THE the clerk in the Land Office at Helen Gap sucked the end of his recording-pen contemplatively, as he looked up from the papers before him into the face of John Macdonald Rae. Mr. Rae had just filed a homestead claim for a quarter-section that is to say, 100 acres—in the Tortoise-shell Valley, and had defined with meticulous precision the fraction of Alex County which it was his intention to domesticate.
It is not usual in this part of the country to obtrude one’s self upon another man’s business (either by way of question or of advice) unless specially invited to do so. The practice, if carelessly indulged in, is one that has a tendency to affect one’s life assurance premium adversely. The clerk at Helen Gap, having duly taken the seventeen dollars and fifty cents demanded by the State for the registration, would certainly have pursued the matter no further, had it not been for the presence in the office of Mrs. John Macdonald Rae, a young woman whose extraordinary prettiness and grace threw him momentarily off his balance.
“Guess that’ll be in Gentle Jim’s district,” said he, without ceasing to suck the end of his pen.
“That so?” said John Macdonald Rae.
“Yep,” said the clerk. “You know Gentle Jim?”
“I’ve heard of him,” said Mr. Rae.
“Gentle Jim is kinder emperor of Alex County,” said the clerk. “Cattle millionaire, you know. They say he’s awkward if he don’t just take to a man.”
“That so?” Mr. Rae bit off the end of a cigar.
“This spring, now—Myrtle Spring. Your ha’f-section just takes that in. Pretty dry country there, away from the river, Mr. Rae. I presume Jim Andrews’s ranch stock around there use that spring quite a bit.”
“They’re welcome, I’m sure.”
MR. RAE’S voice had a pleasant drawl. For all his Scots name, the clerk could not quite place him. He seemed quite at home in the West, though he was dressed with a care which few old-timers would think it worth while to bestow upon themselves. As for his blue-eyed, fair-haired wife, she made such an alluring picture in her sky-blue summer frock that the clerk could scarcely keep his eyes off her. It was for her sake, rather than her husband’s, that he ventured a rash suggestion.
“I presume it would not suit you to take up another section? There’s some very fine country about ten miles to the west, just over the county border, Mr. Rae.”
John Macdonald Rae lit his cigar—a good cigar, as its aroma testified. “I’ve kinder taken a fancy to this half-section,” he drawled. “If it’s all in order, we’ll be moving along."
"Oh, it’s all in order,” said the clerk dryly. “Good luck, and look out for A-Lazy-Z!”
Mr. Rae picked up his papers, and walked out with his young wife into the street; and the memory of the smile from the blue eyes which the clerk intercepted at the door lasted him pleasantly all that day.
MR. and Mrs. Rae pursued their affairs about the town of Helen Gap, a process which involved visiting a number of stores and the making of considerable purchases. Many curious glances followed them, for they made a striking pair—the man tall and wiry, with a keen, strong face that discounted the unusual elegance of his clothes; and the wife a creature so frankly beautiful that she would have challenged admiration anywhere, much more so in this Western land where women of any kind were at a premium.
When they sat at dinner in the best hotel after a busy day the blue eyes were sparkling.
“John,” said the young wife, “I think I love this country already.”
Rae’s face lit with pleasure. “That’s fine, Lucy! You will like it better when you know it better. It’s a grand country. There’s something in the air of it, the crisp clear sunlight, that makes a man feel big and strong. The great mountains, the forests, the free, wide prospects, the wealth that lies on every hand only asking to be worked for—it’s all like champagne to a man’s spirit. And when a man has a girl like you to work for and work with, Lucy”— His ardent eyes completed the sentence, and brought a softer glow into Lucy’s face.
“Our honeymoon has been just like a dream,” she said. “Just fancy, only six months ago I was stuffing lessons into the heads of naughty little boys, back there in dear old dirty Glasgow. And then suddenly you came, my wild man of the West, and all the world was different. Oh, John!"
“Say, it makes me feel good to hear you talk like that, Lucy! It's the last day of our honeymoon dream to-day, and to-morrow we have to wake up and butt in and get busy. No more glad rags till we have earned another holiday together!”
