She greeted them politely, but without marked cordiality. It was the first time that she had encountered either of them since her father’s death, having refused to see the younger man on her return to the camp with Elias Hender’s body.
“We been calc’latin’ to drive ever for several days past, Miss Henders,” said the elder man. “Thought mebby you might want some advice or suthin’. Anything we can do, we’re at both at your service.”
“That’s very kind of you, indeed, I’m sure,” replied the girl; “but really I have so many good friends here that I couldn’t think of inconveniencing you. Everyone has been so kind and considerate.”
“Well, they ain’t no harm in offerin’,” he continued. “Anything we can do, you know. If it’s a little matter of money to tide you over till the estate’s settled, why, just call on Jefferson Wainright—he’s got a lot and he ain’t stingy either.”
“There is nothing, thank you,” she said, with just the faintest tinge of asperity.
He rose slowly from his chair and shoved his fat hands into his pockets.
“I reckon I’ll walk around a bit,” he said. “I calc’late that you young folks got suthin’ to say to one another,” and he winked ponderously at them as he waddled through the doorway.
There was a strained silence for several minutes after he left. Jefferson Wainright, Jr., finally, after clearing his throat two or three times, broke it.
“The governor means all right,” he said. “We’d really like to be of service to you, and after the—the talk we had that last night before—before your father was killed—you know—why, I hoped I might have the right to help you, Diana.”
She drew herself up very straight and stiff. “I think we had better forget that, Mr. Wainright,” she said.
“But you promised me an answer,” he insisted.
“After what happened I should think you would know what the answer must be without being subjected to the humiliation of being told in words.”
“Do you mean that you are blaming me, too, like the men did, for going for help. You would all have been killed if I hadn’t. I think I did just the sensible thing,” he concluded, half-defiantly.
“Yes, I suppose so,” she replied icily, “and Hal Colby did a very silly thing staying and risking his life for Dad and me.”
“I think you’re mighty unfair, Diana,” he insisted, “and the way it turned out only goes to prove that I was right. I met Bull and that Texas person less than halfway to camp and got them there in time.”
“If they had been as sensible as you they would have gone on to camp for more reinforcements, as you did, but like most of our boys out here, Mr. Wainright, they haven’t much sense and so they nearly rode their horses down to get to us—only two of them, remember, after you had told them that we were surrounded by a hundred Indians.”
“Oh, pshaw, I think you might be reasonable and make some allowance for a fellow,” he begged. “I’ll admit I was a little excited and maybe I did do the wrong thing, but it’s all new to me out here. I’d never seen a wild Indian before and I thought I was doing right to go for help.
“Can’t you forgive me, Diana, and give me another chance? If you’ll marry me I’ll take you away from this God-forsaken country back where there are no Indians.”
“Mr. Wainright, I have no wish to offend you, but you might as well know once for all that if you were the last man on earth I would never marry you—I could not marry such a coward, and you are a coward. You would be just as much of a coward back East if danger threatened. Some of our boys are from the East—Hal Colby was born in Vermont—and the day that you ran away was his first experience, too, with hostile Indians, and if you want another reason why I couldn’t marry you—the first and biggest reason—I’ll give it to you.”
Her voice was low and level, like her father’s had been on the rare occasions that he had been moved by anger, but the tone was keen-edged and cutting. “I feel now, and I shall always feel as long as I live, that had you remained instead of running away we might have held them off and Dad would not have been uselessly sacrificed.”
She had risen while, she spoke, and he rose too, standing silently for a moment after she had concluded. Then he turned and walked toward the door. At the threshold he paused and turned toward her.
“I hope you will never regret your decision,” he said. The tone seemed to carry a threat.
“I assure you that I shall never. Good day, Mr. Wainright.”
After he had gone the girl shuddered and sank down into a chair. She wished Hal Colby was there. She wanted someone to comfort her and to give her that sense of safety under masculine protection that her father’s presence had always afforded.
Why couldn’t all men be like Hal and Bull? When she thought of brave men she always thought of Bull, too. How wonderful they had all been that day—Hal and Bull and Pete. Rough, uncouth they often were; worn and soiled and careless their apparel; afraid of nothing, man, beast or the devil; risking their lives joyously; joking with death; and yet they had been as gentle as women when they took her back to camp and all during the long, terrible journey home, when one of the three had always been within call every minute of the days and nights.
