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   Chapter 4 THE OLD LADY

The Heart of the Range By William Patterson White Characters: 19506

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Hope Old Man Dale is home," said Racey to himself when he saw ahead of him the grove of cottonwoods marking the location of Moccasin Spring. "But he won't be," he added, lugubriously. "I never did have any luck."

He passed the grove of trees and opened up the prospect of house and stable and corral with cottonwood and willow-bordered Soogan Creek in the background.

"Changed some since I was here last," he muttered in wonder. For nesters as a rule do not go in for flowers and shrubs. And here, besides a small truck garden, were both-all giving evidence of much care and attention.

Racey dismounted at the corral and approached the kitchen door. A fresh young voice in the kitchen was singing a song to the brave accompaniment of a twanging banjo:

"When I was a-goin' down the road

With a tired team an' a heavy load,

I cracked my whip an' the leader sprung,

An' he almost busted the wagon tongue.

Turkey in the straw, ha! ha! ha!

Turkey in-"

The singing stopped in the middle of a line. The banjo went silent in the middle of a bar. Racey looked in at the kitchen door and saw, sitting on a corner of the kitchen table, a very pretty girl. One knee was crossed over the other, in her lap was the mute banjo, and she was looking straight at him.

Racey, heartily and internally cursing himself for having neglected to shave, pulled off his hat and achieved a head-hob.

"Good morning," said the pretty girl, putting up a slim tanned hand and tucking in behind a well-set ear a strayed lock of black hair.

"Mornin'," said Racey, and decided then and there that he had never before seen eyes of such a deep, dark blue, or a mouth so alluringly red.

"What," said the pretty girl, laying the banjo on the table and sliding down till her feet touched the floor, "what can I do for you?"

"Nun-nothin'," stuttered the rattled Racey, clasping his hat to his bosom, so that he could button unseen the top button of his shirt, "except cuc-can you find Miss Dale for me. Is she home?"

"Mother's out. So's Father, I'm the only one home."

"It's yore sister I want, Miss Dale-yore oldest sister."

"You must mean Mrs. Morgan. She lives-"

"No, I don't mean her. Yore oldest sister, Miss. Her whose hoss was taken by mistake in Farewell yesterday."

"That was my horse."

"Yores! But they said it was an old lady's hoss! Are you shore it-"

"Of course I'm sure. Did you bring him back?… Where?… The corral?"

The girl walked swiftly to the window, took one glance at the bay horse tied to the corral gate, and returned to the table.

"Certainly that's my horse," she reiterated with the slightest of smiles.

Racey Dawson stared at her in horror. Her horse! He had actually run off with the horse of this beautiful being. He had thereby caused inconvenience to this angel. If he could only crawl off somewhere and pass away quietly. At the moment, by his own valuation, any one buying him for a nickel would have been liberally overcharged. Her horse! "I-I took yore hoss," he spoke up, desperately. "I'm Racey Dawson."

"So you're the man-" she began, and stopped.

He nodded miserably, his contrite eyes on the toes of her shoes. Small shoes they were. Cheerfully would he have lain down right there on the floor and let her wipe those selfsame shoes upon him. It would have been a positive pleasure. He felt so worm-like he almost wriggled. Slowly, oh, very slowly, he lifted his eyes to her face.

"I-I was drunk," he confessed, hoping that an honest confession would restrain her from casting him into outer darkness.

"I heard you were," she admitted.

"I thought it was yore oldest sister's pony," he bumbled on, feeling it incumbent upon him to say something. "They told me something about an old lady."

"Jane Morgan's the only other sister I have. Who told you this wild tale?"

"Them," was his vague reply. He was not the man to give away the jokers of Farewell. Old lady, indeed! Miss Blythe to the contrary notwithstanding this girl was not within sight of middle-age. "Yeah," he went on, "they shore fooled me. Told me I'd taken an old maid's hoss, and-"

"Oh, as far as that goes," said the girl, her long eyelashes demurely drooping, "they told you the truth. I'm an old maid."

"You? Shucks!" Hugely contemptuous.

"Oh, but I am," she insisted, raising her eyes and tilting sidewise her charming head. "I'm not married."

"Thank-" he began, impulsively, but choked on the second word and gulped hard. "I mean," he resumed, hastily, "I don't understand why I never saw you before. I was here once, but you weren't around."

"When were you here?… Why, that was two years ago. I was only a kid then-all legs like a calf. No wonder you didn't notice me."