“John,” she asked suddenly, “what did that man in the Land Office mean when he said, ‘Look out for A-Lazy-Z’?”
"I guess that will be Gentle Jim’s fetish,” was the ambiguous reply.
“And who is Gentle Jim?”
“Didn’t you hear what that clerk fellow said? Gentle Jim is the Great Panjandrum of Alex County—or thinks he is.” Rae’s strong jaw set a little grimly. “He’s called Gentle Jim because he’s the roughest son-of-a-gun in fifty miles round. Gentle Jim is a mighty big pumpkin, Lucy, and we’ll be up against him by-and-by. The ranchers, you see, were the first fellows who did anything with this country. They came along and started ranching on the open Government land—miles and miles and miles of it in the foothills of the Continental Divide—and their stock and their cow-punchers roamed the country at their pleasure. It didn’t belong to any one, you see; so why shouldn’t they? And then here and there along comes a homesteader, and files a claim, and starts to develop the land, and the State gives him his title to the section he has picked, and the rancher’s stock must go graze somewhere else. Naturally the rancher don’t like it, and he tries all he knows to make the other fellow quit. You will find Gentle Jim Andrews giving us a call pretty soon.”
“I’m not afraid,” said Lucy, and the blue eyes looked brave.
“You have no cause to be, sweetheart. This country isn’t quite a Sunday-school yet, but the boys have their own code. They don’t give themselves headaches studying the law, but there’s not one would harm a woman. Guess you could twist Gentle Jim round your little finger. All the same, A-Lazy-Z is a biggish proposition.”
MR. RAE proved a true prop het. The box shack in the Tortoise-shell Valley in which, a few weeks later, his pretty bride found herself installed was not a luxurious home, but love viewed it through rosy glasses, and hope transfigured it with visions. John built his house and barns himself, and a pretty thorough experience of Western life had taught him the main requirements of a comfortable habitation.
Gentle Jim did not call in person to welcome the newcomers to his domain, but, as John described it, he left his visiting-card. The Raes had a few milk cows, and for several weeks these inoffensive animals led a somewhat chequered existence at the hands of Gentle Jim’s “punchers,” whose ingenuity and persistence in endeavoring to lure or frighten them away were worthy of a better cause. John Macdonald Rae, however, had not lived ten years in the West for nothing. The milk cows remained securely in his possession. He ploughed a furrow round his half-section to divide it from the rest of the country-side; and one lovely May evening, as husband and wife sat looking out down the Tortoise-shell Valley, dreaming under the crescent moon, pretty Lucy murmured her conviction that the unseen enemy had given it up as a bad job.
Rae smiled as he filled his pipe. “Not if I know him, sweetheart. There’ll be more fun coming.”
There was. That very night, as they were retiring to bed rather later than usual, Lucy called to John: “There’s someone at the door. Listen, dear.”
He listened. The moon had gone down, and the night was dark. Undoubtedly there was some stealthy movement outside. Nevertheless, he did not at once go out. but having extinguished the light, sat listening for a quarter of an hour or more before he quietly opened the door.
IN the clear starlight he made out a horse fastened there by a halter. From the quietness of its movements when it stirred he guessed that its hoofs were padded. It was a good horse, and Rae talked to it like a good horseman. When he had talked it into confidence, he went indoors and fetched a sheepskin. With deft fingers, and soothing the lonely steed with soft words, Mr. Rae attached the sheepskin to its tail, and this accomplished, turned the animal loose. The horse moved off. Flippety-flap went the sheepskin on its hindlegs. The horse, a half-broken, spirited creature, went off into a mad gallop, and John Macdonald Rae stood listening to the dull sound of its hoof-beats diminishing down the valley. Then he returned, smiling grimly, to his rest.
“Guess we’ve scored the first trick, sweetheart,” said he, and told his wife what he had done.
“But what does it mean, John?” The blue eyes were wide with wonder.
