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WITH jingling spurs a tall cowboy stalked out of the post office to confront his three comrades crossing the wide street from the saloon opposite.
"Look heah," he said, shoving a letter under their noses. "Which one of you longhorns has wrote her again?"
From a gay careless trio his listeners suddenly grew blank, then intensely curious. They stared at the handwriting on the letter.
"Tex, I'm a son-of-a-gun if it ain't from Missouri!" ejaculated Andy Smith, his lean red face bursting into a smile.
"It shore is," declared Nevada.
"From Missouri!" echoed Panhandle Ames.
"Wal?" queried Tex, almost with a snort.
The three cowboys jerked up to look from Tex to one another, and then back at Tex.
"It's from her," went on Tex, his voice hushing on the pronoun. "You- all know thet handwritin'. Now how aboot this deal? We swore none of us would write ag'in to this heah schoolmarm. Some one of you has double-crossed the outfit."
Loud and unified protestations of innocence emanated from his comrades. But it was evident Tex did not trust them, and that they did not trust him or each other.
"Say, boys," said Panhandle suddenly. "I see Beady in there lookin' darn' sharp at us. Let's get off in the woods somehow."
"Back to the bar," replied Nevada. "I reckon us'll all need stimulants."
"Beady!" ejaculated Tex, as they turned across the street. "He could be to blame as much as any of us."
"Shore. It'd be more like Beady," replied Nevada. "But, Tex, your mind ain't workin'. Our lady friend from Missouri has wrote before without gettin' any letter from us."
"How do we know thet?" demanded Tex suspiciously. "Shore the boss's typewriter is a puzzle, but it could hide tracks. Savvy, pards?"
"Gee, Tex, you need a drink," returned Panhandle peevishly.
They entered the saloon and strode to the bar, where from all appearances Tex was not the only one to seek artificial stimulus strength. Then they repaired to a corner, where they took seats and stared at the letter Tex threw down before them.
"From Missouri, all right," said Panhandle wearily, studying the postmark. "Kansas City, Missouri."
"It's her writin'," added Nevada in awe. "Shore I'd know thet out of a million letters."
"Ain't you goin' to read it to us?" queried Andy Smith.
"Mister Frank Owens," replied Tex, reading from the address on the letter. "Springer's Ranch. Beacon, Arizona... Boys, this heah Frank Owens is all of us."
"Huh! Mebbe he's a darn' sight more," added Andy.
"Looks like a low-down trick we're to blame for," resumed Tex, seriously shaking his hawk-like head. "Heah he reads in a Kansas City paper aboot a schoolteacher wantin' a job out in dry Arizonie. And he ups an' writes her an' gets her a-rarin' to come. Then, when she writes an' tells us she's not over forty, then us quits like yellow coyotes. An' we four anyhow shook hands on never writin' her again. Wal, somebody did, an' I reckon you-all think me as big a liar as I think you. But thet ain't the point. Heah's another letter to Mister Owens an' I'll bet my saddle it means trouble. Shore, I'm plumb afraid to read it."
"Say, give it to me," demanded Andy. "I ain't afraid of any woman."
Tex snatched the letter out of Andy's hand.
"Cowboy, you're too poor educated to read letters from ladies," observed Tex. "Gimme a knife, somebody... Say, it's all perfumed."
Tex impressively spread out the letter and read laboriously:
Kansas City, Mo.
Dear Mr. Owens:
Your last letter has explained away much that was vague and perplexing in your other letters.
It has inspired me with hope and anticipation. I shall not take time now to express my thanks, but hasten to get ready to go West. I shall leave tomorrow and arrive at Beacon on June 19 at 4:30 p.m. You see I have studied the timetable.
Yours very truly, Jane Stacey
Profound silence followed Tex's perusal of the letter. The cowboys were struck dumb. But suddenly Nevada exploded.
"My Gawd, fellers, today's the Nineteenth!"
"Wal, Springer needs a schoolmarm at the ranch," finally spoke up the practical Andy. "There's half a dozen kids growin' up without any schoolin', not to talk about other ranches. I heard the boss say this hisself."
"Who the hell did it?" demanded Tex in a rage with himself and his accomplices.
"What's the sense in hollerin' aboot thet now?" returned Nevada. "It's done. She's comin'. She'll be on the Limited. Reckon us're got five hours. It ain't enough. What'll we do?"
"I can get awful drunk in thet time," contributed Panhandle nonchalantly.
"Ahuh! An' leave it all to us," retorted Tex scornfully. "But we got to stand pat on this heah deal. Don't you know this is Saturday an' thet Springer will be in town?"
"Aw, Lord! We're all goin' to get fired," declared Panhandle. "Serves us right for listenin' to you, Tex. Us can all gamble this trick hatched in your head."
"Not my haid more'n yours or anybody," returned Tex hotly.
"Say, you locoed cowpunchers," interposed Nevada. "What'll we do?"
"Shore is bad," sighed Andy. "What'll we do?"
"We'll have to tell Springer."
"But, Tex, the boss'd never believe us about not followin' the letters up. He'd fire the whole outfit."
"But he'll have to be told somethin'," returned Panhandle stoutly.
"Shore he will," went on Tex. "I've an idea. It's too late now to turn this poor schoolmarm back. An' somebody'll have to meet her. Somebody's got to borrow a buckboard an' drive her out to the ranch."
"Excuse me!" replied Andy. And Panhandle and Nevada echoed him. "I'll ride over on my hoss, an' see you-all meet the lady," Andy added.
Tex had lost his scowl, but he did not look as if he favorably regarded Andy's idea. "Hang it all!" he burst out hotly. "Can't some of you gents look at it from her side of the fence? Nice fix for any woman, I say. Somebody ought to get it good for this mess. If I ever find out..."
"Go on with your grand idea," interposed Nevada.
"You-all come with me. I'll get a buckboard. I'll meet the lady an' do the talkin'. I'll let her down easy. An' if I cain't head her back, we'll fetch her out to the ranch an' then leave it up to Springer. Only we won't tell her or him or anybody who's the real Frank Owens."
"Tex, that ain't so plumb bad," declared Andy admiringly.
"What I want to know is who's goin' go do the talkin' to the boss?" queried Panhandle. "It mightn't be so hard to explain now. But after drivin' up to the ranch with a woman! You-all know Springer's shy. Young an' rich, like he is, an' a bachelor... he's been fussed over so he's plumb afraid of girls. An' here you're fetchin' a middle-aged schoolmarm who's romantic an' mushy! My Gawd, I say send her home on the next train."
"Pan, you're wise on hosses an' cattle, but you don't know human nature, an' you're daid wrong about the boss," rejoined Tex. "We're in a bad fix, I'll admit. But I lean more to fetchin' the lady up than sendin' her back. Somebody down Beacon way would get wise. Mebbe the schoolmarm might talk. She'd shore have cause. An' suppose Springer hears about it... that some of us or all of us played a low-down trick on a woman. He'd be madder at that than if we fetched her up. Likely he'll try to make amends. The boss may be shy on girls but he's the squarest man in Arizona. My idea is we'll deny any of us is Frank Owens, an' we'll meet Miss... Miss... what was that there name?... Miss Jane Stacey and fetch her up to the ranch, an' let her do the talkin' to Springer."
