The sun hung gold and red above the snow-tipped ramparts of the Colorado Rockies. On a high bluff across the Purgatory River a group of Indians sat their mustangs watching the slow, winding course of a railroad train climbing toward the foothills, fearful of this clattering, whistling monster on wheels that might spell doom to the red man. Had they not seen train after train loaded with buffalo hides steam eastward across the plains?
A lithe rider, dusty and worn, mounted on a superb bay horse, halted on the south side of the river to watch the Indians.
"Utes, I reckon," he said, answering to the habit of soliloquy that loneliness had fostered in him. "Like the Kiowas they shore die hard. Doggone me if I don't feel sorry for them! The beaver an' the buffalo aboot gone! The white man rangin' with his cattle wherever grass grows! Wal, Reddies, if yu air wise, yu'll go way back in some mountain valley an' stay there."
"Wal, come to think aboot it," mused the lone rider, "they're not so bad off as me--No money. No job. No home! Ridin' a grub line, an' half starved. Nothin' but a hawss an' a gun."
He put a slow hand inside his open vest to draw forth a thick letter, its fresh whiteness marred by fingerprints and soiled spots. He had wept over that letter. Marvelling again, with a ghost of the shock which had first attended sight of that beautiful handwriting, he reread the postmark and the address: Lincoln, New Mexico, May 3, 1880. Mr. Brazos Keene, Latimer, Colorado, c/o Two-bar X Ranch. The Latimer postmark read a day later.
"My Gawd, but this heah railroad can fetch a man trouble pronto," he complained, and he stuck the letter back. "What in the hell made me go into thet post office for? Old cowboy habit! Always lookin' for letters thet never come. I wish to Gawd this one had been like all the others. But aw no! Holly Ripple remembers me--has still the old faith in me--An' she named her boy Brazos--after me."
"Only five years!" mused the rider, with unseeing eyes on the west. "Five years since I rode along heah down the old trail from Don Carlos's Rancho--An' what have I done with my life?"
A savage shake of his head was Brazos's answer to that disturbing query, as also it was a passionate repudiation of memory. He rode on down the river trail toward Las Animas. He did not know how far it was in to town. His horse was lame and weary. This stretch along the Purgatory was not prolific of cow-camps; nevertheless, Brazos hoped to run into one before nightfall.
The trail worked up from the river to an intersection with a road. In the gathering darkness, Brazos's quick eye caught sight of three horsemen riding out from a clump of dead trees which only partly obscured a dark cabin. The riders wheeled back, apparently thinking Brazos had not seen them.
Brazos heard a sibilant hissing "hold thar!" and a sound that seemed like a gloved hand slapped on metal. A hoarse voice, thick-tongued from liquor, rasped low. Then came a young high-pitched answer: "But, Bard, I'm not risking--" The violent gloved hand cut that speech short. To Brazos the name that had been mentioned sounded like Bard, but it might have been Bart or even Brad.
"Hey, riders," called Brazos curtly, "I seen yu before yu seen me."
After a moment of silence, Brazos heard the word "Texan" whispered significantly. Then one of the three rode out.
"What if you did, stranger?" he asked.
"Nothin'. I just wanted yu to know all riders ain't blind and deaf."
Brazos's interrogator's features were indistinguishable. But Brazos registered the deep matured voice, the sloping shoulders, the bull neck.
"Thar's been some hold-ups along hyar lately," he said.
"Ahuh. An' thet's why you acted so queer?"
"Queer? Playin' safe, stranger."
"Yeah? Wal, if yu took me for a bandit yu're way off."
"Glad to hear thet--an' who might you be?"
"I'm a grub-line-ridin' cowboy. I'm tired an' hungry, an' my hawss is lame."
"An' whar you makin' for?"
"Mister, if I wasn't hungry, an' tired I wouldn't like yore pert questions. I'm not goin' anywhere in particular. How far to Las Animas?"
"All-night drill for a tired hoss."
"Any cow camp near?"
"Nope. Nearest ranch is Twin Sombreros, three miles from town."
"Excuse me for askin'," went on Brazos with sarcasm, "but do yu fellers belong to an ootfit that'll feed a hungry cow-puncher?"
"My boss hasn't any use for grubline riders."
"Yu don't say. Wal, I reckon I don't eat. But would yu tell me if there's any grass heah-aboots for my hawss?"
"Good grass right hyar, stranger. An' you can bunk in the old cabin thar."
"Thanks," returned Brazos dryly.
The burly rider turned to his silent companions. "Come on, men. If we're makin' Lamar to-night we got to rustle."
The couple joined him and they rode by Brazos too swiftly for him to distinguish anything. They took to the north, soon passing out of sight.
The cabin proved to be close at hand. Brazos peeped in the open door. It was pitch dark inside and smelled dry. He removed saddle and bridle from the bay and turned him loose. Brazos carried his paraphernalia inside and deposited it upon the floor. He felt in his pockets for matches. He had none. Then he groped around until he bumped into a bench made of boughs. This, with his saddle blankets, would furnish a better bed than many to which he had of late been accustomed.
Some time in the night he awoke. Usually a light sleeper he thought nothing of being aroused. But after a moment he felt that this was different. And he attended to outside sensations.
He heard a drip, drip, drip of rain on the floor. Evidently the roof leaked. A low moaning wind swept by under the cabin eaves. Drip--drip--drip--slowly the dropping sounds faded in his consciousness.
Dawn was at hand. Through the window he discerned a faint blue of sky. Apparently the weather had cleared. But all of a sudden--drip--drip-- drip! The drops of rain water were slow and heavy. They spattered on the earthen floor. It was now light enough in the cabin to make out a ladder leading up to a loft.
All at once a cold chill crept over his skin. That dank odour, dominating the pungent dry smell of the cabin, assailed his nostrils. Drip--drip--drip! Brazos was wide awake now. In a single action, he slid upright off the bench.
The drip came from the loft just about the centre of the cabin. Brazos could not see the drops, but by their sound, he located them--stretched out his upturned palm. Spat! Despite his steely nerve the heavy wet contact on his hand give him a shock. He strode to the light of the doorway.
"Blood! Cold an' thick--There's a daid man up in thet loft. Aha! Them three hombres last night! Brazos, I reckon yu better be rustlin' oot of heah pronto."
Hurrying back to the bench, Brazos wiped the blood on his saddle blankets, and carried these with his saddle to the door. Dawn had given way to daylight. And at that moment a clattering roar of hoofs swept up, and a group of riders pulled their horses to a sliding halt before the cabin.
"Ahuh. Jig aboot up! I savvy," muttered Brazos, and he flung down the saddle and blankets to stand at attention. He needed not to see the rifles to grasp that this was a posse.
"Hands up, cowboy!" came a harsh command.
"They're up," replied Brazos laconically, suiting action to words. The levelled guns and grim visages of this outfit showed that they meant business. Most of these riders had the cowboy stripe, but some of them, particularly the harsh-voiced, hard-faced leader, appeared to be matured men.
"Pile off, Stuke, an' you, Segel," ordered this leader. Whereupon two riders flung themselves out of their saddles to rush at Brazos from each side. "Grab his guns! Search him. Take everythin'."
Brazos was quick to recognise real peril. He surveyed the group of horsemen to ascertain that they were all strangers to him. In a moment, he made certain that not one of them had ever seen him. He had not been in that vicinity for six years, which was a long time on the range.
"Bodkin!" called a rider from within the cabin, his voice queer.
"What! You found him?" queried the leader sharply.
"Yes. Up in the loft. Send someone to help us let him down."
Brazos listened with strained ears to the sounds and husky voices inside the cabin. Presently three of the posse came out, carrying the body, which they deposited upon the grass. Brazos's startled gaze bent down upon a handsome youth barely twenty, evidently a cowboy from his garb, dark-haired and dark-skinned. He had been shot through the back. All his pockets were turned inside, out.
"Allen Neece!" burst out Bodkin.
"Shot in the back."
"Purty cold-blooded, I'd say."
"Bod, I reckon we might jest as wal string this hombre up."
These and other comments greeted Brazos's ears, and drew from Bodkin the harsh decree: "Cowboy, you're under arrest."
"Hell, I'm not blind or deaf," retorted Brazos. "May I ask who yu air?"
"I'm Deputy Sheriff Bodkin of Las Animas, actin' under Kiskadden's orders."
"An' what's yore charge?"
Brazos laughed outright. "My Gawd, man, air yu loco? Do I look like a hombre who'd shoot a boy in the back, rob him an' hang aboot waitin' for an ootfit to come get me?"
"You can't never tell what a cowboy will do from his looks."
"Aw, the hell yu cain't," replied Brazos, with a piercing glance of scorn flashing from Bodkin to his men. "What kind of Westerners air yu?"
Brazos's scornful stand, his cool-nerve, obviously impressed some of the riders.
"Bod, you cain't hang this Texan on such heahsay evidence," advised a slow-spoken member.
"Why not? Cause you're a Texan yourself?"
"Wal, as to thet, Texans, whether they're guilty of crime or not, ain't very often hanged. Personally, I reckon this cowboy is innocent as I am of this murder. An' mebbe I'm not the only one. If you hang him, Kiskadden will be sore. An' if by any chance he ain't guilty an' it comes oot--wal, it'd kind of heat up the stink thet hasn't died oot cold yet."
During that speech Brazos gauged both men--the sandy-haired, sallow-faced Texan whose looks and words were significant--and the swarthy Bodkin, dark-browed, shifty of gaze, chafing under the other's cool arraignment of the case, and intense with some feeling hardly justified by the facts presented.
"All right, Inskip," rejoined Bodkin, with suppressed anger. "We'll take him before Kiskadden. Prod him to his hoss, men. An' if he bolts, blow his tow-head off."
Brazos's captors shoved him forward. Bay had been found and saddled. Brazos mounted. The body of the boy Neece was lifted over, a saddle and covered with a slicker. The rider of this horse essayed to walk, which gave Brazos the impression that Las Animas was not far distant. Presently the cavalcade started toward the road, with Brazos riding in the centre.
They travelled on, and at length reached a site strangely familiar to Brazos. It was the head of the valley. A long, low, red-roofed, red-walled adobe ranch-house stood upon the north bank of the river, and below it, where cottonwoods trooped into the valley, spread barns and sheds, corrals and racks in picturesque confusion. The droves of horses in the pastures, the squares of alfalfa, and the herds of cattle dotting the valley and the adjacent slopes attested to the prosperity of some cattle baron.
"Doggone!" ejaculated Brazos. "Whose ootfit is thet?"
Inskip, the Texan, riding second on Brazos's left, book it upon himself to reply: "Twin Sombreros Ranch. Operated now by Raine Surface runnin' eighty thousand haid of the Twin Sombreros brand. Used to belong to Abe Neece, father of the daid boy we're packin' to town. Abe is livin' still, but a broken man over the loss of thet ranch."
It so happened that when the cavalcade reached the crossroad to the ranch a sextet of riders, some of them cowboys, rode down from above to halt their mounts at sight of the posse. Brazos espied two young women riders and he burned both inwardly and outwardly at the indignity Bodkin had forced upon him.
"What's this, Bodkin?" demanded the leader.
"Mornin', Mr. Surface," replied Bodkin. "We been out arrestin' a cowboy. Charged with murder. An' I've got the proofs on him."
"Murder! You don't say? Who?"
"No other than Abe Neece's boy--young Allen Neece."
For Brazos it was one of those instinctively potent, meetings of which his life on the ranges had been so full. He turned from his long glance at the two girls, the older of whom had hair as red as flame, a strikingly beautiful face, with blue-green eyes just now dilated in horror.
"Who are you?" demanded Surface with intense curiosity.
Brazos gave the rancher a long stare.
"Wal, who I am is share none of yore business," he replied coldly.
"Cowboy, I'm Raine Surface, an' I have a good deal to say with the business of this county," returned the rancher, plainly nettled.
"I reckon. Do you happen to be in cahoots with this four-flush, Deputy Bodkin?"
The sharp query disconcerted Surface and elicited a roar from Bodkin.
"I put Kiskadden in office," said the rancher stiffly. "I recommended to the Cattlemen's Association that we appoint deputies to help rid this range of desperadoes an' rustlers--an' rowdy cowboys."
"See heah, Surface," flashed Brazos, his piercing tenor stiffening his hearers. "I am a Texan an' one of the breed thet don't forget insult or injustice. You're a hell of a fine Westerner to act as an adviser to a Cattlemen's Association. A real Westerner--a big-hearted cattleman who was on the square--wouldn't condemn me without askin' for proofs. You take this Bodkin's word. If he hasn't got some queer reason to fasten this crime on me, it's a shore bet he itches to hang someone. Wal, I happen to be innocent an' I can prove it. I could choke up an' spit fire at the idee of my bein' taken for a low-down skunk who'd shoot a boy in the back to rob him. An' swallow this, Mister Raine Surface--you'll rue the day you insulted a ragamuffin of a cowboy who was only huntin' for a job."
The silence which followed Brazos's arraignment was broken by Inskip.
"Surface," he said caustically, "you're new to this range. All you Kansas cattlemen need to be reminded thet this is western Colorado. Which is to say, the border of New Mexico. An' mebbe yore years oot heah air too few for you to know what thet means. All the same, Bodkin an' you should have given this cowboy the benefit of a doubt."
At this juncture, when a strong argument seemed imminent, the red-headed girl moved her horse close to Surface and put a hand on his shoulder.
"Dad, don't say any more," she implored. "There must be a mistake. You stay out of it. That cowboy never murdered Allen Neece."
"Lura, don't interfere here," snapped her father impatiently.
"Mr. Surface we'll ride on in," said Bodkin, and gave his men a peremptory order to move on.
Before the riders closed in on Brazos, he gave the red-headed girl a smile of gratitude. Her big eyes, still wide and dark, appeared to engulf him. Then the cavalcade started.
Before they had ridden many paces a clatter of hoofs behind and a call for Bodkin again halted the riders. The rancher Surface followed.
"A word with you, Bodkin," he said, reining his mount.
"Sartinly, Mister Surface," returned the deputy, hastening to fall out of line.
"About that suit of mine against--" he began. But Brazos made quick note of the fact that that was ail he could hear, Bodkin and Surface walked their horses out of hearing.
He met Inskip's deep grey eyes; in which there flashed a bright, steely glint that could be interpreted in only one way. Brazos's blood took a hot leap, then receded to leave him cold. This halt boded ill to him. Sight of Bodkin's grim visage, as he came riding back from his short colloquy with Surface, warned Brazos of the unexpected and the worst.
But Bodkin took the lead of the cavalcade again without a word other than a command to ride. His tenseness seemed to be communicated to all. Inskip took off his heavy coat and laid it back across the cantle of his saddle--an action Bodkin might have taken as thought provoking had he noticed it. Brazos's reaction revolved around sight of the two big gun butts sticking out of Inskip's belt. They spoke a language to Brazos as clear as had been the grey lightning in Inskip's eyes.
The outskirts of Las Animas lay just ahead, beyond a bridge over a brook that brawled down to the Purgatory.
"Stop hyar, men," ordered Bodkin, wheeling his horse. "Inskip, you ride on in an' report."
The Texan made no reply nor any move to act upon the command.
"Segel, you an' Bill wait hyar with Reece," went on Bodkin. "The rest of you come with me."
He turned to ride off the road. "Inskip," he said, suddenly, halting again. "Are you takin' orders?"
"Not when it doesn't suit me," replied the Texan. "What you up to?"
"I'm goin' to finish this job right hyar," rejoined the deputy fiercely. "An' if you don't want your Texas pride hurt, you'd better not see what's comin' off."
"Wal, I ain't so sensitive as all thet," drawled Inskip.
Brazos realised the game now and what a slim chance he had for his life. That chance was vested in Inskip. An awful instant he fought the shuddering clutch on his vitals, the appalling check to his thought. It was succeeded by desperate will and nerve. There would be one chance for him and when it came he must grasp it with the speed of lightning.
Bodkin led down the west bank of the brook. The trees and rocks broke up the formation of the posse. Brazos's sharp eye caught the rider behind Bodkin bending forward to untie his lasso from his saddle. They entered a rocky glade dominated by an old cottonwood tree with spreading branches and a dead top.
"Open up," shouted. Bodkin. "Prod his hoss out hyar."
"Boss," spoke up one of the posse, "this deal is too raw for my stomach."
"Rustle, then. Git out if hyar," yelled the leader, livid with passion.
"I sure will. Come on, Ben. We didn't join this outfit to hang a cowboy thet ain't proved guilty."
The lean rider addressed detached himself from the group. "Bodkin," he said forcefully. "You're too damn keen on this necktie party. Frank an' me are slopin'."
"Yellow, huh?" shouted the deputy as the couple rode off "See heah, Bodkin," interposed Inskip, "did you ride all this way to have yore mind changed by surface?"
"Inskip, you go to hell," hissed Bodkin, enraged at the sarcastic implication.
Brazos read in Inskip's eyes what Bodkin failed to see, and it was that intelligence which sustained him. The Texan might have a trump card up his sleeve, but Brazos could only think of two desperate chances, one of which he was sure would be presented.
"Flip thet noose, Barsh," ordered Bodkin sardonically, addressing a lean rider whose hat shaded his face. He had a coiled rope in his left hand. He gave the coil a toss. The loop spread to fall over Brazos's head and lodge on his shoulders. Another flip and the noose closed around his neck.
The feel of the hard smooth hemp against Brazos's bare flesh liberated in him the devil that he had kept leashed. Barsh plainly quailed before Brazos's steady gaze.
"Pile off, all of you," shouted Bodkin stridently, dismounting to lean his rifle against the tree. "Barsh, throw the end of your rope over thet branch."
"Hold on!" This order issued from the Texan, whose hand obstructed Barsh's arm in his effort to toss up the rope.
"Wha--at?" bawled Bodkin.
Bodkin was the only rider besides Brazos who had not dismounted. The others had laid aside their rifles and shot-guns to crowd back of Barsh, nervously hurrying to get the gruesome job done.
Inskip deliberately rode between them and Brazos. "Bodkin, he might have a mother or sweetheart. An' he'll want to send some word."
"Aw, let him blab it pronto, then."
"Cowboy, do you want to tell me who you air an' send some message?" queried Inskip calmly.
"I shore do. But I don't want this skunk to heah it."
"Wal, you can tell me." Inskip pulled his horse toward Brazos.
"Hyah, Inskip--not so close!" shrieked Bodkin.
The Texan leaned toward Brazos to whisper soft and low, "Grab my guns, but don't kill onless you have to."
Brazos's claw-like hands swept out. As he jerked loose the two big guns Inskip spurred his horse to lunge away.
"Freeze! Damn yu!" pealed out Brazos, as he covered Bodkin and the startled posse.
Brazos heard Inskip's horse pound over the rocks and plough the brook. The Texan was racing for town. Bodkin turned a ghastly hue. Barsh gasped and dropped the rope. The others stood stiff.
"Hands up! Turn yore backs!" ordered Brazos, his voice ice-edged. "Bodkin, tell yore men to fork their hawsses. One move for a gun means I'll kill you first."
"Fellers--he's got me--cold," rejoined the deputy. "Fer Gawd's sake --lay off your hardware--Climb on."
While they mounted stiffly, Brazos hauled the lasso in with his left hand and wound it around the pommel.
"Ride oot, you hombres. Yu go last, Bodkin. An' when we hit the road yell for Segel an' yore other man to go ahaid."
When the riders emerged from the grove Bodkin bawled to the couple on guard with the dead man.
"Ride on, you fellers--an' don't look back!"
The wide, long main street of Las Animas was familiar to Brazos, despite the many new buildings. The place had doubled its population in five years.
Brazos's roving gaze caught sight of a sign, 'Mexican Joe. Hot Tamales', and his heart leaped. If old Joe happened to come out now, there would be a recognition somewhat disconcerting to Bodkin and his posse. But Joe was not one of the many to see the strange procession ride down the street. Before half a block had been traversed, Brazos saw to his left a building and a sign that had not been there in his day. Both sheriff and jail had come to the cattle town.
"Turn in, yu-all, an' set tight," called Brazos.
Men were grouped about and out in front stood a tall bareheaded man in his shirt sleeves. He had a silver star on his black vest. He stood significantly sidewise toward the street, his right hand low. Brazos breasted the hitching-rail to see a broad, lined face, deep, piercing eyes, a thin-lipped, close-shut mouth, and bulging chin. Texas was written all over that visage.
"Air yu Kiskadden?" queried Brazos.
"That's me," came the curt reply.
"Did Inskip give yu a hunch aboot this?"
"He told me you'd be likely to ride in, but I'm bound to admit I didn't expect you."
"Sheriff, will yu give me a square deal?"
"You can rest assured of thet, cowboy, I'm the law heah."
"My Gawd, but it's a relief to pass these over. Heah!" burst out Brazos, and with a dexterous flip of the guns, he turned them in the air to catch them by the barrels and hand them to the sheriff. "Sheriff, I shore haven't had many deals where I was more justified in throwin' guns than in this one. But Inskip whispered for me not to shoot unless I had to. So I bluffed yore deputy an' his posse."
"Who air you, cowboy?" queried Kiskadden searchingly.
"Thet'll have to come oot, I reckon," returned Brazos. "I haven't been in Las Animas for six years. But there'll be men heah who'll vouch for me."
"Ail right. Get down. Bodkin, you look bustin' with yore side of this story. Mebbe you'd better hold in--"
"Aw, hell!" interrupted the deputy. "Wait till you hear my side. He's a slick-tongued feller. I'll gamble he turns out to be a range-ridin' desperado. An' it's a thousand to one thet he murdered young Neece."
"Neece! Not Abe Neece's boy?" exclaimed Kiskadden.
"Yes. Young Allen Neece."
"Aw, too bad--too bad!" rejoined the sheriff in profound regret. "As if poor Abe had not had enough trouble!"
"Boss, it'll sure go hard with Allen's twin sisters. Them gurls thought the world of him."
"Fetch Neece in," ended Kiskadden, and, taking Brazos's arm, he led him into the office.
"An' see here, Sheriff," spoke up Brazos. "Will yu have my hawss taken-good care of? An' Bodkin took my gun, watch, penknife--an' a personal letter."
"Cowboy, I'll be responsible for your hawss an' your belongs."