“It means,” said John, caressing his wife’s fair hair, “that Pete Jorsen, Gentle Jim’s night herder, tied that horse there, intending to come back early in the morning with witnesses, and claim that it was stolen, and recognize me as the man they saw take it. Many’s the man that has been sent to penitentiary that way. But I’m not for Deerlodge so easily. We’ll go and find the sheepskin in the morning, Lucy. I’d hate to lose that sheepskin. The horse will kick that off easy enough. He was as scared as a jack-rabbit in a harvest-field.”
The next day Mr. Rae judged it expedient to coach his young bride in some of the crooked devices that the baffled rancher might see fit to employ to retrieve his defeat. Lucy listened with amazement and indignation to the lesson in devious dodges, but when her experienced man had “put her wise,” as he called it, her lips took a firm set, and she nodded her fair head sagely.
“You see, my dear,” said John, “though the A-Lazy-Z boys would never hurt a woman, they might try to trip me up sometime when I’m away to Glendair, by taking advantage of your inexperience.”
“Let them try—the cowards!” cried Lucy hotly. “I'll show them that a Glasgow girl can keep her end up, John!”
A WEEK later Lucy’s opportunity came. Her husband had gone to Glendair with the wagon, and she had been out herding the cows. She returned to the homestead to find the fenced corral in the occupation of a number of steers, and the gate of the corral shut upon them. The steers all bore the “fetish” of Gentle Jim Andrews, a big A, with a Z swinging to its lower corner—the symbolic “A-Lazy-Z” against which the Land Office clerk had warned them.
Pretty Lucy was frankly scared. It would be several hours before her John could return, and here she was left alone with half-a-dozen young steers ramping in the corral, and the milk cows to protect. She dared not put her cows in the corral, and she dared not open the corral gate and turn the steers out, lest they should mix themselves up with the cows in their flight, and she be unable to sort them out. On the other hand, she dared not leave the steers where they were, for at any moment Gentle Jim’s men might appear, and charge her husband with having their stock in his corral—circumstantial evidence against which no protestations of innocence could avail, especially before a jury probably composed in large measure of Jim’s friends or henchmen.
Lucy stood for a few moments desperately pondering the position, and then with a woman’s swiftness made up her mind. She tied the cows outside the corral, and running into the house, returned with an umbrella, to the handle of which she had fastened the largest and gaudiest piece of red cloth she could find. She unlatched the corral gate, and set it slightly ajar; then, running around the fence to the side opposite the gate, she climbed up on the fence, opened the umbrella, and, with as terrifying a shout as she could produce, hurled the open umbrella with its trail of flaming red right in among the steers. It was rather a forlorn hope, but it succeeded beyond her expectations. With one accord the frightened brutes bolted for the half-open gate, crashed it wide open, and stampeded away as if the fiend were at their heels. Trembling with excitement, Lucy returned to her cows, loosed them, and drove them in, then, fetching her husband’s Winchester from the shack, mounted guard with it at the corral gate. And there John found his fair sentinel when he drove back his team in the summer dusk.
A fierce light came into the homesteader’s eyes at the sight of the anxious little figure with the rifle, and though, when he had heard her story, he laughed, it was rather to encourage his pretty garrison than to relieve any mirthful feelings of his own. “Put away the gun, little girl,” he said, taking it from her. “You beat them fine. There’s not a puncher in Alex County would have thought of what you did. My! I’d give fifty dollars to see Gentle Jim’s face when he hears how he has been fooled by a woman, and she not six months out from bonny Scotland! But things are goin’ to get kinder lively, Lucy. Jim won’t stand for that. He'll put on his thinking cap, and the A-Lazy-Z boys will be mad to get level with me. We’re going to be right up against the whole outfit now. But we’ll roast old Jim yet!”
Lucy, walking back to the shack with her man’s arm about her, felt her courage revive. “I’d like fine to see this Jim Andrews, John. What does he look like?”
“You’ll see him, sure, before we’re through, sweetheart. He’s a mountain of a man nearer seven feet than six, I guess, with a hawk face and a two-foot beard. He’s as strong as a bull and as cunning as a fox. He’s a dead shot, and I presume he could fell a steer with his fist. Oh, he’s some boy, is Jim. But he has his points. He wouldn’t kill a man unless it was fair fighting. And he would never harm a woman.”
