we all got back to
town, and the fire was kiting away from us instead of coming up toward
us, he was too drunk to do anything. He must of poured it down him by the
quart. He--"

"Manley! Is that you, dear?" It was Val, a slim, white figure against the
blackness all around her, coming down the trail to see what delayed them.
"Why don't you come to the house? There _is_ a house, you know. We aren't
quite burned out. And I'm all right, so there's no need to worry any more."

"Now, ain't that a darned shame?" muttered Arline wrathfully to Kent. "A
feller that'll drink when he's got a wife like that had oughta be hung!

"It's me, Arline Hawley!" She raised her voice to its ordinary shrill
level. "It ain't just the proper time to make a call, I guess, but it's
better late than never. Man, he was took with one of his spells, so I told
him I'd come on out and take you back to town. How are you, anyhow? Scared
plumb to death, I'll bet, when that fire come over the hill. You needn't
'a' tramped clear down here--we was coming on to the house in a minute. I
got to chewin' the rag with Kent. Git in; you might as well ride back to
the house, now you're here."

"Manley didn't come?" Val was standing beside the rig, near Kent. Her
white-clothed figure was indistinct, and her face obscured in the dark. Her
voice was quiet--lifelessly quiet. "Is he sick?"

"Well--of course has nerves was all upset--"

"Oh! Then he _is_ sick?"

"Well--nothing dangerous, but--he wasn't feelin' well, so I thought I'd
come out and take you back with me."

"Oh!"

"Man was awful worried; you mustn't think he wasn't. He was pretty near
crazy, for a while."

"Oh, yes, certainly."

"Get in and ride. And you mustn't worry none about Man, nor feel hurt that
he didn't come. He felt so bad--"

"I'll walk, thank you; it's only a few steps. And I'm not worried at all. I
quite understand."

The team started on slowly, and Mrs. Hawley turned in the seat so that she
could continue talking without interruption to the two who walked behind.
But it was Kent who answered her at intervals, when she asked a direct
question or appeared to be waiting for some comment. Betweenwhiles he was
wondering if Val did, after all, understand. She knew so little of the West
and its ways, and her faith in Manley was so firm and unquestioning,
that he felt sure she was only hurt at what looked very much like an
indifference to her welfare. He suspected shrewdly that she was thinking
what she would have done in Manley's place, and was trying to reconcile
Mrs. Hawley's assurances that Manley was not actually sick or disabled with
the blunt fact that he had stayed in town and permitted others to come out
to see if she were alive or dead.

And Kent had another problem to solve. Should he tell her the truth? He had
never ceased to feel, in some measure, responsible for her position. And
she was sure to discover the truth before long; not even her innocence
and her ignorance of life could shield her from that knowledge. He let
a question or two of Arline's go unanswered while he struggled for a
decision, but when they reached the house, only one point was dearly
settled in his mind. Instead of riding as far as he might, and then walking
across the prairie to the Wishbone, he intended to go on to town with
them--"to see her through with it."



CHAPTER XI. VAL'S AWAKENING

Val stood just inside the door of the hotel parlor and glanced swiftly
around at the place of unpleasant memory.

"No, I must see Manley before I can tell you whether we shall want to stay
or not," she replied to Arline's insistence that she "go right up to a
room" and lie down. "I feel quite well, and you must not bother about me at
all. If Mr. Burnett will be good enough to send Manley to me--I must see
him first of all." It was Val in her most unapproachable mood, and Arline
subsided before it.

"Well, then, I'll go and send word to Man, and see about some supper for
us. I feel as if _I_ could eat ten-penny nails!" She went out into the
hall, hesitated a moment, and then boldly invaded the "office."

"Say! have you got Man rounded up yit?" she demanded of her husband. "And
how is he, anyhow? That girl ain't got the first idea of what ails him--how
anybody with the brains and education she's got can be so thick-headed gits
me. Jim told me Man's been packing a bottle or two home with him every trip
he's made for the last month--and she don't know a thing about it. I'd like
to know what 'n time they learn folks back East, anyhow; to put their eyes
and their sense in their pockets, I guess, and go along blind as bats.
Where's Kent at? Did he go after him? She won't do nothing till she sees
Man--"

At that moment Kent came in, and his disgust needed no words. He answered
Mrs. Hawley's inquiring look with a shake of the head.

"I can't do anything with him," he said morosely. "He's so full he don't
know he's got a wife, hardly. You better go and tell her, Mrs. Hawley.
Somebody's got to."

"Oh, my heavens!" Arline clutched at the doorknob for moral support. "I
could no more face them yellow eyes of hern when they blaze up--you go tell
her yourself, if you want her told. I've got to see about some supper for
us. I ain't had a bite since dinner, and Min's off gadding somewheres--"
She hurried away, mentally washing her hands of the affair. "Women's got to
learn some time what men is," she soliloquized, "and I guess she ain't
no better than any of the rest of us, that she can't learn to take her
medicine--but _I_ ain't goin' to be the one to tell her what kinda fellow
she's tied to. My stunt'll be helpin' her pick up the pieces and make the
best of it after she's told."

She stopped, just inside the dining room, and listened until she heard Kent
cross the hall from the office and open the parlor door. "Gee! It's like a
hangin'," she sighed. "If she wasn't so plumb innocent--" She started
for the door which opened into the parlor from the dining room, strongly
tempted to eavesdrop. She did yield so far as to put her ear to the
keyhole, but the silence within impressed her strangely, and she retreated
to the kitchen and closed the door tightly behind her as the most practical
method of bidding Satan begone.

The silence in the parlor lasted while Kent, standing with his back against
the door, faced Val and meditated swiftly upon the manner of his telling.

"Well?" she demanded at last. "I am still waiting to see Manley. I am not
quite a child, Mr. Burnett. I know something is the matter, and you--if you
have any pity, or any feeling of friendship, you will tell me the truth.
Don't you suppose I know that Arline was--_lying_ to me all the time about
Manley? You helped her to lie. So did that other man. I waited until I
reached town, where I could do something, and now you must tell me the
truth. Manley is badly hurt, or he is dead. Tell me which it is, and take
me to him." She spoke fast, as if she was afraid she might not be able to
finish, though her voice was even and low, it was also flat and toneless
with her effort to seem perfectly calm and self-controlled.

Kent looked at her, forgot all about leading up to the truth by easy
stages, as he had intended to do, and gave it to her straight. "He ain't
either one," he said. "He's drunk!"

Val stared at him. "Drunk!" He could see how even her lips shrank from the
word. She threw up her head. "That," she declared icily, "I know to be
impossible!"

"Oh, do you? Let me tell you that's _never_ impossible with a man, not when
there's whisky handy."

"Manley is not that sort of a man. When he left me, three years ago, he
promised me never to frequent places where liquor is sold. He never had
touched liquor; he never was tempted to touch it. But, just to be doubly
sure, he promised me, on his honor. He has never broken that promise; I
know, because he told me so." She made the explanation scornfully, as
if her pride and her belief in Manley almost forbade the indignity of
explaining. "I don't know why you should come here and insult me," she
added, with a lofty charity for his sin.

"I don't see how it can insult you," he contended. "You're got a different
way of looking at things, but that won't help you to dodge facts. Man's
drunk. I said it, and I mean it. It ain't the first time, nor the second.
He was drunk the day you came, and couldn't meet the train. That's why I
met you. I ought to've told you, I guess, but I hated to make you feel bad.
So I went to work and sobered him up, and sent him over to get married.
I've always been kinda sorry for that. It was a low-down trick to play on
you, and that's a fact. You ought to've had a chance to draw outa the game,
but I didn't think about it at the time. Man and I have always been pretty
good friends, and I was thinking of _his_ side of the case. I thought he'd
straighten up after he got married; he wasn't such a hard drinker--only
he'd go on a toot when he got into town, like lots of men. I didn't think
it had such a strong hold on him. And I knew he thought a lot of you, and
if you went back on him it'd hit him pretty hard. Man ain't a bad fellow,
only for that. And he's liable to do better when he finds out you know
about it. A man will do 'most anything for a woman he thinks a lot of."

"Indeed!" Val was sitting now upon the red plush chair. Her face was
perfectly colorless, her manner frozen. The word seemed to speak itself,
without having any relation whatever to her thoughts and her emotions.

Kent waited. It seemed to him that she took it harder than she would have
taken the news that Manley was dead. He had no means of gauging the horror
of a young woman who has all her life been familiar with such terms as "the
demon rum," and who has been taught that "intemperance is the doorway to
perdition"; a young woman whose life has been sheltered jealously from all
contact with the ugly things of the world, and who believes that she might
better die than marry a drunkard. He watched her unobtrusively.

"Anyway, it was worrying over you that made him get off wrong to-day," he
ventured at last, as a sort of palliative. "They say he was going to start
home right in the face of the fire, and when they wouldn't let him, he
headed straight for a saloon and commenced to pour whisky down him. He
thought sure you--he thought the fire would--"

"I see," Val interrupted stonily. "For the very doubtful honor of shaking
the hand of a politician, he left me alone to face as best I might
the possibility of burning alive; and when it seemed likely that the
possibility had become a certainty, he must celebrate his bereavement by
becoming a beast. Is that what you would have me believe of my husband?"

"That's about the size of it," Kent admitted reluctantly. "Only I wouldn't
have put it just that way, maybe."

"Indeed! And how would you pit it, then?"

Kent leaned harder against the door, and looked at her curiously. Women, it
seemed to him, were always going to extremes; they were either too soft and
meek, or else they were too hard and unmerciful.

"How would you put it? I am rather curious to know your point of view."

"Well, I know men better than you do, Mrs. Fleetwood. I know they can do
some things that look pretty rotten on the surface, and yet be fairly
decent underneath. You don't know how a habit like that gets a fellow just
where he's weakest. Man ain't a beast. He's selfish and careless, and he
gives way too easy, but he thinks the world of you. Jim says he cried like
a baby when he came into the saloon, and acted like a crazy man. You don't
want to be too hard on him. I've an idea this will learn him a lesson. If
you take him the right way, Mrs. Fleetwood, the chances are he'll quit
drinking."

Val smiled. Kent thought he had never before seen a smile like that, and
hoped he never would see another. There was in it neither mercy nor mirth,
but only the hard judgment of a woman who does not understand.

"Will you bring him to me here, Mr. Burnett? I do not feel quite equal
to invading a saloon and begging him, on my knees, to come--after the
conventional manner of drunkards' wives. But I should like to see him."

Kent stared. "He ain't in any shape to argue with," he remonstrated. "You
better wait a while."

She rested her chin upon her hands, folded upon the high chair back, and
gazed at him with her tawny eyes, that somehow reminded Kent of a lioness
in a cage. He thought swiftly that a lioness would have as much mercy as
she had in that mood.

"Mr. Burnett," she began quietly, when Kent's nerves were beginning to feel
the strain of her silent stare, "I want to see Manley _as he is now_. I
will tell you why. You aren't a woman, and you never will understand, but I
shall tell you; I want to tell _somebody_.

"I was raised well--that sounds queer, but modesty forbids more. At any
rate, my mother was very careful about me. She believed in a girl marrying
and becoming a good wife to a good man, and to that end she taught me and
trained me. A woman must give her all--her life, her past, present, and
future--to the man she marries. For three years I thought how unworthy I
was to be Manley's wife. _Unworthy_, do you hear? I slept with his letters
under my pillow." The self-contempt in her tone! "I studied the things I
thought would make me a better companion out here in the wilderness. I
practiced hours and hours every day upon my violin, because Manley had
admired my playing, and I thought it would please him to have me play in
the firelight on winter evenings, when the blizzards were howling about the
house! I learned to cook, to wash clothes, to iron, to sweep, and to scrub,
and to make my own clothes, because Manley's wife would live where
she could not hire servants to do these things. I lived a beautiful,
picturesque dream of domestic happiness.

"I left my friends, my home, all the things I had been accustomed to all my
life, and I came out here to live that dream!" She laughed bitterly.

"You can easily guess how much of it has come true, Mr. Burnett. But you
don't know what it costs a girl to come down from the clouds and find that
reality is hard and ugly--from dreaming of a cozy little nest of a home,
and the love and care of--of Manley, to the reality--to carrying water and
chopping wood and being left alone, day after day, and to find that his
love only meant--Oh, you don't know how a woman clings to her ideals! You
don't know how I have dung to mine. They have become rather tattered, and I
have had to mend them often, but I have clung to them, even though they do
not resemble much the dreams I brought with me to this horrible country.

"But if it's true, what you tell me--if Manley himself is another
disillusionment--if beyond his selfishness and his carelessness he is a
drunken brute whom I can't even respect, then I'm done with my ideals. I
want to see him just as he is. I want to see him once without the halo I
have kept shining all these months. I've got my life to live--but I want to
face facts and live facts. I can't go on dreaming and making believe, after
this." She stopped and looked at him speculatively, absolutely without
emotion.

"Just before I left home," she went on in the same calm quiet, "a girl
showed me some verses written by a very wicked man. At least, they say he
is very wicked--at any rate, he is in jail. I thought the verses horrible
and brutal; but now I think the man must be very wise. I remember a few
lines, and they seem to me to mean Manley.

         "For each man kills the thing he loves--
         Some do it with a bitter look,
         Some with a flattering word;
         The coward does it with a kiss,
         The brave man with a sword.

"I don't remember all of it, but there was another line or two:

         "The kindest use a knife, because
         The dead so soon grow cold.

"I wish I had that poem now--I think I could understand it. I think--"

"I think you've got talking hysterics, if there is such a thing," Kent
interrupted harshly. "You don't know half what you're saying. You've had
a hard day, and you're all tired out, and everything looks outa focus. I
know--I've seen men like that sometimes when some trouble hit 'em hard and
unexpected. What you want is sleep; not poetry about killing people. A
man, in the shape you are in, takes to whisky. You're taking to graveyard
poetry--and, if you ask _me_, that's worse than whisky. You ain't normal.
What you want to do is go straight to bed. When you wake up in the morning
you won't feel so bad. You won't have half as many troubles as you've got
now."

"I knew you wouldn't understand it," Val remarked coldly, still staring at
him with her chin on her hands.

"You won't yourself, to-morrow morning," Kent declared unsympathetically,
and called Mrs. Hawley from the kitchen. "You better put Mrs. Fleetwood
to bed," he advised gruffly. "And if you've got anything that'll make her
sleep, give her a dose of it. She's so tired she can't see straight." He
was nearly to the outside door when Val recovered her speech.

"You men are all alike," she said contemptuously. "You give orders and you
consider yourselves above all the laws of morality or decency; in reality
you are beneath them. We shouldn't expect anything of the lower animals!
How I _despise_ men!"

"Now you're _talking_," grinned Kent, quite unmoved. "Whack us in a bunch
all you like--but don't make one poor devil take it all. Men as a class are
used to it and can stand it." He was laughing as he left the room, but his
amusement lasted only until the door was closed behind him. "Lord!" he
exclaimed, and drew a deep breath. "I'd sure hate to have that little
woman say all them things about _me!_" and glanced involuntarily over his
shoulder to where a crack of light showed under the faded green shade of
one of the parlor windows.

He crossed the street and entered the saloon where Manley was still
drinking heavily, his face crimson and blear-eyed and brutalized, his
speech thickened disgustingly. He was sprawled in an armchair, waving an
empty glass in an erratic attempt to mark the time of a college ditty six
or seven years out of date, which he was trying to sing. He leered up at
Kent.

"Wife 'sall righ'," he informed him solemnly. "Knew she would be--fine
guards's got out there. 'Sall righ'--somebody shaid sho. Have a drink."

Kent glowered down at him, made a swift, mental decision, and pipped him
by the shoulder. "You come with me," he commanded. "I've got something
important I want to tell you. Come on--if you can walk."

"'Course I c'n walk all righ'. Shertainly I can walk. Wha's makes you think
I can't walk? Want to inshult me? 'Sall my friends here--no secrets from my
friends. Wha's want tell me? Shay it here."

Kent was a big man; that is to say, he was tall, well-muscled and active.
But so was Manley. Kent tried the power of persuasion, leaving force as a
last, doubtful result. In fifteen minutes or thereabouts he had succeeded
in getting Manley outside the door, and there he balked.

"Wha's matter wish you?" he complained, pulling back. "C'm on back 'n' have
drink. Wha's wanna tell me?"

"You wait. I'll tell you all about it in a minute. I've got something to
show you, and I don't want the bunch to get next. Savvy?"

He had a sickening sense that the subterfuge would not have deceived a
five-year-old child, but it was accepted without question.

He led Manley stumbling up the street, evading a direct statement as to his
destination, pulled him off the board walk, and took him across a vacant
lot well sprinkled with old shoes and tin cans. Here Manley fell down, and
Kent's patience was well tested before he got him up and going again.

"Where y' goin'?" Manley inquired pettishly, as often as he could bring his
tongue to the labor of articulation.

"You wait and I'll show you," was Kent's unvaried reply.

At last he pushed open a door and led his victim into the darkness of a
small, windowless building. "It's in here--back against the wall, there,"
he said, pulling Manley after him. By feeling, and by a good sense of
location, he arrived at a rough bunk built against the farther wall, with a
blanket or two upon it.

"There you are," he announced grimly. "You'll have a sweet time getting
anything to drink here, old boy. When you're sober enough to face your wife
and have some show of squaring yourself with her, I'll come and let you
out." He had pushed Manley down upon the bunk, and had reached the door
before the other could get up and come at him. He pulled the door shut
with a slam, slipped a padlock into the staple, and snapped it just before
Manley lurched heavily against it. He was cursing as well as he could--was
Manley, and he began kicking like an unruly child shut into a closet.

"Aw, let up," Kent advised him, through a crack in the wall. "Want to know
where you are? Well, you're in Hawley's ice house; you know it's a fine
place for drunks to sober up in; it's awful popular for that purpose. Aw,
you can't do any business kicking--that's been tried lots of times. This
is sure well built, for an ice house. No, I can't let you out. Couldn't
possibly, you know. I haven't got the key--old lady Hawley has got it, and
she's gone to bed hours ago. You go to sleep and forget about it. I'll talk
to you in the morning. Good night, and pleasant dreams!"

The last thing Kent heard as he walked away was Manley's profane promise to
cut Kent's heart out very early the next day.

"The darned fool," Kent commented, as he stopped in the first patch of
lamplight to roll a cigarette. "He ain't got another friend in town that'd
go to the trouble I've gone to for him. He'll realize it, too, when all
that whisky quits stewing inside him."



CHAPTER XII. A LESSON IN FORGIVENESS

"Well, old-timer, how you coming? You sure do sleep sound--this is the
third time I've come to tell you breakfast is ready and then some. You'll
get the bottom of the coffeepot, for fair, if you don't hustle." Kent left
the door of the ice house wide open behind him, so that the warmth of
mid-morning swept in to do battle with the chill and damp of wet sawdust
and buried ice.

Manley rolled over so that he faced his visitor, and his reply was abusive
in the extreme. Kent waited, with an air of impersonal interest, until
he was done and had turned his face away as though the subject was quite
exhausted.

"Well, now you've got that load off your mind, come on over and get a cup
of coffee. But while you're thinking about whether you want anything but my
heart's blood, I'm going to speak right up and tell you a few things that
commonly ain't none of my business.

"Do you know your wife came within an ace of burning to death yesterday?"
Manley sat up with a jerk and glared at him. "Do you know you're burned
out, slick and clean--all except the shack? Hay, stables, corral, wagons,
chickens--" Kent spread his hands in a gesture including all minor details.
"I rode over there when I saw the fire coming, and it's lucky I did,
old-timer. I back-fired and saved the house--and your wife--from going up
in smoke. But everything else went. Let that sink into your system, will
you? And just see if you can draw a picture of what woulda happened if
nobody had showed up--if that fire had hit the coulee with nobody there but
your wife. Why, I run onto her half-way up the bluff, packing a wet sack,
to fight it at the fire guards I Now, Man, it ain't any credit to, _you_
that the worst didn't happen. I'd sure like to tell you what I think of a
fellow that will leave a woman out there, twenty miles from town and ten
from the nearest neighbor--and them not at home--to take a chance on a
thing like that; but I can't. I never learned words enough.

"There's another thing. Old lady Hawley took more interest in her than
you did; she drove out there to see how about it, as soon as the fire
had burned on past and left the trail safe. And it didn't look good to
her--that little woman stuck out there all by herself. She made her pack up
some clothes, and brought her to town with her. She didn't want to come;
she had an idea that she ought to stay with it till you showed up. But the
only original Hawley is sure all right! She talked your wife plumb outa the
house and into the rig, and brought her to town. She's over to the hotel
now."

"Val at the hotel? How long has she been there?" Manley began smoothing his
hair and his crumpled clothes with his hands, "Good heavens! You told her
I'd gone on out, and had missed her on the trail, didn't you, Kent? She
doesn't know I'm in town, does she? You always were a good fellow--I
haven't forgotten how you--"

"Well, you can forget it now. I didn't tell her anything like that. I
didn't think of it, for one thing. She knew all the time that you were in
town. I'm tired of lying to her. I told her the truth. I told her you were
drunk."

Manley's jaw dropped. "You--you told her--"

"Ex-actly. I told her you were drunk." Kent nodded gravely, and his lips
curled as he watched the other cringe. "She called me a liar," he added,
with a certain reminiscent amusement.

Manley brightened. "That's Val--once she believes in a person she's loyal
as--"

"She ain't now," Kent interposed dryly. "When I let up she was plumb
convinced. She knows now what ailed you the day she came and you didn't
meet her."

"You dirty cur! And I thought you were a friend. You--"

"You thought right--until you got to rooting a little too deep in the mud,
old-timer. And let me tell you something. I was your friend when I told
her. She's got to know--you couldn't go on like this much longer without
having her get wise; she ain't a fool. The thing for you to do now is to
buck up and let her reform you. I've always heard that women are tickled
plumb to death when they can reform a man. You go on over there and make
your little talk, and then buckle down and live up to it. Savvy? That's
your only chance now. It'll work, too.

"You _ought_ to straighten up, Man, and act white! Not just to square
yourself with her, but because you're going downhill pretty fast, if you
only knew it. You ain't anything like you were two years ago, when we
bached together. You've got to brace up pretty sudden, or you'll be so far
gone you can't climb back. And when a man has got a wife to look after,
it seems to me he ought to be the best it's in him to be. You were a fine
fellow when you first hit the country--and she thought she was getting that
same fine fellow when she came away out here to marry you. It ain't any of
my business--but do you think you're giving her a square deal?" He waited a
minute, and spoke the next sentence with a certain diffidence. "I'll gamble
you haven't been disappointed in _her_."

"She's an angel--and I'm a beast!" groaned Manley, with the exaggerated
self-abasement which so frequently follows close upon the heels of
intoxication. "She'll never forgive a thing like that--the best thing I can
do is to blow my brains out!"

"Like Walt. And have your picture enlarged and put in a gold frame, and
hubby number two learning his morals from your awful example," elaborated
Kent, in much the same tone he had employed when Val, only the day before,
had rashly expressed a wish for a speedy death.

Manley sat up straighter and sent a look of resentment toward the man who
bantered when he should have sympathized. "It's all a big joke with you, of
course," he flared weakly. "You're not married--to a perfect woman; a woman
who never did anything wrong in her life, and can't understand how anybody
should want to, and can't forgive him when he does. She expects a man to be
a saint. Why, I don't even smoke in the house--and she doesn't dream I'd
ever swear, under any circumstances.