During the next several hours, while Tex searched the town for a buckboard and team he could borrow, the other cowboys wandered from the saloon to the post office and back again, and then to the store, the restaurant, and all around. The town had gradually filled up with Saturday visitors.
"Boys, there's the boss," suddenly broke out Andy, pointing, and he ducked into the nearest doorway, which happened to be that of another saloon. It was half full of cowboys, ranchers, Mexicans, tobacco smoke, and noise.
Andy's companions had rushed pell-mell after him, and not until they all got inside did they realize that this saloon was a rendezvous for cowboys decidedly not on friendly terms with Springer's outfit. Nevada was the only one of the trio who took the situation nonchalantly.
"Wal, we're in, an' what the hell do we care for Beady Jones an' his outfit," he remarked, quite loud enough to be heard by others besides his friends.
Naturally they lined up at the bar, and this was not a good thing for young men who had an important engagement and who must preserve sobriety. After several rounds of drinks had appeared, they began to whisper and snicker over the possibility of Tex meeting the boss.
"If only it doesn't come off until Tex gets our forty-year-old schoolmarm from Missouri with him in the buckboard!" exclaimed Panhandle in huge glee.
"Shore. Tex, the handsome galoot, is most to blame for this mess," added Nevada. "Thet cowboy won't be above makin' love to Jane, if he thinks we're not around. But, fellows, we want to be there."
"Wouldn't miss seein' the boss meet Tex for a million," said Andy.
Presently a tall striking-looking cowboy, with dark face and small bright eyes like black beads, detached himself from a group of noisy companions, and confronted the trio, more particularly Nevada.
"Howdy, men," he greeted them, "what you-all doin' in here?"
He was coolly impertinent, and his action and query noticeably stilled the room. Andy and Panhandle leaned back against the bar. They had been in such situations before and knew who would do the talking for them.
"Howdy, Jones," replied Nevada coolly and carefully. "We happened to bust in here by accident. Reckon we're usually more particular what kind of company we mix with."
"Ahuh! Springer's outfit is shore a stuck-up one," sneered Beady Jones in a quite loud tone. "So stuck up they won't even ride around drift fences."
Nevada slightly changed his position.
"Beady, I've had a couple of drinks an' ain't very clearheaded," drawled Nevada. "Would you mind talkin' so I can understand you?"
"Bah! You savvy all right," declared Jones sarcastically. "I'm tellin' you straight what I've been layin' to tell your yaller-headed Texas pard."
"Now you're speakin' English, Beady. Tex an' me are pards, shore. An' I'll take it kind of you to get this talk out of your system. You seem to be chock full."
"You bet I'm full an' I'm a-goin' to bust!" shouted Jones, whose temper evidently could not abide the slow cool speech with which he had been answered.
"Wal, before you bust, explain what you mean by Springer's outfit not ridin' around drift fences."
"Easy. You just cut through wire fences," retorted Jones.
"Beady, I hate to call you a low-down liar, but that's what you are."
"You're another!" yelled Jones. "I seen your Texas Jack cut our drift fence."
Nevada struck out with remarkable swiftness and force. He knocked Jones over upon a card table, with which he crashed to the floor. Jones was so stunned that he did not recover before some of his comrades rushed to him, and helped him up. Then, black in the face and cursing savagely, he jerked for his gun. He got it out, but, before he could level it, two of his friends seized him, and wrestled with him, talking in earnest alarm. But Jones fought them.
"Ya damn' fool!" finally yelled one of them. "He's not packin' a gun. It'd be murder."
That brought Jones to his senses, although certainly not to calmness.
"Mister Nevada... next time you hit town you'd better come heeled," he hissed between his teeth.
"Shore. An' thet'll be bad for you, Beady," replied Nevada curtly.
Panhandle and Andy drew Nevada out to the street, where they burst into mingled excitement and anger. Their swift strides gravitated toward the saloon across from the post office.
When they emerged sometime later, they were arm in arm, and far from steady on their feet. They paraded up the one main street of Beacon, not in the least conspicuous on a Saturday afternoon. As they were neither hilarious nor dangerous, nobody paid any attention to them. Springer, their boss, met them, gazed at them casually, and passed without sign of recognition. If he had studied the boys closely, he might have received an impression that they were hugging a secret, as well as each other.
In due time the trio presented themselves at the railroad station. Tex was there, nervously striding up and down the platform, now and then looking at his watch. The afternoon train was nearly due. At the hitching rail below the platform stood a new buckboard and a rather spirited team of horses.
The boys, coming across the wide square, encountered this evidence of Tex?s extremity, and struck a posture before it.
"Livery stable outfit, by gosh," said Andy.
"Son-of-a-gun if it ain't," added Panhandle with a huge grin.
"Thish here Tex spendin' his money royal," agreed Nevada.
Then Tex espied them. He stared. Suddenly he jumped straight up. After striding to the edge of the platform, with face as red as a beet, he began to curse them.
"Whash mashes, ole pard?" asked Andy, who appeared a little less stable than his comrades.
Tex's reply was another volley of expressive profanity. And he ended with: "...you-all yellow quitters to get drunk an' leave me in the lurch. But you gotta get away from heah. I shore won't have you aboot when thet train comes."
"Tex, your boss is in town lookin' for you," said Nevada.
"I don't care a damn," replied Tex with fire in his eye.
"Wait till he shees you," gurgled Andy.
"Tex, he jest ambled past us like we wasn't gen-nelmen," added Panhandle. "Never sheen us a-tall."
"No wonder, you drunken cowpunchers," declared Tex in disgust. "Now I tell you to clear out of heah."
"But, pard, we just want to shee you meet our Jane from Missouri," replied Andy.
"If you-all ain't a lot of four-flushes, I'll eat my chaps!" burst out Tex hotly.
Just then a shrill whistle announced the train.
"You can sneak off now," he went on, "an' leave me to face the music. I always knew I was the only gentleman in Springer's outfit."
The three cowboys did not act upon Tex's sarcastic suggestion, but they hung back, looking at once excited and sheepish and hugely delighted.
The long gray dusty train pulled into the station, and stopped. There was only one passenger for Springer?a woman?and she alighted from the coach near where the cowboys stood waiting. She was not tall and she was much too slight for the heavy valise the porter handed to her.
Tex strode grandly toward her.
"Miss... Miss Stacey, ma'am?" he asked, removing his sombrero.
"Yes," she replied. "Are you Mister Owens?"
Evidently the voice was not what Tex had expected and it disconcerted him.
"No, ma'am, I... I'm not Mister Owens," he said. "Please let me take your bag... I'm Tex Dillon, one of Springer's cowboys. An' I've come to meet you... an' fetch you out to the ranch."
"Thank you, but I... I expected to be met by Mister Owens," she replied.
"Ma'am, there's been a mistake... I've got to tell you... there ain't any Mister Owens," blurted out Tex manfully.
"Oh!" she said with a little start.
"You see, it was this way," went on the confused cowboy. "One of Springer's cowboys... not me... wrote them letters to you, signin' his name Owens. There ain't no such named cowboy in this county. Your last letter... an' here it is... fell into my hands... all by accident, ma'am, it sure was. I took my three friends heah... I took them into my confidence. An' we all came down to meet you."
