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I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 17629

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Trouble Hunter

Knee to knee, at a shacking trot, they rode out into the glory of big places, two horses before them bearing the light burden of a Westerner's bed.

"My name's Jed Avery," the little man broke in when they were clear of the town. "I'm located over on Red Mountain-a hundred an' thirty miles from here. I run horses-th' VB stuff. They call me Jed-or Old VB; mostly Jed now, 'cause th' fellers who used to call me Old VB has got past talkin' so you can hear 'em, or else has moved out. Names don't matter, anyhow. It ain't a big outfit, but I have a good time runnin' it. Top hands get thirty-five a month."

Danny felt that there was occasion for answer of some sort. In those few words Avery had given him as much information as he could need, and had given it freely, not as though he expected to open a way for the satisfaction of any curiosity. He wanted to forget the past, to leave it entirely behind him; did not want so much as a remnant to cling to him in this new life. Still, he did not deem it quite courteous to let the volunteered information come to him and respond with merely an acknowledgment.

He cleared his throat. "I'm from Riverside Drive, New York City," he said grimly. "Names don't matter. I don't know how to do a thing except waste time-and strength. If you'll give me a chance, I'll get to be a top hand."

An interval of silence followed.

"I never heard of th' street you mention. I know New York's on th' other slope an' considerable different from this here country. Gettin' to be a top hand's mostly in makin' up your mind-just like gettin' anywhere else."

Then more wordless travel. Behind them Colt dwindled to a bright blotch. The road ran close against the hills, which rose abruptly and in scarred beauty. The way was ever upward, and as they progressed more of the country beyond the river spread out to their view, mesas and mountains stretching away to infinite distance, it seemed.

Even back of the sounds of their travel the magnificent silence impressed itself. It was weird to Danny Lenox, unlike anything his traffic-hardened ears had ever experienced, and it made him uneasy-it, and the ache in his throat.

That ache seemed to be the last real thing left about him, anyhow. Events had come with such unreasonable rapidity in those last few days that his harassed mind could not properly arrange the impressions. Here he was, hired out to do he knew not what, starting a journey that would take him a hundred and thirty miles from a place called Colt, in the state of Colorado, through a country as unknown to him as the regions of mythology, beside a man whose like he had never seen before, traveling in a fashion that on his native Manhattan had worn itself to disuse two generations ago!

Out of the whimsical reverie he came with a jolt. Following the twisting road, coming toward them at good speed, was the last thing he would have associated with this place-an automobile. He reined his horse out of the path, saw the full-figured driver throw up his arm in salutation to Jed, and heard Jed shout an answering greeting. The driver looked keenly at Danny as he passed, and touched his broad hat.

"Who was that?" the boy asked, as he again fell in beside his companion.

"That's Bob Thorpe," the other explained. "He's th' biggest owner in this part of Colorado-mebby in th' whole state. Cattle. S Bar S mostly, but he owns a lot of brands."

"Can he get around through these mountains in a car?"

"He seems to. An' his daughter! My! To be sure, she'd drive that dog-gone bus right up th' side of that cliff! You'll see for yourself. She'll be home 'fore long-college-East somewheres."

The boy looked at him questioningly but said nothing. "College-East-home 'fore long-" Might it not form a link between this new and that old-a peculiar sort of link-as peculiar as this sudden, unwarranted interest in this girl?

Through the long afternoon Danny eagerly awaited the coming of more events, more distractions. When they came-such as informative bursts from Jed or the passing of the automobile-he forgot for the brief passage of time the throb in his throat, that wailing of the creature in him. But when the two rode on at the shambling trot, with the silence and the immense grandeur all about them, the demands of his appetite were made anew, intensified perhaps by a feeling of his own inconsequence, by the knowledge that should he fail once in standing off those assaults it would mean only another beginning, and harder by far than this one he was experiencing.

Every hour of sober reflection, of sordid struggle, added to his estimate of the strength of that self he must subdue. He was going away into the waste places, and a sneaking fear of being removed from the stuff that had kept him keyed commenced to grow, adding to the fleshly wants.

If he should be whipped and a surrender be forced? What then? He realized that that doubting was cowardice. He had come out here to have freedom, a new beginning, and now he found himself begging for a way back should the opposition be too great. It was sheer weakness!

Cautiously Jed Avery had watched Danny's face, and when he saw anxiety show there as doubt rose, he broke into words:

"Yes, sir, Charley was sure a good boy, but th' booze got him."

He looked down at his horse's withers so he could not see the start this assertion gave Danny.

"He didn't want to be bad, but it's so easy to let go. To be sure, it is. Anyhow, Charley never had a chance, never a look-in. He was good hearted an' meant well-but he didn't have th' backbone."

And Danny found that a rage commenced to rise within him, a rage which drove back those queries that had made him weak.

Day waned. The sun slid down behind the string of cliffs which stretched on before them at their left. Distances took on their purple veils, a canopy of virgin silver spread above the earth, and the stillness became more intense.