"Why, Kent, a fellow's _got_ to go to town and turn himself loose
sometimes, when he lives in a rarified atmosphere of refined morality, and
listens to Songs Without Words and weepy classics on the violin, and never
a thing to make your feet tingle. She doesn't believe in public dances,
either. Nor cards. She reads 'The Ring and the Book' evenings, and wants to
discuss it and read passages of it to me. I used to take some interest in
those things, and she doesn't seem to see I've changed. Why, hang it, Kent,
Cold Spring Coulee's no place for Browning--he doesn't fit in. All that
sort of thing is a thousand miles behind me--and I've got to--" He stopped
short and brooded, his eyes upon the dank sawdust at his feet.

"I'm a beast," he repeated rather lugubriously. "She's an angel--an
Eastern-bred angel. And let me tell you, Kent, all that's pretty hard to
live up to!"

Kent looked down at him meditatively, wondering if there was not a good
deal of truth and justice in Manley's argument. But his sympathies had
already gone to the other side, and Kent was not the man to make an
emotional pendulum of himself.

"Well, what you going to do about it?" he asked, after a short silence.

For answer Manley rose to his feet with a certain air of determination,
which flamed up oddly above his general weakness, like the last sputter
of a candle burned down. "I'm going over and take my medicine--face the
music," he said almost sullenly, "She's too good for me--I always knew it.
And I haven't treated her right--I've left her out there alone too much.
But she wouldn't come to town with me--she said she couldn't endure the
sight of it. What could I do? _I_ couldn't stay out there all the time;
there were times when I had to come. She didn't seem to mind staying alone.
She never objected. She was always sweet sad good-natured--and shut up
inside of herself. She just gives you what she pleases of her mind, and the
rest she hides--"

Kent laughed suddenly. "You married men sure do have all kinds of trouble,"
he remarked. "A fellow like me can go on a jamboree any time he likes, and
as long as he likes, and it don't concern anybody but himself--and maybe
the man he's working for; and look at you, scared plumb silly thinking of
what your wife's going to say about it. If you ask me, I'm going to trot
alone; I'd rather be lonesome than good, any old time."

That, however, did not tend to raise Manley's spirits any. He entered the
hotel with visible reluctance, looked into the parlor, and heaved a sigh
of relief when he saw that it was empty, wavered at the foot of the steep,
narrow stairs, and retreated to the dining room, with Kent at his heels
knowing that the matter had passed quite beyond his help or hindrance and
had entered that mysterious realm of matrimony where no unwedded man or
woman may follow and yet is curious enough to linger.

Just inside the door Manley stopped so suddenly that Kent bumped against
him. Val, sweet and calm and cool, was sitting just where the smoke-dimmed
sunlight poured in through a window upon her, and a breeze came with it and
stirred her hair. She had those purple shadows under her eyes which betray
us after long, sleepless hours when we live with our troubles and the world
dreams around us; she had no color at all in her cheeks, and she had that
aloofness of manner which Manley, in his outburst, had described as being
shut up inside herself. She glanced up at them, just as she would have done
had they both been strangers, and went on sugaring her coffee with a dainty
exactness which, under the circumstances, seemed altogether too elaborate
to be unconscious.

"Good morning," she greeted them quietly. "I think we must be the laziest
people in town; at any rate, we seem to be the latest risers."

Kent stared at her frankly, so that she flushed a little under the
scrutiny. Manley consciously avoided looking at her, and muttered something
unintelligible while he pulled out a chair three places distant from her.

Val stole a sidelong, measuring look at her husband while she took a sip of
coffee, and then her eyes turned upon Kent. More than ever, it seemed to
him, they resembled the eyes of a lioness watching you quietly from the
corner of her cage. You could look at them, but you could not look into
them. Always they met your gaze with a baffling veil of inscrutability. But
they were darker than the eyes of a lioness; they were human eyes; woman
eyes--alluring eyes. She did not say a word, and, after a brief stare which
might have meant almost anything, she turned to her plate of toast and
broke away the burned edges of a slice and nibbled at the passable center
as if she had no trouble beyond a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

It was foolish, it was childish for three people who knew one another very
well, to sit and pretend to eat, and to speak no word; so Kent thought,
and tried to break the silence with some remark which would not sound
constrained.

"It's going to storm," he flung into the silence, like chucking a rock into
a pond.

"Do you think so?" Val asked languidly, just grazing him with a glance,
in that inattentive way she sometimes had. "Are you going out home--or to
what's left of it--to-day, Manley?" She did not look at him at all, Kent
observed.

"I don't know--I'll have to hire a team--I'll see what--"

"Mrs. Hawley thinks we ought to stay here for a few days--or that I
ought--while you make arrangements for building a new stable, and all
that."

"If you want to stay," Manley agreed rather eagerly, "why, of course, you
can. There's nothing out there to--"

"Oh, it doesn't matter in the slightest degree where I stay. I only
mentioned it because I promised her I would speak to you about it." There
was more than languor in her tone.

"They're going to start the fireworks pretty quick," Kent mentally
diagnosed the situation and rose hurriedly. "Well, I've got to hunt a
horse, myself, and pull out for the Wishbone," he explained gratuitously.
"Ought to've gone last night. Good-bye." He closed the door behind him and
shrugged his shoulders. "Now they can fight it out," he told himself. "Glad
_I_ ain't a married man!"

However, they did not fight it out then. Kent had no more than reached the
office when Val rose, hoped that Manley would please excuse her, and left
the room also. Manley heard her go up-stairs, found out from Arline what
was the number of Val's room, and followed her. The door was locked, but
when he rapped upon it Val opened it an inch and held it so.

"Val, let me in. I want to talk with you. I--God knows how sorry I am--"

"If He does, that ought to be sufficient," she answered coldly. "I don't
feel like talking now--especially upon the subject you would choose. You're
a man, supposedly. You must know what it is your duty to do. Please let us
not discuss it--now or ever.

"But, Val--"

"I don't want to talk about it, I tell you! I won't--I _can't_. You must do
without the conventional confession and absolution. You must have some sort
of conscience--let that receive your penitence." She started to close the
door, but he caught it with his hand.

"Val--do you hate me?"

She looked at him for a moment, as if she were trying to decide. "No," she
said at last, "I don't think I do; I'm quite sure that I do not. But I'm
terribly hurt and disappointed." She closed the door then and turned the
key.

Manley stood for a moment rather blankly before it, then put his hands as
deep in his pockets as they would go, and went slowly down the stairs. At
that moment he did not feel particularly penitent. She would not listen to
"the conventional confession!"

"That girl can be hard as nails!" he muttered, under his breath.

He went into the office, got a cigar, and lighted it moodily. He glanced at
the bottles ranged upon the shelves behind the bar, drew in his breath for
speech, let it go in a sigh, and walked out. He knew perfectly well what
Val had meant. She had deliberately thrown him back upon his own strength.
He had fallen by himself, he must pick himself up; and she would stand
back and watch the struggle, and judge him according to his failure or his
success. He had a dim sense that it was a dangerous experiment.

He looked for Kent, found him just as he was mounting at the stables, and
let him go almost without a word. After all, no one could help him. He
stood there smoking after Kent had gone, and when his cigar was finished he
wandered back to the hotel. As was always the case after hard drinking, he
had a splitting headache. He got a room as close to Val's as he could,
shut himself into it, and gave himself up to his headache and to gloomy
meditation. All day he lay upon the bed, and part of the time he slept. At
supper time he rapped upon Val's door, got no answer, and went down alone,
to find her in the dining room. There was an empty chair beside her, and he
took it as his right. She talked a little--about the fire and the damage it
had done. She said she was worried because she had forgotten to bring the
cat, and what would it find to eat out there?

"Everything's burned perfectly black for miles and miles, you know," she
reminded him.

They left the room together, and he followed her upstairs and to her door.
This time she did not shut him out, and he went in and sat down by the
window, and looked out upon the meager little street. Never, in the years
he had known her, had she been so far from him. He watched her covertly
while she searched for something in her suit case.

"I'm afraid I didn't bring enough clothes to last more than a day or two,"
she remarked. "I couldn't seem to think of anything that night. Arline did
most of the packing for me. I'm afraid I misjudged that woman, Manley;
there's a good deal to her, after all. But she _is_ funny."

"Val, I want to tell you I'm going to--to be different. I've been a beast,
but I'm going to--" So much he had rushed out before she could freeze him
to silence again.

"I hope so," she cut in, as he hesitated, "That is something you must judge
for yourself, and do by yourself. Do you think you will be able to get a
team tomorrow?"

"Oh--to hell with a team!" Manley exploded.

Val dropped her hairbrush upon the floor. "Manley Fleetwood! Has it come
to that, also? Isn't it enough to--" She choked. "Manley, you can be a--a
drunken sot, if you choose--I've no power to prevent you; but you shall
not swear in my presence. I thought you had some of the instincts of a
gentleman, but--" She set her teeth hard together. She was white around the
mouth, and her whole, slim body was aquiver with outraged dignity.

There was something queer in Manley's eyes as he looked at her, the length
of the tiny room between them.

"Oh, I beg your pardon. I remember, now, your Fern Hill ethics. I may _go_
to hell, for all of you--you will simply hold back your immaculate, moral
skirts so that I may pass without smirching them; but I must not mention my
destination--that is so unrefined!" He got up from the chair, with a laugh
that was almost a snort. "You refuse to discuss a certain subject, though
it's almost a matter of life and death with me; at least, it was. Your
happiness and my own was at stake, I thought. But it's all right--I needn't
have worried about it. I still have some of the instincts of a gentleman,
and your pure ears shall not be offended by any profanity or any
disagreeable 'conventional confessions.' The absolution, let me say, I
expected to do without." He started, full of some secret intent, for the
door.

Val humanized suddenly. By the time his fingers touched the door knob she
had read his purpose, had readied his side, and was clutching his arm with
both her hands.

"Manley Fleetwood, what are you going to do?" She was actually panting with
the jump of her heart.

He turned the knob, so that the latch clicked. "Get drunk. Be the drunken
sot you expect me to be. Go to that vulgar place which I must not mention
in your presence. Let go my arm, Val."

She was all woman, then. She pulled him away from the door and the unnamed
horror which lay outside. She was not the crying sort, but she cried, just
the same--heartbrokenly, her head against his shoulder, as if she herself
were the sinner. She clung to him, she begged him to forgive her hardness.

She learned something which every woman must learn if she would keep a
little happiness in her life: she learned how to forgive the man she loved,
and to trust him afterward.



CHAPTER XIII. ARLINE GIVES A DANCE

A house, it would seem, is almost the least important part of a ranch;
one can camp, with frying pan and blankets, in the shade of a bush or the
shelter of canvas. But to do anything upon a ranch, one must have many
things--burnable things, for the most part, as Manley was to learn by
experience when he left Val at the hotel and rode out, the next day, to
Cold Spring Coulee.

To ride over twenty miles of blackness is depressing enough in itself,
but to find, at the end of the journey, that one's work has all gone
for nothing, and one's money and one's plans and hopes, is worse than
depressing. Manley sat upon his horse and gazed rather blankly at the heap
of black cinders that had been his haystacks, and at the cold embers where
had stood his stables, and at the warped bits of iron that had been his
buckboard, his wagon, his rake and mower--all the things he had gathered
around him in the three years he had spent upon the place.

The house merely emphasized his loss. He got down, picked up the cat, which
was mewing plaintively beside his horse, snuggled it into his arm, and
remounted. Val had told him to be sure and find the cat, and bring it back
with him. His horses and his cattle--not many, to be sure, in that land of
large holdings--were scattered, and it would take the round-up to gather
them together again. So the cat, and the horse he rode, the bleak coulee,
and the unattractive little house with its three rooms and its meager
porch, were all that he could visualize as his worldly possessions. And
when he thought of his bank account he winced mentally. Before snow fell he
would be debt-ridden, the best he could do. For he must have a stable, and
corral, and hay, and a wagon, and--he refused to remind himself of all the
things he must have if he would stay on the ranch.

His was not a strong nature at best, and now he shrank from facing his
misfortune and wanted only to get away from the place. He loped his horse
half-way up the hill, which was not merciful riding. The half-starved cat
yowled in his arms, and struck her claws through his coat till he felt the
prick of them, and he swore; at the cat, nominally, but really at the trick
fate had played upon him.

For a week he dallied in town, without heart or courage though Val urged
him to buy lumber and build, and cheered him as best she could. He did make
a half-hearted attempt to get lumber to the place, but there seemed to be
no team in town which he could hire. Every one was busy, and put him off.
He tried to buy hay of Blumenthall, of the Wishbone, of every man he met
who had hay. No one had any hay to sell, however. Blumenthall complained
that he was short, himself, and would buy if he could, rather than sell.
The Wishbone foreman declared profanely--that hay was going to be worth a
dollar a pound to _them_, before spring. They were all sorry for Manley,
and told him he was "sure playing tough luck," but they couldn't sell any
hay, that was certain.

"But we must manage somehow to fix the place so we can live on it this
winter," Val would insist, when he told her how every move seemed blocked.
"You're very brave, dear, and I'm proud of the way you are holding out--but
Hope is not a good place for you. It would be foolish to stay in town.
Can't you buy enough hay here in town--baled hay from the store--to keep
our horses through the winter?"

"Well, I tried," Manley responded gloomily. "But Brinberg is nearly out.
He's expecting a carload in, but it hasn't come yet. He said he'd let me
know when it gets here."

Meanwhile the days slipped away, and imperceptibly the heat and haze of the
fires gave place to bright sunlight and chill winds, and then to the chill
winds without the sunshine. One morning the ground was frozen hard, and all
the roofs gleamed white with the heavy frost. Arline bestirred herself, and
had a heating stove set up in the parlor, and Val went down to the dry heat
and the peculiar odor of a rusted stove in the flush of its first fire
since spring.

The next day, as she sat by her window up-stairs, she looked out at the
first nip of winter. A few great snowflakes drifted down from the slaty
sky; a puff of wind sent them dancing down the street, shook more down,
and whirled them giddily. Then the storm came and swept through the little
street and whined lonesomely around the hotel.

Over at the saloon--"Pop's Place," it proclaimed itself in washed-out
lettering--three tied horses circled uneasily until they were standing back
to the storm, their bodies hunched together with the chill of it, their
tails whipping between their legs. They accentuated the blank dreariness of
the empty street. The snow was whitening their rumps and clinging, in tiny
drifts, upon the saddle skirts behind the cantles.

All the little hollows of the rough, frozen ground were filling slowly,
making white patches against the brown of the earth--patches which widened
and widened until they met, and the whole street was blanketed with fresh,
untrodden snow. Val shivered suddenly, and hurried down-stairs where the
air was warm and all a-steam with cooking, and the odor of frying onions
smote the nostrils like a blow in the face.

"I suppose we must stay here, now, till the storm is over," she sighed,
when she met Manley at dinner. "But as soon as it clears we must go back to
the ranch. I simply cannot endure another week of it."

"You're gitting uneasy--I seen that, two or three days ago," said Arline,
who had come into the dining room with a tray of meat and vegetables, and
overheard her. "You want to stay, now, till after the dance. There's going
to be a dance Friday night, you know--everybody's coming. You got to wait
for that."

"I don't attend public dances," Val stated calmly. "I am going home as soon
as the storm clears--if Manley can buy a little hay, and find our horses,
and get some sort of a driving vehicle."

"Well, if he can't, maybe he can round up a _ridin'_ vee-hicle," Arline
remarked dryly, placing the meat before Manley, the potatoes before Val,
and the gravy exactly between the two, with mathematical precision. "I'm
givin' that dance myself. You'll have to go--I'm givin' it in your honor."

"In--my--why, the _idea!_ It's good of you, but--"

"And you're goin', and you're goin' to take your vi'lin over and play us
some pieces. I tucked it into the rig and brought it in, on purpose. I
planned out the hull thing, driving out to your place. In case you wasn't
all burned up, I made up my mind I was going to give you a dance, and git
you acquainted with folks. You needn't to hang back--I've told everybody it
was in your honor, and that you played the vi'lin swell, and we'd have
some real music. And I've sent to Chinook for the dance music--harp, two
fiddles, and a coronet--and you ain't going to stall the hull thing now. I
didn't mean to tell you till the last minute, but you've got to have time
to mate up your mind you'll go to a public dance for oncet in your life.
It ain't going to hurt you none. I've went, ever sence I was big enough to
reach up and grab holt of my pardner--and I'm every bit as virtuous as you
be. You're going, and you'n Man are going to head the grand march."

Val's face was flushed, her lips pursed, and her eyes wide. Plainly she was
not quite sure whether she was angry, amused, or insulted. She descended
straight to a purely feminine objection.

"But I haven't a thing to wear, and--"

"Oh, yes, you have. While you was dillydallying out in the front room, that
night, wondering whether you'd have hysterics, or faint, or what all, I
dug deep in that biggest trunk of yourn, and fished up one of your party
dresses--white satin, it is, with embroid'ry all up 'n' down the front, and
slimpsy lace; it's kinda low-'n'-behold--one of them--"

"My white satin--why, Mrs. Hawley! That--you must have brought the gown I
wore to my farewell club reception. It has a train, and--why, the _idea!_"

"You can cut off the trail--you got plenty of time--or you can pin it up.
I didn't have time that night to see how the thing was made, and I took it
because I found white skirts and stockin's, and white satin slippers to go
with it, right handy. You're a bride, and white'll be suitable, and the
dance is in your honor. Wear it just as it is, fer all me. Show the folks
what real clothes look like. I never seen a woman dressed up that way in
my hull life. You wear it, Val, trail 'n' all. I'll back you up in it, and
tell folks it's my idee, and not yourn."

"I'm not in the habit of apologizing to people for the clothes I wear." Val
lifted her chin haughtily. "I am not at all sure that I shall go. In fact,
I--"

"Oh, you'll go!" Arline rested her arms upon her bony hips and snapped her
meager jaws together. "You'll go, if I have to carry you over. I've sent
for fifteen yards of buntin' to decorate the hall with. I ain't going to
all that trouble for nothing. I ain't giving a dance in honor of a certain
person, and then let that person stay away. You--why, you'd queer yourself
with the hull country, Val Fleetwood! You ain't got the least sign of an
excuse You got the clothes, and you ain't sick. There's a reason why you
got to show up. I ain't going into no details at present, but under the
circumstances, it's _advisable_." She smelled something burning then, and
bolted for the kitchen, where her sharp, rather nasal voice was heard
upbraiding Minnie for some neglect.

Polycarp Jenks came in, eyed Val and Manley from under one lifted, eyebrow,
smiled skinnily, and pulled out a chair with a rasping noise, and sat down
facing them. Instinctively Val refrained from speaking her mind about
Arline and her dance before Polycarp, but afterward, in their own room,
she grew rather eloquent upon the subject. She would not go. She would not
permit that woman to browbeat her into doing what she did not want to do,
she said. In her honor, indeed! The impertinence of going to the bottom of
her trunk, and meddling with her clothes--with that reception gown, of all
others! The idea of wearing that gown to a frontier dance--even if she
consented to go to such a dance! And expecting her to amuse the company by
playing "pieces" on the violin!

"Well, why not?" Manley was sitting rather apathetically upon the edge of
the bed, his arms resting upon his knees, his eyes moodily studying the
intricate rose pattern in the faded Brussels carpet. They were the first
words he had spoken; one might easily have doubted whether he had heard all
Val said.

"Why not? Manley Fleetwood, do you mean to tell me--"

"Why not go, and get acquainted, and quit feeling that you're a pearl cast
among swine? It strikes me the Hawley person is pretty level-headed on the
subject. If you're going to live in this country, why not quit thinking
how out of place you are, and how superior, and meet us all on a level? It
won't hurt you to go to that dance, and it won't hurt you to play for them,
if they want you to. You _can_ play, you know; you used to play at all the
musical doings in Fern Hill, and even in the city sometimes. And, let me
tell you, Val, we aren't quite savages, out here. I've even suspected,
sometimes, that we're just as good as Fern Hill."

"We?" Val looked at him steadily. "So you wish to identify yourself with
these people--with Polycarp Jenks, and Arline Hawley, and--"

"Why not? They're shaky on grammar, and their manners could stand a little
polish, but aside from that they're exactly like the people you've lived
among all your life. Sure, I wish to identify myself with them. I'm just a
rancher--pretty small punkins, too, among all these big outfits, and you're
a rancher's wife. The Hawley person could buy us out for cash to-morrow, if
she wanted to, and never miss the money. And, Val, she's giving that dance
in your honor; you ought to appreciate that. The Hawley doesn't take a
fancy to every woman she sees--and, let me tell you, she stands ace-high in
this country. If she didn't like you, she could make you wish she did."

"Well, upon my word! I begin to suspect you of being a humorist, Manley.
And even if you mean that seriously--why, it's all the funnier." To prove
it, she laughed.

Manley hesitated, then left the room with a snort, a scowl, and a slam of
the door; and the sound of Val's laughter followed him down the stairs.

Arline came up, her arms full of white satin, white lace, white cambric,
and the toes of two white satin slippers showing just above the top of her
apron pockets. She walked briskly in and deposited her burden upon the bed.

"My! them's the nicest smellin' things I ever had a hold of," she observed.
"And still they don't seem to smell, either. Must be a dandy perfumery
you've got. I brought up the things, seein' you know they're here. I
thought you could take your time about cuttin' off the trail and fillin' in
the neck and sleeves."

She sat down upon the foot of the bed, carefully tucking her gingham apron
close about her so that it might not come in contact with the other.

"I never did see such clothes," she sighed. "I dunno how you'll ever git
a chancet to wear 'em out in this country--seems to me they're most too
pretty to wear, anyhow, I can git Marthy Winters to come over and help
you--she does sewin'--and you can use my machine any time you want to. I'd
take a hold myself if I didn't have all the baking to do for the dance.
That Min can't learn nothing, seems like. I can't trust her to do a thing,
hardly, unless I stand right over her. Breed girls ain't much account ever;
but they're all that'll work out, in this country, seems like. Sometimes I
swear I'll git a Chink and be done with it--only I got to have somebody I
can talk to oncet in a while. I couldn't never talk to a Chink--they don't
seem hardly human to me. Do they to you?

"And say! I've got some allover lace--it's eecrue--that you can fill in the
neck with; you're welcome to use it--there's most a yard of it, and I won't
never find a use for it. Or I was thinkin', there'll be enough cut off'n
the trail to make a gamp of the satin, sleeves and all." She lifted the
shining stuff with manifest awe. "It does seem a shame to put the shears
to it--but you never'll git any wear out of it the way it is, and I don't
believe--"

"Mis' _Hawley!_" shrilled the voice of Minnie at the foot of the stairs.
"There's a couple of _drummers_ off'n the _train_, 'n' they want _supper_,
'n' what'll I _give_ 'em?"

"My heavens! That girl'll drive me crazy, sure!" Arline hurried to the
door. "Don't take the roof off'n the house," she cried querulously down the
stairway. "I'm comin'."

Val had not spoken a word. She went over to the bed, lifted a fold of
satin, and smiled down at it ironically. "Mamma and I spent a whole month
planning and sewing and gloating over you," she said aloud. "You were
almost as important as a wedding gown; the club's farewell reception--'To
what base uses we do--'"

"Oh, here's your slippers!" Arline thrust half her body into the room and
held the slippers out to Val. "I stuck 'em into my pockets to bring up, and
forgot all about 'em, mind you, till I was handin' the drummers their tea.
And one of 'em happened to notice 'em, and raised right up outa his chair,
an' said: 'Cind'rilla, sure as I live! Say, if there's a foot in this town
that'll go into them slippers, for God's sake introduce me to the owner!'
I told him to mind his own business. Drummers do get awful fresh when they
think they can get away with it." She departed in a hurry, as usual.

