CALBERT stood grim and solid in a level waste of prairie that stretched to the horizon in the east, and was held by the gigantic wall of the Rockies in the west; a monotonous stretch furzed by short, crisp grass that suggested premature baldness.
The town’s long Main Street was lined by square gray stone buildings that gave it the appearance of a canyon running between the cliff dwellings of Aztecs. This nucleus of a coming Chicago had been built by the purse sweat of men as supremely indifferent to care as any Aztec; they belonged to the tribe, “Remittance Men”; a joyous tribe that would have turned St. Helena into a Coney Island.
When the blue-black vault that domed Calbert, spangled with silver stars, had bleached to grayness, and then to shimmering green shot with streamers of red; and the solar god had pushed up beyond the rim of tawny plain a palette of vivid color that splashed the white hoary heads of the snow range with gold and scarlet and purple dreams, meant nothing ®f grace; it was just a first blast on the bugle of day that called for a leg thrown across a broncho.
Jack Enders, one of these tribesmen, was imbued with a conviction that any indebtedness to Fate should be paid off with a laugh, consequently disaster, retribution, hovered at his Pierrot heels.
He had but put over a momentous affair of life, the atrocious escapade of marooning on the midnight prairie six trusting English youths armed with landing nets to bag apocryphal snipe, supposed to be attracted by their lanterns, which should have brought him a mobbing, when Nemesis handed him a telegram from Montreal imparting the horrifying information that his father, Sir George Enders, would arrive in Calbert on the 13th.
Jack should have murmured “Dear old pater, I’m so glad”; but what he did say was, “Heavens, I’m ruined! The pater!”
Sir George would expect to find the ranch Jack had described with a vivid imaginative embellishment in his letters home; a ranch decorated with herds of full fed steers; a ranch house, its interior finished off in blood-red cedar, a hall modeled on the dark oak hallway in the manor at home. Jack had fancied this touch would show that he was still an Enders, an aristocratic Enders.
It was the appalling facts that horrified him: the herds were as invisible as the defunct buffalo; the palatial ranch house was a groggy log shack in which he seldom homed; the acres were there sleeping in the sun undisturbed by plebian toil.
And Sir George would want to know where all the remittance money had gone. That Jack could truthfully point to the gray stone buildings didn’t matter—they were not an asset; not a stone was in his name, hard headed Canadians were the proprietors.
ON THE last day of his reprieve, the twelfth, Enders sought out the blond giant, FitzHerbert, in the Victoria Hotel, and enlarged on his troubles.
“What shall I do, Fitz?” Jack appealed; “think up something.”
“You can’t bolt, and there isn’t a damn thing left but to face the music,” the blond giant answered. “Just tell him it’s the usual caper here; blame it on me if you like—say I led you astray; tell him the fellows are like that; we were never cut out to be successful ranchers.”
“You don’t know my gov’nor,” Jack wailed, “and you don’t know Grace.”
“Sister coming, too?”
“My cousin, the pater’s ward. He’s cherishing the idea that I’ll marry Grace because she’s got a million in her own right.”
“Phew-w-w! a million!”
“You needn’t phew so hungrily, Fitz; and for that matter the Gov’nor might just as well let his idea go blooey, for Grace was never in love with but one man— Bulldog Carney.”
FitzHerbert gasped; then he put a hand on Jack’s chin and drew his face into view. “Let me have a look at you, youngster; have you had a drink? Where did she ever see Bulldog Carney, gentleman outlaw?”
“Hang it! I didn’t mean to let that out. Bulldog Carney was Dane Cavendish in London.”
“By the saints! the man that set the clubs gossiping when he went smash? I remember that gup. Just when all the chaps were giving him the cut courteous, his debts were paid up to the last I.O.U., and, it was whispered, by a woman.”
“That was a blubby lie,” Enders retorted. “You know Carney—he wouldn’t have stood for that.”
“Not if he could have stopped it; and he did do the proper caper—cut it, disappeared.”
“And it wasn’t Cavendish’s fault, the debts,” Enders contributed; “he had expectations, bully ones; his uncle, Lord Ivadale—Dane was next in line—had gone through everything, nobody knew it, there wasn’t a sou marque left when the old chap cracked his brittle neck riding to hounds. Being a penniless lord was worse than nothing —fancy Dane looked at it that way.”
“By Jove! then Bulldog is really Lord Ivadale—he looks it—class.”
“But what shall I do, Fitz, about the Gov’nor?”
“I’ve got an idea. If you could rent a proper ranch, cattle and all, for a week—”
“What ranch could we rent?”
“By gad! there we are—stumped! There isn’t one; not one of the fellows has got a ranch up to the specifications of your fool letters home; and of course the Bar XX is out of the question; you couldn’t get it.”
THEY were interrupted by the swing of an opening door, and a tall, lithe, lean-faced man entered, the high heels of his riding boots tapping the floor with a suggestion of decision.
“Hello, Bulldog Carney,” Enders greeted.
“You chaps got any trout flies?” Carney queried.
“I've got a book of flies,” Jack declared; “preserving them—too busy to waste my time fishing.” Carney produced a slip of paper and read, “Jock Scott, Silver Doctor, Parmachene Belle—McNab wants them and the H. B. Company hasn’t got any.”
“McNab?” FitzHerbert laughed: “Taking the old Scot out for his annual? Got the bait, Carney?”
Bulldog nodded, “A gallon jug.”
“Delightful system,” FitzHerbert drawled; “the Scotch are wonderful. He won’t let a man on his ranch bring home even a strong breath—he’d fire him. For eleven months and fifteen days McNab observes Lent, then this trout junket.”
“He’s to be admired,” Carney declared.
“Sheila is,” FitzHerbert corrected; “she twists her pater about her finger. McNab would suffer drouth till he was drier than a red herring rather than let Sheila see him take a horn.”
“Don’t blame him,” Ender said.
“Rather! Sheila’s the sweetest spin in this god-forsaken land. Never saw a woman could sit a horse like that girl, nor sit a chair in a drawing-room with more grace.
“Oh, I say, Fitz, you’re off-side.”
