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   Chapter 13 No.13

A Man Four-Square By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 12921

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


A Friendly Enemy

"Law sakes, Miss Bertie Lee, yo' suppah done been ready an hour. Hit sure am discommodin' the way you go gallumphin' around. Don't you-all nevah git tired?"

Aunt Becky was large and black and bulgy. To say that she was fat fails entirely of doing her justice. She overflowed from her clothes in waves at all possible points. When she moved she waddled.

Just now she was trying to be cross, but the smile of welcome on the broad face would have its way.

"Set down an' rest yo' weary bones, honey. I'll have yo' suppah dished up in no time a-tall. Yore paw was axin' where is you awhile ago."

"Where's dad?" asked Miss Bertie Lee Snaith carelessly as she flung her gloves on a chair.

"He done gone down to the store to see if anything been heerd o' them vilyainous killers of Mr. Webb."

When Bertie Lee returned from washing her hands and face and giving a touch or two to her hair, she sat down and did justice to the fried chicken and biscuits of Aunt Becky. She had had a long day of it and she ate with the keen appetite of youth.

Her father returned while she was still at the table. He was a big sandy man dressed in a corduroy suit. He was broad of shoulder and his legs were bowed.

"Any news, dad?" she asked.

"Not a thing, Lee. I reckon they've made their get-away. They must have slipped off the road somewhere. The wounded one never could have traveled all night. Maybe we'll git 'em yet."

"What will you do with them, if you do?"

"Hang 'em to a sour apple tree," answered Wallace Snaith promptly.

His daughter made no comment. She knew that her father's resentment was based on no abstract love of law and order. It had back of it no feeling that crime had been committed or justice outraged. The frontier was in its roistering youth, full of such effervescing spirits that life was the cheapest thing it knew. Every few days some unfortunate was buried on Boot Hill, a victim of his own inexpertness with the six-shooter. The longhorned cattle of Texas were wearing broad trails to the north and the northwest and such towns as Los Portales were on the boom. Chap-clad punchers galloped through the streets at all hours of the day and night letting out their joyous "Eee-yip-eee." The keys of Tolleson's and half a dozen other gambling places had long since been lost, for the doors were never closed to patrons. At games of chance the roof was the limit, in the expressive phrase of the country. Guns cracked at the slightest difference of opinion. It was bad form to use the word "murder." The correct way to speak of the result of a disagreement was to refer to it as "a killing."

Law lay for every man in a holster on his own hip. Snaith recognized this and accepted it. He was ready to "bend a gun" himself if occasion called for it. What he objected to in this particular killing was the personal affront to him. One of Webb's men had deliberately and defiantly killed two of his riders when the town was full of his employees. The man had walked into Tolleson's-a place which he, Snaith, practically owned himself-and flung down the gauntlet to the whole Lazy S M outfit. It was a flagrant insult and Wallace Snaith proposed to see that it was avenged.

"I'm going duck-hunting to-morrow, dad," Lee told him. "I'll likely be up before daylight, but I'll try not to disturb you. If you hear me rummaging around in the pantry, you'll know what for."

He grunted assent, full of the grievance that was rankling in his mind. Lee came and went as she pleased. She was her own mistress and he made no attempt to chaperon her activities.

The light had not yet begun to sift into the sky next morning when Lee dressed and tiptoed to the kitchen. She carried saddlebags with her and into the capacious pockets went tea, coffee, flour, corn meal, a flask of brandy, a plate of cookies, and a slab of bacon. An old frying-pan and a small stew kettle joined the supplies; also a little package of "yerb" medicine prepared by Aunt Becky as a specific for fevers.

Lee walked through the silent, pre-dawn darkness to the stable and saddled her pony, blanketing and cinching as deftly as her father could have done it. With her she carried an extra blanket for the wounded man.

The gray light of dawn was beginning to sift into the sky when she reached the camp of the fugitives. Prince came forward to meet her. She saw that the fire was now only a bed of coals from which no smoke would rise to betray them.

The girl swung from the saddle and gave a little jerk of her head toward

Clanton.

"How is he?"

"Slept like a log all night. Feels a heap better this mo'nin'. Wants to know if he can't have somethin' to eat."

"I killed a couple of prairie plover on the way. We'll make some soup for him."

The girl walked straight to her patient and looked down at him with direct and searching eyes. She found no glaze of fever in the ones that gazed back into hers.

"Hungry, are you?"

"I could eat a mail sack, ma'am."

She stripped the gauntlets from her hands and set about making breakfast. Jim watched her with alert interest. He was still weak, but life this morning began to renew itself in him. The pain and the fever had gone and left him at peace with a world just emerging from darkness into a rosily flushed dawn. Not the least attractive feature of it was this stunning, dark-eyed girl who was proving such a friendly enemy.

Her manner to Billie was crisp and curt. She ordered him to fetch and carry. Something in his slow drawl-some hint of hidden amusement in his manner-struck a spark of resentment from her quick eye. But toward Jim she was all kindness. No trouble was too much to take for his comfort. If he had a whim it must be gratified. Prince was merely a servant to wait upon him.

The education of Jim Clanton was progressing. As he ate his plover broth he could not keep his eyes from her. She was so full of vital life. The color beat through her dark skin warm and rich. The abundant blue-black hair, the flashing eyes, the fine poise of the head, the little jaunty swagger of her, so wholly a matter of unconscious faith in her place in the sun: all of these charmed and delighted him. He had never dreamed of a girl of such spirit and fire.

