The driver never came this way unless he had passengers, express or important messages for the ranch, though the distance was no greater and the road usually in better repair. Today he had a telegram for Diana Henders.
There was a brief pause as he drew up his sweating team in the road before the ranch house, yelled to attract the attention of a ranch-hand working about the corrals, tossed the envelope into the road and then, with a crack of his long whip, was off again at a run, leaving billowing clouds of powdery dust in his wake.
The man working in the corrals walked leisurely into the road, picked up the envelope and, after scrutinizing the superscription and deciphering it laboriously, carried the message to the office, where Diana Henders was working over the books.
“Telegram for ye, Miss,” announced the man, crossing the room to hand it to her.
She thanked him and laid the envelope on the desk beside her as she completed an interrupted footing. The arrival of telegrams was no uncommon occurrence even on that far-away ranch, and as they always pertained to business they caused Diana no flurry of excitement. Buyers often wired, while Uncle John Manill used the comparatively new telegraph facilities upon the slightest pretext.
The footing finally checked to her satisfaction, Diana picked up the envelope, opened it and drew forth the message. At first she glanced at it casually, then she read it over again with knit brows as though unable fully to grasp the purport of its contents. Finally she sat staring at it with wide, strained eyes, until, apparently crushed, she lowered her head upon her arms and broke into sobs, for this is what she had read:
MISS DIANA HENDERS,
BAR Y RANCH, HENDERSVILLE.
VIA ALDEA, ARIZONA.
Mr. Manill died suddenly last night. Miss Manill and I leave for ranch soon as possible after funeral.
MAURICE B. CORSON.
For a long time Diana Henders sat with her face buried in her arms. Gradually her sobs subsided as she gained control of herself. Stunning though the effect of this new blow was, yet she grasped enough of what it meant to her to be almost crushed by it. Though she had not seen her Uncle John Manill since childhood, he had, nevertheless, constituted a very real and potent force in her existence. Her mother had adored him, her only brother, and Elias Henders had never ceased to proclaim him as the finest type of honorable gentleman that nature might produce. His eastern connections, his reputation for integrity and his fine business acumen had all been potent factors in the success of the Henders and Manill partnership.
With the death of her father the girl had felt keenly only her personal loss—for Uncle John Manill loomed as a Rock of Gibraltar to protect her in all matters of business; but now she was absolutely alone.
There was no one to whom she might turn for counsel or advice now that these two were gone. Hal Colby, she realized keenly, was at best only a good cowman—in matters requiring executive ability or large financial experience he was untried.
Of Corson, Manill’s attorney, she knew nothing, but she was reasonably sure that even though he proved honest and possessed of an excellent understanding of matters pertaining to the eastern office, he would not be competent to direct the affairs of ranch and mine at the sources of production.
That she might have carried on herself under the guidance of John Manill she had never doubted, since she could always have turned to him for advice in matters of moment where she was doubtful of her own judgment; but without him she questioned her ability to direct the destinies of this great business with all its numerous ramifications.
Suddenly she arose and replaced the books in the office safe, dabbed at her tear-dimmed eyes with her handkerchief and, putting on her sombrero, walked from the office, adjusting her wavy hair beneath the stiff band of her heavy hat. Straight toward the corrals she made her way. She would saddle Captain and ride out into the sunshine and the fresh air where, of all other places, she knew she might find surcease of sorrow and an opportunity to think out her problems more clearly. As she entered the corral Hal Colby came running up from the bunk-house. He had seen her pass and followed her.
“Ridin’, Di?” he asked.
She nodded affirmatively. She was not sure that she wanted company—not even that of Hal Colby—today when she desired to be alone with her grief.
“You weren’t goin’ alone, were you? You know it ain’t safe, Di. Your dad wouldn’t have let you an’ I certainly won’t.”
She made no reply. She knew that he was right. It was not safe for her to ride alone, but today she felt that she did not care what happened to her. Fate had been cruel—there was little more that it could do to harm her.
In a way she half resented Hal’s new air of proprietorship, and yet there was something about it that carried a suggestion of relief from responsibility. Here there was at least someone who cared—someone upon whose broad shoulders she might shift a portion of her burden, and so she did not follow her first impulse to send him back.
Together they rode from the corral, turning down the road toward town and neither spoke for several minutes, after the manner of people accustomed to being much together in the saddle. The man, as was usual with him when they rode, watched her profile as a lover of art might gloat over a beautiful portrait, and as he looked at her he realized the change that had come over her face and noted the reddened lids.
“What’s the matter, Di?” he asked presently. “You look like you’d been cryin’. What’s happened?”