Every day after that Arline talked about altering the satin gown. Every day
Val was noncommittal and unenthusiastic. Occasionally she told Arline that
she was not going to the dance, but Arline declined to take seriously so
preposterous a declaration.

"You want to break a leg, then," she told Val grimly on Thursday. "That's
the only excuse that'll go down with this bunch. And you better git a move
on--it comes off to-morrer night, remember."

"I won't go, Manley!" Val consoled herself by declaring, again and again.
"The idea of Arline Hawley ordering me about like a child! Why should I go
if I don't care to go?"

"Search me." Manley shrugged his shoulders. "It isn't so long, though,
since you were just as determined to stay and have the shivaree, you
remember."

"Well, you and Mr. Burnett tried to do exactly what Arline is doing. You
seemed to think I was a child, to be ordered about."

At the very last minute--to be explicit, an hour before the hall was
lighted, several hours after smoke first began to rise from the chimney,
Val suddenly swerved to a reckless mood. Arline had gone to her own room to
dress, too angry to speak what was in her mind. She had worked since five
o'clock that morning. She had bullied Val, she had argued, she had begged,
she had wheedled. Val would not go. Arline had appealed to Manley, and
Manley had assured her, with a suspicious slurring of his _esses_ that he
was out of it, and had nothing to say. Val, he said, could not be driven.

It was after Arline had gone to her room and Manley had returned to the
"office" that Val suddenly picked up her hairbrush and, with an impish
light in her eyes, began to pile her hair high upon her head. With her lips
curved to match the mockery of her eyes, she began hurriedly to dress.
Later, she went down to the parlor, where four women from the neighboring
ranches were sitting stiffly and in constrained silence, waiting to be
escorted to the hall. She swept in upon them, a glorious, shimmery creature
all in white and gold. The women steed, wavered, and looked away--at the
wall, the floor, at anything but Val's bare, white shoulders and arms as
white. Arline had forgotten to look for gloves.

Val read the consternation in their weather-tanned faces, and smiled in
wicked enjoyment. She would shock all of Hope; she would shock even Arline,
who had insisted upon this. Like a child in mischief, she turned and went
rustling down the ball to the dining room. She wanted to show Arline. She
had not thought of the possibility of finding any one but Arline and Minnie
there, so that she was taken slightly aback when she discovered Kent and
another man eating a belated supper.

Kent looked up, eyed her sharply for just an instant, and smiled.

"Good evening, Mrs. Fleetwood," he said calmly. "Ready for the ball, I see.
We got in late." He went on spreading butter upon his bread, evidently
quite unimpressed by her magnificence.

The other man stared fixedly at his plate. It was a trifle, but Val
suddenly felt foolish and ashamed. She took a step or two toward the
kitchen, then retreated; down the hall she went, up the stairs and into her
own room, the door of which she shut and locked.

"Such a fool!" she whispered vehemently, and stamped her white-shod foot
upon the carpet. "He looked perfectly disgusted--and so did that other man.
And no wonder. Such--it's _vulgar_, Val Fleetwood! It's just ill-bred, and
coarse, and horrid!" She threw herself upon the bed and put her face in the
pillow.

Some one--she thought it sounded like Manley--came up and tried the door,
stood a moment before it, and went away again. Arline's voice, sharpened
with displeasure, she heard speaking to Minnie upon the stairs. They went
down, and there was a confusion of voices below. In the street beneath her
window footsteps sounded intermittently, coming and going with a certain
eagerness of tread. After a time there came, from a distance, the sound of
violins and the "coronet" of which Arline had been so proud; and mingled
with it was an undercurrent of shuffling feet, a mere whisper of sound, cut
sharply now and then by the sharp commands of the floor manager. They were
dancing--in her honor. And she was a fool; a proud, ill-tempered, selfish
fool..

With one of her quick changes of mood she rose, patted her hair smooth,
caught up a wrap oddly inharmonious with the gown and slippers, looped
her train over her arm, tool her violin, and ran lightly down-stairs. The
parlor, the dining room, the kitchen were deserted and the lights turned
low. She braced herself mentally, and, flushing at the unaccustomed act,
rapped timidly upon the door which opened into the office--which by that
time she knew was really a saloon. Hawley himself opened the door, and in
his eyes bulged at sight of her.

"Is Mr. Fleetwood here? I--I thought, after all, I'd go to the dance," she
said, in rather a timid voice, shrinking back into the shadow.

"Fleetwood? Why, I guess he's gone on over. He said you wasn't going. You
wait a minute. I--here, Kent! You take Mrs. Fleetwood over to the hall.
Man's gone."

"Oh, no! I--really, it doesn't matter--"

But Kent had already thrown away his cigarette and come out to her, closing
the door immediately after him.

"I'll take you over--I was just going, anyway," He assured her, his eyes
dwelling upon her rather intently.

"Oh--I wanted Manley. I--I hate to go--like this, it seems so--so queer, in
this place. At first I--I thought it would be a joke, but it isn't; it's
silly and,--and ill-bred. You--everybody will be shocked, and--"

Kent took a step toward her, where she was shrinking against the stairway.
Once before she had lost her calm composure and had let him peep into her
mind. Then it had been on account of Manley; now, womanlike, it was her
clothes.

"You couldn't be anything but all right, if you tried," he told her,
speaking softly. "It isn't silly to look the way the Lord meant you to
look. You--you--oh, you needn't worry--nobody's going to be shocked very
hard." He reached out and took the violin from her; took also her arm
and opened the outer door. "You're late," he said, speaking in a more
commonplace tone. "You ought to have overshoes, or something--those white
slippers won't be so white time you get there. Maybe I ought to carry you."

"The idea!" she stepped out daintily upon the slushy walk.

"Well, I can take you a block or two around, and have sidewalk all the way;
that'll help some. Women sure are a lot of bother--I'm plumb sorry for the
poor devils that get inveigled into marrying one."

"Why, Mr. Burnett! Do you always talk like that? Because if you do, I don't
wonder--"

"No," Kent interrupted, looking down at her and smiling grimly, "as it
happens, I don't. I'm real nice, generally speaking. Say! this is going to
be a good deal of trouble, do you know? After you dance with hubby, you've
got to waltz with me."

"_Got_ to?" Val raised her eyebrows, though the expression was lost upon
him.

"Sure. Look at the way I worked like a horse, saving your life--and the
cat's--and now leading you all over town to keep those nice white slippers
clean! By rights, you oughtn't to dance with anybody else. But I ain't
looking for real gratitude. Four or five waltzes is all I'll insist on,
but--" His tone was lugubrious in the extreme.

"Well, I'll waltz with you once--for saving the cat; and once for saving
the slippers. For saving me, I'm not sure that I thank you." Val stepped
carefully over a muddy spot on the walk. "Mr. Burnett, you--really, you're
an awfully queer man."

Kent walked to the next crossing and helped her over it before he answered
her. "Yes," he admitted soberly then, "I reckon you're right. I am--queer."



CHAPTER XIV. A WEDDING PRESENT

Sunday it was, and Val had insisted stubbornly upon going back to the
ranch; somewhat to her surprise, if one might judge by her face, Arline
Hawley no longer demurred, but put up lunch enough for a week almost, and
announced that she was going along. Hank would have to drive out, to bring
back the team, and she said she needed a rest, after all the work and worry
of that dance. Manley, upon whose account it was that Val was so anxious,
seemed to have nothing whatever to say about it. He was sullenly
acquiescent--as was perhaps to be expected of a man who had slipped into
his old habits and despised himself for doing so, and almost hated his wife
because she had discovered it and said nothing. Val was thankful, during
that long, bleak ride over the prairie, for Arline's incessant chatter. It
was better than silence, when the silence means bitter thoughts.

"Now," said Arline, moving excitedly in her seat when they neared Cold
Spring Coulee, "maybe I better tell you that the folks round here has kinda
planned a little su'prise for you. They don't make much of a showin' about
bein' neighborly--not when things go smooth--but they're right there when
trouble comes. It's jest a little weddin' present--and if it comes kinda
late in the day, why, you don't want to mind that. My dance that I gave was
a weddin' party, too, if you care to call it that. Anyway, it was to raise
the money to pay for our present, as far as it went--and I want to tell you
right now, Val, that you was sure the queen of the ball; everybody said you
looked jest like a queen in a picture, and I never heard a word ag'inst
your low-neck dress. It looked all right on _you_, don't you see? On me,
for instance, it woulda been something fierce. And I'm real glad you took a
hold and danced like you did, and never passed nobody up, like some woulda
done. You'll be glad you did, now you know what it was for. Even danced
with Polycarp Jenks--and there ain't hardly any woman but what'll turn
_him_ down; I'll bet he tromped all over your toes, didn't he?"

"Sometimes," Val admitted. "What about the surprise you were speaking of,
Mrs. Hawley?"

"It does seem as if you might call me Arline," she complained irrelevantly.
"We're comin' to that--don't you worry."

"Is it--a piano?"

"My lands, no! You don't need a fiddle and a piano both, do you? Man,
what'd you rather have for a weddin' present?"

Manley, upon the front seat beside Hank, gave his shoulders an impatient
twitch. "Fifty thousand dollars," he replied glumly.

"I'm glad you're real modest about it," Arline retorted sharply. She was
beginning to tell herself quite frequently that she "didn't have no time
for Man Fleetwood, seeing he wouldn't brace up and quit drinkin."

Val's lips curled as she looked at Manley's back. "What I should like," she
said distinctly, "is a great, big pile of wood, all cut and ready for the
stove, and water pails that never would go empty. It's astonishing how
one's desires eventually narrow down to bare essentials, isn't it? But as
we near the place, I find those two things more desirable than a piano!"
Then she bit her lip angrily because she had permitted herself to give the
thrust.

"Why, you poor thing! Man Fleetwood, do you--"

Val impulsively caught her by the arm. "Oh, hush! I was only joking," she
said hastily. "I was trying to balance Manley's wish for fifty thousand
dollars, don't you see? It was stupid of me, I know." She laughed
unconvincingly. "Let me guess what the surprise is. First, is it large or
small?"

"Kinda big," tittered Arline, falling into the spirit of the joke.

"Bigger than a--wait, now. A sewing machine?"

Arline covered her mouth with her hand and nodded dumbly.

"You say all the neighbors gave it and the dance helped pay for it--let me
see. Could it possibly be--what in the world could it be? Manley, help me
guess! Is it something useful, or just something nice?"

"Useful," said Arline, and snapped her jaws together as if she feared to
let another word loose.

"Larger than a sewing machine, and useful." Val puckered her brows over the
puzzle. "And all the neighbors gave it. Do you know, I've been thinking all
sorts of nasty things about our poor neighbors, because they refused to
sell Manley any hay. And all the while they were planning this sur--" She
never finished that sentence, or the word, even.

With a jolt over a rock, and a sharp turn to the right, Hank had brought
them to the very brow of the hill, where they could look down into the
coulee, and upon the house standing in its tiny, unkempt yard, just beyond
the sparse growth of bushes which marked the spring creek. Involuntarily
every head turned that way, and every pair of eyes looked downward. Hank
chirped to the horses, threw all his weight upon the brake, and they
rattled down the grade, the brake block squealing against the rear wheels.
They were half-way down before any one spoke. It was Val, and she almost
whispered one word:

"Manley!"

Arline's eyes were wet, and there was a croak in her voice when she cried
jubilantly: "Well, ain't that better 'n a sewin' machine--or a piano?"

But Val did not attempt an answer. She was staring--staring as if she could
not convince herself of the reality. Even Manley was jarred out of his
gloomy meditations, and half rose in the seat that he might see over Hank's
shoulder.

"That's what your neighbors have done," Arline began eagerly, "and they
nearly busted tryin' to git through in time, and to keep it a dead secret.
They worked like whiteheads, lemme tell you, and never even stopped for the
storm. The night of the dance I heard all about how they had to hurry. And
I guess Kent's there an' got a fire started, like I told him to. I was
afraid it might be colder'n what it is. I asked him if he wouldn't ride
over an' warm up the house t'day--and I see there's a smoke, all right."
She looked at Manley, and then turned to Val. "Well, ain't you goin' to say
anything? You dumb, both of you?"

Val took a deep breath. "We should be dumb," she said contritely. "We
should go down on our knees and beg their pardon and yours--I especially. I
think I've never in my life felt quite so humbled--so overwhelmed with the
goodness of my fellows, and my own unworthiness. I--I can't put it into
words--all the resentment I have felt against the country and the people in
it--as if--oh, tell them all how I want them to forgive me for--for the way
I have felt. And--_Arline_--"

"There, now--I didn't bargain for you to make it so serious," Arline
expostulated, herself near to crying. "It ain't nothing much--us folks
believe in helpin' when help's needed, that's all. For Heaven's sake, don't
go 'n' cry about it!"

Hank pulled up at the gate with a loud _whoa_ and a grip of the brake. From
the kitchen stovepipe a blue ribbon of smoke waved high in the clear air.
Kent appeared, grinning amiably, in the doorway, but Val was looking
beyond, and scarcely saw him--beyond, where stood a new stable upon the
ashes of the old; a new corral, the posts standing solidly in the holes dug
for those burned away; a new haystack--when hay was almost priceless! A
few chickens wandered about near the stable, and Val recognized them as
Arline's prized Plymouth Rocks. Small wonder that she and Manley were
stunned to silence. Manley still looked as if some one had dealt him an
unexpected blow in the face. Val was white and wide-eyed.

Together they walked out to the stable. When they stopped, she put her hand
timidly upon his aim. "Dear," she said softly, "there is only one way to
thank them for this, and that is to be the very best it is in us to be. We
will, won't we? We--we haven't been our best, but we'll start in right now.
Shall we, Manley?"

Manley looked down at her for a moment, saying nothing.

"Shall we, Manley? Let us start now, and try again. Let's play the fire
burned up our old selves, and we're all new, and strong--shall we? And we
won't feel any resentment for what is past, but we'll work together, and
think together, and talk together, without any hidden thing we can't
discuss freely. Please, Manley!"

He knew what she meant, well enough. For the last two days he had been
drinking again. On the night of the dance he had barely kept within the
limit of decent behavior. He had read Val's complete understanding and her
disgust the morning after--and since then they had barely spoken except
when speech was necessary. Oh, he knew what she meant! He stood for another
minute, and she let go his arm and stood apart, watching his face.

A good deal depended upon the next minute, and they both knew it, and
hardly breathed. His hand went slowly into a deep pocket of his overcoat,
his fingers closed over something, and drew it reluctantly to the light.
Shamefaced, he held it up for her to see--a flat bottle of generous size,
full to within a inch of the cork with a pale, yellow liquid.

"There--take it, and break it into a million pieces," he said huskily.
"I'll try again."

Her yellow-brown eyes darkened perceptibly. "Manley Fleetwood, _you_ must
throw it away. This is your fight--be a man and _fight_."

"Well--there! May God damn me forever if I touch liquor again! I'm through
with the stuff for keeps!" He held the bottle high, without looking at it,
and sent it crashing against the stable door.

"Manley!" She stopped her ears, aghast at his words, but for all that her
eyes were ashine. She went up to him and put her arms around him. "Now
we can start all over again," she said. "We'll count our lives from this
minute, dear, and we'll keep them clean and happy. Oh, I'm so glad! So glad
and so proud, dear!"

Kent had got half-way down the path from the house; he stopped when Manley
threw the bottle, and waited. Now he turned abruptly and retraced his
steps, and he did not look particularly happy, though he had been smiling
when he left the kitchen.

Arline turned from the window as he entered.

"Looks like Man has swore off ag'in," she observed dryly. "Well, let's hope
'n' pray he stays swore off."



CHAPTER XV. A COMPACT

The blackened prairie was fast hiding the mark of its fire torture under a
cloak of tender new grass, vividly green as a freshly watered, well-kept
lawn. Meadow larks hopped here and there, searching long for a sheltered
nesting place, and missing the weeds where they were wont to sway and
swell their yellow breasts and sing at the sun. They sang just as happily,
however, on their short, low flights over the levels, or sitting upon gray,
half-buried boulders upon some barren hilltop. Spring had come with lavish
warmth. The smoke of burning ranges, the bleak winter with its sweeping
storms of snow and wind, were pushed info the past, half forgotten in this
new heaven and new earth, when men were glad simply because they were
alive.

On a still, Sunday morning--that day which, when work does not press, is
set apart in the range land for slight errands, attention to one's personal
affairs, and to the pursuit of pleasure--Kent jogged placidly down the long
hill into Cold Spring Coulee and pulled up at the familiar little unpainted
house of rough boards, with its incongruously dainty curtains at the
windows and its tiny yard, green and scrupulously clean.

The cat with white spots on its sides was washing its face on the kitchen
doorstep. Val was kneeling beside the front porch, painstakingly stringing
white grocery twine upon nails, which she drove into the rough posts with a
small rock. The primitive trellis which resulted was obviously intended
for the future encouragement of the sweet-pea plants just unfolding their
second clusters of leaves an inch above ground. She did not see Kent at
first, and he sat quiet in the saddle, watching her with a flicker of
amusement in his eyes; but in a moment she struck her finger and sprang up
with a sharp little cry, throwing the rock from her.

"Didn't you know that was going to happen, sooner or later?" Kent inquired,
and so made known his presence.

"Oh--how do you do?" She came smiling down to the gate, holding the hurt
finger tightly clasped in the other hand. "How comes it you are riding this
way? Our trail is all growing up to grass, so few ever travel it."

"We're all hard-working folks these days. Where's Man?"

"Manley is down to the river, I think." She rested both arms upon the
gatepost and regarded him with her steady eyes. "If you can wait, he will
be back soon. He only went to see if the river is fordable. He thinks two
or three of our horses are on the other side, and he'd like to get them.
The river has been too high, but it's lowering rather fast. Won't you come
in?" She was pleasant, she was unusually friendly, but Kent felt vaguely
that, somehow, she was different.

He had not seen her for three months. Just after Christmas he had met her
and Manley in town, when he was about to leave for a visit to his people in
Nebraska. He had returned only a week or so before, and, if the truth were
known, he was not displeased at the errand which brought him this way. He
dismounted, and when she moved away from the gate he opened it and went in.

"Well," he began lightly, when he was seated upon the floor of the porch
and she was back at her trellis, "and how's the world been using you? Had
any more calamities while I've been gone?"

She busied herself with tying together two pieces of string, so that the
whole would reach to a certain nail driven higher than her head. She stood
with both hands uplifted, and her face, and her eyes; she did not reply for
so long that Kent began to wonder if she had heard him. There was no reason
why he should watch her so intently, or why he should want to get up and
push back the one lock of hair which seemed always in rebellion and always
falling across her temple by itself.

He was drifting into a dreamy wonder that all women with yellow-brown hair
should not be given yellow-brown eyes also, and to wishing vaguely that it
might be his luck to meet one some time--one who was not married--when she
looked down at him quite unexpectedly. He was startled, and half ashamed,
and afraid that she might not like what he, had been thinking.

She was staring straight into his eyes, and he knew that she was thinking
of something that affected her a good deal.

"Unless it's a calamity to discover that the world is--what it is, and
people in it are--what they are, and that you have been a blind idiot. Is
that a calamity, Mr. Cowboy? Or is it a blessing? I've been wondering."

Kent discovered, when he started to speak, that he had run short of breath.
"I reckon that depends on how the discovery pans out," he ventured, after
a moment. He was not looking at her then. For some reason, unexplained to
himself, he felt that it wasn't right for him to look at her; nor wise; nor
quite pleasant in its effect. He did not know exactly what she meant, but
he knew very well that she meant something more than to make conversation.

"That," she said, and gave a little sigh--"that takes so long--don't
you know? The panning out, as you call it. It's hard to see things very
clearly, and to make a decision that you know is going to stand the test,
and then--just sit down and fold your hands, because some sordid, petty
little reason absolutely prevents your doing anything. I hate waiting
for anything. Don't you? When I want to do a thing, I want to do it
immediately. These sweet-peas--now I've fixed the trellis for them to climb
upon, I resent it because they don't take hold right now. Nasty little
things--two inches high, when they should be two yards, and all covered
with beautiful blossoms."

[Illustration: "Little woman, listen here," he said. "You're playing hard
luck, and I know it"]

"Not the last of April," he qualified. "Give 'em a fair chance, can't you?
They'll make it, all right; things take time."

She laughed surrenderingly, and came and sat down upon the porch near him,
and tapped a slipper toe nervously upon the soft, green sod.

"Time! Yes--" She threw back her head and smiled at him brightly--and
appealingly, it seemed to Kent. "You remember what you told me once--about
sheep-herders and _such_ going crazy out here? The _such_ is sometimes
ready to agree with you." She turned her head with a quick impatience.
"Such is learning to ride a horse," she informed him airily. "Such does it
on the sly--and she fell off once and skinned her elbow, and she--well,
Such hasn't any sidesaddle--but she's learning, 'by granny!'"

Kent laughed unsteadily, and looked sidelong at her with eyes alight. She
matched the glance for just about one second, and turned her eyes away with
a certain consciousness that gave Kent a savage delight. Of a truth, she
was different! She was human, she was intolerably alluring. She was not the
prim, perfectly well-bred young woman he had met at the train. Lonesome
Land was doing its work. She was beginning to think as an individual--as a
woman; not merely as a member of conventional society.

"Such is beginning to be the proper stuff--'by granny," he told her softly.

He was afraid his tone had offended her. She rose, and her color flared and
faded. She leaned slightly against the post beside her, and, with a hand
thrown up and half shielding her face, she stared out across the coulee to
the hill beyond.

"Did you--I feel like a fool for talking like this, but one sometimes
clutches at the least glimmer of sympathy and--and understanding, and
speaks what should be kept bottled up inside, I suppose. But I've been
bottled up for so _long_--" She struck her free hand suddenly against her
lips, as if she would apply physical force to keep them from losing all
self-control. When she spoke again, her voice was calmer. "Did you ever get
to the point, Mr. Cowboy, where you--you dug right down to the bottom of
things, and found that you must do something or go mad--and there wasn't a
thing you could do? Did you ever?" She did not turn toward him, but kept
her eyes to the hills. When he did not answer, however, she swung her head
slowly and looked down at him, where he sat almost at her feet.

Kent was leaning forward, studying the gashes he had cut in the sod with
his spurs. His brows were knitted close.

"I kinda think I'm getting there pretty fast," he owned gravely when he
felt her gaze upon him. "Why?"

"Oh--because you can understand how one must speak sometimes. Ever since I
came, you have been--I don't know--different. At first I didn't like you at
all; but I could see you were different. Since then--well, you have now and
then said something that made me see one could speak to you, and you would
understand. So I--" She broke off suddenly and laughed an apology. "Am I
boring you dreadfully? One grows so self-centered living alone. If you
aren't interested--"

"I am." Kent was obliged to clear his throat to get those two words out.
"Go on. Say all you want to say."

She laughed again wearily. "Lately," she confessed nervously, "I've taken
to telling my thoughts to the cat. It's perfectly safe, but, after all, it
isn't quite satisfying." She stopped again, and stood silent for a moment.

