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She rode her horse with precipitation around the corner of the shed, and this brought a fresh roar of laughter from the cowpunchers. Once under cover from their eyes, however, Miriam indulged in a chuckle of her own. No doubt her father was rather provoking, but he was also very funny. Whenever he mounted his old cutting horse, there was always the same performance, and there was always the same appreciative audience.
In the meantime her father, Judge Arthur Standard, was continuing the show. His horse was a sixteen-year-old gelding, as wise a mount as ever cut a calf from a herd. He could dodge like the cracking end of a whip, and his sprinting speed for a hundred yards might have been the boast of a mountain lion. Otherwise old Jip was simply a plain cow pony, with a liberal dash of mustang blood. That mustang blood made him want to get the stiffness out of his joints and the meanness out of his disposition by doing a little bucking every morning. But the judge did not like the idea. For a dozen years he had gone through the same performance at least twice a week, and yet the show lost none of its novelty for the cowpunchers.
For the judge was not at all at home on the back of a bucking horse. He had come late into the cow country, and although he was honored and respected far and wide as a type of all that was best among the big ranchers, yet he had never been able to teach himself the nice balance and the careless ease of a born horseman. He was well enough at home on a slippery pad, to be sure, and he did not mind a horse of spirit that simply heaved and reared and snorted and did more harm to the air than to his rider. He was not troubled to stay on the back of such an animal, but one of these little wild-headed Western brutes could tie itself into a thousand knots and flip a man out of the saddle, ten feet from earth, as a boy squeezes a wet watermelon seed from between thumb and forefinger. Once or twice the judge had received bad falls, and he kept the memory. Then, to crown all, he had lost his heart to Jip on account of the wise head and the marvelous cutting qualities of the gelding, and Jip had that bad habit of warming up to each day's work with a little bucking.
It was a beautiful sight to see the judge in his saddle, very straight, very tall, with his magnificent mustaches down like two long white sabers, his face full of solemn consciousness of his own dignity and importance, and then watch him change when Jip began to sidle and bunch his back and lower his head.
There was no chance for Jip to begin bucking, however. The judge was out of the saddle in a flash and running at the side of the horse, jerking at the reins and crying: "You, Jip... you old fool, Jip... are you trying to pitch with me? Who's been riding this horse of mine? Who's been letting my horse buck? Sam Carter, you've been riding this Jip of mine!"
Happy Sam would indignantly deny that he could have corrupted the manners of the judge's horse.
"Jip is jest nacherally a bad 'un," he would say. "There ain't no way of trusting that hoss. He's a killer, Judge. He'll be doing you harm one of these days that the doctors ain't going to be able to help none."
"Dog-gone it, Sam," the rancher would answer, "I believe that you're right. There's a devil in this horse. But I'll have that devil out of you, Jip, you old scamp. I'll have that devil out of you, d'you hear?"
By this time the old cow pony, having enjoyed the first stage of his caper, would pretend to grow interested in a wisp of grass near at hand, but from the corner of his eye he would watch the judge mount again. No sooner was the latter in the saddle than Jip started again, bunching his back, lowering his head, and moving along at a sidling trot. But the judge sat crouched low, a hard pull on the reins, one hand clutching the pommel of the saddle, and terror making his eyes huge.
"Now, Jip... now, Jip, now you old fool! Jip, haven't you any sense? Are you going to pitch with me, Jip?" Then out of the saddle and another run at the side of Jip, jerking at his reins. "Don't you pitch with me, Jip! Curse your old hide, don't you pitch with me!"
This proceeded for some ten minutes, while the cowpunchers hastened from far and near. It was folly to think of trying to get work out of them while this show was going on. And the beautiful part of the show was that for ten years Jip had never pitched once. A few steps of this bluff bucking, then a shake of his head, and he was done with his wildness. However, it was quite sufficient to frighten the judge. A little later he was in the saddle again, and, as his voice died down, Miriam knew that her father had finally mastered his mount. She was about to turn her horse and ride out to join him, when she saw that she had been watched.
Yonder was the pale face of the new hand whose silence had already won him the name of Noisy Joe Hanover. He was watching her steadily with a faint smile that broadened to a cordial grin, as his eyes encountered hers. He tipped his hat, but Miriam was too embarrassed and angry to make any answer to that salutation. She had been laughing at the antics of her own father. No doubt that tale would be passed around the bunkhouse by Noisy Joe, and then her dignity would be ruined forever in the eyes of the men.
So she began that morning's ride in very bad humor. For the main reason that she had come to the ranch was to impress the 'punchers and everyone else with her efficiency and dignity. Judge Arthur Standard was growing old. He had married quite late. He was already forty-three when his sole child, Miriam, was born. Now he was sixty-five, and the doctor gave him reasons why he could not live a great many years more. So he had sent for Miriam. She must decide on one of two things: either to manage the ranch, or else sell it at once and retire to live in some city.
The mind of Miriam was made up before she arrived from Paris. Music was well enough, but it was only a toy. Miriam felt that she needed a place and a career in the world. And what better than to be the queen of this little empire? Her father had been a supreme ruler all these years. Why should she not be the same?
She bought a number of books on ranching and ranch methods. From Havre to New York, from New York to the ranch, she was deep in the print. By the time she got off the train she knew the names of more fertilizers and the soils on which they did best, more breeds of cattle and the environments for which they were best fitted, more faults of stabling and shedding, feeding, branding, more diseases of horses and cows than her old father had ever heard of. She had prepared a list of questions, too, that she intended to ask her father in order to improve her knowledge, if he could answer them, and to show her knowledge, if he could not.
Before she got off three of the questions, her father had declared that he did not wish to be bothered with a lot of tommyrot which meant nothing, except when it was left buried in print.
"I'll tell you what the cow business is, Miriam," he had said in conclusion. "It's a gamble. You've got your land and your cows on one side. The other side is competition, weather, plagues, prices. You chuck in everything you've got. You wait for the wheel to stop spinning. When it's stopped, you know whether you've won or lost. And there you are, Miriam. All this book talk ain't going to help you. It'll just confuse your hands. And that ain't worth doing."
Miriam was an exceptional girl. She knew when she had run into a stone wall, and she stopped talking at this point and appeared to listen amiably to the advice of her father. But all the time she was making up her mind that, when the reins were in her hands, the ranch affairs would be driven in a different direction and at a different gait.
All of which has some bearing upon her anger when she found that her laughter had been spied upon by one of the hands. She gave the fellow another look, however, as they started off on the gallop. Noisy Joe Hanover made one of the party, Lefty Gregory was a second—both of them riding perhaps half a dozen lengths to the rear, so that the rancher and his daughter could talk in some privacy. The judge was accomplishing a double purpose in this tour of the ranch. In the first place he wanted to initiate a new hand into some of the mysteries of his range, and also he wanted to impress Miriam with the size of the domain that was to be hers before many years. It was his secret hope that he could induce Miriam to leave the management of the ranch entirely in the hands of the present foreman, Charlie Bender.
They left the plain; they climbed into the hills; and it was already nine o'clock when they saw the wild herd. The keen eye of Lefty distinguished them first, and his cry raised the heads of the others in time to see a cream-colored stallion, with a mane and tail of silver—a very painting and picture of a horse rather than matter-of-fact horseflesh—drive around the corner of a hill, and with a thundering of hoofs, sixteen or twenty mares and colts followed at his heels.
With a yell the judge jerked to get his rifle out of its case, but Miriam clung to his arm and prevented him, while at the same time her frantic orders forced the two cowpunchers behind her to lower their weapons. And the mustangs flashed on. The cream-colored leader was working like a captain in command of the troops. First he showed the way, ranging in the lead with matchless speed. Then he swept around to the rear. A lumbering colt tasted the teeth of the stallion, and a slow-footed mare was likewise punished, until she closed up the gap that was growing between her and the band. So, rounding up the laggards like a good shepherd, he brought his band out of view among the hills, with a final neigh of mockery and challenge.
It had all happened in a few seconds, and Miriam released the arm of her father, who was now in a raging temper.
"It was The Gold King," answered Lefty sadly. "And we were all in good range. I think one of us might have knocked him over, Judge."
"Might have knocked him over?" raved the rancher. "Might have? My God, Lefty, if I couldn't have filled him full of lead with my own rifle, I'd have left the range."
"Do you really mean it?" cried Miriam. "You would have shot that beautiful creature? I don't believe it!"
"She doesn't believe it," echoed her father to Lefty. "She doesn't believe that I'd shoot a thief that's run off with a thousand dollars' worth of mares for me in the past two years. She doesn't believe we'd shoot that devil of a horse and collect a twenty-five-hundred-dollar bounty on his head! Miriam, sometimes you talk so plain simple that I can't believe you're my daughter."
"I can't help what you think. I say he's the most beautiful horse I've ever seen."
"You keep going by your eyes, Miriam, and you'll lead a mighty unhappy life in this old world of ours. It ain't what you see, but what you know that counts. That same stallion has raided the ranches of fifty men, up and down the mountains. They've chased him fifty times, run down his herd, and had him go right on and collect a new gang to follow him. He likes company, curse his yellow sides!"
"I'd give a year of life," said Miriam obstinately, "to sit in a saddle on his back for five minutes."
"That's a safe offer," said her father dryly. "The only way they'll ever catch The Gold King will be with a rifle bullet... and a lucky one at that."
"I mean it," she said, going from obstinacy to emotion. "I... I'd marry the man who'd bring me that horse to ride."
They reached the ranch house again by noon. That evening, after dinner, the foreman came in from the bunkhouse to report that the new cowpuncher, Noisy Joe, had disappeared.
"He was just one of these bums," said Charlie Bender, "that hear a lot of talk about the easy life on a ranch and come out to take a chance at it. He didn't know nothing. He could stick in the saddle pretty fair, but he didn't know a rope from the handle of a frying pan. What he wanted was a full belly. He's got that, and he's gone."
This was all that was said about the disappearance of Noisy Joe Hanover. In the bunkhouse, to be sure, there were occasional references to his silence. But in a day or two he was forgotten.
As for Miriam, she was too busy to think of any of the incidents of that first day, except to be vaguely grateful that the man who had seen her laugh had disappeared before he had had a chance to spread the story among the other 'punchers. The memory of his pale face became like the memory of a dim ghost. In the meantime work poured in and filled her hands. She started at the bottom and wanted to learn everything. She would rise at five and go to bed at midnight and never stop striving for an instant in between.
"Engines in her are too big for her beam," said her father unpoetically.
She was rather a pretty girl than beautiful. For beauty, after all, is usually spoiled by action, at least by action of the mind, and Miriam's mind had never been still. There was a wrinkle marked straight up and down between her eyes. Her lips were habitually a little compressed. A shadow of purple underlined her eyes, and little crow's feet were beginning in the corners. All these things were apparent when she was in repose, and one could understand why her friends said that "poor Miriam is throwing herself away." Indeed, she was playing the spendthrift, and what a treasure she had already spent could be guessed when she laughed and talked with enthusiasm. For, then, she was truly beautiful. The charm, the thrilling illusion was there for an instant, and then the drab commonplace returned. And men said frequently: "What will she be at thirty-five, if she's only twenty-two now? Besides, she knows too much."
Which was perfectly natural as a remark, because in this age, when woman strives so gallantly toward mental strength, men hate brains in women more and more. Particularly they hate the sort of brains and ambition that belonged to Miriam, for she was eager to do anything and everything. Nothing could be beyond her reach. If a man did it, she could do it. She never talked about men and women and their differences—she talked about people, human beings. Within a month from her arrival she had roped and tied a steer; within six weeks she had received a round dozen, hard falls from bucking bronchos, and had finally ridden one of the worst horses on the ranch. Within three months from her coming, she walked with a limp, was tired of eye, brown of skin, and braver than ever in her smile.
