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William MacLeod Raine
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At breakfast, a ranchman brought in the news of the attack upon the sheep camp, and by means of it set fire to a powder magazine. The Sandersons went ramping mad for the moment. They saw red; and if they could have laid hands on their enemy, they would undoubtedly have made an end of him.
Phyllis, seeing the fury of their passion, trembled for the safety of the man upstairs. He might be discovered at any moment. Yet she must go to school as if nothing were the matter, and leave him to whatever fate might have in store.
When the time came for her to go, she could hardly bring herself to leave.
She was in her room, putting in the few minutes she usually spent there, rearranging her hair and giving the last few touches to her toilet after the breakfast.
"I hate to go," she confessed to Weaver. "Promise me you'll not make a sound or open the door to anybody while I'm away."
"I promise," he told her.
She was very greatly troubled, and could not help showing it. Her face was wan and drawn, all the youthful life stricken out of it.
"It will be all right," he reassured her. "I'll sit here and read, without making a sound. Nothing will happen. You'll see."
"Oh, I hope not--I hope not!" she cried in a whisper. "You will be careful, won't you?"
"I sure will. A hen with one chick won't be a circumstance to me."
Larrabie Keller had hitched her horse and brought it round to the front door. She leaned toward him after she had gathered the reins.
"You'll not go far away, will you? And if anything happens----"
"But it won't. Why should it?"
"Anna knows. She blundered upon him."
"Will she keep it quiet?"
"I think so, but she's a born gossip. Don't leave her alone with the boys."
"All right," he nodded.
"I feel as if I ought to stay at home," the young teacher said piteously, hoping that he would encourage her to do so.
He shook his head. "No--you've got to go, to divert suspicion. It will be all right here. I'll keep both eyes open. Don't forget that I'm going to be on the job all day."
"You're so good!"
"After I've been around you a while. It's catching." He tucked in the dust robe, without looking at her.
But she looked at him, as she started, with that swift, shy glance of hers, and felt the pink tint her cheeks beneath the tan. He was much in her thoughts, this slender brown man with the look of quiet competence and strength. Ever since that night in the kitchen, he had impressed himself upon her imagination. She had fallen into the way of comparing him with Tom Dixon, with her own brother, with Buck Weaver--and never to his disadvantage.
He talked with a drawl. He walked and rode with an air of languid ease. But the man himself, behind the indolence that sat upon him so gracefully, was like a coiled spring. Sometimes she could see this force in his eyes, when for the moment some thought eclipsed the gay good humor of them. Winsome he was. He had already won her father, even as he had won her. But the touch of affection in his manner never suggested weakness.
From the porch Tom Dixon watched her departure sullenly. Since he could not have her, he let himself grow jealous of the man who perhaps could. And because he was what he was--a small man, full of vanity and conceit--he must needs make parade of himself with another girl in the role of conquering squire. Larrabie smiled as the young fellow went off for a walk in obviously confidential talk with Anna Allan, but he learned soon that it was no smiling matter.
Half an hour later, the girl came flying back along the trail the two had taken. Catching sight of Keller, she ran across to him, plainly quivering with excitement and fluttering with fears.
"Oh, Mr. Keller--I've done it now! I didn't think----I thought--"
"Take it easy," soothed the young man, with one of his winning smiles. "Now, what is it you have done?" Already his eyes had picked out Dixon returning, not quite so impetuously, along the trail.
"I told him about the man in Phyllis' room."
Larrabie's eyes narrowed and grew steely. "Yes?"
"I told him--I don't know why, but I never could keep a secret. I made him promise not to tell. But he is going to tell the boys. There he comes now. And I told Phyllis I wouldn't tell!" Anna began to cry, miserably aware that she had made a mess of things.
"I just begged him not to tell--and he had promised. But he says it's his duty, and he's going to do it. Oh, Mr. Keller--if Mr. Weaver is there they will hurt him, and I'll be to blame."
"Yes, you will be," he told her bluntly. "But we may save him yet--if you can go about your business and keep your mouth shut."
"Oh, I will--I will," she promised eagerly. "I'll not say a word--not to anybody."
"See that you don't. Now, run along home. I'm going to have a quiet little talk with that young man. Maybe I can persuade him to change his mind," he said grimly.
"Please--if you could. I don't want to start any trouble."
Larrabie grinned, without taking his eyes from the man coming down the trail. It was usually some good-natured idiot, with a predisposition to gabbling, that made most of the trouble in the world.
"Well, you be a good girl and padlock your tongue. If you do, I'll fix it up with Tom," he promised.
He sauntered forward toward the path. Dixon, full of his news, was hurrying to the ranch. He was eager to tell it to the Sandersons, because he wanted to reinstate himself in their good graces. For, though neither of them knew he had fired the shot that wounded Weaver, he had observed a distinct coolness toward him for his desertion of Phyllis in her time of need. It had been all very well for him to explain that he had thought it best to hurry home to get help. The fact remained that he had run away and left her alone.
Now he was for pushing past Keller with a curt nod, but the latter stopped him with a lift of the hand.