AFTER the episode of the umbrella there was peace for many days at Myrtle Spring. Rae and his wife came and went about the affairs of their homestead, and the place grew and prospered. The A-Lazy-Z ranchmen who brought their cattle from time to time to water at the spring seemed friendly, and no reference was ever made on either side to the state of siege in which both sides knew the homestead lived. Gentle Jim Andrews kept to his home ranch some twenty miles away in the foothills, and Lucy’s desire to meet him remained ungratified.
One hot August noon Rae and his wife returned home from their work to find, suspended on the corral fence, two quarters of a freshly killed steer, the hide of which, neatly rolled up, lay on the ground beside the fence. Not a soul was in sight. Rae put his hands in his pockets and stood frowning.
“If we were to turn that hide over, what kind of a mark do you think we should find?” he asked.
“A-Lazy-Z,” smiled Lucy.
“No good tying a mat to that,” said Rae.
“Perhaps it’s a peace-offering,” said hopeful Lucy.
“Perhaps it aint. We’ll leave it there while we go and have some dinner.”
But when they got into the house, they found a third quarter hanging in the shack kitchen.
“There’s four quarters to a steer,” said John Macdonald Rae sagely. “Guess I’ll look around for the fourth, while you get dinner ready, my girl. I’d hate to lose any of that meat.”
He went out again, and, just to make sure, turned over the hide by the corral fence. It was the hide of a red-and-white steer, and in the midst of a large white patch there was the sign he expected, the A with the swinging Z, which proclaimed the animal the property of Andrews. Thinking hard, Rae walked on to explore his holding. It was not long before, in a clump of quaking asp, he found the fourth quarter. By this time he had thought out his problem.
Like many a careful homesteader, Rae kept a brine-barrel for preserving purposes. It was empty of meat—the rascals, he reflected, must have kept close watch on him to know how short he was of meat. He carried back the quarter from the trees and put it in the barrel. Then he went and fetched the two quarters from the fence, and put them also in salt, Lucy watching him with curious glances.
“That fills it up,” said her husband. “Guess we’ll have to cut a good T-bone steak off that other quarter and cook it. It won’t keep this hot weather. We’ll start on it right now.”
In a short time the shack was redolent of the appetizing odor of cooking meat.
“They’ll be here soon,” Rae prophesied confidently. “I’m going outside for a while, little girl. When I come back we will have dinner.”
WHEN Rae returned presently, he left behind him, between the corral and the house, a large patch of fresh blood on the ground.
“It’s going to be stud poker this time, Lucy,” said he grimly as they sat down to eat. “That fellow reckons he’s got me this time, anyway. There’s the hide with the brand on it, and if I am wise enough to bury it or hide it some way, there’s the meat, which they know we need, and especially there’s the quarter right here in the house. And if I don’t fall for any of those games, they figure on the last quarter hid away in the bush. Oh, it’s going to be a lovely game! Hello!”
There was a hail from outside. John Macdonald Rae went to the door, where Pete Jorsen was sitting on his horse. "Say, Rae," said Pete, "have you seen a stray Hereford anywhere around?"
“Was it a four-year-old, with a lot of white on it?” asked Rae with child-like innocence.
“Yes,” said Gentle Jim's puncher eagerly. “Seen him?”
“There’s his hide on the corral fence, and there’s three quarters of him in brine in the house. The weather is too hot to keep fresh meat.”
Pete’s jaw dropped, and his eyes opened wide. “But that’s an A-Lazy-Z steer you’ve killed,” said he, not knowing what to make of it.
“Sure,” Rae answered coolly. “Do you want the meat?"
I’ll have to report that on the ranch,” said Pete.
“Sure. Andrews might want the meat,” Rae readily agreed.
PUZZLED Pete gave his horse a vicious dig with his heels, and rode off without another word. John Macdonald Rae strode back into the house.