She moved her head and evidently looked at the strange trio of cowboys Tex had pointed out as his friends. They came forward then, but not eagerly, and they still held to each other. Their condition, not to consider their immense excitement, could not have been lost even upon a tenderfoot from Missouri.
"Please... return my... my letter," she said, turning again to Tex, and she put out a small gloved hand to take it from him. "Then... there is no Mister Frank Owens?"
"No, ma'am, there ain't," replied Tex miserably.
"Is there... no... no truth in his... is there no schoolteacher wanted here?" she faltered.
"I think so, ma'am," he replied. "Springer said he needed one. That's what started the advertisement an' the letters to you. You can see the boss an'... an' explain. I'm sure it will be all right. He's the grandest fellow. He won't stand for no joke on a poor old schoolmarm."
In his bewilderment he had spoken his thoughts, and that last slip made him look more miserable than ever, and made the boys appear ready to burst.
"Poor old schoolmarm," echoed Miss Stacey. "Perhaps the deceit has not been wholly on one side."
Whereupon she swept aside the enveloping veil to reveal a pale and pretty face. She was young. She had clear gray eyes and a sweet sensitive mouth. Little curls of chestnut hair straggled from under her veil. And she had tiny freckles.
Tex stared at this apparition.
"But you... you... the letter says she wasn't over forty!" he ejaculated.
"She's not," rejoined Miss Stacey curtly.
Then there were visible and remarkable indications of a transformation in the attitude of the cowboy. But the approach of a stranger suddenly seemed to paralyze him. This fellow was very tall. He strolled up to them. He was booted and spurred. He halted before the group and looked expectantly from the boys to the young woman and back again. But at the moment the four cowboys appeared dumb.
"Are you Mister Springer?" asked Miss Stacey.
"Yes," he replied, and he took off his sombrero. He had a dark frank face and keen eyes.
"I am Jane Stacey," she explained hurriedly. "I'm a schoolteacher. I answered an advertisement. And I've come from Missouri because of letters I received from a Mister Frank Owens of Springer's Ranch. This young man met me. He has not been very... explicit. I gather that there is no Mister Owens... that I'm the victim of a cowboy joke. But he said that Mister Springer won't stand for a joke on a poor old schoolmarm."
"I sure am glad to meet you, Miss Stacey," responded the rancher with the easy Western courtesy that must have been comforting to her. "Please let me see the letters."
She opened a handbag and, searching in it, presently held out several letters. Springer never even glanced at his stricken cowboys. He took the letters.
"No, not that one," said Miss Stacey, blushing scarlet. "That's one I wrote to Mister Owens, but didn't mail. It's... hardly necessary to read that."
While Springer read the others, she looked at him. Presently he asked for the letter she had taken back. Miss Stacey hesitated, then refused. He looked cool, curious, businesslike. Then his keen eyes swept over the four cowboys.
"Tex, are you Mister Frank Owens?" he queried sharply.
"I... shore... ain't," gasped Tex.
Springer asked each of the other boys the same question and received the same maudlin but negative answers. Then he turned again to the girl.
"Miss Stacey, I regret to say that you are indeed the victim of a low-down cowboy trick," he said. "I'd apologize for such heathen if I knew how. All I can say is I'm sorry."
"Then... then there isn't any school to teach... any place for me... out here?" she asked, and there were tears in her eyes.
"That's another matter," he replied with a winning smile. "Of course there's a place for you. I've wanted a schoolteacher for a long time. Some of the men out at the ranch have kids an' they sure need a teacher."
"Oh, I'm... so glad," she murmured in great relief. "I was afraid I'd have to go... all the way back. You see, I'm not so strong as I used to be... and my doctor advised a change of climate... dry Western air."
"You don't look sick," he said with his keen eyes on her. "You look very well to me."
"Oh, indeed, I'm not very strong," she returned quickly. "But I must confess I wasn't altogether truthful about my age."
"I was wondering about that," he said gravely. There seemed just a glint of a twinkle in his eye. "Not over forty!"
Again she blushed and this time with confusion.
"It wasn't altogether a lie. I was afraid to mention I was only... so young. And I wanted to get the position so much... I'm a good... a competent teacher, unless the scholars are too grown-up."
"The scholars you'll have at my ranch are children," he replied. "Well, we'd better be starting if we are to get there before dark. It's a long ride. Is this all your baggage?"
Springer led her over to the buckboard and helped her in, then stowed the valise under the back seat.
"Here, let me put this robe over you," he said. "It'll be dusty. And when we get up on the ridge, it's cold."
At this juncture Tex came to life and he started forward. But Andy and Nevada and Panhandle stood motionlessly, staring at the fresh and now flushed face of the young schoolteacher. Tex untied the halter of the spirited team and they began to prance. He gathered up the reins as if about to mount the buckboard.
"I've got all the supplies an' the mail, Mister Springer," he said cheerfully. "An' I can be startin' at once."
"I'll drive Miss Stacey," replied Springer dryly.
Tex looked blank for a moment. Then Miss Stacey's clear gray eyes seemed to embarrass him. A tinge of red came into his tanned cheek.
"Tex, you can ride my horse home," said the rancher.
"That wild stallion of yours!" expostulated the cowboy. "Now, Mister Springer, I shore am afraid of him."
This from the best horseman on the whole range!
Apparently the rancher took Tex seriously. "He sure is wild, Tex, and I know you're a poor hand with a horse. If he throws you, why, you'll have your own horse."
Miss Stacey turned away her eyes. There was a hint of a smile on her lips. Springer got in beside her, and, taking the reins without another glance at his discomfited cowboys, he drove away.
A FEW weeks altered many things at Springer's Ranch. There was a marvelous change in the dress and deportment of cowboys off duty. There were some clean and happy and interested children. There was a rather taciturn and lonely young rancher who was given to thoughtful dreams and whose keen eyes watched the little adobe schoolhouse under the cottonwoods. And in Jane Stacey's face a rich bloom and tan had begun to warm out the paleness.
It was not often that Jane left the schoolhouse without meeting one of Springer's cowboys. She met Tex most frequently, and according to Andy that fact was because Tex was foreman and could send the boys off to the ends of the range.
And this afternoon Jane encountered the foreman. He was clean-shaven, bright, and eager, a superb figure. Tex had been lucky enough to have a gun with him one day when a rattlesnake frightened the schoolteacher and he had shot the reptile. Miss Stacey had leaned against him in her fright; she had been grateful; she had admired his wonderful skill with a gun and had murmured that a woman always could be sure with such a man. Thereafter Tex packed his gun unmindful of the ridicule of his rivals.
"Miss Stacey, come for a little ride, won't you?" he asked eagerly.
The cowboys had already taught her how to handle a horse and to ride, and, if all they said of her appearance and accomplishment were true, she was indeed worth watching.
"I?m sorry," replied Jane. "I promised Nevada I'd ride with him today."
"I reckon Nevada is miles an' miles up the valley by now," replied Tex. "He won't be back till long after dark."
"But he made an agreement with me," protested the schoolmistress.
"An' shore he has to work. He's ridin' for Springer, an' I'm foreman of this ranch," said Tex.