"Thanks. An' one thing more," said Brazos, lowering his voice. "I reckon thet letter will prove my innocence. I got it yesterday mawnin' at Latimer, which you shore know is a hell of a long day's ride. An' if I know anythin' aboot daid men, young Neece was killed durin' the day. Hold an inquest, sheriff, an' make shore what hour thet pore boy was murdered. 'Cause the whole deal has a look of murder."
A corridor opened from the office. Kiskadden unlocked the first door on the right, to disclose a small room with one barred window and a blanketed couch. Kiskadden escorted Brazos in.
"Cowboy, you don't seem to concern yourself aboot why I'm lockin' you up."
"Concern? Say, I'm tickled to death. You're a Texan an' a man. You'll see through my part in this deal. But when I get oot--Sheriff, I'm askin' yu --please get my letter an' don't let anyone but yu read it. I shore couldn't stand thet."
"We'll see." The sheriff went out to close and lock the heavy door.
Brazos lay down on the couch.
Next morning the guards brought his breakfast, and the necessary articles with which to wash and shave.
All morning he was left alone. The fact of the omission of his noon-day meal augured further for his release. At last a slow, clinking step in the corridor ended his wait.
The door opened to admit Kiskadden, who closed and locked It.
"Wal, Brazos," he drawled. "I'm missin' my dinner to have a confab with you."
"Yu know my name?"
"Shore. It's on the back of this letter. Brazos Keene. Wrote small an' pretty. I'm glad to tell you no one else has seen it. An' heah it is."
"My Gawd, Sheriff, but I could die for yu--savin' me the shame of disgracin' a girl once loved," replied Brazos in grateful emotion.
"Wal, we had two doctors make the inquest on young Neece," went on Kiskadden. "Our Doc Williamson an' a surgeon from Denver who was on a train. They found young Neece had been killed early in the evenin' of thet day you rode oot of Latimer. The bullet bole in his back was shot there after Neece was daid. Both doctors agreed that he had been roped--there were abrasions on his arms above his elbows--an' jerked off his hawss on his haid. Thet caused his death."
"Wal, my Gawd!" ejaculated Brazos. "I had no rope on my saddle."
"Brazos, I was convinced of yore innocence yestiddy, an now I know it. But for your good, you better stay for the hearin'. It'll show Bodkin up an' I'll discharge him pronto. Another angle, it leaked oot thet Surface would jest as lief see you hanged, along with all the grubline cowboys thet ride through."
"Hell, yu say?" queried Brazos. "I shore didn't take a shine to him."
"Surface is new heah. Claims to be from Nebraska. But he's from Kansas. Rich cattleman--an' has a lot of stock."
"Ahuh. How'd Surface get thet Twin Sombreros Ranch from Neece?"
"Wal, thet never was cleared up to suit me. Neece was operatin' big. He had five thousand haid comin' up from Texas for Surface. The cash for this herd was paid Neece at the Cattleman's Bank in Dodge. More than fifty thousand dollars. Neece was fetchin' thet sum over heah to our bank. But he got held up by three masked men an' robbed. Wal, the queer angle is thet the big herd jest vanished off the range. Neither hoof nor hair of them was ever found."
"But the cow ootfit!" exclaimed Brazos, aghast.
"Same as the herd. They vanished. Neece made a blunder at Dodge. He hired a foreman thet he didn't know, let him pick an ootfit, an' sent them south after the herd."
"That ootfit was bought off."
"Wal, there was no proof of anythin' except the longhorns were gone. Neece couldn't deliver, an' he had been robbed of the money. Twin Sombreros was mortgaged an' the banks wouldn't advance more. Neece lost all to Surface. He's a broken man now, livin' down the Purgatory. An' the twin gals, Neece's joy an' pride, air running a restaurant over by the railroad station."
"Shore. Eighteen years old--the prettiest gurls in all the West. An' you cain't tell them apart--not to save yore life. June an' Janis, they're called. Neece sent them to Kansas City to go to school. Thet was ten years ago. An' he didn't see them often an' not at all of late years. He developed this Twin Sombreros Ranch for them. Thet was his brand. Two high--peaked sombreros."
"Kiskadden, what yu tellin' me all this for?" suddenly queried Brazos, sharp with suspicion.
"Aw, just range gossip, cowboy," drawled the Texan with a smile.
"Yeah? Wal, yu don't strike me as the gossip kind. I figure Inskip's a friend of yore's?"
"Yes. We're pardners in a cattle business, but I'm the silent one. Wal, to come back to yore hearin', which is set for two o'clock, I'd like you to read thet letter to me."
"Aw! Sheriff, what for?"
"Brazos, I really don't have hear it. But it'll strengthen my conviction, I'm shore. An' I may have to talk turkey to Surface an' some of his cattle association. All the same, I'll respect yore confidence."
"Shore. I--I'll read it to yu," replied Brazos. As he opened the letter his lean brown hands shook slightly.
"'Don Carlos's Rancho, Cimarron, N.M., May 2, 1880,'" he read, "'Dear Brazos: This is the third letter I have written you since you left us five years ago. I am sure the others never reached you else you would have written, This time, however, I know you will receive this one. We have a railroad mail service now, caballero mio; and this epistle should reach your post office in less than two days. So near yet so far, Brazos!
"'We heard that you had lately ridden down from Wyoming to a job with the Two-bar X outfit. A cattleman neighbour of ours, Calhoun, had just returned from Latimer, and he met Britt at the station. Calhoun told Britt a lot of range gossip, including your latest exploit at Casper, Wyoming (which I did not believe), and poor Britt came home like a man who had seen ghosts.
"'Since you and your outfit broke up the Slaughter gang and did away with Sewall McCoy, Clements and their tools, we have no rustling on a big scale. Strange to say, we were never drawn into the Lincoln County War. That terrible feud accounted for the lives of three hundred men, surely the bloodiest war the West ever knew. Billy the Kid came out of it alive. He and a few of his desperado allies still actively rustle cattle and find a ready market.
"'Well, the good, bad old days are over, at least for Don Carlos's Rancho. We are running over seventy thousand head. The railroad has simplified cattle-raising. The long, hard drives are a thing of the past in this territory.
"'Brazos, I am wonderfully happy. Renn is a big man on the New Mexico ranges and long ago has lived down that vague hard name that came with him from Dodge and Abilene. My father's traditions and work have been carried on. We have our darling little boy and--dare I confess it?--expect another little Frayne at no distant date. May it be a girl--Senorita Holly Ripple Frayne? I forgot to tell you that my riders have a share in our cattle business. In fact, Brazos, there is only one drop of bitterness to taint the sweet cup of Don Carlos's Rancho. And that is your loss, your wandering life, your bitter, fiery spirit, and your fate to throw a gun, your inevitable fall.
"'Brazos, in this letter you have come to the end of your rope. You will stop your wandering--your drinking. You must find a steady job--if you refuse to return to Don Carlos's Rancho--and you will be worthy of my faith and Renn's regard, and the love of these cowboys.
"'This is the last letter I shall ever write you, my friend. I hope and pray you take it as I have written it, and that you will consider my husband's proposition, which follows in a postscript. Adios, Senor. Ever yours faithfully, Holly Ripple Frayne.
"'P.S. Dear Cowboy Old-Timer: I am adding a few words to Holly's letter, which I have read. But she will not get to see what I write you.
"'Britt wants you to come back to Don Carlos's Rancho. So do I. So does the outfit. We are going to need you.
"'Brazos, Holly's letter might mislead you about affairs of the range out here. As a matter of fact, the rustling business is as good as the cattle business. There's a new outfit up in the hills, and Britt doesn't like the prospects one damn little bit.
"'The old game is kicking back, as we always expected it to. Not so long ago, the biggest herd of long-horns Britt ever saw drifted up the Cimarron--a gaunted bunch that had seen long and hard travel. The outfit worked them across the valley, avoiding the cow camps, taking scarce enough time to fatten up, and they split the herd and drove to the rail-road, shipping from Maxwell and Hebron to Kansas City.
"'Britt thought the drive had a queer look and took pains to get these details. They were all the facts obtainable. But somewhere along this trail to the railroad, the name Surface leaked out. It's a safe bet, Brazos, that this drive was a steal, as big a one as we ever saw come out of Texas. And naturally we're passing the buck with a hunch to you. Ride down this man Surface, and write to us, Brazos.
"'And while you're doing it, consider coming back to be my foreman of the outfit running the Ripple brand. On shares! Yours truly, Renn Frayne.'"
"Brazos," the sheriff declared finally, "I'm glad I trusted you. If I hadn't an' you'd sprung thet letter on me, I'd shore been ashamed. It's a wonderful letter! And now, it's aboot time for yore trial," he added, consulting his watch.
The sheriff's office appeared rather cramped with the dozen or more occupants standing and sitting around. Outside, a considerable crowd had collected. With few exceptions, notably Surface and some close associates at his elbow, the assembly was composed of dusty-booted, roughly-clad cattlemen.
"Set there, Keene," said Kiskadden, indicating one of two chairs back of his desk. Brazos saw his gun and belt, his watch and penknife, lying on some papers. The desk drawer was half open, showing the dark butts of several Colts.
"Let everybody in, if there's room,", called the sheriff to the guard at the door. Presently Kiskadden pounded on his desk to stop the talking. "Fellow citizens," he said, "my mind aboot this case is made up. But I'll hold a hearin' so thet you all can get the facts."
Surface took a step out from the group of ranchmen evidently accompanying him. His mien was arrogant, suggestive of power. His bland face appeared to Brazos to be a mask.
"Sheriff, I move we try this man before twelve jurors. I will serve along with the members of the Cattlemen's Association. We can pick the others from the businessmen here."
"What's the idee of thet?" demanded Kiskadden.
"Your declaration that you had already come to a decision proves the consensus of opinion correct."
"An' what's thet opinion?" queried the sheriff sarcastically.
"You wouldn't hang a Texas cowboy. This murderer would already have swung but for Inskip, who's another of your Texas breed."
"Wal, Surface, thet Texas breed opened up this cattle empire. An' you seldom heah of one of them gettin' hanged. Thet might come from their gun-throwin' proclivity, an' then again it might be thet few Texans deserve to swing. In this case, I'm refusin' your offer of a jury. The law of this county is invested in me."
"Kiskadden, you may rest assured your authority will not last long," rejoined Surface heatedly.
"All right. The hearin' 's on," called out Kiskadden loudly. "Deputy Bodkin, step forward." Bodkin took the oath.
"Now proceed with yore testimony."
"Wal, sir, it was late after two o'clock, night before last," began Bodkin, glib with importance. "I'd been playin' cards an' had hardly got asleep when I was woke by somebody at my winder. I seen two men. They was strangers. One of them told me they'd watched a cowboy shoot another off his horse, search him, and drag him into the cabin. Thet was the old Hill cabin, six miles west of town.
"My informant told me the cowboy came out of the cabin, unsaddled the horses, an' turned them loose. Then he went back. It was rainin'. He'd likely stay in the cabin till daybreak. Then the two fellers rustled off in the dark. I heerd their horses. Wal, I got up, dressed, an' rustled out for a posse. At thet hour, it wasn't easy. It was near dawn when I'd collected ten men. Inskip come along on his own accord. I didn't want him.
"Wal, we rode out fast, an' arrived at the cabin, jest at daybreak. The prisoner thar had just stepped out the door. We held him up, took his gun an' what he had in his pockets. I seen blood on his hand. I sent men inside to search the cabin. They found the dead man an' fetched him out. It was Allen Neece. His pockets were turned inside out. I heerd to-day thet Neece won a hundred dollars at faro the afternoon before he rode out of town. He was goin' to see some girl.
"Wal, the prisoner hyar sure went white an' sick when the dead boy was carried out an' laid on the grass. A blind man could have seen thet he'd murdered him. We found one hoss, the prisoner's. An' Segel packed the dead boy in on his saddle. All the way in I was debatin' on hangin' the murderer. An' when I got to it, this side of Twin Sombreros Ranch, Inskip crowded in front of us an' gave the cowboy a chance to grab his two guns. We got held up pronto an' drove into town. An' I'm fer arrestin' Inskip--"
"When Surface called you back, what did he say?" interrupted Kiskadden.
"What?" queried Bodkin. "Surface halted you at his ranch, then followed you an' stopped you. He drew you out of hearin' of yore men. This court is powerful interested in what Surface said."
"Wal--sir," exploded the deputy, his visage turning yellow, "he advised hangin' the cowboy right then an' thar. Said he distrusted this office."
"Thet will do, Bodkin," said the sheriff. "Doctor Williamson, will you please step forward an' make yore report."
A stout middle-aged man approached the desk.
"Mister Sheriff," he began, "and gentlemen. My fellow practitioner and I find that young Neece came to his violent death not later than the middle of the afternoon of day before yesterday. Death was caused by a compound fracture of the skull with consequent concussion of the brain. The bullet hole in his back was made long after he was dead. He had been roped and jerked heavily to the ground, probably from a horse."
"Thank you, Doctor," replied the sheriff. "Now, gentlemen, let me read you a telegram received heah this mawnin'. It is dated Latimer, Colorado, an' it reads: 'Sheriff Steve Kiskadden, Las Animas. The letter addressed to Brazos Keene was delivered to him in person at eight-ten o'clock day before yesterday morning, May fifth. Signed, Postmaster John Hilton."
"Brazos Keene!" ejaculated Bodkin. A murmur ran through the standing crowd. But it was certain that Raine Surface had never heard the name.
"Yes, Brazos Keene," drawled the Texas sheriff. "Gentlemen, you all know thet Latimer is a long way from Las Animas. Much too far for the hardest of hard-ridin' cowboys to get to the Hill cabin in the afternoon--an' murder an' rob young Neece. The letter Keene has in his possession absolutely clears him of any implication whatever in this tragedy. It was physically impossible for Keene to be there!"
Kiskadden silenced the uproar that followed. "I'm returning your gun, Brazos," he drawled, "and offerin' my apologies." He turned toward his white-faced deputy. "As my last official act, Bodkin, I'm firin' yu! An' then I'm resignin' as sheriff of this county!"
Kiskadden took off his star and laid it on the desk, and then, arm in arm with Brazos, shouldered his way through the crowd.
Brazos saw a familiar face appear before him. "Hank Bilyen!"
The old man put out his hand enthusiastically. "Say, Brazos, but you're sure a sight for these old eyes! An' I've got somethin' to tell you that'll sure make you want to stay right here and get to work."
"Uh-huh. Well, suppose we go rob the bank first. Even a grub-line-ridin' cowboy's gotta have some money these days."
At the door they were accosted by a lithe young man in rider's garb much the worse for wear. He had a clean-cut, youthful face and fine eyes.
"I'd like to shake your hand, Keene," he said, with a winning smile.
"Shore. An' who're yu?" returned Brazos slowly, as he returned the smile.
"Jack Sain. I've been pretty friendly with the Neeces. Allen was my pard."
"Brazos, it was Jack's friendship for the Neeces thet cost him his job," Hank Bilyen offered. "He rode fer Surface."
"Wal, Jack, I'll be wantin' to hobnob with yu some," said Brazos thoughtfully. "Where yu workin' now?"
"Nowhere. I can't get a job. Surface is strong in the association an' he's queered me."
"Doggone!" mused Brazos. "Jack, where can I find yu later in the afternoon?"
"Meet me at the Twin Sombreros Restaurant. About supper-time."
They parted, and Bilyen led Brazos slowly up the wide street. "Fine lad, thet," Bilyen was saying. "I reckon he didn't tell you everythin'. Lura Surface was sweet on Jack. She throws herself at every feller who strikes her fancy. But when Jack met June Neece, he went loco. An' June leans to him a lot, though she's not a hell of a flirt at all like Janis."
"My Gawd! Hank, is this a story yu're readin' me? The next thing yu'll tell me these sisters will be pretty an' sweet an'--"
Bilyen halted in front of a bank and spoke low. "They've lost their brother. An' the beautiful home thet was built fer them. Their father is dyin' of grief. They've been cheated, robbed, ruined. An' last, young Allen Neece was givin' his time to ferretin' out the secret of thet ruin. An' thet's why he was murdered!"
"Shore, Hank, I savvy yu," he answered. "Let's go in an' rob the bank. Then yu can take me oot to meet Abe Neece. An' after thet, I'll see the twins."
A few minutes later, Brazos stood outside the bank again, feeling a compact bulge in his pocket not altogether made by his precious letter.
"Hank, I only wanted a little money," expostulated Brazos. "How'n hell will I ever pay it back?'"
"Holy mackerel, Brazos, ask me an easy one. But I know you will," rejoined Bilyen. "I can spare thet. Before I went to work fer Neece, I sold my herd to him, an' I've saved my money. I'm takin' care of the old man now an' I lent the twins enough to start their restaurant."
"Wal, you always was a good friend, Hank. Say, who's this gazabo comin'?"
"Thet's Sam Mannin'. Still has his store down the street."
A spare grey Westerner of venerable and kindly aspect came up to them, his lined face breaking into a smile.
"Hello, Brazos," he said heartily, extending his hand. "Glad to see you again. An' just about the same!"
"Howdy, Sam. I'm gonna run in pronto an' buy oot yore store. Have you any of those red silk scarfs Louise used to sell me?"
"Plenty, cowboy. My store an' business have grown with the years."
"Hank, let's duck down an alley. If I meet any more old friends I'll bust."
"Stand your ground, cowboy. I got to buy some grub. Haw! Haw! Look who's spotted you. Has she got eyes? Aw no--"
"Save me, Hank. Who'n hell? I'll bet it's thet Surface girl."
"Right, Brazos. I'll duck in the store. Hope some of you'll be left when I come out."
Brazos had attention only for the stunningly handsome and strikingly attired young woman who bore down upon him, eyes alight. She was taller than she had appeared astride a horse, beautifully-proportioned, and several years beyond her teens.
"I congratulate you, Mr. Brazos Keene," she said, graciously offering her hand. "I'm very glad indeed. It was a stupid blunder."
"Wal, thet's Shore nice of yu, Miss Surface," replied Brazos as he bowed bareheaded to take her hand. "Considerin' how keen yore father was to see me hanged, I'm more'n grateful to see yu wasn't."
"Oh, Dad is impossible," she declared. "He seems to suspect every cowboy who rides in from the West."
"Shore does seem hard on us Western riders," drawled Brazos, his gaze strong on her. "I was aboot to shake the dust of Las Animas. But now, I just reckon I'll hang around. Do yu think I might met to see yu again?"
"You might," she replied, blushing becomingly. "I'd like nothing better."
"But Mr. Surface wouldn't like it."
"There's Dad down the street," she returned coolly. "Meet me tomorrow afternoon about three in the grove on the east bank of the brook that runs into the Purgatory about a mile out of town. Can you remember all that?"
"I'll be there," promised Brazos.
She rewarded him with a dazzling smile and swept on down the street.
"Brimstone an' chain lightnin'," soliloquized Brazos, watching the superb form depart. "Turrible took with herself. Crazy aboot men. An' I cain't savvy what else. But doggone it! I like her."
Bilyen emerged from the store burdened with bags.
"You look kinda sheepish," he observed. "I'd be some worried if I didn't know you was goin' to meet' June Neece to-day."
Bilyen had a little ten-acre ranch on the Purgatory. A grey shack faced the rocky, swift-running stream, and the splendid vista of plains to the south and the noble slopes of foothills rising to the Rockies on the west.
"I reckon I'll buy this place from yu an' settle down," drawled Brazos dreamily.
He was leaning over the rocky bank, still dreaming, when Hank came out of the shack accompanied by a man whose lean grey visage denoted the havoc of trouble if not of years. Brazos leaped erect.
"Howdy, Brazos Keene," was the man's greeting. "Hank has told me about you."
"Shore happy to meet you, Mr. Neece." responded Brazos warmly.
"Cowboy, you've got the cut of my son Allen--only you're older--an' there's something proved about you. Allen was reckless, inexperienced."
"Let's set down on the bank heah. Nice view."
Neece sighed and gazed out to the open range. He was not old, nor feeble, but it appeared plain that the shock of disaster had broken him.
"Brazos, is what Bilyen tells me true?" he queried presently. "Hank says you're goin' to stay here an' look into the deal we Neeces have had."
"Wal, thet's easy to answer," declared Brazos coolly. "Bodkin arrested me because he needed to hang the crime on somebody. He thought I was a stranger--a cowboy down on his luck. Surface wanted me hanged. For reasons I'm gonna find oot. If thet wasn't enough to rile Brazos Keene--wal, this rotten deal handed to you an' yore kids shore would be. I don't want to brag, but the ootfit chalked up some bad marks for themselves."
"You insinuate Surface is in some way connected with Bodkin?"
"Insinuate nothin'. I'm tellin' you, Mr. Neece." Brazos took out Holly's letter; carefully opened and sorted the pages until he came to Renn Frayne's postscript. The passage that related to Surface he slowly and gravely read.
"No coincidence! That was my herd. It was last seen on the Canadian."
"Wal. I had thet hunch myself. My idee is thet Frayne has tipped me a hunch damn important to eastern Colorado. Neece, I've heahed yore story from Hank. Just now, I only want to put one question. How an' when did yu lose thet money of Surface's you got in Dodge?"
"Simple as A. B. C. I wanted cash. Got it, an' took it on the train in a satchel. The train didn't get into Las Animas till after midnight. Jerry, my stableboy, met me with the buckboard. We drove out toward the ranch. At the turn of the road, where the brook crosses, I was held up by three men an' robbed."
"Ahuh. An' they shore knew where you'd been an' what you had. Was there anythin' familiar aboot them?"
"No. Strangers. They wore masks. But I never forget a voice. One of the three had a young, nervous, high-pitched voice, almost womanish. He called the burly man what sounded like 'Brad,' an' got cussed for doin' it. They were tough range riders."
"Brad," echoed Brazos, with a wild leap of his pulse. "Was thet all you heahed?"
"Yes. One of them batted me on the head. Jerry is not well yet from the beatin' they gave him."
"Did yu ever tell thet you heahed the name Brad--spoke by a young, nervous, high-pitched voice?"
"Come to think of it, I don't believe I ever did, except maybe to Allen. It must have slipped my mind. You excite me so it all comes back clear."