Of the three Bull had surprised her most, for previously he had always seemed the hardest and most calloused, and possessing fewer of the finer sensibilities of sympathy and tenderness; but of them all he had been the most thoughtful and considerate. It had been he who had sent her ahead with Colby that she might not see them lash her father’s body to the horse; it had been he who had covered all that remained of Elias Henders with the slickers from his saddle and Pete’s that she might not be shocked by the sight of her father’s body rocking from side to side with the swaying motion of the horse; and it was Bull who had ridden all night to far-away ranches and brought back two buckboards early the next morning to carry her Dad and her more comfortably on the homeward journey. He had spoken kindly to her in an altered, softened voice, and he had insisted that she eat and keep her strength when she had wanted to forget food.
But the funeral over she had seen nothing more of him, for he had been sent back to the round-up to ride with it for the last few remaining days, while Hal Colby remained at the ranch to help her to plan for the future and gather together the stray ends that are left flying when even the most methodical of masters releases his grip for the last time.
She sat musing after Wainright left the room, the clock upon the wall above her father’s desk ticking as it had for years just as though this terrible thing had not happened just as though her father were still sitting in his accustomed chair, instead of lying out there in the sandy, desolate little graveyard above Hendersville, where the rocks that protected the scattered sleepers from the coyotes offered sanctuary to the lizard and the rattle-snake.
Her revery was disturbed by the fall of heavy feet upon the veranda and she raised her eyes just as the elder Wainright entered the room. He was not smiling now, nor was his manner so suave as usual.
“We got to be goin’ now, Miss Henders,” he said brusquely; “but I wanted a mite of a word with you before we left. O’ course, you don’t know nothin’ about it, but afore your father died we was negotiatin’ a deal. He wanted to get out from under, now that the mine’s runnin’ out, an’ I wanted to git a range on this side o’ the mountains. We’d jest about got it all fixed up when this accident happened.
“Now here’s what I wanted to say to you. Of course, the mine’s no account, and the range’s ’bout all fed off, and they ain’t scarce enough water fer the number o’ stock I was calc’latin’ to put on, but Jefferson Wainright’s a man o’ his word an’ when I says to your father that I’d give him two hundred and fifty thousand dollars fer his holdin’s I won’t back down now, even if I don’t think they be worth so much as that.
“I’ll get all the papers ready so’s ye won’t have to go to no expense fer a lawyer, and then ye can have the money an’ go back East to live like ye always wanted to, an’ like yer paw was fixin’ fer ye.”
The deeper he got into the subject the faster he talked and the more he relapsed into the vernacular of his earlier days. Finally he paused. “What do ye say?” he concluded.
“The ranch is not for sale, Mr. Wainright;” she replied.
He opened his little eyes and his big mouth simultaneously in surprise.
“What’s thet—not for sale? Why, you must be crazy, child. You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“I know exactly what I am talking about,” she told him. “Father talked this all over with me and showed me your offer of a million dollars for our holdings. The ranch is not for sale, for a million dollars or any other price, to you, Mr. Wainright, and be careful that you do not stumble over that stool as you go out.”
The man’s fat face became suddenly empurpled with rage and for a moment he was inarticulate as, backing toward the doorway, he sought for words adequately to express his outraged feelings. He was not humiliated—there are certain types of men whose thick skin serves them as an invulnerable armor against humiliation.
He was just plain mad—mad all the way through to think that he had been caught at his trickery, exposed and thwarted by a chit of a girl, and, like the type he represented naturally would be, he was mad at her rather than at himself. As he reached the doorway he found his voice.
“You’ll be sorry for this! You’ll be sorry for this!” he cried, shaking a fist at her. “And, mark you, I’ll get this property yet. Jefferson Wainright can buy and sell you twenty times over and he always gets what he goes after.”
The figure of a tall man loomed suddenly behind him. Calloused and ungentle fingers seized him roughly by the collar of his coat. A low voice spoke softly in his ear.
“Don’t you know better’n to shake your fist in a lady’s face, you pot-bellied buzzard?” it inquired, and the elder Wainright was jerked unceremoniously through the doorway, whirled about and projected violently from the veranda, his speed simultaneously accelerated by the toe of a high-heeled cowboy boot. “I reckon you’d better make yourself damned scarce around here,” continued the low tones of the speaker.
Wainright scrambled to his feet and turned upon the owner of the voice. He shook both fists now and fairly danced up and down in his fury. “I’ll get you!” he screamed. “I’ll get you! Don’t you know who I am—why, I could buy and sell you a hundred thousand times over—I’m Jefferson Wainright, I am. I’ll get you—layin’ your hands on me—you low down, thirty-five-dollar cowpuncher!”
“Vamoose!” said the man, “and do it pronto.” He emphasized his injunction with a shot, the bullet kicking up a little spurt of dust between Wainright’s feet.
The fat man started on a run for his buckboard which the younger Wainright had driven down to the corrals. The man on the veranda fired again, and again the dust rose about the fleeing feet of the terrified Easterner.