“Don’t mind me, youngster—I’m not cutting in; nobody could. If Sheila likes a man he needn’t worry about anybody else. And I believe that McNab’s happiest thought over that ripping ranch is that it will be Sheila’s.” But the blond giant stopped, stared at Carney, brought the palm of his hand down on the table with a smack, and exclaimed, “By Jove! by Jove!”
Carpey wag accustomed to this sort of thing, irrelevance—shooting off at tangents, so he sat leisurely rolling a cigarette.
“Carney,” FitzHerbert said, after a touch of mental revision, “how well do you know McNab’s foreman?”
“I know Dan Ross in the right way—trailed with him, when one blanket covered the two of us.”
“I’ve got an idea, Carney—
“So had Jack about the snipe.”
“But I’m ghastly in earnest,” FitzHerbert declared solemnly. “Our bargee friend here is in no end of a hole; his Gov’nor will be here to-morrow to view with paternal pride Jack’s ranch.”
Carney blew a whiff of smoke and said: “Better come up to the hills with us, Jack. But you have got a ranch, haven’t you?”
“You know Jack,” FitzHerbert reminded—“you’ve listened to some of his yarns—imaginative cuss. Well, he’s written home letters about his ranch—you know what they’d be like.”
“Fancy I do. I say, Jack, I’ve got a tidy stake in the bank; I could transfer to your account enough to cover the remittances you’ve had for a couple of years, and you could say that you’d sold out.”
“Thanks; that wouldn’t do; the Gov’nor is a touch mired in some B.C. mines, and he’d commandeer the lot.”
“This is a better idea,” FitzHerbert declared; “Sheila is away at school, McNab will be with you, and if you can fix Dan Ross, Jack could have the Gov’nor visit him at the Bar Thistle Ranch for a few days, and the nightingales would sing again: nobody hurt, a nice old gentleman’s heart not broken, and Calbert wouldn’t get a discolored orb. We’ve got to keep the name of this home town clean, haven’t we, Carney—patriotic stuff?”
CARNEY chuckled. ‘‘You should have been in the diplomatic service, Fitz; you’re wasted out here.”
“Give me a leg up, Bulldog,” Enders pleaded; “nobody will know except Fitz.”
“It’ll come out,” Carney objected; “but from your point of view, Jack, the game is worth the candle: and all I live for, of course, is just to get my friends out of trouble—that’s what they think.”
“Will you do it, Carney?” Jack persisted.
“I’ll square Dan Ross,” Bulldog declared, “and you two can carry on this fool thing. When McNab finds out about it you can take an affectionate farewell of Sheila, if I’m any judge.”
Enders reached across and gripped Carney’s hand, and in a voice almost choked by gratitude, said, “I’ll do as much for you someday.”
“No, you won’t. You keep away; my affairs get tangled enough without your fingers in the pie.” He shoved back his chair, saying: “I’m off. I’ll trail out to the Bar Thistle, and have a chat with Dan Ross; I’ll meet you here in the evening to get the book of flies.”
When Carney had gone the conspirators elaborated on the plan of their endeavor.
“Lawyer Reagan has got a car,” Enders said, “and I can borrow it, for Reagan is going to Regina on a case and will be away three or four days. I’ll meet the Gov’nor and Grace, and whirl them out to the Bar Thistle in great shape. You come along, Fitz; we’ll take Dan Ross a box of good cigars— Oh, I say, I want you to do something for me; make the running as strong you can with Grace; the Gov’nor has brought her along just to pull off his coup over that million; I know the old top thinks that Grace will give in when she sees how wonderful I am—ranch and all. I won’t have a minute’s peace.”
“I don’t want to be snubbed,” the blond giant demurred.
“You won’t be—at least you won’t know it; Grace has a way with her, I can tell you. And she has a penchant for decorative chaps—likes to have them skirmishing about.”
“Amuses her, eh? Deuced trying for the frogs though. Why didn’t you tell Bulldog she was coming—you didn’t mention it?”
“I was afraid I’d let it slip—too many things hanging, you know. Carney would know I had let his tabby out of the bag, and he might not want to go off to the hills if he knew Grace would be here. Don’t cut it, Fitz, play up— we’re in this thing together.”
“I’m afraid we are. There’s no help for it now.”
NEXT day when Enders met his pater with a car, Sir George was indeed pleased: his son was evidently going strong.
But when Jack, after introducing FitzHerbert, sought to arrange the seating of his passengers, putting Grace and FitzHerbert in the tonneau, Sir George, with a look at the handsome blond giant, vetoed this. “You sit with Jack, Grace,” he said; “you haven’t seen each other for a year or two.”
Jack was afraid of his cousin; those blue eyes—or were they gray?—were deuced disconcerting; they had always been upsetting when he was covering up things—too clever: he wished she hadn’t come.
AS THEY turned from the station to swirl up the long street, Sir George, with a sweep of his arm, said: “Wonderful town stuck here in the boundless waste. What industry has furnished the capital to build such structures?”
Jack, his attention suddenly taken from the manipulation of the car, blurted, “Remittance money, they say.” Then he gasped, and added, “The chaps who have come out from home have capital, and they can finance things; they’re building up this country.”
Sir George’s rotund countenance flushed with pleasure; that was little old England, developing the outposts of the mighty empire.
“It’s a nice run of twenty miles to the Bar Thistle Ranch,” FitzHerbert volunteered by way of distraction.
“ ‘Bar Thistle?’ I thought you called your ranch the Bar E, Jack?” Sir George commented.
FitzHerbert shivered; he had already made a flivver.
“Had to change it, sir!” Jack threw over his shoulder. “A man, not too over particular, had a brand Bar B; the touch of a hot iron and my steers were his.”
Perspiration commenced to ooze out on Ender’s forehead; questions were the very devil—he’d have to be careful.
And Grace expressed her astonishment at the deadly uninteresting aspect of the land—it was a barren wilderness. The wonderful ranch houses and herds of cattle she had expected were not visible; she wanted to know where the industries that had built up Calbert were hidden.