"Well, thet's all I want to heah this time. Walk aboot a bit an' think. Then I'll ride back to town an' keep my appointment with Jack Sain. Hank, I'll be heah in the mawnin'. An' Mr. Neece, don't get het up overly aboot this. I might be loco, but I swear we're on as black an' bloody a trail as I ever took up. So it behooves us to use our haids. Adios."
When Brazos Keene arrived at the railroad station it was near the supper hour. The restaurant he sought had been remodelled from an old adobe building. A second storey had been added and the whole given a coat of whitewash The building, the location, and the neat sign were all attractive. A hitching-rail ran along in front.
Brazos dismounted. Tying Bay to the rail, he stalked with his clinking step into the restaurant. But Jack Sain was not there. So far as he could see, the place was empty.
At this juncture, two things happened simultaneously--Brazos remembered the Neece twins, and a door opened to admit a girl. Brazos never figured out what gave him such a shock, but the fact was that never in his life before had any girl produced the effect this one had on him.
She was slight and graceful of form, fair-haired, but not blonde, and her face was white, sweet, sad. It struck Brazos she did not act like a waitress. She approached him, and, putting her hands on the counter, she leaned forward.
"Brazos Keene," she affirmed.
"Wal, I--I was when I come in heah," he said, fighting to smile, "but I cain't say now for shore."
"I am--June Neece," she returned, her low voice breaking a little. "We are sorry you were arrested and--"
"Thet was nothin' at all, Miss Neece," interrupted Brazos. "Shore I hardly ever ride into a town but somethin' like thet happens. I'm a marked man. As for the cause this time, wal, I oughtn't to remind you aboot--but I swear to Gawd I'm innocent--"
"Don't," she interposed earnestly. "If you had not been proved innocent, I would have known you were innocent." And she pressed a warm little hand in Brazos's upturned palm and left it there while she turned to call: "Jan, come here."
Then it appeared to the bewildered and thrilled cowboy that another June Neece walked into his heart.
"Jan, this is he," said the first tawny-eyed vision to the second, and then to him with a little, smile: "My sister, Janis."
There was absolutely no telling these twin sisters apart. The one called Janis blushed and a bright glow suddenly burned out the shadow in her eyes.
"Brazos Keene? Oh, I am glad to meet you!" she exclaimed, and, repeating her sister's action, she put her hand in his other as it lay on the counter.
The street door banged suddenly and Jack Sain came tramping in.
"Howdy, Brazos. I see you've got acquainted without my help," he remarked, as the girls withdrew their hands from Brazos's grip.
"Jack, this Brazos cowboy is not so slow," said Janis teasingly.
"Slow! Never in this world could you apply that word to Brazos Keene. I see he's perked you up already. Let's get our order in before the gang comes rollin' along."
"Boys, what will you have?" asked one of the twins. The other had turned to the vanguard of hungry visitors, now flocking from all directions.
While the restaurant rapidly filled and the young waitresses flitted to and fro, Brazos listened to his voluble friend and eagerly watched for June without any hope whatever of being able to tell which of the twins really was June.
When, however, Sam gave Brazos a dig in the ribs with his elbow, Brazos came out of his trance.
"Look behind you--at thet handsome dressed-up dude rancher," whispered Sam. "At the table."
"Ahuh. Wal--" replied Brazos, leisurely complying. "Kinda spick and span, at thet. But he's got a nice face. Who is he?"
"Henry Sisk, an' he has a nice face, I'm bound to admit. Too damn nice! Women like him a heap."
"How aboot June an' Janis heah?"
"June couldn't see him with a telescope. But I got a hunch Jan likes him. Anyway, it's Jan he 'pears to be courtin'."
"How'n hell does he know which one he's courtin'?"
"He doesn't, unless they tell him, you can bet your roll on thet."
"How do yu tell?" asked Brazos.
Sain reddened perceptibly. "I don't. Only the girls are decent enough to give me a hunch."
"Gosh! What'd yu do if they didn't steer yu?"
"Brazos, I'd be a plumb crazy cowboy, believe me. But don't get a wrong notion. Both June an' Janis have been friendly to me. Thet's all. I never even had nerve enough to hold June's hand. They're not the flirtin' kind."
"So I see. Wal, how aboot this Henry Sisk? Is he a decent hombre?"
"Yes. I'm jealous, I reckon. Henry is young, good-lookin', rich, an' a fine fellow."
"Wal, I'll see if I approve of him," drawled Brazos coolly, as he swung sidewise over the bench. "Jack, yu order apple pie an' milk for me."
He took several slow strides over to the table where young Sisk sat glowering at no one in particular. His frank face impressed Brazos favourably.
"Howdy, Sisk?" he said. "My pard heah told me who yu air. I'm Brazos Keene."
"How do," returned the young rancher awkwardly. He was surprised, but he put out a hand willingly enough.
"I'm wonderin' if yu need a rider," replied Brazos, after the grip.
"I always need a rider who can work."
"Doggone! Work isn't my long suit," drawled Brazos with his captivating smile. "I cain't rope very wal, an' I'm no good at all at most cowboy jobs, an' I'd just starve before I'd dig fence-post holes. But if I do say it myself, I'm pretty fair with guns."
"Brazos, you're that thing impossible to find--a modest cowboy," said Sisk, laughing. "If you're serious, ride out to see me."
"Thanks. I'll do thet some day," concluded Brazos, and returned to his seat beside young Sain. At this moment one of the girls brought a generous golden slice of apple pie and a large glass of creamy milk. Brazos stared from these to the charming waitress.
"Miss Janis, can I come in heah as often as I want an' get a gorgeous supper like I've had?" asked Brazos.
"Why, certainly--so long as you pay for it," she replied.
"But I'm broke a good deal. Money slips right through my fingers."
"This is strictly cash business, Mr. Keene," she said demurely,
"Mexican Joe trusts me," importuned Brazos. "Aw, Miss Janis, I shore wouldn't want to be exclooded from this heah lovely place just on account of bein' financially embarrassed now an' then."
"Have you any references as to--to good credit and character?" she asked mischievously. "If you will bring these, we shall be glad to trust you. And, by the way, I am not Janis, but June."
"June, I'll eat myself to death," he rejoined softly. "When can I see yu again?"
"We are off at ten. I'd like you to meet my aunt. She's Dad's sister, and lives with us upstairs."
A little before ten o'clock, Brazos wended a reluctant and yet impelled way toward the Twin Sombreros Restaurant. He could not have resisted the urge if he had wanted to. And he fought off the presage of calamity. When he arrived at the corner, he espied one of the twins talking to Henry Sisk. Indeed the two were arguing, from which fact Brazos deduced that this was Janis.
Brazos mounted the side stairway leading up to the second storey and knocked on the door, sure of the trepidation and another nameless. sensation obsessing him. The door opened as if someone had heard his step outside. June stood there, in a white dress that had never been made in Las Animas. This apparition smiled upon him and Brazos dated his abject enthrallment from that moment.
"Evenin', Miss June. I reckon I'm ahaid of time," he said.
"No. You are late. Come in."
She ushered Brazos into a cosy little sitting-room. "Auntie, this is our new-found friend, Mr. Brazos Keene," she said to a grey-haired woman, who sat beside the lamp table. "My Aunt Mattie, Miss Neece --Daddy's sister."
"For the land's sake! June, this nice-looking boy can't be your terrible Brazos Keene," exclaimed the aunt.
"Yes, he is, Auntie."
"Aw, Miss Neece, don't believe everythin' yu heah," implored Brazos. "I'm not turrible atall."
"I don't believe', you are. I'm glad to meet you. Janis filled my old head with nonsense. Said you were a black-browed giant--very fierce to see."
"Air yu shore it was Janis?"
"Yes, indeed. June has been telling me the--well, I'll not give her away. But your ears must have burned. Take his hat, June--and hadn't you better lay aside that cumbersome gun?"
"Wal, lady, I wouldn't feel dressed proper if I did thet. There, I'll slip it around so you caint see it."
"Thank you. I--I guess that's better," she replied, rising. "Mr. Keene, you met my brother Abraham?"
"I did an' I shore like him."
"Have you any ground to believe Abraham's loss can be retrieved?" she asked beseechingly.
"I cain't explain. It's what a cowboy calls a hunch. I've trailed up a good many of my hunches an' never lost oot on one yet."
"Only a hunch! Oh, I had prayed you might have really learned something."
"Miss Neece, I cain't talk aboot it now. All I can say is for yu to go on hopin' and prayin', too."
"Perhaps Abraham will tell me. Good night, Mr. Brazos Keene. Somehow, you inspire me strangely. June, I'll leave you young folks alone. Good night."
Brazos found himself alone with June Neece, and his five endless years of wandering for he knew not what were as it they had never been.
Her face was white and her big eyes shone up at him.
"Brazos Keene! To think I'm alone with him! Oh, I've heard who and what you are. It has been on the lips of everybody all day long."
"Wal, I hope it's gain' to be good for yu thet I am Brazos Keene," returned he mournfully. "But maybe if I was Henry Sisk or Jack Sain I would have more chance for you to like me."
"We are getting on," she replied demurely.
"Yu mean we're gettin' some place where I've no right to be?"
"Come sit here," she returned, and led him to a little sofa in the corner. They gazed at each other again. There was something vital, compelling, drawing, that made no allowance for short acquaintance.
"June, I'm gonna be honest. Meetin' yu has thrown me plumb oot of my saddle."
"It means much to me, Brazos--I don't know what."
"Girl, yu cain't be in love with Jack Sain?"
"Who said I was?" she answered, grinning. "I like Jack. We played together when we were kids."
"Wal, I was afraid--I reckon I thought you might care more'n thet. Jack is crazy aboot yu."
"I'm sorry, Brazos. But I didn't flirt with him as Jan did with Henry Sisk. I'm sorry for Jack. He has had one misfortune after another. And the last is too bad. He had just found a good job after being idle for months, then lost it."
"How'd he lose it?"
"Al said he was running after Lura Surface. Her father caught them meeting on the road one night. He raised Cain and had Jack discharged."
"Ahuh. June, I want to ask some questions aboot Allen. Were yu in his confidence?"
"Yes. Allen was afraid to tell Dad what he was doing. And he didn't even tell Jan."
"Ahuh. Wal, if I figure Allen correct, he was trackin' the ootfit thet ruined yore father."
"He was on the trail of the three men who held Dad up that night and robbed him."
"Did he tell yu anythin'?"
"Not much. Oh, let me recall it," she went on excitedly. "They did not belong around Las Animas. But they rode here often. He had nothing to go by except--except the night they robbed Dad, one of them--a boy with a girl's voice--called another of the three 'Brad'."
"Yes, June, your Dad told me. And here's the funny part of it. One of the three hombres who held me up that night called his pard Brad. By Gawd! Those men murdered Allen. He was on their trail. Did anyone else but yu know Allen was workin' on yore father's case?"
"Lura would have heard it, surely."
"Shore, she'd tell her father, June, can yu remember any more Allen told yu?"
"Let me think. Yes--the night before Allen was killed he had supper with me downstairs. He asked me if I'd seen a handsome, hard-faced cowgirl, small and slim with eyes like black diamonds. She looked the real thing in riders, he said. Then he said she had made up to him in the Happy Days saloon. He seemed curious, yet distrustful. But he didn't tell me any more."
"A cowgirl! Wal, now I wonder--An' thet's all, June?"
"It's all I can remember now. Perhaps when I see you again--"
"Thet'll be in the mawnin', I reckon. But don't worry aboot me. I'm takin' over Allen's job of huntin' for the three hombres who robbed yore dad--an' murdered Allen--an' held me up. An' shore as death, one of thet three was a girl with a high-keyed voice!"
Brazos espied Lura Surface's white horse tied among the pine saplings before he turned in off the road. He found her most effectively placed in a green-shaded nook opening upon the bank of the brook. Bareheaded, her red hair flaming, her strange eyes alight, her lissome, full-breasted figure displayed to advantage in her riding-habit she made a picture that struck fire in Brazos; despite his cool preconception.
"Good afternoon, Miss Surface. I shore am sorry to be late," he drawled, and, throwing aside his sombrero, sat down and slid to his elbow beside her.
"Howdy, Brazos Keene," she said, with a smile.
"Wal, I do pretty good, considerin'," returned Brazos. "Cowboys don't often fall into such luck as this."
"I came early. But I thought you'd never get hare."
"Wild hawsses couldn't have kept me away from yu, Lura."
"Same old cowboy blarney."
"Ump-um. If you take me for any other cowboy, wal, we won't get nowhere atall."
"Where will we get if I take you as I did yesterday?"
"An' how was thet?"
"A lonely cowboy, down on his luck, unjustly jailed--and needing a friend."
"Thet's takin' me true, Lura. But I cain't say I'm without friends altogether."
"You could always get women friends, Brazos."
"Shore. Thet's my trouble. I almost didn't come to-day."
"Wal, yu shore took my eye. An' I knew if I saw yu again I'd go loco."
"Loco? What's that?"
"Loco is a weed hawsses eat sometimes an' go oot of their haids."
"Humph! I can just see you going loco!" she ejaculated. "Why, you're the coolest cow boy I ever met. And Lord knows I've met some cool ones?"
"Wal, suppose at thet--I did go loco?"
"I'd be delighted. You're different, Brazos. Oh, I was sorry when I thought they'd hang you! And what a thrill I had yesterday! Scared, too! Brazos Keene--the notorious Brazos Keene! But I'm not so scared now."
Brazos sat up, and with swift, strong arms he drew her back so that she lay almost flat with her head on his breast.
"Lura, yu shore oughtn't play at love with a hombre like me."
"Who says I'm playing?"
"Shore yu air. An' I've got sense enough to see it an' decency enough to spare yu what many a cowboy I've known would take."
"You think I'm a flirt?"
"Wal, I never call women names, unless they're nice names. Yu're powerful seductive, Lura, turrible appealin', an' pretty isn't the word. Yu've got a devastatin' kind of beauty. If I let go of myself now, an' fell, to kissin' yu, as I reckon I might do by force, I'd be a gone goslin'. I might fall stark ravin' mad in love with yu. An' where'd thet get me? I'm Brazos Keene, only a notch or two behind Billy the Kid in range standin'. Yu're daughter of Raine Surface, rich rancher, an' yu're the belle of this corner of Colorado. Suppose such a wild thing as yore fallin' in love with me. Yu couldn't never marry me."
"You are a queer one. What'd you meet me for, if not to make love? Who ever heard of a cowboy who didn't?"
"Wal, heah's one. Lura, could yu get me a job ridin' for yore dad?"
"Oh, I'd like that. In fact, I said to Father: 'Why not get this Keene cowboy to ride for us?' He flouted the idea. 'That gun-throwing desperado from New Mexico! I guess not!' And I said: 'But, Father, you never care how tough cowboys are coming from Dodge or Abilene.' And he shut me up."
"Ahuh. He's got a grudge against Western riders, I reckon."
"I can't understand it, Brazos," she replied as she straightened her dishevelled hair. "Riders like you are not tough or low-down. You may be wild, dangerous, and all that. But Father's excuse is queer. Why, he has hired rustlers and even outlaws when we ranched outside of Abilene. He had some bad outfits--bad in another sense. That's why he sold out and came to Colorado."
"Reckon I savvy thet. Bad ootfits sometimes hurt a cattleman's reputation," replied Brazos casually.
"Indeed they do. Father lost friends in Kansas. He had one serious lawsuit during which some pretty raw things were hinted against him. He shot a cattleman named Stearns."
"No. Stearns recovered."
"Wal, yore dad didn't strike me as the shootin' kind."
"He's not," the girl returned, with some note akin to contempt. "Unless he's got the edge on the other man. Why, he was scared to go into town for fear he'd run into Allen Neece."
"Neece? Did yu know him, Lura? Did yu know him very well?"
"Yes. I liked him better than any boy I knew."
"From all I heah, Neece was a nice chap. Did he ever ride for yu?"
"No. Father not only wouldn't have Allen but ran him out of the job he had."
"When did yu see Allen last?" asked Brazos, apparently growing interested.
"The very night he was murdered. I was in town: I met him coming out of the Show Down Saloon. He was half drunk. Allen took to drink after the Neeces lost Twin Sombreros. He didn't see me. And I didn't stop him for the good reason that he was with a little black-eyed wench in boy's pants. I had seen her once before somewhere, I think, in Dodge. Not the dance-hall type, but a pretty hard-faced hussy. I think she shad something to do with Allen's murder. If it hadn't been for that black-eyed girl my conscience would hurt me."
"Yore what?" drawled Brazos, with his slow smile.
"I daresay you think I have no conscience or any womanly virtues."
"Nope. But yu don't need anythin' with yore good looks Lura, yu've made me doggone interested in young Neece's case."
"I mustn't stay longer, Brazos," said the girl, consulting her watch. "Father watches me closely. Here we have spent an hour--the last part of which didn't keep the promise of the first. When shall we meet again?"
"I reckon never, Lura. But when I'm far away, I'll think I might have kissed yu, an' kick myself."
"Oh, don't go away. Why, I've only met you! Tell me when?"
"Wal, maybe some day I'll meet yu in town an' weaken. But, lady, yu've been warned."
Brazos watched her ride away with only one regret--that he liked her well enough to be sorry she was innocently involved in a sinister plot that dimly shadowed her father, and which she had unwittingly made clearer.
Brazos rode back to town. When he dismounted at the corral and turned Bay over to the stableboy, he suddenly had an inspiration:
"Pedro, did yu know Allen Neece?"
"Si, senor," replied the Mexican.
Further queries rewarded Brazos with some significant facts. Allen Neece had come to the stable on the night he was murdered. He was under the influence of drink, though not by any means drunk. He had to wake Pedro to get his horse. It was not until Neece had mounted and ridden off that Pedro had noted a companion--a boy on a black horse, waiting. This last information seemed of tremendous importance to Brazos. That boy was the girl in rider's garb that Lura Surface had seen with Allen.
That night Brazos haunted the main street and the saloons. The cowboys and cattlemen on the street, the drinkers and bar-tenders in the saloons, the gamblers at the tables and the loungers around, and more than one dark-garbed group who drank by themselves--all heard that Brazos Keene was hunting, for someone.
Brazos's stalk was no pose, yet he did it deliberately. Nevertheless he had little hope that he would encounter the trio who now loomed large in the mystery of Allen Neece's murder. They would be out on the range hidden in the hills, or back east in the gambling dens of Dodge or Abilene. They would be in close touch with the man or men who were back of this crime. It might well be that they would be summoned presently to do away with Brazos.
In the Happy Days Saloon he came unexpectedly upon Bodkin. The ex-deputy had just set down his glass on the bar. Sight of Brazos cut short words he was speaking to a companion.
"Hey, Bodkin, heah yu air," called Brazos, so ringingly that the inmates of the crowded saloon went silent. "Where yu been?"
"I've been around town as usual," replied Bodkin, turning white.
"Like hell yu have. I been lookin' for yu. Have yu been put back as deputy sheriff of this heah town?"
"No. Kiskadden fired me, an' then he resigned. The Cattlemen's Association haven't made no appointment yet. But I'm expectin' it."
"Yu're expectin' what?" drawled Brazos with scathing insolence.
"To be elected sheriff."
"Aw, hell! Elected? Who's electin' yu? Not the citizens of this heah town. They won't be asked. If they would be, yu'd never get a vote, onless from some of yore hired hands. An' who's yore Cattlemen's Association ootside of Raine Surface?
"Miller, Henderson, Sprague--all big cattlemen," returned Bodkin. "Inskip was one--but he quit."
"Ahuh. An' when does this ootflt aim to settle yore appointment--an' also yore--hash?"
"They meet to-morrow night."
"Wal, tell them I'll call an' cast one vote against yu. An' while yu're carryin' messages from me, take this for yourself. If yu're appointed sheriff I'm gonna see red. An' this for yore hired-hand, Barsh. He better keep oot of my way."
Backing through the swinging doors, Brazos left that saloon to break its silence with a subdued sound of excited voices, and then an angry protesting roar from Bodkin. Brazos had scarcely turned up the street when the doors banged behind him.
"Hold on, Brazos. It's Hank." And Bilyen, glinting of eye, joined him. "My Gawd, cowboy, but you burned Bodkin up! What's the deal?"
"Howdy, Hank. Aw, I was only bluffin' Bodkin, an' takin' thet chance to set the town talkin' about Surface an' his Cattlemen's Association."
"Brazos, you've got goin'," rejoined Bilyen shrewdly. "You never was one to talk wild. Mebbe you was throwin' a bluff, but you had somethin' behind it."
"Wal, enough to want to rile myself up. Hank, I was wantin' to see yu. Give me the lowdown on rustlin' in eastern Colorado."
"Got thet this very day. Kiskadden an' Inskip told me. They're shore interested. Brazos, there 'pears to be considerable cattle stealin' in small numbers, takin' in all the big brands on this range. Too slick an' bold to be the work of any gang but real rustlers under a smart leader. Kiskadden an' Inskip lost three hundred haid last month. The Star Brand not so many. Small ootfits down the Purgatory none at all. Henderson's ootflt rarin' about a big drive on their Circle Dot Brand. Miller has lost considerable haid. Sprague an' the big cattlemen up on the slopes hard hit for these times. All this last month, an' the herds driven over into Kansas an' shinned east."
"Ha! Ha!" laughed Brazos mirthlessly.
"Say, what's so funny about thet?"
"Struck me funny, the way my hunches work oot," returned Brazos grimly. "But for some men it's aboot as funny as death. Hank, will yu meet me oot west of town at sunup in the mawnin'?"
"Yes, I will, cowboy. Where?" answered Bilyen soberly.
"At thet old cabin on the hill--where Allen Neece was murdered," said Brazos tersely, and abruptly strode away toward Mexican Joe's place, where he had a room.
Next morning found Brazos at the cabin, waiting far Hank Bilyen. The old cowman arrived in good time and greeted his young friend.
They searched the musty, dry cabin as hunters of treasure might have. "Well, nothin' heah," said Brazos. "Let's go up in the loft."
The loft had been built of peeled poles laid close together. It shook under their weight. The light was dull up there, but they could distinguish objects. Bilyen concluded that the murderers had climbed the ladder up to a point level with the loft and had shoved the body head-first back upon the poles. A dark smear of blood ran along one of them.
"What's thet in the corner?" asked Brazos. He found a rope, a lasso, that had evidently been hurriedly flung there without being coiled. He crawled back to Bilyen with it.