Diana Henders had come to the doorway where she stood leaning against the frame, smiling.
“Don’t hurt him, Bull,” she said.
The man cast a quick smile over his shoulder. “I ain’t a-aimin’ to hurt him,” he said. “I’m just a-aimin’ to eddicate him. Them corn-fed Easterners ain’t got no eddication nohow. What they need is someone to larn ’em manners.”
As he spoke he kept on firing at the fleeing Wainright and every shot kicked up a puff of dust close to the fat man’s feet until he reached the corner of the bunk-house and disappeared behind it.
The shots had called out the cook and the few men who were about, with the result that a small yet highly appreciative audience witnessed Wainright’s discomfiture. A part of it was Texas Pete, who rocked to and fro in unholy glee.
“By gollies! did you see him?” he yelled. “He never hit nothin’ but the high spots. I’ll bet he busted all the world’s records between the office and the bunk-house. Why, he done it in nothin’ flat, an’ you could have played checkers on his coat-tails. He shore stepped high, wide an’ handsome.”
On the veranda of the ranch house Bull had shoved his gun back into its holster. The smile had left his face.
“I thought you were still out with the outfit, Bull,” said the girl.
“We finished up last night,” he told her, “and I come in ahead.” He looked down at his feet in evident embarrassment. “I come in ahead for my time, Miss.”
“Your time! Why, Bull, you’re not goin’ to quit?”
“I reckon I better,” he replied. “I been aimin’ to move on fer some spell.”
The girl’s eyes were wide, and almost noticeably moist, and there was a surprised, hurt look in them, that he caught as he chanced to glance up at her.
“You see, Miss,” he hastened to explain, “things ain’t been very pleasant for me here. I ain’t complainin’, but there are those that don’t like me, an’ I figgered I’d quit before I was let out. As long as your paw was alive it was different, an’ I don’t need to tell you that I’d be powerful proud to work for you always, if there wasn’t no one else; but there is. I reckon you got a good man an’ it will be pleasanter all around if I ain’t here no more.”
At the mere thought of his going a lump rose in Diana Henders’ throat, and she realized how much she had come to depend on him just the mere fact that she had known Bull was around had given her a feeling of greater security—he had become in the nature of a habit and it was going to be hard to break the habit.
“Oh, Bull,” she cried, “I can’t let you go now—I can’t spare both you and Dad at the same time. You’re like a brother, Bull, and I need a brother mighty badly right now. You don’t have to go, do you? You don’t really want to?”
“No, Miss, I don’t have to an’ I don’t want to—if you want me to stay.”
“Then you will stay?”
He nodded. “But I reckon you’d better tell Colby,” he said, “for I expect he’s aimin’ to give me my time.”
“Oh, no, I’m sure he’s not,” she cried. “Hal likes you, Bull. He told me you were one of his best friends, and he was so sorry about your losing the job as foreman. He said he hated to take it.”
Bull made no comment and whatever his thoughts his face did not betray them. Presently he jerked his head in the general direction of the corrals where the Wainrights, having hastily clambered into their buckboard, were preparing to depart.
“Say the word,” he told her, “and I’ll run them short sports so far outta the country they won’t never find their way back.”
“No,” she replied, smiling; “let them go. They’ll never come back here, I’m sure.”
“I reckon the old gent figgers he ain’t very popular round these diggins,” said Bull, with the faintest trace of a smile; “but I don’t know so much about how thet young dude stands.” He looked questioningly at Diana.
“About deuce high, Bull,” she replied. “I saw enough of him to last me a couple of lifetimes the day the renegades jumped us.”
“I reckoned as much, Miss, knowin’ you as I do. Scenery an’ the gift o’ gab ain’t everything, but sometimes they fool wimmen folks—even the brightest of ’em.”
“He was awfully good company,” she admitted.
“When they warn’t no Injuns around,” Bull completed the sentence for her. “The old feller seemed all het up over somethin’ about the time I happened along. I heered him say he was set on gettin’ this property. Is that what they come over fer?”
“Yes. He offered me a quarter of what he’d offered Dad for it, and his offer to Dad was only about twenty per cent of what it’s worth. You see, Bull, what they want is the mine. They are just using the range and the cattle as an excuse to get hold of the mine because they think we don’t know the real value of the diggings; but Dad did know. There’s another vein there that has never been tapped that is richer than the old one. Dad knew about it, and somehow Wainright learned of it too.”
“The old skunk!” muttered Bull.
The Wainrights were driving out of the ranch yard and heading toward Hendersville. The older man was still breathing hard and swearing to himself. The younger was silent and glum. They were going to town for dinner before starting on the long drive back to their ranch. Approaching them along the trail at a little distance ahead was a horseman. Young Wainright recognized the rider first.