"You sent him off on some long chase," averred Jane severely. "Now, didn't you?"
"I shore did. He comes crowin' down to the bunkhouse... about how he's goin' to ride with you an' how we-all are not in the runnin'."
"Oh, he did. And what did you say?"
"I says... 'Nevada, I reckon there's a steer mired in the sand up in Cedar Wash. You ride up there an' pull him out.'"
"And then what did he say?" inquired Jane curiously.
"Why, Miss Stacey, I shore hate to tell you. I didn't think he was so... so bad. He just used the most awful language as was ever heard on this heah ranch. Then he rode off."
"But was there a steer mired up in the wash?"
"I reckon so," replied Tex, rather shame-facedly. "'Most always is one."
Jane let scornful eyes rest upon the foreman.
"That was a mean trick," she said.
"There's been worse done to me by him, an' all of them. An' all's fair in love an' war... Will you ride with me?"
"Because I think I'll ride off alone up Cedar Wash and help Nevada find that mired steer."
"Miss Stacey, you're shore not goin' to ride off alone. Savvy that?"
"Who'll keep me from it?" demanded Jane with spirit.
"I will. Or any of the boys, for that matter. Springer's orders."
Jane started with surprise, and then blushed rosy red. Tex, also, appeared confused at his disclosure.
"Miss Stacey, I oughtn't have said that. It slipped out. The boss said we needn't tell you, but you were to be watched an' taken care of. It's a wild range. You could get lost or thrown from a horse."
"Mister Springer is very kind and thoughtful," murmured Jane.
"The fact is, this heah ranch is a different place since you came," went on Tex as if emboldened. "An' this beatin' around the bush doesn't suit me. All the boys have lost their haids over you."
"Indeed? How flattering," replied Jane with just a hint of mockery. She was fond of all her admirers, but there were four of them she had not yet forgiven.
The tall foreman was not without spirit.
"It's true all right, as you'll find out pretty quick," he replied. "If you had any eyes, you'd see that cattle raisin' on this heah ranch is about to halt till somethin' is decided. Why, even Springer himself is sweet on you."
"How dare you!" flashed Jane, suddenly aghast.
"I ain't afraid to tell the truth," declared Tex stoutly. "He is. The boys all say so. He's grouchier than ever. He's jealous. Lord, he's jealous! He watches you... "
"Suppose I told him that you dared to say such things?" interrupted Jane, trembling on the verge of strange emotion.
"Why, he'd be tickled to death. He hasn't got nerve enough to tell you himself."
This cowboy, like all his comrades, was hopeless. She was about to attempt to change the conversation when Tex took her into his arms. She struggled?fought with all her might. But he succeeded in kissing her cheek and the tip of her ear. Finally she broke away from him.
"Now...," she panted. "You've done it... you've insulted me. Now I'll never ride with you again... even speak to you."
"I shore didn't insult you," replied Tex. "Jane... won't you marry me?"
"Won't you be my sweetheart... till you care enough to... to...?"
"But, Jane, you'll forgive me, an' be good friends again?"
Jane did not mean all she said. She had come to understand these men of the ranges?their loneliness?their hunger for love. But in spite of her sympathy she needed sometimes to be cold and severe.
"Jane, you owe me a good deal... more than you've any idea," said Tex seriously.
"Didn't you ever guess about me?"
"My wildest flight at guessing would never make anything of you, Texas Jack."
"You'd never have been here but for me," he said solemnly.
Jane could only stare at him.
"I meant to tell you long ago. But I shore didn't have nerve. Jane... I... I was that there letter-writin' feller. I wrote them letters you got. I am Frank Owens."
"No!" exclaimed Jane. She was startled. That matter of Frank Owens had never been cleared up. It had ceased to rankle within her breast, but it had never been forgotten. She looked up earnestly into the big fellow's face. It was like a mask. But she saw through it. He was lying. Almost, she thought, she saw a laugh deep in his eyes.
"I shore am the lucky man who found you a job when you was sick an' needed a change... An' you've grown so pretty an' so well you owe all thet to me."
"Tex, if you really were Frank Owens, that would make a great difference. I owe him everything. I would... but I don't believe you are he."
"It's a sure honest Gospel fact," declared Tex. "I hope to die if it ain't!"
Jane shook her head sadly at his monstrous prevarication.
"I don't believe you," she said, and left him standing there.
It might have been mere coincidence that during the next few days both Nevada and Panhandle waylaid and conveyed to her intelligence by diverse and pathetic arguments the astounding fact that each was Mr. Frank Owens. More likely, however, was it the unerring instinct of lovers who had sensed the importance and significance of this mysterious correspondent's part in bringing health and happiness into Jane Stacey's life. She listened to them with anger and sadness and amusement at their deceit, and she had the same answer for both: "I don't believe you."
And through these machinations of the cowboys Jane had begun to have vague and sweet and disturbing suspicions of her own as to the real identity of that mysterious cowboy, Frank Owens. Andy had originality as well as daring. He would have completely deceived Jane if she had not happened, by the merest accident, to discover the relation between him and certain love letters she had begun to find in her desk. She was deceived at first, for the typewriting of these was precisely like that in the letters like that of Frank Owens. She had been suddenly aware of a wild start of rapture. That had given place to a shameful open-eyed realization of the serious condition of her own heart. But she happened to discover in Andy the writer of these missives, and her dream was shattered, if not forgotten. Andy certainly would not carry love letters to her that he did not write. He had merely learned to use the same typewriter and at opportune times he had slipped the letters into her desk. Jane now began to have her own little aching haunting secret that was so hard to put out of her mind. Every letter and every hint of Frank Owens made her remember. Therefore she decided to put a check to Andy's sly double-dealing. She addressed a note to him and wrote:
That day at the train when you thought I was a poor old schoolmarm you swore you were not Frank Owens. Now you swear you are! If you were a man who knew what truth is, you'd have a chance. But now... No! You are a monster of iniquity. I don't believe you.
She left the note in plain sight where she always found his letters in her desk. The next morning the note was gone. And so was Andy. She did not see him for three days.
It came about that a dance to be held at Beacon during the late summer was something Jane could not very well avoid. She had not attended either of the cowboy dances that had been given since her arrival. This next one, however, appeared to be an annual affair, at which all the ranching fraternity for miles around would be in attendance. Jane was wild to go. But it developed that she could not escape the escort of any one of her cowboy admirers without alienating the others. And she began to see the visions of this wonderful dance fade away when Springer accosted her.
"Who's the lucky cowboy to take you to our dance?" he asked.
"He's as mysterious and doubtful as Mister Frank Owens," replied Jane.
"Oh, you still remember him," said the rancher, his keen dark eyes quizzically on her.
"Indeed, I do," sighed Jane.
"Too bad! He was a villain... But you don't mean you haven't been asked to go?"
"They've all asked me... that's the trouble."
"I see. But you mustn't miss it. It'd be pleasant for you to meet some of the ranchers and their wives. Suppose you go with me?"
"Oh, Mister Springer, I... I'd be delighted," replied Jane.
"Thank you. Then it's settled. I must be in town all that day on cattle business... next Friday. I'll ask the Hartwells to stop here for you, an' drive you in."
