Lady Out West
THERE WAS a last long streaming of rays, so hotly vivid as to have the effect of artillery a-thunder, and then the sun fell below the western range with a final explosive borealis. At once the violent earth swung to the other extreme; stillness and transparency rushed over the prairie and the tawny grasses began to absorb the faint purple of twilight. Seated on the steps of the nester shanty, Ixe Post let his cigarette droop between rawboned fingers, gently speaking:
“Another day gone out to the sound of trumpets. It’s a pretty show, Cary.”
Sometimes he surprised her. Sometimes the quiet observations he made were like the ground swells of a strong, deeply hidden feeling; for he was otherwise so slow and levelheaded, so seldom-speaking. She saw him bent forward, his rather generous features modelled to a sharp attentiveness. Small weather wrinkles sprang around his eyes as they clung to the dimming flame of day. Patches of sweat still darkened his shirt from recent riding, and the tall torso, toughly spare, was quite still. Cary said :
“Stay for supper, Lee?”
He stood up with an Indianlike lack of effort.
“No-o,” he drawled. “Be dark by the time I ride past the Sudden ranch. If it was later Mrs. Sudden would peek out of her window and say‘Aha’.”
“The gentleman,” said Cary Kittredge humorously, “still guards me from scandal.”
“Talk is a light thing and carries far.”
“As if there were no scandal in the country already.”
Lee Post chuckled and his straight mouth curved into its characteristic wry grin.
“Sure. Gossip out here is a whip that keeps the worst of us halfways decent. But don’t forget—local folks are forgiven their sins. You’re a stranger and the talk would bite you harder.”
“After three years, I’m still a stranger?” asked the girl wistfully.
Lee Post dropped his smoke, ground it beneath a heel, and said “Yeah,” thoughtfully. Cary Kittredge had her Back to the shanty wall, and she made a picture there in the gunpowder twilight. A man's shirt fitted snugly around her small military shoulders; she was straightly supple. Even with the rough work of the homestead, she had a neatness and a certain crisp style about her. She didn’t fuse with the easy-going life of the district. Behind her, Lee guessed, were strict and individualistic people. It showed through; Cary’s face was fine, steadily held, resolute. And, he decided, not too compromising. She didn’t smile enough, though her lips were made for it and her hair was a fresh gold.
“Why?” pressed Cary.
“It isn’t,” said Lee Post, very slowly as if wishing to get his words straight, “that you set yourself up to be any better. You only keep the manners you were born with, but those come from a different sort of life than ours. Folks are critical of what they don’t understand. They’d be happy to tack scandal on you - just to prove you were like everybody else.”
"So I have not been sufficiently grateful,” observed Cary with a little malice, “for the privilege of living among them."
“You won’t take help, for a fact.”
“I never have asked for favors,” said the girl. “I’m on my own.”
“People like to do favors,” was Lee’s gentle observation, “if for no other purpose than to create an obligation. It’s the way we’ve been brought up. Barn raisings, round-ups, basket socials. Can I do some of your chores for you before I drift?”
“No. This is my battle, Lee.”
“Is it so much of a battle?” queried Lee Post. “There’s time to work and a time to be useless.”
Cary Kittredge laughed and the echo of it made a little melody in the forming shadows.
“It is hard to acquire a habit for something you’ve never had, Lee.”
“Tomorrow, a little beyond noon,” said Lee,
“I’m not so sure 1 ought to go. There’s such a lot of work.”
Lee Post said nothing, but she saw his face settle, at once revealing his thought by the very absence of expression. She added, rather quickly:
“Ail right, I’ll go. Would I be more popular, Lee, if I changed my ways?"
“You can’t,” said the man.