She laughed at him frankly, with a bewildering flash of white teeth.

"I shore must 'a' been blind," he said, truthfully. "They ain't any two ways about that."

Under his admiring gaze a slow blush overspread her smooth cheeks. She laughed again-uncertainly, and burst into swift speech. "My manners! What have I been thinking of? Mr. Dawson, please sit down, do. I know you must be tired after your long ride. Take that chair under the mirror. It's the strongest. You can tip it back against the wall if you like. I'll get you a cup of coffee. I know you're thirsty. I'm sorry Mother and Father aren't home, but Mother drove over to the Bar S on business and I don't know where Father went!"

"I ain't fit to stay," hesitated Racey, rasping the back of his hand across his stubbly chin.

"Nonsense. You sit right down while I grind the coffee. I'll have you a potful in no time. I make pretty good coffee if I do say it myself."

"I'll bet you do."

"But my sister Jane makes better. You'll get some of hers at dinner."

"Dinner?" He stared blankly.

"Of course, dinner. When Mother and Father are away I always go down there for my meals. It's only a quarter-mile down stream. Shorter if you climb that ridge. But it's so stony I generally go along the creek bank where I can gallop…. What? Why, of course you're going with me. Jane would never forgive me if I didn't bring you. And what would Chuck say if you came this far and then didn't go on down to his house? Don't you suppose he enjoys seeing his old friends? It was only last week I heard him wonder to Father if you were ever coming back to this country. How did you like it up at the Bend?"

"Right fine," he told her, settling himself comfortably in the chair she had indicated. "But a feller gets tired of one place after a while. I thought maybe I'd come back to the Lazy River and get a job ridin' the range again."

"Aren't there any ranches round the Bend?" she asked, poking up the fire and setting on the coffee-pot.

"Plenty, but I-I like the Lazy River country," he told her. "Fort

Creek country for yores truly, now and hereafter."

In this fashion did the proposed journey to Arizona go glimmering. His eye lingered on the banjo where it lay on the table.

"Can you play it?" she asked, her eye following his.

"Some," said he. "Want to hear a camp-meeting song?"

She nodded. He rose and picked up the banjo. He placed a foot on the chair seat, slid the banjo to rest on his thigh, swept the strings, and broke into "Inchin' Along". Which ditty made her laugh. For it is a funny song, and he sang it well.

"That was fine," she told him when he had sung it through. "Your voice sounds a lot like that of a man I heard singing in Farewell yesterday. He was in the Happy Heart when I was going by, and he sang Jog on, jog on the footpath way. If it hadn't been a saloon I'd have gone in. I just love the old songs."

"You do?" said he, delightedly, with shining eyes. "Well, Miss Dale, that feller in the saloon was me, and old songs is where I live. I cut my teeth on 'The Barley Mow' and grew up with 'Barbara Allen'. My mother she used to sing 'em all. She was a great hand to sing and she taught me. Know 'The Keel Row?'"

She didn't, so he sang it for her. And others he sang, too-"The Merry Cuckoo" and "The Bailiff's Daughter". The last she liked so well that he sang it three times over, and they quite forgot the coffee.

Racey Dawson was starting the second verse of "Sourwood Mountain" when someone without coughed apologetically. Racey stopped singing and looked toward the doorway. Standing in the sunken half-round log that served as a doorstep was the stranger he had seen with Lanpher.

There was more than a hint of amusement in the black eyes with which the stranger was regarding Racey. The latter felt that the stranger was enjoying a hearty internal laugh at his expense. As probably he was. Racey looked at him from beneath level brows. The lid of the stranger's right eye dropped ever so little. It was the merest of winks. Yet it was unmistakable. It recalled their morning's meeting. More, it was the tolerant wink of a superior to an inferior. A wink that merited a kick? Quite so.

The keen black eyes veered from Racey to the girl. The man removed his hat and bowed with, it must be said, not a little grace. Miss Dale nodded coldly. The stranger smiled. It was marvellous how the magic of that smile augmented the attractive good looks of the stranger's full face. It was equally singular how that self-same smile rendered more hawk-like than ever the hard and Roman profile of the fellow. It was precisely as though he were two different men at one and the same time.

"Does Mr. Dale live here?" inquired the stranger.

"He does." A breath from the Boreal Pole was in the two words uttered by Miss Dale.

The stranger's smile widened. The keen black eyes began to twinkle. He made as if to enter, but went no farther than the placing of one foot on

the doorsill.

"Is he home?"

