Not only had he been a trusted foreman, but there was something in the man himself, or rather in his influence upon the imagination of the girl, that made it almost impossible for her to believe that he had shot Mack Harber, another employee, and stolen the bullion from her father’s mine. He had always been reticent and almost shy in her presence. He had never presumed to even the slight familiarity of addressing her by her given name—a customary procedure among the other men, many of whom had seen her grow so gradually from a little girl to a young lady that they scarce yet discerned the change.
Yet she knew that he liked to be with her, though she was far from being sure that she cared for his company. He was quiet to taciturnity and far from being the pleasant companion that she found in Hal Colby. There was something, however, that she felt when in his company to a much greater degree than when she was with other men—absolute confidence in his integrity and his ability to protect her.
Now she was sorry for him since his reduction from a post of responsibility and her loyalty aroused by the inward suspicions she had permitted herself to entertain, to the end that she was moved by something akin to remorse to make some sort of overtures of friendship that he might know that the daughter of his employer still had confidence in him.
It was a quiet Sunday morning. The men were lazily occupying themselves with the overhauling of their outfits, replacing worn latigo and stirrup leather lacings, repairing hackamores and bridles, polishing silver and guns, cleaning boots with bacon grease and lampblack, shaving, or hair-cutting.
Down past the bunk-house, toward the corrals, came Diana Henders. Presently she would pause near the men and ask one of them to catch up a horse for her. The lucky fellow whom she asked would ride with her.
It was a custom of long standing; but she was earlier than usual this Sunday morning and several of the men worked frantically to complete the jobs they were engaged upon before she should arrive within speaking distance. Two or three affected attitudes of careless idleness indicative of perfect readiness to meet any call upon their time or services.
Texas Pete was cutting the hair of another puncher. He had reached a point where his victim was entirely shorn upon one side, the other displaying a crop of thick, brown hair four or five inches long, when he looked up and saw Diana approaching. Pete tossed the shears and comb into the lap of the victim.
“You-all don’t need a hair-cut nohow,” he announced, strolling away with what he believed to be a remarkable display of nonchalance, along a line that would, quite by accident of course, intercept Diana’s course to the corrals.
The deserted and disfigured puncher wheeled upon him with a loud yell.
“Come back here, you knock-kneed, bowlegged, son-of-a—,” then his eyes, too, alighted upon Diana. His fountain of speech dried at the source, his tanned face assumed a purple cast, and in two jumps he had reached the seclusion of the bunkhouse.
Hal Colby walked deliberately forward to meet the girl, a pleasant smile of greeting upon his handsome face as he raised his wide sombrero in salutation. Had he been on trial for his life at that moment the entire outfit would have voted unanimously to hang him on the spot; but, gosh, how they envied him!
Bull sat, apparently unmoved, with his back against a cottonwood tree, running a wiping rag through the barrel of a revolver. He did not even look up, though he had seen Diana Henders from the moment that she left the house. Bull realized that after the affair in town that had caused his downfall there was no chance for him to ride with her again for many long days-possibly forever.
“Going for a ride, Di?” asked Colby, confidently, as the girl came abreast of the men.
“Why, yes, I was thinking of it,” she replied sweetly. “I was just going to ask Bull if he wouldn’t catch up Captain for me—the rest of you all seem so busy.”
Colby appeared abashed but not defeated. “I haven’t a thing to do,” he assured her.
“But I’ve made you ride with me so much lately, Hal,” she insisted.
“I’d rather ride with you than eat,” he whispered.
Texas Pete had made a feeble pretense of searching for something on the ground, apparently given it up in despair, and was passing them on his way back to the bunk-house.
“I don’t think you oughter ride with—with him, nohow,” continued Colby.
The girl drew herself up, slightly.
“Don’t be nasty, Hal,” she said.
“You know I hate to say that,” he assured her. “I set a heap of store by Bull. He’s one of my best friends, but after what’s happened—you can’t blame me, Di. I think your dad would say the same thing if he knew.”
Bull was halfway to the corrals.
“I’ll have the bosses up in a jiffy, Miss,” he called back over his shoulder.
“Good-bye, Hal,” laughed the girl, teasingly. “You’ll have plenty of time to lay out the work for tomorrow—a foreman’s always busy, you know,” and she walked away briskly after Bull.