Cary answered softly, “I think you are wrong.” He stood with his head lowered toward her, a soberly questioning look to his eyes, and against the last of the light his body cut a rugged, dean silhouette. She thought he was about to speak, and for an instant a cool sensation went through her; but he only said “Adios," and walked to his pony. A moment later the rhythmic drum of the beast dwindled out along the flats. It was always like this at his going—a sense of letdown and the feeling of judgment suspended. What might have been said was not said; nothing but doubt remained behind him. Cary shook her head and murmured irritably: “Now we can take up the work again just where it was left off.”
I-ee Post cantered eastward into the deepening dark, keenly aware of the land and its pleasantness. The earth gave up its heat in rising waves that brought out the
pungency of dust and sage; a small wind crossed the flats, at once chilly. In the south a quarter moon hung suspended, very pale against the back drop of the horizon. He crossed the plank bridge of Dry River, came against the low outline of Tucker's Ridge and swung to another road. Henry Sudden’s ranch lights cut round yellow spokes through the heavy shadows and the hound pack began to speak. Lee Post said to himself, “They saw me go to her place; they better see me come back,” and rode down the yard. Old Henry Sudden’s blocky body reared away from a wash basin and his bald head made a pallid semicircle. He said, in his vast out-of-doors rancher's bellow:
“Git down, Lee, and come to supper.”
“Got to get home,” drawled Lee. “Been doing nothin’ much all day.”
“So I saw,” shouted Henry Sudden. He passed a towel across his hands and flung it behind him. A body crossed the light lane inside the house, and Henry Sudden lowered his voice bringing it to what he considered a presumably confidential pitch.
“Never mind what the womenfolk say about Cary Kittredge. She has got spunk and git-up and go. But she don’t like us and never will. No sir, Lee. The man that marries her will have to rise up early and work late. She
wants somebody that can tie her own energy. Somebody that’ll make a fortune and become a politician. If the fellow' ain’t ambitious she’ll make him ambitious—and do his thinkin’ for him. She’ll light a fire under him and drive him to glory—or to drink.” A husky chuckle welled up. “If you want to trot in fast harness, there’s the girl for you, Lee. But I doubt if you do. Sometimes a man likes the liberty of stoppin’ to spit and think.”
“Sawr some of your beef near the quicksand crossin’,” remarked Lee noncommittally and wheeled off. Beyond the Sudden place he turned into a draw wûth a small creek tinkling down its bottom, went three climbing miles toa small summit, and entered his own gate. He did his chores by lantern light, cooked a bachelor’s meal and afterward sat on the porch and taciturnly stared at the outline of rough country througli a cloud of tobacco smoke. Fifty Herefords grazed off yonder on a full section of his owning; and, he reflected with a slow stirring of pride, he could almost visualize each day’s work that had gone into the making of this small ranch. He liad started from nothing; he was now the possessor of property. Yet a forming discontent damped the glow of satisfaction; the red cigarette tip made an oval in the dark.
“You can’t hurry the year and its fruits,” he mused. “She'd never be satisfied with me. Doubt if she realizes that in a land of muscle power, everything’s got to be taken at a steady stride. The sorry fact is, I’d better forget the fool dreams I nourish.”
CARY, remembering to be annoyed, crossed the backyard with a pail and a lantern. Time had so many ways of reminding her that it swiftly passed, and Soo-Boss stood petulantly at the inner corral gate. “Bound to the machine that feeds me,” said Cary, increasingly aggrieved. She stalled and milked the cow, threw half a scoop of corn into its box. She lugged the heavy pail to the house, poured the milk in shallow pans, rinsed the pail before the milk scum would congeal. She started a fire, filled the teakettle. “Never let anybody tell me this is a free life,” muttered Cary, and went back to close the chicken house against her most persistent enemy, which was brother skunk. Far down the length of the outer pasture she saw the brindle steer sulking. It was an invariable game he played, but this night she spent a full twenty minutes herding him to the inner corral and failed to see the fun of it. Paused a moment, she said forebodingly to the beast :
“One of these days you’re going to pay me for all the steps I’ve taken. My interest in your safety, you darn fool, is purely mercenary.”