"Right on here a bit now we'll stop," Jed said. "This's th' Anchor Ranch. They're hayin', an' full up. We'll get somethin' to eat, though, an' feed for th' ponies. Then we'll sleep on th' ground. Ever do it?"

"Never."

"Well, you've got somethin' comin', then. With a sky for a roof a man gets close to whatever he calls his God-an' to himself. Some fellers out here never seem to see th' point. Funny. I been sleepin' out, off an' on, for longer than I like to think about-an' they's a feelin' about it that don't come from nothin' else in th' world."

"You think it's a good thing, then, for a man to get close to himself?"

"To be sure I do."

"What if he's trying to get away from himself?"

Jed tugged at his mustache while the horses took a dozen strides. Then he said:

"That ain't right. When a man thinks he wants to get away from himself, that's th' coyote in him talkin'. Then he wants to get closer'n ever; get down close an' fight again' that streak what's come into him an' got around his heart. Wants to get down an' fight like sin!"

He whispered the last words. Then, before Danny could form an answer, he said, a trifle gruffly:

"Open th' gate. I'll ride on an' turn th' horses back."

They entered the inclosure and rode on toward a clump of buildings a half-mile back from the road.

Off to their right ran a strip of flat, cleared land. It was dotted with new haystacks, and beyond them they could see waving grass that remained to be cut. At the corral the two dismounted, Danny stiffly and with necessary deliberation. As they commenced unsaddling, a trio of hatless men, bearing evidences of a strenuous day's labor, came from the door of one of the log houses to talk with Jed. That is, they came ostensibly to talk with Jed; in reality, they came to look at the Easterner who fumbled awkwardly with his cinch.

Danny looked at them, one after the other, then resumed his work. Soon a new voice came to his ears, speaking to Avery. He noticed that where the little man's greeting to the others had been full-hearted and buoyant, it was now curt, almost unkind.

Curious, Danny looked up again-looked up to meet a leer from a pair of eyes that appeared to be only half opened; green eyes, surrounded by inflamed lids, under protruding brows that boasted but little hair, above high, sunburned cheek bones; eyes that reflected all the small meanness that lived in the thin lips and short chin. As he looked, the eyes leered more ominously. Then the man spoke:

"Long ways from home, ain't you?"

Although he looked directly at Danny, although he put the question to him and to him alone, the boy pretended to misunderstand-chose to do so because in the counter question he could express a little of the quick contempt, the instinctive loathing that sprang up for this man who n

eeded not to speak to show his crude, unreasoning, militant dislike for the stranger, and whose words only gave vent to the spirit of the bully.

"Are you speaking to me?" Danny asked, and the cool simplicity of his expression carried its weight to those who stood waiting to hear his answer.

The other grinned, his mouth twisting at an angle.

"Who else round here'd be far from home?" he asked.

Danny turned to Jed.

"How far is it?" he asked.

"A hundred an' ten," Jed answered, a swift pleasure lighting his serious face.

Danny turned back to his questioner.

"I'm a hundred and ten miles from home," he said with the same simplicity, and lifted the saddle from his horse's back.

It was the sort of clash that mankind the world over recognizes. No angry word was spoken, no hostile movement made. But the spirit behind it could not be misunderstood.

The man turned away with a forced laugh which showed his confusion. He had been worsted, he knew. The smiles of those who watched and listened told him that. It stung him to be so easily rebuffed, and his laugh boded ugly things.

"Don't have anything to do with him," cautioned Jed as they threw their saddles under a shed. "His name's Rhues, an' he's a nasty, snaky cuss. He'll make trouble every chance he gets. Don't give him a chance!"

They went in to eat with the ranch hands. A dozen men sat at one long table and bolted immense quantities of food.

The boiled beef, the thick, lumpy gravy, the discolored potatoes, the coarse biscuit were as strange to Danny as was his environment. His initiation back at Colt had not brought him close to such crudity as this. He tasted gingerly, and then condemned himself for being surprised to find the food good.

"You're a fool!" he told himself. "This is the real thing; you've been dabbling in unrealities so long that you've lost sense of the virtue of fundamentals. No frills here, but there's substance!"

He looked up and down at the low-bent faces, and a new joy came to him. He was out among men! Crude, genuine, real men! It was an experience, new and refreshing.

But in the midst of his contemplation it was as though fevered fingers clutched his throat. He dropped his fork, lifted the heavy cup, and drank the coffee it contained in scorching gulps.

Once more his big problem had pulled him back, and he wrestled with it-alone among men!

After the gorging the men pushed back their chairs and yawned. A desultory conversation waxed to lively banter. A match flared, and the talk came through fumes of tobacco smoke.

"Anybody got th' makin's?" asked Jed.

"Here," muttered Danny beside him, and thrust pouch and papers into his hand.

Danny followed Jed in the cigarette rolling, and they lighted from the same match with an interchange of smiles that added another strand to the bond between them.

"That's good tobacco," Jed pronounced, blowing out a whiff of smoke.