"He isn't." Clear and colder.

"I'm shore sorry," grieved the stranger, the smile waning a trifle. "I wanted to see him."

"I supposed as much," sniffed Miss Dale, uncordially.

"Yes, Miss," said the stranger, undisturbed. "When will he be back, if

I might ask?"

"To-night-to-morrow. I'm not sure."

"So I see," nodded the stranger. "Would it be worth while my waitin'?"

"That depends on what you call worth while."

"You're right. It does. Standards ain't always alike, are they." He laughed silently, and pulled on his hat. "And it's a good thing standards ain't all alike," he resumed, chattily. "Wouldn't it be a funny old world if they were?"

The smile of him recognized Racey briefly, but it rested upon and caressed the girl. She shook her shoulders as if she were ridding herself of the touch of hands.

The stranger continued to smile-and to look as if he expected a reply. But he did not get it. Miss Dale stared calmly at him, through him.

Slowly the stranger slid his foot from the doorsill to the doorstep; slowly, very slowly, his keenly twinkling black gaze travelled over the girl from her face to her feet and up again to finally fasten upon and hold as with a tangible grip her angry blue eyes.

"I'm sorry yore pa ain't here," he resumed in a drawl. "I had some business. It can wait. I'll be back. So long."

The stranger turned and left them.

From the kitchen window they watched him mount his horse and ford the creek and ride away westward.

"I don't like that man," declared Miss Dale, and caught her lower lip between her white teeth. "I wonder what he wanted?"

"You'll find out when he comes back." Dryly.

"I hope he never comes back. I never want to see him again. Do you know him?"

"Not me. First time I ever saw him was this morning in Farewell. He was with Lanpher. When I was coming out here he and Lanpher caught up with me and passed me."

"He didn't bring Lanpher here with him anyhow."

"He didn't for a fact," assented Racey Dawson, his eyes following the dwindling figures of the rider and his horse. "I wonder why?"

"I wonder, too." Thus Miss Dale with a gurgling chuckle.

Both laughed. For Racey's sole visit to the Dale place had been made in company with Lanpher. The cause of said visit had been the rustling and butchering of an 88 cow, which Lanpher had ill-advisedly essayed to fasten upon Mr. Dale. But, due to the interference of Chuck Morgan, a Bar S rider, who later married Jane Dale, Lanpher's attempt had been unavailing. It may be said in passing that Lanpher had suffered both physically and mentally because of that visit. Of course he had neither forgiven Chuck Morgan nor the Bar S for backing up its puncher, which it had done to the limit.

"I quit the 88 that day," Racey Dawson told the girl.

"I know you did. Chuck told me. Look at the time, will you? Get your hat. We mustn't keep Jane waiting."

"No," he said, thoughtfully, his brows puckered, "we mustn't keep Jane waitin'. Lookit, Miss Dale, as I remember yore pa he had a moustache. Has he still got it?"

Miss Dale puzzled, paused in the doorway. "Why, no," she told him. "He wears a horrid chin whisker now."

"He does, huh? A chin whisker. Let's be movin' right along. I think

I've got something interesting to tell you and yore sister and Chuck."

But they did not move along. They halted in the doorway. Or, rather, the girl halted in the doorway, and Racey looked over her shoulder. What stopped them short in their tracks was a spectacle-the spectacle of an elderly chin-whiskered man, very drunk and disorderly, riding in on a paint pony.

"Father!" breathed Miss Dale in a horror-stricken whisper.

And as she spoke Father uttered a string of cheerful whoops and topped off with a long pull at a bottle he had been brandishing in his right hand.

"Please go," said Miss Dale to Racey Dawson.

He hesitated. He was in a quandary. He did not relish leaving her with-At that instant Mr. Dale decided Racey's course for him. Mr. Dale pulled a gun and, still whooping cheerily, shook five shots into the atmosphere. Then Mr. Dale fumblingly threw out his cylinder and began to reload.

"I'd better get his gun away from him," Racey said, apologetically, over his shoulder, as he ran forward.

But the old man would have none of him. He cunningly discerned an enemy in Racey and tried to shoot him. It was lucky for Racey that the old fellow was as drunk as a fiddler, or certainly Racey would have been buried the next day. As it was, the first bullet went wide by a yard. The second went straight up into the blue, for by then Racey had the old man's wrist.

"There, there," soothed Racey, "you don't want that gun, Nawsir. Not you. Le's have it, that's a good feller now."