"It's because I am alone, day after day, week in and week out," she went
on. "In a way, I don't mind it--under the circumstances I prefer to be
alone, really. I mean, I wouldn't want any of my people near me. But one
has too much time to think. I tell you this because I feel I ought to let
you know that you were right that time; I don't suppose you even remember
it! But I do. Once last fall--the first time you came to the ranch--you
know, the time I met you at the spring, you seemed to see that this big,
lonesome country was a little too much for me. I resented it then. I didn't
want any one to tell me what I refused to admit to myself. I was trying so
hard to like it--it seemed my only hope, you see. But now I'll tell you you
were right.

"Sometimes I feel very wicked about it. Sometimes I don't care. And
sometimes I--I feel I shall go crazy if I can't talk to some one. Nobody
comes here, except Polycarp Jenks. The only woman I know really well in
the country is Arline Hawley. She's good as gold, but--she's intensely
practical; you can't tell her your troubles--not unless they're concrete
and have to do with your physical well-being. Arline lacks imagination."
She laughed again shortly.

"I don't know why I'm taking it for granted you don't," she said. "You
think I'm talking pore nonsense, don't you, Mr. Cowboy?" She turned full
toward him, and her yellow-brown eyes challenged him, begged him for
sympathy and understanding, held him at bay--but most of all they set his
blood pounding sullenly in his veins. He got unsteadily to his feet.

"You seem to pass up a lot of things that count, or you wouldn't say that,"
he reminded her huskily. "That night in town, just after the fire, for
instance. And here, that same afternoon. I tried to jolly you out of
feeling bad, both those times; but you know I understood. You know damn'
_well_ I understood! And you know I was sorry. And if you don't know, I'd
do anything on God's green earth--" He turned sharply away from her and
stood kicking savagely backward at a clod with his rowel. Then he felt
her hand touch his arm, and started. After that he stood perfectly still,
except that he quivered like a frightened horse.

"Oh, it doesn't mean much to you--you have your life, and you're a man, and
can do things when you want to. But I do so need a friend! Just somebody
who understands, to whom I can talk when that is the only thing will keep
me sane. You saved my life once, so I feel--no, I don't mean that. It isn't
because of anything you did; it's just that I feel I can talk to you more
freely than to any one I know. I don't mean whine. I hope I'm not a whiner.
If I've blundered, I'm willing to--to take my medicine, as you would say.
But if I can feel that somewhere in this big, empty country just one person
will always feel kindly toward me, and wish me well, and be sorry for we
when I--when I'm miserable, and--" She could not go on. She pressed her
lips together tightly, and winked back the tears.

Kent faced about and laid both his hands upon her shoulders. His face was
very tender and rather sad, and if she had only understood as well as he
did--. But she did not.

"Little woman, listen here," he said. "You're playing hard luck, and I know
it; maybe I don't know just how hard--but maybe I can kinda give a guess.
If you'll think of me as your friend--your pal, and if you'll always tell
yourself that your pal is going to stand by you, no matter what comes,
why--all right." He caught his breath.

She smiled up at him, honestly pleased, wholly without guile--and wholly
blind. "I'd rather have such a friend, just now, than anything I know,
except--. But if your sweetheart should object--could you--"

His fingers gripped her shoulders tighter for just a second, and he let her
go. "I guess that part'll be all right," he rejoined in a tone she could
not quite fathom. "I never had one in m' life."

"Why, you poor thing!" She stood back and tilted her head at him. "You
poor--_pal_. I'll have to see about that immediately. Every young man wants
a sweetheart--at least, all the young men I ever knew wanted one, and--"

"And I'll gamble they all wanted the same one," he hinted wickedly, feeling
himself unreasonably happy over something he could not quite put into
words, even if he had dared.

"Oh, no. Hardly ever the same one, luckily. Do you know--pal, I've quite
forgotten what it was all about--the unburdening of my soul, I mean. After
all, I think I must have been just lonesome. The country is just as big,
but it isn't quite so--so _empty_, you see. Aren't you awfully vain, to see
how you have peopled it with your friendship?" She clasped her hands behind
her and regarded him speculatively. "I hope, Mr. Cowboy, you're in earnest
about this," she observed doubtfully. "I hope you have imagination enough
to see it isn't silly, because if I suspected you weren't playing fair,
and would go away and laugh at me, I'd--scratch--you." She nodded her head
slowly at him. "I've always been told that, with tiger eyes, you find the
disposition of a tiger. So if you don't mean it, you'd better let me know
at once."

Kent brought the color into her cheeks with his steady gaze. "I was just
getting scared _you_ didn't mean it," he averred. "If my pal goes back on
me--why, Lord help her!"

She took a slow, deep breath. "How is it you men ratify a solemn
agreement?" she puzzled. "Oh, yes." With a pretty impulse she held out her
right hand, half grave, half playful. "Shake on it, pal!"

Kent took her hand and pressed it as hard as he dared. "You're going to be
a dandy little chum," he predicted gamely. "But let me tell you right now,
if you ever get up on your stilts with me, there's going to be all kinds of
trouble. You call me Kent--that is," he qualified, with a little, unsteady
laugh, "when there ain't any one around to get shocked."

"I suppose this _isn't_ quite conventional," she conceded, as if the
thought had just then occurred to her. "But, thank goodness, out here there
aren't any conventions. Every one lives as every one sees fit. It isn't the
best thing for some people," she added drearily. "Some people have to
be bolstered up by conventions, or they can't help miring in their own
weaknesses. But we don't; and as long as we understand--" She looked to him
for confirmation.

"As long as we understand, why, it ain't anybody's business but our own,"
he declared steadily.

She seemed relieved of some lingering doubt. "That's exactly it. I don't
know why I should deny myself a friend, just because that friend happens to
be a man, and I happen to be--married. I never did have much patience with
the rule that a man must either be perfectly indifferent, or else make
love. I'm so glad you--understand. So that's all settled," she finished
briskly, "and I find that, as I said, it isn't at all necessary for me to
unburden my soul."

They stood quiet for a moment, their thoughts too intangible for speech.

"Come inside, won't you?" she invited at last, coming back to everyday
matters. "Of course you're hungry--or you ought to be. You daren't run away
from my cooking this time, Mr. Cowboy. Manley will be back soon, I think. I
must get some lunch ready."

Kent replied that he would stay outside and smoke, so she left him with a
fleeting smile, infinitely friendly and confiding and glad. He turned and
looked after her soberly, gave a great sigh, and reached mechanically for
his tobacco and papers; thoughtfully rolled a cigarette, lighted it, and
held the match until it burned quite down to his thumb and fingers. "Pals!"
he said just under his breath, for the mere sound of the word. "All
right--pals it is, then."

He smoked slowly, listening to her moving about in the house. Her steps
came nearer. He turned to look.

"What was it you wanted to see Manley about?" she asked him from the
doorway. "I just happened to wonder what it could be."

"Well, the Wishbone needs men, and sent me over to tell him he can go to
work. The wagons are going to start to-morrow. He'll want to gather his
cattle up, and of course we know about how he's fixed--for saddle horses
and the like. He can work for the outfit and draw wages, and get his cattle
thrown back on this range and his calves branded besides. Get paid for
doing what he'll have to do anyhow, you see."

"I see." Val pushed back the rebellious lock of hair. "Of course you
suggested the idea to the Wishbone. You're always doing something--"

"The outfit is short-handed," he reiterated. "They need him. They ain't
straining a point to do Man a favor--don't you ever think it! Well--he's
coming," he broke off, and started to the gate.

Manley clattered up, vociferously glad to greet him. Kent, at his urgent
invitation, led his horse to the stable and turned him into the corral,
unsaddled and unbridled him so that he could eat. Also, he told his errand.
Manley interrupted the conversation to produce a bottle of whisky from a
cunningly concealed hole in the depleted haystack, and insisted that Kent
should take a drink. Kent waved it off, and Manley drew the cork and held
the bottle to his own lips.

As he stood there, with his face uplifted while the yellow liquor gurgled
down his throat, Kent watched him with a curiously detached interest. So
that's how Manley had kept his vow! he was thinking, with an impersonal
contempt. Four good swallows--Kent counted them.

"You're hitting it pretty strong, Man, for a fellow that swore off last
fall," he commented aloud.

Manley took down the bottle, gave a sigh of pure, animal satisfaction, and
pushed the cork in with an unconsciously regretful movement.

"A fellow's got to get something out of life," he defended peevishly. "I've
had pretty hard luck--it's enough to drive a fellow to most any kind of
relief. Burnt out, last fall--cattle scattered and calves running the range
all winter--I haven't got stock enough to stand that sort of a deal, Kent.
No telling where I stand now on the cattle question. I did have close to a
hundred head--and three of my best geldings are missing--a poor man can't
stand luck like that. I'm in debt too--and when you've got an iceberg in
the house--when a man's own wife don't stand by him--when he can't get
any sympathy from the very one that ought to--but, then, I hope I'm a
gentleman; I don't make any kick against _her_--my domestic affairs are
my own affairs. Sure. But when your wife freezes up solid--" He held the
bottle up and looked at it. "Best friend I've got," he finished, with a
whining note in his voice.

Kent turned away disgusted. Manley had coarsened. He had "slopped down"
just when he should have braced up and caught the fighting spirit--the
spirit that fights and overcomes obstacles. With a tightening of his chest,
he thought of his "pal," tied for life to this whining drunkard. No wonder
she felt the need of a friend!

"Well, are you going out with the Wishbone?" he asked tersely, jerking his
thoughts back to his errand. "If you are, you'll need to go over there
to-night--the wagons start out to-morrow. Maybe you better ride around by
Polly's place and have him come over here, once in a while, to look after
things. You can't leave your wife alone without somebody to kinda keep an
eye out for her, you know. Polycarp ain't going to ride this spring; he's
got rheumatism, or some darned thing. But he can chop what wood she'll
need, and go to town for her once in a while, and make sure she's all
right. You better leave your gentlest horse here for her to use, too. She
can't be left afoot out here."

Manley was taking another long swallow from the bottle, but he heard.

"Why, sure--I never thought about that. I guess maybe I _had_ better get
Polycarp. But Val could make out all right alone. Why, she's held it down
here for a week at a time--last winter, when I'd forgot to come home"--he
winked shamelessly--"or a storm would come up so I couldn't get home. Val
isn't like some fool women, I'll say that much for her. She don't care
whether I'm around or not; fact is, sometimes I think she's better pleased
when I'm gone. But you're right--I'll see Polycarp and have him come over
once in a while. Sure. Glad you spoke of it. You always had a great head
for thinking about other people, Kent. You ought to get married."

"No, thanks," Kent scowled. "I haven't got any grudge against women.
The world's full of men ready and willing to give 'em a taste of pure,
unadulterated hell."

Manley stared at him stupidly, and then laughed doubtfully, as if he felt
certain of having, by his dullness, missed the point of a very good joke.

After that the time was filled with the preparations for Manley's absence.
Kent did what he could to help, and Val went calmly about the house,
packing the few necessary personal belongings which might be stuffed into a
"war bag" and used during round-up. Beyond an occasional glance of friendly
understanding, she seemed to have forgotten the compact she had made with
Kent.

But when they were ready to ride away, Kent purposely left his gloves lying
upon the couch, and remembered them only after Manley was in the saddle.
So he went back, and Val followed him into the room. He wanted to say
something--he did not quite know what--something that would bring them a
little closer together, and keep them so; something that would make her
think of him often and kindly. He picked up his gloves and held out his
hand to her--and then a diffidence seized his tongue. There was nothing he
dared say. All the eloquence, all the tenderness, was in his eyes.

"Well--good-by, pal. Be good to yourself," he said simply.

Val smiled up at him tremulously. "Good-by, my one friend. Don't--don't get
hurt!"

Their clasp tightened, their hands dropped apart rather limply. Kent went
out and got upon his horse, and rode away beside Manley, and talked of the
range and of the round-up and of cattle and a dozen other things which
interest men. But all the while one exultant thought kept reiterating
itself in his mind: "She never said that much to _him!_ She never said that
much to _him!_"



CHAPTER XVI. MANLEY'S NEW TACTICS

To the east, to the south, to the north went the riders of the Wishbone,
gathering the cattle which the fires had driven afar. No rivers stopped
them, nor mountains, nor the deep-scarred coulees, nor the plains. It was
Manley's first experience in real round-up work, for his own little herd he
had managed to keep close at home, and what few strayed afar were turned
back, when opportunity afforded, by his neighbors, who wished him well. Now
he tasted the pride of ownership to the full, when a VP cow and her calf
mingled with the milling Wishbones and Double Diamonds. He was proud of his
brand, and proud of the sentiment which had made him choose Val's initials.
More than once he explained to his fellows that VP meant Val Peyson, and
that he had got it recorded just after he and Val were engaged. He was not
sentimental about her now, but he liked to dwell upon the fact that he had
been; it showed that he was capable of fine feeling.

More dominant, however, as the weeks passed and the branding went on,
became the desire to accumulate property--cattle. The Wishbone brand went
scorching through the hair of hundreds of calves, while the VP scared tens.
It was not right. He felt, somehow, cheated by fate. He mentally figured
the increase of his herd, and it seemed to him that it took a long while,
much longer than it should, to gain a respectable number in that manner. He
cast about in his mind for some rich acquaintance in the East who might be
prevailed upon to lend him capital enough to buy, say, five hundred cows.
He began to talk about it occasionally when the boys lay around in the
evenings.

"You want to ride with a long rope," suggested Bob Royden, grinning openly
at the others. "That's the way to work up in the cow business. Capital
nothing! You don't get enough excitement buying cattle; you want to steal
'em. That's what I'd do if I had a brand of my own and all your ambitions
to get rich."

"And get sent up," Manley rounded out the situation. "No, thanks." He
laughed. "It's a better way to get to the pen than it is to get rich, from
all accounts."

Sandy Moran remembered a fellow who worked a brand and kept it up for seven
or eight years before they caught him, and he recounted the tale between
puffs at his cigarette. "Only they didn't catch him" he finished. "A
puncher put him wise to what was in the wind, and he sold out cheap to a
tenderfoot and pulled his freight. They never did locate him." Then, with a
pointed rock which he picked up beside him, he drew a rude diagram or two
in the dirt. "That's how he done it," he explained. "Pretty smooth, too."

So the talk went on, as such things will, idly, without purpose save to
pass the time. Shop talk of the range it was. Tales of stealing, of working
brands, and of branding unmarked yearlings at weaning time. Of this big
cattleman and that, who practically stole whole herds, and thereby took
long strides toward wealth. Range scandals grown old; range gossip all of
it, of men who had changed a brand or made one, using a cinch ring at a
tiny fire in a secluded hollow, or a spur, or a jackknife; who were caught
in the act, after the act, or merely suspected of the crime. Of "sweat"
brands, blotched brands, brands added to and altered, of trials, of
shootings, of hangings, even, and "getaways" spectacular and humorous and
pathetic.

Manley, being in a measure a pilgrim, and having no experience to draw
upon, and not much imagination, took no part in the talk, except that he
listened and was intensely interested. Two months of mingling with men who
talked little else had its influence.

That fall, when Manley had his hay up, and his cattle once more ranging
close, toward the river and in the broken country bounded upon the west by
the fenced-in railroad, three calves bore the VP brand--three husky heifers
that never had suckled a VP mother. So had the range gossip, sown by chance
in the soil of his greed of gain and his weakening moral fiber, borne
fruit.

The deed scared him sober for a month. For a month his color changed and
his blood quickened whenever a horseman showed upon the rim of Cold Spring
Coulee. For a month he never left the ranch unless business compelled him
to do so, and his return was speedy, his eyes anxious until he knew that
all was well. After that his confidence returned. He grew more secretive,
more self-assured, more at ease with his guilt. He looked the Wishbone men
squarely in the eye, and it seldom occurred to him that he was a thief; or
if it did, the word was but a synonym for luck, with shrewdness behind.
Sometimes he regretted his timidity. Why three calves only? In a deep
little coulee next the river--a coulee which the round-up had missed--had
been more than three. He might have doubled the number and risked no more
than for the three. The longer he dwelt upon that the more inclined he was
to feel that he had cheated himself.

That fall there were no fires. It would be long before men grew careless
when the grass was ripened and the winds blew hot and dry from out the
west. The big prairie which lay high between the river and Hope was dotted
with feeding cattle. Wishbones and Double Diamonds, mostly, with here and
there a stray.

Manley grew wily, and began to plan far in advance. He rode here and there,
quietly keeping his own cattle well down toward the river. There was
shelter there, and feed, and the idea was a good one. Just before the river
broke up he saw to it that a few of his own cattle, and with them some
Wishbone cows and a steer or two, were ranging in a deep, bushy coulee,
isolated and easily passed by. He had driven them there, and he left them
there. That spring he worked again with the Wishbone.

When the round-up swept the home range, gathering and branding, it chanced
that his part of the circle took him and Sandy Moran down that way. It was
hot, and they had thirty or forty head of cattle before them when they
neared that particular place.

"No need going down into the breaks here," he told Sandy easily. "I've
been hazing out everything I came across lately. They were mostly my own,
anyway. I believe I've got it pretty well cleaned up along here."

Sandy was not the man to hunt hard riding. He went to the rim of the coulee
and looked down for a minute. He saw nothing moving, and took Manley's word
for it with no stirring of his easy-going conscience. He said all right,
and rode on.



CHAPTER XVII. VAL BECOMES AN AUTHOR

Quite as marked had been the change in Val that year. Every time Kent saw
her, he recognized the fact that she was a little different; a little less
superior in her attitude, a little more independent in her views of life.
Her standards seemed slowly changing, and her way of thinking. He did not
see her often, but when he did the mockery of their friendship struck him
more keenly, his inward rebellion against circumstances grew more bitter.
He wondered how she could be so blind as to think they were just pals, and
no more. She did think so. All the little confidences, all the glances, all
the smiles, she gave and received frankly, in the name of friendship.

"You know, Kent, this is my ideal of how people should be," she told him
once, with a perfectly honest enthusiasm. "I've always dreamed of such a
friendship, and I've always believed that some day the right man would come
along and make it possible. Not one in a thousand could understand and meet
one half-way--"

"They'd be liable to go farther," Kent assented dryly.

"Yes. That's just the trouble. They'd spoil an ideal friendship by falling
in love."

"Darned chumps," Kent classed them sweepingly.

"Exactly. Pal, your vocabulary excites my envy. It's so forcible
sometimes."

Kent grinned reminiscently. "It sure is, old girl."

"Oh, I don't mean necessarily profane. I wonder what your vocabulary will
do to the secret I'm going to tell you." The sweet-peas had reached the
desired height and profusion of blossoms, thanks to the pails and pails
of water Val had carried and lavished upon them, and she was gathering a
handful of the prettiest blooms for him. Her cheeks turned a bit pinker as
she spoke, and her hesitation raised a wild hope briefly in Kent's heart.

"What is it?" He had to force the words out.

"I--I hate to tell, but I want you to--to help me."

"Well?" To Kent, at that moment, she was not Manley's wife; she was not any
man's wife; she was the girl he loved--loved with the primitive, absorbing
passion of the man who lives naturally and does not borrow his morals from
his next-door neighbor. His code of ethics was his own, thought out by
himself. Val hated her husband, and her husband did not seem to care much
for her. They were tied together legally. And a mere legality could not
hold back the emotions and the desires of Kent Burnett. With him, it was
not a question of morals: it was a question of Val's feeling in the matter.

Val looked up at him, found something strange in his eyes, and immediately
looked away again.

"Your eyes are always saying things I can't hear," she observed
irrelevantly.

"Are they? Do you want me to act as interpreter?"

"No. I just want you to listen. Have you noticed anything different about
me lately, Kent?" She tilted her head, while she passed judgment upon a
cluster of speckled blossoms, odd but not particularly pretty.

"What do you mean, anyway? I'm liable to get off wrong if I tell you--"

"Oh, you're so horribly cautious! Have I seemed any more content--any
happier lately?"

Kent picked a spray of flowers and puled them ruthlessly to pieces. "Maybe
I've kinda hoped so," he said, almost in a whisper.

"Well, I've a new interest in life. I just discovered it by accident,
almost--"

Kent lifted his head and looked keenly at her, and his face was a lighter
shade of brown than it had been.

"It seems to change everything. Pal, I--I've been writing things."

Kent discovered he had been holding his breath, and let it go in a long
sigh.

"Oh!" After a minute he smiled philosophically. "What kinda things?" he
drawled.

"Well, verses, but mostly stories. You see," she explained impulsively, "I
want to earn some money--of my own. I haven't said much, because I hate
whining; but really, things are growing pretty bad--between Manley and me.
I hope it isn't my fault. I have tried every way I know to keep my faith in
him, and to--to help him. But he's not the same as he was. You know that.
And I have a good deal of pride. I can't--oh, it's intolerable having to
ask a man for money! Especially when he doesn't want to give you any," she
added naively. "At first it wasn't necessary; I had a little of my own, and
all my things were new. But one must eventually buy things--for the
house, you know, and for one's personal needs--and he seems to resent
it dreadfully. I never would have believed that Manley could be
stingy--actually stingy; but he is, unfortunately. I hate to speak of his
faults, even to you. But I've got to be honest with you. It isn't nice to
say that I'm writing, not for any particularly burning desire to express
my thoughts, nor for the sentiment of it, but to earn money. It's terribly
sordid, isn't it?" She smiled wistfully up at him. "But there seems to be
money in it, for those who succeed, and it's work that I can do here. I
have oceans of time, and I'm not disturbed!" Her lips curved into bitter
lines. "I do so much thinking, I might as well put my brain to some use."
With one of her sudden changes of mood, she turned to Kent and clasped both
hands upon his arm.

"Now you see, pal, how much our friendship means to me," she said softly.
"I couldn't have told this to another living soul! It seems awfully
treacherous, saying it even to you--I mean about him. But you're so
good--you always understand, don't you, pal?"

"I guess so." Kent forced the words out naturally, and kept his breath
even, and his arms from clasping her. He considered that he performed quite
a feat of endurance.

"You're modest!" She gave his arm a little shake. "Of course you do. You
know I'm not treacherous, really. You know I'd do anything I could for him.
But this is something that doesn't concern him at all. He doesn't know it,
but that is because he would only sneer. When I have really sold something,
and received the money for it, then it won't matter to me who knows. But
now it's a solemn secret, just between me and my pal." Her yellow-brown
eyes dwelt upon his face.

Kent, stealing a glance at her from under his drooped lids, wondered if she
had ever given any time to analyzing herself. He would have given much to
know if, down deep in her heart, she really believed in this pal business;
if she was really a friend, and no more. She puzzled him a good deal,
sometimes.

"Well--if anybody can make good at that business, you sure ought to;
you've got brains enough to write a dictionary." He permitted himself the
indulgence of saying that much, and he was perfectly sincere. He honestly
considered Val the cleverest woman in the world.

She laughed with gratification. "Your sublime confidence, while it is
undoubtedly mistaken, is nevertheless appreciated," she told him primly,
moving away with her hands full of flowers. "If you've got the nerve, come
inside and read some of my stuff; I want to know if it's any good at all."

Presently he was seated upon the couch in the little, pathetically bright
front room, and he was knitting his eyebrows over Val's beautifully regular
handwriting,--pages and pages of it, so that there seemed no end to the
task,--and was trying to give his mind to what he was reading instead of to
the author, sitting near him with her hands folded demurely in her lap and
her eyes fixed expectantly upon his face, trying to read his decision even
as it was forming.

Some verses she had tried on him first. Kent, by using all his
determination of character, read them all, every word of them.