Brazos went over every inch of that loft without further discovery. When he got down he found Hank sitting in the door, studying the rope. Brazos knelt to scrutinise with him. They were tense and silent.
"Wal, what you make oot?" queried the Texan gruffly of Brazos.
"Lasso all right. Manilla, wal made. Same as any one of a hundred."
"Yes, an' what else, cowboy?"
"It shore never was used on a calf or a cow or a steer."
"Hell, no, Brazos, it ain't new. It's been tied on a saddle fer a long time. A cowboy riata never used by a cowboy! Does thet say anythin' to you?"
"Ump-umm. Don't talk so much, Hank. Let's go all over the ground."
It appeared to be a scraggy bit of dead and dying limber, extending back a considerable distance. Brazos directed Hank to search there, while he began at the farther end. At the farthest point, under the largest and thickest-foliaged of the trees, he found a bare spot of ground. At sight of hoof tracks and tiny boot tracks his blood leaped. Down he knelt.
"There! My hunch was true."
Bilyen made a careful inspection of the spot, and then faced Brazos with a curious fire in his eyes. "Cowboy, there's a girl mixed in this deal."
"She come way back heah to be far from thet cabin. An' she set her hawss for a while. An' she got off heah--an' heah she walked to and fro. Nervous! An' heah she stood still, her heels diggin' in. Rooted to the spot, heh? An' there she got on again, light-footed an' quick--Well, Brazos, I'll be damned!"
"So will I, Hank," rejoined Brazos ponderingly. "Get' me some little sticks so I can measure this track."
"How you figure her part in this?"
"Plain as print. She an' her two pards air from oot of town--she's a good-looker an' likely enticin' to cowboys. Allen Neece was easy took in by girls. He liked a drink, too. Wal, this gang of three was after him for reasons that bear strong in this deal. She got to Allen--an' the rest was easy."
"I figure aboot like thet, Hank," added Brazos thoughtfully. "Beside, I know more'n yu. The night Allen was killed he walked down to the barns to get his hawss. Pedro said there was a boy with him--a boy on a black hawse--an' they hung ootside. They rode away. Now what happened is this: If I remember correct, thet night was nice an' warm, with a moon an' the frogs peepin'--just the night for a rendezvous oot heah. But they never got heah. Thet Brad an' his other pard roped Allen an' dragged him off his hawse, The fall killed Allen, but they didn't know it. They packed him up heah, shot him--an' left him in the cabin."
"While the girl waited heah under this tree, nervous an' sick."
"Nervous, anyhow. Wal, she had--good reason to be nervous," declared Brazos darkly. "Just about then I rode into the deal."
"Brazos, who's behind all this?"
"Hank, yu're a curious cuss," drawled Brazos, carefully depositing in his pocket the little sticks with which he had measured the foot track. "Let's go back to town an' have breakfast."
That night Brazos had his supper at Mexican Joe's. Afterwards he began the gamut of the saloons, where he pretended to drink. And at nine o'clock, when he mounted the steps to the Odd Fellows Hall, he pounded on the door with the butt of his gun.
"Open up heah!" he shouted.
The door was promptly unlocked, allowing Brazos to enter, a little unsteady on his feet. But seldom had Brazos Keene been any more sober and cool than at this moment.
"Excuse me, gennelmen, for intrudin' heah. I'll leave it to yu whether what I say is important or not."
A dozen or perhaps fifteen men sat around a long table, upon which stood bottles and glasses and a box of cigars. Brazos recognised Henderson and Surface. He had never seen Sprague, but identified him from Bilyen's description. And lastly, to his surprise, he saw Inskip.
"It's that cowboy, Brazos Keene," spoke up one of the men.
"Drunk! Put him out," called. Surface, rising from his seat.
"Let him have his say, Surface," advised Henderson, intensely interested.
"Go ahaid, Brazos," interposed Inskip dryly..
"But the intrusion of a drunken cowboy!" protested Surface.
"Speak up, Keene," ordered Henderson. "Be brief and to the point."
Brazos sheathed his gun, though he left his hand on the butt.
"Gentlemen, I picked oot this meetin' as the proper place an' time to make a statement shore to be interestin' to all Colorado cattlemen," he began Swiftly. "It so happens thet events kinda gravitate to me. An honour I never cared for but was thrust on me! The cattle situation heah on this range is nothin' new to me. I recall five situations like it. Yu all know what caused the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. Yu-all shore have heahed of the Sewall McCoy combine with Russ Slaughter. On the one hand there was the educated, rich, smooth, cunnin' gentleman-rancher, an' on the other the dyed-in-the-wool rustler, hard as flint, an' leader of as bloody an ootfit of cattle thieves as ever forked hawsses. Yu-all may have heahed, too, what I had to do with trailin' an' breakin' thet double ootfit. I mention it hear, not to brag but to give some importance to what I'm aboot to tell yu."
Brazos let that sink in.
"Yu cattlemen face the same situation heah on' this range," he went on impressively. "An' if yu don't break it up there's no tellin' how powerful an' all-embracin' it'll grow.. Short an' sweet, then, gentlemen, there's a cattleman on this range who's workin' like Sewall McCoy. He's yore friend an' maybe pardner, I'm not insultin' any of yu heah or any citizen of Las Animas. 'Cause what I know cain't be proved at this tellin'. But it's the truth yu can gamble on. Thet's all, gentlemen. Take it for what it's worth."
Slowly Brazos backed to the door, limning on his mind's eye, the strangely contrasting visages there. Then with a leap he was out the door, to bound down the stairs.
As the train whistled for Las Animas the conductor observed Brazos Keene buckling a heavy gun belt around his slim 'waist.
He picked up his bag and made for the platform. As the train slowed to a halt he espied Bilyen foremost of the waiting bystanders. Before Brazos stepped down he swept the platform with searching gaze.
"Howdy, Hank," drawled Brazos. "Kinda like old times to see yu packin' thet gun."
"Wal, you dressed-up son of a gun," ejaculated Hank, delighted. "Brazos, you shore look fine."
"How about things heah?"
"Not so good. I hope you had better luck than me."
"Hank, I shore learned a heap. But what good it'd do cain't say. Come with me. I've got somethin' to tell Neece."
Brazos had no more to say until he and Hank met Neece at the cabin. It pleased Brazos to see that Neece was a changed man. He had pulled out hopelessness. He had gained.
"Wal, Neece, I've news thet I shore hope yu'll find somethin' in," began Brazos. "My job at Kansas City, yu know, was to get track of the cattle people Surface ships to. I couldn't find oot. This may have been regular an' then again it may have been queer. Their interest is in buyin' an' sellin' beef an' not in where it comes from. A big per cent of cattle herds shipped there is shore rustled, An' nobody's tellin'.
"But I spent three days loafin' aboot the stockyards, an' I found oot from the yardmen aboot two big trainloads of longhorns thet was shipped in early spring. Longhorns an' mixed brands, from New Mexico. One trainload went into the stockyards an' was drove oot of there in small bunches. The other trainload went east. Yu cain't track unbranded cattle any more'n yu can cattle wearin' brands yu don't know. Shore them big trains carried yore herd. An' thet herd just faded.
"Wal, on the way back I stopped over at Abilene. I mixed with cowboys, cattlemen, gamblers, an' town folks. Naturally, yu know, yu never get anywhere askin' one Westerner aboot another. But I finally met a cowboy who once rode for Surface. He was mum as an oyster.
"Then I met a cattleman who spit fire when I asked aboot Surface. It 'peared this cattleman was kin to one who had been a pardner of Surface. Stokes, the pardner was. Wal, Stokes an' Surface operated in cattle. Surface bought an' Stokes sold. One day they quarrelled an' Surface shot Stokes. Nobody saw the fight. Surface claimed Stokes drew first. Some people said the trouble was over money, an' some said Stokes had been heahed to question Surface aboot where he got his cattle. Anyway, Surface left Abilene. Thet was over a year ago. An' thet's aboot all."
"I reckon it's significant," declared Neece soberly.
"Luca Surface has left Twin Sombreros, so I heah," put in Hank. "She's stayin' with, a friend, Delia Ross. An' lettin' that gambler Howard run around with her."
"Yu don't say? Wal!"
"Brazos, did Hank tell you Henderson called on me?" queried Neece. "Though he didn't mention Surface I took it as an expression of regret an' sympathy. Henderson is head of the bank that wouldn't lend me the money to save my ranch."
"Ahuh. Wal, thet is a hunch. Rustle my hawss, Hank. I'm ridin' to town."
Henderson received Brazos with veiled surprise.
"I called to ask a couple of questions, Mr. Henderson, an' maybe one is in the nature of a favour," said Brazos.
"Well, shoot, cowboy," replied the banker with an encouraging smile.
"Do yu know Jack Sain?"
"By sight only."
"Could yu give him a job ridin'? From all I heah yu need some riders. I'll stand for Jack."
"Very well. That is recommendation enough. Send him in."
"Thet's fine of yu, Mr. Henderson. My other question is kinda personal an' I hope yu excuse it. Air you for or against Raine Surface?"
"Is that any business of yours?"
"Not onless yu make it mine. But I'm against him. I'm on Abe Neece's side in this deal."
"So that is what Inskip meant?"
"Will yu respect my confidence?"
"Wal, I reckon Raine Surface is another Sewall McCoy."
"Aha! That was behind your little address to the Cattlemen's Association? Inskip told me that very thing."
"Yes, it was an' is."
"Ticklish business, even for a Brazos Keene. Surface has many interests, riders galore, and, according to range gossip, a tough outfit up in the hills."
"All powerful interestin' to me. If Surface didn't have them he wouldn't class with Sewall McCoy. At that I reckon McCoy had what Surface doesn't show to me: brains. McCoy lasted for years in New Mexico. An' if It hadn't been for my suspicion aboot a cowboy rider in my ootfit why, McCoy might be playin' a high hand yet. But Surface won't last the month oot. He just doesn't savvy us."
"Us? And who are us?"
"Wal, Kiskadden an' Inskip an' Neece an' Bilyen an' me an' yu, Mr. Henderson," drawled Brazos. "I'm obliged to yu for seein' me an' more especial for yore bolsterin' up of my hunch aboot Surface."
"See here, Keene, I didn't say--I didn't intimate--"
"All I needed was to talk to yu a little. I know what yu think. But yu didn't tell me an' yu can rest safe in thet assurance. Keep oot of Surface's way. He might try to bore yu to strengthen his stand."
That night after supper Brazos began his stalk, as stealthily as if he were deer hunting, though with the wary intensity which accompanied the blood pursuit of man.
Very late, Brazos presented himself at the door of the Neeces' apartment over the restaurant and knocked solidly. The door opened quickly, to disclose one of the twins in a dressing-gown, most bewitching in the dim lamplight.
"Sorry--but I gotta see June," announced Brazos with a deep breath.
"Come in. I've been waiting. I 'mew you'd come. Janis and Auntie have gone to bed," she replied.
June stood before him, turning up the lamp ever so little. She looked at him with dark, wide eyes.
"Brazos!" She came close to catch the lapels of his coat and look up anxiously. "What has happened? I never saw you look like this."
"Nothin' happened yet, June. But it's gonna happen--an' pronto. There air men in town--I don't know how many--come to kill me. An' I just been goin' the rounds to let them see I won't be so easy to kill."
"Oh, mercy! I feared--this," whispered June unsteadily, and leaned shaking against him.
"June, I reckoned yu'd better heah it from me," he said earnestly. "'Cause, no matter if I am Brazos Keene--somethin' might happen. But I've been in a heap tighter place--to come oot safe. An' so it'll be this time."
"And it's all because you want to help us," she said eloquently.
"Never mind thet," he rejoined hastily. "June, it's shore hard to say the rest. My chest's cavin' in. Yu remember the night I left for Kansas City--how I was mad enough to take them--them two kisses yu was mad enough to say yu owed me?"
She lifted her face, flushed and radiant. "Brazos," she whispered shyly, "I loved you from the very first minute you looked at me."
"Darlin' June, I'm turrible unworthy of yu. But, I love yu. An' I ask yu to--to be my wife."
"You have my promise," she said simply, and lifted her face from his shoulder, and then, blushing scarlet--her lips to his.
"There! Ah, no more! Brazos!" she whispered, and slipped shyly from his arms, to close the opened dressing-gown around her neck. "Go now. It's late. And here I am--forgetting my modesty! But you've made me happy. I'm not afraid NOW, Brazos. Adios, my cowboy!"
Next morning Brazos began patrolling Las Animas. It was Saturday, and the influx of cowboys and other ranch folk had noticeably begun. The railroad station platform showed the usual crowd and bustle incident to the arrival of a train.
Inside the station Brazos encountered Lura Surface just turning away from the ticket window. She carried a satchel and evidently the larger bag at her feet belonged to her.
"Mawnin', Lura Surface. Air yu runnin' away on me?" drawled Brazos, doffing his sombrero.
"Brazos Keene!" She gave him a glance from superb green eyes that was not particularly flattering. "Yes, I am running away, and for good--if it's anything to you."
"Yu don't say. Aw, I'm sorry. I been wantin' to see yu powerful bad."
"Yes, you have," she rejoined with scorn. "Why didn't you, then? I wrote you. I wanted to ask you to--to help me. But you never wrote."
"Lura, thet's too bad. I never got yore letter. Fact is, I haven't been to the post office. An' I've been away for weeks."
"It's too late, Brazos," she said, a little bitterly. "I'm going to Denver to marry Hal Howard."
"Aw! Yu 'don't say? Wal, I'm shore congratulatin' thet hombre."
"But you don't congratulate me?"
"Hardly. I just cain't see yu throwin' yoreself away on a caird-sharp. Why, Lura, yu got all the girls oot heah skinned to a frazzle."
"If you thought so--so much of me why did you--" she asked, softening under his warm praise. Her hard green eyes misted over. Then she went on: "Was it because you'd heard things about my love affairs?"
"No, it shore wasn't," he replied bluntly, realising that he had met her at a singularly opportune moment.
"Brazos! You were afraid of Dad?"
"No. Not thet, Lura. I'm not afraid of any man. But it was because he was yore father." She met his piercing gaze with understanding, and a visible shudder.
The train whistled for the stop. Lura designated her bag, which Brazos took up. They went out on the platform. The train halted with squeak and jar. Brazos helped Lura on, found a seat for her, and, depositing her bag, he held out his hand.
"Good-bye an' good luck," he said. "Yu're game, Lura. I'm gonna risk a word of advice. Stop Howard's caird playin'."
"He will not need to gamble," she flashed, with a smile. "One last word, Brazos Keene." She put her cool lips to his ear, in what certainly was a caress as well as an act of secrecy. "For my sake, spare Dad the rope!"
Brazos could find no answer. He clasped her hand hard. The train was moving. One last glance he took at her eyes, brimming with tears, and dark with pain. Then he wheeled to run back to the platform and jump off. He stood till the train passed by, and then wended a pondering, watchful way down the street.
At the corner where the bank stood an idea struck him. He went in to see Henderson. Without any greeting, Brazos flung a query at the banker.
"Did this heah bank get held up yesterday or maybe day before?"
"By a bandit?" replied Henderson.
"I reckon one man might think thet. A bandit with green eyes an' red hair."
"Keene, you beat me all hollow."
"Wal, come oot with it, then. Didn't Raine Surface draw a big sum of money?"
"All he had in cash. Close to forty thousand dollars."
"Doggone! An' wasn't Howard with him?"
"Yes. Surface claimed it was a gambling debt."
"Gamblin' debt yore eye!" retorted Brazos scornfully. "Henderson, thet was the price of Howard's silence. The gambler sold oot cheap. But still he got the girl."
"Lura! Good heavens!" ejaculated the banker. "I begin to see light."
"Yu been wearin' blinkers long enough, Henderson."
"Wait, Keene," said the other, as Brazos turned to go. "That little matter of putting Bodkin in as sheriff has come up. What'll I do about it?"
"Air yu still in Surface's Cattle Association, Henderson?"
"Wal, if I was yu, I'd say, pretty pert, thet I was for savin' the town Bodkin's burial expenses by not electin' him sheriff."
"That's certainly pert. I'll do it, Brazos. But let me give you a hunch. They'll make Bodkin sheriff."
"Shore they will--if he's crazy enough to accept it. I guess I better throw a scare into him."
Passing the open door of the largest store Las Animas could boast of, Brazos had a glimpse of Bodkin holding forth to a group of men. Brazos passed on and halted. What could he make out of an encounter with Bodkin? The man would not draw. But he could be made a target for speech that would sweep over town like fire in prairie grass.
Brazos turned back to enter the store. He assumed a swinging forward crouch and the sullen mien of a cowboy who had been tilting the bottle. The little group spread, leaving Bodkin in the centre and apart. The action was like clockwork.
Bodkin showed no marked effect. As the cowboy had let him off before, he would again. This time, however, the ex-deputy packed a gun at his hip.
"Bodkin, I been lookin' all over this heah town for yu," declared Brazos in a surly voice.
"Keene, I haven't been hidin'," complained Bodkin. "Wal, yu're damn hard to find, an yu shore got thet Barsh hombre hid somewhere."
"He's out of town."
"Can yu get word to him?"
"I could if I wanted to."
"Ahuh. Wal, yu better want to. Yu tell yore ropin' hombre thet he'd be wise to stay away from heah or else do some tall figgerin' how he's gonna keep me from borin' him."
"Keene, Barsh wouldn't dare 'meet you in an even break. He's only a boy. He never shot at a man. An' you wouldn't shoot him in cold blood."
"Hell I wouldn't! Hasn't there been a lot of shootin' in cold blood goin' on aboot heah? I'm sore, Bodkin. I'm spittin' 'fire."
"I'm not worryin' none," returned Bodkin, but the fading of his healthy tan attested to another state of mind. The interview had begun to be painful to him.
"Ahuh. I reckon yu got me figgered good. Wal, then, yu're so damn smart what's to keep me from shooting Raine Surface's laig off?"
Bodkin's start and expression were peculiar, and he did not reply. All the other men stood spellbound.
"Answer thet, Bodkin. Talk, damn yu! Wasn't yu loud-mouthed when I dropped in on yu?" shouted Brazos in a loud, rasping voice. "What's to keep me from shootin' Raine Surface's laig off?"
"Nothin', Keene--nothin'," ejaculated the other, harassed and impotent. "But you couldn't do it--any more than to Barsh. Mr. Surface is out of your reach. He's a big man on this range. You're loco Keene. You're drunk."
"Not so drunk as yu reckon, Bodkin. An' yu're defendin' Surface from a likker-soakin', fire-spittin', gun-throwin' cowboy?"
"I'm trying to talk sense. You might as well bust in on Henderson in the bank, or Mr. Jones, here, as Raine Surface. Why, it's outlandish! Mr. Surface is a big-hearted gentleman, a power in this' town, a fine citizen who has the best interests of the community--"
"Haw! Haw!" interrupted Brazos in harsh mockery. "Bodkin, yu must be a fool as wal as the other things yu air. I reckon next yu'll say Surface never did anythin' against me."
"Sure he--never did," panted Bodkin loyally, beginning to sweat.
"Yu lyin' tool of thet two-faced cattleman!" Brazos fairly hurled the epithet. "An' next yu'll be sayin' thet Surface didn't beat Abe Neece oot of Twin Sombreros Ranch--he didn't steal the herd of Texas longhorns thet Neece had comin' north. Aw, no--not atall! He didn't have his tools buy off or kill Neece's ootfit of riders an' drive thet herd west along the Cimarron, over the Dry Trail, across New Mexico to the railroad? Aw, no--not atall! Surface didn't have his tools--one of which you air, damn yore yellow skin! He didn't have them hold Neece up thet night late an' rob him of the money Neece was takin' to the bank next mawnin'. Aw, hell, no! Not atall! An' yore big-hearted, respectable, fine boss didn't have nothin' to do with Allen Neece's murder?"
Brazos ended that ringing denunciation in a silence which could be felt. Bodkin's terrified visage satisfied Brazos that he had driven his point home. The spectators equally satisfied Brazos that his incredible affront would fly swiftly as the wind on a thousand tongues to every corner of the range. Raine Surface would be a marked if not a ruined man.
For three days Brazos watched Bodkin unobtrusively. The ex-deputy went about with a bold front, but it was evident to Brazos that the man was feeling extreme perturbation. He never went near Twin Sombreros Ranch. Bodkin was waiting for the terrible news to reach Surface's ears.
On the third night Brazos frightened the proprietor of the hotel where Bodkin stayed into giving him the room next to Bodkin's. Brazos made sure Bodkin was out, then carefully cut a hole through the partition in a corner where it would not soon be discovered. This done, Brazos sat down to wait. Some time Bodkin would be cornered in that room by Surface, or would confer with the rancher's men. Brazos meant to hide there, going out only after nightfall, until the developments he expected reached their climax.
But, as Brazos's luck would always have it, his marvellous patience did not need to be exercised. At midnight, just after the eastbound train had arrived, Bodkin entered his room with two men. Brazos glued his ear to the little hole in the corner.
"Talk low, fellers," Bodkin said, "I'm scared even of the walls in this town. Keene hasn't been seen for three days."
"Sure as God made little apples he's trailin' you," whispered one of them.
"I feel it, Brad. Set down. Hyar's likker an' cigars. I sure got a lot on my chest thet I got to get rid of."
"Panhandle Ruckfall showed yellow clear to his gizzard," spoke up another voice, thin and low, somehow sibilant. "He turned the job down. I raised the ante to two thousand dollars. Ruckfall gave me the laugh. 'A hell of a lot of fun I'd get out of ten thousand after meeting Brazos Keene!' is what he said. He had too much sense to tackle such a deal. He might have killed Keene, but it's an even bet that Keene would kill him.
"We're stuck," whispered Bodkin thickly. "I've been keepin' out of the boss's way.
"But he corralled me to-day. Gawd Almighty! I reckoned he was goin' to shoot me."
"You're wrong, Bodkin," rejoined the one with the curt voice. "It's he who's stuck. Serves him right. He's gone too far. That Neece deal was too raw. I told him. Now, if Bard and his girl fail--"
An eloquent silence gave Brazos time to grasp this new connection--so there was a Bard as well as a Brad!
"Did you fetch them?" asked Bodkin.
"Yes. And Orcutt with them. They went to Hailey's."