“I just got a telegram from New York, Hal,” she replied. “Uncle John is dead—he died night before last. The stage just brought the message in from Aldea.”
“Shucks,” he said, at a loss for the proper words, and then, “that’s shore too bad, Di.”
“It leaves me all alone, now, Hal,” she continued, “and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“You ain’t all alone, Di. There ain’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. You know I love you, Di. Won’t you marry me? It would make it easier all around for you if we was married. There’s them that’s always tryin’ to take advantage of a girl or a woman what’s left alone, but if you got a husband you got someone to look out for you an’ your rights. I got a little money saved up.”
“I have plenty of money, Hal.”
“I know it. I wish you didn’t have none. It makes me feel like you thought that was what I was after, but it ain’t. Won’t you, Di? Together we could run the ranch just like your dad was here.”
“I don’t know, Hal. I don’t know what to do. I think I love you, but I don’t know. I don’t even know that I know what love is.”
“You’d learn to love me,” he told her, “and you wouldn’t have to worry no more. I’d look after everything. Say yes, won’t you?”
The temptation was great—greater even than the man himself realized—to have a place to lay her tired head, to have a strong man to carry the burden and the responsibilities for her, to have the arm of love about her as it had been all her life until her father had been taken away. She looked up at him with a faint smile.
“I won’t say yes—yet,” she said. “Wait a while, Hal-wait until after Mr. Corson and my cousin come and we see how things are going to turn out, and then—then I think that I shall say yes.”
He leaned toward her impulsively and put an arm about her, drawing her toward him with the evident intention of kissing her, but she pushed him away.
“Not yet, Hal,” she told him; “wait until I have said yes.”
A week later a group of boarders were lounging on the veranda of The Donovan House in Hendersville. It was almost supper time of a stage day and the stage had not yet arrived. Mack Harber, whose wound had given more trouble than the doctor had expected, was still there convalescing, and Mary Donovan was, as usual, standing in the doorway joining in the gossip and the banter.
“Bill ain’t niver late ’less somethin’s wrong,” said Mrs. Donovan.
“Like as not he’s been held up again,” suggested Mack.
“I’d like to be sheriff o’ this yere county fer ’bout a week,” stated Wildcat Bob.
“Sure, an’ phawt would ye be after doin’?” inquired Mary Donovan, acidly.
Wildcat Bob subsided, mumbling in his stained beard. For the moment he had forgotten that Mrs. Donovan was among those present.
“Here they come!” announced Mack.
With the clank of chain, the creaking of springs, and the rapid pounding of galloping hoofs the stage swung into the single street of Hendersville in a cloud of dust and with a final shrieking of protesting brakes pulled up before The Donovan House.
“Where’s Gum Smith?” demanded Bill Gatlin from the driver’s seat.
“Dunno. Held up agin?” asked one of the loungers.
“Yes,” snapped Gatlin.
Mack Harber had risen from his chair and advanced to the edge of the veranda.
“The Black Coyote?” he asked.
Gatlin nodded. “Where’s thet damn sheriff?” he demanded again.
“He ain’t here an’ he wouldn’t be no good if he was,” replied Wildcat Bob.
“We don’t need no sheriff fer what we oughter do,” announced Mack Harber, angrily.
“How’s thet?” asked Wildcat.
“You don’t need no sheriff fer a necktie party,” said Mack, grimly.
“No, but you gotta get yer man fust.”
“Thet’s plumb easy.”
“How come?” inquired Wildcat.
“We all know who The Black Coyote is,” stated Mack. “All we gotta do is get a rope an’ go get him. “ “Meanin’ get who?” insisted the little old man.
“Why, gosh all hemlock! you know as well as I do thet it’s Bull,” replied Mack.
“I dunno nothin’ o’ the kind, young feller,” said Wildcat Bob, “ner neither do you. Ef ye got proof of what ye say I’m with ye. Ef ye ain’t got proof I’m ag’in ye.”
“Don’t Bull always wear a black silk handkerchief?” demanded Mack. “Well, so does The Black Coyote, an’ they both got scars on their chins. There ain’t no doubt of it.”
“So ye want to string up Bull ’cause he wears a black bandana and a scar, eh? Well, ye ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ o’ the kind while of Wildcat Bob can fan a gun. Git proof on him an’ I’ll be the fust to put a rope ’round his neck, but ye got to git more proof than a black handkerchief.”
“Shure an’ fer onct yer right, ye ould blatherskite,” commended Mary Donovan. “Be after comin’ to yer suppers now the all of yese an’ fergit stringin’ up dacent young min like Bull. Shure an’ I don’t belave he iver hild up nothin’ at all, at all. He’s that nice to me whinever he’s here, wid his Mrs. Donovan, mum, this an’ his Mrs. Donovan, mum, that, an’ a-fetchin’ wood fer me, which the loikes o’ none o’ yese iver did. The viry idea ov him bein’ The Black Coyote—go on wid ye!”