"That's sure all right," he said, though, beyond a telling phrase or
two,--one line in particular which would stick in his memory:

        "Men live and love and die in that lonely land,"--

he had no very clear idea of what it was all about. Certain lines seemed to
go bumping along, and one had to mispronounce some of the final words to
make them rhyme with others gone before, but it was all right--Val wrote
it.

"I think I do better at stories," she ventured modestly. "I wrote one--a
little story about university life--and sent it to a magazine. They wrote a
lovely letter about it, but it seems that field is overdone, or something.
The editor asked me why, living out here in the very heart of the West, I
don't try Western stories. I think I shall--and that's why I said I should
need your help. I thought we might work together, you know. You've lived
here so long, and ought to have some splendid ideas--things that have
happened, or that you've heard--and you could tell me, and I'd write them
up. Wouldn't you like to collaborate--'go in cahoots' on it?"

"Sure." Kent regarded her thoughtfully. She really was looking brighter and
happier, and her enthusiasm was not to be mistaken. Her world had changed.
"Anything I can do to help, you know--"

"Of course I know, I think it's perfectly splendid, don't you? We'll divide
the money--when there _is_ any, and--"

"Will we?" His tone was noncommittal in the extreme.

"Of course. Now, don't let's quarrel about that till we come to it. I have
a good idea of my own, I think, for the first story. A man comes out here
and disappears, you know, and after a while his sister comes to find him.
She gets into all kinds of trouble--is kidnapped by a gang of robbers, and
kept in a cave. When the leader of the gang comes back--he has been away
on some depredation--you see, I have only the bare outline of the story
yet--and, well, it's her brother! He kills the one who kidnapped her, and
she reforms him. Of course, there ought to be some love interest. I think,
perhaps, one member of the gang ought to fall in love with her, don't you
know? And after a while he wins her--"

"She'll reform him, too, I reckon."

"Oh, yes. She couldn't love a man she couldn't respect--no woman could."

"Oh!" Kent took a minute to apply that personally. It was of value to him,
because it was an indication of Val's own code. "Maybe," he suggested
tentatively, "she'd get busy and reform the whole bunch."

"Oh, say--that would be great! She's an awfully sweet little
thing--perfectly lovely, you know--and they'd all be in love with her, so
it wouldn't be improbable. Don't you remember, Kent, you told me once that
a man would do _anything_ for a woman, if he cared enough for her?"

"Sure. He would, too." Kent fought back a momentary temptation to prove the
truth of it by his own acquiescence in this pal business. He was saved from
disaster by a suspicion that Val would not be able to see it from his point
of view, and by the fact that he would much rather be pals than nothing.

She would have gone on, talking and planning and discussing, indefinitely.
But the sun slid lower and lower, and Kent was not his own master. The time
came when he had to go, regardless of his own wishes, or hers.

When he came again, the story was finished, and Val was waiting, with
extreme impatience, to read it to him and hear his opinion before she sent
it away. Kent was not so impatient to hear it, but he did not tell her so.
He had not seen her for a month, and he wanted to talk; not about anything
in particular--just talk about little things, and see her eyes light up
once in a while, and her lips purse primly when he said something daring,
and maybe have her play something on the violin, while he smoked and
watched her slim wrist bend and rise and fall with the movement of the bow.
He could imagine no single thing more fascinating than that--that, and the
way she cuddled the violin under her chin, in the hollow of her neck.

But Val would not play--she had been too busy to practice, all spring and
summer; she scarcely ever touched the violin, she said. And she did not
want to talk--or if she did, it was plain that she had only one theme. So
Kent, perforce, listened to the story. Afterward, he assured her that it
was "outa sight." As a matter of fact, half the time he had not heard a
word of what she was reading; he had been too busy just looking at her and
being glad he was there. He had, however, a dim impression that it was a
story with people in it whom one does not try to imagine as ever being
alive, and with a West which, beyond its evident scarcity of inhabitants,
was not the West he knew anything about. One paragraph of description had
caught his attention, because it seemed a fairly accurate picture of the
bench land which surrounded Cold Spring Coulee; but it had not seemed to
have anything to do with the story itself. Of course, it must be good--Val
wrote it. He began to admire her intensely, quite apart from his own
personal subjugation.

Val was pleased with his praise. For two solid hours she talked of nothing
but that story, and she gave him some fresh chocolate cake and a pitcher
of lemonade, and urged him to come again in about three weeks, when she
expected to hear from the magazine she thought would be glad to take the
story; the one whose editor had suggested that she write of the West.

In the fall, and in the winter, their discussions were frequently hampered
by Manley's presence. But Val's enthusiasm, though nipped here and there
by unappreciative editors, managed, somehow, to live; or perhaps it had
developed into a dogged determination to succeed in spite of everything.
She still wrote things, and she still read them to Kent when there was
time and opportunity; sometimes he was bold enough to criticize the worst
places, and to tell her how she might, in his opinion, remedy them.
Occasionally Val would take his advice.

So the months passed. The winds blew and brought storm and heat and
sunshine and cloud. Nothing, in that big land, appreciably changed, except
the people; and they so imperceptibly that they failed to realize it until
afterward.



CHAPTER XVIII. VAL'S DISCOVERY

With a blood-red sun at his back and a rosy tinge upon all the hills before
him, Manley rode slowly down the western rim of Cold Spring Coulee, driving
five rebellious calves that had escaped the branding iron in the spring.
Though they were not easily driven in any given direction, he was
singularly patient with them, and refrained from bellowing epithets and
admonitions, as might have been expected. When he was almost down the hill,
he saw Val standing in the kitchen door, shading her eyes with her hands
that she might watch his approach.

"Open the corral gate!" he shouted to her, in the tone of command. "And
stand back where you can head 'em off if they start up the coulee!"

Val replied by doing as she was told; she was not in the habit of wasting
words upon Manley; they seemed always to precipitate an unpleasant
discussion of some sort, as if he took it for granted she disapproved of
all he did or said, and was always upon the defensive.

The calves came on, lumbering awkwardly in a half-hearted gallop, as if
they had very little energy left. Their tongues protruded, their mouths
dribbled a lathery foam, and their rough, sweaty hides told Val of the long
chase--for she was wiser in the ways of the range land than she had been.
She stood back, gently waving her ruffled white apron at them, and when
they dodged into the corral, rolling eyes at her, she ran up and slammed
the gate shut upon them, looped the chain around the post, and dropped the
iron hook into a link to fasten it. Manley galloped up, threw himself off
his panting horse, and began to unsaddle.

"Get some wood and start a fire, and put the iron in, Val," he told her
brusquely.

Val looked at him quickly. "Now? Supper's all ready, Manley. There's no
hurry about branding them, is there?" And she added: "Dear me! The round-up
must have just skimmed the top off this range last spring. You've had to
brand a lot of calves that were missed."

"What the devil is it to you?" he demanded roughly. "I want that fire,
madam, and I want it _now_. I rather think I knew when I want to brand
without asking your advice."

Val curved her lips scornfully, shrugged and obeyed She was used to that
sort of thing, and she did not mind very much. He had brutalized by
degrees, and by degrees she had hardened. He could rouse no feeling now but
contempt.

"If you'll kindly wait until I put back the supper," she said coldly. "I
suppose in your zeal one need not sacrifice your food; you're still rather
particular about that. I observe."

Manley was leading his horse to the stable, and, though he answered
something, the words were no more than a surly mumble.

"He's been drinking again," Val decided dispassionately, on the way to the
house. "I suppose he carried a bottle in his pocket--and emptied it."

She was not long; there was a penalty of profane reproach attached to
delay, however slight, when Manley was in that mood. She had the fire going
and the VP iron heating by the time he had stabled and fed his horse, and
had driven the calves into the smaller pen. He drove a big, line-backed
heifer into a corner, roped and tied her down with surprising dexterity,
and turned impatiently.

"Come! Isn't that iron ready yet?"

Val, on the other side of the fence, drew it out and inspected it
indifferently.

"It is not, Mr. Fleetwood. If you are in a very great hurry, why not apply
your temper to it--and a few choice remarks?"

"Oh, don't try to be sarcastic--it's too pathetic. Kick a little life into
that fire."

"Yes, sir--thank you, sir." Val could be rather exasperating when she
chose. She always could be sure of making Manley silently furious when
she adopted that tone of respectful servility--as employed by butlers and
footmen upon the stage. Her mimicry, be it said, was very good.

"'Ere it is, sir----thank you, sir--'ope I 'aven't kept you wyting, sir,"
she announced, after he had fumed for two minutes inside the corral, and
she had cynically hummed her way quite through the hymn which begins "Blest
be the tie that binds." She passed the white-hot iron deftly through the
rails to him, and fixed the fire for another heating.

Really, she was not thinking of Manley at all, nor of his mood, nor of his
brutal coarseness. She was thinking of the rebuilt typewriter, advertised
as being exactly as good as a new one, and scandalously cheap, for which
she had sold her watch to Arline Hawley to get money to buy. She was
counting mentally the days since she had sent the money order, and was
thinking it should come that week surely.

She was also planning to seize upon the opportunity afforded by Manley's
next absence for a day from the ranch, and drive to Hope on the chance of
getting the machine. Only--she wished she could be sure whether Kent would
be coming soon. She did not want to miss seeing him; she decided to sound
Polycarp Jenks the next time he came. Polycarp would know, of course,
whether the Wishbone outfit was in from round-up. Polycarp always knew
everything that had been done, or was intended, among the neighbors.

Manley passed the ill-smelling iron back to her, and she put it in the
fire, quite mechanically. It was not the first time, nor the second, that
she had been called upon to help brand. She could heat an iron as quickly
and evenly as most men, though Manley had never troubled to tell her so.

Five times she heated the iron, and heard, with an inward quiver of pity
and disgust, the spasmodic blat of the calf in the pen when the VP went
searing into the hide on its ribs. She did not see why they must be branded
that evening, in particular, but it was as well to have it done with. Also,
if Manley meant to wean them, she would have to see that they were fed and
watered, she supposed. That would make her trip to town a hurried one, if
she went at all; she would have to go and come the same day, and Arline
Hawley would scold and beg her to stay, and call her a fool.

"Now, how about that supper?" asked Manley, when they were through, and the
air was clearing a little from the smoke and the smell of burned hair.

"I really don't know--I smelled the potatoes burning some time ago. I'll
see, however." She brushed her hands with her handkerchief, pushed back the
lock of hair that was always falling across her temple, and, because she
was really offended by Manley's attitude and tone, she sang softly all the
way to the house, merely to conceal from him the fact that he could move
her even to irritation. Her best weapon, she had discovered long ago, was
absolute indifference--the indifference which overlooked his presence and
was deaf to his recriminations.

She completed her preparations for his supper, made sure that nothing was
lacking and that the tea was just right, placed his chair in position,
filled the water glass beside his plate, set the tea-pot where he could
reach it handily, and went into the living room and closed the door
between. In the past year, filed as it had been with her literary ambitions
and endeavors, she had neglected her music; but she took her violin from
the box, hunted the cake of resin, tuned the strings, and, when she heard
him come into the kitchen and sit down at the table, seated herself upon
the front doorstep and began to play.

There was one bit of music which Manley thoroughly detested. That was the
"Traumerei." Therefore, she played the "Traumerei" slowly--as it should,
of course, be played--with full value given to all the pensive, long-drawn
notes, and with a finale positively creepy in its dreamy wistfulness. Val,
as has been stated, could be very exasperating when she chose.

In the kitchen there was the subdued rattle of dishes, unbroken and
unhurried. Val went on playing, but she forgot that she had begun in a
half-conscious desire to annoy her husband. She stared dreamily at the hill
which shut out the world to the east, and yielded to a mood of loneliness;
of longing, in the abstract, for all the pleasant things she was missing in
this life which she had chosen in her ignorance.

When Manley flung open the inner door, she gave a stifled exclamation; she
had forgotten all about Manley.

"By all the big and little gods of Greece!" he swore angrily. "Calves
bawling their heads off in the corral, and you squalling that whiny stuff
you call music in the house--home's sure a hell of a happy place! I'm going
to town. You don't want to leave the place till I come back--I want those
calves looked after." He seemed to consider something mentally, and then
added:

"If I'm not back before they quit bawling, you can turn 'em down in the
river field with the rest. You know when they're weaned and ready to settle
down. Don't feed 'em too much hay, like you did that other bunch; just give
'em what they need; you don't have to pile the corral full. And don't keep
'em shut up an hour longer than necessary."

Val nodded her head to show that she heard, and went on playing. There was
seldom any pretense of good feeling between them now. She tuned the violin
to minor, and poised the bow over the strings, in some doubt as to her
memory of a serenade she wanted to try next.

"Shall I have Polycarp take the team and haul up some wood from the river?"
she asked carelessly. "We're nearly out again."

"Oh, _I_ don't care--if he happens along." He turned and went out, his
mind turning eagerly to the town and what it could give him in the way of
pleasure.

Val, still sitting in the doorway, saw him ride away up the grade and
disappear over the brow of the hill. The dusk was settling softly upon the
land, so that his figure was but a vague shape. She was alone again; she
rather liked being alone, now that she had no longer a blind, unreasoning
terror of the empty land. She had her thoughts and her work; the presence
of Manley was merely an unpleasant interruption to both.

Some time in the night she heard the lowing of a cow somewhere near. She
wondered dreamily what it could be doing in the coulee, and went to sleep
again. The five calves were all bawling in a chorus of complaint against
their forced separation from their mothers, and the deeper, throaty tones
of the cow mingled not inharmoniously with the sound.

Range cattle were not permitted in the coulee, and when by chance they
found a broken panel in the fence and strayed down there, Val drove them
out; afoot, usually, with shouts and badly aimed stones to accelerate their
lumbering pace.

After she had eaten her breakfast in the morning she went out to
investigate. Beyond the corral, her nose thrust close against the rails,
a cow was bawling dismally. Inside, in much the same position, its tail
waving a violent signal of its owner's distress, a calf was clamoring
hysterically for its mother and its mother's milk.

Val sympathized with them both; but the cow did not belong in the coulee,
and she gathered two or three small stones and went around where she could
frighten her away from the fence without, however, exposing herself too
recklessly to her uncertain temper. Cows at weaning time did sometimes
object to being driven from their calves.

"Shoo! Go on away from there!" Val raised a stone and poised it
threateningly.

The cow turned and regarded her, wild-eyed. It backed a step or two,
evidently uncertain of its next move.

"Go on away!" Val was just on the point of throwing the rock, when she
dropped it unheeded to the ground and stared. "Why, you--you--why--the
_idea!_" She turned slowly white. Certain things must filter to the
understanding through amazement and disbelief; it took Val a minute or two
to grasp the significance of what she saw. By the time she did grasp it,
her knees were beading weakly beneath the weight of her body. She put out
a groping hand and caught at the corner of the corral to keep herself from
falling. And she stared and stared.

"It--oh, surely not!" she whispered, protesting against her understanding.
She gave a little sob that had no immediate relation to tears.
"Surely--_surely_--not!" It was of no use; understanding came, and came
clearly, pitilessly. Many things--trifles, all of them--to which she had
given no thought at the time, or which she had forgotten immediately, came
back to her of their own accord; things she tried _not_ to remember.

The cow stared at her for a minute, and, when she made no hostile move,
turned its attention back to its bereavement. Once again it thrust
its moist muzzle between two rails, gave a preliminary, vibrant
_mmm--mmmmm--m_, and then, with a spasmodic heaving of ribs and of flank,
burst into a long-drawn _baww--aw--aw--aw_, which rose rapidly in a
tremulous crescendo and died to a throaty rumbling.

Val started nervously, though her eyes were fixed upon the cow and she knew
the sound was coming. It served, however, to release her from the spell of
horror which had gripped her. She was still white, and when she moved she
felt intolerably heavy, so that her feet dragged; but she was no longer
dazed. She went slowly around to the gate, reached up wearily and undid the
chain fastening, opened the gate slightly, and went in.

Four of the calves were huddled together for mutual comfort in a corner.
They were blatting indefatigably. Val went over to where the fifth one
still stood beside the fence, as near the cow as it could get, and threw
a small stone, that bounced off the calf's rump. The calf jumped and ran
aimlessly before her until it reached the half-open gate, when it dodged
out, as if it could scarcely believe its own good fortune. Before Val could
follow it outside, it was nuzzling rapturously its mother, and the cow was
contorting her body so that she could caress her offspring with her tongue,
while she rumbled her satisfaction.

Val closed and fastened the gate carefully, and went back to where the cow
still lingered. With her lips drawn to a thin, colorless line, she drove
her across the coulee and up the hill, the calf gamboling close alongside.
When they had gone out of sight, up on the level, Val turned back and went
slowly to the house. She stood for a minute staring stupidly at it and at
the coulee, went in and gazed around her with that blankness which follows
a great mental shock. After a minute she shivered, threw up her hands
before her face, and dropped, a pitiful, sorrowing heap of quivering
rebellion, upon the couch.



CHAPTER XIX. KENT'S CONFESSION

Polycarp Jenks came ambling into the coulee, rapped perfunctorily upon the
door-casing, and entered the kitchen as one who feels perfectly at home,
and sure of his welcome; as was not unfitting, considering the fact that he
had "chored around" for Val during the last year, and longer.

"Anybody to home?" he called, seeing the front door shut tight.

There was a stir within, and Val, still pale, and with an almost furtive
expression in her eyes, opened the door and looked out.

"Oh, it's you, Polycarp," she said lifelessly. "Is there anything--"

"What's the matter? Sick? You look kinda peaked and frazzled out. I met Man
las' night, and he told me you needed wood; I thought I'd ride over and
see. By granny, you do look bad."

"Just a headache," Val evaded, shrinking back guiltily. "Just do whatever
there is to do, Polycarp. I think--I don't believe the chickens have had
anything to eat to-day--"

"Them headaches are sure a fright; they're might' nigh as bad as rheumatiz,
when they hit you hard. You jest go back and lay down, and I'll look around
and see what they is to do. Any idee when Man's comin' back?"

"No." Val brought the word out with an involuntary sharpness.

"No, I reckon not. I hear him and Fred De Garmo come might' near havin' a
fight las' night. Blumenthall was tellin' me this mornin'. Fred's quit
the Double Diamond, I hear. He's got himself appointed dep'ty stock
inspector--and how he managed to git the job is more 'n I can figure out.
They say he's all swelled up over it--got his headquarters in town, you
know, and seems he got to lordin' it over Man las' night, and I guess if
somebody hadn't stopped 'em they'd of been a mix-up, all right. Man wasn't
in no shape to fight--he'd been drinkin' pretty--"

"Yes--well, just do whatever there is to do, Polycarp. The horses are in
the upper pasture, I think--if you want to haul wood." She closed the
door--gently, but with exceeding firmness, and, Polycarp took the hint.

"Women is queer," he muttered, as he left the house. "Now, she knows Man
drinks like a fish--and she knows everybody else knows it--but if you so
much as mention sech a thing, why--" He waggled his head disapprovingly and
proceeded, in his habitually laborious manner, to take a chew of tobacco.
"No matter how much they may know a thing is so, if it don't suit 'em you
can't never git 'em to stand right up and face it out--seems like, by
granny, it comes natural to 'em to make believe things is different. Now,
she knows might' well she can't fool _me_. I've hearn Man swear at her
like--"

He reached the corral, and his insatiable curiosity turned his thoughts
into a different channel. He inspected the four calves gravely, wondered
audibly where Man had found them, and how the round-up came to miss them,
and criticized his application of the brand; in the opinion of Polycarp,
Manley either burned too deep or not deep enough.

"Time that line-backed heifer scabs off, you can't tell what's on her," he
asserted, expectorating solemnly before he turned away to his work.

Prom a window, Val watched him with cold terror. Would he suspect? Or was
there anything to suspect? "It's silly--it's perfectly idiotic," she told
herself impatiently; "but if he hangs around that corral another minute, I
shall scream!" She watched until she saw him mount his horse and ride off
toward the upper pasture. Then she went out and began apathetically picking
seed pods off her sweet-peas, which the early frosts had spared.

"Head better?" called Polycarp, half an hour later, when he went rattling
past the house with the wagon, bound for the river bottom where they got
their supply of wood.

"A little," Val answered inattentively, without looking at him.

It was while Polycarp was after the wood, and while she was sitting upon
the edge of the porch, listlessly arranging and rearranging a handful of
long-stemmed blossoms, that Kent galloped down the hill and up to the gate.
She saw him coming and set her teeth hard together. She did not want to see
Kent just then; she did not want to see anybody.

Kent, however, wanted to see her. It seemed to him at least a month since
he had had a glimpse of her, though it was no more than half that time. He
watched her covertly while he came up the path. His mind, all the way over
from the Wishbone, had been very clear and very decided. He had a certain
thing to tell her, and a certain thing to do; he had thought it all out
during the nights when he could not sleep and the days when men called him
surly, and there was no going back, no reconsideration of the matter. He
had been telling himself that, over and over, ever since the house came
into view and he saw her sitting there on the porch. She would probably
want to argue, and perhaps she would try to persuade him, but it would be
absolutely useless; absolutely.

"Well, hello!" he cried, with more than his usual buoyancy of
manner--because he knew he must hurt her later on. "Hello, Madam Authoress.
Why this haughty air? This stuckupiness? Shall I get a ladder and climb
up where you can hear me say howdy?" He took off his hat and slapped her
gently upon the top of her head with it. "Come out of the fog!"

"Oh--I wish you wouldn't!" She glanced up at him so briefly that he caught
only a flicker of her yellow-brown eyes, and went on fumbling her flowers.
Kent stood and looked down at her for a moment.

"Mad?" he inquired cheerfully. "Say, you look awfully savage. On the dead,
you do. What do _you_ care if they sent it back? You had all the fun of
writing it--and you know it's a dandy. Please smile. _Pretty_ please!" he
wheedled. It was not the first time he had discovered her in a despondent
mood, nor the first time he had bantered and badgered her out of her gloom.
Presently it dawned upon him that this was more serious; he had never seen
her quite so colorless or so completely without spirit.

"Sick, pal?" he asked gently, sitting down beside her.

"No-o--I suppose not." Val bit her lips, as soon as she had spoken, to
check their quivering.

"Well, what is it? I wish you'd tell me. I came over here full of something
I had to tell you--but I can't, now; not while you're like this." He
watched her yearningly.

"Oh, I can't tell you. It's nothing." Val jerked a sweet-pea viciously from
its stem, pressed her hand against her mouth, and turned reluctantly toward
him. "What was it you came to tell me?"

He watched her narrowly. "I'll gamble you're down in the mouth about
something hubby has said or done. You needn't tell me--but I just want to
ask you if you think it's worth while? You needn't tell me that, either.
You know blamed well it ain't. He can't deal you any more misery than you
let him hand out; you want to keep that in mind."

Another blossom was demolished. "What was it you came to tell me?" she
repeated steadily, though she did not look at him.

"Oh, nothing much. I'm going to leave the country, is all."

"Kent!" After a minute she forced another word out. "Why?"

Kent regarded her somberly. "You better think twice before you ask me
that," he warned; "because I ain't much good at beating all around the
bush. If you ask me again, I'll tell you--and I'm liable to tell you
without any frills." He drew a hard breath. "So I'd advise you not to ask,"
he finished, half challengingly.

Val placed a pale lavender blossom against a creamy white one, and held the
two up for inspection.

"When are you going?" she asked evenly.

"I don't know exactly--in a day or so. Saturday, maybe."

She hesitated over the flowers in her lap, and selected a pink one, which
she tried with the white and the lavender.