As they clattered by what seemed to be more or less of a habitation, a nucleus of endeavor, a log shack leaning groggily away from the persistent push of the always west wind, its white clay chinking between the walls causing it to look like a horizontally-striped zebra, she asked, “Does anybody live in that hovel?”
It was FitzHerbert’s ranch: Jack smothered a groan.
“The chap that owns that is a very busy man,” he declared.
“Fixing it up, I suppose,” Grace suggested; then she laughed.
“He has other interests that keep him very busy,” Jack explained. “That land is just a speculation with him; it’ll be worth a lot of money some day when the irrigation scheme goes through.”
“That’s the idea,” Sir George cried; “there’s nothing like land; but it takes a far seeing man to get in in time and a patient one to wait.”
“That’s the Bar Thistle,” FitzHerbert said, as, topping an uplift in the prairie they discovered a group of buildings that, even at a distance, conveyed an impression of stability, of thrift. And off to the right, in a flat, they could see a large herd of corpulent animals browsing.
“Cows or buffalo?” and Sir George swept an arm in the direction of the feeding beasts.
“A herd of beeves ready for shipment,” Jack answered proudly.
He heard Sir George’s “By Jove!” of satisfaction, and wished that Grace would keep her mouth shut, for she had queried, “How many herds have you, Jack?”
“Well, you see,” he answered guardedly, “the steers are scattered now out in different draws—coulees, you know. They’re only rounded up when we brand.”
THE ranch house, as they swung up to it from the trail that trickled off like a chocolate ribbon toward the horizon, was reassuring. There was an atmosphere of refined care enveloping the domicile and the drive, that puzzled Grace; it wasn’t a bit like her cousin, this thing. A border of strong-growing full-flowered golden glow was strung either side from gate to porch, as if somebody had trickled sovereigns by the wayside and they had sprung up to flower in gold. There were beds of petunias— mottled rugs of purple and pink and white, little yellow-faced marigolds with their delightful old-time perfume of reminiscence so secretively held; the soothing, soft perfume of mignonette floated up graciously, and against the porch a lattice carried up a rich film of sweet peas.
All this beauty, its care, was not Jack—not by any means—hardly any man’s; it suggested a woman’s care: a woman heart sick of the desolate waste, draping her home in garments of delight.
Suddenly she asked, “Who did all this—a woman, of course?”
Enders, framing in his mind just how he would start off in taking possession was found with a weak defence. “Ah, the flower beds, that’s Sheila—” he broke off with a gasp.
And Grace asked, “Who is Sheila?”
Sir George pricked his ears.
Enders floundered on: “McNab’s daughter. You see McNab had this ranch—I got it from him. He—he got behind.”
“Jove! you’ve done wonders then, boy; it looks prosperous now,” Sir George commented.
“Yes, I’ve worked hard. (Confound those gray eyes)!” he muttered inwardly. “McNab went a little queer—the solitude does that for a fellow, and books—religious books.”
“Is Sheila here now, Jack?” Grace asked innocently.
“No; she’s away with her father.”
Jack had brought the car up with a jerk that almost threw them out on their heads—there were so many things to think of. Just at that instant he wouldn’t have been half sorry if Grace had taken a header.
But even debouched from the car, and in the sitting room. Grace seemed possessed of that devil of inquisitiveness. The room was so tidy, and yet so homelike, cretonne the backbone of the whole thing. She discovered surreptitiously that the big arm chairs, the lounge, had been made from packing boxes draped into secrecy of origin by cretonne of a neutral scheme of flower decoration; the gauzy sash curtains were dainty. If Sheila, mother of all this woman touch, had been away with her father since Jack had come into possession, some three or four years, how was it that, knowing Cousin Jack, things had not slipped? It really didn’t matter, however. Sheila or no Sheila made not the slightest difference to her, only she was glad that Sir George was not of an observing, suspicious nature. She knew that even three days at the ranch would bore her—was really glad FitzHerbert was there ; it would help.
The day went swimmingly. Sir George was bubbling over with enthusiasm for everything; the Chinese chef was good; the food was good— prairie chicken, the pin-tailed grouse, full-breasted and done to a turn, having been properly hung—tickled his epicurean palate. He got on well with the foreman, Dan Ross, for he was not fussy, not inquisitive; when he did ask a question taking Ross’s qualified answers in good faith. The Scot, Ross, had a latent sense of humor, and the play amused him. Anyway, if Bulldog wanted it done he would have used a gun to carry the thing through if necessary.
HIS cattle wranglers had been schooled to consider Enders as their actual boss for a few days. Besides, the English girl appealed to them, no side. And she could ride, which would have wiped out a big score of offending things. To see her swing over the prairie with the blond giant at a racing clip was great. She was almost as much the right sort as Sheila, and they did love Sheila.
Grace had almost put Sheila out of her mind; and evidently, by some curious necromancy, Fate had cast her cousin in a new role. To have accomplished this metamorphosis in himself, Jack was wonderful.
The very next day the first thing happened—Sheila arrived in Calbert unexpectedly. There w'as no conveyance to meet her; and all because Carney had been given her telegram to her father to deliver, had put it in his pocket, and in the turmoil of arranging Jack’s affairs, and his own trip, had forgotten all about it.
Sheila was mad, very mad. She had a bit of her father’s peppery temper: expressly angry when she learned that her telegram had been delivered. She didn’t sit down with her hands in her lap, she engaged Nobby White, who kept a livery stable, to drive her out to the Bar Thistle.
Men of the West don’t talk much; perhaps the stoicism of the Indian was really a product of the great silent stretches of prairie; certain it is that Nobby White could have informed Sheila that there were visitors at the Bar Thistle, but he didn’t.
As he cramped the Red River buckboard for a return, and flicked the rumps of his pair, Sheila ran up the steps, and on the verandah stood stock still staring. A rosy-faced rotund man, dressed in an extraordinary Bond Street get-up, was dozing placidly in a big chair. Probably it was some big cattle buyer calling on her father.
She passed through an open door into the sitting-room, and just across the threshold she stood stock still again. Sitting at a table reading a book was another foreigner, a tall, classy-looking girl.