So speaking he twisted the sixshooter from the old man's grasp and jammed it into the waistband of his own trousers. The old man burst into frank tears. Incontinently he slid sidewise from the saddle and clasped Racey round the neck.

"I'm wild an' woolly an' full o' fleas I'm hard to curry below the knees-"

Thus he carolled loudly two lines of the justly popular song.

"Luke," he bawled, switching from verse to prose, "why didja leave me,

Luke?"

Strangely enough, he did not stutter. Without the slightest difficulty he leaped that pitfall of the drunken, the letter L.

"Luke," repeated Racey Dawson, struck by a sudden thought. "What's this about Luke? You mean Luke Tweezy?"

The old man rubbed his shaving-brush adown Racey's neck-muscles. "I mean Luke Tweezy," he said. "Lots o' folks don't like Luke. They say he's mean. But they ain't nothin' mean about Luke. He's frien' o' mine, Luke is."

"Mr. Dawson," said Molly Dale at Racey's elbow, "please go, I can get him into the house. You can do no good here."

"I can do lots o' good here," declared Racey, who felt sure that he was on the verge of a discovery. "Somebody is a-trying to jump yore ranch, and if you'll lemme talk to him I can find out who it is."

"Who-how?" said Miss Dale, stupidly, for, what with the fright and embarrassment engendered by her father's condition the true significance of Racey's remark was not immediately apparent.

"Yore ranch," repeated Racey, sharply. "They're a-tryin' to steal it from you. You lemme talk to him, ma'am. Look out! Grab his bridle!"

Miss Dale seized the bridle of her father's horse in time to prevent a runaway. She was not aware that the horse's attempt to run away had been inspired by Racey surreptitiously and severely kicking it on the fetlock. This he had done that Miss Dale's thoughts might be temporarily diverted from her father. Anything to keep her from shooing him away as she so plainly wished to do.

Racey began to assist the now-crumpling Mr. Dale toward the house. "What's this about Luke Tweezy?" prodded Racey. "Did you see him to-day?"

"Shore I seen him to-day," burbled the drunken one. "He left me at McFluke's after buyin' me the bottle and asked me to stay there till he got back. But I got tired waitin'. So I come along. I-hic-come along."

Limply the man's whole weight sagged down against Racey's supporting arm, and he began to snore.

"Shucks," muttered Racey, then stooping he picked up the limp body in his arms and carried it to the house.

"He's asleep," he called to Miss Dale. "Where'll I put him?"

"I'll show you," she said, with a break in her voice.

She hastily tied the now-quiet pony to a young cottonwood growing at the corner of the house and preceded Racey into the kitchen.

"Here," she said, her eyes meeting his a fleeting instant as she threw open a door giving into an inner room. "On the bed."

She turned back the counterpane and Racey laid her snoring parent on the blanket. Expertly he pulled off the man's boots and stood them side by side against the wall.

"Had to take 'em off now, or his feet would swell so after you'd never get 'em off," he said in justification of his conduct.

She held the door open for him to leave the room. She did not look at him. Nor did she speak.

"I'm going now," he said, standing in the middle of the kitchen. "But

I wish you wouldn't shut that door just yet."

"I-Oh, can't you see you're not wanted here?" Her voice was shaking.

The door was open but a crack. He could not see her.

"I know," he said, gently. "But you don't understand how serious this business is. I had good reason for believing that somebody is trying to steal yore ranch. From several things yore dad said I'm shorer than ever. If I could only talk to you a li'l while."

At this she came forth. Her eyes were downcast. Her cheeks were red with shamed blood. She leaned against the table. One closed fist rested on the top of the table. The knuckles showed white. She was trembling a little.

"Where and what is McFluke's?" he asked.

"Oh, that's where he got it!" she exclaimed, bitterly.

"I guess. If you wouldn't mind telling me where McFluke's is, ma'am-"

"It's a little saloon and store on the Marysville road at the Lazy

River ford."

"It's new since my time then."

"It's been in operation maybe a year and a half. What makes you think someone is trying to steal our ranch?"

"Lots o' things," he told her, briskly. "But they ain't gonna do it if I can help it. Don't you fret. It will all come out right. Shore it will. Can't help it."

"But tell me how-what you know," she demanded.

"I haven't time now, unless you're coming with me to see Chuck."

"I can't-now."

"Then you ask Chuck later. I'll tell him all about it. You ask him. So long."

Racey hurried out and caught up his own horse. He swung into the saddle and spurred away down stream.

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