The cowpunchers admired her courage, but they were a little afraid of her. Somehow they felt that she represented a new type of woman, fiery, resistless, ready to push man off his pedestal, where he had been posing through the ages as the builder, the maker, the pool of strength. This wisp of a girl who stood five feet and four inches, with a little, round waist hardly as big as a man's thigh, was doing as much work—even physical work—as the stoutest of the cowpunchers. Moreover, she worked as though it were a game. Wild wind and fierce weather did not dismay her. She went happily on. So that the fear of her and her kind grew up, side by side, with the admiration which she collected. And eventually the fear grew stronger than the admiration.
Even her father began to feel it. He had always been very fond of Miriam. And he had been inclined to laugh her down when she first came out to the ranch, full of theories and talk. He had not really dreamed that she had the courage and the nerve power, to say nothing of the sheer physical strength, to do what she was accomplishing. She worked all day and studied all night. And, from time to time, she cornered him in an argument, and he suffered shame and fear, as he began to perceive that she was learning more about cattle than he had ever known.
Sometimes, when he was protesting that she must not throw away her youth and her beauty in this fashion to do a mere man's work, he felt that he was talking in the defense of his sex. And she would always answer, with a sort of fierce conviction, that beauty and youth meant no more to her than beauty and youth mean to a young man. All that she prized, she declared, was her good health which enabled her to work hard. As for looks, at fifty, she was fond of saying, there are only two things that are attractive in any woman, and these are health and physical agility. As for the cowpunchers, they would have worshipped her had they not been in such awe, and a man cannot love a thing he fears.
So they came to an evening three months later. The June sun was rolling down toward the horizon, but was still bright. The wind was moving in slow puffs, as warm as human breath. At one end of the verandah Charlie Bender was conversing with the judge concerning a fencing problem, and Miriam was sitting alone at the farther end, reading a treatise on the Hereford.
Charlie Bender spoke first—a sharp exclamation. Then the judge stood up. Finally Miriam looked down the hill in the same direction and saw what seemed a moving blotch of gold, coming along the road. She looked again. It was a horse, and the rider was pushing him at a steady canter.
"What a magnificent animal," she said. "D'you recognize that horse, Father?" She spoke with a careless enthusiasm. "Or do you know the rider?" she continued.
"I don't know," said her father, strangely excited. "By the Lord, Charlie, do you think that it can possibly be?"
"I can tell a man a good way off by his way of riding," remarked Charlie Bender. "And I noticed him most particular. He had a way of shoving his whole left side forward. Rode sort of twisted."
"Who did?" asked Miriam.
To her astonishment they both turned upon her abstracted glances and then turned again, without a word of answer, to watch the approaching horseman.
"There ain't any doubt about the color," said Charlie Bender.
"The color of what?" asked Dent, coming through the door. Charlie Bender gave him a glance of utter disgust and was again silent.
Indeed, every cowpuncher on the place hated Dent. He had known Miriam in New York and Paris. Therefore, he was welcome at the ranch, but nevertheless they hated him. For it was plain that he had no interest in anything on the ranch, or in the entire range of the mountains, except Miriam. She was the only person who could not see that he had come to marry her, not to enjoy a rest in the Wild West. He went about his object with perfect precision. He pored over the books about cattle that Miriam had recently bought, and, though he could not distinguish a Durham from a Hereford, he had so far progressed that he could talk about them glibly.
His name was Manning Underwood Dent, and the unlucky combination of initials, seen on his trunk, had gained for him the nickname of Mud from the cowpunchers. Had he lived through a hundred years of heroic life in the West, he could never have changed that name with them. Instead of that, however, he was known among them on second thought as an effeminate fortune hunter. Not a man on the ranch but would have made him eat dirt with the most reckless enthusiasm.
As for the occupation of Manning Underwood Dent, he had been at turns musical critic and writer of travel sketches, in which he described fishing villages in Sicily and peasant towns in France, illustrated with the work of his own brush. He had once written both the words and the music of a song. In fact, he could talk fluently of any art. He was a man of imposing presence, rather tall, exceedingly slender, with an enormous, bulging forehead, a head of black, curling hair, a close-cropped mustache, and a pale-olive skin. The pupils of his eyes were a little yellowish in tint. Altogether one could not tell whether he were a little sick from too much study or from a weak constitution. He stood now behind the chair of Miriam and gazed down the road with the others.
"On my honor," he murmured, for he made it a practice to speak always softly, "on my honor, the horse seems to be actually made of gold."
"Good heavens!" cried Miriam and started to her feet.
"My dear Miriam," said Mud, "what have I done? What have I said? You are upset."
He laid a quieting hand on her shoulder. He was fond of saying that his touch was soothing. But Miriam brushed the hand away and looked back down the road. Then she stared, appalled, at her father. That gentleman had also risen and was staring down the road with such emotion that his saberlike white mustaches worked.
"Of course, I'm seeing a ghost," said the judge.
"It can't be!" cried Miriam.
"He's spent three months doing it," said the foreman, and here he comes back on the jump."
All the breath went out of Miriam's body. She had not dreamed that anyone else could have known about her foolish remark when she first saw The Gold King disappearing among the hills. She had thought that it had fallen upon her ears alone. But plainly either Lefty or Noisy Joe Hanover must have been told the tale when they returned from the morning ride.
"Good heavens," repeated the girl. "What does it mean?"
"I dunno," said Charlie Bender gloomily. "I figure that your father knows a pile more law than I do. Why don't you ask him?"
She turned to her father. His long mustaches were still working.
"I can't be bothered with questions," he said. "You run on inside the house."
Miriam obeyed without a word, but at the door she hesitated and glanced back down the road. Then, with a sort of groan of despair, she disappeared into the house, and they could hear the rapid beat of her feet up the stairs, and, finally, the slamming of a door which showed that she had gone to her room for refuge.
Manning Underwood Dent, in the meantime, would have gone mad with curiosity had he not been too conscious of his own importance to speak quickly. But finally he was forced to murmur: "Miriam seems completely upset, Mister Standard."
"She does," said the judge without turning his head.
"Girls," pursued Dent, "have the strangest way of going off at tangents from the circle. Excitable and..."
"I suppose you want to know what this is all about?" asked the judge finally, as though he saw that this was the easiest way of avoiding a long conversation.
"Naturally," said Dent.
"Three months ago Miriam saw a wild stallion... an outlaw horse... and she said that she'd marry the man who could bring that horse to her. Well, Mister Dent, there comes the horse, and the man on his back seems to be a fellow who used to be an old cowpuncher on the place."
Mr. Dent was staggered. But almost at once he was able to laugh.
"A very good joke," he suggested. "A poor ignorant cowpuncher actually aspiring to the hand of Miriam Standard."
This description of cowpunchers in general brought a glare from the foreman, but the foreman was of a social class so far below Dent that it never occurred to Dent that Bender might resent his remarks on the subject of cowpunchers.
"Why a joke?" asked the judge sharply. "A promise is a promise, and, by the living God, a promise that a man could give serious thought to is a promise that my daughter shall consider serious, also."
"Good Lord," gasped Dent.
"Exactly!" stormed the judge.
Mr. Dent dropped into a chair and sat there sprawling.
Life returned only by the slowest degrees to the small, yellowish eyes of Mr. Dent. Eventually, however, he was able to sit up, just as the stallion was halted under the lee of the verandah wall. He was a glorious animal, not tall, but made as a jeweler makes a watch. He had strength enough to dance on the wind. That also was apparent. He was perhaps an inch above fifteen hands. He seemed even smaller, so exact were his proportions. His body was of molten gold cast into a mold. His mane and tail were solid silver, on which the sunshine was dazzling. And his four little feet were stockinged in black.
This was The Gold King near at hand. But, no, this was not all of him. Where is the poet to sing in wild rhythms all the fiery life which trembled in his body, or set his nostrils quivering, or blazed out at his eyes? He could not be still an instant. He was as restless as a new-caged tiger, or—to vary the simile and make it just as exact—he was as restless as a hungry puppy. In fact, in spite of all his beauty and his strength, he did not aspire awe so much as affection. When Noisy Joe Hanover dropped out of the saddle, the eyes of the stallion became soft at once, and he nibbled at the brim of the cowpuncher's hat.
When Noisy Joe rambled idly on toward the verandah, the golden horse followed until his master went up the steps. There the stallion paused, with his front hoofs resting on the lower step and his eyes fixed upon Joe. Even Mr. Dent grew excited and arose from his chair again. As for the rancher and his foreman, they were struck dumb for a moment, and, when they regained their voices, they were only able to whisper.
"It is Noisy Joe," murmured Charlie Bender.
"It's him!" gasped the rancher.
"Joe, how did you do it?"
Noisy Joe sat down upon the railing of the verandah and, before he answered, drew forth tobacco and brown papers, offered them carefully to each of the three listeners—was introduced to Manning Dent during the same process—then rolled himself a smoke, lighted it, blew forth the first long, blue-brown cloud of smoke, and proceeded to deliver himself of his thrilling narrative: "I followed the old horse, got him, and we've been living together ever since."
He went on smoking and looking down the verandah, as though he saw something of surprising interest on a distant treetop.
"But what did you do? And how did you do it?" begged the judge, who loved a good story as a child loves Christmas.
"I just followed along and waited to grab him," said the cowpuncher. "When the lucky day came..."
"Ah, yes, tell us about that day, Hanover."
"When the lucky day came, I nabbed him, and there he is. Mighty good-natured horse, Judge."
The judge used up some of his excess of disappointment and anger by jabbing his pocketknife into the wooden railing. "Well," he said to the foreman, "did you ever see a man like him?"
The foreman, however, was grinning broadly and looking over the truant cowpuncher with the most friendly eye in the world. The unsightly pallor was gone from the face of Noisy Joe. He was now as brown as a berry, and from the color of his skin as well as the ragged condition of his clothes which were simply a mass of patches held together rudely with twine—one might judge that the horse hunter had spent every hour of the past three months out in the open. Indeed, his very eyes were changed. The weary sadness was gone from them, and a pair of bright lights looked out upon the world. Here was a 'puncher worth having on the ranch, and, even if he knew nothing about the management of a rope, he could learn that in time. Indeed, whether he ever learned to use a rope, it would be a credit to the outfit to have the captor of The Gold King in their employ.
"I've got something to talk to you about, Judge," the returned cowpuncher was saying to the older man.
"About what?" asked the judge.
"About Miriam," said the other.
Even Charlie Bender was agape. He used that name with as much fluent ease as though he had been raised with the girl. It was suddenly and sickeningly plain that he had, indeed, taken her at her word that day three months before. What manner of man could he be? A child? No child could capture The Gold King and make a pet out of him.
"Miriam?" breathed the judge, his eyes starting from his head. "I... come this way, Joe. Come right into the library with me." And he fairly scrambled out of his chair and led the way into the house.
"Most amazing, by heaven," murmured Mr. Dent.
On most occasions Charlie Bender would not have stopped so far beneath the sense of his own dignity as to exchange opinions with Manning Underwood Dent, but today he was fairly stunned by what had happened, and speech was necessary.
"What the devil got into the judge?" muttered Bender.
"As though," went on Dent, growing a little pale, "he were actually taking this 'puncher fellow seriously."
Here his words were punctuated by a night-black glance from the foreman, but Dent went soberly on: "He changed color when he heard this Hanover fellow speak. What could possibly be the meaning of it?"
"You being kind of strange to the country," remarked Charlie Bender, "most likely you wouldn't know. But I'll tell you. Out in these parts, when a man or woman makes a promise, it's a sort of an unwritten law that they got to keep their word. That ain't like the East, is it?"
"Certainly not," murmured Dent. "A purely conventional exclamation of an impulsive girl turned into a whip over her head. I've never heard of anything like it."
Charlie Bender was silent. Even to him it was so amazing that he did not know what to make of it.
"I understand now," cried Dent at last. "Mister Standard is very properly buying the fellow off. No doubt the present of a good saddle would mean as much to a cowpuncher as the present of the most charming wife."