Sheila coughed, and the girl, lowering the book, raised her eyes. Sheila didn’t like the eyes; they were gray, a touch hard, a touch supercilious.
The girl rose stiffly, put the book down back up to preserve her place, and asked; “Did you wish to see Mr. Enders?” Her tone was as steely as her eyes, for she resented the abrupt intrusion, no knock; felt intuitively that it was Sheila.
“Mister Enders—why should l wish to see Jack Enders? I’m looking for Dad.”
“Oh, his Dad; you’ll find him out on the verandah.” Sheila laughed. “That fat gentleman in knickers my Dad?”
A light penetrated Miss Thornadyke’s mind. This undoubtedly was the Sheila girl. “That fat gentleman is my uncle, Sir George—”
But Sheila had swirled through the door and was heading for the stables. In the corral she saw the overseer Ross, trying to cinch a saddle on to a restive bronc held by the ear by an assistant.
“Dan,” she called through the high fence of poplar poles, “where’s Dad?”
Dan let the cinch girth slip from between his teeth, and the saddle, with a vigorous thrust from the cayuse, went up in the air. He turned toward that startling voice; a look of dismay in his eyes.
“Where’s Dad, Dan?” Sheila repeated crossly.
“He’s not about just now, Miss Sheila,” Ross answered hesitatingly.
“Why didn’t he send somebody to meet me?”
“Guess he forgot. I didn’t get no orders.”
Sheila suddenly cocked an ear toward the stable, she had heard voices. “Dad in there?” she asked.
“I don’t guess there’s nobody in the stable;” Ross answered evasively.
AND just then the voice of the blond giant came to her ears saying, “Jack, if this ever comes out, your goose is cooked with Sheila, cooked to a turn.”
A crimson flush suffused the girl’s face, and the next instant FitzHerbert came gaily out—one look at the girl and his gaiety vanished.
“Sheila!” he gasped—“Miss McNab, I should say.”
“Yes, Miss McNab, please remember that; I’m not Sheila to you nor Mr. Enders, and you can tell him there is no goose to cook.”
“You—you heard that foolish—” .
“I heard it. And what does all this mean—what’s to come out? Why is the Bar Thistle a rendez-vous for all sorts of people?”
“Come out here, Jack,” FitzHerbert commanded, “you have got to explain.”
Enders crawled forth, and stood, his Stet hat in his hand.
“Well?” Sheila demanded, her eyes blazing with wrath.
“You tell her, Fitz,” Enders pleaded.
Enders gazed hopelessly around the full circumference of the horizon. If by a miracle Carney could only swoop down on them he’d fix things.
“Well?” Sheila reiterated, tapping a neat foot on the earth.
FitzHerbert saw that Enders was hopeless, so he began: “You see, Miss McNab—”
“I don’t—I don’t! tell me what all this means. Nobody to meet me at the station, and when I manage to get here, a fat old man sleeping on the verandah, and a girl in possession within, patronizing me with her fish eyes. Where’s Dad? I’ve got something to say to him! ”
“Don’t doubt it, Miss McNab; but first let me explain; you’re a good sort.”
“Am I? Well, I know how to cook a goose anyway.”
Then FitzHerbert explained matters, all the time swearing it was a foolish draw, but it was done to pull Jack out of a hole that would have ruined him. When he got Sheila to sit down on an upturned bucket he felt that he was getting on.
Enders, when he could think of something to say, thrust in a begging plea, told her McNab had gone with Carney fishing, and so possibly hadn’t got her message, and that Sir George and his cousin Grace would only be there a day or two. That they didn’t mean any harm; upon his honor they didn’t mean any harm.
Suddenly they were aware that Sheila was rocking about on the bucket, her sides quivering, and her lips stifling a laugh. It was infectious. The blond giant cried out, “Oh, my aunt!” and slapped his thigh, adding, “I never thought of that Shei—Miss McNab, I mean; it’s just like things one has seen on the stage, comedy. I never looked at its humorous twist, I didn’t, honest; we were fearsomely in earnest, save a pal, you know. Sir George would have cut Jack off if we hadn’t done something, and he’d have gone back a broken old man—think of it, a broken old man!”
FITZHERBERT dwelt on this, it seemed such a strong A Plea; and Sheila surely had a heart, All Sheila’s anger was gone. It had really been engendered by supposed neglect, now that was all explained. She liked FitzHerbert any woman would, he was such a big handsome boy; and she liked Enders all sorts of ways.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked presently.
“Just pretend that Jack owns the ranch; see?”
“Oh, that’s all. Will anybody believe it?”
“Sir George is, well, I might say confiding,” FitzHerbert assured her.
“That girl isn’t; you couldn’t fool her.”
“She’s a good sport, Miss Sheila; she won’t say a Word, even if she suspects.”
“Ah,” and Sheila raised her eyes to the blond giant’s, “you’ve already formed a high opinion of her, young man.”
"Jack told me about her,” he answered evasively.
“And where’ll I go—sleep in the stable?” Sheila demanded; “won’t the young lady, who seems so precise, think it odd, at least, to see a girl camping in Jack’s house?”
“By Jove! never thought of that. Of course you’ve got to stay right here and help.”
“I know,” Jack interspersed. “I told the Gov’nor I’d bought this ranch from your Dad; the flowers and things got me in for that.”
“That’s the caper,” FitzHerbert announced; “you expected your father to be here for a visit, and you’re remaining on as hostess.”
“But what if Dad comes back with all this—”
“He won’t; but if he does Carney’ll be with him; he’ll fix it up someway with your dad;” FitzHerbert added; “he’s wonderful at fixing things.”
“Let’s go back to the house,” Enders suggested, “and I'll present you formally to Grace and the pater.”
"That girl gives me the shivers,” Sheila declared.
“She’s really spiffin,” Enders objected, “diffident at first, shy—”
“Shy?” Sheila jeered.
“She is, English standoffishness at first, Sheila; but you’ll like her; FitzHerbert does already.”
“I know he does. But come on, Jack, let’s get it over.” Sir George had wakened, and when he saw the attractive Sheila, Jack’s hand through her arm, he frowned. Devilish odd how people evidently rained down on them out of the seeming waste.