“Well, we all know that Gregorio’s one of them, anyway—we might string him up,” insisted Mack.
“We don’t know that neither,” contradicted Wildcat; “but when it comes to stringin’ up Gregorio or any other greaser I’m with ye. Go out an’ git him, Mack, an’ I’ll help ye string him up.”
A general grin ran around the table, for of all the known bad-men in the country the Mexican, Gregorio, was by far the worst. To have gone out looking for him and to have found him would have been equivalent to suicide for most men, and though there were many men in the county who would not have hesitated had necessity demanded, the fact remained that his hiding place was unknown and that that fact alone would have rendered an attempt to get him a failure.
“Thar’s only one way to git them, sonny,” continued Wildcat Bob, “an’ thet is to put a man on the stage with the bullion, ’stid o’ a kid.”
Mack flushed. “You was there when they got me,” he fired back. “You was there with two big six-guns an’ what did you do—eh? What did you do?”
“I wasn’t hired to guard no bullion, an’ I wasn’t sittin’ on the box with no sawed-off shotgun ’crost my knees, neither. I was a-ridin’ inside with a lady. What could I a-done?” He looked around at the others at the table for vindication.
“Ye couldn’t done nothin’ ye,*’ said Mary Donovan, “widout a quart o’ barbed-wire inside ye an’ some poor innocent tenderfoot to shoot the heels offen him.”
Wildcat Bob fidgeted uneasily and applied himself to his supper, pouring his tea into his saucer, blowing noisily upon it to cool it, and then sucking it through his whiskers with an accompanying sound not unlike snoring; but later he was both mollified and surprised by a second, generous helping of dessert.
When word of the latest holdup reached the Bar Y ranch it caused the usual flurry of profanity and speculation. It was brought by a belated puncher who had ridden in from the West ranch by way of Hendersville. The men were gathered at the evening meal and of a sudden a silence fell upon them as they realized, apparently simultaneously and for the first time, that there was a single absentee. The meal progressed in almost utter silence then until they had reached the pudding, when Bull walked in, dark and taciturn, and with the brief nod that was his usual greeting to his fellows. The meal continued in silence for a few minutes until the men who had finished began pushing back their plates preparatory to rising.
“I reckon you know the stage was held up again, Bull, an’ the bullion stolen,” remarked Hal Colby, selecting a toothpick from the glassful on the table.
“How should I know it?” asked Bull. “Ain’t I ben up Sinkhole Canyon all day? I ain’t seen no one since I left the ranch this morning.”
“Well, it was,” said Colby. “The same two slick gents done it, too.”
“Did they git much?” asked Bull.
“It was a big shipment,” said Colby. “It always is. They don’t never touch nothin’ else an’ they seem to know when we’re shippin’ more’n ordinary. Looks suspicious.”
“Did you just discover that?” inquired Bull.
“No, I discovered it a long time ago, an’ it may help me to find out who’s doin’ it.”
“Well, I wish you luck,” and Bull resumed his meal.
Colby, having finished, rose from the table and made his way to the house. In the cozy sitting room he found Diana at the piano, her fingers moving dreamily over the ivory keys.
“Some more bad news, Di,” he announced.
She turned wearily toward him. “What now?”
“The Black Coyote again—he got the bullion shipment.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“No,” he assured her.
“I am glad of that. The gold is nothing—I would rather lose it all than have one of the boys killed. I have told them all, just as Dad did, to take no chances. If they could get him without danger to themselves I should be glad, but I could not bear to have one of our boys hurt for all the gold in the mine.”
“I think The Black Coyote knows that,” he said, “and that’s what makes him so all-fired nervy. He’s one of our own men, Di—can’t you see it? He knows when the shipments are big an’ don’t never touch a little one, an’ he knows your Dad’s orders about not takin’ no chances.
“I’ve hated to think it, but there ain’t no other two ways about it—it’s one o’ our men—an’ I wouldn’t have to walk around the world to put my finger on him, neither.”
“I don’t believe it!” she cried. “I don’t believe that one of my men would do it.”
“You don’t want to believe it, that’s all. You know just as well as I do who’s doin’ it, down in the bottom of your heart. I don’t like to believe it no more’n you do, Di; but I ain’t blind an’ I hate to see you bein’ made a fool of an’ robbed into the bargain. I don’t believe you’d believe it, though, if I caught him in the act.”