Charlie Bender groaned with impotent rage. To their very tips, his fingers ached to be at this man.
"Of course, that's it," said Dent. "By this time they've reached an agreement. Eh? Listen to that."
A door had opened, and the voice of the judge was heard flowing smoothly on and on.
"The law is a fine thing," said Charlie Bender reverently. "It makes a gent know how to be a fine persuader. Listen to the old judge sing."
Now heavy footfalls came down the hall. The voice of the judge was raised loud and high in the inner hall.
"Miriam! Oh, Miriam!"
Her answer tinkled in the distance. From the verandah they could hear another door close softly in the upper part of the house.
"Yes, Dad," answered Miriam from the head of the stairs.
"Come down here, girl."
The chill in that phrase was easily understandable. She had just seen Noisy Joe Hanover standing beside her father in the lower hall. Nevertheless, down she came—slowly, in the most sedate fashion. One could tell that by the regularity with which her heels tapped the stairs. Each of the men on the verandah listened agape, with their heads canted sideways and their eyes rolled up in an effort of listening and of conjuring up the picture of the scene.
She was at the bottom of the stairs.
"Now, Miriam," said the judge, "I been talking things over with Joe Hanover."
"Talking what things over, Father?"
"Listen to her," declared Bender to the thin air. "Ain't she the game little four-flusher?"
"What things?" thundered the judge. "Don't try to pull the wool over my eyes, young lady. We're talking over the statement you made three months ago in the hearing of three men. You said that you'd marry the man who could bring The Gold King to you to ride."
Dent and Bender came out of their chairs, as though unseen hands had lifted them.
"I'm not going to try to understand what you mean," asserted Miriam. "It was just a chance exclamation. It might have come from the lips of any girl. Dad, are you wild to call me to task for such a remark as that?"
"Look here!" exclaimed the judge. "You've been talking about the duties of a man and a woman being the same, and that a woman that tries to shove all the hard work and the worry of life onto the shoulders of a man is a coward and a sneak. Well, Miriam, go a little further and tell me what you think of the woman that has no sense of honor. Tell me that, Miriam!"
"Father," answered Miriam, "are you really serious?"
"I am," said the judge, and the two listeners on the verandah started. "This man has poured out three months of his life... three months of hard labor... he's gone starved... he's risked his life... he's worked like a dog for three months. Now he comes back, having done a miracle. He captured The Gold King. He brought you the thing you wanted, and now he demands that he have the bargain fulfilled. It's logical, just, and right."
There was a little silence, and Miriam herself could not have started with more horror than did the two on the verandah.
"Aw," muttered Charlie Bender, "it ain't going to come to nothing. Noisy Joe may be a queer one, but he's a 'puncher, and there never was a 'puncher since the beginning of time that would take advantage of a woman like that."
The same thought must have been in the mind of Miriam.
"Of course, this is all part of a great hoax," she was saying stiffly. "I appreciate that it is very funny, Mister Hanover. And I know that Western cattlemen are a thousand times too chivalrous to dream of such a thing as you are thinking of doing. You cannot hold me to the result of a careless, random expression."
"Careless... nothing!" exploded her father. "You said the words, didn't you? You've been out here for three months, finding out how little your father knew about the cow business and wondering why he didn't go broke long ago, with his old musty methods. Well, dearie, no matter what any man may say, the first thing that a man has got to have in the cow business is a name for being a man of his word. And nobody's going to say that his daughter don't keep her word as well as her father."
There was another deadly little pause, one of those intervals which say so much more than words can possibly do.
At length Miriam replied: "Mister Hanover, I am going to stop talking to my father and ask you, face to face... do you intend to hold me to this shameless contract? Can it really be for an instant in your mind to force me to do such a thing? What under heaven, Mister Hanover, could make you dream that you and I might find any happiness together? Have we received the same education? Do we enjoy the same things?"
The reply of Hanover was wonderfully terse and to the point.
"Lady," he said, "you asked for the horse. I got the horse for you. That's my side of the thing." With this he was silent.
"Isn't that manly and fair and square?" asked the rancher.
"He's gone mad," whispered Dent.
"Shut up, Mud," breathed the foreman.
"Oh," came the wail of Miriam, "I've never heard of such a thing." And her footfalls pattered rapidly up the stairs.
"You'll hear some more of the same tune, though!" called the rancher up the stairs. "You're not through with this yet." Then came his assurance to the cowpuncher. "You'll find that I'll fight this matter through to the bitter end, Hanover. The honor of the Standards is a flawless honor until now, and a flawless honor it must remain."
He came stamping out onto the verandah, with his heavy hand clapped upon the shoulder of the cowpuncher. As for the foreman and Dent, they regarded the captor of The Gold King with frozen eyes. Charlie Bender finally rose and walked hastily for the bunkhouse. But the ranchman had passed into an ecstasy over The Gold King. The mustang was, he declared, the finest specimen of horseflesh he had ever seen. There might be Thoroughbreds of more beauty and worth, a greater price on a race track, but there was nothing in the world, he vowed, that combined such great speed and endurance, and there was no sire that would be the foundation of a line of more peerless cow ponies.
Charlie Bender heard the last part of the enthusiastic outburst. Then he hurried on for the bunkhouse. It had been a long, hard day. He found Happy Sam Carter sitting in the doorway, playing softly and sadly on a harmonica. The others were scattered about, waiting for the time to go to bed, smoking cigarettes, until the bunkhouse was a blue haze, and talking in weary voices. The foreman waked them up, as though he had announced a fire.
"Noisy Joe is back," he called from the doorway, "and he's got The Gold King and wants to trade him for Miss Standard."
Through the blue-brown smoke mist the 'punchers swung to erect positions. There was a machine-gun fire of questions, and the story was hastily told. No decorative details were left out, for that matter, and the case was made out black, indeed, against Joe Hanover.
"I heard her say them same words," announced Lefty Gregory. "Meant no more'n it'd mean if I was to say I'd give ten years of life for a drink of red-eye. It was just the same sort of a remark. Didn't mean nothing, matter of fact, and nobody but a fool like Noisy Joe would have took her serious.
"What's come over the old judge?" asked the chorus.
"The judge is sore at Miriam because she knows more'n he does. He wants to hold her down with a stupid husband."
"Noisy Joe is worse than that," declared Bender with a growing warmth, as the full horror of the situation dawned upon him. "I figure that he's sort of a simple-minded guy. Ever notice that flat, dead eye of his and the way he don't say nothing?"
Of course, all of this had been noticed.
"It's an outrage!" cried Lefty.
"It hadn't ought to be allowed," called another.
"Say," said Bender, coming sharply to the point, "let's all take a hand and bust this here thing all up. We can do it. We can give this here Hanover such a riding that he'll skin out from the ranch and never show his face within ten miles of it again. Let's get ready for him when he comes in from the house, packing his blankets. We'll fix him up with a night that he ain't going to forget, if he lives a hundred years."
With loud acclaim the thought was accepted. Charlie Bender was immensely popular with the men who worked under him, but he had never made a more popular suggestion than this. They began straightway to prepare for the reception. It was necessary that a great deal should be done. In the first place, everyone wished to salvage such perishables as he owned and put them in a safe place, because in the approaching rough house there was apt to be much damage done—at least, if Noisy Joe put up a stern resistance.
There was a brief dialogue on his possibilities as a fighter. It was agreed that his lean arms and shoulders might be furnished with muscles of excellent qualities, even if of small compass. But it was agreed, furthermore, that he was too slow to use his strength to the very best advantage. For this reason they made their preparations less elaborate than they might otherwise have done. It was decided that all should be a scene of peace and harmony, with some of the men in bed and apparently asleep, while others should be sitting about idly mending clothes or reading magazines.
Undoubtedly this would lure Noisy Joe straight into the bunkhouse and toward his old bunk. But when he made toward it, he would at once be tackled from the side by Lefty, who was a man of might. After the tackling, the others would arise. And when they were through with Noisy Joe, it was strongly surmised that the 'puncher would desire permission to depart for regions unknown more than to remain even to marry Miriam and become the heir to Judge Standard.
This was the scene, then, upon which Noisy Joe actually looked when he reached the door of the bunkhouse. The sun was down, but the sky was still brilliantly red, and the long June evening was just beginning. Yet half of the men were in bed, and the others were preparing to retire. Upon this the silent man gazed for a time, and then, instead of entering, he stepped back and turned away.
There was a busy exchange of glances and whispers the moment he had disappeared.
"Has he smelled a rat?"
"The only rat here is himself"
"Let's go get the hound and bring him in."
All of these ominous whispers were drowned out by the commanding gesture of Charlie Bender and his murmur: "Be still, all of you. He'll hear something."
So they fell back into their former attitudes of quiet. One impulsive genius in a corner of the room even began to snore loudly, which started the others shaking with silent laughter.
"Gents," drawled the rare voice of Noisy Joe from the outside, "I wonder if I'd disturb you much if I was to limber up my old gat for a minute? I'm all out of practice."
"Help yourself, Noisy," answered Bender with the greatest good cheer. "Help yourself. We can stand it, if your target can."
With a wink at the others he stepped to the door to watch the performance. Two or three others also crowded their heads to the door to watch. And this was what they saw: Noisy Joe had found a large tin can which he placed on its side on the flat of the ground. Then he retired a distance of perhaps twenty paces—a good, long range for quick and accurate revolver work—and slipped from his holster a long, blue-barreled Colt. No one of the other men had ever paid much attention to the weapon before this. For Noisy Joe had been so inoffensive that no one had connected him with a deadly weapon.
However, it was patent that he had handled the gun with the most practiced ease. It flowed into his hand, as though it were a feather's weight, and, hardly glancing at his target, he began to stroll forward, firing once every time his right heel struck the ground. And the can, as if drawn by an invisible string, was jerked away before him, so that it remained an even twenty paces in the lead. He took six steps and six shots. As he walked, the shots were plunging into the ground close to the rolling can, and the spray of dust and gravel kicked the can along. This was more difficult work than it appeared to be. Not only was it necessary that each shot should be extremely close to the can, but it was also imperative that the can should roll straight. It angled to one side or the other with every shot, and it was important to correct the angle by placing the next shot a little to one side of center.
The six shots were fired, and then, as the Colt was dropped into the holster, another revolver was produced from somewhere in the clothes of Noisy Joe, produced as smoothly and swiftly as though it had been hanging in a holster at his hip. Now with his left hand he pumped six more shots into the dirt behind the can.
Presently the can reached the edge of a sharp, little slope and tumbled away out of sight, while Noisy Joe deliberately cleaned and reloaded his guns. There was perfect silence from the door of the bunkhouse for a time. Each man was watching with wonder.
"How much practicing do you do?" asked someone in a tone of greatest respect.
"Once a month," answered Noisy, and walked slowly off toward the corral, where The Gold King was idling back and forth along the fence, as though he were fretting at his cage.
"What I want to know," said Charlie Bender slowly, when he had turned away from the door, "is this… did he smell a rat when he came in and then go out to do that shooting stunt to take the wind out of our sails? Or did it just happen?"
"I dunno," said Lefty. "I sure dunno what was in his mind, Charlie, but I know what's in my mind right now."
"What's that, Lefty?"
"The wind has been all took out of my sails. If the rest of you want to haze Noisy Joe, go ahead and have your party, but lemme sleep quiet in my bunk."
Charlie Bender was shocked. For Lefty was a known man of war. He loved a hard battle more than most men loved a square meal, and it was like a contradiction in terms to hear Lefty speak of withdrawing from a combat.
"I'll tell you why," he explained, as he removed his boots and dived into his bunk. "These gents that go along so smooth and easy and shoot straight are mighty dangerous to stop. They don't ask no questions. They just unlimber a gat and start in to work. I'd rather play tag with a basketful of rattlers and tickle the nose of a bull with a red rag than fool with this Noisy Joe. That's only my way of looking at it. A lot of you other boys may be braver than me. Go ahead and have your little party. But I'll sit in the gallery. That's me."