And Sheila was surprised to find the fish-eyed woman most gracious, and possessed of a winning smile when her cousin explained that Sheila had expected to find her father there.
And when Grace went into raptures over the artistic furnishings made out of such ordinary stuff, later, Sheila concluded that she had been a trifle hasty in her judgment.
AFFAIRS were once more going swimmingly according to Enders, for Sheila dipped into the farce with an abandon of joy; she arranged things with a bustling exactness.
Still nobody can sit on a powder keg in perfect equanimity, and there was a hectic something in the atmosphere all the time; even Sir George, phlegmatic in a special heaven of satisfaction, was unduly restless. The handsome blond giant was always monopolizing Grace, and Jack was eternally tagging after the vivacious prairie girl. Jack had always been a bit of an ass about women, Sir George knew, a real woman like Grace somehow not appealing to him. He tried to correct these things but was always outwitted. And he spoke to Jack about calling his overseer “Dan”; it would destroy discipline. “That’s the devil of England just now,” he said, “everything going to the dogs because the classes are running together.”
And Enders had answered, “Why, sir, if I were to say to Dan, ‘See here, my good fellow’ he’d pull his freight to-morrow. Why, pater, Dan won the championship at the last rondo in Calbert, roped his steer, tied him hoof and horn in five seconds less than any other. Dan’s a big man in this country. D’you know what McNab pays that man—” There it was again—the spilled beans.
“McNab?” Sir George said in a puzzled way; “what has he to do with it?”
But Jack, nimble of wit, answered, “Dan came to me with the ranch, you know, sir; McNab was paying him a hundred a month, all found, and of course I had to keep it up.”
Sir George twisted this into pounds, declaring it was too much altogether for any ordinary working man too much.
No spectre sat in at dinner with the strangely assembled guests of the Bar Thistle. Grace had really taken a great fancy for Sheila. The girl had that rare jewel of class, naturalness; and McNab had parted with the loved sixpence willingly in giving her every advantage that schooling and association could bestow. She was brimming over with vivacity; her merry laugh and dancing black eyes were as intoxicating as wine.
All this made Sir George groan; he knew what it would do to Jack ; he felt Grace’s million pounds slipping through his fingers. By gad! he’d cut the visit short; he’d carry Grace off the next day. That too deuced handsome FitzHerbert was a danger; no doubt Jack had told his friend about the money. But he would put his foot down about Sheila before he went; none of that!
HE HAD a little talk with the son after dinner. He began: “Didn’t you tell me, Jack, that this McNab was flighty, flooey about things?”
Enders stared, he had forgotten this; then he answered remembering, “Fancy I did, sir; business worries and reading religious books—a sort of religious mania.”
"Too bad, too bad,” Sir George said mournfully; “but I want to point out something. This Sheila girl, I can see, has designs on you and this magnificent ranch.”
“Oh, lord, sir!” Jack exploded, “she doesn’t care a rap for me, that’s the deuce of it.”
“Eh, what! She’s drawing you on—I can see it. But I want to warn you that insanity is hereditary.”
Jack cupped a hand over his mouth and writhed. “McNab’s daughter will inherit his mental weakness; it would be dreadful to be married to an insane woman." They were interrupted by the approach of Dan Ross who said, “Jack, would you step down to the bunk house?” “Certainly,” Enders answered, glad to escape.
“My word!” Sir George groaned: “ ‘Jack’ to his master! What are we coming to!”
“Come this way,” Ross said, as they plodded through the dim light.
Half hidden behind the stable stood a horseman impatiently flicking at his chapps with a quirt.
“Heavens!” Enders exclaimed, "you, Carney! What’s happened?”
“Has McNab arrived?” Bulldog queried.
“McNab—great ghost, man, is he on the trail?”
“He is, and I’ve ridden like the devil to head him off. You and your fool party have got to pull your freight to-night, pronto.”
For a second Enders was speechless. Was there ever such a happening!
But Carney was explaining rapidly: “The morning we pulled out I got a telegram for McNab, and with the trouble of this crazy thing and my own supplies, forgot all about it.” This morning looking through my coat for matches I found the deuced telegram. McNab had gone to sleep pretty late; I know I dropped off and he was still spouting Bobby Burns—pretty mellow he was. So thinking his temper would be none too sweet I stuck the message in the cork of the jug and trailed off to the trout stream, thinking he’d be cooled out when I got back. He was—he’d pulled his freight —gone, and not a pencil line left. Damn mad, I should say, for there was the little brown jug tipped on its side, the cork out—”
“Heavens!” Jack ejaculated.
“Just that; McNab dancing a Highland fling in his rage had lost his luggage.”
“That telegram was from Sheila—she’s here,” Jack explained.
“Well cheer up, Jack, McNab will soon be here also, and to-morrow you’ll be on your way to Stoney Mountain jail.”
“What’re we going to do, Carney?” Enders wailed; “think up something. We can’t pull out in the night, and if we stay Sir George will have apoplexy—he’s threatened with it.”
“Well I figure that I outrode McNab about two hours,” Carney said; “my buckskin would beat his old pinto that much from the Little Squaw to here on the trail, but I took a short cut across the prairie.”
“Sheila’s in on it,” Enders declared.
“You’ve told her? I was wondering.”
“Had to. I’ve got it—I’ve got it!” Enders exclaimed suddenly. “I told the Gov’nor that I bought this ranch from McNab because he’d gone a bit loco— d’you see?”
“That’ll certainly help,” Carney concurred; “when McNab finds out you’ve said he is crazy it’ll certainly help.”
“No, but don’t you see, Bulldog, McNab is expected here on a visit—we made that up to account for Sheila’s presence— and if I can tip off the gov’nor that McNab has an hallucination that he still owns the ranch, and to humor him— don’t you see?”
“I’m damned if I do. What about Sheila?”
“I’ll get Sheila to say she invited us here.”
“You poor maverick! I’d like to ask you one question: Who’s loony now?”