It was nine o’clock before she finished her supper dishes and she was weary clean through. Yet the resentment of the afternoon made a kind of indigestible knot in her stomach and would not let her rest. There was a letter half-finished these two days on her table. “If I don’t complete it now.” she moodily told herself, “it will lie there for ages.” Rereading the beginning pleasantries to her far-off girlhood friend, she took up the writing with a last ditch energy :
“This Paradise has flaws, Ellen. All that keeps me going is the remembrance that great-grandfather Kittredge marched through the Mexican war on a wooden leg. Both of mine are wooden when 1 finish a day ! Should you come out here, you ’ll probably find old lady Kittredge sitting on the front porch smoking a corncob. That is the climax of the day in these parts, 'lb sit and smoke and ruminate. Reflection, though, is only for the prosperous. It is all I can manage to seize the time to do up my hair. No, I’m not sorry—I’m mad! I was told something this afternoon 1 already knew. The neighbors suspect me. I don't run over to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar. When 1 came here I knew I'd be regarded as a helpless Easterner, and I vowed I’d show them I could be reliant. Apparently they like that less than helplessness. I don't live up to their predictions, which aggravates them, no doubt. But it is too late to change styles nowand I won’t. But don’t follow my example and give up school teaching to homestead 160 acres in the Golden West . . .”
When she finished she was simmering, and she bore down so hard on the pen that the ink spluttered a fine spray over the “hastily, Cary.” It was a distinct achievement to get that letter done. However, an inner detachment kept her from sealing the flap of the envelope. She knew she’d tear the thing in pieces and write another. It was a point of pride; not in a thousand years would she admit that her venture palled.
One ceremony dosed the day. Throwing a coat about her shoulders, she went to the porch for a last look at the shadowed, tranquil prairie. At this hour she liked to feel herself relax, to reflect that her chores were done and her little domain tucked away for the night. Usually the hushed isolation of the evening lifted her from her strict preoccupations to the point where she could again feel the fine fire of her early enthusiasm. Tonight her ruffled spirit was not so easily quelled. Lee Post’s talk still clung to the shadows. She had known all that he told ber. But coming from him it was depressing, for it indicated that he believed what she
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wished no one to believe, least of all him.
“Can’t they see,” said Cary, aloud and rebellious, “that I’m only trying to play my own part? Can’t they see I’m not aloof, not selfish? I’ve got to keep going—or fail.” Southward, the lights of Henry Sudden's ranch sparkled cheerfully. Cary looked at them and refused to admit it would be nice to ride over for a visit. Not now. It was too late. They’d say, “Aha, the Eastern woman is caving in.” They’d be very nice to her, and talk behind her back. Cary turned in, locked the door, placed the shotgun conveniently on a chair and went to bed. Actually she was too tired to sleep, and the little devils of doubt danced through her mind.
“It is a man’s country ; they hate to see a woman get along alone. It’s not natural to them.” Somberly staring at the dark ceiling, she thought about that with a critical detachment. Well, was it natural? Here she was, personable enough, letting the fresh years go by. Shouldn’t she be dancing, wearing party clothes? Shouldn’t she ever know again the luxury of being careless and without worry? There would come a time when she’d be a spinster. Cary, twentythree, turned beneath the quilts, and Lee Post’s lean face appeared before her as it so often did these lonely nights—looking down in curious thoughtfulness, withholding judgment. She didn’t know when she fell asleep, but suddenly she was dancing in a big hotel and a lean, distinguished fellow rode through the French windows, wearing immaculate evening clothes and a cowboy hat, and proposed to her. She said, “Lee, I get so tired of appearing self-reliant.” Then the chickens roosting in one comer of the ballroom began to squawk and she cried out to the crowd: “My lord, there’s that skunk
IT WAS BEYOND NOON of a suffocating,
I cloudless day when Lee Post rode away with her in the rig. The prairie was a tawny glare to the eyes, and over in the East the sun set up diamond flashes of light as it struck and refracted from the mica crusts of the ridge.