After this announcement there was no more thought of a rough house for the benefit of Noisy. That worthy entered the bunkhouse after a time and went quietly to bed in his old accustomed bunk, and not a voice or a hand was raised. Silence settled over the bunkhouse. There was no last-minute story, as boots were being drawn off. Had they all been prisoners in a jail, there could not have been a more solemn quiet. But once in a while, as Noisy methodically made down his bunk, glances were stolen at him. And it seemed to the others that he must have grown during the chase of the stallion. Certainly his shoulders were much broader.
In an ecstasy of horror Miriam remained in her room for a long time after that interview with her father. She did not come down until dinner. At the table and in front of their guest, Dent, she was certain that she should escape from the further development of the subject. But in this she underrated her father. He went blithely ahead from the point at which he had left off during their conversation in the hall.
He had often noticed, he declared, that girls start life with a superior belief in their own powers and a contempt for the abilities of men. He had seen the same tendencies exhibited in Miriam since her arrival at the ranch. She had declared more than once that she wished no quarter as a woman, that she desired only to take what came to her as a human being. Now, declared the rancher, the time had come for her to show her true colors. Here was a promise that she had given. The promise was now waiting to be redeemed. But at this point the rancher made the mistake of appealing for judgment to young Dent.
"By no means, sir!" cried Manning Underwood Dent. "Allow me to assert my conviction, sir, that such an alliance between two people so mismated is, I am certain, nothing else than a sacrilege."
"Since when," growled the rancher, "has my daughter been a saint?"
"Ah," jumped in Manning Dent, seizing greedily upon the opening, "there is something sacred in every woman."
"Romantic rot," growled Standard.
"Divine truth," answered the other.
Here the arrival of the roast stopped the talk for a moment, and the rancher was very grateful for it. He felt that he had raised fire instead of an ally.
It was the rashness of Dent that brought on the next explosion.
"But, of course, sir," said the younger man, "we know that it is all a great hoax... and very admirably carried out, I am willing to admit."
"The devil you are!" roared the rancher. "You are sure it is a hoax? By the Lord, sir, if my daughter is not married to Joe Hanover before the month is out, my name is not Standard!"
Miriam folded her hands and looked down the table at her father. The sight of her white face struck him like a blow, but he hastened on to beat up his fury, simply because he was afraid that the sight of her distress might make him weaken.
"And every word of that is gospel!" he thundered. "You write it down in red and remember it!"
"Sir," she said, "you forget that we are not alone."
"Ma'am," he answered, "I don't care if the whole world flocks around and hears what I got to say to my daughter. I'm tired of these new women. I'm going to be obeyed in my own family, and I'm going to teach my own daughter that..."
"That her happiness means nothing to you."
"That her happiness is nothing compared with her honor!" he roared. "Chalk it down in red, I say. If I have to drag you into the presence of the minister with my own hands, I'll do it rather than see you foresworn!"
He had gone much further than he intended to go, but he was made of inflammable stuff. When a spark touched him, he was instantly at white heat. This was not all, however. An hour later he would give a great deal to retract what he had said in excess of meaning. But then, since he had once committed himself, he would throw his entire strength into the breach and fight to make it good. His daughter was as well aware of this as he was himself. If he could have been kept calm, all might have been well, but now he had been driven to a violent assertion, and he was sure to be equally violent in his deeds to make them match his words.
"Father," she breathed, rising from her chair.
"Don't stare at me with that white face, Miriam," he cried, sick at heart for what he had said, but brazening it out. "I'll have you know that I dispose of the destinies of my family."
She stood back from her chair. "I'll have you know, sir," she said, "that I am a free creature."
"School talk... school nonsense," he bellowed. "No meaning in those words at all!"
"You shall see."
"Of course, I'll see. Don't be an idiot, Miriam. You're going to do what I tell you to do."
"I'd rather be dead first."
"I mean it. I'd rather die than be the wife of a horse tamer a common, lazy, ignorant cowpuncher."
"How do you know he is? Have you talked to him?"
"Oh, I don't need to. I have looked at him!"
"I tell you, I've talked to him, and I respect him. He's a shrewd, wide-awake fellow."
"Father, good night."
"Look here, Miriam, this is war."
"If it has to be war… then let the war come."
"Stuff! You've been reading silly books. Why, you little rattle-headed child, I could cut you off without a penny!"
"Do it! Do it!" she cried. "Do you think I live for money or by money? It's dirt... it's nothing! You've worked all your life for the sake of dirt. Now do you think you can buy my obedience with it? I tell you that I scorn such a thought. It's base and low and worthy of a slave, not a free American woman.
"Go to your room," he gasped.
Miriam turned and walked slowly out. She had no sooner disappeared than the rancher ran after her, paused with his hand on the knob of the door, and then strode anxiously back and forth across the floor. Manning Underwood Dent knew well enough that he should have left the room before the argument had grown as heated as it had. But to him it was more thrilling than a play, and he could not leave before the curtain had dropped. Now, however, he rose with great dignity, bowed low to Mr. Standard, and began to leave the room.
"Sit down! Sit down!" shouted Standard. "What the devil? Are you going to let the silly ranting of a girl spoil your appetite?"
Dent hesitated. He was very hungry, and the beef was very good. But he had never before had such an admirable opening to take the center of the stage.
"Sir," he said, "I am sure that you will prefer to be alone to think over what you have just said, and I am sure that I wish to be alone to try to forget what I have just heard. I bid you a very good evening, sir."
He left the rancher, gasping, and went up to his room, tingling with his little triumph. For some time he walked up and down on the floor, rehearsing the manner in which he had delivered this speech and the change which it had worked in the face of Standard. It pleased Dent immensely. On the whole he felt that he had never appeared to better advantage in his life.
In the meantime Miriam was shrinking into a chair in her chamber. She was one of those who are seldom very angry, and, when she was carried away by a moment of rage, she suffered for it afterward. It was as though an axe were laid to the very root of her strength. She was sick now. For her own part, she was more than willing to retract every word she had said that could have offended her father. But she knew his pride was iron, and, having announced himself in such unmistakable terms, it would be strange, indeed, if he altered his mind. What did it mean? She, of course, could not give way. It was sure to create an estrangement between them. She could not live in this house without obeying him. And if she ever left this house, she knew her father well enough to guess that he would never take her back again. At least, this was a point on which she was sure enough.
Certainly no girl was ever placed in a more unfortunate position, or one which required more diplomacy in order to extricate herself. After a time she heard the door of the dining room open and the step of Manning Dent go softly up the stairs. He had probably offended her father before he left, and she would have to suffer for this, also.
Presently she began to feel angry at Dent. Anger, however, served to fix the idea of Dent in her mind. She did not dislike the fellow as her father and the cowpunchers did. He impressed her as a rather entertaining man who had been a great many places, known many people, done many things, and who could fill in a dull moment with pleasant small talk. Besides, he had the graces that everyone else around her lacked. These things underlined all of his good qualities and minimized his bad ones.
She began to think of him now as the only person who had spoken a word for her in the midst of her present trouble. This thought grew until she eventually opened the door of her room and listened to make sure that no one was near enough to spy upon her. There was no sound in the house except the steady and measured beat of her father's familiar step, passing up and down in the library. This was his way when he was greatly moved. This was his way of grinding home a grievance until it was printed in the blackest ink in his heart of hearts. He would keep on in this fashion until he had beaten all his father's love for her out of existence. Then he would give her again that brutal alternative of marrying the cowpuncher or leaving her home.
It was like a fairy story, such cruelty as this, and a little thrill of self-pity brought the tears to her eyes. Then she stole down the hall and tapped at the door of Manning Dent. He was dressed as if for riding, she discovered, when the door was opened by him. He had a hat clapped on his head, his coat buttoned tightly, and on his bed was thrown a bag, strapped and ready for departure, as well as a rolled blanket with a slicker around it.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Dent. "I'd thought that I'd be in time to come for you, but here you've come for me, Miriam. I'm terribly ashamed."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, frowning in her anger. "And why in the world are you in your riding togs? Have you quarreled with Dad about me?"
It was a new angle, and one which was not unwelcome, from his point of view.
"I couldn't help it," he said. "Mister Standard let his tongue get quite away from him, Miriam. One can't stand up and hear such things, you must admit."
She could not help smiling. He was so slender and pale compared with old Judge Standard's bulk and bronze. Yet, she liked him better than she had ever liked him before. There was a certain quiet gallantry about him and his defiance. All at once she found herself pitying him with a warmed heart, and liking him very much.
"You quarreled with Dad, and so you were going to ride away from the ranch, Manning?"
"Of course, but not alone."
"Come, come, Miriam. Of course, you're going to revolt at such usage. And, of course, you're going to leave home, and, of course, I'm going to take care of you. Isn't that all simple?"
She swallowed another smile. It was rather odd that she should be facing elopement with Manning Underwood Dent.
"You're a desperately reckless fellow," she said.
"Well, well," he answered, "I see that you're going to have your laugh at me. I don't mind. I'm too fond of you to care about the little things, Miriam."
He said it so simply that his words struck noon in her heart again.
"But then you knew. I've never said it, but you've always known that I loved you, and that I was hanging about, ready to be used."
"You dear, old thing," murmured Miriam. "I didn't know anything of the kind. But will you take me away, Manning?"
"Not until I get my hat and coat."
She whirled to run down the hall, but then the excitement caught hold of her, and half in friendship and half in fun she leaned quickly to Manning Dent and touched his lips with hers, a kiss which poured the brain of that young man full of rose-tinted visions, in the midst of which she departed down the hall.
No sleep came to the eyes of Charlie Bender that night for some time. At length, he decided that he would stay awake and strive to puzzle out the bewildering problem of the strange cowpuncher. He had seen enough now to allow him to put certain of the details together. There was silence, expertness with a gun, great ability to trail and handle horses as certainly was most conclusively proved in the capture of The Gold King—and finally there was the pale face with which he had originally appeared at the ranch. Such pallor, for instance, grew rapidly in shade—never in sunshine. That the pallor was not natural with Noisy Joe Hanover was amply proved by the bronze skin with which he had returned from the chase of The Gold King. Where and how had his skin become white?
There was a sharp and shocking answer for that. No shade is so deep as a prison shade. And what but a prison could have kept from the sweep of the sun and the wind such a lover of horses and guns? Charlie Bender nodded to himself. This was a thought that might have come in the nick of time. Certainly, if there was a shadow of a truth in it, he could crush forever the absurd pretentions of Noisy Joe to the hand of Miriam. He decided that, when the morning came, he would ride to town and send out a few inquiries by wire, which might bring in replies that would make Noisy Joe strike out for the tall timber.
This conclusion had soothed Charlie Bender to such a point that his eyes were closed, and he was about to sink into sleep, when a shadow crossed his face. He did not open his eyes wide. Fear prompted him merely to peer up through his lashes; what he saw was the face of Noisy Joe leaning close above him and studying his features, with a most intense interest by the dim light in the bunkhouse. So dim was that light that he himself could barely make out the outline of Noisy's face. But what he could see convinced him that there was a devil in the mind of Joe this night. The brow was scowling, the jaw of the cowpuncher thrust out, and it seemed to Charlie Bender that a dangerous gleam of light was in his eyes. In a moment, whatever was the purpose that had brought him to lean over the foreman, he was apparently satisfied, for he turned away. He stole across the floor of the bunkhouse, and that floor, which squeaked and protested even when a man shifted his weight in a chair, remained utterly noiseless under the tread of Joe Hanover. It seemed to the foreman that this was the final and crowning stroke of mystery. It spelled only one thing, and that was the training of a thief, for only a thief could have moved so like a shadow.