As Colby turned back toward the men he saw broad grins adorning the faces of most of them. Texas Pete, just approaching the bunk-house door, halted, removed his hat with a flourish, bowing low.
“Goin’ to git your hair cut, Hal?” he inquired sweetly. “You know I’d rather cut your hair than eat.”
A loud roar of laughter acknowledged this sally.
Colby, flushing crimson, beat a hasty retreat toward the office.
“Which way?” asked Bull, when the two had mounted.
“I’m going to town to see how Mack is getting along,” replied the girl, watching his face.
“I seen Wildcat Bob yesterday. He said he was getting along fine. Nothing but a flesh wound.”
Neither his voice nor his expression betrayed more than ordinary concern.
“Have you seen Mack since he was shot’?” she inquired.
“Ain’t had time. Colby keeps me pretty busy. Mack was a dinged fool fer gettin’ creased anyhow,” he observed. “When a feller’s got the drop on you, stick ’em up. They ain’t nothin’ else to do. Mack orter known better than to make any funny gun-play with them two hombres coverin’ him.”
“It was mighty brave of him,” said Diana. “He’s no coward—and he was loyal to Dad.”
“I don’t see nothin’ brave about it,” he replied. “It was just plumb foolishness. Why he didn’t have a chanct on earth.”
“That’s what made his act so courageous,” she insisted.
“Then the feller what commits suicide must be a regular hero,” he rejoined, smiling. “I never looked at it that way. I reckon Mack must have been aimin’ to commit suicide.”
“You’re horrid, Bull. I believe you haven’t any heart at all.”
“I shore have. Leastways I did have one until—” He hesitated, looked at her in a peculiar way, then let his eyes drop to his saddle horn, “Oh, shucks! what’s the use?” he exclaimed.
There was silence for a brief interval. The spirit of coquetry, that is strong in every normal girl, prompted her to urge him on; but a natural kindliness coupled with the knowledge that it would be unfair to him kept her silent. It was the man who spoke again first.
“I was sorry Mack got hurt,” he said, defensively; “but he was lucky he wasn’t killed. That Black Coyote feller must have been a friend of his’n.”
“The brute!” she exclaimed. “He ought to be strung up to the highest tree in the county.”
“Yes,” he agreed, and then, with another of his rare smiles, “let’s speak to Gum Smith about it when we get to town.”
“Gum Smith!” Were it possible to snort Gum Smith she had accomplished it. “If an honest vote had been taken for the worst man for sheriff Gum Smith would have been elected unanimously.”
“Why Gum’s a good sheriff,” he teased, “fer tin horns and bandits.”
She did not reply. Her thoughts were upon the man at her side. Nothing that he had said had exactly tended to weaken her faith in him, yet it had not materially strengthened it; either.
His apparent callous indifference to Mack’s suffering might have been attributed with equal fairness to the bravado of the guilty desperado, or to the conditions and the times in which they lived which placed shootings and sudden death in the category of the commonplace. His suggestion that The Black Coyote must have been a friend of Mack’s, as an explanation of a flesh wound rather than a mortal one, appeared a trifle sinister, though it was amenable to other interpretations. On the whole, however, Diana Henders was not wholly pleased with the result of her probing.
At The Donovan House they found Mack sufficiently recovered to be able to sit upon the veranda, where there were gathered a number of Mrs. Donovan’s other guests, including Wildcat Bob and the sheriff. Mary Donovan stood in the doorway, one hand on a hip and the other, the fist doubled, emphasizing some forceful statement she was delivering.
As Diana Henders and Bull appeared suddenly before them, the argument, which had been progressing merrily, lapsed into an embarrassed silence. It would have been evident to the most obtuse that one or the other of the newcomers had been the subject of the conversation, and neither Bull nor Diana was obtuse, the result being that they shared the embarrassment of the others.
The silence, which really lasted but a brief moment, was broken by Mary Donovan’s hearty greeting to Diana, followed by a cordial word to Bull, which was seconded by Wildcat Bob. The others, however, spoke only to Diana Henders, appearing not to be aware of the presence of her escort.
“Come now,” cried Mary Donovan, “into the house wid ye an’ have a bit o’ cake an’ a cup o’ tay.” But Diana Henders did not dismount.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Donovan,” she replied. “We just rode down to see how Mack was getting along and to ask if there was anything we could do for him.” She turned her glance toward the wounded man.