"Now what?" asked the third man.
"We'll lay low till it's over, Brad."
"Listen," whispered this member of the trio. "It'll be over pronto. Brazos Keene will see through thet dodge. Bard's black-eyed wench is a slick one. But I'll bet she falls hyar."
"She's our best bet," returned Bodkin. "Keene is hot after women. The town is full of talk about him runnin' after Lura Surface an' the Neece twins. An' they're all good girls. Bess Syvertsen is bad--bad from her mother up. Add to thet, she's handsome as hell. Keene can't resist such a combination."
"The hell's fire he can't," retorted Brad. "Now here's what I think of your deal. I'm not beholdin' to any of you. An' to-morrow I'm lightin' out of this town an' ridin' far. If you've got an ounce of sense you'll do the same."
"Brad, I can't pull up stakes hyar. I'm goin' to be sheriff of this county."
"You're goin' to be a stiff!"
"Not so loud," put in the third man. "Bodkin, I'm afraid Brad has it figured. I'd say if we had plenty of time we'd have a sure thing with Bess on the job. She's the most fascinating girl I ever met. But the hell of it is, can we take time? It's got to be done right now."
"We'll have to give her time."
"Every hour adds to the doubt and suspicion already working."
"Even with Brazos Keene dead--which is sure a far-fetched conclusion, gentlemen--this town is going to think on. Henderson, Kiskadden, Inskip, Moore, Hadley, Stevens--all these men are getting their heads together. They are going to buck the Cattlemen's Association. They'll split it wide open. Most of them are honest cattlemen, you know. They've just been fooled. Cattlemen are the easiest of men to fool because they take a little irregularity for granted, even among themselves. But when it comes to being robbed by rustlers--they wake up."
"Fellers," said Brad, "I'm pullin' up stakes. An' I don't mind tellin' you I'd take that bag of gold with me, if I could find it."
"Ha! Ha!" laughed Bodkin, sarcastically. Brad was not the only one who had had that ingenious idea.
"Where did he put it?" queried the unknown man. "He must have banked such a large sum."
"He couldn't bank it. An' it's too soon yet after Neece's holdup. But it runs in my mind that he'll keep it close so he'll be well heeled when he slopes."
"Does Bard know where that money is?"
"No more than do I. It's always stuck in his craw--that bag of gold. He an' Orcutt held Neece up. An' once I heard Orcutt say, 'Why did we let that gold get out of our hands?'"
"Same reason that applies to all of us. The stronger will of a crookeder man! Well, he's run his race. It's not in the nature of things for all the men he has used to stand around now, waiting to be hanged or shot. How about you, Bod?"
"I'll stick around," replied Bodkin.
"Every man for himself from now on, eh?"
"Let's drink to thet."
On every Sunday the event of the day was the arrival and departure of the afternoon train. It was about as much of a social gathering as Las Animas saw except at dances and school entertainments. Brazos occupied his old stand against the wall of the station building.
Bess Syvertsen was there with some country folk. Brazos needed only one look to convince himself that none of the four men could be Bard Syvertsen or Orcutt. The fifth was a woman of rather bold and flashy appearance. Brazos studied them with interest.
The train arrived, and the woman, accompanied by the two best-dressed of the men, boarded it. Bess, with the other two, turned away to stroll along the station platform, following the crowd upstreet. Brazos, from under his sombrero brim, looked that trio over as if his eyes were magnifying glasses. The two men he had seen somewhere.
Monday brought back the bustle to the cattle town. Brazos felt that this day he would meet Bess Syvertsen and he was on edge for the event. Wherefore he was all primed and set for the momentous meeting when it came about at the post office.
Bess had dropped out of the sky, apparently, to follow him up to the window where Brazos was asking for mail. She pressed close to Brazos and asked the clerk for a stamp. What a hot gush ran along Brazos's veins at the sound of that young, high-pitched voice! For the stamp she tendered a hundred-dollar bill, which the clerk pushed back with a laugh.
"What will I do?" she complained.
"I'll trust you. Go to the bank and get change."
Brazos promptly produced some coins. "Heah, lady, I'll oblige yu," he drawled, handing her the money.
"Oh, thank you," she replied. She took two cents and paid for her stamp, but she had no letter upon which to put it. Then she turned to Brazos.
"Cowboy, how is it I haven't seen you?" she asked merrily.
Brazos took off his sombrero.
"Wal, I was just thinkin' the same about yu," he drawled, with his slow smile.
"I am Bess Syvertsen," she said.
Brazos made her a gallant bow. "I shore am happy to meet yu," he replied, but he did not mention his name.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Aw, I hate to tell yu."
"You needn't be afraid," she said, with a smile. "I can stand a shock."
"Wal, then, doggone it--I'm thet poor hombre, Brazos Keene."
"No!" she exclaimed. Despite her deceit she betrayed sincerity as well. "Not that hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-shooting cowboy?"
"You forget yore West, my girl," he drawled. "Range talk blames me for a lot thet I'm innocent of."
"You might be taking a risk. My father has no use for cowboys."
"Is he heah?"
"Yes. Bard Syvertsen. He's a cattle buyer. We travel all over. Father has a deal on with Surface and Miller."
"Wal, it's just too bad. Always my luck! I ride the ranges an' I meet girls. Reckon I'm hard to please. I don't care for town hussies or camp trulls. I caint stand these nice goody-goody spoony little girls, neither. Lura Surface was one to make a cowboy ride high an' handsome. But she was a flirt. An' heah I meet yu!"
"Brazos, I might be a flirt--or worse."
"I don't savvy yu, Bess. All the same I feel as if yu were fightin' somethin' yu didn't want me to know. Tell me or not, as yu like. But if I strike yu pretty pronto, yu know, an' bold--it's because I see no sense in holdin' back things. I've a bad reputation an' I'm liable to be shot any time. Life is too short for my kind not to live from day to day."
She clung to his arm during the walk to Hailey's, where she released it.
"Brazos, I thought I was glad to meet you--at first. But I'm not so sure now."
"Aw, thet's not kind. Is it good-bye then?"
"Where will you meet me tomorrow?"
"Heah. Anywhere--any time."
"Anywhere?" she asked, her eyes piercing him: "How about out of town?"
"Wal, I reckon it'd better be heah," returned Brazos. And when he said that it seemed a passion wrenched her.
"To-morrow, then. Here, at two o'clock. Adios."
Next day Bess Syvertsen was late. She came at length, betraying signs of anger, and vouchsafed no explanation. But Brazos did not need one. They spent the afternoon together, walking, sitting in the station.
On the fourth day of this strange relation Bess came an hour late. Her face was colourless and showed other signs of havoc. Behind her stalked two men, one tall, the other short. That they were without vests and gunbelts Brazos's sharp eye recorded before he paid attention to their features. The little man had a visage that was a map of frontier crime. This should be Orcutt. The tall man then was Bard Syvertsen, and he was a splendid specimen of Norwegian manhood, lofty of stature, fair-haired, with eyes like blue ice, and a handsome craggy face.
"Brazos," said Bess hurriedly, "meet my father, Bard Syvertsen, and Hen Orcutt."
"Howdy, gentlemen," drawled Brazos in his cool voice. At the moment he knew he risked no peril from them, and they had confronted him significantly unarmed. What their idea was, Brazos could not conjecture.
"Howdy, Keene. Glad to meet you," said Orcutt curtly.
Syvertsen returned Brazos's greeting in a voice Brazos would have recognised among a thousand voices. If Bard Syvertsen had been armed he would have been close to the death Brazos meant to mete out to him.
"My girl has been spending a good deal of time, with you, cowboy," he said. "I object to it."
"Yeah--an' on what grounds?"
"No insult intended. But it's common talk about town--you're a trifler with women. I told Bess, and that she must stop your attentions. She said I could tell you myself."
"Ahuh. Wal, I'm sorry to say I cain't take offence. But in this heah case I'm in daid earnest."
"Keene, I did not believe Bess," returned Syvertsen. "That accounts for this intrusion. You'll excuse us."
They turned into the hotel and Brazos's keen ear caught a remnant of a curse Orcutt was bestowing upon the other.
"Bess, what'n hell was all thet about?" queried Brazos. The girl seemed to be in distress:
"Come. People are staring," she answered hurriedly, and drew him away.
If Bess Syvertsen had been a fascinating creature on former days, she was on this occasion vastly more. Only late in the day did Brazos gather that the climax had come--that Bess had been driven by her accomplices to end the farce--or that she was a woman being torn apart by love and an evil power too strong for her. After supper, she leaned her elbows on the table, her face on her hands, and gazed at Brazos with eyes that hid much and expressed more.
"Let's go," she said suddenly, her eyes alight with new impulse too soft-to be crafty. They went out upon the street. There was no one in the lobby of Hailey's hotel.
"Come!" And she drew him with steel hands, and will as steely, up the stairs to the floor above. The corridor was shadowy. Brazos grew wary. Bess unlocked a door and opened it.
"Wal, sayin' good night early, eh, honey?" he drawled. "See yu to-morrow same time."
"Yes--but come in--now," she panted.
"Bess! Air yu loco--askin' me into yore bedroom?"
"Loco, indeed! Come--don't be a fool."
"I'm only human, Bess--an' I reckon I'd weaken if we was goin' to marry. But with all yore love talk I cain't see yu'd marry me."
"Brazos Keene! Would you marry me?" she whispered passionately.
"My Gawd! What yu take me for? I told yu I was a Texan an' had respect for a woman I loved."
She threw her arms around his neck and clung to him, quivering, appearing to stifle speech as well as sobs upon his breast. It was as if a new emotion had consumed a lesser fire within her. The paroxysm ended in a passionate embrace, in sudden wild kisses upon his cheek and lips. She tore at his hair. "Go--go--before I--"
She broke off huskily and, releasing him, shut the door in his face.
Brazos's morning habit of whipping and rolling his guns--at rare intervals he packed two guns--had infinitely more meaning next morning than the perfunctory practice indulged in by all gunmen. His instinct told him the day had come--the meeting with the murderers of Allen Neece was not far away.
He went down to breakfast, the thin skin on his thumb feeling raw. He was late for this meal, yet he lingered over it, brooding while he watched the street. When he saw Surface drive by in a buckboard he muttered, "Ah-huh. I reckon my hunch was aboot correct."
At length Brazos stalked out, tense for the climax. He met Kiskadden and Inskip on the street.
"What's Surface doin' in town?" he queried bluntly.
"Meetin' of the Cattlemen's Association," replied Inskip. "Surface looked black as a thundercloud."
"Either of yu know Syvertsen an' Orcutt when yu see them?"
"I do," returned Kiskadden. "They ducked in Hall's to avoid meetin' me. Somethin' on their minds, Brazos."
"Will yu fellers do me a favour? Cross the street heah an' walk up thet side an' down on this side. Don't miss seein' anybody, but be particular to locate Syvertsen an' Orcutt. I'll wait heah."
Brazos leaned against the wall and watched, while his friends reconnoitred. They seemed to take a long while. Hank Bilyen came along.
"Kiskadden told me you was heah. What's comin' off, Brazos?" he queried.
"Go into Hall's an' line up at the bar. If Syvertsen an' Orcutt come oot be shore where they go."
Bilyen's uncertainty ceased. Without another word he walked on to enter Hall's saloon. Inskip was the first of the other two men to get back.
He breathed hard; his grey eyes glinted.
"Brazos, I got a hunch there'll be hell a-poppin' pronto," he announced excitedly. "I seen Surface an' Bodkin in the doorway of the stairs leadin' up to the Odd Fellows. Surface was poundin' his fist in his hand, purple in the face. An' Bodkin was the colour of sheepskin."
"Ahuh aboot what time will thet cattlemen's meetin' be comin' off?"
"At two. But I reckon with Surface on the rampage it'll be late."
Kiskadden reached Brazos at exactly two o'clock, the time of Brazos's appointment with Bess. The Texan showed no exterior fire, but Brazos felt him burn.
"Surface just went into Hailey's. He stopped Bess Syvertsen, who was comin' oot. I couldn't heah what Surface said to the girl, but I shore heahed her answer."
"An' what was thet?"
"'No, damn you, Surface! I won't! Get someone else to do yore dirty work!'"
"Ahuh. Short an' sweet. I had Bess figured. Anythin' more?"
"I peeped into Hall's. Yore men air still there. Watchin' oot the window."
"Wal, thet'll be aboot all. Yu stay heah. An' when I get into Hall's yu follow pronto."
Brazos strode swiftly into the first store, traversed its length, hurried out into the alley, and ran to the side street. Here he slowed up, caught his breath, and went on to Hailey's hotel, which occupied the corner at its junction with the main street. Brazos stepped into the side entrance.
Surface stood near the door of the hall, his tall form bent over the girl, who was in the act of wrenching free from his clutch. His back was toward Brazos. Bess leaned against the wall as if for support. She looked a defiant, hounded creature, game to the finish.
"You can't, scare me, Raine Surface," she said, low and hard. "I wouldn't be in your boots for all your money."
Brazos entered the lobby.
"Wal, Bess, air yu meanin' daid men's boots?" queried Brazos, as he stepped in between them.
"Oh--Brazos!" gasped the girl.
Surface's visage changed instantly, markedly in colour, monstrously in expression. Unquestionably for an instant he thought his death was imminent.
"What yu raggin' my girl for?" asked Brazos, with a pretence of jealousy.
"Your--girl?" ejaculated Surface huskily. "She's deceived you, Keene--same as all of us. She's Syvertsen's--"
"Daughter, yu mean?"
The rancher swerved. As his first shocking fear subsided he began to recover his nerve. "Daughter--hell! She's no more his daughter than mine."
"So yu say? wal, what is she, then?"
"What could she be, Keene? For a cowboy who's supposed to be so damned smart you're sure a fool."
"That'll do, Surface," cut in Bess. "I meant to tell him myself and leave Las Animas. Take care you don't drive me to tell him what you are!"
Brazos jerked as if stung. "What the hell!" he flashed. "Bess, I don't like this talk. But I trust yu. Surface, I always thought there was somethin' queer aboot yu." Dealing Surface a powerful left-handed blow, Brazos knocked him flat. The rancher, scrambling up, stuttering maledictions, lifted a bloody visage: "You'll pay for this outrage--you--"
"Come--Brazos," said Bess, low-voiced, and she touched his arm.
"Doggone it, Bess!" complained Brazos, going with her into the street. "I come pretty near gettin' sore."
"You well had reason," she replied. "I'm sorry you saw me with Surface. You might believe that influenced me--to tell you--what I must."
"Ump-umm, Bess. But yu don't have to tell me nothin'."
"I must--if it's the last honest thing I ever do."
"All right, if yu put it thet way."
"I was a cheat and a liar," she went on swiftly. "Whatever else I am you can guess. Surface told the truth. Bard Syvertsen is not my father. I never had any parents that I knew of. I was brought up in a home for--for illegitimates. Syvertsen did not ruin me--nor Orcutt. Don't hold that against them. They were hired to make away with you. I was to work on your well-known weakness for women--entice you to some secluded spot--or my room, where you'd be shot--supposedly by an angry father and lover for attempting to dishonour me. That was the plot. But I give you my word--never once since I met you have I kept faith with them. I double-crossed them. And to-day after I say good--good-bye to you--I'll tell them--"
"Ump-umm, sweetheart," returned Brazos enigmatically.
They had almost reached Hall's saloon. Inskip stood at his post across the street; Kiskadden remained where Brazos had left him; Bilyen had not come out. Brazos laid hold of Bess's arm with his left hand, so that she could not break away from him.
"Girl, when yu confessed all thet yu proved a lot. Yu won my respect--an' yu saved yoreself a term in prison, if not yore life!"
With that he swung 'her with him into the saloon, and sent her whirling, almost falling toward Syvertsen and Orcutt, who were backing away from the window. Brazos leaped back in front of the door, so that he could face them and all the big room.
"Everybody in heah freeze!" he yelled, his voice loud with strident ring.
An instant silence contrasted with the former clink and hum of the saloon. On the moment Kiskadden came sliding in behind Brazos, closely followed by Inskip. Then they backed slowly to Brazos's left step by step until the tables halted them.
"Yu hell-cat!" burst out Syvertsen. "What does this mean?".
The girl stiffened as her head swept up and back to the wall, knocking off her sombrero. Then she appeared a white-faced woman at bay.
"I told him!" she cried.
"You told him that--you told him who--" gasped Syvertsen.
"Stop!" thundered Brazos. "Yu're forgettin' I'm here. Yu ask me."
Both Bess's antagonists had actually forgotten the presence of Brazos Keene. They were rudely reminded of it and that the stiffness of the spectators, the silence, the strange position of the cowboy, bent a little, both brown, powerful hands extended a little low, and quivering--that all these constituted a tremendous menace. Then the significance of Brazos Keene dawned appallingly upon them. He confronted them. There was no escape. And the reputation of this fire-eyed cowboy might as well have been blazoned on the walls.
"You hombres murdered Allen Neece an' blamed thet job on me," went on Brazos relentlessly. "Yu murdered him because Surface wanted it done. An' yu schemed to put me oot of the way because Surface was afraid I'd take Allen Neece's trail. Wal, yu bet yore life I took it, an' it ends right heah. Surface beat Abe Neece oot of Twin Sombreros Ranch. Yu men held up Neece thet night an' robbed him. An' yu all sicked this girl on me 'cause none of yu had the nerve to meet me face to face--Wal, thet's my say. An' after all, yu're meetin' me face to face!"
As Brazos ended he read the desperate intent in Orcutt's eyes and beat him to a gun. Orcutt's heart was split even as he pulled trigger and his bullet hissed hotly by Brazos's ear.
Syvertsen, slow to realise and act, scarcely had his gun free when Brazos shot him through. The bull thudded into the wall. Syvertsen did not fall. He did not lose sight or intent. But his muscular co-ordination had been destroyed. Fire and smoke belched from his wavering gun. His frown of immense surprise, his pale lighted eyes, his incoherent ejaculations of hate were all appalling to see.
The smoke cleared away, disclosing Bess, back against the wall, her arms widespread, with her gaze fixed terribly upon the fallen men.
"He--killed--them?" she panted, as if dazed. "Brazos Keene!"
Suddenly she sprang out from the wall, formidable as a tigress.
"You fooled me--to kill them!"
"Don't draw, Bess--don't!" warned Brazos shrilly.
"I'll kill you!"
As she whipped out her gun Brazos had to be quick to save his life. He took a shot at her arm, high up. The heavy bullet spun her around like a top and sent the little gun flying. Shrieking wildly she collided with the wall, bounced out to fall beyond the two dead men.
As Brazos sheathed his gun and knelt to lift her head she ceased the cry of agony. She gazed up at Brazos, fascinated, suddenly bereft of all hate and passion.
"You've killed me--Brazos?"
"I'm terrible scared Bess," replied Brazos, and he did not lie. He saw that he had hit her in the breast or shoulder, instead of in the arm. Blood was pouring Out. He was afraid to open her blouse.
"Bess, if yu have to go--make it a clean job," said Brazos earnestly. "Confess. Tell the truth about this deal."
"The truth?" she whispered.
"Yes. Of Allen Neece's murder."
"All right," she said, smiling. "My right name is Bess Moore. I am not Syvertsen's wife. We belonged to Raine Surface's crooked outfit at Abilene. Surface is a man of two sides. One of them is black as hell. We were called here to put Allen Neece out of the way. I got him to drink--coaxed him to ride out of town with me. Orcutt roped him from behind bushes on the road--jerked him off his horse. As he lay on the ground Bard shot him--in the back. They carried him to the Hill cabin--left him in the loft--Then Brazos Keene rode up. Bard had a few words with Brazos--thought he deceived him. He rode back to town and fastened the crime upon Brazos. But our own plot miscarried--and lately--Surface called us again--to do the same job--over--"
"Thet'll do, Bess. Give me the paper, Kiskadden. Bess, can you sign yore name heah?" importuned Brazos.
Bess signed her name and then fell back fainting. Brazos, with shaking hands, tore open her blouse, shivering at the white, swelling breast. He pulled the blouse down over the blood-stained shoulder to feel for the wound, frantic in fear that it would be too low. But he found it high up, just where the arm met the shoulder, a bad, painful wound, but not in any sense dangerous to life.
"Aw!" Brazos burst out. "She's not bad hurt at all. She's only fainted. Hank, get somebody to help carry her to Bailey's. Call the doctor. I'll be back pronto."
Brazos snatched the paper from Bilyen and relinquished the girl to him. Then he stood up, tense and eager.
"It's aboot all, men, but not quite," he said as he carefully folded the confession. "Come with me. Yu, too, Kiskadden, an' fetch somebody with yu."
At the foot of the Odd Fellows stairway Brazos halted to load his gun.
"Brazos, is yore haid cool?" asked Kiskadden. "I ain't presumin' to advise yu. I'm just askin'."
"Speak oot, old-timer."
"It might look better to hold yore hand at Surface. Yu know the range--an' he has friends. Don't let them call this a gun-man's spree."
"Wal, unless he goes for his gun--which he won't. Only I hope to Gawd he does! Come on an' step easy."
Brazos went up the stairs three steps at a time, and his followers strung after him. The door of the hall stood open. Surface was holding forth with resonant voice.
"Gentlemen, all our fellow citizens were invited to participate here. Evidently those who stayed away were satisfied to leave important matters to us. We have all voted, and the result assures Bodkin's election as sheriff of Las Animas. Formerly he was appointed by the Cattlemen's Association. That is a distinction with a difference. There remains to invite undesirable loafers, gamblers, dissolute women, suspected cowmen, and at least one notorious cowboy, to leave Las Animas."
Brazos drew his gun and stepped into the hall. "Wal, Surface," he called ringingly, "heah's yore last-named undesirable--to talk for himself."
No noticeable change showed in the rancher's pale face. He had begun to weigh this intrusion. Kiskadden, Inskip, and others filed in with grave, grim visages.
"Gentlemen, you come too late to participate in this election," he rolled out sonorously.
"Ump-umm!" retorted Brazos. "Surface, did yu heah me? I said yore jig was up. I just shot yare ootflt, Bard Syvertsen--Hen Orcutt--an' Bess!".
"Wal, the girl lived to sign her confession."
Then a startling transformation made Surface another man.
"Yu're gonna heah thet confession read."