Now Noisy Joe was sitting on the step at the door of the bunkhouse. He rolled a cigarette and lighted it, and Charlie Bender swore that he could not hear the scratching of the match. Not only that, but the flame of the match and then the glow of the cigarette were both so carefully masked by the deft fingers of Hanover that only the fragrance of the burning tobacco, blowing back into the room, made Bender sure that the cowpuncher was, indeed, smoking.
This went on for some time, and all the while the heart of the foreman was increasing its heat. What manner of man was this who worked all day and then sat up most of the night in silence, covering the glow of his cigarette with an instinctive caution?
All of this would bear examination, and examination it should certainly have, as Bender was now promising himself, when the cowpuncher rose from the step, jerked his hat lower over his eyes, and disappeared.
Bender did not wait long to make sure whether or not Noisy Joe would return. After a moment he slipped out of his bunk and stole to the door. There he saw Noisy Joe walking down toward the corral, with saddle and bridle caught over the crook of his arm. In that corral he saddled and bridled a horse which even at this distance and even by the starlight was recognizable as The Gold King. He did not waste time by lowering the bars, leading out the horse, and then putting them up again. Instead, he sent the stallion at the fence and took it at a great, easy leap. He was in no pressing hurry, however. Instead of sprinting the stallion across the hills, he jogged away and disappeared by slow degrees in the dimness. Then Charlie Bender acted. It required one minute for him to equip himself. The loud snoring of Lefty in one corner of the room masked the noise of his preparations. With his gun belted on and his bridle and saddle over his arm, he left the bunkhouse and ran down to the corrals.
The tall brown mare, the one he himself had broken and exclusively used for the past three years, was caught up. He tossed the saddle on her and in another moment was flying through the night on the trail of Hanover. He found that, easily and smoothly as The Gold King had rocked away through the night, he had nevertheless opened up a very considerable gap. He put the brown mare, Nan, to the top of her speed. They shot over the swales and into the hollows until the sand, which flew up from her forehoofs, cut and stung his face. At length, he was rewarded by a distant sight of the wanderer. The color of the stallion made it impossible to conceal her even in so feeble a light as this. One might as well have tried to cover from view a great spot of burnished gold.
They were deep in the hills by this time, so that he lost sight of the yellow horse most of the time. In fact, there was one interval of a hundred yards during which the stallion disappeared. In the fear that the night wanderer might have changed his course, Charlie Bender pressed ahead with all speed and shot the mare down a narrow gully. Where, indeed, could Noisy Joe Hanover be bound?
It might even be that he had sensed the new suspicion which had formed in the mind of the foreman, just as he had been able to sense, by a single glance into the bunkhouse, that a strong-handed reception was waiting for him there. So, knowing that Bender would not rest until he had unearthed the truth about Noisy Joe, the latter had fled in the middle of the night and taken with him the horse which, as he pretended, he had brought down for Miriam Standard.
No wonder that Charlie Bender spurred hard to get up with his quarry. When he reached the other, there would be trouble, of course, but Charlie Bender was unafraid. He had used a Colt before this, and he was ready to use one again, if the worst came to the worst. The facts about Noisy Joe Hanover must be his.
He shot down to the bottom of the gulch, whirled the big brown mare around a corner of the rocks, and then he saw, topping a rise just beyond, the form of The Gold King, crisply cut against the starry heavens. He drew in on the reins, but, before the mare could slacken her pace, Charlie Bender was caught across the breast, flicked out of his saddle, spun thrice over and over in the air, while the stars became sparks of fire from a pinwheel, and then he landed solidly upon his face.
If he had not regained consciousness at once, he would have died by choking, for every spoonful of breath was knocked out of him. But the stabbing pain from a cut on the forehead roused him, and he began to fight for a breath. To the uninitiated it may seem that to be out of breath is nothing. To men who knew of it only by being hit in the stomach when they are boxing like boys, and to women who know of it only when a morsel goes down the wrong way—being out of breath will seem a trivial thing. But Charlie Bender did not find it so. It was as if the foot of a mastodon, covering his entire body, had pressed down just far enough to collapse completely the bellows of the lungs. When he strove to get air back into the cells, he could not do it. He wriggled around on his back, like a fish out of water. He gnashed at the air, as a wolf bites at raw meat. He felt the veins of his face swelling, until it seemed that the skin must burst. And so at length, having passed through the drawn-out tortures of a dozen deaths, he could draw a free, long breath. On shaking arms he supported himself and dragged down the priceless air. He had never before known that mere breathing could be a delight. Finally his head was cleared. He rose, weak and unsteady, and, having gained his feet, bound up the bleeding wound in his head with a bandanna and began to look about for the cause of the trouble. The big brown mare came back to stand by and watch, as though she, too, wished to learn the meaning of this mysterious and most rapid dismounting.
It was childishly simple when he found it. It was simply a rope tied across the trail from a rock to a tree. Trembling with shame and anger, he untied the rope and examined it by the light of a match. Yes, it was the rope of Noisy Joe. He himself had given the new hand that rope and taught him some of the ways to use it.
Bender gnashed his teeth with rage. He dared not go back to the boys at the ranch and tell them what had happened. It would make him appear in much too undignified a light. No, he must keep his grievance to himself, and, when the occasion came—if ever he could lay eyes on Noisy Joe Hanover again...
He gave himself up to an ecstasy of prospect. He saw himself landing a hard fist squarely on the point of Noisy's jaw. He saw Noisy fall. He saw himself mopping Noisy's face against the splintered floor. His ears drank in the sweet music of Hanover's yells for mercy. But in the meantime, what was to be his next step? He could not follow blindly on through the night. He had lost priceless time through this accident, and it would be folly to attempt to trail the matchless speed of The Gold King any more this night.
So he climbed reluctantly into the saddle again and swung Nan off the hill trail and to the south, a shorter cut back toward the ranch. If that story ever were told, how the 'punchers would laugh. They would say that Noisy Joe could do nothing with his rope except to make it fight for him. Bender himself grinned like a goblin of fury as the thought came home to him.
The back stairs of the Standard house were steep and narrow, but they did not squeak. Therefore, it was down this exit that Miriam went, leading the way for her hero, and Manning Underwood Dent followed softly behind her. They went out the back, where the screen door mercifully did not screech. Chung Li was never able to touch that door without sending a knife edge through the ears of everyone in the house.
In the open, Miriam felt more relieved; half of the thing was done. She talked the rest over on the way down to the corral.
"Where do you think we'd better go, Manning'? We're out of the lion's trap. But where shall we go now? We can't drop into a hole in the ground, you know."
"Well," said Manning, "I've always noticed that something happens. One never starves. Something always pops up. It will for us, too, old dear."
Miriam grinned through the kindly dark. There was a delightful childishness about Dent. He was like a fresh wind in the face after a night of sweltering heat. She could think better when she had him as a background or an audience.
"But where are we going, Manning?"
"What does that mean?"
"Well, we can just light out and keep right on going until we hit some place that looks comfortable."
"Hmm," said Miriam. "We could ride our horses to death in some directions around here before we reached any comfort. We must find something more concrete than that, Manning.
"Yes, one thing, of course."
"We'll have to find a minister before we go far."
"Isn't that reasonable?"
"Minister," she echoed.
"Because I can't be wandering around all night with a girl. Not at night, Miriam. It might spoil my reputation... and yours. I've certainly never done anything like that before."
Miriam laughed, but there was no mirth in the sound.
"After all, I think you're right. We can't rove all over the mountains without being married." Here she turned and shook her fist fiercely in the direction of the ranch house. "It will serve him right!"
"What will?" asked Manning.
"Nothing. But did you ever hear of such madness, Manning? Did you ever hear of such a thing?"
"As eloping the way we're doing?"
"No, no, no! I mean he swore that he'd make me marry that Hanover creature, if he had to drag me to the altar with his own hands."
"What a horrible catastrophe! You wouldn't have been able to marry me, then."
"Not without breaking the law." Miriam managed to laugh again.
"I don't understand you, Miriam. Laughing at such a time. Think of being a cowpuncher's wife."
"If I don't laugh, I'll cry. And now I'm going to marry you, Manning."
"Are you going to cry or laugh about that?"
"What in the world are we going to live on?"
"Why... why... of course, your father... he'll make some reasonable provision."
"Not Dad. You don't know him. He won't find a penny for us. He'd turn me away from his door if I were starving, after tonight. He's as proud as the gate of the other world, Manning."
"But... well, there are ways of picking up money. You have that collection of engravings, you know, in your own name. That would bring something."
"And then your father can't live forever."
"I hope he does. I wouldn't take a dollar of his money, except to give it to charity."
"Miriam, what nonsense."
"Let's get our horses. I don't want to talk any more. And for heaven's sake, don't get me angry, Manning."
He knew her well enough and long enough to understand the full weight of that threat. So he went on to the corrals, and they soon had secured two horses and climbed into the saddles. Then they struck away for the trail through the hills. At the top of the first rise Manning Dent drew rein for a moment.
"Dear heaven," he murmured. "To think that I'm rushing on toward the step from which I can never draw back. To think... Why, it turns me positively cold, Miriam."
"Bah," said Miriam.
"What did you say, my dear?"
"I said let's find a minister and get the party over before I change my mind. And then, when Dad hears, let him rave and swear. It'll be no use... it'll be no use."
She repeated the last phrase in a tone between sobbing and rage. And Manning Underwood Dent felt that it might be very wise to ask no questions, but simply to ride on through the night, as fast as possible. And this was what he did for a full half hour. No matter what Miriam might think about an agreement and compromise with her father, Manning Dent had ideas of his own. Let her talk as much as she pleased before their marriage, but afterward it was to be otherwise. He would be the lord and the master, and his word would be the law in their household. It would be very strange if he could not, at the worst, shame the rancher into making an adequate provision for the household of his only child. On the whole Manning was very well satisfied. His long sojourn among the wilds of the West, if they made him the heir of the rich Standard, had been distinctly worthwhile. In addition to the money, Miriam was a wonder.
This train of thought amused him so completely that he did not need to speak, and they had ridden on for thirty or forty minutes, when Miriam called softly to him and then stopped her horse. He followed that example at once.
"Manning," she said, "have you a gun?"
"A g-gun? Of course not!"
"Can you use a gun if you have one?"
"Are you afraid?" she asked in sudden disgust.
"But why are you asking all these questions about guns? I'm not a particularly martial character..."
"We're being followed," she explained. "That's why I'm asking queer questions."
"Impossible! Who would follow us… your father?"
"It's not he. Get off your horse and put your ear down low."
"Why waste time, if we are being followed?"
"Because we can't get away from the horse that's coming. Do as I say!"
He obeyed. Now he heard, far off and each second drawing nearer, the rhythmic beat of a galloping horse's hoofs. It required only half a second for Manning Dent to leap into the saddle.
"Let's ride on, Miriam."
"We'll never get away from that rider."
"But how can anyone dare..."
"This isn't Forty-second Street and Broadway, Manning. A lot of things are dared out here that would make your hair stand on end, and my father is the very man to do the daring. But what sort of horse can it be? It's coming like the very wind."
"Can you stop to think about a horse at such a time as this?"
"God willing, I hope I'll never be too busy to think about horses. Listen to that wonder tear."
The hoofbeats were purring like sticks on a drum, and the sound flowed out of the night upon them. To the excited imagination of Dent it seemed that the noise swallowed them up with its power.
"L-l-let me have that revolver," he breathed.
"I'll keep it myself, Manning," she answered. "And I think you'd better let me do the talking, too, in case the rider is really coming for us. In the meantime let's go on at a slow trot."
Dent did not reply, and they started ahead. Now little shivers wriggled up and down the back of Dent. A voice behind them spoke: "Miriam!"
"Oh, Lord," groaned Dent. "They are after us."
A small, strong, little hand gripped the sleeve of his coat and jerked it.
"Listen to me, Manning."
"How can I listen, when...?"
"If you show yourself a fool and a coward now, I'll kill you myself. Do you hear?"
"What are you saying? Have you gone mad, Miriam?"