"And--_why_ are you going?" she asked him deliberately.

Kent stared at her fixedly. A faint, pink flush was creeping into her
cheeks. He watched it deepen, and knew that his silence was filling her
with uneasiness. He wondered how much she guessed of what he was going to
say, and how much it would mean to her.

"All right--I'll tell you why, fast enough." His tone was grim. "I'm going
to leave the country because I can't stay any longer--not while you're in
it."

"Why--Kent!" She seemed inexpressibly shocked.

"I don't know," he went on relentlessly, "what you think a man's made of,
anyhow. And I don't know what _you_ think of this pal business; I know what
I think: It's a mighty good way to drive a man crazy. I've had about all of
it I can stand, if you want to know."

"I'm sorry, if you don't--if you can't be friends any longer," she said,
and he winced to see how her eyes filled with tears. "But, of course, if
you can't--if it bores you--"

Kent seized her arm, a bit roughly, "Have I got to come right out and tell
you, in plain English, that I--that it's because I'm so deep in love with
you I can't. If you only knew what it's cost me this last year--to play the
game and not play it too hard! What do you think a man's made of? Do you
think a man can care for a woman, like I care for you, and--Do you think he
wants to be just pals? And stand back and watch some drunken brute abuse
her--and never--Here!" His voice grew testier. "Don't do that--don't! I
didn't want to hurt you--God knows I didn't want to hurt you!" He threw his
seem around her shoulders and pulled her toward him.

"Don't--pal, I'm a brute, I guess, like all the rest of the male humans. I
don't mean to be--it's the way I'm made. When a woman means so much to me
that I can't think of anything else, day or night, and get to counting
days and scheming to see her--why--being friends--like we've been--is like
giving a man a teaspoon of milk and water when he's starving to death, and
thinking that oughta do. But I shouldn't have let it hurt you. I tried
to stand for it, little woman. These were times when I just had to fight
myself not to take you up in my arms and carry you of and keep you. You
must admit," he argued, smiling rather wanly, "that, considering how I've
felt about it, I've done pretty tolerable well up till now. You don't--you
never will know how much it's cost. Why, my nerves are getting so raw I
can't stand anything any more. That's why I'm going. I don't want to hang
around till I do something--foolish."

He took his arm away from her shoulders and moved farther off; he was not
sure how far he might trust himself.

"If I thought you cared--or if there was anything I could do for you," he
ventured, after a moment, "why, it would be different. But--"

Val lifted her head and turned to him.

"There is something--or there was--or--oh, I can't think any more! I
suppose"--doubtfully--"if you feel as you say you do, why--it would
be--wicked to stay. But you don't; you must just imagine it."

"Oh, all right," Kent interpolated ironically.

"But if you go away--" She got up and stood before him, breathing unevenly,
in little gasps. "Oh, you mustn't go away! Please don't go! I--there's
something terrible happened--oh, Kent, I need you! I can't tell you what
it is--it's the most horrible thing I ever heard of! You can't imagine
anything more horrible, Kent!"

She twisted her fingers together nervously, and the blossoms dropped, one
by one, on the ground. "If you go," she pleaded, "I won't have a friend in
the country, not a real friend. And--and I never needed a friend as much
as I do now, and you mustn't go. I--I can't let you go!" It was like her
hysterical fear of being left alone after the fire.

Kent eyed her keenly. He knew there must have been something to put her
into this state--something more than his own rebellion. He felt suddenly
ashamed of his weakness in giving way--in telling her how it was with
him. The faint, far-off chuckle of a wagon came to his ears. He turned
impatiently toward the sound. Polycarp was driving up the coulee with a
load of wood; already he was nearing the gate which opened into the lower
field. Kent stood up, reached out, and caught Val by the hand.

"Come on into the house," he said peremptorily. "Polly's coming, and you
don't want him goggling and listening. And I want you," he added, when he
had led her inside and closed the door, "to tell me what all this is about.
There's something, and I want to know what. If it concerns you, then it
concerns me a whole lot, too. And what concerns me I'm going to find out
about--what is it?"

Val sat down, got up immediately, and crossed the room aimlessly to sit in
another chair. She pressed her palms tightly against both cheeks, drew in
her breath as if she were going to speak, and, after all, said nothing. She
looked out of the window, pushing back the errant strand of hair.

"I can't--I don't know how to tell you," she began desperately. "It's too
horrible."

"Maybe it is--I don't know what you'd call too horrible; I kinda think it
wouldn't be what I'd tack those words to. Anyway--what is it?" He went
close, and he spoke insistently.

She took a long breath.

"Manley's a thief!" She jerked the words out like as automaton. They were
not, evidently, the Words she had meant to speak, for she seemed frightened
afterward.

"Oh, that's it!" Kent made a sound which was not far from a snort. "Well,
what about it? What's he done? How did you find it out?"

Val straightened in the chair and gazed up at him. Once more her tawny eyes
gave him a certain shock, as if he had never before noticed them.

"After all our neighbors have done for him," she cried bitterly; "after
giving him hay, when his was burned and he couldn't buy any; after building
stables, and corral, and--everything they did--the kindest, best neighbors
a man ever had--oh, it's too shameful for utterance! I might forgive it--I
might, only for that. The--the ingratitude! It's too despicable--too--"

Kent laid a steadying hand upon her arm.

"Yes--but what is it?" he interrupted.

Val shook off his hand unconsciously, impatient of any touch.

"Oh, the bare deed itself--well, it's rather petty, too--and cheap." Her
voice became full of contempt. "It was the calves. He brought home five
last night--five that hadn't been branded last spring. Where he found them
_I_ don't know--I didn't care enough about it to ask. He had been drinking,
I think; I can usually tell--and he often carries a bottle in his pocket,
as I happen to know.

"Well, he had me make a fire and heat the iron for him, and he branded
them--last night; he was very touchy about it when I asked him what was his
hurry. I think now it was a stupid thing for him to do. And--well, in the
night, some time, I heard a cow bawling around close, and this morning I
went out to drive her away; the fence is always down somewhere--I suppose
she found a place to get through. So I went out to drive her away." Her
eyes dropped, as if she were making a confession of her own misdeed. She
clenched her hands tightly in her lap.

"Well--it was a Wishbone cow." After all, she said it very quietly.

"The devil it was!" Kent had been prepared for something of the sort; but,
nevertheless, he started when he heard his own outfit mentioned.

"Yes. It was a Wishbone cow." Her voice was flat and monotonous. "He had
stolen her calf. He had it in the corral, and he had branded it with his
own brand--with a VP. _With my initials!_" she wailed suddenly, as if
the thought had just struck her, and was intolerably bitter. "She had
followed--had been hunting her calf; it was rather a little calf, smaller
than the others. And it was crowded up against the fence, trying to get to
her. There was no mistaking their relationship. I tried to think he had
made a mistake; but it's of no use--I know he didn't. I know he _stole_
that calf. And for all I know, the others, too. Oh, it's perfectly horrible
to think of!"

Kent could easily guess her horror of it, and he was sorry for her. But his
mind turned instantly to the practical side of it.

"Well--maybe it can be fixed up, if you feel so bad about it. Does
Polycarp--did he see the cow hanging around?"

Val shook her head apathetically. "No--he didn't come till just a little
while ago. That was this morning. And I drove her out of the coulee--her
and her calf. They went off up over the hill."

Kent stood looking down at her rather stupidly.

"You--_what?_ What was it you did?" It seemed to him that something--some
vital point of the story--had eluded him.

"I drove them away. I didn't think they ought to be permitted to
hang around here." Her lips quivered again. "I--I didn't want to see
him--get--into any trouble."

"You drove them away? Both of them?" Kent was frowning at her now.

Val sprang up and faced him, all a-tremble with indignation. "Certainly,
both! _I'm_ not a thief, Kent Burnett! When I knew--when there was no
possible doubt--why, what, in Heaven's name, _could_ I do? It wasn't
Manley's calf. I turned it loose to go back where it belonged."

"With a VP on its ribs!" Kent was staring at her curiously.

"Well, I don't care! Fifty VP's couldn't make the calf Manley's. If anybody
came and saw that cow, why--" Val looked at him rafter pityingly, as if she
could not quite understand how he could even question her upon that point.
"And, after all," she added forlornly, "he's my husband. I couldn't--I had
to do what I could to shield him--just for sake of the past, I suppose.
Much as I despise him, I can't forget that--that I cared once. It's because
I wanted your advice that I--"

"It's a pity you didn't get it sooner, then! Can't you see what you've
done? Why, think a minute! A VP calf running with a Wishbone cow--why,
it's--you couldn't advertise Man as a rustler any better if you tried. The
first fellow that runs onto that cow and calf--well, he won't need to do
any guessing--he'll _know_. It's a ticket to Deer Lodge--that VP calf. Now
do you see?" He turned away to the window and stood looking absently at the
brown hillside, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.

"And there's Fred De Garmo, with his new job, ranging around the country
just aching to cinch somebody and show his authority. It's a matter of days
almost. He'd like nothing better than to get a whack at Man, even if the
Wishbone--"

Outside, they could hear Polycarp throwing the wood off the wagon; knowing
him as they did, they knew, it would not be long before he found an excuse
for coming into the house. He had more than once evinced a good deal of
interest in Kent's visits there, and shown an unmistakable desire to know
what they were talking about. They had never paid much attention to him;
but now even Val felt a vague uneasiness lest he overhear. She had been
sitting, her face buried in her arms, crushed beneath the knowledge of what
she had done.

"Don't worry, little woman." Kent went over and passed his hand lightly
over her hair. "You did what looked to you to be the right thing--the
honest thing. And the chances are he'd get caught before long, anyhow. I
don't reckon this is the first time he's done it."

"Oh-h--but to think--to think that _I_ should do it--when I wanted to save
him! He--Kent, I despise him--he has killed all the love I ever felt for
him--killed it over and over--but if anybody finds that calf, and--and
if they--Kent, I shall go crazy if I have to feel that _I_ sent
him--to--prison. To think of him--shut up there--and to know that I did
it--I can't bear it!" She caught his arm. She pressed her forehead
against it. "Kent, isn't there some way to get it back? If I should find
it--and--and shoot it--and pay the Wishbone what it's worth--oh, _any_
amount--or shoot the cow--or--" she raised her face imploringly to
his--"tell me, pal--or I shall go stark, raving mad!"

Polycarp came into the kitchen, and, from the sound, he was trying to enter
as unobtrusively as possible, even to the extent of walking on his toes.

"Go see what that darned old sneak wants," Kent commanded in an undertone.
"Act as if nothing happened--if you can." He watched anxiously, while she
drew a long breath, pressed her hands hard against her cheeks, closed her
lips tightly, and then, with something like composure, went quietly to the
door and threw it open. Polycarp was standing very close to it, on the
other side. He drew back a step.

"I wondered if I better git another load, now I've got the team hooked
up," he began in his rasping, nasal voice, his slitlike eyes peering
inquisitively into the room. "Hello, Kenneth--I _thought_ that was your
horse standin' outside. Or would you rather I cut up a pile? I dunno but
what I'll have to go t'town t'-morrerr or next day--mebby I better cut you
some wood, hey? If Man ain't likely to be home, mebby--"

"I think, Polycarp, well have a storm soon. So it would be good policy to
haul another load, don't you think? I can manage very well with what there
is cut until Manley returns; and there are always small branches that I can
break easily with the axe. I really think it would be safer to have another
load hauled now while we can. Don't you think so?" Val even managed to
smile at him. "If my head wasn't so bad," she added deceitfully, "I should
be tempted to go along, just for a dose sight of the river. Mr. Burnett is
going directly--perhaps I may walk down later on. But you had better not
wait--I shouldn't want to keep you working till dark."

Polycarp, eying her and Kent, and the room in all its details, forced his
hand into his trousers pocket, brought up his battered plug of tobacco and
pried off a piece, which he rolled into his left cheek with his tongue.

"Jest as you say," he surrendered, though it was perfectly plain that he
would much prefer to cut wood and so be able to see all that went on, even
though he was denied the gratification of hearing what they said. He waited
a moment, but Val turned away, and even had the audacity to close the
door upon his unfinished reply. He listened for a moment, his head craned
forward.

"Purty kinda goings-on!" he mumbled. "Time Man had a flea put in 'is ear,
by granny, if he don't want to lose that yeller-eyed wife of hisn." To
Polycarp, a closed door--when a man and woman were alone upon the other
side--could mean nothing but surreptitious kisses and the like. He
went stumbling out and drove away down the coulee, his head turning
automatically so that his eyes were constantly upon the house; from
his attitude, as Kent saw him through the window Polycarp expected an
explosion, at the very least. His outraged virtue vested itself in one more
sentence; "Purty blamed nervy, by granny--to go 'n' shut the door right in
m' face!"

Inside the room, Val stood for a minute with her back against the door, as
if she half feared Polycarp would break in and drag her secret from her.
When she heard him leave the kitchen she drew a long breath, eloquent in
itself: when the rattle of the wagon came to them there, she left the
door and went slowly across the room until she stood close to Kent. The
interruption had steadied them both. Her voice was a constrained calm when
she spoke.

[Illustration: To draw the red hot spur across the fresh VP did not take
long]

"Well--is there anything I can do? Because I suppose every minute is
dangerous."

Kent kept his eyes upon the departing Polycarp.

"There's nothing you can do, no. Maybe I can do something; soon as that
granny gossip is outa sight, I'll go and round up that cow and calf--if
somebody hasn't beaten me to it."

Val looked at him with a certain timid helplessness.

"Oh! Will you--won't it be against the law if you--if you kill it?" She
grew slightly excited again. "Kent, you shall not get into any trouble
for--for his sake! If it comes to a choice, why--let him suffer for his
crime. You shall not!"

Kent turned his head slowly and gazed down at her. "Don't run away with the
idea I'm doing it for him," he told her distinctly. "I love Man Fleetwood
like I love a wolf. But if that VP calf catches him up, you'd fight your
head over it, God only knows how long. I know you! You'd think so much
about the part you played that you'd wind up by forgetting everything else.
You'd get to thinking of him as a martyr, maybe! No--it's for you. I kinda
got you into this, you recollect? If I'd let you see Man drank, that day,
you'd never have married him; I know that now. So I'm going to get you out
of it. My side of the question can wait."

She stared up at him with a grave understanding.

"But you know what I said--you won't do anything that can make you
trouble--won't you tell me, Kent, what you're going to do?"

He had already started to the door, but he stopped and smiled reassuringly.

"Nothing so fierce. If I can find 'em, I aim to bar out that VP. Sabe?"



CHAPTER XX. A BLOTCHED BRAND

At the brow of the hill, which was the western rim of the coulee, Kent
turned and waved a farewell to Val, watching him wistfully from the kitchen
door. She had wanted to go along; she had almost cried to go and help, but
Kent would not permit her--and beneath the unpleasantness of denying her
anything, there had been a certain primitive joy in feeling himself master
of the situation and of her actions; for that one time it was as if she
belonged to him. At the last he had accepted the field glasses, which she
insisted upon lending him, and now he was tempted to take them from their
worn, leathern case and focus them upon her face, just for the meager
satisfaction of one more look at her. But he rode on, oat of sight, for the
necessity which drove him forth did not permit much loitering if he would
succeed in what he had set out to do.

Personally he would have felt no compunctions whatever about letting the
calf go, a walking advertisement of Manley's guilt. It seemed to him a sort
of grim retribution, and no more than he deserved. He had not exaggerated
his sentiments when he intimated plainly to her his hatred of Manley, and
he agreed with her that the fellow was making a despicable return for the
kindness his neighbors had always shown him. No doubt he had stolen from
the Double Diamond as well as the Wishbone.

Once Kent pulled up, half minded to go back and let events shape themselves
without any interference from him. But there was Val--women were so queer
about such things. It seemed to Kent that, if any man had caused him as
much misery as Manley had caused Val, he would not waste much time worrying
over him, if he tangled himself up with his own misdeeds. However, Val
wanted that bit of evidence covered up; so, while Kent did not approve, he
went at the business with his customary thoroughness.

The field glasses were a great convenience. More than once they saved him
the trouble of riding a mile or so to inspect a small bunch of stock.
Nevertheless, he rode for several hours before, just at sundown, he
discovered the cow feeding alone with her calf in a shallow depression near
the rough country next the river. They were wild, and he ran them out of
the hollow and up on high ground before he managed to drop his loop over
the calf's head.

"You sure are a dandy-fine sign-post, all right," he observed, and grinned
down at the staring VP brand.

"It's a pity you can't be left that way." He glanced cautiously around him
at the great, empty prairie. A mile or two away, a lone horseman was loping
leisurely along, evidently bound for the Double Diamond.

"Say--this is kinda public," Kent complained to the calf. "Let's you and
me go down outa sight for a minute." He started off toward the hollow,
dragging the calf, a protesting bundle of stiffened muscles pulling against
the rope. The cow, shaking her head in a halfhearted defiance, followed.
Kent kept an uneasy eye upon the horseman, and hoped fervently the fellow
was absorbed in meditation and, would not glance in his direction. Once he
was almost at the point of turning the calf loose; for barring out brands,
even illegal brands, is justly looked upon with disfavor, to say the least.

Down in the hollow, which Kent reached with a sigh of relief, he dismounted
and hastily started a little fire on a barren patch of ground beneath a
jutting sandstone ledge. The calf, tied helpless, lay near by, and the cow
hovered close, uneasy, but lacking courage for a rush.

Kent laid hand upon his saddle, hesitated, and shook his head; he might
need it in a hurry, and cinch ring takes time both in the removal and the
replacement--and is vitally important withal. His knife he had lost on the
last round-up. He scowled at the necessity, lifted his heel, and took off
a spur. "And if that darned ginny don't get too blamed curious and cone
fogging over this way--" He spoke the phrase aloud, out of the middle of a
mental arrangement of the chance he was taking.

To heat the spur red-hot, draw it across the fresh VP again and again, and
finally drag it crisscross once or twice to make assurance an absolute
certainty, did not take long. Kent was particular about not wasting any
seconds. The calf stopped its dismal blatting, and when Kent released it
and coiled his rope, it jumped up and ran for its life, the cows ambling
solicitously at its heels. Kent kicked the dirt over the fire, eyed it
sharply a moment to make sure it was perfectly harmless, mounted in haste,
and rode up the sloping side down, which he had come. Just under the top of
the slope, he peeked anxiously out over the prairie, ducked precipitately,
and went clattering away down the hollow to the farther side; dodged around
a spur of rocks, forced his horse down over a wicked jumble of boulders to
level land below, and rode as if a hangman's noose were the penalty for
delay.

When he reached the river--which he did after many windings and
turnings--he got off and washed his spur, scrubbing it diligently with sand
in an effort to remove the traces of fire. When the evidence was at least
less conspicuous, he put it on his heel and jogged down the river bank
quite innocently, inwardly thankful over his escape. He had certainly done
nothing wrong; but one sometimes finds it rather awkward to be forced into
an explanation of a perfectly righteous deed.

"If I'd been stealing that calf, I'd never have been crazy enough to take
such a long chance," he mused, and laughed a little. "I'll bet Fred thought
he was due to grab a rustler right in the act--only he was a little bit
slow about making up his mind; deputy stock inspectors had oughta think
quicker than that--he was just about five minutes too deliberate. I'll
gamble he's scratching his head, right now, over that blotched brand,
trying to _sabe_ the play--which he won't, not in a thousand years!"

He gave the reins a twitch and began to climb through the dusk to the
lighter hilltop, at a point just east of Cold Spring Coulee. At the top he
put the spurs to his horse and headed straight as might be for the Wishbone
ranch. He would like to have told Val of his success, but he was afraid
Manley might be there, or Polycarp; it was wise always to avoid Polycarp
Jenks, if one had anything to conceal from his fellows.



CHAPTER XXI. VAL DECIDES

It was the middle of the next forenoon when Manley came riding home, sullen
from drink and a losing game of poker, which had kept him all night at the
table, and at sunrise sent him forth in the mood which meets a grievance
more than half-way. He did not stop at the house, though he saw Val through
the open door; he did not trouble to speak to her, even, but rode on to the
stable, stopping at the corral to look over the fence at the calves, still
bawling sporadically between half-hearted nibblings at the hay which
Polycarp had thrown in to them.

Just at first he did not notice anything wrong, but soon a vague disquiet
seized him, and he frowned thoughtfully at the little group. Something
puzzled him; but his brain, fogged with whisky and loss of sleep, and the
reaction from hours of concentration upon the game, could not quite grasp
the thing that troubled him. In a moment, however, he gave an inarticulate
bellow, wheeled about, and rode back to the house. He threw himself from
the horse almost before it stopped, and rushed into the kitchen. Val,
ironing one of her ruffled white aprons, looked up quickly, turned rather
pale, and then stiffened perceptibly for the conflict that was coming.

"There's only four calves in the corral--and I brought in five. Where's the
other one?" He came up and stood quite close to her--so close that Val took
a step backward. He did not speak loud, but there was something in his
tone, in his look, that drove the little remaining color from her face.

"Manley," she said, with a catch of the breath, "why did you do that
horrible thing? What devil possessed you? I--"

"I asked you 'where is that other calf'? Where is it? There's only four. I
brought in five." His very calmness was terrifying.

Val threw back her head, and her eyes were--as they frequently became in
moments of stress--yellow, inscrutable, like the eyes of a lion in a cage.

"Yes, you brought in five. One of the five, at least, you--stole. You put
your brand, Manley Fleetwood, on a calf that did not belong to you; it
belonged to the Wishbone, and you know it. I have learned many disagreeable
things about you, Manley, in the past two years; yesterday morning I
learned that you were a _thief_. Ah-h--I despise you! Stealing from the
very men who helped you--the men to whom you owe nothing but gratitude
and--and friendship! Have you no manhood whatever? Besides being weak and
shiftless, are you a criminal as well? _How_ can you be so utterly lacking
in--in common decency, even?" She eyed him as she would look at some
strange monster in a museum about which she was rather curious.

"I asked you where that other calf is--and you'd better tell me!" It was
the tone which goes well with a knife thrust or a blow. But the contempt in
Val's face did not change.

"Well, you'll have to hunt for it if you want it. The cow--a Wishbone cow,
mind you!--came and claimed it; I let her have it. No stolen goods
can remain on this ranch with my knowledge, Manley Fleetwood. Please
remember--"

"Oh, you turned it out, did you? You turned it out?" He had her by the
throat, shaking her as a puppy shakes a purloined shoe. "I could--_kill_
you for that!"

"Manley! Ah-h-h--" It was not pleasant--that gurgling cry, as she straggled
to get free.

He had the look of a maniac as he pressed his fingers into her throat and
glared down into her purpling face.

With a sudden impulse he cast her limp form violently from him. She struck
against a chair, fell from that to the floor, and lay a huddled heap, her
crisp, ruffled skirt just giving a glimpse of tiny, half-worn slippers, her
yellow hair fallen loose and hiding her face.

He stared down at her, but he felt no remorse--she had jeopardized his
liberty, his standing among men. A cold horror caught him when he thought
of the calf turned loose on the range, his brand on its ribs. He rushed
in a panic from the kitchen, flung himself into the saddle, and went off
across the coulee, whipping both sides of his horse. She had not told
him--indeed, he had not asked her--which way the cow had gone, but
instinctively he rode to the west, the direction from which he had driven
the calves. One thought possessed him utterly; he must find that calf.

So he rode here and there, doubling and turning to search every feeding
herd he glimpsed, fearing to face the possibility of failure and its
inevitable consequence.