"They're coming in,” he announced, continuing his poker simile. “The sheriff will be the next, and like enough Gentle Jim will be with him. Of course, they have got it all framed up for the sheriff to be ready, and I know the court is in session down in Glendair this week. If they weren’t so sure of getting me, they would have had the gump to wait a few days till the court adjourns, and then could have taken me down to Glendair and got me bound over for the next sessions; and as I am not well acquainted here, and could not get anybody on my bond, I should have had to stay in jail nearly six months. In that case I could not represent my claim. Yousee, Lucy, the law of this country is that a homesteader must not be away from his claim more than five months. If he is, he forfeits his rights, and anybody is at liberty to jump his claim, as they call it. But they are so dead sure of me, they didn’t bother about waiting.”
Pretty Lucy had thought for only one thing. “Do you mean to say they will put you in prison, John?”
“They sure will,” said her husband, smiling. “But only for a day or two, till the case is heard, if you do what I tell you, little girl.”
John kissed her, and patted the fair hair. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he consoled her. “Gentle Jim Andrews is going to hit a snag. Now listen. Just as soon as the sheriff starts down with me to Glendair, you drive the cows over to Stanley Henderson’s place—that’s just twelve miles away from here. You can stop with Stanley’s wife to-night, and come on to Glendair to-morrow, in time for the fun. It’s going to be a mighty game of bluff between me and Jim, and we are going to make all the play. The minute I get to Glendair I shall hire an attorney I know—it’s no good employing the court attorney for the defence. Court attorneys in this country are just penitentiary agents; their job would burn their fingers if they got too many of their clients off. Now just listen very carefully while I tell you what we are going to tell the court.”
John proceeded to unfold in detail his plan of campaign. His young wife was not so enthusiastic about it as he had hoped, but in the end her love overcame her scruples.
The afternoon was still young when Peter Jorsen returned, bringing with him the sheriff and Gentle Jim. It was clear that Pete had not had to ride very far to find those gentlemen.
The moment Lucy set eyes on the big rancher, she knew that, right or wrong, she would do all in her power to defeat the infamous scheme of that towering rascal. Swinging himself from his great horse, Andrews strode to the corral fence, coolly identified his mark on the hide, and stood stroking his tangled gray beard without further speech, watching the Raes from under his frowning bushy brows while his stockman preferred a formal charge of cattle-theft against John, and repeated his version of the morning’s conversation. Rae making no protest, the sheriff duly arrested him.
“Before I go with you,” said John. “I want to show you something.” They followed him to a spot between the corral and the house, and he pointed to the blood-patch on the ground. “You see that, sheriff?”
The sheriff said he saw it.
“Do you see it, Mr. Andrews?" asked Rae.
“Of course I see it. What about it?” said the rancher.
“And you see it too, Pete, don’t you?” said John.
Pete also said he saw it.
Declining to satisfy their curiosity as to his reasons for showing them the mark, Rae said good-bye to his wife, and before night was safely lodged in jail.
TWO days later his case came on for trial. The prosecution deposed that a Hereford steer was missed from Mr. James Andrews’s ranch nearest to Myrtle Spring; that, on inquiry being made, the defendant admitted that he had killed the steer; that the quarters of the animal were found on his premises, three of them already in his brine-barrel, the fourth actually in process of cooking in his house. The identification of the hide was described by Mr. Andrews. The defending attorney put but one question to the witnesses. All agreed that they saw a patch of blood which the defendant showed them between his corral and his house, rather nearer to the house than the corral. It was also not disputed that the defendant offered the meat to Mr. Andrews’s man and to Mr. Andrews. What else could he do, asked the prosecution, taken red-handed as he was?
No case could seem clearer. It appeared that the defendant’s attorney was making an exceptionally poor job even of a hopeless case.
And then John Macdonald Rae took the stand. The court gazed on him with mild interest, not unmixed with good-humored pity, as on a man likely enough to be innocent of the charge against him, but too weak to keep his end up against the powerful influences he had challenged. But gradually the court opened its eyes and its ears.