"I say, that if the people knew that I've eloped with a coward... Manning, for heaven's sake, be a man. Nobody is going to eat you."
"Halt, there!" called the voice that was running up from the rear.
There was nothing for it but to halt.
As they swung around, Miriam saw the rider coming swiftly through the starlight, and on the sleek body of the horse the light glistened, as if on a lake of gold. It was The Gold King, and this was the man most detested in the world by her.
"Manning," she breathed, "we've just gone out for a midnight ride because neither of us could sleep. You understand? A midnight ride... intending to come back."
"Yes, yes," chattered Manning.
If only he would be a man. But there was no hope of that. In another instant the voice of the rider barked at them: "Hands up, Dent!"
And up were flung the arms of Manning Dent.
"For heaven's sake," he screamed, "don't shoot!"
For the moment Miriam was blinded with shame. Then, when she was able to see, she took note that the newcomer had not drawn a revolver to enforce his command. No, he simply cantered up to Dent and now ordered him to hold his hands behind his back.
"Don't do it, Manning!" she cried. "He has no right. Who are you to give such orders, sir?"
"I'm unarmed," whined Dent. "How can I resist, Miriam?"
And, putting his hands behind his back, they were instantly and deftly secured by the stranger with a few twists of a short tie rope.
"Then," exclaimed Miriam, "if you can't help yourself, I'll help myself and you, too! Mister Hanover, I think I recognize you."
"Thank you, ma'am," said the man of the night. "You're uncommon quick to recognize voices."
"Then put up your hands, Mister Hanover. Put them up, sir. I'm armed, and I'll use my weapon rather than..."
"Tush, tush," laughed Joe Hanover. "I don't think you're ready to work a killing. That's even ahead of your advanced spirit."
Without haste he reached out, took her revolver by the muzzle, and removed it from her hand with a twist so gentle that she hardly realized that he had used force.
"How detestable you are," gasped Miriam. "And... and why didn't I press the trigger?"
"Because it's a hard thing, ma'am, for a woman to kill her future husband."
She groaned with her fury. "What do you intend to do?"
"You'll understand in another moment."
He had slipped to the ground.
Her cry of alarm and anger came, as he slipped the noose of a tie rope over her foot and lashed it into the stirrup.
"What do you mean...?"
"Sit quiet, ma'am! There'll be no harm to you if..."
But Miriam was desperate. She swung down and grasped at the butt of a holstered gun, only to have her hand caught and then her other hand. In a thrice they were tied together. She could not dismount, with one foot lashed into a stirrup and her two hands bound together. He deliberately passed around to the farther side of the horse and tied the other foot into its stirrup, exactly as he had done the first. Not only this, but he passed another rope beneath the belly of the horse and bound the two stirrups together.
In the meantime the tongue of Miriam was not idle. She told him in detail all the terrible things that were destined to happen to him in the immediate future. She vowed a vengeance so great that the falling of the heavens would be as nothing compared with her wrath. But he went calmly on with his work, and, when he had secured her to his satisfaction, he proceeded to tie poor Manning Underwood Dent into his saddle in the same fashion.
"My dear fellow," wailed Manning, "what can possibly be in your mind? Do you know what you're doing, and to whom you're doing it? Do you know what any court in the land will do, when a free citizen...?"
"Listen to me, son," said Noisy Joe Hanover. "I'm going to give you a free-for-nothing description of yourself. You ain't a free citizen… you ain't even as good as a coyote. You're a hybrid cross between a skunk and a snake. You take a girl away from her home and her father at night, and you run away with her because you figure that marrying her is an easy way of making a living. Is that the straight of it? Then you have the nerve to step up and call yourself a free citizen. Son, if you open your trap again, I'll drop a chunk of lead down your throat and see how it rides in your stomach."
This brutal outpouring of words completely spiked the guns of the worthy Dent; they even accomplished something with Miriam. In the first place, she was exceedingly surprised that Noisy Joe should have spoken at such length and with such force. In the second place, she began to see that there was point and substance to the things he had said. It was assuredly not the most honorable thing in the world for a man to run off with a girl by night, even if she were a willing partner—or more than willing. There was nothing to call it except low.
She could hear Dent murmuring softly to himself. The fellow was in a white panic. A sharp word might have made him faint.
In the meantime their captor was proceeding with his work which consisted in tying the bridles of Miriam's and Dent's horses together. That done, he attached a lead rope to Dent's horse, swung into his saddle on The Gold King, and started off down the trail. Once he paused, turned back, and touched the rope that tied her hands with his knife.
"I hope that rope hasn't hurt your wrists," he said.
She would not speak. Her fury was so great that she was afraid sobs instead of words would break forth. When he saw that he would get no answer, he calmly laid hold of one of her wrists. His grip was not hard, but, when she wrenched against it, it was like pulling at a glove of iron. He now lighted a match, examined the skin carefully, and announced that the wrists were simply chafed.
"And mine are, too... terribly," cried Manning Dent.
The answer of the cowpuncher, however, was brutally curt and to the point.
"It will do you good," he said, and went on ahead with The Gold King.
They continued in this fashion for some time, not a word being spoken on either side. As they swung out from the hill trail and started across a region of deeper sand and fewer trees, heading straight back to the ranch house, a horseman with a leveled gun plunged suddenly out of a thicket.
His challenge brought up the hands of Noisy Joe quickly enough. And Miriam, her heart swelling with gratitude, recognized the voice of the foreman, Charlie Bender. If she could not with a single smile bend that man around her finger and twist him into foolish knots, she would foreswear all pretense at knowledge of men.
"Keep your arms straight!" Bender was commanding. "And who's back up there? Miss Miriam? What, you infernal rat, have you been up to, and where are you taking them?"
But the infernal rat did not answer. In fact, he did not speak again during the rest of the night until the dawn had come.
"Now keep quiet, while I get this gun out of your holster," began Charlie Bender. "You dirty dog, you played me a trick tonight that I'll make you sweat for. You played me a trick that I'll write into your hide for you, so's it'll be easy to remember. When..."
He got no further. Noisy Joe, sitting straight as a ramrod in the saddle, suddenly swung the foot that was farthest away from Bender over the neck of his horse and jammed the high heel of his riding boot squarely between the eyes of the foreman, as the latter leaned to reach for the gun.
There was only one possible result. Charlie Bender dropped out of his saddle, as if he had been shot. By the time his senses returned his hands were bound securely behind him. Then he was assisted to his feet and helped back into the saddle. His head was still reeling, while he was secured to the stirrups, just as the other two had been. Then a handkerchief was tied around his bleeding forehead, and his horse was secured to the saddle of The Gold King. When all this was done, the procession started on once more.
Miriam had something to say now. The foreman, as his brain cleared, had still more to remark. But they received no answer from Noisy Joe. The latter held steadily on his way until he reached the crest of a hill from which they could all look down on the ranch house. There he dismounted and sat cross-legged on a rock, smoking one cigarette after another. In this fashion, two mortal hours passed.
Whoever has had to ride steadily for two hours over rough and smooth will testify that a saddle becomes an uncomfortable seat long before the end of that period. But far worse than any riding is to sit motionless in a saddle during such a length of time. There were many groans from poor Manning Underwood Dent before the time had ended, and Miriam more than once thought that she would faint from sheer exhaustion. Yet their complaints did not receive the slightest answer from the cowpuncher.
It was not until the dawn began to turn the mountains gray that he rose and climbed into his saddle. But still he lingered until the sky was rosy, and then the rim of the sun pushed up in the east. As soon as that happened, he began a leisurely progress down the hill.
At last, his course was clear to the others. He had waited until he could bring his procession of captives in the full light of day. He had waited until there would be not a shadow to conceal their shame and their fury from a score of curious eyes. The ranch houses were laid out before them as clear as a picture. And now in the distance they could see the cowpunchers coming out of the bunkhouse.
Suddenly there seemed to be an alarm. There was a scurry for the corrals. The form of old Judge Standard could be made out, leading the way. In a trice saddles were clapped on horses. And then someone saw the fugitives returning.
There was still time, however, to escape from the wretched position in which they were. Charlie Bender was the first to make an appeal. He saw for himself the most horrible ruin. It seemed to him that he had been attacked by a man with the power of a very devil. Now he was to be exposed to the eyes of his men, knowing that his reputation would be blasted forever by what they saw of him—led like a horse with a halter, tied, helpless, a fool before the eyes of the world. Charlie Bender, therefore, was the first to break down. He begged the cowpuncher by all that was holy to cut his bonds and make him a free man. He swore to him undying friendship and affection. He would toil and moil in the service of kind Joe Hanover, swore the foreman. To the end of life he would never show the slightest malice for what had happened on this strange night. Besides all of which, he had in his pocket fifty dollars in currency that he would be only too happy if Joe Hanover would accept it.
Joe Hanover did not hear. His dreamy eyes were fixed far off among the hills. And then the girl wakened to the full understanding of what was about to happen. If it was disgrace for a mere foreman to be seen in a ridiculous situation, what would it be to her, who expected actually to own that ranch and to direct the men who were working on it?
Miriam glanced aside to Manning Underwood Dent, and there rose in her scornful lips the cowpuncher's nickname: Mud! He was just that, a shapeless, lifeless lump of humanity. The long wait, sitting motionless in the saddle, had been hard even upon Bender and Miriam, though they were used to riding. But for Manning Dent it had been almost death. He slumped over now with a pale face, gaping mouth, coat bunched around the shoulders, necktie awry, hat on the back of his head, and his hair streaming down toward his eyes. And this was the fellow who would be pointed out as the lover of Judge Standard's daughter. This was the man the cowpunchers would remember thereafter. She could already feel their smiles eating into the small of her back. She had two desires. The first was to kill Noisy Joe Hanover and feed his body to the coyotes; the second was to melt away into the earth and be seen by no eye. She would have paid five years of life for five minutes of invisibility.
And Noisy Joe Hanover? He seemed quite unchanged by the night of action that had just been spent. His shoulders were just as thin as ever, his body was just as slender, and his eyes not a shade more weary.
For a moment even her hatred for him was swallowed up in an overwhelming wave of wonder. What was there in him that made him such a master? He had gone out alone and captured a wild mustang that had been chased in vain by many men, with parties of hunters, for several years. And now, tonight, he had mastered her and Dent, and, though Dent was nothing, the manner of Hanover had led her to think that a much greater opposition would have been of no avail against him. She must strike now, or forever give up all hopes of becoming the actual manager of the ranch. That disgusting betrayal of her weakness before all the 'punchers would make it impossible for them ever to take her seriously. And, knowing this, she was fighting for existence itself, when she begged, and then commanded, Joe Hanover to set her loose from her companion.
But Joe Hanover did not even take the cigarette from between his lips. He merely turned his head, regarded her with dull eyes for an instant, and then continued on his way. It was a hopeless battle, and Miriam resigned herself as well as she could.
Here came the men of the Standard forces. They poured around her. They sent a great volley of questions from a distance, and then, sweeping up, they saw the picture in detail and were struck dumb. Here was their foreman, their strong-handed, hard-headed leader who had so far raised himself above their level that it was commonly believed throughout the range that the judge intended to take in his foreman as a junior partner with a small interest in the firm. And here he was with a bandaged head, his hands tied behind his back, his feet lashed into his stirrups, and upon his face black blood and dust and a yet blacker frown.
But, far more wonderful, behind him came that proud young lady, Miriam herself—tied into her saddle, while her horse's bridle was tied to the bridle of the man they delighted to call, in their scorn and their anger, Mud.
Standard himself had a late start, but he arrived an instant after the main body of his men, in time to hear the foreman calling: "Lefty... Mike... a couple of you kick that swine, Hanover, out of his saddle and cut these ropes... then I'll finish him up piecemeal."
"Wait a minute," commanded Standard. "I'll have a look into this."
He paid no more attention to Miriam than if she had not been there. He pushed his horse straight up to The Gold King and confronted Hanover.