With left hand, watching the cattleman like a hawk, Brazos extracted the paper from his vest.
"Somebody read this."
Kiskadden took the paper and with slow, deliberate voice, he read it solemnly. When he had finished Surface seemed actually to have shrunken in stature.
"All right, Surface, I can't waste time waitin'," went on Brazos. "March down heah."
Brazos marched Surface down the stairway to the street, and into the rancher's buckboard. Brazos climbed into the back seat.
"Drive oot to Neece's ranch," he called, loud enough for the gathering bystanders to hear.
"Neece's ranch! Where's that?"
"Where do yu reckon, yu robber? Twin Sombreros Ranch!"
In short order the spirited team arrived at the ranch.
"Surface, I want thet bag of gold."
"Yu know. Syvertsen held Neece up an' robbed him of it."
At the point of Brazos's gun the rancher led the way into the ranch-house and into his roam, where, from under the floor of a closet, he dragged up an extremely heavy satchel.
"Open it," ordered Brazos eagerly.
Surface complied to expose packs of greenbacks and bags that gave forth a musical clink of precious metal.
"Drive to the station, Surface. Its aboot time for the afternoon train."
With gun in hand Brazos saw that the deposed rancher bought a ticket to Abilene--saw him stand on the platform, a target for all eyes--saw him mount the platform of the passenger coach of the train. Then he delivered himself of a final word.
"Surface, yu're gettin' off turrible lucky. It's due to yore daughter. Get oot of Colorado, an' stay oot. If I ever run into yu again I'll kill yu."
There were two windows in Bess's room, letting the sunlight flood in, to show her white, strained face on the pillow. But the fire, the hate, the passion were gone.
Brazos advanced to the bed as he spoke to the woman in attendance. "Leave us alone a little, nurse."
"Howdy, Brazos Keene," said the girl, looking up.
"Howdy yoreself, girl," he replied, and carefully sat down on the bed. "Air yu in Pain?"
"Not so bad now. It did hurt like hell, though."
"Close shave, Bess. Gosh, I was scared."
He bent over and kissed her as he might have if she were indeed what she had tried to deceive him into believing.
"Oh, Brazos! What have you done to me!" she cried brokenly, clinging to him.
"Wal, wearin' yu oot, for one thing," he replied, gently disengaging himself. "I'll go now, sweetheart. Yu look most as turrible as when yu lay on the floor at Hall's an' I reckoned yu was dyin'--I've excited yu too much."
"You've broken--my heart--and made me bless you--for it--and want to--to live--and be--something again."
"Wal, think of breakin' a girl's heart an' makin' her the better for it!" drawled Brazos, and he bent to kiss her again. "Thet's somethin' for a hombre like me to remember. I'll come down to the train an' see yu off."
Sitting his horse, Brazos gazed down into Coglan's valley. This valley was forty miles up in the foothills from Las Animas, a secluded spot once inhabited by Ute Indians. The tribe had moved on into a more inaccessible spot, driven farther by the advance of their unscrupulous foe--the white man. They were friendly to Coglan, Brazos remembered.
Brazos rode on down into the valley and up to the log cabin among the firs. Two little girls were playing about the door. Presently a buxom, rosy-cheeked young woman looked out.
"Evenin', lady," said Brazos, taking off his sombrero. "Is Coglan anywhere aboot?"
"He was. Get down an' come in, stranger."
Brazos had scarcely dismounted when Coglan appeared. He was a strapping man, still young, half hunter and half trapper, brown as an Indian.
"Brazos Keene, by Gawd!" ejaculated the mountaineer with a whoop. "You pestiferous, long-legged cowpuncher! Put her thar!" And he nearly crushed Brazos's hand.
Later, Brazos and Coglan walked down to the corrals.
"Coglan, I want to hang aboot heah for a month or so," Brazos was saying. "Chop wood an' hunt an' loaf. An' be alone. Yu know!"
"I savvy. Tell me when you feel like it or not at all."
"Wal, I'll get it off my chest," replied Brazos, and briefly related the Las Animas tragedy.
Coglan's trips to town kept Brazos abreast of the latest developments. He learned that Neece was happily busy with his regained Twin Sombreros Ranch, and had gone into partnership with young Sisk. But he was alarmed to hear that Bodkin had been elected sheriff by popular vote, and that Raine Surface had been killed on the street in Dodge City.
Still Brazos stayed in the valley, until one October night he returned to the cabin to find Coglan back early from a trip.
"Bilyen says you're stayin' away too long. Bodkin is braggin' he will arrest you, if you ever come back."
"Good Lord!" ejaculated, Brazos.
"There's a stranger lately dropped into town. Calls himself Knight an' say's he's a cattle buyer for a big Kansas City firm. He an' Bodkin got thick pronto. Bilyen remembers seein' this man with Bodkin once last August."
"Wal, I'll ride down soon. What else did yu heah, Coglan?"
"Not much. But I met Neece in town. No one would think he'd ever been down an' out. The Neece-Sisk-Henderson cattle deal went through. They're runnin' eighty thousand head."
"Thet's a solid combine. Reckon they're gonna buck the Miller ootfit. I reckon Bilyen is behind thet deal."
"They're buildin' a big barn at the ranch. Hauled in a saw-mill. Hank says it'll be the biggest in Colorado. They got the roof up an' the floor down when the twins stopped work with an idea. To give a grand dance."
"Aw, June wouldn't give a dance without me!" exclaimed Brazos.
"Girls are queer critters. You'd better rustle, Brazos."
Next morning Brazos paid vastly more attention to his appearance than was usual with him. "Doggone it! I could look better," he soliloquized, dissatisfied. "But at thet I'm not so pore."
When he buttoned up his new grey coat he found that only the tip of his gun sheath, belted high, showed beneath it. That afforded him great satisfaction, but when he went out to ride to Twin Sombreros he left that coat open and hitched the gun sheath to its old place. Brazos rode up to the corrals and barns at the back of the ranch house.
Cowboys watched Brazos's slow approach. He reined in before them.
"Howdy, cowboys. Is this heah Twin Sombreros Ranch?" he drawled.
"It sure is, cowboy. Get off an' be at home," answered one young fellow.
"Where's them twins? I want to hit them for a job ridin' heah."
"Say, cowboy, you can't fool us. You're Brazos Keene."
"Who'n hell said I wasn't?"
"Hey, Jack, come here," called Brazos's first interrogator, sticking his head into the door of the bunkhouse. "You're wanted."
Whereupon Jack Sam emerged to look, to stare, to give a whoop and thump clinking off the porch.
"Brazos! What you doin' on that horse? Git down!" he yelled, leaping to meet Brazos's outstretched hand.
Then Hank Bilyen appeared on the scene.
"Come on to the house," said Hank eagerly. "My Gawd! Yu look like Brazos Keene ten years ago--a pink-cheeked, curly haided cowboy of sixteen, which you was when I met yu first at Doan's Post."
"Only ten years? I feel turrible old, Hank." Then a resonant voice, dry and crisp, gave Brazos a thrill.
"By the Lord Harry! It's Brazos Keene."
Brazos turned to meet Neece, a transformed man he scarcely recognised.
"Howdy, old-timer," drawled Brazos.
Sombrero off, Brazos crossed the threshold. One of the twins stood in the centre of the room; the other closed the door behind him. Then they both met in front of him, pale, tremendously excited. Brazos could not tell one from the other.
"Howdy--girls," he said huskily. "It's shore good to see yu--heah."
"Brazos!" The twins were upon him, murmuringly, and soft, cool lips touched his cheek at the same instant that sweeter lips, on fire, met his own.
At that juncture the girls' aunt entered to welcome Brazos.
June and Janis talked of their dance.
"Now you're here we can have it! When?" exclaimed June delightedly.
"Everybody is waiting," Janis exclaimed. "Let's say Friday night. That'll give us two days to decorate the barn. And get the supper ready. Dad has a surprise for us. This will be the welcome home he had planned for us."
"Friday night--two days?" queried June dreamily, her eyes on Brazos. "It will be full moon."
They marched Brazos back to the house to announce with gay acclaim the date for the dance.
"Son, when will you take charge?" asked Neece.
"Yu mean of yore ootfits? Gosh!"
"I mean of mine. Henderson has his own foreman. An' Sisk his. But I depend a lot on Bilyen."
"What's Hank's job gonna me?"
"Hank will buy an' sell cattle."
"Fine.' Coglan told me yu was' runnin' eighty thousand haid. Is thet so?"
"More by a few thousand."
"Ahuh. I don't know as thet is so good," rejoined Brazos thoughtfully. "Neece, yu're an old-timer. It'll mean drawin' rustlers like molasses draws flies."
"There won't be any more wholesale rustlin'. Brazos, I'll lose loess throwin' in with my pardners, an' runnin' a hundred thousand head, than if I stay out an' run one-tenth of that number."
"Sounds sensible. What does Hank think aboot it?"
"Bilyen's not crazy about it. Says such big herds invite all kinds of range trouble from stealin' by rival combines and out-an'-out rustlers to corruptin' cowboys."
"Wal, Hank is shore right. Heah he comes now, in a buck-board. Gosh, them blacks look kinda familiar!"
"Where you goin', Hank?" queried the rancher, as Bilyen drove to a halt.
"Town. Got a list longer 'n yore laig--all for thet darn dance."
"Hank, I've been talkin' with Neece heah. He says yu're not keen on his combine an' the big herd."
"Wal, air yu, Brazos?"
"Shore I am The more the merrier." Brazos deliterately contradicted his opinion to Neece for reasons of his own.
"To be honest, I feel all right about it now, 'cause yu're heah, Brazos."
"Ahuh. Wal, what was on on your chest, before I got heah?"
"I got a grudge against Bodkin. An' I ain't so damn friendly toward this new cattleman Knight. The talk has it thet Knight is the hombre who shot Surface. Brazos, do yu reckon Bodkin's bein' elected sheriff will make him go straight?"
"Not in a million years!"
"Thet will simplify the problem for Neece," declared Bilyen, And he drove off without another word.
Happily Brazos spent the afternoon balancing precariously on a ladder, putting up the leafy decorations. There came a time when he was alone with June, hidden from the others by a great bower of leaves. Brazos daringly made love to her, crushed her to him despite her murmured objections that the others might see them.
"June!" came the clamouring cry from outside the leafy bower.
She slipped away from Brazos. Dusk was falling. Then the supper bell rang.
A slender form in white stood framed in the darkening doorway of foliage.
"Aw, heah yu air!" whispered Brazos with feeling.
"Oh, I couldn't see you--they sent me back--"
He gathered her up in his arms and as he kissed her she cried out:
"Oh!--please don't--Mercy! Ah!" And with that Brazos's thirsty lips closed hers and he spent his ardour in long, lingering kisses.
"There. Thet shore was comin' to yu--lady," panted Brazos, as her head dropped back, her eyes closed under mystic lids.
They opened. "Cowboy devil!" she whispered. "No--more," she cried frantically, and, surprising Brazos with sudden strength, she freed herself and fled.
Brazos followed, still in a transport. But as he got out of the gloom of the barn into the light he sustained a return of rationality.
"What'd you go back for?" Henry Sisk asked in a low voice.
"What'd you--drag June--away for?" panted the girl, as she reached him.
"I took her for you!" returned Sisk, in anguish.
Janis's sweet laugh not only silenced Sisk but also made a stone image of Brazos. The couple hurried on to catch up with the others down the lane. Brazos stood there in the summer twilight as suddenly stiff and cold as if he had been turned to stone, his consciousness capable of only one thought:
My Gawd, if it wasn't Jan.
During the rest of that evening Brazos sought the safety of numbers. But just the same, he was conscious of June's observance of him. And as the evening wore on Brazos began to grow suspicious of the others.
"Wal, folks," he said at an opportune moment, "I'm gonna say good-night an' ride back to town."
"What's the sense in thet?" spoke up Neece quickly. "This is your home."
"Why must you go?" pouted June.
"Wal, since yu call my hand," drawled Brazos, "the fact is there's a couple of hombres in town thet I forgot aboot shootin'."
Blank surprise and silence ensued upon Brazos's reply. They could not tell whether he was in jest or earnest.
"So long. See yu all in the mawnin'," he concluded, and left the room. Hank Bilyen followed him out on the porch, and one of the twins caught up with them.
"Cowboy, I'll have yore hawss here in a jiffy," said Hank.
Brazos had taken a step down, but turned to look at the girl.
"You are--angry?" she asked.
"Not at all--an' which one of these heah Neece girls are yu?"
"Brazos! I'm June. Don't look at me like that. We were, only in fun--and they coaxed--nagged me into it."
"Wal, I shore took Jan for yu, all right," declared Brazos.
"Oh, Brazos--you--you didn't--"
"Let yore imagination 'run high, wide, an' handsome June, an' maybe yu'll get somewhere."
"Brazos! I'll bet you were too smart for them. You knew Jan!" exclaimed June hopefully. "You played up to 'them. Oh, Brazos, I'm horribly jealous, but if you guessed the trick I--I can stand it. Only Jan worries me--Do you forgive me, Brazos?"
"Shore, sweetheart, I'd forgive yu anythin'. But I'm not so shore aboot Jan an' Jack an' yore dad."
"Now you're my old Brazos again," murmured June. "I'll be a match for them next time. Brazos, let's play a terrible joke on them."
"I should smile. How aboot elopin'?"
"Oh! Brazos, you're not serious?" cried June, aghast yet intrigued.
"Shore am. We could slope off in the mawnin'--get to Dodge City long enough to slip thet bridle on yu--then come back to the dance."'
"Then it wouldn't make so much difference whether or not I took yu for Jan," drawled Brazos dryly.
"Wouldn't it, though?" flashed June. "Brazos Keene, I agree with Jan. Nobody can be quite sure of you."
"If yu were my wife, wouldn't yu feel tolerable safe?"
"Don't tempt me, Brazos. If we eloped it'd hurt Dad. I--I'd like it! But I mustn't. Another thing--Jan would never forgive me."
"For marryin' me!"
"No. For not telling her. We'll wait, Brazos dear--if you can be true to me."
Next day he slept late, and after he awakened he was wonderfully happy, until, booted, spurred, and gun-belted, he walked out up the street of Las Animas.
He had not taken a dozen steps from Mexican Joe's when a cowboy sauntered out of a doorway..
"Howdy, Keene," he said. "I been walkin' the street for an hour watchin' for you."
"Howdy, cowboy," returned Brazos.
"Gimme a match. Make this look natural," returned the other.
"Ahuh. Heah yu air. Talk fast, stranger."
"Last night, at Hall's--heerd two men talkin'--Brazos Keene in town--Knight swears we're to git him at any cost--Bodkin rarin'."
The cowboy raised his young hard visage and turned away.
When Brazos arrived at Twin Sombreros he found a merry, bustling crowd of cowboys.
"Heah, one of yu rollickin' gazabos," he called. "Tell Neece an' Bilyen I want them pronto."
The rancher was the first to reach Brazos.
"Mornin', son. You look pretty serious. Scared of bracin' Dad after last night, eh?"
Brazos had to grin. "Scared as hell, Dad. But thet wasn't on my mind atall."
Hank Bilyen joined them at this juncture. "Mawnin', Brazos," he said.
"Come heah," returned Brazos, and drew the two aside. "I've got a tip. Cattle gone to forty-three dollars. It'll be forty-five in less 'n a week, an' goin' up."
"You don't say!" ejaculated the rancher. "Hank, my hunch was correct."
"Wal, I was holdin' at forty for this fall. But forty-five! Say, Neece, we're settin' with a powerful good hand."
"How many haid can yu drive in an' ship pronto, inside the week?" queried Brazos, thoughtfully.
"Close to twenty thousand if the railroad can handle them," replied Neece.
"I saw hundreds of empty stock cars as I rode oot. Neece, yu can beat the other cattlemen to it."
"I'll go write telegrams to my buyers an' order all the stock cars available. Hank, you can ride in with these at once," said Neece, and hurried away.
"Come oot with it, darn yore pictoors," demanded Hank gruffly.
"Wal, it's nothin' new, but kinda worrisome, considerin' the mix-up I'm in heah," answered Brazos, and he gave Hank the information he had received from the cowboy in town.
The Texan swore mightily. "What'n the hell air yu gonna do?"
"Me? Aw, I better lay low."
"They'd reckon yu was scared an' rustle the hair off this range."
"Shore. But they'd hang themselves sooner or later. Las Animas won't stand it forever."
"No, I reckon not. All the same, they're daid slow."
"Slow? They're not alive. Hank, I just oughta ride away," said Brazos tragically. "Only I cain't."
"An' why cain't yu?"
"It's not humanly possible for me to leave this girl. If only June would run off with me! We could come back after these hombres peter oot."
"June? Say, cowboy, we reckoned it was Janis."
"We? Who'n hell air we?" jerked out Brazos with a start.
"Cowboy, ain't yu kinda mixed up yoreself aboot which one of the twins yu're daid set on?"
"Mixed up? I'm standin' on my haid. I love June, honest an' true--but--aw! It's orful--I cain't tell her from Jan!"
The rustic pine cone lanterns up and down the lane leading from the barn to the ranch-house were lit, as were the oil lanterns in the colourful barn and the big locomotive lamp that had been fastened high on a post. And the moon soared above the black range, full and white and radiant. Then the girls, some in white and most in bright hues, flocked down the lane with gay voices and merry laughter, to meet the eager young men waiting at the barn.
Brazos was surrounded by the glad throng, although none appeared to notice him, and he drew to one side. He was beginning to lose something of the thrill that possessed him, when a soft little hand slipped inside his. Brazos turned to find a vision in white beside him, with lovely face uplifted to his.
"It's June," she said. "How do you like my New York gown?"
"Girl--I never knew yu were so beautiful," replied Brazos rapturously.
"Come. This first dance is yours. I chose a long waltz, because you told me you liked waltzing."
At midnight supper was served Soon the dancers flocked back to the barn, lured by the strains of music. Brazos watched them from the porch, a little wistfully, wondering when June would hunt him up. Then a white hand slipped under his arm.
"Aw, hear yu air!" cried Brazos.
"Quick. They're after me. Run!" she said, with a giggle, and led him into the pines instead of down the lane. In a moment they were out of sight of the ranch-house.
Then they walked hand in hand. There was no need of talk. The girl stopped to confront Brazos, though she did not let go of his hand.
"Where have you been all these hours?" she asked.
"I've been helpin' make yore party a success. Didn't think it was in me! Dancin' with old maids, doin' the elegant with the wives and mothers, makin' a waiter oot of myself. But it was fun an' did me good."
"Brazos, that was sweet of you."
"Wal, don't yu want to reward me?" he drawled softly.
"Yes." As she spoke that forceful word Brazos caught a hint of something as strange as lovely about her. In the magic of the moonlight all her charm and mystery appeared magnified.
"Tell me yu'll marry me?" he demanded, suddenly strong and vibrant with released emotion.
"Oh, what will Dad and sister say?"
"Aw! Why, I hate to rush yu, darlin'. But there's a reason. I'm a marked man in Las Animas. I oughta go away 'till those hombres forget they wanted to kill me."
"Brazos!" She roused to passionate life in his arms.
"I told yu, darlin'," he expostulated.
"Oh, Brazos! I--I will marry you."
"When? The sooner the better."
"We'll elope!" she cried thrillingly. Suddenly she appeared transformed into a little whirlwind, throwing her arms around his neck, and drawing his head down to kiss him with lips of sweet fire. "Oh, Brazos! I've been dying for you," she burst out. "You won me--even though I thought you a devil with girls--a trifler! All the time--all the time I thought it was June you loved!"
Brazos, in his realisation of catastrophe, stiffened so violently that he almost crushed the girl in his arms.
"Don't kill--me," Janis managed to utter faintly.
"Aw--I'm sorry. I--I just went off my haid," replied Brazos in a smothered voice, as he released his clasp.
He bent his head over her and again enfolded her slender form, while he gazed unseeingly out into the shadows of the woods.
"Darling, this is perfect," said Janis, stirring, and trying to look up at him. "It pays me for my anguish. It sustains me--until the next time. But we mustn't stay longer!"
"No," agreed Brazos, and stood like a stone.
She pressed back from his breast to look up. "Oh, Brazos! You're so white! Was it hard to choose between June and me? My poor darling, you could have had me for the asking!"
Brazos wrenched his gaze from the shadows to look down upon her, fully conscious now that he was as weak as guilty, that he loved her the same as June, that she had a devastating power he had never felt in the shy sister.
Then it seemed somehow that this ecstasy waved away and she was soothing his hair.
"I was always crazy to muss your hair like that," she was murmuring.
"Jan--I've kinda--mussed yu too," he replied hoarsely.
"If you haven't! Oh, dear, this dress wasn't made for grizzly bears. Come. I'm as bold as a lioness. But I'd just as lief not meet Henry. This was his dance. I saw you on the porch. I sent him after something. But it was our dance, Brazos. Now we will pay the piper, come what may!"
A voice pierced dimly into Brazos's sleep: "Wake up, Brazos. It's four o'clock an' you're wanted."
Brazos opened his eyes to see Jack Sain standing beside his bunk.
"Who wants me?"
"June an' Jan. They're waitin' for you where the trail turns off the lane into the woods."
"Ahuh. An' yu have a hunch my life is gonna be harder 'n hell pronto," drawled Brazos, sliding his long legs out of bed.
"I'll bet you get the spurrakin' of your ridin' days."
"Boy, yu shore look like life was kinda hard for yu this mawnin'."
"I'd just as lief be dead," returned Sain hopelessly. Then Brazos took a second look at him, and felt remorse gnaw at his own heart.
"What's' yore trouble, cowboy?" asked Brazos kindly.
"You know. It's the same as yours."
"Ump-um. Mine is double yores. All the same I can help yu."
"Thanks, Brazos--I just can't help likin' you--though you've ruined my life."
"Jack, yu mean June hasn't been so--so nice to yu since I rode along?"
"Brazos, she al--almost loved me before you came," replied Sam miserably. "Since then she's been--Oh, hell! nice an' kind, yes, but different. It just hurts, Brazos. I'm not sore at you. It's only--"
"Only what, Jack?"
"I'm afraid to tell you Brazos, but they say you're playin' hell with the twins," replied Sain huskily. "That you're payin' them up for their fun--their lettin' us all take one for the other."