The cat with the white spots on its sides--Val called her Mary Arabella,
for some whimsical reason--came into the kitchen, looked inquiringly at
the huddled figure upon the floor, gave a faint mew, and went slowly up,
purring and arching her back; she snuffed a moment at Val's hair, then
settled herself in the hollow of Val's arm, and curled down for a nap. The
sun, sliding up to midday, shone straight in upon them through the open
door.

Polycarp Jenks, riding that way in obedience to some obscure impulse,
lifted his hand to give his customary tap-tap before he walked in; saw
Val lying there, and almost fell headlong into the room in his haste and
perturbation. It looked very much as if he had at last stumbled upon the
horrible tragedy which was his one daydream. To be an eyewitness of a
murder, and to be able to tell the tale afterward with minute, horrifying
detail--that, to Polycarp, would make life really worth living. He shuffled
over to Val, pushed aside the mass of yellow hair, turned her head so that
he could look into her face, saw at once the bruised marks upon her throat,
and stood up very straight.

"Foul play has been done here!" he exclaimed melodramatically, eying the
cat sternly. "Murder--that's what it is, by granny--a foul murder!"

The victim of the foul murder stirred slightly. Polycarp started and bent
over her again, somewhat disconcerted, perhaps, but more humanly anxious.

"Mis' Fleetwood--Mis' Fleetwood! You hurt? It's Polycarp Jenks talkin' to
you!" He hesitated, pushed the cat away, lifted Val with some difficulty,
and carried her into the front room and deposited her on the couch. Then he
hurried after some water.

"Come might' nigh bein' a murder, by granny--from the marks on 'er
neck--come might' nigh, all right!"

He sprinkled water lavishly upon her face, bethought him of a possible
whisky flask in the haystack, and ran every step of the way there and back.
He found a discarded bottle with a very little left in it, and forced the
liquor down her throat.

"That'll fetch ye if anything will--_he-he!_" he mumbled, tittering from
sheer excitement. Beyond a very natural desire to do what he could for her,
he was extremely anxious to bring her to her senses, so that he could hear
what had happened, and how it had happened.

"Betche Man got jealous of her'n Kenneth--by granny, I betche that's how it
come about--hey? Feelin' better, Mis' Fleetwood?"

Val had opened her eyes and was looking at him rather stupidly. There was a
bruise upon her head, as well as upon her throat. She had been stunned,
and her wits came back slowly. When she recognized Polycarp, she tried
ineffectually to sit up.

"I--he--is--he--gone?" Her voice was husky, her speech labored.

"Man, you mean? He's gone, yes. Don't you be afeared--not whilst I'm here,
by granny! How came it he done this to ye?"

Val was still staring at him bewilderedly. Polycarp repeated his question
three times before the blank look left her eyes.

"I--turned the calf--out--the cow--came and--claimed it--Manley--" She
lifted her hand as if it were very, very heavy, and fumbled at her throat.
"Manley--when I told him--he was a--thief--" She dropped her hand wearily
to her side and closed her eyes, as if the sight of Polycarp's face, so
close to hers and so insatiably curious and eager and cunning, was more
than she could bear.

"Go away," she commanded, after a minute or two. "I'm--all right. It's
nothing. I fell. It was--the heat. Thank you--so much--" She opened her
eyes and saw him there still. She looked at him gravely, speculatively. She
waved her hand toward the bedroom. "Get me my hand glass--in there on the
dresser," she said.

When he had tiptoed in and got it for her, she lifted it up slowly, with
both hands, until she could see her throat. There were distinct, telltale
marks upon the tender flesh--unmistakable finger prints. She shivered and
dropped the glass to the floor. But she stared steadily up at Polycarp, and
after a moment she spoke with a certain fierceness.

"Polycarp Jenks, don't ever tell--about those marks. I--I don't want any
one to know. When--after a while--I want to think first--perhaps you can
help me. Go away now--not away from the ranch, but--let me think. I'm all
right--or I will be. Please go."

Polycarp recognized that tone, however it might be hoarsened by bruised
muscles and the shock of what she had suffered. He recognized also that
look in her eyes; he had always obeyed that look and that tone--he obeyed
them now, though with visible reluctance. He sat down in the kitchen to
wait, and while he waited he chewed tobacco incessantly, and ruminated upon
the mystery which lay behind the few words Val had first spoken, before she
realized just what it was she was saying.

After a long, long while--so long that even Polycarp's patience was feeling
the strain--Val opened the door and stood leaning weakly against the
casing. Her throat was swathed in a piece of white silk.

"I wish, Polycarp, you'd get the team and hitch it to the light rig," she
said. "I want to go to town, and I don't feel able to drive. Can you take
me in? Can you spare the time?"

"Why, certainly, I c'n take you in, Mis' Fleetwood. I was jest thinkn' it
wa'n't safe for you out here--"

"It is perfectly safe," Val interrupted chillingly. "I am going because I
Want to see Arline Hawley." She raised her hand to the bandage. "I have
a sore throat," she stated, staring hard at him. Then, with one of her
impulsive changes, she smiled wistfully.

"You'll be my friend, Polycarp, won't you?" she pleaded. "I can trust you,
I know, with my--secret. It is a secret--it _must_ be a secret! I'll tell
you the truth, Polycarp. It was Manley--he had been drinking again. He--we
had a quarrel--about something. He didn't know what he was doing--he didn't
mean to hurt me. But I fell--I struck my head; see, there is a great
lump there." She pushed back her hair to show him the place. "So it's a
secret--just between you and me, Polycarp Jenks!"

"Why, certainly, Mis' Fleetwood; don't you be the least mite oneasy; I'm
your friend--I always have been. A feller ain't to be held responsible when
he's drinkin'--by granny, that's a fact, he ain't."

"No," Val agreed laconically, "I suppose not. Let us go, then, as soon as
we can, please. I'll stay overnight with Mrs. Hawley, and you can bring me
back to-morrow, can't you? And you'll remember not to mention--anything,
won't you, Polycarp?"

Polycarp stood very straight and dignified.

"I hope, Mis' Fleetwood, you can always depend on Polycarp Jenks," he
replied virtuously. "Your secret is safe with me."

Val smiled--somewhat doubtfully, it is true--and let him go. "Maybe it
is--I hope so," she sighed, as she turned away to dress for the trip.

All through that long ride to town, Polycarp talked and talked and talked.
He made surmises and waited openly to hear them confirmed or denied; he
gave her advice; he told her everything he had ever heard about Manley, or
had seen or knew from some other source; everything, that is, save what was
good. The sums he had lost at poker, or had borrowed; the debts he owed to
the merchants; the reputation he had for "talking big and doing little;"
the trouble he had had with this man and that man; and what he did not know
for a certainty he guessed at, and so kept the subject alive.

True, Val did not speak at all, except when he asked her how she felt. Then
she would reply dully, "Pretty well, thank you, Polycarp." Invariably those
were the words she used. Whenever he stole a furtive, sidelong glance at
her, she was staring straight ahead at the great, undulating prairie with
the brown ribbon, which was the trail, thrown carelessly across to the sky
line.

Polycarp suspected that she did not see anything--she just stared with her
eyes, while her thoughts were somewhere else. He was not even sure that she
heard what he was saying. He thought she must be pretty sick, she was so
pale, and she had such wide, purple rings under her eyes. Also, he rather
resented her desire to keep her trouble a secret; he favored telling
everybody, and organizing a party to go out and run Man Fleetwood out of
the country, as the very mildest rebuke which the outraged community could
give and remain self-respecting. He even fell silent daring the last three
or four miles, while he dwelt longingly upon the keen pleasure there would
be in leading such an expedition.

"You'll remember, Polycarp, not to speak of this?" Val urged abruptly when
he drew up before the Hawley Hotel. "Not a hint, you know until--until I
give you permission. You promised."

"Oh, certainly, Mis' Fleetwood. Certainly. Don't you be a mite oneasy." But
the tone of Polycarp was dejected in the extreme.

"And please be ready to drive me back in the morning. I should like to be
at the ranch by noon, at the latest." With that she left him and went into
the hotel.



CHAPTER XXII. A FRIEND IN NEED

"And so," Val finished, rather apathetically, pushing back the fallen lock
of hair, "it has come to that. I can't remain here and keep any shred of
self-respect. All my life I've been taught to believe divorce a terrible
thing--a crime, almost; now I think it is sometimes a crime _not_ to be
divorced. For months I have been coming slowly to a decision, so this
is really not as sudden as it may seem to you. It is humiliating to be
compelled to borrow money--but I would much rather ask you than any of my
own people. My pride is going to suffer enough when I meet them, as it is;
I can't let them know just how miserable and sordid a failure--"

Arline gave an inarticulate snort, bent her scrawny body nearly double,
and reached frankly into her stocking. She fumbled there a moment and
straightened triumphantly, grasping a flat, buckskin bag.

"I'd feel like shakin' you if you went to anybody else but me," she
declared, untying the bag. "I know what men is--Lord knows I see enough of
'em and their meanness--and if I can help a woman outa the clutches of one,
I'm tickled to death to git the chancet. I ain't sayin' they're all of 'em
bad--I c'n afford to give the devil his due and still say that men is the
limit. The good ones is so durn scarce it ain't one woman in fifty lucky
enough to git one. All I blame you for is stayin' with him as long as you
have. I'd of quit long ago; I was beginnin' to think you never would come
to your senses. But you had to fight that thing out for yourself; every
woman has to.

"I'm glad you've woke up to the fact that Man Fleetwood didn't git a deed
to you, body and soul, when he married you; you've been actin' as if you
thought he had. And I'm glad you've got sense enough to pull outa the game
when you know the best you can expect is the worst of it. There ain't no
hope for Man Fleetwood; I seen that when he went back to drinkin' again
after you was burnt out. I did think that would steady him down, but he
ain't the kind that braces up when trouble hits him--he's the sort that
stays down ruther than go to the trouble of gittin' up. He's hopeless now
as a rotten egg, and has been for the last year. Here; you take the hull
works, and if you need more, I can easy git it for you by sendin' in to the
bank."

"Oh, but this is too much!" Val protested when she had counted the money.
"You're so good--but really and truly, I won't need half--"

Arline pushed away the proffered money impatiently. "How'n time are you
goin' to tell how much you'll need? Lemme tell you, Val Peyson--I ain't
goin' to call you by his name no more, the dirty cur!--I've been packin'
that money in my stockin' for six months, jest so'st to have it handy when
you wanted it. Divorces cost more'n marriage licenses, as you'll find out
when you git started. And--"

"You--why, the idea!" Val pursed her lips with something like her old
spirit. "How could _you_ know I'd need to borrow money? I didn't know it
myself, even. I--"

"Well, I c'n see through a wall when there's a knothole in it," paraphrased
Arline calmly. "You may not know it, but you've been gittin' your back-East
notions knocked outa you pretty fast the last year or so. It was all a
question of what kinda stuff you was made of underneath. You c'n put a
polish on most anything, so I couldn't tell, right at first, what there was
to you. But you're all right--I've seen that a long time back; and so I
knowed durn well you'd be wantin' money to pull loose with. It takes money,
though I know it ain't polite to say much about real dollars 'n' cents.
You'll likely use every cent of that before you're through with the
deal--and remember, there's a lot more growin' on the same bush, if you
need it. It's only waitin' to be picked."

Val stared, found her eyes blurring so that she could not see, and with
a sudden, impulsive movement leaned over and put her arms around Arline,
unkempt, scrawny, and wholly unlovely though she was.

"Arline, you're an angel of goodness!" she cried brokenly. "You're the best
friend I ever had in my life--I've had many who petted me and flattered
me--but you--you _do_ things! I'm ashamed--because I haven't loved you
every minute since I first saw you. I judged you--I mean--oh, you're pure,
shining gold inside, instead of--"

"Oh, git out!" Arline was compelled to gulp twice before she could say even
that much. "I don't shine nowhere--inside er out. I know that well enough.
I never had no chancet to shine. It's always been wore off with hard
knocks. But I like shiny folks all right--when they're fine clear through,
and--"

"Arline--dear, I do love you. I always shall. I--"

Arline loosened her clasp and jumped up precipitately.

"Git out!" she repeated bashfully. "If you git me to cryin', Val Peyson,
I'll wish you was in Halifax. You go to bed, 'n' go to sleep, er I'll--"
She almost ran from the room. Outside, she stopped in a darkened corner
of the hallway and stood for some minutes with her checked gingham apron
pressed tightly over her face, and several times she sniffed audibly. When
she finally returned to the kitchen her nose was pink, her eyelids were
pink, and she was extremely petulant when she caught Minnie eying her
curiously.

Val had refused to eat any supper, and, beyond telling Arline that she had
decided to leave Manley and return to her mother in Fern Hill, she had not
explained anything very clearly--her colorless face, for instance, nor her
tightly swathed throat, nor the very noticeable bruise upon her temple.

Arline had not asked a single question. Now, however, she spent some time
fixing a tray with the daintiest food she knew and could procure, and took
it upstairs with a certain diffidence in her manner and a rare tenderness
in her faded, worldly-wise eyes.

"You got to eat, you know," she reminded Val gently. "You're bucking up
ag'inst the hardest part of the trail, and grub's a necessity. Take it like
you would medicine--unless your throat's too sore. I see you got it all
tied up."

Val raised her hands in a swift alarm and clasped her throat as if she
feared Arline would remove the bandages.

"Oh, it's not sore--that is, it is sore--I mean not very much," she
stammered betrayingly.

Arline set down the tray upon the dresser and faced Val grimly.

"I never asked you any questions, did I?" she demanded. "But you act for
all the world as if--do you want me to give a guess about that tied-up
neck, and that black'n'blue lump on your forehead? I never asked any
questions--I didn't need to. Man Fleetwood's been maulin' you abound. I was
kinda afraid he'd git to that point some day when he got mad enough; he's
just the brand to beat up a woman. But if it took a beatin' to bring you
to the quitting point, I'm glad he done it. _Only_," she added darkly, "he
better keep outa my reach; I'm jest in the humor to claw him up some if I
should git close enough. And if I happened to forget I'm a lady, I'd sure
bawl him out, and the bigger crowd heard me the better. Now, you eat
this--and don't get the idee you can cover up any meanness of Man
Fleetwood's; not from me, anyhow. I know men better'n you do; you couldn't
tell me nothing about 'em that would su'prise me the least bit. I'm only
thankful he didn't murder you in cold blood. Are you going to eat?"

"Not if you keep on reminding me of such h-horrid things," wailed Val,
and sobbed into her pillow. "It's bad enough to--to have him ch-choke me
without having you t-talk about it all the time!"

"Now, honey, don't you waste no tears on a brute like him--he ain't w-worth
it!" Arline was on her bony knees beside the bed, crying with sympathy and
self-reproach.

So, in truly feminine fashion, the two wept their way back to the solid
ground of everyday living. Before they reached that desirable state of
composure, however, Val told her everything--within certain limits set not
by caution, but rather by her woman's instinct. She did not, for instance,
say much about Kent, though she regretted openly that Polycarp knew so much
about it.

"Hope never needed no newspaper so long as Polycarp lives here," Arline
grumbled when Val was sitting up again and trying to eat Arline's toast,
and jelly made of buffalo berries, and sipping the tea which had gone
cold. "But if I can round him up in time, I'll try and git him to keep his
mouth shet. I'll scare the liver outa him some way. But if he caught onto
that calf deal--" She shook her head doubtfully. "The worst of it is,
Fred's in town, and he's always pumpin' Polycarp dry, jest to find out all
that's goin' on. You go to bed, and I'll see if I can find out whether
they're together. If they are--but you needn't to worry none. I reckon I'm
a match for the both of 'em. Why, I'd dope their coffee and send 'em both
to sleep till Man got outa the country, if I had to!"

She stood with her hands upon her angular hips and glared at Val.

"I sure would do that, very thing--for _you_," she reiterated solemnly, "I
don't purtend I'd do it for Man--but I would for you. But it's likely Kent
has fixed things up so they can't git nothing on Man if they try. He would
if he said he would; that there's _one_ feller that's on the square. You go
to bed now, whilst I go on a still hunt of my own. I'll come and tell you
if there's anything to tell."

It was easy enough to make the promise, but keeping it was so difficult
that she yielded to the temptation of going to bed and letting Val sleep in
peace; which she could not have done if she had known that Polycarp Jenks
and Fred De Garmo left town on horseback within an hour after Polycarp had
entered it, and that they told no man their errand.

Over behind Brinberg's store, Polycarp had told Fred all he knew, all he
suspected, and all he believed would come to pass. "Strictly on the quiet,"
of course--he reminded Fred of that, over and over, because he had promised
Mrs. Fleetwood that he would not mention it.

"But, by granny," he apologized, "I didn't like the idee of keepin' _a_
thing like that from _you_; it would kinda look as if I was standin' in on
the deal, which I ain't. Nobody can't accuse me of rustlin', no matter what
else I might do; you know that, Fred."

"Sure, I know you're honest, anyway," Fred responded quite sincerely.

"Well, I considered it my duty to tell you. I've kinda had my suspicions
all fall, that there was somethin' scaly goin' on at Cold Spring. Looked to
me like Man had too blamed many calves missed by spring round-up--for the
size of his herd. I dunno, of course, jest where he gits 'em--you'll have
to find that out. But he's brung twelve er fourteen to the ranch, two er
three at a time. And what she said when she first come to--told me right
out, by granny, 'at Man choked her because she called 'im a thief, and
somethin' about a cow comin' an' claimin' her calf, and her turnin' it out.
That oughta be might' nigh all the evidence you need, Fred, if you find it.
She don't know she said it, but she wouldn't of told it, by granny, if it
wasn't so--now would she?"

"And you say all this happened to-day?" Fred pondered for a minute. "That's
queer, because I almost caught a fellow last night doing some funny work
on a calf. A Wishbone cow it was, and her calf fresh burned--a barred-out
brand, by thunder! If it was to-day, I'd, say Man found it and blotched the
brand. I wish now I'd hazed them over to the Double Diamond and corralled
'em, like I had a mind to. But we can find them, easy enough. But that
was last night, and you say this big setting came off to-day; you _sure_,
Polly?"

"'Course I'm sure." Polycarp waggled his head solemnly. He was enjoying
himself to the limit. He was the man on the inside, giving out information
of the greatest importance, and an officer of the law was hanging anxiously
upon his words. He spoke slowly, giving weight to every word. "I rode up to
the house--Man's house--somewhere close to noon, an' there she was, layin'
on the kitchen floor. Didn't know nothin', an' had the marks of somebody's
fingers on 'er throat; the rest of her neck's so white they showed up, by
granny, like--like--" Polycarp never could think of a simile. He always
expectorated in such an emergency, and left his sentence unfinished. He did
so now, and Fred cut in unfeelingly.

"Never mind that--you've gone over it half a dozen times. You say it was
to-day, at noon, or thereabouts. Man must have done it when he found out
she'd turned the calf loose--he wouldn't unless he was pretty mad, and
scared. He isn't cold-blooded enough to wait till he'd barred out the
brand, and then go home and choke his wife. He didn't know about the calf
till to-day, that's a cinch." He studied the matter with an air of grave
importance.

"Polycarp," he said abruptly, "I'm going to need you. We've got to find
that bunch of cattle--it ought to be easy enough, and haze 'em down into
Man's field where his bunch of calves are--see? Any calf that's been weaned
in the last three weeks will be pretty likely to claim its mother; and if
he's got any calves branded that claim cows with some other brand--well--"
He threw out his hands in a comprehensive gesture. "That's the quickest way
I know to get him," he said. "I want a witness along, and some help. And
you," he eyed Polycarp keenly, "ain't safe running around town loose. All
your brains seem to leak out your mouth. So you come along with me."

"Well--any time after to-morrer," hedged Polycarp, offended by the
implication that he talked too much. "I've got to drive the team home for
Mis' Fleetwood to-morrer, I tol' her I would--"

"Well, you won't. You're going to hit the trail with me just as soon as I
can find a horse for you to ride. We'll sleep at the Double Diamond, and
start from there in the morning. And if I catch you letting a word outa you
about this deal, I'll just about have to arrest you for--" He did not
quite know what, but the very vagueness of the threat had its effect upon
Polycarp.

He went without further argument, though first he went to the Hawley
Hotel--with Fred close beside him as a precaution against imprudent
gossip--and left word in the office that he would not be able to drive Mrs.
Fleetwood home, the next morning, but would be back to take her out the day
after that, if she did not mind staying in town. It was that message which
Arline deliberately held back from Val until morning.

"You better stay here," she advised then. "Polycarp an' Fred's up to some
devilment, that's a cinch; but whatever it is, you're better off right here
with me. S'posen you should drive out there and run into Man--what then?"

Val shivered. "I--that's the only thing I can't bear," she admitted, as if
the time for proud dignity and reserve had gone by. "If I could be sure I
wouldn't need to meet him, I'd rather go alone; really and truly, I would.
You know the horses are perfectly safe--I've driven them to town fifty
times if I have once. I had to, out there alone so much of the time. I'd
rather not have Polycarp spying around. I've got to pack up--there are so
many things of no value to--to _him_, things I brought out here with me.
And there are all my manuscripts; I can't leave them lying around, even if
they aren't worth anything; especially since they aren't worth anything."
She pushed back her hair with a weary movement. "If I could only be
sure--if I knew where _he_ is," she sighed.

"I'll lend you my gun," Arline offered in good faith. "If he comes around
you and starts any funny business again, you can stand him off, even if you
got some delicate feelin's about blowin' his brains out."

"Oh, I couldn't. I'm deadly afraid of guns." Val shuddered.

"Well, then you can't go atone. I'd go with you, if you could git packed
up so as to come back to-day. I guess Min could make out to git two meals
alone."

"Oh, no. Really and truly, Arline, I'd just as soon go alone. I would
rather, dear."

Arline was not accustomed to being called "dear." She surrendered with some
confusion and a blush.

"Well, you better wait," she admonished temporizingly. "Something may turn
up."

Presently something did turn up. She rushed breathlessly into Val's room
and caught her by the arm.

"Now's your chancet, Val," she hissed in a loud whisper. "Man jest now rode
into town; he's over in Pop's place--I seen him go in. He's good for the
day, sure. I'll have Hank hitch right up, an' you can go down to the stable
and start from there, so'st he won't see you. An' I'll keep an eye out, 'n'
if he leaves town I won't be fur behind, lemme tell you. He won't, though;
there ain't one chancet in a hundred he'll leave that saloon till he's
full--an' if he tries t' go then, I'll have somebody lock 'im up in the ice
house till you git back. You want to hurry up that packin', an' git in here
quick's you can."

She went to the stable with Val, her apron thrown over her head for want
of a hat. "When Val was settling herself in the seat, Arline caught at the
wheel.

"Say! How'n time you goin' to git your trunks loaded into the wagon?" she
cried. "You can't do it alone." Val parsed her lips; she had not thought of
that.

"But Polycarp will come, by the time I am ready," she decided. "You
couldn't keep him away, Arline; he would be afraid he might miss something,
because I suppose ours is the only ranch in the country where the wheels
aren't turning smoothly. Polycarp and I can manage."

Hank, grinning under his ragged, brown mustache, handed her the lines.
"I've got my orders," he told her briefly. "I'll watch out the trail's kept
clear."

"Oh, thank you. I've so many good friends," Val answered, giving him a
smile to stir his sluggish blood. "Good-bye, Arline. Don't worry about me,
there's a dear. I shall not be back before to-morrow night, probably."