It was inevitable that both he and Billie should recall by contrast another girl who had given them generously of her service not long since. There were in the country then very few wome

n of any kind. Certainly within a radius of two hundred miles there was no other girl so popular and so attractive as these two. Many a puncher would have been willing to break an arm for the sake of such kindness as had been lavished upon these boys.

By sunup the three of them had finished breakfast. Billie put out the fire and scattered the ashes in the river. He went into a committee of ways and means with Lee Snaith just before she returned to town.

"You can't stay here long. Some one is sure to stumble on you just as I did. What plan have you to get away?"

"If I could get our horses in three or four days mebbe Jim could make out to ride a little at a time."

"He couldn't-and you can't get your horses," she vetoed.

"Then I'll have to leave him, steal another horse, and ride through to

Webb for help."

"No. You mustn't leave him. I'll see if I can get a man to take a message to your friends."

A smile came out on his lean, strong face. "You're a good friend."

"I'm no friend of yours," she flashed back. "But I won't have my father spoiling the view by hanging you where I might see you when I ride."

"You're Wallace Snaith's daughter, I reckon."

"Yes. And no man that rides for Homer Webb can be a friend of mine."

"Sorry. Anyhow, you can't keep me from being mighty grateful to my littlest enemy."

He did not intend to smile, but just a hint of it leaped to his eyes. She flushed angrily, suspecting that he was mocking her, and swung her pony toward town.

On the way she shot a brace of ducks for the sake of appearances. The country was a paradise for the hunter. On the river could be found great numbers of ducks, geese, swans, and pelicans. Of quail and prairie chicken there was no limit. Thousands of turkeys roosted in the timber that bordered the streams. There were times when the noise of pigeons returning to their night haunt was like thunder and the sight of them almost hid the sky. Bands of antelope could be seen silhouetted against the skyline. As for buffalo, numbers of them still ranged the plains, though the day of their extinction was close at hand. No country in the world's history ever offered such a field for the sportsman as the Southwest did in the days of the first great cattle drives.

Miss Bertie Lee dismounted at a store which bore the sign

SNAITH & McROBERT

General Merchandise

Though a large building, it was not one of the most recent in town. It was what is known as a "dugout" in the West, a big cellar roofed over, with side walls rising above the level of the ground. In a country where timber was scarce and the railroad was not within two hundred miles, a sod structure of this sort was the most practicable possible.

The girl sauntered in and glanced carelessly about her. Two or three chap-clad cowboys were lounging against the counter watching another buy a suit of clothes. The wide-brimmed hats of all of them came off instantly at sight of her. The frontier was rampantly lawless, but nowhere in the world did a good woman meet with more unquestioning respect.

"What's this hyer garment?" asked the brick-red customer of the clerk, holding up the waistcoat that went with the suit.

"That's a vest," explained the salesman. "You wear it under the coat."

"You don't say!" The vaquero examined the article curiously and disdainfully. "I've heard tell of these didoes, but I never did see one before. Well, I'll take this suit. Wrap it up. You keep the vest proposition and give it to a tenderfoot."

No cowpuncher ever wore a waistcoat. The local dealers of the Southwest had been utterly unable to impress this fact upon the mind of the Eastern manufacturer. The result was that every suit came in three parts, one of which always remained upon the shelf of the store. Some of the supply merchants had several thousand of these articles de luxe in their stock. In later years they gave them away to Indians and Mexicans.

"Do you know where Jack Goodheart is?" asked Lee of the nearest youth.

"No, ma'am, but I'll go hunt him for you," answered the puncher promptly.

"Thank you."

Ten minutes later a bronzed rider swung down in front of the Snaith home.

Miss Bertie Lee was on the porch.

"You sent for me," he said simply.

"Do you want to do something for me?"

"Try me."

"Will you ride after Webb's outfit and tell him that two of his men are in hiding on the river just below town. One of them is wounded and can't sit a horse. So he'd better send a buckboard for him. Let Homer Webb know that if dad or Sanders finds these men, the cottonwoods will be bearing a new kind of fruit. Tell him to burn the wind getting here. The men are in a cave on the left-hand side of the river going down. It is just below the bend."

Jack Goodheart did not ask her how she knew this or what difference it made to her whether Webb rescued his riders or not. He said, "I'll be on the road inside of twenty minutes."

Goodheart was a splendid specimen of the frontiersman. He was the best roper in the country, of proved gameness, popular, keen as an Italian stiletto, and absolutely trustworthy. Since the first day he had seen her Jack had been devoted to the service of Bertie Lee Snaith. No dog could have been humbler or less critical of her shortcomings. The girl despised his wooing, but she was forced to respect the man. As a lover she had no use for Goodheart; as a friend she was always calling upon him.

"I knew you'd go, Jack," she told him.

"Yes, I'd lie down and make of myself a door-mat for you to trample on," he retorted with a touch of self-contempt. "Would you like me to do it now?"

Lee looked at him in surprise. This was the first evidence he had ever given that he resented the position in which he stood to her.

"If you don't want to go I'll ask some one else," she replied.

"Oh, I'll go."

He turned and strode to his horse. For years he had been her faithful cavalier and he knew he was no closer to his heart's desire than when he began to serve. The first faint stirrings of rebellion were moving in him. It was not that he blamed her in the least. She was scarcely nineteen, the magnet for the eyes of all the unattached men in the district. Was it reasonable to suppose that she would give her love to a penniless puncher of twenty-eight, lank as a shad, with no recommendation but honesty? None the less, Jack began to doubt whether eternal patience was a virtue.

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