"Ought to be; it cost two dollars a pound."

Jed laughed queerly.

"Yes, it ought to," he agreed, "but we've got a tobacco out here they call Satin. Ten cents a can. It tastes mighty good to us."

Danny sensed a gentle rebuke, but he somehow knew that it was given in all kindliness, that it was given for his own good.

"While I fight up one way," he thought, "I must fight down another." And then aloud: "We'll stock up with your tobacco. What's liked by one ought to be good enough for-" He let the sentence trail off.

Jed answered with: "Both."

And the spirit behind that word added more strength to their uniting tie.

The day had been a hard one. Darkness came quickly, and the workers straggled off toward the bunk house. Tossing away the butt of his cigarette, Jed proposed that they turn in.

"I'm tired, and you've got a right to be," he declared.

They walked out into the cool of evening. A light flared in the bunk house, and the sound of voices raised high came to them.

"Like to look in?" Avery asked, and Danny thought he would.

Men were in all stages of undress. Some were already in their beds; others, in scant attire, stood in mid-floor and talked loudly. From one to another passed Rhues. In his hand he held a bottle, and to the lips of each man in turn he placed the neck. He faced Jed and Danny as they entered. At sight of the stranger a quick hush fell. Rhues stood there, bottle in hand, leering again.

"Jed, you don't drink," he said in his drawling, insinuating voice, "but mebby yer friend here 'uld like a nightcap."

He advanced to Danny, bottle extended, an evil smile on his face. Jed raised a hand as though to interfere; then dropped it. His jaw settled in grim resolution, his nostrils dilated, and his eyes fixed themselves fast on Danny's face.

Oh, the wailing eagerness of those abused nerves! The cracking of that tortured throat! All the weariness of the day, of the week; all the sagging of spirit under the assault of the demon in him were concentrated now. A hot wave swept his body. The fumes set the blood rushing to his eyes, to his ears; made him reel. His hand wavered up, half daring to reach for the bottle, and the strain of his drawn face dissolved in a weak smile.

Why hold off? Why battle longer? Why delay? Why? Why? Why?

Of a sudden his ears rang with memory of his father's brittle voice in cold denunciation, and the quick passing of that illusion left another talking there, in nasal twang, carrying a great sympathy.

"No, thanks," he said just above a whisper. "I'm not drinking."

He turned quickly and stepped out the door.

Through the confusion of sounds and ideas he heard the rasping laughter of Rhues, and the tone of it, the nasty, jeering note, did much to clear his brain and bring him back to the fighting.

Jed walked beside him and they crossed to where their rolls of bedding had been dropped, speaking no word. As they stooped to pick up the stuff the older man's hand fell on the boy's shoulder. His fingers squeezed, and then the palm smote Danny between the shoulder blades, soundly, confidently. Oh, that assurance! This man understood. And he had faith in this wreck of a youth that he had seen for the first time ten hours before!

Shaken, tormented though he was, weakened by the sharp struggle of a moment ago, Danny felt keenly and with something like pride that it had been worth the candle. He knew, too, with a feeling of comfort, that an explanation to Jed would never be necessary.

Silently they spread the blankets and, with a simple "Good night," crawled in between.

Danny had never before slept with his clothes on-when sober. He had never snuggled between coarse blankets in the open. But somehow it did not seem strange; it was all natural, as though it should be so.

His mind went round and round, fighting away the tingling odor that still clung in his nostrils, trying to blot out the wondering looks on the countenances of those others as they watched his struggle to refuse the stuff his tormentor held out to him.

He did not care about forgetting how Rhues's laughter sounded. Somehow the feeling of loathing for the man for a time distracted his thought from the pleading of his throat, augmented the singing of that chord his father had set in motion, bolstered his will to do, to conquer this thing!

But the effect was not enduring. On and on through the narrow channels that the fevered condition made went his thinking; forever and forever it must be so-the fighting, fighting, fighting; the searching for petty distractions that would make him forget for the moment!

Suddenly he saw that there were stars-millions upon countless millions of them dusted across the dome of the pale heavens as carelessly as a baker might dust silvered sugar over the icing of a festal cake. Big stars and tiny stars and mere little diffusive glows of light that might come from a thousand worlds, clustering together out there in infinite void. Blue stars and white stars, orange stars, and stars that glowed red. Stars that sent beams through incalculable space and stars that swung low, that seemed almost attainable. Stars that blinked sleepily and stars that stared without wavering, purposeful, attentive. Stars alone and lonely; stars in bunches. Stars in rows and patterns, as though put there with design.

Danny breathed deeply, as though the pure air were stuffy and he needed more of it, for the vagary of his wandering mind had carried him back to the place where light points were arranged by plan. He saw again the electric-light kitten and the spool of thread, the mineral-water clock, the cigarette sign with flowing border, the-

Whisky again! He moved his throbbing head from side to side.

"Is it a blank wall?" he asked quite calmly. "Shall I always come up against it? Is there no way out?"

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