Both Arline and Hank stood where they were and watched her out of sight
before they turned back to the sordid tasks which made up their lives.

"She'll make it--she's the proper stuff," Hank remarked, and lighted his
pipe. Arline, for a wonder, sighed and said nothing.



CHAPTER XXIII. CAUGHT!

After two nights and a day of torment unbearable, Kent bolted from his
work, which would have taken him that day, as it had done the day before,
in a direction opposite to that which his mind and his heart followed, and
without apology or explanation to his foreman rode straight to Cold Spring
Coulee. He had no very definite plan, except to see Val. He did not even
know what he would say when he faced her.

Michael was steaming from nose to tail when he stopped at the yard gate,
which shows how impatience had driven his master. Kent glanced quickly
around the place as he walked up the narrow path to the house. Nothing
was changed in the slightest particular, as far as he could see, and he
realized then that he had been uneasy as well as anxious. Both doors were
closed, so that he was obliged to knock before Val became visible. He had a
fleeting impression of extreme caution in the way she opened the door and
looked out, but he forgot it immediately in his joy at seeing her.

"Oh, it's you. Come in, and--you won't mind if I close the door? I'm afraid
I'm the victim of nerves, to-day."

"Why?" Kent was instantly solicitous. "Has anything happened since I was
here?"

Val shook her head, smiling faintly. "Nothing that need to worry _you_,
pal. I don't want to talk about worries. I want to be cheered up; I haven't
laughed, Kent, for so long I'm afraid my facial muscles are getting stiff.
Say something funny, can't you?"

Kent pushed his hat far back on his head and sat down upon a corner of the
table. "Such is life in the far West--and the farther West you go, the
livelier--" he began to declaim dutifully.

"The livelier it gets. Yes, I've heard that a million tunes, I believe. I
can't laugh at that; I never did think it funny." She sighed, and twitched
her shoulders impatiently because of it. "I see you brought back the
glasses," she remarked inanely. "You certainly weren't in any great hurry,
were you?"

"Oh, they had us riding over east of the home ranch, hazing in some outa
the hills. I'm supposed to be over there right now--but I ain't. I expect
I'll get the can, all right--"

"If you're going away, what do you care?" she taunted.

"H'm--sure, what do I care?" He eyed her from under his brows while he bent
to light a match upon the sole of his boot. Val had long ago settled his
compunctions about smoking in her presence. "You seem to be all tore up,
here," he observed irrelevantly. "Cleaning house?"

"Yes--cleaning house." Val smiled ambiguously.

"Hubby in town?"

"Yes--he went in yesterday, and hasn't come back yet."

Kent smoked for a moment meditatively. "I found that calf, all right," he
informed her at last. "It was too late to ride around this way and tell you
that night. So you needn't worry any more about that."

"I'm not worrying about that." Val stooped and picked up a hairpin from the
floor, and twirled it absently in her fingers. "I don't think it matters,
any more. Yesterday afternoon Fred De Garmo and Polycarp Jenks came into
the coulee with a bunch of cattle, and turned all the calves out of the
river field with them; and, after a little, they drove the whole lot of
them away somewhere--over that way." She waved a slim hand to the west.
"They let out the calves in the corral, too. I saw them from the window,
but I didn't ask them any questions. I really didn't need to, did I?" She
grazed him with a glance. "I thought perhaps you had failed to find that
calf; I'm glad you did, though--so it wasn't that started them hunting
around here--Polycarp and Fred I mean."

Kent looked at her queerly. Her voice was without any emotion whatever, as
if the subject held no personal interest for her. He finished his cigarette
and threw the stub out into the yard before either of them spoke another
word. He closed the door again, stood there for a minute making up his
mind, and went slowly over to where she was sitting listlessly in a chair,
her hands folded loosely in her lap. He gripped with one hand the chairback
and stared down at her high-piled, yellow hair.

"How long do you think I'm going to stand around and let you be dragged
into trouble like this?" he began abruptly. "You know what I told you the
other day--I could say the same thing over again, and a lot more; and I'd
mean more than I could find words for. Maybe you can stand this sort
of thing--I can't. I'm not going to try. If you're bound to stick to
that--that gentleman, I'm going to get outa the country where I can't see
you killed by inches. Every time I come, you're a little bit whiter, and a
little bigger-eyed--I can't stand it, I tell you!

"You weren't made for a hell like you're living. You were meant to be
happy--and I was meant to make you happy. Every morning when I open my
eyes--do you know what I think? I think it's another day we oughta be happy
in, you and me." He took her suddenly by the shoulder and brought her up,
facing him, where he could look into her eyes.

"We've only got just one life to live, Val!" he pleaded. "And we could be
happy together--I'd stake my life on that. I can't go on forever just being
friends, and eating my heart out for you, and seeing you abused--and what
for? Just because a preacher mumbled some words over you two! Only for
that, you wouldn't stay with him over-night, and you know it! Is _that_
what ought to tie two human beings together--without love, or even
friendship? You hate him; you can't look me in the eyes and say you don't.
And he's tired of you. Some other woman would please him better. And I
could make you happy!"

Val broke away from his grasp, and retreated until the table was between
them. Her listlessness was a thing forgotten. She was panting with the
quick beating of her heart.

"Kent--don't, pal! You mustn't say those things--it's wicked."

"It's true," he cried hotly. "Can you look at me and say it ain't the
truth?"

"You've spoiled our friendship, Kent!" she accused, while she evaded his
question. "It meant so much to me--just your dear, good friendship."

"My love could mean a whole lot more," he declared sturdily.

"But you mustn't say those things--you mustn't feel that way, Kent!"

"Oh!" He laughed grimly. "Mustn't I? How are you going to stop me?" He
stared hard at her, his face growing slowly rigid. "There's just one way to
stop me from saying such wicked things," he told her. "You can tell me you
don't care anything about me, and never could, not even if that down-east
conscience of yours didn't butt into the game. You can tell me that, and
swear it's the truth, and I'll leave the country. I'll go so far you'll
newer see me again, so I'll never bother you any more. I can't promise I'll
stop loving you--but for my own sake I'll sure try hard enough." He set his
teeth hard together and stood quiet, watching her.

Val tied to answer him. Evidently she could not manage her voice, for he
saw her begin softly beating her lips with her fist, fighting to get back
her self-control. Once or twice he had seen her do that, when, womanlike,
the tears would come in spite of her.

"I don't want you to go a-away," she articulated at last, with a hint of
stubbornness.

"Well, what _do_ you want? I can't stay, unless--" He did not attempt to
finish the sentence. He knew there was no need; she understood well enough
the alternative.

For long minutes she did not speak, because she could not. Like many women,
she fought desperately against the tears which seemed a badge of her
femininity. She sat down in a chair, dropped her face upon her folded
arms, and bit her lips until they were sore. Kent took a step toward her,
reconsidered, and went over to the window, where he stood staring moodily
out until she began speaking. Even then, he did not turn immediately toward
her.

"You needn't go, Kent," she said with some semblance of calm. "Because I'm
going. I didn't tell you--but I'm going home. I'm going to get free, by
the same law that tied me to him. You are right--I have a 'down-east'
conscience. I think I was born with it. It demands that I get my freedom
honestly; I can't steal it--pal. I couldn't be happy if I did that, no
matter how hard I might try--or you."

He turned eagerly toward her then, but she stopped him with a gesture.

"No--stay where you are. I want to solve my problem and--and leave you out
of it; you're a complication, pal--when you talk like--like you've just
been talking. It makes my conscience wonder whether I'm honest with myself.
I've got to leave you out, don't you see? And so, leaving you out, I don't
feel that any woman should be expected to go on like I'm doing. You don't
know--I couldn't tell you just how--impossible--this marriage of mine has
become. The day after--well, yesterday--no, the day before yesterday--he
came home and found out--what I'd done. He--I couldn't stay here, after
that, so--"

"What did he do?" Kent demanded sharply. "He didn't dare to lay his hands
on you--did he? By--"

"Don't swear, Kent--I hear so much of that from him!" Val smiled curiously.
"He--he swore at me. I couldn't stay with him, after that--could I, dear?"
Whether she really meant to speak that last word or not, it set Kent's
blood dancing so that he forgot to urge his question farther. He took two
eager steps toward her, and she retreated again behind the table.

"Kent, don't! How can I tell you anything, if you won't be good?" She
waited until he was standing rather sulkily by the window again. "Anyway,
it doesn't matter now what he has done. I am going to leave him. I'm going
to get a divorce. Not even the strictest 'down-east' conscience could
demand that I stay. I'm perfectly at ease upon that point. About this last
trouble--with the calves--if I could help him, I would, of course. But all
I could say would only make matters worse--and I'm a wretched failure at
lying. I can help him more, I think, by going away. I feel certain there's
going to be trouble over those calves. Fred De Garmo never would have come
down here and driven them all away, would he, unless there was going to be
trouble?"

"If he came in here and got the calves, it looks as if he meant business,
all right." Kent frowned absently at the white window curtain. "I've seen
the time," he added reflectively, "when I'd be all broke up to have Man get
into trouble. We used to be pretty good friends!"

"A year ago it would have broken my heart," Val sighed. "We do change so! I
can't quite understand Why I should feel so indifferent about it now; even
the other day it was terrible. But when I felt his fingers--" she stopped
guiltily. "He seems a stranger to me now. I don't even hate him so very
much. I don't want to meet him, though."

"Neither do I." But there was a different meaning in Kent's tone. "So
you're going to quit?" He looked at her thoughtfully--"You'll leave your
address, I hope!"

"Oh, yes." Val's voice betrayed some inward trepidation. "I'm not running
away; I'm just going."

"I see." He sighed, impatient at the restraint she had put upon him. "That
don't mean you won't ever come back, does it? Or that the trains are going
to quit carrying passengers to your town? Because you can't _always_ keep
me outa your 'problem,' let me tell you. Is it against the rules to ask
when you're going--and how?"

"Just as soon as I can get my trunks packed, and Polycarp--or
somebody--comes to help me load them into the spring wagon. I promised
Arline Hawley I would be in town to-night. I don't know, though--I don't
seem to be making much progress with my packing." She smiled at him more
brightly. "Let's wade ashore, pal, and get to work instead of talking about
things better left alone. I know just exactly what you're thinking--and I'm
going to let you help me instead of Polycarp. I'm frightfully angry with
him, anyway. He promised me, on his word of honor, that he wouldn't mention
a thing--and he must have actually hunted for a chance to tell! He didn't
have the nerve to come to the house yesterday, when he was here with
Fred--perhaps he won't come to-day, after all. So you'll have to help me
make my getaway, pal."

Kent wavered. "You're the limit, all right," he told her after a period of
hesitation. "You just wait, old girl, till you get that conscience of
yours squared! What shall I do? I can pack a war-bag in one minute and
three-quarters, and a horse in five minutes--provided he don't get gay and
pitch the pack off a time or two, and somebody's around to help throw the
hitch. Just tell me where to start in, and you won't be able to see me for
dust!"

"You seem in a frightful hurry to have me go," Val complained, laughing
nevertheless with the nervous reaction. "Packing a trunk takes time, and
care, and intelligence."

"Now isn't that awful?" Kent's eyes flared with mirth, all the more
pronounced because it was entirely superficial. "Well, you take the time
and care, Mrs. Goodpacker, and I'll cheerfully furnish the intelligence,
This goes, I reckon?" He squeezed a pink cushion into as small a space as
possible, and held it out at arm's length.

"That goes--to Arline. _Don't_ put it in there!" Val's laughter was not far
from hysteria. Kent was pretending to stuff the pink cushion into her hand
bag.

"Better take it; you'll--"

The front door was pushed violently open and Manley almost fell into the
room. Val gave a little, inarticulate cry and shrank back against the wall
before she could recover herself. They had for the moment forgotten Manley,
and all he stood for in the way of heartbreak.

A strange-looking Manley he was, with his white face and staring, bloodshot
eyes, and the cruel, animal lines around his mouth. Hardly recognizable to
one who had not seen him since three or four years before, he would have
been. He stopped short just over the threshold, and glanced suspiciously
from one to the other before he came farther into the room.

"Dig up some grub, Val--in a bag, so I can carry it on horseback," he
commanded. "And a blanket--where did you put those rifle cartridges?" He
hurried across the room to where his rifle and belt hung upon the wall,
just over the little, homemade bookcase. "I had a couple of boxes--where
are they?" He snatched down the rifle, took the belt, and began buckling it
around him with fumbling fingers.

Mechanically Val reached upon a higher shelf and got him the two boxes of
shells. Her eyes were fixed curiously upon his face.

"What has happened?" she asked him as he tore open a box and began pushing
the shells, one by one, into his belt.

"Fred De Garmo--he tried to arrest me--in town--I shot him dead," He
glanced furtively at Kent. "Can I take your horse, Kent? I want to get
across the river before--"

"You shot--Fred--" Val was staring at him stupidly. He whirled savagely
toward her.

"Yes, and I'd shoot any man that walked up and tried to take me. He was
a fool if he thought all he had to do was crook his finger and say 'Come
along.' It was over those calves--and I'd say you had a hand in it, if I
hadn't found that calf, and saw how you burned out the brand before you
turned it loose. You might have told me--I wouldn't have--" He shifted his
gaze toward Kent. "The hell of it is, the sheriff happened to be in town
for something; he's back a couple of miles--for God's sake, move! And get
that flour and bacon, and some matches. I've got to get across the river. I
can shake 'em off, on the other side. Hurry, Val!"

She went out into the kitchen, and they heard her moving about, collecting
the things he needed.

"I'll have to take your horse, Kent." Manley turned to him with a certain
wheedling tone, infinitely disgusting to the other. "Mine's all in--I rode
him down, getting this far. I've got to get across the river, and into
the hills the other side--I can dodge 'em over there. You can have my
horse--he's good as yours, anyway." He seemed to fed a slight discomfort at
Kent's silence. "You've always stood by me--anyway, it wasn't so much
my fault--he came at me unawares, and says 'Man Fleetwood, you're my
prisoner!' Why, the very tone of him was an insult--and I won't stand for
being arrested--I pulled my gun and got him through the lungs--heard 'em
yelling he was dead--Hurry up with that grub! I can't wait here till--"

"I ought to tell you Michael's no good for water," Kent forced himself to
say. "He's liable to turn back on you; he's scared of it."

"He won't turn back with _me_--not with old Jake Bondy at my heels!" Manley
snatched the bag of provisions from Val when she appeared, and started for
the door.

"You better leave off some of that hardware, then," Kent advised
perfunctorily. "You're liable to have to swim."

"I don't care how I get across, just so--" A panic seemed to seize him
then. Without a word of thanks or farewell he rushed out, threw himself
into Kent's saddle without taking time to tie on his bundle of bacon and
flour, or remembering the blanket he had asked for. Holding his provisions
under his arm, his rifle in one hand, and his reins clutched in the other,
he struck the spurs home and raced down the coulee toward the river. Fred
and Polycarp had not troubled to put up the wire gate after emptying the
river field, so he had a straight run of it to the very river bank. The two
stood together at the window and watched him go.



CHAPTER XXIV. RETRIBUTION

"He thought it was I burned out that, brand; did you notice what he said?"
Val, as frequently happens in times of stress, spoke first of a trivial
matter, before her mind would grasp the greater issues.

"He'll never make it," said Kent, speaking involuntarily his thought.
"There comes old Jake Bondy, now, down the hill. Still, I dunno--if Michael
takes to the water all right--"

"If the sheriff comes here, what shall we tell him? Shall we--"

"He won't. He's turning off, don't you see? He must have got a sight of
Man from the top of the hill. Michael's tolerably fresh, and Jake's horse
isn't; that makes a big difference."

Val weakened unexpectedly, as the full meaning of it all swept through her
mind.

"Oh, it's horrible!" she whispered. "Kent, what can we do?"

"Not a thing, only keep our heads, and don't give way to nerves," he
hinted. "It's something out of our reach; let's not go all to pieces over
it, pal."

She steadied under his calm voice.

"I'm always acting foolish just at the wrong time--but to think he could--"

"Don't think! You'll have enough of that to do, managing your own affairs.
All this doesn't change a thing for you. It makes you feel bad--and for
that I could kill him, almost!" So much flashed out, and then he brought
himself in hand again. "You've still got to pack your trunks, and take the
train home, just the same as if this hadn't happened. I didn't like the
idea at first, but now I see it's the best thing you can do, for the
present. After awhile--we'll see about it. Don't look out, if it upsets
you, Val. You can't do any good, and you've got to save your nerves. Let
pull down the shade--"

"Oh, I've got to see!" Perversely, she caught up the field glasses from the
table, drew them from their case, and, letting down the upper window sash
with a slam, focused the glasses upon the river. "He usually crosses right
at the mouth of the coulee--" She swung the glasses slowly about. "Oh,
there he is--just on the bank. The river looks rather high--oh, your horse
doesn't want to go in, Kent. He whirls on his hind feet, and tried to bolt
when Manley started in--"

Kent had been watching her face jealously. "Here, let me take a look, will
you? I can tell--" She yielded reluctantly, and in a moment he had caught
the focus.

"Tell me what you see, Kent--everything," she begged, looking anxiously
from his face to the river.

"Well, old Jake is fogging along down the coulee--but he ain't to the river
yet, not by a long shot! Ah-h! Man's riding back to take a run in. That's
the stuff--got Michael's feet wet that time, the old freak! They came near
going clean outa sight."

"The sheriff--is he close enough--" Val began fearfully. "Oh, we're too far
away to do a thing!"

Kent kept his eyes to the glasses. "We couldn't do a thing if we were right
there. Man's in swimming water already. Jake ain't riding in--from the
motions he's ordering Man back."

"Oh, please let me look a minute! I won't get excited, Kent, and I'll tell
you everything I see--_please!_" Val's teeth were fairly chattering with
excitement, so that Kent hesitated before he gave up the glasses. But it
seemed boorish to refuse. She snatched at them as he took them from his
eyes, and placed them nervously to her own.

"Oh, I see them both!" she cried, after a second or two. "The sheriff's got
his rifle in his hands--Kent, do you suppose he'd--"

"Just a bluff, pal. They all do it. What--"

Val gave a start. "Oh, he shot, Kent! I saw him take aim--it looked as if
he pointed it straight at Manley, and the smoke--" She moved the glasses
slowly, searching the river.

"Well, he'd have to be a dandy, to hit anything on the water, and with the
sun in his eyes, too," Kent assured her, hardly taking his eyes from her
face with its varying expression. Almost he could see what was taking place
at the river, just by watching her.

"Oh, there's Manley, away out! Why, your Michael is swimming beautifully,
Kent! His head is high out of the water, and the water is churning
like--Oh, Manley's holding his rifle up over his head--he's looking back
toward shore. I wonder," she added softly, "what he's thinking about!
Manley! you're my husband--and once I--"

"Draw a bead on that gazabo on shore," Kent interrupted her faint faring up
of sentiment toward the man she had once loved and loved no more.

Val drew a long breath and turned the glasses reluctantly from the
fugitive. "I don't see him--oh, yes! He's down beside a rock, on one knee,
and he's taking a rest across the rock, and is squinting along--oh, he
can't hit him at that distance, can he, Kent? Would he dare--why, it would
be murder, wouldn't it? Oh-h--_he shot again_!"

Kent reached up a hand and took the glasses from her eyes with a masterful
gesture. "You let me look," he said laconically. "I'm steadier than you."

Val crept closer to him, and looked up into his face. She could read
nothing there; his mouth was shut tight so that it was a stern, straight
line, but that told her nothing. He always looked so when he was intent
upon something, or thinking deeply. She turned her eyes toward the river,
flowing smoothly across the mouth of the coulee. Between, the land lay
sleeping lazily in the hazy sunlight of mid-autumn. The grass was brown,
the rocky outcroppings of the coulee wall yellow and gray and red--and the
river was so blue, and so quiet! Surely that sleepy coulee and that placid
river could not be witnessing a tragedy. She turned her head, irritated
by its very calmness. Her eyes dwelt wistfully upon Kent's half-concealed
face.

"What are they doing now, Kent?" Her tone was hushed.

"I can't--exactly--" He mumbled absently, his mind a mile away. She waited
a moment.

"Can you see--Manley?"

This time he did not answer at all; he seemed terribly far off, as if only
his shell of a body remained with her in the room.

"Why don't you talk?" she wailed. She waited until she could endure no
more, then reached up and snatched the glasses from his eyes.

"I can't help it--I shall go crazy standing here. I've just got to see!"
she panted.

For a moment he clung to the glasses and stared down at her. "You better
not, sweetheart," he urged gently, but when she still held fast he let them
go. She raised them hurriedly to her eyes, and turned to the river with a
shrinking impatience to know the worst and have it over with.

"E-everything j-joggles so," she whimpered complainingly, trying vainly
to steady the glasses. He slipped his arms around her, and let her lean
against him; she did not even seem to realize it. Just then she had caught
sight of something, and her intense interest steadied her so that she stood
perfectly still.

"Why, your horse--" she gasped. "Michael--he's got his feet straight up in
the air--oh, Kent, he's rolling over sad over! I can't see--" She held her
breath.

The glasses sagged as if they had grown all at once too heavy to hold.
"I--I thought I saw--" She shivered and hid her face upon one upflung arm.

Kent caught up the glasses and looked long at the river, unmindful of the
girl sobbing wildly beside him. Finally he turned to her, hesitated, and
then gathered her close in his arms. The glasses slid unheeded to the
floor.

"Don't cry--it's better this way, though it's hard enough, God knows." His
voice was very gentle. "Think how awful it would have been, Val, if the
law had got him. Don't cry like that! Such things are happening every day,
somewhere--" He realized suddenly that this was no way to comfort her, and
stopped. He patted her shoulder with a sense of blank helplessness. He
could make love--but this was not the time for love-making; and since he
was denied that outlet for his feelings, he did not know what to do, except
that he led her to the couch, and settled her among the cushions so that
she would be physically comfortable, at least. He turned restlessly to the
window, looked; out, and then went to the couch and bent over her.

"I'm going out to the gate--I want to see Jake Bondy. He's coming up the
coulee," he said. "I won't be far. Poor little girl--poor little pal, I
wish I could help you." He touched his lips to her hair, so lightly she
could not feel it, and left her.

At the gate he met, not the sheriff, who was riding slowly, and had just
passed through the field gate, but Arline and Hank, rattling up in the
Hawley buck-board.

"Thank the good Lord!" he exclaimed when he helped her from the rig. "I
never was so glad to see anybody in my life. Go on in--she's in there
crying her heart out. Man's dead--the sheriff shot him in the river--oh,
there's been hell to pay out here!"

"My heavens above!" Arline stared up at him while she grasped the
significance of his words. "I knowed he'd hit for here--I followed right
out as quick as Hank could hitch up the team. Did you hear about Fred--"

"Yes, yes, yes, I know all about it!" Kent was guilty of pulling her
through the gate, and then pushing her toward the house. "You go and do
something for that poor girl. Pack her up and take her to town as quick as
God'll let you. There's been misery enough for her out here to kill a dozen
women."

He watched until she had reached the porch, and then swung back to Hank,
sitting calmly in the buckboard, with the lines gripped between his knees
while he filled his pipe.

"I can take care of the man's side of this business, fast enough," Kent
confessed whimsically, "but there's some things it takes a woman to
handle." He glanced again over his shoulder, gave a huge sigh of relief
when he glimpsed Arline's thin face as she passed the window and knelt
beside the couch, and turned with a lighter heart to meet the sheriff.





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