THE TWO GIRLS had gone to their tent and thrown themselves upon their blankets to rest, exhausted as much perhaps by the excitement through which they had passed as by the fatigue of the long ride. For a long time they lay there in silence, thinking. Kay was trying to piece together the jumbled impressions of those few harrowing minutes during which she had felt death spurring swiftly at her elbow. She recalled her disappointment when she had realized that it was Bruce Marvel and not Cory Blaine who was riding to her rescue, and she lived again the instant when a strong arm had gone about her body and quiet words of instruction had been spoken in her ear. In that instant she had known that she was safe; and as she had clung to him, her arms about his neck, she had sensed the strength of the man and his ability to protect her. What he had done he had done so quietly and coolly that it was difficult to believe that this was the same man who had been the object of the good-natured pity of them all.
“You’ve heard of people losing ten years growth in a second, haven’t you?” said Dora out of the silence. “Well, I lost twenty when I saw your horse bolt and realized that he was uncontrollable. Were you terribly frightened?”
“Yes, I was,” replied Kay frankly. “I didn’t lose my head; and I recall now that I figured out in the first few seconds what my chances were, and they didn’t seem very good. I know I made up my mind that before I’d let him carry me over the edge into the ravine, I would jump; but I hoped that he might stop, for I knew that I should be hurt terribly if I jumped. I was most afraid of his falling; that trail is terribly rough.” “I don’t see how Bruce’s horse ever kept his feet,” said Dora. “He wasn’t following any trail. Bruce just rode straight, jumping everything.”
“He is wonderful,” said Kay simply, “and this morning we were kidding him because he let Cory top Baldy for him. I don’t understand him.”
“You’d understand him a whole lot less if you had been riding behind him instead of in front of him,” said Dora.
“Why?” asked Kay.
“He rode as though he was a part of Baldy. I’ve been around horsemen all my life, and I guess you have, too, Kay; and we both know that there is something in the way a man sits his saddle that proclaims him either a horseman or a dub at first glance.”
“But I have seen him ride for the last several days,” said Kay, “and he certainly hasn’t impressed me as being anything but an amateur. You know that some times, under the stress of an emergency, a person can do things that he could not do otherwise.”
“Slush!” exclaimed Dora. “I watched him riding while we were alone this morning; and I guess he must have forgotten himself for the time being, and I saw then that he could ride. And when he rode after you, Kay—why, my dear, it was magnificent. And not only the way he sat his horse, but the way he controlled him.”
“He is terribly strong, too,” said Kay reminiscently. “He lifted me out of the saddle as though I didn’t weigh anything.”
“Do you know,” said Dora, “that there is something peculiar about him? I don’t believe that he is what he claims to be at all.”
“What does he claim to be?” asked Kay. “I’ve never heard him talk about himself.”
“Well, that’s right, too. He hasn’t exactly claimed to be anything; but his clothes and his reference to polo and yachting and literature do, in a way, constitute a sort of indirect claim to a certain position in life; but every once in awhile he slips, usually in his English; or again by the use of a colloquialism that is not of the East, where he certainly has tried to give us the impression he is from.”
“Well, what do you suppose his purpose is?”
“I think he is a joker,” replied Dora. “He is having a fine time all by himself making monkeys of us.”
“Oh, girls,” interrupted Birdie Talbot, bursting into their tent. “Here comes Butts and Mr. Bryam with Dora’s lion.”
For the next few minutes the lion held the center of the stage. It was propped up and photographed with Dora standing beside it with her rifle. It was stretched out and measured, and then it was photographed again while Dora stood with one foot upon it.
“You made a bully shot,” said Cory Blaine.
“Right through the heart,” said Butts.
“Could you kill a lion with a revolver, Blaine?” asked Bruce Marvel.
“Sure, if you could hit him,” replied Cory.
“I guess it would take a pretty good revolver shot to hit him in the heart,” said Marvel, “but I suppose you’re a pretty good shot.”
“Nothing extra,” said Blaine modestly.
“I’d like to try my hand with one of those some time,” said Marvel. “Do you mind if I took a couple of shots with yours? I could put a tin can up over there against that tree.”
“Hop to it if you want to,” said Blaine. He took his gun from its holster and handed it to Marvel. “Be careful,” he said, “that you don’t shoot yourself.”
Marvel took the weapon gingerly, walked over past the chuck wagon, where his bedroll lay and laid the weapon on top of the roll. Then he found an empty can which he placed at the foot of the tree, about twenty yards distant.
“Two bits says you can’t hit it in five shots,” said Butts.
“I’ll take that,” said Bruce. “I certainly ought to hit it once in five times.”
As he picked the weapon up from his bedroll, it went off prematurely. “Gosh,” he said, “I only touched the trigger.”
“I told you to be careful,” snapped Cory. “You’re lucky you didn’t shoot your foot off.”
“I shot a hole in my bed,” said Bruce. “I’ll pay you for the damage to the blanket though, Blaine, when we get back to the ranch.”
“Be careful how you handle it now and don’t aim it this way,” cautioned Cory.
“There’s five shots left,” said Butts. “See if you can hit the can once.”