“Such,” observed Lee Post, “is Sunday in the Far West. A scorcher. What do you do to look like that, Cary? Sort of pink and scrubbed and serene.”
“I washed my face,” said Cary, absentminded. “I feel guilty. There’s so much I should be doing. Last night the skunks got two of my hens.”
“And doubtless will get more before you die. What of it? This is Sunday.”
Cary recited: “There’s water in the pans for the chickens, in the tub for the steer. Corral gates closed. Eggs gathered. Bread dough set to rise—”
“This is Sunday,” drawled Lee Post. Cary’s preoccupation dissolved in a smile. “You’re a comfort, Lee, to a woman playing hookey.”
Don’t think you’ll ever catch on.” “Well?”
What can’t be done now can always wait till tomorrow. It’s the long swing that counts—from season to season. One day or one week doesn’t mean anything. Ever see Henry Sudden in a hurry? He’s worth a hundred thousand dollars, and got it by biding his time.” Lee grinned into the girl’s disbelieving face. “How old are you, Cary?” “Twenty-three.”
Why did you come out here?”
Cary said: “You wouldn’t believe me.
v\hat I was doing seemed to lead nowhere. Adventure, Lee.”
It may still be here, when I have time to look,” mused Cary.
Time won’t come unless you take it,” observed Lee definitely. “This is a slow land. 1 heres such a thing as gettin’ out of stride with it.”
The rig clattered across the Dry Creek plank bridge, swung along the ridge road. A buggy, overloaded with three youngish
couples, climbed from Henry Sudden’s yard. There was a great clatter of talk. Lee Post yelled, “Fall in behind,” and continued southward beside the rising slopes. A bomb | of dust appeared up a ravine and a buckboard careened down. At Squaw Creek forks the procession had become lengthy and hilarious. Lee Post whipped his horse to draw clear and avoid covering the follow ing people w'ith the heavy yellow dust, but they took the challenge and closed in compactly. Lee’s grin deepened.
“Blamed fools eat sand as if they liked it.” “They’ll like me no better for avoiding dust,” said Cary.
“They were born in it,” drawled Lee. “You’re the only lady here.”
Cary’s face flushed a little.
“You’re unkind, either to me or to the others.”
“Not so.” Lee veered to an upgrade road that passed swiftly between shading pines. “There’s maybe a hundred years of gentle ways behind you. In a settled land. Not the same here. This country is a little bit savage —and the people have to fit it.”
The jouncing grade circled stiffly and ended in a flat glade that had the vaulted, introspective air of a church. Water rushed from farther heights and collected here in a glass-green pool. Cary got down and waited a little uncertainly as Lee drove away with the team. A great hallooing and chattering rose and rebounded, a ceaseless laughter. There were, she guessed, about thirty in the party, all near her own age. Most of the men she remembered as being rather speechless and mature, the women more subdued than otherwise. But on this afternoon they had thrown aside their gravity, and she felt oddly older. Lee Post drifted back with a robe and she sat down with her back to the shaggy bark of a yellow pine, at the same time seeing a slim girl turn from a group and flash a knowing, friendless glance at her. Somebody yelled the name “Lonzo,” and a roan-haired young man came away from his buggy with a bat and ball and half a dozen gloves. There was an immediate stampede to the centre of the glade, and the roan youth had to shout above the racket:
“This time Lee’s my pitcher.”
“This time,” called Lee, “I’m spectator. Cary and me will play chaperones.”
The slim girl looked over again and her vivid lips parted.
“Now’, now, Tommy,” grinned Lonzo, the roan young man.
Tommy looked straight into Lee Post’s eyes—laughing and meaning more than she said, Cary thought. There was the smallest interval of silence, a kind of constraint developing from common knowledge. Cary idly dug up the pine needles with her slender fingers, thinking: “This Tommy wants Lee and everybody knows it. Is there no privacy about them?”