“We’ve got to do it,” Enders pleaded, “got to—got to take a chance. Sheila’s a sport through and through; she’ll stick. She needn’t know what we’re doing. Come on in, Carney, and I’ll get busy. You knew the Gov’nor.”
CARNEY led his buckskin to the corral, took the bridle and saddle off, saying, “Now, Pat, you just have a nice roll in the sand, and He flat on your belly for an hour.”
Enders bustled into the sitting-room saying cheerily: “Got a visitor, you people.” He looked straight into Grace’s face, and shot a prodigious wink at his cousin, adding, “Grace, you knew Mr. Carney at home.”
The girl had risen, and her face had gone ghastly white as Carney, stepping forward, held out a hand. She tried to speak, she couldn’t; her fingers lying in Carney’s palm were cold, trembling. She slipped back into the chair, and Sheila’s black eyes read it all, the mute thing was as plain as if she had picked up a letter.
When Carney was introduced to Sir George, Jack saw, with relief, that his pater had not recognized him as Cavendish; indeed Sir George was so troubled over the dribbling influx of people that his observation was turned inward, scanning his own vexations.
Jack, throbbing with anxiety, had just said, “May I see you for a minute, Sheila?” when he was startled by the clatter of footsteps on the verandah, and next instant a dust-covered, dishevelled figure thrust into the room, a small, wiry man, his face streaked with caked black dust, his gray bristly hair touseled like the mane of a cayuse, and an unnatural fire in his eye.
Jack’s heart stood still; Carney groaned, the groan trickling off into a chuckle; here was the end of the brilliant thing—an exploded farce.
Sir George was muttering, “Well, I’m damned! devilish odd country!”
The man seemed to see only Sheila, whose face had blanched at the sudden eruption. He darted forward and threw his arms around the girl, saying: “Dearie, I didna get your wire and I’m verra sorry you were no met up wi’. That damn Carney—”
But Sheila had clapped a hand over his mouth and turned him about saying, “I’ve been quite all right, Dad. I’ve had good company. This is Sir George Enders, Jack’s father; my father, Mr. McNab, Sir George.” Then he was presented to Grace.
And Sir George was thinking that Jack had minimized the insanity taint—old McNab was as mad as a March hare, he looked it; nobody but a crazy man would have thrust in to another man’s house in that deuced informal way—familiar, it was, devilish familiar.
Then McNab proved that he had hallucinations. “I’m verra sorry I was away, Sir George,” he said; “I didna anticipate this honor of a visit. I hope Sheila’s made you comfortable.”
Sir George stared, and Grace declared that Sheila was an excellent hostess.
“Now, Dad,” Sheila said, “you must come to your room for a change, and you do need a wash.”
“You’re right, Sheila, I fear I’m no verra presentable,” he acquiesced. “I’ve pounded the trail for a full sixty miles to-day, sir,” he levelled at Sir George, “a mad ride it was.”
And as he was led away by his daughter, Sir George thought: “Mad is the correct word. Most extraordinary, most extraordinary! If a band of Indians would only drift in on us now we’d feel quite at home. Wonderful country!”
In the room Sheila explained to McNab that she had invited Jack’s father and cousin to the Bar Thistle as poor Jack had no place to put them up except the hotel; and they wanted to see ranch life. And McNab declared he was very pleased she had done so.
JACK had pulled a chair up beside Sir George, and Carney and Grace had drifted out to the verandah.
“I think, Jack, we’ll go early in the morning,” Sir George began.
Enders managed to smother his joy, and expostulated; he knew his pater fairly well, knew that Sir George wouldn’t brook interference, advice.
“You had better come with us as far as Banff, Jack; we’ll spend a few days there.”
“I can’t go, sir, Mr. McNab and Sheila here.”
“I’ll be candid, son—that’s why you are coming. And thank God, that blond fiction hero won’t be in the way. You’ve simply got to make up to Grace, got to, I tell you, boy; things aren’t going any too well with me. We’re taxed to death at home; it’s a rotten country, rotten government. I invested money—too much—in the Gold Moon Mine in British Columbia. I was had. That’s why I made this trip, going out there to see if I can pull any of it out of the fire. I could thank God, Jack, that you’ve done so well, that you’ve got this magnificent ranch, for I am at the end of my tether—I couldn’t send you another fifty pounds. You’ve got to help, boy. Grace’s money would make us all happy. I’m not mercenary; I’ve never used a sovereign of her money for my own ends while I’ve had it in trust, not a shilling. I’ve come clean. But if you and Grace could be married—eh?”
It was a groan from Jack that caused the exclamation, it was horrible! The magnificent ranch his, and his father believing that, thanking God for it. What a waster he had been, flinging about the remittance his old pater had pinched himself to send. By Gad! There were tears in his eyes; he brushed them away angrily.
Sir George saw this, misunderstood it, thought it was the idea of giving up Sheila. “Your fancy with that other girl couldn’t come to anything; it would be immoral, damnable, to marry into a family with that insanity taint. McNab is perfectly mad, absolutely; and the girl has got eyes that suggest a touch of something not normal.”
Jack put his hand on Sir George’s arm. "Pater,” he said, “it’s no use. Grace wouldn’t marry me—we couldn’t hit it off.”
AND out on the verandah, standing at the far end, Carney and Grace were unrolling from the spool of time the silken thread of what had been, what was, even what should be. She was saying:
“And will you go back, Dane?”
“I can’t,” he said bitterly, “I can’t. You killed that chance—God bless you.”
“I killed it, Dane?”
“Yes. You paid my debts, and a man can’t walk into a club where it has once been said that a woman paid up for him.”
“They couldn’t have said that—nobody knew. Who told you that I paid?”
“Nobody; I knew it. That’s why I sent the money to my solicitor for you.”
“I wondered,” she said; “you just believed that I would do that for you, Dane?”
Grace put a hand on his arm, saying softly, “Thank you. You did—did have faith that I wouldn’t turn?”
“When I lose faith that the stars will shine, then I will have doubts as to what Grace Tbornadyke will do.”
The girl trembled, she clutched the railing of the verandah. “We must forget it all. You have paid it off; you must come back.”