He seemed gravely, kindly interested as always, yet there was something in his eyes that interfered with the regular beating of Jane's heart. She could not forget what the cowboys had told her, even if she dared not believe it.
Jane spent much of the remaining leisure hours on a gown to wear at this dance that promised so much. And because of the labor, she saw little of the cowboys. Tex was highly offended with her and would not deign to notice her anyhow. She wondered what would happen at the dance. She was a little fearful, too, because she had already learned of what fire and brimstone these cowboys were made. So dreaming and conjecturing, now amused and again gravely pensive, Jane awaited the eventful night.
The Hartwells turned out to be nice people whose little girl was one of Jane's pupils. That, and their evident delight in Jane's appearance, gave the adventure a last thrilling anticipation. Jane had been afraid to trust her own judgment as to how she looked. On the drive townward, through the crisp fall gloaming, while listening to the chatter of the children, and the talk of the elder Hartwells, she could not help wondering what Springer would think of her in the beautiful new gown.
They arrived late, according to her escorts. The drive to town was sixteen miles, but it had seemed short to Jane. "Reckon it's just as well for you an' the children," said Mrs. Hartwell to Jane. "These dances last from seven to seven."
"No!" exclaimed Jane.
"They sure do."
"Well, I'm a tenderfoot from Missouri. But that's not going to keep me from having a wonderful time."
"You will, dear, unless the cowboys fight over you, which is likely. But at least there won't be any shootin'. My husband an' Springer are both on the committee an' they won't admit any gun-totin' cowpunchers."
Here Jane had concrete evidence of something she had begun to suspect. These careless lovemaking cowboys might be dangerous. It thrilled while it repelled her.
Jane's first sight of that dance hall astonished her. It was a big barn- like room, roughly raftered and sided, decorated enough with colored bunting to take away the bareness. The lamps were not bright, but there were enough of them to give collectively a good light. The volume of sound amazed her. Music and trample of boots, gay laughter, deep voices of men all seemed to merge into a loud hum. A swaying wheeling horde of dancers circled past her. No more time then was accorded her to clarify the spectacle, for Springer suddenly confronted her. He seemed different somehow. Perhaps it was an absence of ranchers' corduroys and boots, if Jane needed assurance of what she had dreamed of and hoped for. She had it in his frank admiration.
"Sure it's somethin' fine for Bill Springer to have the prettiest girl here," he said.
"Thank you... but, Mister Springer... I sadly fear you were a cowboy before you became a rancher," she replied archly.
"Sure I was. An' that you may find out." He laughed. "Of course, I could never come up to... say... Frank Owens. But let's dance. I shall have little enough of you in this outfit."
So he swung her into the circle of dancers. Jane found him easy to dance with, although he was far from expert. It was a jostling mob, and she soon acquired a conviction that, if her gown did outlast the whole dance, her feet never would. Springer took his dancing seriously and had little to say. Jane felt strange and uncertain with him. Then soon she became aware of the cessation of hum and movement.
"Sure that was the best dance I ever had," said Springer with something of radiance in his dark face. "An' now I must lose you to this outfit comin'."
Manifestly he meant his cowboys Tex, Nevada, Panhandle, and Andy who presented themselves four abreast, shiny of hair and face.
"Good luck," he whispered. "If you get into trouble, let me know."
What he meant quickly dawned upon Jane. Right there it began. She saw there was absolutely no use in trying to avoid or refuse these young men. The wisest and safest course was to surrender, which she did.
"Boys, don't all talk at once. I can dance with only one of you at a time. So I'll take you in alphabetical order. I'm a poor old schoolmarm from Missouri. It'll be Andy, Nevada, Panhandle, and Tex."
Despite their protests she held rigidly to this rule. Each one of the cowboys took shameless advantage of his opportunity. Outrageously as they all hugged her, Tex was the worst offender. She tried to stop dancing, but he carried her along as if she had been a child. He was rapt, and yet there seemed a devil in him.
"Tex... how dare you," panted Jane, when at last the dance ended.
"Wal, I reckon I'd aboot dare anythin' for you, Jane," he replied, towering over her.
"You ought to be... ashamed," went on Jane. "I'll not dance with you again."
"Aw, now," he pleaded.
"I won't, Tex... so there. You're no gentleman."
"Ahuh!" he ejaculated, drawing himself up stiffly. "All right, I'll go out an' get drunk, an', when I come back, I'll clean out this heah hall."
"Tex! Don't go," she called hurriedly as he started to stride away. "I'll take that back. I will give you another dance... if you promise to... to behave."
Then she got rid of him, and was carried off by Mrs. Hartwell to be introduced to ranchers and their wives, to girls and their escorts. She found herself a center of admiring eyes. She promised more dances than she could remember or keep.
Her new partner was a tall handsome cowboy named Jones. She did not know quite what to make of him. But he was an unusually good dancer, and he did not hold her so that she had difficulty in breathing. He talked all the time. He was witty and engaging, and he had a most subtly flattering tongue. Jane could not fail to grasp that he might even be worse than Tex, but at least he did not make love to her with physical violence. She enjoyed that dance and admitted the singular forceful charm about this Mr. Jones. If he was a little too bold of glance and somehow primitively assured and debonair, she passed it by in the excitement and joy of the hour, and in the certainty that she was now a long way from Missouri. Jones demanded rather than begged for another dance, and, although she laughingly explained her predicament in regard to partners, he said he would come after her anyhow.
Then followed several dances with new partners, between which Jane became more than ever the center of attraction. It all went to her head like wine. She was having a perfectly wonderful time. Jones claimed her again, in fact whirled her out on the floor, and it seemed then that the irresistible rush of the dancers was similar to her sensations. Twice again before the supper hour at midnight she found herself dancing with Jones. How he managed it she did not know. He just took her, carried her off by storm. Jane did not awaken to this unpardonable conduct of hers until she discovered that a little while before she had promised Tex his second dance, and then she had given it to Jones, or at least had danced it with him. What could she do when he walked right off with her? It was a glimpse of Tex's face, as she was being whirled round in Jones's arms, that filled Jane with remorse.
Then came the supper hour. It was a gala occasion, for which evidently the children had heroically kept awake. Jane enjoyed the children immensely. She sat with the numerous Hartwells, all of whom were most kindly attentive to her. Jane wondered why Mr. Springer did not put in an appearance, but considered his absence due to numerous duties.
When the supper hour ended and the people were stirring about the hall, and the men were tuning up, Jane caught sight of Andy. He looked rather pale and sick. Jane tried to catch his eye, but failing that she went to him.
"Andy, please find Tex for me. I owe him a dance, and I'll give him the very first, unless Mister Springer comes for it."
Andy regarded her with an aloofness totally new to her.
"Wal, I'll tell him. But I reckon Tex ain't presentable just now. All of us are through dancin' tonight."
"What's happened?" queried Jane, swift to divine trouble.
"There's been a little fight."
"Oh, no!" cried Jane. "Who? What?... Andy, tell me."