"What the devil is the meaning of this outrage, Hanover`? Explain yourself!"
"Only this," said Noisy Joe, and he reluctantly took the cigarette from between his lips. "Only this... I'm not particularly happy about having the girl I'm going to marry gallivanting around at night with something like this."
He indicated Mud with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder. And the latter straightened feebly and made a vain effort to become dignified.
"So I just went after them," went on Noisy Joe, "and I brought them back and asked them to do their riding by day. This other one"—and here a similar gesture indicated the foreman—"started bothering me, so I had to bring him along."
That brilliant, if erratic, genius, Jacques Casanova, has pointed out that a guilty man has usually more chance of receiving a lenient sentence, or even acquittal, if he tells the plain truth without distortion than if he tries to wash his hands white and protect himself from danger with a great barrier of lies. For once a lie is known, all he has said is equally damned, and his entire effort falls at a blow to the ground. But if the truth is so powerful to win sympathy, an understatement is still more mighty.
Had Noisy Joe Hanover poured forth a denunciation of Manning Dent because the latter had attempted to steal away the rancher's daughter by night, had he heaped the shrinking rascal with abuse, perhaps Dent would have been thought sufficiently punished. Or, if he had attacked the foreman himself with smarting words, it was more than probable that the cowpunchers and the rancher would have felt their own dignity impeached by the treatment their foreman had received. But the mild understatements of Noisy Joe seemed hints at greater things. The men grew angry because this dull fellow had not seemed to understand just how near that night had brought Miriam to a catastrophe. Elopement with such a man as Manning Dent! It made their blood run cold.
The rancher saw their mood at a glance. He had Dent freed and turned him over to his men to be escorted to the nearest railway station. To that point, accordingly, he was taken, but, by the time he arrived, the wheat of his manhood had been winnowed away and only the chaff was left. His blood was hardly warm before he got back to the roar of Manhattan, and the wounds that cunningly welded quirts had cut across his back did not heal for many a day after that.
It was only one of many steps in Manning Dent's long career of intrigue, which at last landed him the desire of his life—a rich wife—but it was the step that clung longest in his mind. And to this very day he had rather lift a rattler by the head than smile at a woman whose birthplace is west of the Rockies.
Dent was disposed of in this satisfactory fashion. There remained the foreman and Miriam. The problems here were different. What Standard wanted most of all, it seemed, was to uproot her old ideas and purpose of running the ranch, when it came into her hands; but, though the adventure of the night shook her, it did not break her will. Father and daughter straightway indulged in a long and fierce verbal battle that lasted the rest of the morning. She insisted upon two things: the discharge of the wretch who had dared to handle her as Noisy Joe had done, and the discharge, also, of all the cowpunchers who had witnessed her shame. To these demands Judge Standard replied with laughter. And when she pressed the point, he informed her curtly that, if he had intended before to see that she fulfilled her promise of marrying Noisy Joe, he would now never be content until he had accomplished that object.
It was a subject that brought into the face of the girl an expression of frightened horror.
"I know it's only a way of yours to plague me," she cried. "But when I hear you talk that way, Dad, it makes me cold to the heart."
"You take all this for a joke?"
"Don't I know that you're every bit as proud as I am... and much prouder? You'd rather see me in my grave than married to a stupid, uneducated, soulless cowpuncher... a man as blunt and thick-skinned as the cattle he herds."
"Is he all that?" asked her father. "He seemed to me rather a remarkable chap, Miriam. In the first place, the capture of The Gold King is a good deal more than it may sound to be. Fifty men have chased that mustang, I imagine. They've done it with bands and gangs of horses. Noisy Joe did it by himself."
"By working three months! Who but a brute would give up three months of his vital life to the capture of another brute?"
"D'you mean that, Miriam?"
"Of course, I do… every word of it. Father, do you think that I'm mad?"
"A man that would give up three months to capturing a horse is a man after my own heart. Besides, Hanover was doing a good deal more. He was capturing a wife at the same time… and you might admit that some wives are worth three months' trouble on the part of a man."
She bit her lip. There was about her father such an air of mingled good humor, mockery, and determination that she quite failed to make him out. Had he simply opposed her anger and resolution with anger and resolution on his own part, she would have been at home in fighting back. But this poised surety was something new. It was as though the rancher were playing with marked cards that made Miriam a mere helpless dupe.
"And, besides the capture of the horse, there was the capture of you the other night, Miriam. You must admit that's something worthwhile."
"If the man riding with me had been anything other than a coward and a fool..."
"But, suppose, Miriam, that just to spite me and prove yourself independent you had married this coward and fool, as you call him?"
She started. She had not looked upon it from just that angle. There was enough justice in the remark to make her very angry.
"But, of course, I never intended to marry him," she declared.
"Of course not," grinned her father.
His mirth at this point was so out of place that she stamped her foot and cried: "What in the world has happened to you, Dad?"
"It's a game, dear," said the judge. "You've been too much for me all your life. I've fought and sworn and laid awake at night trying to think of plans of getting around you. But I always lost. You were too quick in the brain for me. Now, Miriam, the tables are turned. I sit back at my ease and watch another man lay the net around you, and I know that you cannot escape."
Something akin to fear rose in the heart of Miriam.
"What utter nonsense," she breathed. "Why, Dad, don't you know that I have only to say one word to free myself from any man in the world? I have only to say no. Isn't it true?"
He shook his head, grinning again.
"Not true with Noisy Joe. He seems to be of different metal from your other suitors."
It swept her back to the tales in the fairy stories of young girls forced to marry—or almost forced to marry—against their wills. And she studied the face of her father with a new and profound interest. She thought that she was beginning to see new things in his eyes—a certain hardness, an ability to put himself at a distance from her and consider her not as his daughter, but as a human being quite unattached to him. It increased the fear that had been growing in her heart like shadows in the corners of a twilight room. He had become so strange that she was beginning to feel different herself. All the world was gone mad, and she was mad with it.
"If you persist in letting that man hound me," she stated, "there is only one thing I can do."
"And that, my dear?"
"I... I'll ask some of the boys to dispose of him... to get him out of the way."
"Ask some of the boys to get him out of the way?" echoed the judge, and then, exploding into tremendous laughter, he threw himself back in his chair and filled the room with the thunder of his mirth.
"That's rare… that's good," he said at last. "You go ahead and ask some of the boys to get him out of the way, and then you just wait and see how far they move him."
"All those men in the bunkhouse?"
"Even all those men in the bunkhouse."
"Dad," she murmured, struck with awe," if he's such a terrible man, who is he? What has he done? What do you know about him?"
"Terrible man? Rot! I know that he's manhandled you and two men on the same night and caught The Gold King all by himself. I say that one man like that can't be handled by twenty ordinary cowpunchers. Took all Europe to beat Napoleon, Miriam."
"I see that there is going to be nothing for me to do except to leave the ranch and go to Paris again."
"Miriam, I'd a lot rather have you in Paris than on this ranch, if you're going to be a cattle woman."
It was perfectly true, and she knew that she would be simply playing into his hand if she executed her threat. It made her silent, and silently she left the room.
She sat down in the library, and, there, with her face in her hands, she tried to think her way through the entire puzzling tangle. While she was there, she heard the voice of Charlie Bender in the room where she had left her father.
He had come to resign. He spoke in a rather high, monotonously sharp key. He appreciated the kind treatment and the great confidence that the rancher had given to him, but he could no longer stay on a place where the men did not respect him. It was in vain that the rancher argued. Miriam heard him put forth a long string of promises—heard him tell how necessary Charlie had proved himself on the placehow lost they would be without him—but there was nothing strong enough to shake the resolution of Charlie Bender. His dignity had split upon a rock, and it would never sail the seas again.
"Besides," he concluded, "I want to be a free agent when I fight it out with Hanover."
"Fight it out with him?" roared the rancher in horror.
"Just that. D'you think I'm yaller, Standard?"
"Wait! Wait!" cried the judge, and his voice at once fell into an indistinguishable murmur, from which Miriam could understand nothing, no matter how she strained her ears.
Suddenly the foreman shouted: "What? You don't mean it.
"I do, though. I swear I do, Charlie."
Five minutes later Charlie Bender, his resignation apparently withdrawn, was swinging out of the house and whistling joyously on his way toward the bunkhouse.
What was the secret which the rancher had told him? What had removed all his shame and made him suddenly so happy`?
Once more Miriam felt the skin of her back pucker, as with cold.
Of course, she was accustomed to difficult problems, for all her life she had been studying at one thing or another, but here was a difficulty rather larger than usual. Other things could be puzzled out if one used patience and brain power lavishly enough. But to attack the conundrum of Noisy Joe Hanover was like trying to unriddle the smile of the sphinx.
What could it be about him? What was the fact which, when mentioned, had taken all the sting out of the shame of the foreman'? What had made him leave the house singing and laughing'? But certainly Noisy Joe was not entirely a joke. She remembered the easy efficiency with which he had disposed of Charlie Bender that night. Charlie was a big man, and she had heard her father say more than once that he was worth his weight in wildcats, when it came to a fight. And yet the slender cowpuncher had crushed the larger man without effort. He had moved, indeed, so casually and smoothly that she could hardly conceive of any force great enough to stop him. He had seemed to be striking with a lazy leisureliness, and yet there had been a blinding speed that had paralyzed the efforts of Bender.
A sphinx, indeed! For here was the granite power and the smile behind the force. Of course, she told herself, something would happen to keep her from the horrible fate of becoming this man's wife. Something was sure to happen—she had rather die than submit. And yet, when she remembered how he had been twice successful against great odds, the old horror swept back over her. If it had been something known and acknowledged—something definitely to fight against she would not have budged. But there was nothing in plain sight. Certainly there was no possible way of explaining that maddening certainty of her father's that she would have to marry the cowpuncher in the end. And, because there was such a mystery about it, she decided that she could not stay. The ranch was like a great trap to her. She had to leave.
She spent the afternoon in sleep to make up for her lost rest of the evening before. At supper she put on a cheerful face, and, afterward, she sat in the living room at the piano and sang the "Raggle Taggle Gypsies" and other favorites of her father, as long as he cared to ask for them. But when he had gone up to bed, she retired to her room and made her preparations for departure. There would be no one with her this time, and, therefore, the alarm of her father must be of a different nature. She rather cruelly rejoiced in the fear that must prey upon him the next morning when her absence was noted.
Forty miles due north lay the ranch of the Sigmund Jones family. She was an old playmate of Harriet Jones, and to Harriet now she intended to flee. On the way she would have time for speculation, and on the way she would be free from the attendance of Noisy Joe Hanover on The Gold King.
So she stole out with her pack made and the food supplies taken from the larder in the kitchen. For, if something happened to delay her in the journey, she was too wise a mountain girl not to know that food must be a part of her equipment.
Down to the corrals she went, took a saddle, and started for a horse. Of course, The Gold King was the mount she needed, if she expected to outstrip all pursuit. But though he had been made a present to her, she had not yet introduced herself to him. The horse was as gentle as a child with Noisy Joe Hanover, but he was as wild as a lion when any other human being approached him, unescorted by his first master.
The Gold King she could not take, but he should not be used by Hanover to ride up her trail, when the morning came, or to follow her this night, if it happened that he was lurking around, as he had been on the proceeding evening when she had started away with Manning Dent. She lowered the bars of his corral. Instantly he was out in a yellow flash under the stars and dipped into a gully so swiftly that the beat of his hoofs was like a single roar, like the falling of water.
After all, the mustang had been given to her, and why should she not return the stallion to his freedom, if she so chose? Yet she shrank inwardly, as she thought of the grief and the rage of her father when he learned that the famous horse had been turned into the wilderness. Let him grow still more angry, however. She carried her saddle around to the rear of the big shed where, luxurious in a box stall, stood the favorite mount of Judge Standard. It was not the old gelding so serviceable on the range, but the horse on whose back he sometimes put one of his old English saddles and posted down the road, with all the airs of a gentleman taking an airing in Central Park. He was perfectly useless for working cattle, this tall chestnut, but he had the spirit of a tornado and the speed of the same. Certainly if she sat on his back, even The Gold King would have had a hard time to come into the dust of the chestnut, Danny. And with The Gold King gone, no other could hope to live with the big gelding for a moment.