“I’m all right, Miss,” he replied. “’Twasn’t nothin’ but a scratch. I’ll be back at the mine in a couple o’ days—an’ guardin’ the bullion shipments, too, same as usual.” He looked straight at Bull as he made this final statement.
“Well,” exclaimed Diana, hastily, “I’m glad you’re so much better, Mack, and if there isn’t anything we can do for you we’ll start back for the ranch.” She sensed the sullen attitude of most of the men there, the scowls they cast at Bull, and she knew that it would require little to precipitate a direct accusation, which would have been almost certain to have been followed by gunplay. “Come, Bull,” she said, and reined her pony about.
They had ridden well out of town when she looked casually into the man’s face. It bore a troubled expression and he must have guessed that she noted it.
“I wonder what was eatin’ them fellers,” he remarked. “No one only Wildcat Bob even spoke to me, an’ Mack seemed gosh-almighty sore about somethin’. Well, they ain’t none of ’em got their brand on me. If I did shoot up Gum Smith’s joint it ain’t no hair offen none of them.”
The girl wondered if he really was ignorant of the suspicions directed against him, or if he took this means to make her believe that the cause of the altered attitude toward him was his drunken gunplay in the sheriffs saloon.
“I was right sorry about that, Miss,” he blurted suddenly. “I never aimed for to do it. I wasn’t goin’ to drink too much no more after what I’d promised you. I’m right sorry. Do you think that, maybe, you—you might forgive me—and give me another chance?”
His voice was pleading and he was very much in earnest. The girl knew how difficult it was for a rough man like Bull to say what he had just said and she felt a sudden compassion for him.
“It made me sorry, too, Bull,” she said. “I trusted you and I hated to be so disappointed in you.”
“Please don’t say you don’t trust me, Miss,” he begged. “I want you to trust me more’n anything else.”
“I want to trust you, Bull,” and then, impulsively: “I do trust you!”
He reached across the interval between them and laid his rough hand upon her soft one.
“I love you, Diana,” he said, very simply and with a quiet dignity that was unmarred by any hesitancy or embarrassment.
She started to speak, but he silenced her with a gesture.
“Don’t say anything about it, please,” he urged. “I don’t expect you to love me; but there’s nothing wrong about my loving you. I just wanted you to know it so that you’d always know where I stood and that you could always call on me for anything. With yer dad an’ all the other men around that loves you there isn’t much likelihood that you’ll ever need me more’n another, but it makes me feel better to know that you know now. We won’t talk about it no more, Miss. We both understand. It’s the reason I didn’t quit when yer dad busted me.”
“I’m glad you told me, Bull,” she said. “It’s the greatest honor that any man can bestow upon a girl. I don’t love any man, Bull, that way; but if ever I do he’ll know it without my telling him. I’ll do something that will prove it—a girl always does. Some times, though, the men are awfully blind, they say.”
“I wouldn’t be blind,” said Bull. “I’d know it, I think, if a girl loved me.”
“The right one will, some day,” she assured him.
He shook his head. “I hope so, Miss.”
She flushed, sensing the unintentional double Entendre he had caught in her words. She wondered why she flushed.
They rode on in silence. She was sorry that Bull loved her, but she was glad that, loving her, he had told her of his love. He was just a common cowhand, unlettered, rough, and occasionally uncouth, but of these things she did not think, for she had known no other sort, except her father and an occasional visitor from the East, since childhood. Had she cared for him she would not have been ashamed. She looked up at him with a smile.
“Don’t call me ‘Miss,’ Bull, please—I hate it.”
“You want me to call you by your first name?” he inquired.
“The other men do,” she said, “and you did—a moment ago.”
“It slipped out that time.” He grinned sheepishly.
“I like it.”
“All right Miss,” he said.
The girl laughed aloud, joyishly.
“All right, Diana, I mean,” he corrected himself.
So Diana Henders, who was really a very sensible girl, instead of merely playing with fire, made a big one of a little one, all very unintentionally, for how was she to know that to Bull the calling of her Diana instead of Miss was almost as provocative to his love as would have been the personal contact of a kiss to an ordinary man?