He related how his wife and he were unable that morning to find their milk cows till long past milking-time, when they turned up, accompanied by the casus belli—that is to say, the steer. Still attended by the steer, they went into the corral, and Mrs. Rae went in to milk them. Before she had fairly got started the steer made a charge at her. In the nick of time she reached fence, climbed over, and ran to the house for her husband. Warming to his narrative, Rae proceeded to describe how he went into the corral to drive the steer out. It was very wild, and charged at him too, and he also had to save himself by the fence. He got over in safety; but as he had left the gate of the corral open, the infuriated steer burst out and chased him round the exterior of the corral. With the mad animal in full pursuit, he made a desperate run for the house, where his wife, seeing his imminent danger, ran pluckily with his rifle to meet him. He swung round, to see the steer within twenty yards of him. “I plugged him. and he dropped in his tracks pretty nearly on top of me,” concluded John in a matter-of-fact tone.
Mr. Rae’s attorney proceeded to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of this plausible story; nor did he omit to emphasize the presence of mind of husband and wife, which had saved them from a danger so threatening, and the thoughtfulness with which they had immediately taken steps to preserve for the owner’s use as much of the meat as was possible in view of the hot weather. He pointed out that Rae had shown the witnesses for the prosecution the bloodpatch where the steer had fallen, that he had offered them the meat and the hide, and that his demeanor throughout had been that of an innocent, not to say injured, man. Mrs. Rae was called, and circumstantially bore out her husband’s version.
From pretty Lucy, too, the eyes of the moralist must be sadly averted. But it is the duty of the chronicler to put no gloss upon facts, and to present Mr. and Mrs. Rae, not as they ought to have been, but as they were.
To say that the court was flabbergasted would be but a, poor description of the effect produced. Judge and jury, sheriff and learned counsel, and witnesses for the prosecution looked at each other. Not all of them were deceived, but they were spell-bound. The whole series of events was too natural, plausible, and indeed obvious, to bear disputing. The evidence was as plain as daylight, and the most venal tribunal could not, in face of such evidence, do other than register an acquittal. Indeed, his honor, in discharging the accused, felt it incumbent on him to compliment him on his behaviour under circumstances which must have been so trying to him. John Macdonald Rae was accordingly discharged, without, as he was assured, a stain upon his character.
OUTSIDE the precincts of the court, the defendant sought a personal interview with the prosecutor. He achieved it in the bar of the “Mint,” where, notwithstanding the towering presence of the ranch king, his entry was the occasion of a general murmur of approval.
Gentle Jim strode to meet his successful rival, and from the vantage of his superior inches regarded him with a wry grin, while he folded his great arms across his ragged beard, and straddled his mighty legs like a colossus. He had been feeling pretty bad when he entered the “Mint,” but the soothing influences of that place of popular assembly had had time to operate, and though he would have sent the homesteader to jail on faked evidence without turning a hair, as a normal operation of ranchers’ war, he was too big a man to bear a paltry grudge.
“Say, Rae,” he remarked at once in the hearing of the company, “that was a dandy bluff of yours. What’s your poison?”
“Now, see here, Jim Andrews,” answered Rae; “I want to ask you a question. Is it to be peace or war?”
“What do you mean? You’re an innocent man, and I’m a mistaken one, aint we?” Jim chuckled, and so did the rest.
“You know what I mean right enough. I want to know whether it’s to be peace or war. I don’t give a darn which. There’s that spring of mine where your stock water. I presume that’s a pretty good spring. Well, if it’s going to be peace, your stock may drink at that spring till they bu’st, and I won’t interfere. But if it’s going to be war, then I run a fence around, and every head of yours that wants a drink is going to pay me a dollar a time, and every beast that crosses my section without permission I’m going to impound, and charge you up a dollar a day for keep. And I shan’t send any special messenger to tell you when there’s one in pound. Get me?”
There was a silence in the bar as he finished.
“I get you,” answered Gentle Jim. “But I don’t see why you should bear malice for a little misunderstanding. Look here; I’m short of hands, and there’s a lot of stuff wants getting up to my home ranch from the city. What do you say to doing a bit of hauling for me?”
“Depends on the pay,” said Rae with ancestral caution.
“I’ll pay you eighty dollars a month and your grub.”
“I’m your man,” said Rae.
“Guess it will be kinder lonely for your wife to stay on the section while you are up at my place,” said Jim. “I’ve got plenty of room, and my wife can do with a bit of help and company. You can drive your cows up to my place while you are with me. They will be all right.”