"What's your sweat?"
"Want to see me, do you?"
Keller nodded easily.
"All right. Unload your mind. I can't give you but a minute."
"Press of business on to-day?"
"It's my business."
"I'm going to make it mine."
"What do you mean?" came the quick, suspicious retort.
"Let's walk back up the trail and talk it over."
Their eyes clashed, and those of the stronger man won.
"We can talk it over here," Dixon said sullenly.
"We can, but we won't."
"I don't know as I want to go back up the trail."
"Come." Larrabie let a hand fall on the shoulder of the other man--a brown, strong hand that showed no more uncertainty than the steady eyes.
Dixon cursed peevishly, but after a moment he turned to go back. He did not know why he went, except that there was something compelling about this man. Besides, he told himself, his news would keep for half an hour without spoiling. They walked nearly a quarter of a mile before he stopped.
"Now get busy, Mr. Keller. I've got no time to monkey," he stormed, attempting to regain what he had lost by his concession.
"Sho! You've got all day. This rush notion is the great failing of the American people. We hadn't ought to go through life on the lope--no, sir! We need to take the rest cure for that habit," Larrabie mused aloud, seating himself on a flat boulder between Tom and the ranch.
Dixon let out an oath. "Did you bring me here to tell me that durn foolishness?"
"Not only to tell you. I figured we would try out the rest cure, you and me. We'll get close to nature out here in the sunshine, and not do a thing but rest till the cows come home," Keller explained easily. His voice was indolent, his manner amiable; but there was a wariness in his eyes that showed him prepared for any move.
So it happened that when Dixon made the expected dash into the chaparral Keller nailed him in a dozen strides.
"Let me alone! Let me go!" cried Tom furiously. "You've got no business to keep me here."
"I'm doing it for pleasure, say."
The other tried to break away, but Larrabie had caught his arm and twisted it in such a way that he could not move without great pain. Impotently he writhed and cursed. Meanwhile his captor relieved him of his revolver, and, with a sudden turn, dropped him to the ground and stepped back.
"What's eating you, Keller? Have you gone plumb crazy? Gimme back that gun and let me go," the young fellow screamed.
"You don't need the gun right now. Maybe, if you had it, you might take a notion to plug me the way you did Buck Weaver."
"What--what's that?" Then, in angry suspicion: "I suppose Phyllis told you that lie."
He had not finished speaking before he regretted it. The look in the face of the other told him that he had gone too far and would have to pay for it.
"Stand up, Tom Dixon! You've got to take a thrashing for that. There's been one coming to you ever since you ran away and left a girl to stand the gaff for you. Now it's due."
"I don't want to fight," Tom whined. "I reckon I oughtn't to have said that, but you drove me to it. I'll apologize----"
"You'll apologize after your thrashing, not before. Stand up and take it."
Dixon got to his feet very reluctantly. He was a larger man than his opponent by twenty pounds--a husky, well-built fellow; but he was entirely without the fighting edge. He knew himself already a beaten man, and he cowered in spirit before his lithe antagonist, even while he took off his coat and squared himself for the attack. For he knew, as did anybody who looked at him carefully, that Keller was a game man from the marrow out.
Men who knew him said of Larrabie Keller that he could whip his weight in wild cats. Get him started, and he was a small cyclone in action. But now he went at his man deliberately, with hard, straight, punishing blows.
Dixon fought back wildly, desperately, but could not land. He could see nothing but that face with the chilled-steel eyes, but when he lashed out it was never there. Again and again, through the openings he left, came a right or a left like a pile driver, with the weight of one hundred and sixty pounds of muscle and bone back of it. He tried to clinch, and was shaken off by body blows. At last he went down from an uppercut, and stayed down, breathing heavily, a badly thrashed man.
"For God's sake, let me alone! I've had enough," he groaned.
"Sure of that?"
"You've pretty near killed me."
Larrabie laughed grimly. "You didn't get half enough. I'll listen to that apology now, my friend."
With many sighs, the prostrate man came through with it haltingly. "I didn't mean--I hadn't ought to have said----"
Keller interrupted the tearful voice. "That'll be enough. You will know better, next time, how to speak respectfully of a lady. While we're on the subject, I don't mind telling you that nobody told me. I'm not a fool, and I put two and two together. That's all. I'm not her brother. It wasn't my business to punish you because you played the coyote. But when you said she lied to me, that's another matter."
For very shame, trampled in the dust as he had been, Tom could not leave the subject alone. Besides, he had to make sure that the story would be kept secret.
"The way of it was like this: After I shot Buck Weaver, we saw they would kill me if I was caught; so we figured I had better hunt cover. 'Course I knew they wouldn't hurt a girl any," he got out sullenly.
"You don't have to explain it to me," answered the other coldly.
"You ain't expecting to tell the boys about me shooting Buck, are you?" Dixon asked presently, hating himself for it. But he was afraid of Phil and his father. They had told him plainly what they thought of him for leaving the girl in the lurch. If they should discover that he had done the shooting and left her to stand the blame for it, they would do more than talk.