THE GAME began and went on boisterously, carelessly, with a prodigal w'asteof effort. Tommy slid to an improvised second base and ripped her skirt ; Lonzo picked her up, ironically gallant, and tried to kiss her. Tommy slapped him soundly to a riot of applause, which the roan youth acknowledged by a wide and unembarrassed grin. This w’as kaleidoscopic, without order. The game, Cary saw, was only a convenient medium by w’hich these animal-healthy youths might spend their dammed-up energies. The self-chosen umpire—somebody had called him “Mac”—announced a strike and the fellow at bat abruptly walked toward the umpire, red and angered. “If you’re ridin’ me, Mac,” he said coolly, “we’ll both take a gallop.” It seemed like nothing, yet the cheerful catcalls stopped on the instant. The laughter, then, was only surface deep, Cary reflected: beneath the pleasantry, the tom-toms were beating. Remembering what Lee had said about the savage land, she turned, to find him looking
on with an expressionless calm. His dry drawl cut into the silence.
"A little water might cool off all that heat.”
j 'T thought of it first,” shouted the tawny! headed Lonzo and made a great leap ahead of the converging crowd. The two quarrellers turned in defense, but they were overwhelmed and swept back and tossed high through the air into the pool. Everybody yelled at that piece of deviltry, and the game went on with less reason than before. A plump girl with crimson cheeks literally staggered away from the play and fell at Cary’s feet, saying faintly, “I’m simply dead.” But she was sulking and Cary saw j her eyes strike venomously toward Lonzo,
I who stood on third base with his comradely j arm on the vivid Tommy’s shoulder.
It went on and it went on, players dropping out and in until the definite daylight began to wane from the tree-enclosed clearing. Pure exhaustion and the thought of eating turned them then. Lee started to rise, but Cary was before him, smiling a little. “Let the lady serve,” she said, and walked over to the rig. There was a fresh furore. Lunch basket in hand, she swung to see the vital, unquenchable Tommy standing at the water’s edge.
“For two cents,” cried Tommy, “I’d pull off this dress and dive in. I’m so hot.”
“Took,” said Lonzo, instantly reaching into his pocket.
It was impossible, Cary thought, and felt humiliation for the girl. Tommy poised above the water and looked defiantly about. A small, chunky fellow—her escort, who had spent the afternoon looking on—came up and spoke a low, embarrassed word. But Tommy shrugged him away, her eyes on Lee Post, gl >wing with that odd light she seemed to have for him. It was clear to Cary that Tommy was waiting for Lee Post’s answer. Lee’s answer was calmness itself.
“Prefer my drinking water without the taste of lipstick, Tommy.”
“You pill,” said Tommy, But Lee had the power of discipline over her; she turned and walked to the line of buggies, lithe and curved of body and not ashamed of the rip in her dress. Cary returned with the lunch basket, thinking coolly, “Tommy is Lee’s, at whatever price he cares to put on her.”
The crowd had gathered in small clusters. The plump little girl and the roan youth came up; Tommy came up with the serious lad trailing; and these six sat in a circle and j ate silently, gustily, with their fingers, while the day passed west and left a quick gloom j through the trees. Cary offered Lee a ; sandwich and smiled at the surreptitious j comprehension in the glance he bent on her; instantly feeling the weight of Tommy’s moody watchfulness.
Somebody less lethargic than the others dragged up an armload of tinder-dry branches and started a fire; by degrees the little groups formed a scattered ring about the flame. One girl sang softly into the gathering dusk; and there was a slow relaxing. The plump girl said, “I’m as full as a tick,” and sat near the red-headed Lonzo, who watched her with a still soberness, hungrily wistful.
Lifting her glance, Cary saw others as absorbed; paired off and excluding the world. Below the surface quiet was an old, old ferment; the sense of it stirred her definitely. She thought, sober and puzzled, “These j people are vital,” and found Lee Post’s eyes filled with an odd, questioning interest.