“I’ll ask my wife,” said Rae.
He talked it over with Lucy on the road home, and was convinced, upon reflection, that the plan promised well. “Jim don’t give up as easy as all that,” he remarked. “We haven’t shaken hands yet, and there’s sure some devilry hatching in that tousled head of his. I’ve a kind of notion what it is, but we’ll learn in time. Meanwhile it’s good money, sweetheart, and, anyhow, it’s up to us to see it through.”
SO it came to pass that John Macdonald Rae enlisted under the standard of A-Lazy-Z. His money was punctually paid; he and his wife were comfortably quartered, and they gave good service. For exactly five months Rae drew his monthly eighty dollars, and on the last day of the fifth month his employer came to him as he was finishing the unloading of a wagon of iron roofing which Rae had brought up that day from the town.
“Say, John,” said Gentle Jim, “there’s a score of sheep to go down to-morrow to Maxson the dealer, and there’s a lot of supplies to come back from the Amalgamated Stores. Guess the Stores people may not have them fixed up in time for you to return the same day. And the team has had some hard work. You had better figure on staying the night in town.” Rae put his hands in his pockets, and looked queerly at his employer, who returned the look with a bland stare.
“Jim Andrews,” said Rae bluntly, “you can go to blazes. You know as well as I do that if I stay away from my place another day you can go and jump my claim, and finish with me for good and all. And you figured on that when you got me to start on this job. And what’s more, I knew you figured on it!”
“Well, first thing to-morrow my wife and I are going to dig out for Myrtle Spring and represent my claim. Get me?” Whether Mr. Andrews got Mr. Rae or not he did not say, for at that moment one of his cow-punchers came galloping up, and flung himself from his horse.
“Mr. Andrews,” he shouted, “your place is afire, blazing to beat the band!”
WITH a great oath Gentle Jim swung round, and looked in the direction of his home. There was no doubt about it. Over the far shoulder of the hill, draped in its pure winter mantle of snow, the fine timber home that was his pride was dark beneath rolling clouds of smoke, through which, here and there, shone a red, angry glow.
Without a word, Andrews threw himself on the waiting horse, and galloped away across the rise. Rae and the cattleman followed at a run. When they reached the house, it was plain that the place was doomed. Fire was pouring from the windows. There was no water in that frozen land; and if there had been, nothing could have saved the structure. The greater part was already a roaring furnace. Every man about the place was hard at work saving what could be saved of the contents. Rae learned that no lives were in danger, though Mrs. Andrews had had a narrow escape, having been brought out unconscious from the fumes.
He found his wife tending the senseless woman in an outhouse, and Gentle Jim standing beside them, staring stonily at the fiery ruin. Almost as Rae arrived, Mrs. Andrews opened her eyes. She shuddered, stared about her wildly, and raised herself on her elbow. The red light from the burning house met her eyes, and suddenly she gave a piercing shriek; “The boy! Frankie! Oh my God, the boy!”
Like a man electrified, Jim sprang at Mrs. Rae and seized her by the arm. “Woman,” he shouted hoarsely, “you told me my boy was safe! You told me he went over to the pinewood with the foreman’s son.”
Held in that fierce grip and faced with those terrible eyes, Lucy went white to the lips. But she faced the maddened giant bravely. “I saw them set out together after dinner. I have not seen them since.”
“Frankie came back in an hour, and said he didn’t feel right. He’s in his bed. Save him! My child! Save him!” The poor mother’s wail was dreadful. She struggled in vain to rise.
“I’ll save him, girl, or I’ll die!” cried Jim. He rushed from the barn, and Rae followed. Well he guessed the awful agony of the stricken parents, for the devotion of Gentle Jim to this his darling only child was the one characteristic about him that his nickname did not satirize. But well Rae knew, too, how small was the hope of any living thing surviving in the glowing furnace before them.
THE only portion of the great house which was not by this time completely engulfed was the south-west angle, and even here the heat was terrible, and the smoke was rolling in volumes. The wind was from the south-west, and all the ranch hands were over on the opposite, lee side of the house, striving to prevent the spread of the fire to the out-buildings on that side. Andrews and Rae were alone together.