The rest of the party had moved forward now, and all were watching interestedly. Birdie Talbot offered to bet a dollar on Bruce’s marksmanship.
“Want to bet, Cory?” she asked.
Blaine was watching Marvel through narrowed lids. “No,” he said. Perhaps he was recalling the man’s unexpectedly developed horsemanship.
“I’ll take a dollar’s worth,” said her husband.
“That’s right,” said Dora. “Keep it in the family.”
Marvel took careful aim and fired.
“Miss number one,” gloated Butts.
“He is not familiar with that gun,” said Kay.
“Nor no other,” said Butts.
Marvel shot again four times, scoring four clean misses.
“He didn’t even hit the tree,” chortled Butts, happily.
“I wasn’t shooting at the tree,” said Marvel. “I was shooting at the can. Here’s your two bits, Butts.” Then he handed the weapon back to Blaine. “I guess it must take a lot of practice,” he said.
“Well,” said Birdie Talbot, disgustedly, “I don’t see how anybody could miss that can five times in succession.”
“I didn’t either,” said Marvel.
“Come on, Birdie, pay up,” said her husband, “and don’t be a poor loser.”
“Try and collect,” said Mrs. Talbot.
“That’s what you get for betting with your wife,” laughed Dora Crowell.
Talbot laughed. “I win anyway,” he said, “for if anyone else had taken her up, I would have had to pay.”
Marvel had unrolled his blankets and was looking at them ruefully. “Why here is the bullet,” he exclaimed. “It didn’t go all the way through. I’ll have to keep it as a reminder of my marksmanship;” and he slipped it into his pocket.
After supper that night, Marvel strolled over to Bryam’s camp, where the hunter was sitting upon his doorstep, puffing on his pipe. Bryam had shown no desire to associate with the members of the hunting party; nor was there anything about his manner to invite friendly advances, but Marvel seemed unabashed by the surly expression upon the man’s face.
“Good evening,” he said.
“It must get lonesome up here alone,” observed Marvel.
“What do you do to pass away the time?” persisted the younger man.
“It takes about all of my time minding my own business,” growled Bryam.
Apparently unaffected by these rebuffs, Marvel seated himself upon the doorstep at the hunter’s side. In the silence that followed Bryam puffed intermittently at his pipe, while Marvel bent his eyes upon the ground in thought.
Hi Bryam, he concluded, was a peculiar man, certainly hard to get acquainted with; and he saw that he was peculiar physically, too, as he noted the size of the man’s boots. Surreptitiously he placed his own beside one of them. There was fully an inch and a half difference between them in length.
“Many lion up here?” asked Marvel presently.
“Not as many as there was this morning,” said Bryam.
There followed a considerable silence. “It must be quiet up here nights,” suggested Marvel.
“It is when there aint some damn fool shooting off his face,” replied the hunter.
Again there was a long silence. “You got a nice cabin,” said Marvel.
Marvel rose. “You mind if I look in it?” he said. “I’d like to see the inside of a hunter’s cabin.”
Bryam rose and stood in the doorway. “There aint nuthin’ in here to interest you,” he said. “You better run along to bed now.”
“Well, may be you’re right,” said Marvel. “Good night, and thank you for the pleasant evening.”
Bryam made no reply, and Marvel walked back to the campfire where the other members of the party were gathered. “We were just wondering where you were,” said Birdie Talbot.
“Thought you’d wandered off and lost yourself,” said Butts.
“No, I was just calling on Mr. Bryam,” said Marvel.
“I hope you enjoyed your visit,” said Blaine.
“Very much indeed,” replied Marvel.
“Bryam must have changed then,” said Butts. “He wouldn’t aim to entertain no tenderfoot if he knew it. He aint got much use for ’em.”
“He didn’t know it,” said Marvel. He moved off toward his blankets. “Good night, folks,” he said. “I’m going to turn in.”
“I just naturally don’t like that fellow,” said Butts, when Marvel was out of earshot.
“Then keep it to yourself,” snapped Blaine, rising. “I think you’d all better turn in if we want to get an early start in the morning.”
When the others had retired to their tents and blankets, Blaine and Butts made their way to Bryam’s cabin, the interior of which was faintly lighted by a single oil lamp standing upon a rough table where Bryam was playing solitaire with a deck of greasy cards.
As the two men entered the shack, a shadow seemed to move among the denser shadows of the pine trees, to come to rest opposite an open window.
“I won’t get another chance to talk with you before we leave in the morning, Hi,” said Blaine; “and I want to be sure there aint goin’ to be no misunderstanding. Mart and Eddie know just what to do. When they get here, keep ’em one night; and let ’em rest. Get an early start the next morning. Take the south trail to the summit, and then follow the One Mile Creek trail around into Sonora. Eddie and Mart know the trail to Kelly’s place from there on. They just been down there and got it fixed up with the old man; and remember this, Hi, no funny business and no rough stuff. If you pull anything raw, I’ll croak you sure; and that goes for Mart and Eddie and Kelly; and they know it, too.”
Bryam grunted. “I aint crazy yet,” he said.