“I think I know whom you suspect, Hal,” she replied, “but I am sure you are wrong.”
“Will you give me a chance to prove it?”
“Send him up to the mine to guard the bullion until Mack gits well an’ then keep Mack off the job fer a month,” he explained. “I’ll bet my shirt thet either there ain’t no holdups fer a month or else they’s only one man pulls ’em off instead o’ two. Will you do it?”
“It isn’t fair. I don’t even suspect him.”
“Everybody else does an’ thet makes it fair fer it gives him a chance to prove it if he ain’t guilty.”
“It wouldn’t prove anything, except that there were no holdups while he was on duty.”
“It would prove something to my mind if they started up again pretty soon after he was taken off the job,” he retorted.
“Well—it might, but I don’t think I’d ever believe it of him unless I saw him with my own eyes.”
“Pshaw! the trouble with you is you’re soft on him—you don’t care if your gold is stole if he gits it.”
She drew herself to her full height. “I do not care to discuss the matter further,” she said. “Good night!”
He grabbed his hat viciously from the piano and stamped toward the doorway. There he turned about and confronted her again for a parting shot before he strode out into the night.
“You don’t dare try it!” he flung at her. “You don’t dare!”
After he had gone she sat biting her lip half in anger and half in mortification, but after the brief tempest of emotion had subsided she commenced to question her own motives impartially. Was she afraid? Was it true that she did not dare? And long after she had gone to bed, and sleep would not come, she continued thus to catechize herself.
As Hal Colby burst into the bunk-house and slammed the door behind him the sudden draft thus created nearly extinguished the single lamp that burned upon an improvised table at which four men sat at poker. Bull and Shorty, Texas Pete and one called Idaho sat in the game.
“I raise you ten dollars,” remarked Idaho, softly, as the lamp resumed functioning after emitting a thin, protesting spiral of black soot.
“I see that an’ raise you my pile,” said Bull, shoving several small stacks of silver toward the center of the table.
“How much you got there?” inquired Idaho, the others having dropped out.
Bull counted. “There’s your ten,” he said, “an’ here’s ten, fifteen, twenty-five—” He continued counting in a monotone. “Ninety-six,” he announced. “I raise you ninety-six dollars, Idaho.
“I ain’t got ninety-six dollars,” said Idaho. “I only got eight.”
“You got a saddle, ain’t you?” inquired Bull, sweetly.
“An’ a shirt,” suggested Texas Pete.
“My saddle’s worth three hundred an’ fifty dollars if it’s worth a cent,” proclaimed Idaho.
“No one ain’t never said it was worth a cent,” Shorty reminded him.
“I’ll cover it an’ call you,” announced Bull. “I don’t want your shirt, Idaho, it’s full o’ holes.”
“What are you coverin’ it with?” asked Idaho. “I don’t see nothin’.”
Bull rose from the table. “Wait a second,” he said, and stepped to his blankets where he rummaged for a moment in his war-bag. When he returned to the table he tossed a small buckskin bag among his silver.
“They’s five hundred dollars’ worth of dust in that,” he said. “If you win we kin weigh out what’s comin’ to you over at the office tomorrow mornin’ .”
Hal Colby looked on—an interested spectator. The others fell silent. Texas Pete knit his brows in perplexity.
“Let’s see it,” demanded Idaho.
Bull picked up the bag, opened it and poured a stream of yellow particles into his palm. “Satisfied?” he inquired.
“What you got?” demanded Bull.
Idaho laid four kings on the table, smiling broadly.
“Four aces,” said Bull, and raked in the pot.
“Why didn’t you raise him?” demanded Shorty.
“I just told you I didn’t want his shirt,” said Bull, “an’ I don’t want your saddle, neither, kid. I’ll keep the money—it ain’t good fer kids like you to have too much money—but you keep the saddle.”
“I’m goin’ to turn in,” said Shorty, pushing back and rising.
“You’d all better turn in an’ give someone else a chance to sleep,” said the foreman. “What with your damn game an’ Pete’s singin’ a feller ain’t got no more chance to sleep around here than a jackrabbit. Why don’t you fellers crawl in?”
“Crawl in! Crawl in!” exclaimed Texas Pete. “Crawl in! Crawl out! By gollies, I got another verse!
“The boss he crawls out then, all shaky an’ white,
From under the bar where he’s ben sittin’ tight.
‘Now set out the pizen right pronto, you coot,’
The stranger remarks, ‘Or I shore starts to shoot,
I only ben practicin’ so far,’ says he;
‘A bar-keep er two don’t mean nothin’ to me.
Most allus I has one fer breakfast each day—
I don’t mean no harm—it’s jest only my way.’”