Carney put a hand on her arm, and it hurt in its tense grip. “Do you know how I paid it back? I am Bulldog Carney: I am called an outlaw.”
“But you’re not—you couldn’t be.”
“I’m not now, in law, for I’ve ridden stirrup to stirrup with the Mounties; I’ve ridden down outlaws, gunmen, and I’ve wiped out everything. But I’ve earned that money that I sent, by the power of a gun. It was the only way—less dishonor than the other. The government never put a price on my head, but the outlaws did.”
“I don’t care, Dane. You are coming back home, and I’m going to wait for you if you wish it.”
“It’s the only thing in life that I wish for, I pray for, that someday that fairy dream may come true.”
A moon lazily full of its gorgeous repletion had swaggered up from where the flat sea of drab prairie cut a blue-gray sky, and the two, who were already shot full of arrows by the little bow-legged god, would undoubtedly have crossed the Rubicon had not Sir George suddenly become aware of their dangerous absence. He bustled out, calling, “Grace—oh, there you are! I wish you would come in.”
McNab was sitting in a chair, the prairie moil removed from his face, his rebellious Celtic topknot more or less conquered by a brush, and his thin, wiry frame encased in a loose-fitting suit of tweed. He looked almost sane, just the piercing gray eyes suggesting his malady.
As Carney came into the light Sir George glared at him, a puzzled look in his eyes. Devilish odd; that face, compelling in its lean strength, was half familiar.
But Grace—what was the girl coming to! a tete-to-tete with this adventurer— that’s what he was, a damned, assuming adventurer sort of chap— Grace was treating her uncle very badly.
His thoughts were interrupted by McNab who was asking, “How do you like my ranch, Sir George?”
Enders pere blinked. “It looks very prosperous,” he answered diplomatically.
“It was a struggle,” McNab admitted. “When I came here I hadn’t much. Of course I was rich, I had Sheila’s mother, and it was that sweet little woman that made me, that made the ranch; I’d have given up more than once but for her.”
IT WAS a pity, Sir George inwardly communed; perhaps it was the losing of his wife that had unhinged the Scot. There was a wild fealty to the Scotch, a brooding fealty.
“Well,” Sir George said, “you had your struggles, and perhaps it’s just as well that they’re over, that you can now just wander about with no cares.”
“Wander about?” the Scot exclaimed, “and no cares! I tell you, man, the bigger a ranch gets the more cares a man has; he can’t wander about.”
Jack was shivering. And Sheila, loyal to her promise, was wondering how she could get her father to retire. The atmosphere was snapping with static. Now she had as much at stake as Jack, for if a denouement came about her father would become frantic with rage, it would be terrible, he’d probably turn them out to camp on the prairie. She looked beseechingly at Carney, and he seized an opportunity to make peace with McNab over his forgetfulness about the telegram.
McNab, too, was thrown on the defensive over his clearing out so summarily, with a pathetic lament of stupidity in spilling Carney’s good liquor.
It is difficult for a man, even a garrulous man, to hold his hearers with three others intent on frustrating him, and Carney, Sheila, and Jack clung to McNab, mentally pulling him from his hobby, the ranch; they wore him out. In fact there were four of them, for Sir George found it a strain to listen complacently, encouragingly, to this man’s vaporings about the ranch he imagined he still owned.
And Sir George carried McNab back to Scotland; books, —one wall was lined with volumes—Sir Walter Scott, Burns— ah, that was a magic touch, an inspiration. The old Scot’s voice vibrated with his reverent love for Bobby as he said; “Burns was altogether human. He had the nature that makes men stick here in the open that seems palpitating with its nearness to God. Bobby, plodding along between the shafts of his plow, dreaming of the affinity atween the soul o’ men, and the flowers, the wee daisies.”
No wonder Sheila is extraordinary, Grace was thinking.
And Sir George felt a distinct pity for McNab take possession of him. Evidently a fine type of man, a man of great promise. And to become suddenly afflicted! But McNab was certainly temperamental, just the sort of man to become batty through strain, strain and the solitude of the vast prairies.
But McNab, seeing Sir George yawn, realized that the early ranch hour for retiring had passed and saying that the others might sit up as late as they liked, he declared he was fair tired, and would turn in.
In the morning came optimism; the crisis had passed, no doubt about it.
Jack had the car at the door, and had bustled everybody, even Sir George, who really didn’t need it, into preparation for an early start.
Even as they clambered into the car the menace still hovered, for McNab was a host despatching favored guests. “You’re always welcome to the Bar Thistle, Sir George,” he said, as he shook hands; “and if, on your way back from B.C. you can stop over for a few days, Sheila and I will be verra pleased.”
JACK sounded the horn as a fanfare of departure, turned the ignition switch, set his throttle, and strutted very business like to seize the crank. Three quick turns and the engine shouted back, “Rip-rip-bur-r-r!” Jack skipped back to the car calling cheerily, “Now we’re off!”—but he wasn’t. The clamor ceased, the engine went dead—it was like a mummy. Jack leaped out and wound the devilish thing into eruption again, only to find it like a corpse on his hands ere he could skip back to his seat.
He threw up the hood and peered in. He might as well have opened a book of Euclid, for he knew nothing about motor car machinery, nothing; he could start a car and stop it, that was about the extent of his knowledge. Nobody knew. Sir George suggested all sorts of things, but they were just suggestions, foolish ones.
For ten minutes the pig-headed thing mocked them, stood its ground like a balky horse.
But Grace knew something about cars— she had one in England. She slipped from the tonneau, unscrewed the tap of the gasoline tank, and peered in; then she found a long straw and gingerly pushed it down into the tank. It came up with just the very tip showing a glistening touch of gasoline. “No petrol,” she said; “so like you, Jack.”
Jack sat staring, his mind stunned. This devilish thing just as he had congratulated himself on an escape!
“Fill up the tank, and let’s be off, son,” Sir George commanded petulantly.
“There isn’t any gasoline at the ranch,” Jack answered.
“Could you drive them in, Dan?” McNab suggested.