“That’s the room,” cried Gentle Jim, in a voice that Rae hardly recognized, pointing to a window over twenty feet from the ground. Wildly he shouted, “Frankie!”
Tongues of flame were licking round the angle. Minutes, if not seconds, would see the last bit of the structure going up in the universal blaze. A frightful anguish was in the father’s face as the red light played upon it. To fetch a ladder would take time, and there was no time. “The piano, Jim!” cried Rae. "Quick, man!"
There was a large piano that someone had salved from the house, and left in haste standing out in the slush of the melted snow. The two strong men seized it, and carried it as if it had been a rush chair to a point just under the window. The glare scorched their skins as they did so.
“Up-end it, Jim! Up-end it!” shouted Rae.
They turned it up on one end, so that the other lay like a narrow platform some seven feet from the ground. Andrews climbed up on the instrument, and stretched his great arms towards the window. They reached a full six feet short of the ledge. The madness of despair was in his eyes as he glared down.
“Stand firm,” cried Rae, “while I climb on your shoulders. You can carry me, but I can’t carry you.” While he spoke he was scrambling up. Standing on the giant’s shoulders, with his hands against the scorching, smoking wall, he was still almost a foot below the ledge.
“Let me step on your hands, Jim, and hoist me up. Steady, boy; steady!”
Leaning on the wall to keep his balance, he felt his feet gripped strongly, till the mighty arms of the rancher were at full stretch below him, and he took firm hold of the sill. The window was closed, and as he smashed the glass with his naked fist the smoke belched out in his face. Next minute, bleeding and half-blinded, he was in the room, groping in the hot, choking darkness for the bed. Through the floor-planking the hungry flame-tongues were curling about his feet. He stumbled against a chair and overturned it. He felt his senses going, but it seemed to him that the chair fell soft. He stooped, and touched a child’s hair.
Catching up the little body, he blundered for very life to the window, and thrust it through. “Jim! Jim!” he called. Smoke and flame were writhing beneath him now. Tongues of red and yellow shot out from the house wall. Through them he had a glimpse of the upturned face of Gentle Jim.
“Drop him straight, Rae!” came up in a hoarse cry.
Rae dropped him straight. The father caught him, and with the child in his arms leaped clear to the ground, the piano overbalancing as he did so.
DARKNESS rushed down on Rae. The noise of shouting mingled with the crackling of the fire as he struggled, gashing his hands and arms on the jagged glass, to get out of the window. It seemed that he fought that gasping fight for endless hours. He knew he was falling among fiery tongues. What was it they kept saying, those tongues of flame?
“He’s coming to! John, John, my dear!”
John Macdonald Rae could not see very well. His eyes hurt him horribly. But undoubtedly it was his wife’s face, all smiling, Lucy's blue eyes, full of tears, that looked down at him.
“Oh, thank God!” he heard her say, and as he tried to sit up her arm was round his neck, supporting him.
John felt pretty stiff, but he sat up, and recognized the barn where he had left Mrs. Andrews screaming for her boy. Mrs. Andrews was there, sure enough, with the little seven-year-old Frankie on her knees, looking rather white, but otherwise unhurt.
“Your leg’s broken, John,” said Lucy, and indeed Rae had just observed that his left leg was in splints. As he tried to move it now it gave him a nasty twinge.
A strange, uncouth figure came striding to the heap of straw whereon John was lying. Its neck and one side of its face were swathed in bandages, and what was left of the face was red and blistered, and shiny with oil. Its great beard was singed half off. It frowned at him with streaming eyes.
“That was a darnation close call,” it said. “You’ll be six weeks in hospital, Rae.”
John stared up at the figure that towered over him. “Guess you’ll be able to jump my claim after all, Jim Andrews,” he said, and smiled foolishly.
“Curse the claim!” said Gentle Jim. “God bless you, Rae. When you come out of hospital, you can figure on a half-interest in the A-Lazy-Z outfit, if you care to come. Shake!” He thrust out a great arm, singed, and raw in places.
John Macdonald Rae shook.