"Wal, when you cut Tex's dance for Beady Jones, you sure put our outfit in bad," replied Andy coldly. "At thet there wouldn't have been anythin' come of it here if Beady Jones hadn't got to shootin' off his chin. Tex slapped his face an' thet sure started a fight. Beady licked Tex, too, I'm sorry to say. He's a pretty bad customer, Beady is, an' he's bigger'n Tex. Wal, we had a hell of a time keepin' Nevada out of it. Thet would have been a uneven fight. I'd like to have seen it. But we kept them apart till Springer come out. An' what the boss said to thet outfit was sure aplenty. Beady Jones kept talkin' back, nasty like... you know he was once foreman for us... till Springer got good an' mad. An' he said... 'Jones, I fired you once because you was a little too slick for our outfit, an' I'll tell you this, if it comes to a pinch, I'll give you the damnedest thrashin' any smart-aleck cowboy ever got!' Gee, the boss was riled. It sort of surprised me, an' tickled me pink. You can bet that shut Beady Jones's loud mouth."
After that rather lengthy speech Andy left her unceremoniously standing there alone. She was not alone long, but it was long enough for her to feel bitter dissatisfaction with herself.
Jane looked for Springer, hoping yet fearing he would come to her. But he did not. She had another uninterrupted dizzy round of dancing until her strength failed. At four o'clock she was scarcely able to walk. Her pretty dress was torn and mussed; her white stockings were no longer white; her slippers were worn ragged. And her feet were dead. From that time she sat with Mrs. Hartwell looking on, and trying to keep awake. The wonderful dance, that had begun so promisingly, had ended sadly for her.
At length the exodus began, although Jane did not see any dancers leaving. She went out with the Hartwells, to be received by Springer, who had evidently made arrangements for their leaving. He was decidedly cool to Jane.
All through the long ride out to the ranch he never addressed her or looked toward her. Daylight came, cold and gray to Jane. She felt crushed.
Springer's sister and the matronly housekeeper were waiting for them, with cheery welcome, and invitation to a hot breakfast.
Presently Jane found herself momentarily alone with the rancher.
"Miss Stacey," he said, in a voice she had never heard, "your flirtin' with Beady Jones made trouble for the Springer outfit."
"Mister Springer!" she exclaimed, her head going up.
"Excuse me," he returned, in cutting dry tone that recalled Tex. Indeed, this Westerner was a cowboy, the same as those who rode for him, only a little older, and therefore more reserved and careful of speech. "If it wasn't that... then you were much taken with Mister Beady Jones."
"If that was anybody's business, it might have appeared so," she retorted, tingling all over with some feeling she could not control.
"Sure. But are you denyin' it?" he queried soberly, eying her with grave wonder and disapproval. It was this more than his question that roused hot anger and contrariness in Jane.
"I admired Mister Jones very much," replied Jane. "He was a splendid dancer. He did not maul me like a bear. I really had a chance to breathe during my dances with him. Then, too, he could talk."
Springer bowed with dignity. His dark face paled. It began to dawn upon Jane that there was something intense in the moment. She began to repent of her hasty pride.
"Thanks," he said. "Please excuse my impertinence. I see you have found your Mister Frank Owens in this cowboy Jones, an' it sure is not my place to say any more."
"But... but... Mister Springer...," faltered Jane, quite unstrung by that amazing speech. The rancher, however, bowed again, and left her. Jane felt too miserable and weary for anything but rest. She went to her room, and, flinging off her hateful finery, she crawled into bed, a very perplexed and distraught young woman.
About mid-afternoon Jane awakened greatly refreshed and relieved and strangely repentant. She dressed prettily and went out, not quite sure of or satisfied with herself. She walked up and down the long porch of the ranch house, gazing out over the purple range, on to the black belt of forest up the mountains. How beautiful this Arizona! She loved it. Could she ever go away? The thought reposed, to stay before her consciousness. She invaded the kitchen, where the matronly housekeeper, who was fond of her, gave her wild-turkey sandwiches and cookies and sweet rich milk. While Jane mitigated her hunger, the woman gossiped about the cowboys and Springer; and the information she imparted renewed Jane's concern.
From the kitchen Jane went out into the courtyard, and naturally, as always, gravitated toward the corrals and barns. Springer appeared, in company with a rancher Jane did not know. She expected Springer to stop her for a few pleasant words as he always did. This time, however, he merely touched his sombrero and passed on. Jane felt the incident almost as a slight. It hurt her.
Then she went on down the lane, very thoughtful. A cloud had appeared above the horizon of her happy life there at the Springer Ranch. The lane opened out into the wide square, around which were the gates to corrals, entrances to barns, the forge, granaries, and the commodious bunkhouse of the cowboys.
Jane's sharp eyes caught sight of the boys before they espied her. And when she looked up again, every lithe back was turned. They allowed her to pass without any apparent knowledge of her existence. This was unprecedented. It offended Jane bitterly. She knew she was unreasonable, but could not or would not help it. She strolled on down to the pasture gate, and watched the colts and calves. Upon her return, she passed closer to the cowboys. But again they apparently did not see her. Jane added resentment to her wounded vanity and pride. Yet even then a still small voice tormented. She went back to her room, meaning to read or sew, or do schoolwork. But instead she cried.
Springer did not put in an appearance at the dinner table, and that was the last straw for Jane. She realized she had made a mess of her wonderful opportunity there. But those stupid fiery cowboys! This sensitive Westerner! How could she know how to take them? The worst of it was that she was genuinely fond of the cowboys. And as for the rancher?her mind seemed vague and unreliable about him, but she said she hated him.
Next day was Sunday. Heretofore every Sunday had been a full day for Jane. This one bade fair to be empty. Company came as usual, neighbors from nearby ranches. The cowboys were off duty and other cowboys visited them.
Jane's attention was attracted by sight of a superb horseman riding up the lane to the ranch house. He seemed familiar, but she could not place him. What a picture he made as he dismounted, slick and shiny, booted and spurred, to doff his huge sombrero. Jane heard him ask for Miss Stacey. Then she recognized him. Beady Jones! She was a once horrified, and something else she could not name. She remembered now he had asked if he might call Sunday and she had certainly not refused. But for him to come after the fight with Tex and the bitter scene with Springer! It seemed an unparalleled affront. What manner of man was this cowboy Jones? He certainly did not lack courage. But more to the point?what idea had he of her? Jane rose to the occasion. She had let herself in for this, and she would see it through, come what might. Looming disaster stimulated her. She would show these indifferent, deceitful, fire-spirited, incomprehensible cowboys. She would let Springer see she, indeed, had taken Beady Jones for Mr. Frank Owens.
To that end Jane made her way down the porch to greet her cowboy visitor. She made herself charming and gracious, and carried off the embarrassing situation?for Springer was present?as if it were perfectly natural. And she led Jones to one of the rustic benches down the porch.
Jane meant to gauge him speedily, if that were possible. While she made conversation, she brought to bear all that she possessed of intuition and discernment, now especially excited. The situation here was easy for her.
Naturally Jones resembled the cowboys she knew. The same range and life had developed him. But he lacked certain things she liked so much in Tex and Nevada. He was a superb animal. She had reluctantly to admire his cool easy boldness in a situation certainly perilous for him. But then he had reasoned, of course, that she would be his protection. She did not fail to note that he carried a gun, inside his embroidered vest.