"Wal, who says thet?"
"All the outfit. Even Neece. He told me it served the girls good and damn right. But, Brazos, I know that's Jan's fault. June worships her. She'd give her very soul for Jan."
"Jack, I kinda had that hunch myself," replied Brazos, pulling on his boots. His mind seemed to scintillate with the sparks of an inspiration. He stood up, reached for his gun belt and buckled it on.
He turned piercing eyes upon his friend. "Jack, yu're a good boy. An' I'm damn sorry I upset yore courtin'. But let me give yu a hunch, boy. Don't be sick an' jealous an' black. Be yore real self to June. Thet girl is gonna rebound into yore arms like a rubber ball off a 'dobe wall."
"Oh, Brazos. Don't lie--don't rave just to cheer me up."
"Keep this under yore sombrero, cowboy. I did give the girls a dose of their own medicine. Why, Jack, it was apple pie for me to tell them--one from the other. An' I let on I couldn't. Wal, heah's what no one else but yu will ever know--except Neece, an' I give yu leave to tell him. I got burned turrible bad in thet little game of makin' love."
"June an' Jan--both!" gasped Jack, suddenly enlightened.
"Boy, yu hit it plumb on the haid."
"Oh, Lord! But, Brazos, damn it, I'm not glad. I couldn't stand your--that you didn't really care!"
"Gosh, Jack, yu're a heartless hombre," drawled Brazos. "Wal, I'll trot along to my little rendezvous."
He caught sight of them before they saw him. They were waiting in a grove of pines off the lane.
"Mawnin', girls--aw, I mean good evenin'," he drawled. "I shore am glad to see yu so--so fresh an' pretty after thet all-night dance."
But his conscience smote him as with a terrific mace. Incredible as it seemed, he recognised instantly which girl was June and which was Janis.
"Brazos, Jan--we have some thing serious to ask you," said June. She was pale, composed surprisingly strong. Brazos divined he was to learn the depth of her. Janis was white as snow and her eyes were great black baleful orbs of fire. She had no reserve. She was ready to burst into flame.
"Brazos," she whispered hoarsely. "I--I told June about last--night--that you begged me--to elope with you--and I promised."
"Wal, June, what'd yu say to thet?"
"Brazos! Oh, it's true--then. I told Jan that I was in love with you--and engaged to marry you."
"What happened then?"
"We had a terrible quarrel."
"Brazos Keene, is she telling the truth?" flashed Janis furiously.
"Wal, I figured thet yu an' June needed a lesson," said Brazos slowly. But he felt June's eyes upon him and inwardly he began to weaken in this preposterous deceit. "This game of yores--bein' one girl when yu air really two girls--thet's shore not fair to us boys. We never could tell yu apart. An' yu built yore house of mirth on thet. Yu were havin' fun at our expense. Yu played tricks on us I reckon thet would have been all right when yu were kids--but yu're grown girls now--women in face an' form an' feelin', an' most distractin' lovely. An' thet makes yore trick pretty damn low-down. Every cowboy on this range, an' I'll gamble a lot of older men, air lovesick over yu two. So little Brazos rode along an' thought he'd break up yore game."
"If you hadn't saved Dad--I'd kill you!" burst out Janis
"Jan, you see," interposed June gravely. "I always told you it would get us into trouble."
"It has--ruined me," sobbed Janis, covering her face. "June--I'm sorry. But it was such fun--until this devil came. He never played any game--for fun. He was deadly earnest--and he m-made me l-love him so--horribly. Maybe he served me right. But that doesn't help--this--this--"
She suddenly uncovered her convulsed face, to fasten a gaze on Brazos that appeared to blaze through tears.
"You carried your poor joke too far. You're a heartless villain--a shameless trickster. You disgrace the very name of cowboy."
Brazos winced under that last jibe, the justice of which he recognised, and he was fighting to keep up his shallow pretence when June confronted him with soul-searching eyes.
"Brazos Keene, you lie! You're trying to save us--to make us despise you. But you can't do it."'
Brazos sat down on a log as if his legs had weakened as had his will. "Shore, I'm--a liar an' a miserable hombre."
"Brazos!" Janis darted to him and knelt, one hand on his shoulder. "What did she mean? What do you mean?"
"Aw, Jan, it's no use. June saw through me. I fell in love with yu both. I cain't tell you apart. I've been honest with June--an' with yu, too. I did ask her to marry me. An' when--those times I've been alone with yu--I thought yu was June! But now I know yu, it doesn't make no difference. I love yu just the same--just as turrible. An' after last night--when yu let yoreself go--Aw! I'm a gone goslin'."
Janis slipped her other arm around Brazos and embraced him passionately, as if she could never let him go. Then she looked up at her sister in anguish. "June, I forgive him. We--I am most to blame. But I can't hate him now. I can't bear to let him go--oh, merciful heaven, what can I do?"
"Jan, you need not give Brazos up," said June. "You shall marry him."
Brazos sprang up, almost lifting Janis with him. "What's thet?" he demanded.
"Jan shall have you, Brazos."
He stared at her, only conscious that for the first time he was realising the true June Neece.
"I cain't consent to thet."
"Nor I," added Janis. "It wouldn't be fair. To cheat you of everything? No, no! All my life I have let you put me first. I won't do it here. But I'm not big enough to give him to you. We must be broken-hearted together."
"Janis, neither of us needs to be broken-hearted. He shall marry you and we'll all be happy."
"But--but--" faltered Janis.
"Brazos, I'd give my very life to make Jan happy. Jan shall be your wife, Brazos--and you can have me, too."
Brazos seized her shoulders in rough grasp. "What air--yu sayin'," he demanded huskily.
"I said Jan shall be, your wife--and you can have me, too. We're twins, almost the same as one girl. I'd never marry. I'd always be true to you, Brazos. No one would ever know."
Hurriedly saddling his horse, Brazos rode into Las Animas. He felt a need to be away from Twin Sombreros in order to think this thing through.
Brazos started toward Mexican Joe's, but had gone hardly half a block when he met Inskip. There was something in the Texan's eyes that gripped Brazos.
"Knight shot Hank Bilyen this mawnin'."
"Aw!" A rending pang in Brazos yielded to leaping fire. "Hank! Daid?"
"No. Pretty close call, though. Doc says Hank ain't in danger."
"Wal, thet's a relief. This hombre Knight? He shot Surface, yu recollect--What was it all aboot?"
"Hank ain't tellin'. But Knight has been roarin' aboot town. He was drunk when he did the shootin', so. I heahed."
"Drunk! What'n hell was Hank doin' all the time?"
"He wasn't packin' no gun."
"Ahuh. An' what's this gunslinger Knight roarin' aboot?"
"Wal, he's mad, or pretendin' to be. Tellin' everywhere he thought Bilyen had a gun an' was drawin' it--thet he told Bilyen he was goin' to hold Neece for cattle Surface owed him--that Bilyen began to curse an' threaten."
"Bodkin is the nigger in the woodpile. Inskip, how yu reckon thet crook has lasted so long with Texans?"
"Meanin' me an' yu an' Kiskadden? Wal, Gawd only knows how he's lasted with yu. But Kis an' I have responsibilities--business, family. Then Bodkin had a strong followin', for a while. Sooner or later everybody heah in Las Animas will know he's crookeder than a rail fence, same as we know now."
Brazos found his friend Bilyen lying on an improvised bed of blankets on the floor of a room back of Gage's store. The Texan's rugged visage lacked colour and was clammy. Brazos knelt by the prostrate man.
"Wal, old-timer, how yu makin' oot?" he drawled, with deep feeling.
"Me? What's a gunshot to a Texan? I'm all right. I ducked when he shot, or he'd killed me shore. If ever I seen red murder in a man's eyes it was Knight's."
"Ahuh. Let me see--Right side--Hank, don't tell me it's low down?"
"Right under my collarbone an' clear through. Sorer than a stubbed toe! But it's nothin' atall, Brazos."
"Spit any blood?"
"Nary a drop. Cowboy, I shore won't rest or sleep till yu shoot the gizzards oot of thet black buzzard."
"Good. If yu talk short an' sweet I reckon yu can have a sleep in less 'n two wags of a lamb's tail--What was it aboot?"
"Knight braced me. Said he was demandin' two thousand haid of yearlin's--from Neece, through me. I gave him the laugh till I seen thet red light come to his eye. Then if I'd only had a gun!"
"Did yu say anythin'?"
"I cussed him right pert. An' before I seen he meant murder I told him to lay off Neece or he'd have yu to deal with. At thet he gave me the haws laugh. Said he an' Bodkin (he's not smart atall Brazos, he gave Bodkin away) knowed yore hands was tied. Thet yore gunnin' for sheriffs was over!"
"An' what, did yu say to thet?"
"I told him we knowed he an' Bodkin was in cahoots--thet yu knowed he was the rustler Brad yu heahed with Bodkin thet night at Hailey's. Brazos, it was a random shot, but it shore went home."
"So--I'll shore know if he's thet Brad the instant I heah his voice. Not thet it matters. But it sort of dovetails in. An' he's what I got on Bodkin."
"Brazos, this man Brad must have ruled Surface an' Bodkin both. He struck me strong, cunnin', vicious. But he's no gunman. I could have shot him three times runnin'--But Bodkin. I told yu before to lay off him."
Inskip interposed here: "Right, Bilyen. Unless Brazos has proof he'd better let Bodkin alone. For he's an officer of law in this territory."
"It cain't be done," drawled Brazos.
"Have you anythin' on Bodkin thet'd clear yu in court?"
"I know him."
"But your word only is not enough, Brazos," declared Inskip impressively.
"Pard, Inskip is talkin' sense," added Bilyen earnestly. "Listen. If--if things oot at Twin Sombreros air the way they seemed to Neece an' me--an' the way we hoped--for Gawd's sake, leave Bodkin alone. He'll hang himself pronto."
"It just cain't be done. I see thet now," replied Brazos strangely.
"Boy, think of June--if it is June."
"I am thinkin' of June--an' Jan, too," responded Brazos as he pressed a strong hand upon Bilyen's. And Brazos knew, if Hank did not, that gesture was one of affection and farewell. "So long, yu Texans."
Brazos strode out. He halted to one side of the open door.
Half-way between Hall's saloon and the Happy Days there stood an unoccupied adobe structure, one of the old landmarks of Las Animas. Brazos took his station there in the doorway, from which he could not readily be seen except from a point almost directly opposite. He meant to wait there a little while.
He did not have long to wait before a tall man emerged from Hall's. He answered to the description Brazos had in mind as fitting Knight. Three men followed him out of the saloon. They talked. And Brazos detected a nervous excitement in the way they stood and spoke.
Then Knight turned his dark face in Brazos's direction. One of his comrades accompanied him, a lean man in his shirt sleeves. Brazos smiled scornfully at the folly and blind arrogance of a man who packed his gun like that. The lean man took no such chances.
They came on. Brazos stepped out to confront them.
"Howdy, Brad," he drawled.
If that name did not belong to this man, it certainly had power to halt him with a stiffening jerk.
"My name's--Knight," he rasped out.
"Aw, hell!" ejaculated Brazos in cold derision. The voice was the one he expected.
"Who are you?" demanded the other.
The lean man, staring hard at Brazos, said quietly, "It's Brazos Keene."
"Good guess, stranger. Slope damn pronto, or I'll bore yu," returned Brazos, just as quietly.
The man wheeled as on a pivot and his boots rang on the hard sidewalk.
"Wal, Mr. Knight, yu've met up with Brazos Keene at last."
"Brazos Keene, ah? Ha! Ha! It doesn't impress me, you bragging cowpuncher."
"Wal, it's a-gonna. Brad."
"Damn you! My name's Knight."
Brazos saw the leap of thought in those beady black eyes. It was a steely red glint, a compass needle wavering and fixing--the intent to kill. Brad would attempt to draw on him, Brazos knew, and felt deep amazement at this man's ignorance of real gunmen.
"Wal, it's Brad, too. I just heahed Bodkin an' thet other hombre call yu Brad.
"When and where?" queried Brad heatedly, but he had begun to whiten.
"Thet night at Halley's. Just after the midnight train had pulled in from the East. I was in the next room an' had a hole cut in the wall."
"You meddling cowhand!"
"Shore, Brad. I shore got a hand to draw to--an' I got one to draw with!"
Knight appeared to be be beyond speech, clamped in his rage. Still he had no fear. But it was rage, not nerve.
"Why, man alive!" went on Brazos in his cold, taunting voice, "I've met up' with some real men in my day. Yu're nothin' but a low-down coward that shoots unarmed men--"
With a grating curse Knight jerked for his gun.
Brazos stepped through the drifting pall of smoke to look down upon the fallen man. But he was too late to see Brad die. The rustler boss lay on his back, his right arm pinned under him, clutching his half-drawn gun, his visage distorted in its convulsive change from life to death.
"Atta boy, Brazos!" yelled a lout at the back, and a laugh, nervous, not mirthful, ran through the crowd.
Sheathing his gun, Brazos whirled on his heel to strike rapidly in the direction of the sheriff's office.
It was locked. Brazos burst into three places before someone told him where to locate Bodkin.
"Seen him go in Twin Sombreros restaurant," called out this individual.
Brazos laughed. Of all places for Bodkin to be cornered by Brazos Keene! There was a fate that waited upon evil men.
Brazos opened the door of the restaurant, slipped in, then slammed it behind him. On the right side, facing the street, several of the small tables had been placed together, round which sat ten or a dozen men. Brazos's lightning eye had scanned them to locate his victim.
"Everybody set tight!" yelled Brazos.
He surveyed the men at table. Miller he recognised. His passion was such that even the presence of the banker Henderson occasioned him no surprise. Several other faces were familiar, evidently belonging to new businessmen of Las Animas. The rest were strangers.
The guests at that table rose so hurriedly that half their chairs turned over. They split, some on each side, leaving Bodkin alone at the head, his ox eyes rolling at Brazos.
"Keene, this hyar's an intrusion--insult to my guests. I--"
"Haw! Haw! Yore guests, huh? Wal, they must be crooked as yu or the damnedest fools in Colorado."
"Drunk again! Same old Keene! You get out or I'll clap you in jail."
Brazos spat like a cat. "Jail? By Gawd, yu make me remember I got thet on yu, too! Wal, Bodkin, my rustlin' sheriff, yu'll never clap me in jail again--or any other cowboy!"
"Get out, Keene. You're drunk an' blowin' off. Let me alone. You can't want anythin' of me."
"Hell I cain't!"
"What you want--then?" demanded Bodkin hoarsely.
"Wal, first off I wanted to tell yu, Bodkin," drawled Brazos with irritating slowness. "Yore pard Brad is layin' oot here in the street daid!"
"Yes, Brad. He calls himself Knight. He's yore new man. Wal, he's daid!"
"Who shot him?"
"Some hombre from Texas."
"You! Well, that's no great concern of mine You're one of these even-break gunmen, so I can't arrest you. I knew him as Knight. Now get out--"
"Aw, Bodkin, yu're all lie," flung out Brazos, and in two long strides he reached the table. He lifted his boot against it and shoved powerfully. The laden tables slid and tumbled with a crash, overturning Bodkin and half covering his burly form.
"Come up with yore gun!" ordered Brazos.
Bodkin floundered to his feet, a stark and ghastly terror etched on his face. He made no move for his gun, which swung free without coat to hamper it.
"I'm not fightin' you--gun slinger," he panted.
"Yes, yu air--or be the first man I ever bored withoot it."
"Let me by. If you're spoilin' for a fight I'll find men--"
"Bah, yu chicken-hearted four-flush! Cain't you make no better stand before yore guests? Cain't yu die game?"
"Brazos Keene, I'll not add another notch to your gun handle."
"Wal, I'll break my rule an' cut just one notch for yu, Bodkin. An' wherever I ride I'll show it an' say thet's for the yellowest skunk I ever shot."
"I tell you I won't draw," shouted Bodkin, desperate in his fear.
Brazos's gun twinkled blue. Bang! Bodkin screamed like a horse in agony. His leg gave way under him and he would have fallen but for the chair he seized. Brazos's bullet had penetrated the calf of his leg.
"Air yu gonna take it by inches?" demanded the cowboy.
Bodkin gazed balefully, with wobbling jaw. Horribly plain his love of life, his fear of death! And still it eluded him--the destroying truth of this cowboy.
"Bodkin, yore game is up. Yu've dealt yore last hand at cairds. Yore lyin,' cheatin', stealin' days air over. Yore murderin' days air over. For yu was Surface's tool in Allen Neece's murder. Yu tried the same deal when yu sent Bard Syvertsen an' his girl Bess to murder me. Yu're a menace to this range. The fools who elected yu sheriff air crazy or crooked."
"You're the crazy--one," gasped Bodkin.
"Listen, man. Cain't yu see things? I could kill yu on a personal grudge. But I'm gonna kill yu for better reasons."
"Keene, you can't prove--you have no case--"
"Hell! I was in the room next to yore's at Hailey's. I had a hole cut in the wall. I heahed yu come in at midnight, with two men. One of them this Brad hombre I just shot. An' I heahed yu talk. About Brad's failure to get the gunman, Panhandle Ruckfall, to come heah to kill me. Aboot the gold Syvertsen stole from Neece an' gave to Surface. Aboot how yu reckoned yu would hang on heah an' get elected sheriff. An' last, how the third man of yu three thet night--the one whose name I never heahed--how he said the cattlemen on this range was wakin' up an' he was gonna slope."
Damning guilt worked upon the fear and agony in Bodkin's visage.
"Now will yu go for yore gun?" added Brazos sardonically.
Crash! Brazos shot the other leg out from under Bodkin. Still the sheriff did not fall, nor did he scream out. He sagged a little, until his knee on the chair upheld him. Then the horrid expression faded, smoothed out of his face, and into it came a vestige of the realisation of death and a dark desire to take his merciless adversary with him. He let go of the chair with his right hand and drew his gun.
Brazos let him swing it upward. Then he leaped aside and shot. Bodkin's gun boomed so close afterward that the two shots seemed simultaneous.
But Bodkin's bullet crashed through the window and Brazos's reached its mark.
Then the cowboy faced the ill-assorted group of men who had assembled there as Bodkin's guests. They stood as if petrified.
"Henderson, yu're in bad company," rang out Brazos, "an' no matter what yore excuse, it'll be remembered in Las Animas. Miller, I'm brandin' yu as hand an' glove with this Surface ootfit. Yu businessmen an' yu strangers all know Bodkin now for what he was. An' I reckon thet'll be aboot all for Brazos Keene in Colorado."
He rode away at dawn as the sun was reddening the grey landscape, without ever once looking back, as he had done so often in his tumultuous life.
His heading for the south, however, towards Texas, had an air of finality. Thirst for adventure and even for romance had been effectually killed. As Brazos took to the well-worn cattle trail, he felt sick and old and unhappy.
He came at length to Doan's Crossing, one of the famous old posts of the frontier.
Doan's Crossing had grown to be a settlement. The huge rambling trading-post appeared the same as the picture in his memory. But it fronted on the corner of a wide street that stretched far between grey flat houses and red-walled buildings.
"Wal, doggone me!" ejaculated, Brazos mildly. "Tom Doan has shore thrown up a metropolis."
As he slid wearily out of his saddle a lanky young Texan met him with a keen gaze.
"Howdy, rider. Air you stayin' over?"
"Howdy, young feller. I reckon my hawss is lame. Will you put him up and look after him?"
"Yu bet," replied the lad.
"Tom Doan heah yet?"
"Shore, Tom's heah, big as life. Mister, there's Doan comin' now."
Brazos's glance lighted upon a tall Texan approaching. Same old Tom Doan! Brazos could have picked him out of a hundred Texans, though they all were sandy-haired, sallow-faced, with slits of grey fire for eyes.
"Howdy, stranger. Git down an' come in," was the greeting. "Haven't I seen you before?"
"Tom, I reckon I'm starved and thin and black with this heah dust and beard. But it's a downright insult for you not to know me," drawled Brazos.
Doan straightened up from his close scrutiny and broke into a broad smile.
"Wal, talk of the devil an' heah he is! Brazos Keene!"
"Yep, it's Keene all right. And how air you. Tom?"
The warm smile, the hard grip, and the hand on his shoulder thrilled some of the weariness out of Brazos.
"I reckon I'm downright glad to see yu, Tom," he responded hoarsely.
"Say, yu're spittin' cotton. Come in, boy, an' hev a drink."
"Wal, I need one, Tom. But not red likker."
Doan led Brazos through a lane of curious riders into the post. The huge interior, its adobe walls decorated with Indian ornaments, the coloured blankets and utensils hanging from the rafters, the counters laden with merchandise, and especially the great open fireplace at the end--all these appeared just the same as if he had seen them yesterday. But there was a wide door that Brazos did not remember. It led in to a saloon full of smoke and noise.
"Tom, what the hell has come off about heah?" asked Brazos, after he had quenched his thirst.
"Brazos, we've growed up. Doan's Crossing is a town."
"Hell, Tom, I ain't blind. But how come? There never was nothin' heah. Wal, nothin' but buffalo, Injuns, and trail-herd rustlers."
Doan laughed. "So we used to think, cowboy. But we was blind. There's rich land heah. Lots of farms, ranches. We've got a growin' town. A dozen stores an' more, too many saloons, a school an' a church an' a doctor. I've added a hotel to my post. Two stages a week, herds still trailin' north, travel heavy. Aw, Doan's Crossing is boomin'."
"Wal, doggone! I'm shore glad."
"Brazos, where yu headin'?"
"West of the Pecos," replied Keene ponderingly, his gaze averted.
"Aw! Don't tell me yu are on the dodge, Brazos?"
"Not atall. Tom, I want a room and hot water. Last time I was heah I slept on the counter oot there. Recollect thet?"
"I shore do. An' you didn't need no bath, 'cause yu an' Herb Ellerslie got piled off in the river."
"Gosh, Tom, yu do remember heaps. What become of Herb Ellerslie?"
"Shot, Brazos. Shot at Dodge by a gambler named Cardigan?'
"Aw, no! I'm sorry. Cardigan? I'll remember thet name. How aboot Wess Tanner?"
"Jest fine. Come to think of it, Wess will be along any day now."
"Wouldn't I like to see Wess!" ejaculated Brazos dreamily, following his host out of the saloon.