“That’s Colby,” he said. “He hasn’t any use for that fellow Bull. They are both stuck on the girl. It might not be a bad plan to cultivate him—if you want to get even with Bull.”
As they came nearer it appeared evident that Colby was going by them with nothing more than a nod. He did not like either of them—especially the younger; but when they drew rein and the older man called to him he turned about and rode up to the side of the vehicle.
“You’re still foreman here, ain’t ye?” asked Wainright senior.
Colby nodded. “Why?” he inquired.
“Well, I jest wanted to tell ye that some of your men ain’t got a very pleasant way of treatin’ neighbors.”
“Well, I was jest a-leavin’ after a social call when one of yer men starts shootin’ at me. Thet ain’t no way to treat friends an’ neighbors. Suppose we was to shoot up your men when they came over our way?”
“Who was it?” demanded Colby.
“Bull,” said the younger Wainright. “I suppose he was drunk again, though. They say he always goes to shooting whenever he gets drunk. When we left he was up at the house making love to Miss Henders,” he added. “I shouldn’t think she’d feel safe with a fellow like that around.”
Colby scowled. “Thanks fer tellin’ me,” he said. “I reckon I’ll have to fix that feller. He’s gettin’ too damn fresh.”
“Well, I thought ye’d orter know,” said Wainright senior. “Well, so long, an’ if ye ever git over our way drop in.”
“Giddap!” said Jefferson Wainright, Jr., and the two rolled away through the deep dust of the parched road.
Colby rode on at a brisk gallop and as he swung from his saddle cast a glance in the direction of the house where he saw Bull just descending the steps from the veranda where Diana Henders stood. Colby bit his lip and the frown on his face became deeper.
Dragging saddle and bridle from his pony he turned the animal into the corral with a final slap on the rump—a none too gentle slap which reflected the state of his feelings—then he headed straight for the bunk-house which he reached just in time to intercept Bull at the entrance.
“Look here, Bull,” said Colby without any preamble, “this business of drinkin’ an’ shootin’ things up has gone about far enough. I ain’t a-goin’ to have it around here no more. I reckon you’d better ask fer your time.”
“All right,” said Bull, “you go an’ git it fer me while I’m packin’ my war-bag.”
Colby, rather surprised and at the same time relieved that Bull took the matter so philosophically, started for the office, while the latter entered the bunk-house, where Shorty, Texas Pete and a couple of others who had overhead the conversation outside the door looked up questioningly.
“By gollies!” exclaimed Texas Pete, “I’m a-goin’ to quit. I’m a-goin’ after my time right now, pronto,” and he arose and started for the doorway.
“Wait a minute, old hoss,” advised Bull. “I ain’t went yet.
“But didn’t Colby jest let you out?” inquired Pete.
“He might change his mind,” explained Bull.
Up at the house Colby was entering the office. “Hello, Di!” he cried. “Got your check-book handy?”
“Quitting? Why, he just promised me that he’d stay on. I don’t understand.”
“He just promised you that he’d stay on! You mean you asked him to?”
“Yes,” replied Diana. “He came up here to quit. Said he thought he wasn’t wanted any more, and I made him promise he wouldn’t leave. I tell you, Hal, we could never replace him. Are you sure he was in earnest about quitting? Send him up here and I’ll make him stay.”
“Well, like as not I was mistaken,” said Colby. “I reckon Bull was jest a-kiddin’. I’ll ask him again and if he is plumb set on leavin’ I’ll send him up.”
When he entered the bunk-house a few minutes later he nodded at Bull. “You kin stay on, if you want to,” he said; “I’ve changed my mind.”
Bull winked at Texas Pete who was vainly endeavoring to remember another verse of the seem ingly endless self-glorification of the bad hombre.
“By gollies!” he exclaimed, “I believe I got another:
“He twirls two big guns an’ he shoots out a light;
The fellows a-drinkin’ there ducks out o’ sight;
He shoots through a bottle thet stands on the bar;
An shoots the of ashes plumb off my seegar.”
“But it seems like I’d left out somethin’ thet orter a-gone before.”
“Nobody’d git sore if you left it all out,” Shorty assured him.
“The trouble with you uneddicated cowpunchers,” Texas Pete told him, “is thet you are too all-fired ignorant to appreciate my efforts to elivate you-all by means of good poetry. It shore is hell to be the only lit’ry gent in a bunch of rough-necks.
“’Come, set up the bottles, you gol darned galoot,’
Says he to the boss, “Fore I opens yore snoot
With one o’ these yere little babies o’ mine,’
An’ shoots out the no in the no credit sign.”