"I certainly ought to tell them. Likely they may want to see you about it, and hear the particulars."
"There ain't any need of them knowing. If Phyl had wanted them to know, she could have told them," said Tom sulkily. He had got carefully to his feet, and was nursing his face with a handkerchief.
"We'll go and break our news together," suggested the other cheerfully. "You tell them you think Weaver is in her room, and I'll tell them my little spiel."
"There's no need telling them about me shooting Weaver, far as I can see. I'd rather they didn't know."
"For that matter, there's no need telling them your notions about where Buck is right now."
Tom said nothing, but his dogged look told Larrabie that he was not persuaded.
"I tell you what we'll do," said Keller, then: "We'll unload on them both stories, or we won't tell them either. Which shall it be?"
Dixon understood that an ultimatum was being served on him. For, though his former foe was smiling, the smile was a frosty one.
"Just as you say. I reckon it's your call," he acquiesced sourly.
"No--I'm going to leave it to you," grinned Larrabie.
The man he had thrashed looked as if he would like to kill him. "We'll close-herd both stories, then."
"Good enough! Don't let me keep you any longer, if you're in a hurry. Now we've had our little talk, I'm satisfied."
But Dixon was not satisfied. He was stiff and sore physically, but mentally he was worse. He had played a poor part, and must still do so. If he went down to the ranch with his face in that condition, he could not hope to escape observation. His vanity cried aloud against submitting to the comment to which he would be subjected. The whole story of the thrashing would be bound to come out.
"I can't go down looking like this," he growled.
"Do you have to go down?"
"Have to get my horse, don't I?"
"I'll bring it to you."
"And say nothing about--what has happened?"
"I don't care to talk of it any more than you do. I'll be a clam."
"All right--I'll wait here." Tom sat down on a boulder and chewed tobacco, his head sunk in his clenched palms.
Keller walked down the trail to the ranch. He was glad to go in place of Dixon; for he felt that the young man was unstable and could not be depended upon not to fall into a rage, and, in a passionate impulse, tell all he knew. He saddled the horse, explaining casually to the wrangler that he had lost a bet with Tom, by the terms of which he had to come down and saddle the latter's mount.
He swung to the back of the pony and cantered up the trail. But before he had gone a hundred yards, he was off again, examining the hoofmarks the animal left in the sand. The left hind mark differed from the others in that the detail was blurred and showed nothing but a single flat stamp.
This seemed to interest Keller greatly. He picked up the corresponding foot of the cow pony, and found the cause of the irregularity to be a deformity or swelling in the ball of the foot, which apparently was now its normal condition. The young man whistled softly to himself, swung again to the saddle, and continued on his way.
The owner of the horse had his back turned and did not hear him coming as he padded up the soft trail. The man was testing in his hand something that clicked.
Larrabie swung quietly to the ground, and waited. His eyes were like tempered steel.
"Here's your horse," he said. Before the other man moved, he drawled: "I reckon I'd better tell you I'm armed, too. Don't be hasty."
Dixon turned his swollen face to him in a childish fury. He had picked up, and was holding in his hand, the revolver Larrabie had taken from him and later thrown down. "Damn you, what do you mean? It's my own gun, ain't it? Mean to say I'm a murderer?"
"I happen to know you have impulses that way. I thought I'd check this one, to save you trouble."
He was standing carelessly with his right hand resting on the mane of the pony; he had not even taken the precaution of lowering it to his side, where the weapon might be supposed to lie.
For an instant Tom thought of taking a chance. The odds would be with him, since he had the revolver ready to his fingers. But before that indomitable ease his courage ebbed. He had not the stark fighting nerve to pit himself against such a man as this.
"I don't know as I said anything about shooting. Looks like you're trying to fasten another row on me," the craven said bitterly.
"I'm content if you are; and as far as I'm concerned, this thing is between us two. It won't go any further."
Keller stood aside and watched Dixon mount. The hillman took his spleen out on the horse, finding that the safest vent for his anger. He jerked its head angrily, cursed it, and drove in the spurs cruelly. With a leap, the cow pony was off. In fifty strides it reached the top of the hill and disappeared.
Keller laughed grimly, and spoke aloud to himself, after the manner of one who lives much alone.
"There's a nice young man--yellow clear through. Queer thing she could ever have fancied him. But I don't know, either. He's a right good looker, and has lots of cheek; that goes a long way with girls. Likely he was mighty careful before her. And he'd not been brought up against the acid test, then."
His roving eyes took in with disgust the stains of tobacco juice plastered all over the clean surface of the rocks.
"I'll bet a doughnut she never knew he chewed. Didn't know it myself till now. Well, a man lives and learns. Buck Weaver told me he came on a dead cow of his just after the rustlers had left. Fire still smoldering. Tobacco stains still wet on the rocks. And one of the horses had a hind hoof that left a blurred trail. Surely looks like Mr. Tom Dixon is headed for the pen mighty fast."
He turned and strolled back to the house, smiling to himself.