Doan halted at the end of a corridor, which opened into a green and flowery patio. He was ushered into a room that spoke eloquently of the advance Doan's Crossing had made toward civilisation.
"Doggone! Tom, this heah is mighty stylish for me. Wonder if I can sleep in thet bed."
"Wal, you look like you needed to," replied Doan with a laugh. "I'll send some hot water. You got about a half hour before supper."
Brazos laid off his sombrero, his gun, spurs, and chaps. Then he opened his saddlebags to take out his last clean shirt scarf and socks, and also his shaving outfit.
"Heigho!" he sighed, and sat down on the bed. "Doan's Crossing--Jesse Chisholm's Trail--and I'm a broken old man!"
That night, tired as he was, Brazos could not sleep. The bed felt too soft, too comfortable. He lay awake, thinking. And June and Jan Neece filled his mind.
In the dead of night in the blackness of this room, hundreds of miles from the scene of his downfall, he at last saw, clearly. All the time, it had been June, and June alone. He had worshipped her, and worshipped her still. June had uplifted and inspired him, called so deeply and poignantly to the finer side of him that he had never known really existed. He had thought of June as a girl to work for, to change his nature, to make a home for him and be the mother of his children. All dream! But he saw through it clearly now.
Sleep came very late to Brazos that night. He was awakened by a pounding on his door.
"Hey, Mister Keene, air yu daid?" called a voice Brazos recognised as belonging to the Texas lad.
"Mawnin', Tex. No, I ain't daid yet. What's the row aboot?"
"I been tryin' to wake you. The Dodge City stage rolled in--with an'--some old friends of yores rode in with it." The lad's voice betrayed excitement.
"Friends?" flashed Brazos, his blood quickening.
"Tanner an' some of his riders."
Brazos leaped out of bed. "Tell Wess I'll be there in a jiffy."
Brazos washed and dressed swiftly, buckled on his gun belt, and strode into the trading-post.
"Wess! you lean, hungry-lookin' old trail driver! My Gawd, I'm shore glad to see you!"
"Pard! You damned ole brown-skinned vaquero!" replied Tanner unsteadily, as he met that proffered hand. "Brazos--I never expected to see this day. An' am I happy?"
They clasped hands and locked glances. It was a meeting between tried and true Texans who had slept and fought and toiled together through unforgettable days:
"Brazos--meet my ootflt," said Tanner presently.
Brazos was introduced to the riders, most of them striplings. Obviously they were overcome at this meeting.
"Wal, Wess, I reckon you're ridin' back to Santone for the winter. No more trail drivin' this year?"
"Not till spring, Brazos. An' mebbe not then. Pard, I shore have the grandest ranch bargain there is in all Texas. If I can only raise the backin'."
"Same old Wess. Always dreamin' of thet grand ranch. I shore want to heah about it. And I'd kinda like to ride south with you, for a while. It's been lonely."
Tanner gave him a keen, kindly glance that baffled Brazos.
"Don't be hurt, pard. It ain't likely you'll want to ride with us. But I'd shore like thet--Brazos, come aside. I've news for yu. I'm scared stiff, yet--"
Wess led Brazos to a corner beside a window and faced him there hopefully yet apprehensively, with a pale face full of suppressed agitation that nonplussed Brazos.
Manifestly Wess laboured under some stress that rendered liberation extremely difficult. He lit a cigarette with visibly unsteady fingers and he swallowed, a lump in his throat.
"Hell, man!" exploded Brazos. "You didn't use to be so damn squeamish--You've heahed about thet little Las Animas mess."
"Shore, Brazos," agreed Wess, hurriedly. "Only it didn't seem little to me. Fact is--it was big--big as' Texas."
"Yeah? An' what of it?"
"Wal, for one thing Dodge City took it fine. The mayor hisself said to me, 'Wess, thet's the sheriff for Dodge when we need another!'"
"Hell he did? Kind of a compliment, at thet."
"Mebbe you shouldn't have rode away from Las Animas so quick."
"I reckon you think I should have got up a party and swelled around town," said Brazos sarcastically.
"Nope, not jest thet, though the deal shore called for some redeye. Where'd yu stop an' soak up a load of likker?"
"Wess, I haven't taken one dod-blasted drink," declared Brazos.
"Thet settles it. Yu air crazy. I been afraid of it ever since--since--"
"Since what, you tongue-tied hombre? I'm gonna get sore pretty pronto."
"Brazos, for the life of me. I cain't see why. If I was in yore boots I'd be so dod-blasted happy--"
"You been, afraid since what?" flashed Brazos, grasping Wess's wrist with fingers of steel. There was something wrong about this old friend--something that had to be solved.
"Wal, then--since--since Miss Neece braced me on the street in Dodge."
"What! Miss Neece?" Brazos's voice sounded faint in his thrumming ears.
"Shore. Yore fiancee," replied Wess.
"My--my fiancee? How'd you know--thet?"
"She told me."
"Good Gawd! Wess, wasn't she ashamed of thet?"
"Ha! Ha! I should smile she wasn't."
"Aw! But what for? How come? Was she visitin' Dodge with her dad--and heahed you might know me?"
"No, she shore wasn't visitin' an' as for her dad--wal, never mind about him. Miss Neece was hot on yore trail, Brazos."
At that Brazos began to shake. "Hot on my--trail?" he echoed in a whisper.
"I said hot, pardner. It was this way. I happened to run into the Hotel Dodge to see Jeff--you cain't have forgot Jeff Davis? Wal, before I could' say, howdy even, Jeff grabbed me an' turned to a gurl standin' there. I went stiff at sight of her. 'What luck!' burst out Jeff. 'Heah he is now--Wess, this is Miss Neece. She has been askin' if any Texas trail driver might know Brazos Keene. An' I told her yu--Wess Tanner--was an old pardner of his.' The gurl's white face went red, then paled again. 'Please come,' she said, and led me off into the parlour.
"'Yu know Brazos?' she asked, and she was trembling.
"'Wal, I used to, Miss,' I said.
"'Yu've heerd about--what he did at Las Animas?'
"'Yes, Miss. Thet's town talk heah. But I never believe range gossip, much lesss about Brazos Keene."
"'Oh! But it is all true--and I am his--fiancee.'
"'Miss Neece, whatever Brazos done it was justified. He is a true-blue Texan, as fine a boy as ever forked a hawss--' Wal, she thanked me with tears streamin' down her lovely face. An' then she told me yu an' she had had a lovers' quarrel. She was jealous of her twin sister. Yu had left her an' gone to town, where yu shot her dad's enemies, one of them the sheriff. Then yu rode away, thinkin' yu'd made yoreself an outlaw, which yu hadn't. She said she knew yu'd ride down into Texas an' she wanted me to undertake to find yu. I said, 'Lady, I'll find Brazos for yu. An' thet hombre will shoot my laig off for my pains.' 'Shoot yu?' she cried. 'He'll bless yu all the rest of his life!'"
"Right you were--Wess," mumbled Brazos thickly, fighting the wave on wave of emotion that swayed him. How terrible and sweet this news! "I'll shoot--yore laig off. Damn you! Wasn't miserable enough? But tell the rest now. What was her crazy idee--coaxin' you to find me?"
"What do you think, old pard?" queried Wess, drawing a deep breath.
"Think? I cain't think. Tell me, or I'll choke it out of you."
Wess clapped a heavy hand on Brazos's shoulder. "Pard, Miss Neece's idee was to come with me--till I found you," replied Wess, his voice ringing. Brazos could only stare in fearful stupefaction into his friend's face.
"She's heah!" rang out Wess. Brazos went blind. His shaking hand groped for Wess, who met it with his own and steadied him.
"Brazos! For the good Lord's sake!" Wess was saying as he shook Brazos. "What ails yu? Man, yu should be the happiest man in all Texas. Why, I never seen yu like this. An' how many gurls have I seen yu crazy over? Shore, pard, this is, different. This gurl is the real an' the last one."
"Which--one?" whispered Brazos, his eyes closed tight.
"Which one? Say, the boy's dotty. Which what? Which gurl, yu mean? Why, yu pore locoed ghost of yore old self. It's yore sweetheart. Yore fiancee. The gurl yu're engaged to. Brazos, there's Mrs. Doan," said Wess. "She's lookin' for yu, I'll bet. Come, pard, yu better get it over."
Doan introduced Brazos to his wife, a comely, sturdy pioneer type, blonde and buxom. She certainly gave Brazos a looking over before she relaxed into friendliness and sympathy.
"I think you had better see your fiancee at once. She is under a strain. She must care greatly for you."
"Cowboy, I seen thet an' I had it figured when she stepped off the stage. Such eyes! Black an' hungry as a starved Indian's!" added Doan.
"Wal, friends, she must think a lot of me," replied Brazos gravely. "It's too late now for me to worry about not ben' good enough for her an' ridin' away like I did. Take me to her."
Mrs. Doan led him to a door at the south end of the post. "This is my room, Brazos. You'll be secluded there. Make it up to' her. Try to realise your great good fortune."
In the moment before he stepped into the room, Brazos faced his ultimatum. It was June he loved most and wanted for his wife, but it could never have been June who had the adventurous spirit to follow him. So Jan must never know. And love her he did, too, but not as he did June.
In all humbleness, he told himself that he was lucky to have either of the twins, give up everything to come to him.
Brazos was tense and tingling when he opened the door. He heard a gasp. Then he wheeled.
"Brazos!" She had been standing almost behind the door, waiting, her face white, her eyes wide and dark. Brazos had not expected to see her in a white dress, but of course she had had time to change. Jan would never have let him see her travel-stained or dishevelled. Her face was lovely, despite the havoc he read there.
"Jan! You, sweet devil," he cried huskily, and held out his arms.
She had been already on the way to him. Apparently his poignant exclamation or the welcome of his gesture suddenly halted her for a moment, while a spasm crossed her face. It passed, and she flew to his arms. She hid her face and clung to him.
"Brazos--darling. I--I had to come," she said in smothered tone.
"Wal, I couldn't be shore till I felt yu--like this," he replied hoarsely, and, he held her tight to his breast, while he bent his head against her rippling hair. On the moment he could not see well. He seemed to float in that room.
"Don't--hug me--so," she whispered, "unless you--don't want me--to breathe. Brazos, you're not--angry?"
"Angry? No, Jan. I'm sort of buffaloed. My Gawd, it was sweet and good--and bad--of you to trail me heah."
"Bad?" she queried quickly.
"For you, dear. I'm an outlaw, you know. You've disgraced yourself, and all of them."
"But for you, Brazos, darling?"
"I reckon it's near heaven again."
"Oh! Then you forgive me."
"I probably will--if you kiss me like you did thet turrible night."
"Same old Brazos! Only you look--Brazos, tell me you won't send me back," she importuned softly.
"No, Jan. I cain't do thet."
"But you want me?" she flashed.
"Yes. I'm mad about you, Jan. I reckoned I'd got over it. But I hadn't."
"Darling! And J-June?"
"Wal, she didn't trail me, did she?"
Holding her close, Brazos leaned against a table and tried to separate conflicting tides of emotion from tumultuous and overwhelming thoughts.
"Jan, I reckon we--might sit down," he said huskily, and half lifted her to the couch. But she would not let go of him. Weak and nervous now, she still clung. "You must be kinda tired--all thet long stage ride."
"No. I wasn't tired," she said. "Just overcome at meeting you--scared weak. I was afraid you'd send me back--that you--you love J-June best."
Brazos took her face between his hands and studied it gravely. The havoc he had seen appeared warmed out and the dark eyes had lost their strain.
"Let us talk---now." Her voice had quieted. "Brazos--Dad died suddenly, less than a week after you left."
"Aw! Jan! How awful!" cried Brazos, shocked to his depths. "My Gawd, I'm sorry. Thet fine, upstandin' Westerner. Aw! but this is a tough one on me. I was turrible fond of yore dad. Jan, I don't know what to say."
"Brazos, you've said enough. It comforts me. We knew you loved Dad--J-June and I. But Dad is gone. And if I hadn't had you to think of--to save, I'd have sunk under that blow."
"Save? Jan, you think I have to be saved?"
"Indeed I do. Thank heaven I caught up with you in time. Brazos, that is the saddest news. But there's more--not sad--yet it'll hurt you."
"Go ahaid, darlin'," replied Brazos. "I reckon I can stand anythin' now."
Jan averted her face. Her breast rose and fell. Her hand tightened on Brazos's.
"It's about J--June. She eloped with Henry Sisk--came home married!"
"What're you tellin' me, Jan Neece?" ejaculated Brazos fiercely.
"You heard, me, darling." Her voice was low, but perfectly clear, carrying a note unfamiliar to Brazos.
"Jan, you lie!" Brazos leaped up in a perfect frenzy of amazement and fury.
"What motive could I have in telling you a lie?" she returned proudly. Brazos turned her face around so that he could see it in the light. Its pallor, the proud, dark eyes, that peered straight and unfathomably into his, the set lips, almost stern now--these to Brazos were not eloquent of falsehood.
"Jan, I beg--yore pardon," he went on haltingly. "But that knocks me cold and sick, to my very gizzard. Worse than when I kill a man! But damn June's fickle heart! She loved me. She proved it--and then, all in no time--she shows yellow. Sisk? Fine chap, shore, but he was sweet on you, wasn't he?"
"I thought so. He swore it."
"So he throwed you down for June?"
"Something like that, darling."
"Did you care?"
"Yes, I did. It hurt. I'm a vain creature. But I couldn't marry Henry. On my soul of honour, I couldn't."
"Why couldn't you, Miss Neece?"
"Because I loved you. I never knew how well until you ran away. Oh, Brazos--darling. Can I make up for the loss of June?"
"I reckon. But let me be straight with you, Jan. If June hadn't turned out faithless--neither you, however sweet and lovely you air, nor all the rest of the girls in the world, could have made up for the loss of her. Can you stand to heah thet?"
"Yes, Brazos, I--I can stand it," faltered Jan. "Brazos, can you stand another surprise?"
He eyed her askance. But Jan did not look formidable just then or anything to be dubious about. He drew her into his arms, yet held her back, so he could study her face.
"Shoot, Jan. You cain't knock me out again."
"I'll bet I can." She leaned back, toying with his scarf, hiding her eyes. "Could you stand a sweetheart--and a--a wife--who is very, very rich?"
"Good--Lord!" exploded. Brazos. "What you got up yore sleeve?"
"Brazos, if I'm a very rich girl--that won't make any difference to you?"
"You're talkin' riddles. But I reckon--if you was a very rich girl--I wouldn't feel turrible bad about it."
She let out a sweet peal of glad laughter and caught him around the neck. "Brazos, listen. Henry bought my share of Twin Sombreros Ranch and two thousand head of cattle."
Brazos sat mutely staring at this apparition--this angel of fortune--this living refutation of his vain judgment of women.
"You see, it hasn't turned out so badly, even if you have lost June."
"How much?" asked Brazos faintly.
"How much what? Oh, how much I love you? Oh, more than any girl ever loved any man."
"Jan, my heart is weak. Don't tease no more. How much did you sell out for?"
"I made a pretty good deal, Hank Bilyen said. For the cattle I got forty dollars a head. Figure that out."
"I cain't--darlin'--I cain't figger, or add--or anythin'."
"Well, that comes to eighty thousand dollars. And I sold my half of the 'ranch for twenty thousand. I brought the money with me."
"Mercy!" begged Brazos.
"I got a few thousand in cash, and the rest in drafts on the Las Animas bank. Now, Brazos, darling, now what are we going to do?"
"Now, Jan, darlin', what air we goin' to do?" mimicked Brazos in consternation.
"You're not exactly a poor cowboy, down at his heels. You can do things."
"Jan, I cain't do nothin' but love you," replied Brazos abjectly.
"Well, that's grand. But I prefer you do a little besides loving me. Brazos, those boys with Wess Tanner were sweet on me. And you know I'm unreliable. You had better put a halter on me while you have the chance. Dad always said that once I was haltered I'd steady down."
"Jan, at thet I believe you've changed--grown. But still the same old sweet devil. Will you take my solemn word?"
"Yes, Brazos, I will."
"Wal, before I entered thet door I knew I'd ask you to marry me--first, because thet old love came thunderin' back--second because I would have asked you if I hadn't loved you, I was struck so deep by yore trailin' me--and last because I could never let one word of range gossip get started about Jan Neece."
She appeared enraptured, yet there was a restraint, a doubt about her that puzzled Brazos. He caught his breath and asked her to marry him.
"Yes, darling," she replied, and hid her face upon his shoulder.
"When?" he flashed, tense and keen.
"Need we wait?" she asked. That indeed betrayed this frank and devilishly sweet Jan Neece at her truest.
"If I had my way we wouldn't wait atall," rang out Brazos.
"Your way is my way--and always shall be," declared the girl eloquently, "If it is possible I will marry you here."
"Jan! It's shore possible. Doan told me they had a church heah. Course they'd have to have a minister."
"Run, darling--and find out. Jan, you know, can change her mind."
Brazos leaped up, to forget his sombrero, and rush from the room.
Soon after, Brazos ran back to Mrs. Doan's door, halting when he came to it. He sensed a mysterious portent beyond that threshold. It checked him--held him with bated breath. But he knocked. There was no reply. Uncertain and strangely agitated, he entered the room. Jan was lying face down on the couch.
"Jan, dear, what ails you?"
"Oh, Brazos! I---I can't go through with it. I'm a little fourflush! I have none of the nerve you--you credited me with," burst from her in smothered tones.
Brazos's heart sank like lead. "Darlin', you cain't what?" he asked tenderly. "I reckon you mean--marry me?"
"No! No!" she cried frantically, raising her face, to disclose it tear-wet and shamed, with tragic eyes dark upon him. "I'm crazy to to marry you. I'll die if you won't have me. And, oh, misery, you'll hate me now!"
"Ump-umm, honey. I cain't hate you, no matter what you've done, so long as you're crazy to marry me."
"Brazos, I was just wild for you. I'd have done anything--anything. But now, you've been so sweet--and wonderful--I can't go through with it."
"Jan Neece, will you come out with it?" demanded Brazos in desperation. "That's--just--it. I'm not Jan Neece--I'm June!"
"Lord Almighty! Am I drunk or crazy?" burst out Brazos, tearing his hair and staring incredulously at her. "Who air you?"
"Oh, Brazos! Don't look so--so awful at me. It's I! June--June Neece! Not Jan. I couldn't live without you. It was Jan who eloped with Henry. And I thought you loved her most--that she could do anything with you--and I came here to find you--make you marry me first--then tell you afterward."
"You damned--devilish little cat!" declared Brazos, astounded beyond passion. "I don't believe you."
"Oh--Brazos," she wailed. "But darling, I am June. I swear to heaven I am. Jan couldn't have done this rash thing. She hadn't the nerve. She didn't love you enough. Why, I'm ashamed to admit, she was on Henry's neck as soon as you left. Brazos, you must see I'm telling the truth. If I were Jan, intending to get you by hook or crook--would I be betraying my plot now? No! I'd wait till we were--married."
There was incontestable logic in this passionate confession. Brazos believed her now. Only those kisses had deceived him. She had acted them faithfully enough, though perhaps once June had cast restraint and decorum aside, they had at last expressed her true fervour.
"I cain't believe you," said Brazos solemnly. "Not unless you prove you're June. I have had about all I can stand of taken' Jan for June--and June for Jan."
"Prove I'm June?" she echoed. "Of course I can. I am June. My name June is on the drafts for all that money."
Brazos sagged desperately under that potential proof.
"Aw, you could fool Henderson just as easy as me. Haven't you fooled everybody under the sun? No, Miss Neece, you gotta prove you're June."
"Wait till we're married," she pleaded, so sweetly and humbly that Brazos smothered another wild desire to snatch her to his breast. Then an idea flushed into his rapturous mind.
"No. And let me remind you thet pastor with Doan and Wess will be cornin' pretty pronto."
"Beloved! Trust me!" she whispered beseechingly. "I would die of shame if they came now."
"Listen. June Neece had a birthmark like a bluebell--on her laig--didn't she?"
"Who told you that?", cried the girl, blushing scarlet.
"I heahed that when I first came to Las Animas. Everybody knew about it. The only way the Neece twins could be told apart! Wal, if you air June you shore have thet birthmark. Now, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have," she retorted, at bay. "Will you trust me--until--?"
"I'll trust you afterward, forever. I reckon you deserve to suffer a little shame."
"Shame! I have nothing to be ashamed of unless it's chasing an unchivalrous cowboy all over the south."
"Thet's a heap, I'm bound to admit--There! Girl, I reckon I heahed Wess's loud laugh out there. They've come with the parson. You better rustle or you may lose a husband."
"Brazos, if you force me I--I won't have you for a husband," she cried loftily. She was white of face again and her eyes burned with reproach.
"I'll risk thet, darlin'. You cain't get out of marryin' me now, if only to save yore good name and yore pride."
"Very well, cowboy! Come over to the light," she returned, with what seemed a calm disdain.
Brazos followed her haltingly to the window. He felt her gaze upon him and dared not meet it. Moreover, his eyes were glued to her shapely, capable hands as they grasped her gown at each side. She lifted it and her white skirts. Her trim ankles, her slender, graceful legs, her rounded knees and pink garters sharply outlined against her black stockings led Brazos's fascinated gaze to her white thighs.
"You should know this would be apple pie for Jan," she said with a suppressed giggle that belied her haughty scorn of this exacting lover. "I've forgotten which leg it's on--the left, I'm sure. Look--"
Merry voices outside preceded knocks on the door. Brazos, with the wonderful swiftness of that right land, snatched her skirts down.
"Aw, darlin', I was only foolin'," he whispered.
"Yes, you were," she taunted. "Did you see it?"
"No. I couldn't see nothin'. Besides, June, I shore knew you all the time."
"Liar! I could have fooled you--I wish--oh!"
Louder and more impatient knocks sounded upon the door. June smoothed her ruffled gown.
"Brazos, we're heah, all ready to make yu the happiest cowboy in Texas," called Wess, his voice ringing.
"Can we come in?" Doan's booming voice attested to the joy he felt. "Parson, papers, witnesses, an' all."
"Just a minnit more, Tom," drawled Brazos. "The lady has consented to become Mrs. Keene. But doggone it! She hasn't proved yet which one of the Twin Sombrero twins she really is!"