I Tommy’s sweat-damp hair clung, awry, to a really beautiful head, and she stared down ; to the sober lad, whose attention seemed to 1 he on the dark tracing of the trees. "She’s 1 wondering,” reflected Cary in cool detachment, “if she loses Lee, whether or not the ; other man will do.” Tommy’s chin rested i on a dosed fist, and all the brooding inscrut; ability of the universe lived then on her face.
! QADDED ECHOES fell into the glade. A j Hman’s surly voice arrived before his ; tangible outline.
j “Am I in the wrong prayer meetin’?”
I Lee Post’s body swayed forward and the ; slim features ceased to be casual. A horse
drifted against the firelight, carrying a shaggy fellow with vast shoulders and a body so thick as to appear welded to the saddle. The newcomer said morosely :
“Who’s got a drink?”
“Hello, Pope,” drawled Lee.
It was expressionless, but Cary noted how the other’s dull visage whipped toward Lee Post and went alert.
“Yeah. Lost your way, haven’t you?”
“I come and I go,” said the man, singsong. “Exactly,” agreed Lee Post.
The heavy fellow’s cheeks took on the rich crimson staining of the firelight. Cary thought he would speak out angrily at Lee’s edged rebuff. But, instead, he swept the silent circle with a final glance and rode off.
“I’ve seen him before around my place,” said Cary.
“It’s likely,” observed Post. Then he added a soft; “May be reason in the visit.” The outing was definitely over. Lonzo rose, murmuring :
“One of these days, Lee, you’ll have to fix Pope Hunker’s clock.”
There was no answer from Lee. He pulled Cary to her feet and went for the rig. He helped her up, put the robe about her and stopped to drench the fire. In the final glow Cary saw Tommy astride her horse, watching. Tommy murmured, “So long, Lee,” with a falling inflection. She put out a hand and Lee took it, saying some quiet thing that turned the girl’s face sharper and darker. It was only a moment’s scene, and Lee came back to the buggy and swung up. But Cary, sitting straight, said to herself, “That, I think, was the end of it—poor Tommy.” and some obscure weight lifted from her shoulders, leaving her with an odd lightness all the way down the crcoked road. One by one the buggies turned off, beyond Sudden’s house voices sang, “Good night, ladies,” and the muted silver echoes died pleasantly beneath the rumble of the rig on the Dry Creek ridge. The stars were pale in the sky, the breeze sharpening; her house appeared dimly before them. Lee handed her down and walked up the porch, waiting while she lighted the lamp. When she returned, the cool and stilling reaction took hold of her again. He was looking down, that same suspended judgment in his eyes.
“I enjoyed it, Lee, and my education progresses. I could be like ...”
She stopped short, but Lee Post supplied the rest.
“Yes,” said Cary.
“Tommy takes life straight, without a chaser. When she gambles she plunges everything on one card. What makes you think you could be that way, Cary?” “There aren't two kinds of women, Lee. All of us are alike.”
Lee’s talk was casually insistent.
“If Tommy’s buttered bread fell to the ground she’d eat it, dust and all. If there was a man she wanted, part good and mostly bad, she’d take him and be blind to the bad. You’d starve before you’d eat the dirty bread. You’d never tolerate the weak side of a man. Your natural desire to have things straight and tidy wouldn’t let you. You’re a fastidious packet, Cary.” His grin appeared, very faint. “You’re a lady.” She stood very still, listening more to the timbre of his voice than to the words, and heard herself say;
“Even the coldest sort of a woman has feelings, Lee.”
In some things, Cary’s detached self thought, a woman needed no teaching. All she had to do was reach out and Lee would
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come. He wanted her. It was behind all those slow arguments. He wanted to be wrong about her; wanted all his doubts swept aside. This tall man, whose eyes showed hunger in the lamplight, was trying to be logical against his own longing. Cary felt sudden coolness again. “If I reach out and touch him he will come.” Her own voice sounded disappointed as she said, quietly aloud :
"Good night, Lee.”