“I can’t,” Ross declared; “the drivers are out on the range—I haven’t got a pony here that wouldn’t kick the democrat to smithereens.” He turned to Enders, adding, “Jack, if you’ll wait I’ll get you gas—the Bar XX has a car, and will have gasoline; I’ll ride over and be back inside an hour.”
“That’s a good idea, Dan,” McNab commented. So Ross hurried away.
There they were again, all in the hands of flighty-headed Chance, just when everything had gone swimmingly. Jack was in dread, quivering.
McNab was rather pleased. He had a certain reverence for men of Sir George’s class. So he fastened upon Sir George, led him about where they could get a full view of the spreading acres, where they could see in the distance the herd that Sir George had thought might be buffalo.
Jack followed Sheila into the sittingroom.
Presently Sir George suggested that he’d like to go inside and sit down, the sun was hurting his eyes. And when he entered the open door of the sitting-room he gasped. Jack had his arms about Sheila, and was—my word! actually kissing her.
Sheila was angry—no, by Jove! she was laughing. But—was everybody crazy?— Jack was saying, “Now are you going to cook a goose, Sheila?”
Sir George coughed, and Enders, whirling, stood aghast, as Sheila smoothed the laugh out into a demure, prim look. She certainly didn’t register fear.
MCNAB was at Sir George’s heels, and the latter was startled by the Scot saying, “They’re verra fond o’ each other.”
Sir George exploded, “It’s an outrage!” “It’s no so bad as a’ that,” McNab retorted. “I dare say you were young yoursel’ once.”
“I was, but I had a sense of honor.” “Oh, Sheila has honor; I’d trust her anywhere wi’ any man,” McNab declared angrily.
“If the man were a rich rancher, I suppose, Mr. McNab.”
“I dinna understand what you’re sayin’, mon.”
For an instant Sir George forgot to humor this afflicted man; in fact a doubt shot athwart his mind about all this imbecility.
“I’ll tell you plainly, sir,” he said angrily; “my son is to marry Grace Thornadyke. It’s an alliance suitable in every way—they’re of the same class; it should be a happy union.”
“You’re meanin’ that Sheila’s not good enough for your cub son, is that it, sir?” and the gray hair stood up on his head and went snap-snap.
“It isn’t that at all,” Sir George answered. “My son, having this ranch, being a man of good family—I dare say Miss Sheila considers him a good catch.”
At this the girl’s face went white. Jack saw it, the misery, the distress, and the manliness that was really in him woke. He sprang forward, and facing Sir George said vehemently. “Father, you ought to be ashamed! But it’s all my fault. I’m going to tell you something, but you brought it on yourself. I don’t own this ranch—never did; it’s Sheila’s—Mr. McNab’s. And I’m not going to marry Grace—neither of us want it; I’m going to marry Sheila some day, if she’ll have me after this.”
He paused, burnt out by his passion, and Sir George could only gasp pathetically, “Not—your —ranch—it was all— a lie?”
“Yes, father, a cowardly lie: I had nothing left, and I was to cowardly to tell you so.”
“My Heavens!” Sir George moaned. He tottered into a chair and sat staring at them; his mind wouldn’t function. He had been dreaming, living in a fool’s paradise at the Bar Thistle.
McNab’s mind had been groping, too, piecing the thing together. He asked a question. “And you brought your father out here, Jack, knowing I was away, to impress him; was it that, lad—told him it was your ranch?”
“I did, Mr. McNab, and I apologize. Sheila didn’t know anything about it; but when she came home I begged her to not expose me. And now I’m disgraced and I ought to be.”
McNab’s gray eyes fixed themselves on the hopeless, blurred orbs in Sir George’s face, and he realized that here was a man of breeding drowning in a sudden treacherous pool of affliction, smothered mentally by ruin, money ruin, and, as he would consider it, social ruin—a fool, after a fashion to worry over the latter.
AND Sheila’s any wish was a law to him, her happiness to be set above everything. If Jack had been a flawed diamond, at heart bad, Sheila would have known it; she was no fool. And in a way class meant as much to him as it did to. Sir George.
“I’m thinking, Sir George,” he said, presently, “the prank o’ yon youth needna worry you, for it’s done no harm. I’m glad that Sheila has an opportunity to entertain Miss Thornadyke and yoursel’.”
Sir George groaned ; all that remained in his thought was “Ruined, ruined—no ranch—nothing—ruined !”
“Your son, in spite o’ his tricks, is a guid clean boy, and wi’ proper guidance he’ll do weel. I’m speaking out o’ experience, for it was the guid wife I had that made a’ this that’s about us—a’ o’ it,” McNab said gently.
Sir George’s eyes had shifted to the door, and McNab, turning, saw Grace just within the room, her eyes showing that she had heard the Scot.
Jack darted forward, and drew her within, saying, “Tell Father just where we stand, Grace, I’ve made an awful mess of things.” McNab, Jack, and Sir George contributed toward the revelation, and Grace caused Sir George to gasp when she said, “Oh, I knew it; it was evident.”
“And why didn’t you speak—tell me?” Sir George demanded.
“Because I thought it was the first wise thing I’d ever seen Jack think of—I mean his falling in love with a girl like Sheila; it’s what he needed.”
“But—but without a farthing to his name.”
“You’re wrong, Uncle,” Grace declared. “I think enough of Jack, have faith enough in him, to stand sponsor for the fact that when he marries Sheila—which I hope he will, he’ll have means equivalent to Sheila’s prospects.”
McNab took a quick step, and held out a hand, saying, “Miss Thornadyke, beautifully put. You’re verra fine, verra fine.”
They were interrupted by an imperious blare from the motor horn.
“That’s Dan,” McNab explained; “he’s back wi’ the gasoline.”
Sir George rose tiredly from his chair, and held out a hand to McNab saying; “I’d like to withdraw the foolish, hasty things I said, Mr. McNab. I’m easily upset, I’m afraid. I’ll say good-bye now.” “I’m thinkin’ I’ll take a trip to town wi’ you, Sir George, to see you off. I wonder if there’s room for Sheila?”
“Plenty of room,” Grace declared. “Coming, Sheila?”
(Another “Bull-dog” Carney story will appear shortly.)