She saddled Danny, led him out, mounted, and was off like a streak. She had never backed the big fellow before, and perhaps this was the first time he had ever heard the rustle of divided skirts, which was the range style for women in the saddle. He flattened his ears, straightened his neck, and, as Lefty would have said: "Did the first mile in nothing." That spurt, however, took the edge off his desire for running, and he went on at a moderate gait.
There was need for a conservation of strength, indeed, for most of the forty miles that separated them from the Jones Ranch consisted of mountain going. She rated the gelding along at an easy pace, and soon they struck the hills. After that, their progress was slow enough, for Danny was not at home on the slopes. His long legs were meant for speed over the flat; yet, by the time the dawn came, the constant plodding had brought them so far along that they were in the thick of the peaks.
She dismounted at a pool, gave Danny a few good swallows, and ate an early cold breakfast, while Danny munched grass here and there. Then she mounted again and went on. She was hardly in the saddle, however, when she heard a noisy roar of falling stones, as though a landslide were starting behind her, and, looking back, she saw in the rose of the morning light a yellow horse plunging down a long slope, braced on stiff forelegs, and coasting like a boy in the snow.
It was very daring work. Her admiration of both horse and rider made her draw rein and stare until they came out on the level at a gallop and made toward her. Then she realized what she might have known before at the first glance—that this was The Gold King, and that on his back sat no other than the man she most detested in all the world—for it was Noisy Joe Hanover himself.
He was not riding with a saddle. Instead, he sat like an Indian on a blanket that was strapped around the back of the stallion, and, since his feet were not supported, his long legs dangled far down, and his back was more bowed than ever. He looked like a hunchback, as he came up to her, with The Gold King neighing a greeting to the other horse.
Miriam was speechless. Fear had been the first emotion, then helpless surrender, and then a wild anger. She waited until he was close and then gave him the first volley.
"Will you tell me what you mean, Mister Hanover?" she asked. "Will you tell me what you mean by daring to follow me up here? Haven't I the right to privacy?"
He considered her for a moment with his eyes. Then, as though words were a foolish and unnecessary effort, he shrugged his shoulders and occupied himself with the rolling of a cigarette.
"This intolerable persecution, Mister Hanover," she went on. "It isn't possible, and yet I see you here with my own eyes. Have you no shame?"
"I thought a horse thief must have turned The Gold King loose," said the other. "So I came along to find him."
Her anger abated for a single instant in her wonder. She had last seen The Gold King loosed from the string and bound for his old wild freedom. How had the man been able to trail him and find him so quickly, with a blanket and bridle thrown over his shoulder, as he ran, and how had he been able to entice the famous mustang to his hand, once he was in sight of the fugitive?
She recovered from her wonder to discover that Joe Hanover was viewing her patiently through a smoke screen that he was casting up from the cigarette.
"Now that you have found out that no horse thief did that," she said, "you may go back."
He shrugged his shoulders again, and his carelessness brought a vicious thought into her mind.
"Is The Gold King mine?" she asked suddenly. "Did you really mean it when you said that you brought him to me?"
"I did," he nodded.
"Then get off his back and turn the horse loose. The Gold King is mine. I choose to set him free."
He dropped obediently to the ground and stripped off blanket and bridle. The Gold King followed cautiously behind him as he approached Danny.
"That's fair enough," said the cowpuncher. "I'll take Danny, then."
"What are you talking about?" demanded Miriam.
"Is Danny your horse?"
"He belongs to my father."
"I'll take him back to your father."
"This," cried Miriam, "is the most insufferable effrontery I have ever encountered."
"I'm sorry," said Noisy Joe.
"Stand out of my way," she ordered, husky with anger, as he came in front of the gelding. Yielding again to a wild passion of temper, she gave Danny the spurs.
He leaped forward like a rocket. And then the hand of Noisy Joe shot out, fastened on the rein close to the bit, and Danny was halted with such suddenness that Miriam was flung forward on the neck of the horse. She recovered herself slowly, gasping to get back the wind which had been knocked out of her lungs. It was very much as though the cowpuncher had struck her with his hand. It was not only terrible to her, but it was horrible, also. She was both frightened and disgusted.
"Will you take your hand from that rein?" she demanded.
He smiled. The cigarette had not been dislodged from his lips. And Miriam jerked up her quirt.
"Let the horse go," she commanded.
"Don't do that," urged Noisy Joe. "Please don't do that."
The quirt fell idly to her side. She felt that she had been about to strike an unchained tiger with her whip.
"What earthly right have you to stop me here?"
"What earthly right," he answered, "have you to run away with Judge Standard's horse?"
"My own father..."
"I'm working for him," said the cowpuncher, "and not for you. I catch you thirty miles from the ranch at dawn on one of his horses. It's the second time you've tried to run away. I've turned The Gold King free. You're welcome to ride him if you can. I'll take Danny home with me."
There was an invincible logic in this. Any court in the land would stand behind him.
"Besides," went on Hanover, "a wife has to learn to be obedient. It's going to be a job to teach you, and I might as well start before the marriage ceremony."
Was he serious? It seemed to her that there was a faint twinkle in his eye. And once more the sight of his amusement filled her with dread more than the thought that she was in his hands.
"You are quite mad!" she managed to breathe. She added: "Take The Gold King then, and let me go on my way."
He stepped back, placed the blanket and bridle on the stallion, and, as she watched him, she followed a foolish impulse and sent Danny away at the top of his speed. Never had Danny worked more valiantly, but he might as well have tried to escape from a cloud shadow blowing across the surface of the mountains. The Gold King drifted up beside them, dazzlingly splendid in the morning light, burnished with sweat. And Miriam drew rein again with a sob.
"Do you intend to follow me?"
"I have to," said Noisy Joe. "I can't let the girl I'm engaged to wander around like this."
"Oh," she moaned. "I'm losing my mind."
And, dropping her face in her gloved hands, she broke into tears. It was only an instant of weakness. She recovered self-control again, but she knew that she had thrown away her strength. Her first glance at him was stolen, expecting to find that he was grinning at her. But, to her amazement, he had sent The Gold King on a little ahead of her, and, with his back turned and his arms folded, he was looking down from the brow of a mountain into the valley to the east and far beneath. This certainly was a delicacy such as she had not expected from him. Then, banishing her shame, she rode up beside him and said: "Mister Hanover, we have to come to an understanding. I think I know what has happened. My father has hired you particularly to be a plague to me. Confess that's it."
He turned a little toward her in the saddle, and into his eyes, like lightning through a fog, came a flash of emotion.
"Good Lord," he murmured, "how perfectly blind you are. Do you think that I would do such things for anyone but myself?"
There was something in his manner of saying this which made the celebrated Judge Standard seem like nothing at all—a mere name without a body attached.
"What do you expect me to do?" asked Hanover. "When a man worships the very air a girl breathes... what is he to do about it?"
"Do other men act as you act?"
"Other men have a thousand pretty things to say to girls. I'm not like the rest. I'm not a pretty man, Miriam, and I can't talk out of character. Will you try to understand that? I had to make you notice me, and I've tried to do it."
"You've made me hate you!" she stormed.
"God knows how sorry I am for that," he said soberly enough.
Her rage had been so perfect a little time before that she had not dreamed that she could wish him anything but a wretched end. But now she felt a small, keen pang of pity.
"Will you let me tell you something?" she said.
"A thousand things."
"I think I know what you are," she said. "I've seen that you are brave and strong and patient... that you can fight, and that you can wait." She paused. All of these things were true. And yet it was a much more flattering picture than she had intended to draw. "After what has happened," she continued, "I can never look at you with patience. You've shamed me... laid me open to scorn and..." She paused again, as emotion choked her. "If I knew you three years instead of three months, I could do nothing but wish I had never seen you. Go where you'll be appreciated, Mister Hanover. Go where you will find people like yourself, silent and strong and ready to appreciate silence and strength." Here she paused. "There is a man in the valley who would like to have a man like you, working on his ranch."
She pointed down into the valley. It was a beautiful picture. It might be ten miles long and half that distance in width, partly rich bottom land and partly rolling hills. Cattle and grain must be raised there, thick and fast. The river streaked through the midst of it. They could make out the small blotch which must be a mighty grouping of trees and ranch buildings.
"There is the man for you."
"Tell me about him. Why would he want me?"
"His name is Warner. He's a hard man like you, Mister Hanover. He was trapped and saddled with a crime that he hadn't committed when he was a boy. They drove him away from his home. They hounded him for ten years, I think. He became an outlaw. Of course, you've heard of Warner."
"Not in this way," he said, shaking his head.
"He was a terrible fighter. He seemed to wish men dead when they stood up to him. His career was as wild as the wild. Then... I think it was two or three years ago... it was found out that the first crime had really not been his... that he had been forced by that false accusation to lead the life which he had lived. The governor sent for him. He was pardoned. That was three or four years ago. And since then, everything Warner has done has been prosperous. He has made money out of mining, out of oil farther south, and now he has bought this whole valley. He's very rich, very powerful, trusts no one, and likes to have strong men around him. Go down to his place, Mister Hanover. He'd be glad to have you. If he has a daughter, perhaps she would be the one for you."
"But he has no daughter," said Noisy Joe solemnly.
"You know him, then?"
"Very well. And he hasn't been prosperous in everything, Miriam."
"Where has he failed?"
"He loves a woman," said Hanover, "and she'll have nothing to do with him."
"That," said the girl, nodding, "proves that you really don't know him at all. That man would make a woman love him. Nothing can stand before him when he makes up his mind."
"Perhaps," said Hanover, "we are not speaking of the same man. What are the initials of your Warner?"
"J.H. Warner," she said.
"J. H.? And what do the initials stand for?"
"Joseph," she answered, "Joseph Hanover Warner... oh." She clasped her hands against her cheeks and stared at him.
How clear it all was. This, then, explained why her father had been persuaded by the obscure cowpuncher that the daughter of Judge Stanford was not too good to be his wife. This explained why Charlie Bender had been able to swallow his humiliation and leave the house, whistling—because it was no shame to be defeated by such a man as this. This explained, too, all that dread she had felt from the beginning. This explained the power she had sensed in him, the inescapable thing. She could remember so many little details. His English, for instance, had been purer than that of any cowpuncher she had ever heard talk before. And now that her eyes were opened, the impassive expression that she had thought stupidity, spoke of dominant and unquestionable mastery.
"Oh," she murmured, "you… you are Joseph Warner."
"Will you let me explain why I came as I've come?" he pleaded.
"For heaven's sake... tell me everything... quickly."
"I saw you in town when you got off the train. I was waiting to take a train east. But after I saw you, Miriam, I bought a horse, got a cowpuncher's rig, and hired out on the ranch. I knew that if you understood what I was and had been, you would detest me. I knew that you could have no use for a person who had been reputed to be a killer. I hoped that I could hide under a new name... or, rather, part of my true name… and that I might finally win your attention. So I tried playing this strange part, and I have lost.
"But it's been a good fight, after all. I've done my best. I've played all my cards. I'm simply beaten. And so, you see, I was right when I said that Joseph Warner was unhappy in one thing."
There was a little interval of quiet.
"At least," said Miriam at last, "you can't argue me down. I think he is only foolish in one thing."
A bird darted up from the ground, whistling wildly and well. Surely it could not be a lark on the top of so high a mountain.
"What," asked Joseph Hanover Warner, "do you mean by that?"
"The Gold King," answered Miriam, "seems to understand."
For the yellow stallion, reaching for a spray of bunch grass, had turned his back squarely upon them.
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