“And tomorrow’s another day,” drawled Lee Post.
She wanted to get a clearer look at his face, but he turned rapidly and strode to his horse and soon was gone. Cary felt again that distinct let-down as she walked through the house and went out with her lantern and pail. She stalled and milked Soo-Boss with no patience at all. She dosed the chicken house, started after the brindle steer in the far pasture and then changed her mind. "This night,” she said, “I’ll not chase you. You can sulk out there to your heart’s content.” She went to bed, dispirited, saying to herself: “The Kittredges always had too much pride.”
IN THE MORNING the far pasture gate I stood wide open and the brindle steer was gone.
"The first time I slack my chores, this happens,” said Cary, angry at herself.
Laying aside her other work for the moment, she walked the long length of the field. It was her first thought that - the brindle steer had rubbed and broken the wire holding-loop of the gate, and so had effected his escape. When she looked she saw the loop lying intact a dozen feet away; and the gate had been dragged back, for the arc of its bottom piece lay plainly on the ground. That was her first intimation of thievery. The rest of the story she soon read. There were pony tracks advancing to and retreating from the gate. The tracks came up regularly, but they went away in broken pattern and the smaller outline of the steer’s hoofs was mixed with them, the visible trail going off directly westward.
Cary said, “Oh,” faintly, leaning against the gate. This was her first taste of thievery by a human, and it left her for the moment a little weak—like a shock received from some wholly unexpected source. Then her collecting thought began to consider what the theft had done to her plans. The brindle steer, nursed from a weaning calf to many dollars worth of beef, meant taxes, plowing and more weaning calves. She had counted on it confidently. The money loss was not exactly disastrous, but the upset of her careful schedule was disheartening. That steer, she reflected, was the first tangible bit of evidence she had of winning her fight. And now it was summarily disposed of.
Of a sudden Cary went furious, trudging, sightless, across the uneven ground with her fists doubled. “Isn’t there anything people won’t do? That’s my steer, my property.
I won’t have two years’ work taken from me like that. It’s so darned unfair! He probably took it because he thought a woman couldn’t fight back.” She slammed the inner corral gate and said: “Well!” with an explosive breath. Her mind was made up. She got her .38 revolver from the house, saddled the pony, rode down to the starting point of the thief’s tracks. They were clear enough for anybody to see, heavily scuffing the loose prairie turf. Half a mile from her place they turned into the rocky bottom of an arroyo, but she thought the way went additionally west and so followed. Inside of two miles the arroyo rose into the sides of a small ridge, and the tracks began again.
“Clever,” said Cary between her teeth. “But I'll get that steer back.”
The trail straggled deviously up the ridge, through a thin scatter of timber, and straightened down the farther slope. At that point Cary halted, for the outline of Red City stood in the distance to remind her of something Lee Post once had said atout illegal butchering. The brindle was without a brand in a country where brands constituted almost the only legal proof of ownership—and there was the town ahead. Cary let the trail go and lined out directly.
“Makes no difference.” she told herself doggedly. “It’s my beef.”
She was sure of what she’d find, and a little fearful. It was one thing to know and another thing to take the next step. Cantering into the dusty street, she cut through the vacant side lots and came up to a corral— Butcher Ruderman's holding pen—and saw the brindle’s familiar poll scrubbing away at the bars. Cary set her teeth tightly together and sat there a moment, just staring. There was nobody in sight. Getting down then, she started for the gate. A man’s voice caught her instantly and roughly:
“What in thunder are you a-doin’ there?”
She swung like a whip, speaking almost before she saw Ruderman come up with his hands crossed on his dirty apron.
“You’ve got my steer,” snapped Cary, and then she found Pope Hunker advancing slowly from a building.
“Yours?” said Ruderman laconically. Cary, boiling, thought the man enjoyed this. “You’re plumb crazy. I bought the critter from Pope Hunker.”