As they approached the ranch house at the end of their ride they saw a buckboard to which two bronchos were harnessed hitched to the tie rail beneath the cottonwoods outside the office door.
“Whose outfit is that?” asked Diana. “I never saw it before.”
“The Wainrights from the north side o’ the hills. I seen ’em in town about a week ago.”
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of them. They’re from the East. Mr. Wainright don’t like the country north of the mountains.”
“He’s lookin’ fer range on this side,” said Bull. “Like as not that’s what he’s here fer now. They ain’t enough water fer no more outfits though, nor enough feed neither.”
They drew rein at the corral and dismounted.
“Thanks, Bull,” said the girl, as she passed him her bridle reins. “We’ve had a lovely ride.”
That was all he said, but the way he spoke her name was different from the way any other man had ever spoken it. She was sorry now that she had asked him to call her Diana.
As she was passing the office to go to her room her father called to her.
“Come in, Di; I want you to meet some new neighbors,” and when she had entered, “My daughter, Mr. Wainright.”
Diana extended her hand to a fat man with close-set eyes, and then her father presented the younger Wainright.
“Mr. Jefferson Wainright, Jr., Diana,” he said.
The son was a well-groomed-appearing, nice-looking young fellow of twenty-one or twenty-two. Perhaps his costume was a trifle too exaggerated to be in good taste, but he had only fallen into the same mistake that many another wealthy young Easterner has done before and since upon his advent to the cow-country. From silver-banded sombrero to silver-encrusted spurs there was no detail lacking.
“By gollies, he looks like a Christmas tree,” had been Texas Pete’s observation the first time that he had seen him. “All they forgot was the candles.”
“You live north of the mountains?” inquired Diana, politely.
“Yep,” replied the elder Wainright; “but we don’t calc’late to stay there. We’re from Mass’chusetts—Worcester—blankets made a fortune in ’em—made ’em for the gover’ment mostly. Jeff got it in his head he wanted to go into the cattle business—come by it natch’ral I allow. I used to be in the livery stable business before I bought the mills—so when he graduated from Harvard a year ago we come out here—don’t like it tother side the mountains—so I calc’lates to come over here.”
“I was just explaining to Mr. Wainright that there is scarcely enough feed or water for another big outfit on this side,” interjected Mr. Henders.
“Don’t make any difference—set your price—but set it right. I’ll buy you out. I c’d buy half this territory I calc’late—if I had a mind to—but the price’s got to be right. Ol’ Jeff Wainright’s got a name for bein’ a pretty shrewd trader—fair’n honest, though—fair’n honest. Just name your price—how much for the whole shebang—buildins, land, cattle—everything?”
Elias Henders laughed good-naturedly. “I’m afraid they’re not for sale, Mr. Wainright.”
“Tut, tut! I’ll get ’em—you’ll sell—of Jeff Wainright’s always got everything he went after. Well, son, I calc’late we’d better be goin’.”
“You’ll have dinner with us first, of course,” insisted Diana; “it must be almost ready now.”
“Well, I don’t mind if we do,” returned the elder Wainright, and so they stayed for the noonday meal.
Diana found the younger Wainright a pleasant, affable companion. He was the first educated man near her own age that she had ever met and his conversation and his ways, so different from those of the rough vaqueros of her little world, made a profound impression upon her. He could talk interestingly from the standpoint of personal experience of countless things of which she had only secondhand knowledge acquired from books and newspapers. Those first two hours with him thrilled her with excitement—they opened a new world of wondrous realities that she had hitherto thought of more as unattainable dreams than things which she herself might some day experience.
If he had inherited something of his father’s egotism she forgot it in the contemplation of his finer qualities and in the pleasure she derived from association with one somewhere near her own social status in life. That the elder Wainright was impossible she had sensed from the first, but the son seemed of different fiber and no matter what his antecedents, he must have acquired something of permanent polish through his college associations.
The disquieting effect of the Wainrights’ visit was apparent elsewhere than at the ranch house. There was gloom at the bunk-house.
“Dog-gone his hide!” exclaimed Texas Pete.
“Whose?” inquired Shorty.
“My ol’ man’s. If he hadn’t gone an’ got hung he might’a’ sent me to Havaad. What chanct has a feller got agin one o’ them paper-collared, cracker-fed dudes anyway!”