Manifest, indeed, was it that young Jones felt he had made a conquest. He was the most forceful and bold person Jane had ever met, quite incapable of appreciating her as a lady. Soon he waxed ardent. Jane was accustomed to the sentimental talk of cowboys, but this fellow was neither amusing nor interesting. He was dangerous. When Jane pulled her hand, by main force, free from his, and said she was not accustomed to allow men such privileges, he grinned at her like a handsome devil.
"Sure, sweetheart, you have missed a heap of fun," he said. "An' I reckon I'll have to break you in."
Jane could not feel insulted at this brazen lout, but she certainly raged at herself. Her instant impulse was to excuse herself and abruptly leave him. But Springer was close by. She had caught his dark wandering covert glances. And the cowboys were at the other end of the long porch. Jane feared another fight. She had brought this upon herself, and she must stick it out. The ensuing hour was an increasing torment. At last it seemed she could not bear the false situation any longer, and, when Jones again importuned her to meet him out on horseback she stooped to deception to end the interview. She really did not concentrate her attention on his plan or take stock of what she'd agreed to, but she got rid of him with lax dignity before Springer and the others. After that, she did not have the courage to stay out and face them. How bitterly she had disappointed the rancher! Jane stole off to the darkness and loneliness of her room. There, however, she was not above peeping out from behind her window-blind at the cowboys. They had grown immeasurably in her estimation. Alas! No doubt they were through with the little tenderfoot schoolmarm from Missouri.
THE school teaching went on just the same, and the cowboys thawed out and Springer returned somewhat to his kindliness, but Jane missed something from her work and in them. At heart she grieved. Would it ever be the same again? What had happened? She had only been an emotional little tenderfoot unused to Western ways. Indeed, she had not failed, at least in gratitude and affection, although now it seemed they would never know.
There came a day, when Jane rode off alone toward the hills. She forgot the risk and the admonitions of the cowboys. She wanted to be alone to think. Her happiness had sustained a subtle change. Her work, the children, the friends she had made, even the horse she loved were no longer all-sufficient. Something had come over her. She tried to persuade herself that she was homesick or morbid. But she was not honest with herself and knew it.
It was late fall, but the sun was warm that afternoon, and it was the season when little wind prevailed. Before her lay the valley range, a green- gray expanse dotted with cattle, and beyond it the cedared foothills rose, and above them loomed the dark beckoning mountains. Her horse was fast and liked to run with her. She loved him and the open range, with the rushing breeze on her face, and all that clear lonely vast and silent world before her. Never would she return to live in the crowded cities again, with their horde of complaining people. She had found health and life?and something that wrung her heart and stung her cheek.
She rode fast till her horse was hot and she was out of breath. Then she slowed down. The foothills seemed so close now. But they were not really close. Still she could smell the fragrant dry cedar aroma on the air.
Then for the first time she looked back toward the ranch. It was a long way off?ten miles?a mere green spot in the gray. And there was a horseman coming. As usual some one of the cowboys had observed her, let her think she had slipped away, and was now following her. Today it angered Jane. She wanted to be alone. She could take care of herself. And as was usual with her she used her quirt on the horse. He broke into a gallop. She did not look back again for a long time. When she did, it was to discover that the horseman had not only gained, but was now quite close to her. Jane looked hard, but she could not recognize the rider. Once she imagined it was Tex, and again Andy. It did not make any difference which one of the cowboys it was. She was angry, and, if he caught up with her, he would be sorry.
Jane rode the longest and fastest race she had ever ridden. She reached the low foothills, and, without heeding the fact that she would at once become lost, she entered the cedars and began to climb. She ascended a hill, went down the slope, up a ravine, to climb again. At times her horse had to walk, and then she heard her pursuer breaking through the cedars. He had to trail her by her horse's tracks, and so she was able to keep in the lead. It was not long until Jane realized she was lost, but she did not care. She rode up and down and around for an hour until she was thoroughly tired out, and then up on top of a foothill she reined in her horse and waited to give this pursuer a piece of her mind.
What was her amaze, when she heard a thud of hoofs and cracking of branches in the opposite direction from which she expected her pursuer, to see a rider emerge from the cedars and trot his horse toward her. Jane needed only a second glance to recognize Beady Jones. Surely she had met him by chance. Suddenly she knew that he was not the pursuer she had been so angrily aware of. Jones?s horse was white. That checked her mounting anger.
Jones rode straight at her, and, as he came close, Jane saw his bold dark face and gleaming eyes. Instantly she realized she had been mad to ride so far into the wild country, to expose herself to something from which the cowboys had always tried to save her.
"Howdy, sweetheart," said Jones in his cool, devil-may-care way. "Reckon it took you a long time to meet me as you promised."
"I didn't ride out to meet you, Mister Jones," replied Jane spiritedly. "I know I agreed to something or other, but even then I didn't mean it."
"Yes, I had a hunch you was playin' with me," he returned darkly, riding right up against her horse.
He reached out a long gloved hand and grasped her arm.
"What do you mean, sir?" demanded Jane, trying to wrench free.
"Sure I mean a lot," he said grimly. "You stood for the love-makin' of that Springer outfit. Now you're goin' to get a taste of somethin' not so mushy."
"Let go of me... you... you ruffian!" cried Jane, struggling fiercely. She was both furious and terrified. But she seemed to be a child in the grasp of a giant.
"Hell! Your fightin' will only make it interestin'. Come here, you deceitful little cat."
And he lifted her out of her saddle over in front of him. Jane's horse, that had been frightened and plunging, ran away into the cedars. Then gently the cowboy proceeded to embrace Jane. She managed to keep her mouth from contact with his, but he kissed her face and neck, kisses that seemed to pollute her.
"Jane, I'm ridin' out of this country for good," he said. "An' I've just been waitin' for this chance. You bet you'll remember Beady Jones."
Jane realized that this Jones would stop at nothing. Frantically she fought to get away from him and to pitch herself to the ground. She screamed. She beat and tore at him. She scratched his face till the blood flowed. And as her struggles increased with her fright, she gradually slipped down between him and the pommel of his saddle with head hanging down on one side and her feet on the other. This was awkward and painful, but infinitely preferable to being crushed in his arms. He was riding off with her as if she had been an empty sack. Suddenly Jane's hands, while trying to hold onto something to lessen the severe jolt of her position, came in contact with Jones's gun. Dare she draw it and shoot him? Then all at once her ears filled with the tearing gallop of another horse. Inverted as she was, she was able to see and recognize Springer ride right at Jones and yell piercingly.
Next she felt Jones's hard jerk at his gun. But Jane had hold of it, and suddenly she made her little hands like steel. The fierce energy with which Jones wrestled to draw his gun threw Jane from the saddle. And when she dropped clear of the horse, the gun came with her.
"Hands up, Beady!" she heard Springer call out, as she lay momentarily face down in the dust. Then she struggled to her knees, and crawled to get away from proximity to the horses. She still clung to the heavy gun. And when breathless and almost collapsing she fell back on the ground, she saw Jones with his hands above his head and Springer on foot with leveled gun.
"Sit tight, cowboy," ordered the rancher in hard tone. "It'll take damn' little to make me bore you." Then, while still covering Jones, evidently ready for any sudden move, Springer spoke again. "Jane, did you come out to meet this cowboy?"
"Oh, no! How can you ask that?" cried Jane, almost sobbing.