Cary blazed away at Pope Hunker.
“So you were the thief?”
Hunker pressed his lips together and released them.
“If you was a man, Kittredge, I’d swat you for that. The brindle is a stray I picked up long time ago.”
“My steer,” repeated Cary doggedly.
“Where’s your brand on it?” demanded
Ruderman, and winked at Hunker.
“Open the gate,” said Cary, and felt drearily certain they would never listen to her.
Hunker laughed quietly and placed his short body against the corral gate.
“Go home and forget it, Kittredge.” Cary felt the quirt in her hand. She was beaten and she knew it; full of fury, she knew it. Of a sudden she stepped near Hunker, raised the quirt and slashed him across the face, crying:
“You scoundrel . . . !”
Hunker reached for the quirt and wrenched it from her hands.
“Got a notion to—”
“Maybe,” inter posed a slowly casual voice, “I could take a hand in this.”
IT WAS, CARY SAW, Lee Post standing I beside her. How he got there, she couldn’t understand: but he was there, looking past her to the others. His effortless words fell quite dry and barren into the oppressive air.
“Another lesson, Cary. There’s a time to talk and a time to use other sorts of persuasion . Ruderman, you don’t get away with it. I’ve been up in the hotel lobby couple hours, watching you two dicker over that steer.'
“Hunker says it’s his beef.” broke out Ruderman. “I bought it on that ground.”
“As you’ve done before.”
“I don’t like that,” growled Ruderman.
“You’re out of the play,” Lee Post said softly, and walked toward Pope Hunker.
Hunker—Cary watching him tenselyseemed to grow compact. The man’s arms hung limp and he stared at Lee Post out of hard, sultry eyes.
“You thought of this last night when you saw Cary at the picnic,” drawled Lee. "I thought you would, which is why I’m here. Your sort of penny-ante graft> puts you lower than a snake’s track, Pope.”
Hunker said, “That’s proud of you.” gutturally. Cary got the quick deadliness in . his heavy eyes and started to speak to Lee. J But the scene fell to flashing fragments, j only part of which she saw. Lee Post j walked on. Hunker’s shoulders lifted and a j hand raced inside his coat at the waistline. | Lee’s cheeks went white and his whole body j exploded. Cary heard that dull, smacking impact of fist on flesh; she saw Hunker break in the middle oddly. The man struck back. Lee Post hit him savagely, mercilessly, rushed him against the corral’s side and beat him down to the dust. When he relented he had Hunker’s gun in his hand. It was that swiftly done.
“Your trail goes south,” said Lee Post, breath coming out of thin nostrils. “You get it. Pope? If I see you again, it will be through smoke.”
! Hunker never answered. Hunker’s face ! was against the ground and a streak of blood i slowly curled across a temple. Lee Post stared a long, long time, and the stony absorption faded from his eyes. Afterward he kxiked at Ruderman.
"You buy your beef too cheap, Ruderman. That’s a warning. I ’ll be after the steer later. Coming, Cary?”
Somewhere up the street, Cary felt the hotness of the sun again. She said, quite slowly:
“I guess I ought to be ashamed.”
Lee Post seemed not to hear. They crossed the shaded porch of a hotel, went I into the deserted, musty lobby. Lee Post stopped, looked down, gently speaking. "There was dust on your nose and you
were mad enough to cuss. But you’re a lady now -and you apologize for being human.”
"It’s a man’s country, Lee. I know when I’m licked.”
That sense of suspended judgment was between them again. Cary thought, “If I only lift my arms ...” She raised both to him, and her eager face, too. Light sprang strongly into Lee Post’s quiet eyes and he smothered her. That faint inner voice said to Cary, "Some things a women doesn’t need to learn.”
Lee stepped away, alarmed.
“Laughing, my dear.” She drew him back. It was odd, but she felt quite young and quite gay. "Women in love are all the same. I want you, Lee. That is just as Tommy would say it.”