"She's a liar, boss," spoke up Jones coolly. "She let me make love to her. An' she agreed to ride out an' meet me. Wal, it sure took her a spell, an', when she did come, she was shy on the love-makin's. I was packin' her off to scare some sense into her when you rode in."
"Beady, I know your way with women. You can save your breath, for I've a hunch you're goin' to need it."
"Mister Springer," faltered Jane, getting to her knees, "I... I was foolishly taken with this cowboy... at first. Then... that Sunday after the dance when he called on me at the ranch... I saw through him then. I heartily despised him. To get rid of him I did say I'd meet him. But I never meant to. Then I forgot it. Today I rode for the first time. I saw someone following me and thought it must be Tex or one of the boys. Finally I waited and presently Jones rode up to me... And Mister Springer he... he grabbed me off my horse... and handled me most brutally... shamefully. I fought him with all my might, but what could I do?"
Springer's face changed markedly during Jane's long explanation. Then he threw his gun on the ground in front of Jane.
"Jones, I'm goin' to beat you half to death," he said grimly, and, leaping at the cowboy, he jerked him out of the saddle until he was sprawling on the ground. Next Springer threw aside his sombrero, his vest, his spurs. But he kept on his gloves. The cowboy rose to one knee, and he measured the distance between him and Springer, and then the gun that lay on the ground. Suddenly he sprang toward it. But Springer intercepted him with a powerful kick that tripped Jones and laid him flat.
"Jones, you're sure about as low-down as they come," he said in dark scorn. "I've got to be satisfied with beatin' you when I ought to kill you."
"Ahuh! Wal, boss, it ain't any safe bet thet you can beat me," returned Jones sullenly while he got up.
As they rushed together, Jane had wit enough to pick up the gun, and then with it and Jones's, to get back to a safe distance. She wanted to run away out of sight. But she could neither do that nor keep her fascinated gaze from the combatants. Even in her distraught condition she could see that the cowboy, fierce and active and strong as he was, could not hold his own with Springer. They fought over all the open space, and crashed into the cedars, and out again. The time came when Jones was on the ground about as much as he was erect. Bloody, disheveled, beaten, he kept on trying to stem the onslaught of blows.
Suddenly he broke off a dead branch of cedar and, brandishing it, rushed at the rancher. Jane uttered a cry, closed her eyes, and sank down. She heard fierce imprecations and sodden blows. When at length she opened her eyes in terror, fearing something dreadful, she saw Springer erect, wiping his face, and Jones lying prone on the ground.
Then Jane saw him go to his horse, untie a canteen from the saddle, remove his bloody gloves, and wash his face with a wet scarf. Next he poured some water on Jones's face.
"Come on, Jane!" he called. "Reckon it's all over."
Then he tied the bridle of Jones's horse to a cedar and, leading his own animal, turned to meet Jane.
"I want to compliment you on gettin' that cowboy's gun," he said warmly. "But for that, there'd sure have been somethin' bad. I'd have had to kill him, Jane. Here, give me the guns... You poor little tenderfoot from Missouri. No, not tenderfoot any longer, you became a Westerner today."
His face was bruised and cut, his dress dirty and bloody, but he did not appear the worse for that fight. Jane found her legs scarcely able to support her, and she had apparently lost her voice.
"Let us put you on my saddle till we find your horse," he said, and lifted her lightly as a feather to a seat crosswise. Then he walked with a hand on the bridle.
Jane saw him examining the ground, evidently searching for horse tracks. "Ha! Here we are." And he led off in another direction through the cedars. Soon Jane espied her horse, calmly nibbling at the bleached grass. In a few moments she was back in her own saddle, beginning to recover somewhat from her distress. But she divined that as fast as she recovered from one set of emotions she was going to be tormented by another.
"There's a good cold spring down here in the rocks," remarked Springer. "I think you need a drink, an' so do I."
They rode down the sunny cedar slopes, into a shady ravine skirted by pines, and up to some mossy cliffs from which a spring gushed forth.
Jane was now in the throes of thrilling, bewildering conjectures and fears. Why had Springer followed her? Why had he not sent one of the cowboys? Why did she feel so afraid and foolish? He had always been courteous and kind and thoughtful, at least until she had offended so gregariously. And here he was now. He had fought for her. Would she ever forget? Her heart began to pound. And when he dismounted to take her off her horse, she knew it was to see a scarlet and telltale face.
"Mister Springer, I... I thought you were Tex... or somebody," she said.
He laughed as he took off his sombrero. His face was warm, and the cuts were still bleeding a little.
"You sure can ride," he replied. "And that's a good little pony."
He loosened the cinches on the horses. Jane managed to hide some of her confusion.
"Won't you walk around a little?" he asked. "It'll rest you. We are fifteen miles from home."
Then presently he lifted her up and stood beside her with a hand on her horse. He looked up frankly into her face. The keen eyes were softer than usual. He seemed so fine and strong and splendid. She was afraid of her eyes and looked away.
"When the boys found you were gone, they all saddled up to find you," he said. "But I asked them if they didn't think the boss ought to have one chance. So they let me come."
Something happened to Jane's heart just then. She was suddenly overwhelmed by a strange happiness that she must hide, but could not. It seemed there was a long silence. She felt Springer there, but she could not look at him.
"Do you like it out here in the West?" he asked presently.
"Oh, I love it! I'll never want to leave it," she replied impulsively.
"I reckon I'm glad to hear that."
Then there fell another silence. He pressed closer to her and seemed now to be leaning on the horse. She wondered if he heard the weird knocking of her heart against her side.
"Will you be my wife an' stay here always?" he asked simply. "I'm in love with you. I've been lonely since my mother died... You'll sure have to marry some one of us. Because, as Tex says, if you don't, ranchin' can't go on much longer. These boys don't seem to get anywhere with you. Have I any chance... Jane...?"
He possessed himself of her gloved hand and gave her a gentle pull. Jane
knew it was gentle because she scarcely felt it. Yet it had irresistible
power. She was swayed by that gentle pull. She was slipping sidewise in her
saddle. She was sliding into his arms.
A little later he smiled up at her and said: "Jane, they call me Bill for short. Same as they call me boss. But my two front names are Frank Owens."
"Oh!" cried Jane, startled. "Then you... you...?"
"Yes, I'm the guilty one," he replied happily. "It happened this way. My bedroom, you know, is next to my office. I often heard the boys poundin' the typewriter. I had a hunch they were up to some trick. So I spied upon them... heard about Frank Owens an' the letters to the little schoolmarm. At Beacon I got the postmistress to give me your address. An?, of course, I intercepted some of your letters. It sure has turned out great."
"I... I don't know about you or those terrible cowboys," replied Jane dubiously. "How did they happen on the name Frank Owens?"
"Sure, that's a stumper. I reckon they put a job up on me."
"Frank... tell me... did you write the... the love letters?" she asked appealingly. "There were two kinds of letters. That's what I could never understand."
"Jane, I reckon I did," he confessed. "Somethin' about your little notes just won me. Does that make it all right?"
"Yes, Frank, I reckon it does," she returned, leaning down to kiss him.
"Let's ride back home an' tell the boys," said Springer gaily. "The joke's sure on them. I've corralled the little schoolmarm from Missouri."