DROP a pebble into a smooth lake, and the ripples move in widening circles, how far no man knows. So sometimes the most casual of human actions go freighted with large consequences. To point an illustration of my text: If the wife of a stage carpenter in Harlem had not put an orange in his lunch pail on a certain day, little Kittie Collins of faraway Texas would not have been snatched from the humdrum of her housework into a current that carried her to the edge of tragedy.
The links in the chain of cause and effect are few. The carpenter, eating his lunch in the studio of the Greatorex Film Company, was giving an animated opinion of the prospects of the Federal League as he dived into the pail for his fruit. Presently the leading man of the stock company swung briskly into the studio and went to the floor hard. He had slipped upon a piece of orange peel and sprained his ankle badly. Exit both carpenter and leading man from this chronicle. That night a telegraphed letter flashed across the continent addressed to Edward Kent, care of the Lunar Company, Paso Robles, Texas, offering him a place as leading man with the Greatorex. A wire from the Lone Star State to Chicago was the next link. It notified Harold Raleigh to join the Lunar border company at once. He was needed to take the place of “heavy” vacated by Ned Kent.
Two days later Raleigh stepped from a train at Paso Robles. The stage was set for the little drama. Its development requires more detailed explanation.
As he shook hands with him on the hotel porch, Keating looked his new actor over and did not much like what he saw. Raleigh was a dark, slender man with black hair and small, black eyes. The director judged him to be about forty-three years old, but a very youthful and cocksure forty-three. His cane, his jaunty attire, the smug satisfaction with which he fell from one pose into another, rather annoyed the plain man who stood in his shirtsleeves with a black cigar protruding from between close-shut lips. Still, it was impossible to deny him good looks in a superficial way. It was quite likely that he could register the stuff given him to play so that it would get across.
It chanced that Mademoiselle Zapeta Jocoste, her trained dog Hero at her side, turned in to the hotel while the men were still talking. Raleigh caught a flash of the deep, dusky eyes as she nodded carelessly to the producing director. She was a woman any man might be pardoned for looking at twice.
“Who's the skirt?” asked the new heavy, following her slender, straight figure with eyes that had narrowed and taken on a certain masked alertness.
Keating guessed him for the kind of man that looks at attractive women like a vulture until he dodders into his grave from senility.
“Mademoiselle Jocoste—with the Falls Brothers circus till it went to pieces at El Paso. Her horse, Mustapha does stunts,” explained Keating. “Expect you'd like to get a chance to wash before dinner.”
“Yes. Sure,” agreed Raleigh absently.
His gaze was still focused upon the young woman's back. She walked with a smooth, sinuous, animal grace, with an ease and suppleness that gave her a peculiar effect of vitality.
“Some dame,” the actor added in comment.
“We think a good deal of her. She has helped us pull off some great animal stuff with her horse and dog. Well, see you later, Mr. Raleigh.”
The new “heavy” did not fit unobtrusively into his environment. Self-esteem was his stock in trade. He wanted it understood that Broadway was his habitat and to come to Texas at all was a condescension. With the women of the company he insisted on establishing special relationships. Dorothy Trefoyle was at first a little flattered by the swiftness of his interest in her, but Raleigh got his congé as soon as the leading lady discovered that Fenwick would not stand any nonsense. She was genuinely in love with the Lunar star, and she did not intend to risk her happiness on account of a flirtation.
Harold Raleigh was not unduly sensitive. He accepted the situation at once and preened his plumes before the other ladies. His airs and his graces were designed especially to attract Mademoiselle Zapeta Jocoste, whose private name was Nora McCorkle. That very self-possessed young woman appeared unconscious of his amatory strut. If her inscrutable, deep eyes saw, they gave no sign of understanding. They had a disconcerting way of looking past and through objects that did not seem to interest her. It was one of the little tricks of self-protection their owner had acquired during her five and twenty bohemian years on this planet.
Jocoste was a find. She had been with the Lunar Company about two months and every day grew more valuable.
“She's some little actress herself,” Keating confided to Roady McCarty, a cowpuncher of the company, “but that horse Mustapha is a peach. And her bulldog Hero—say, I sometimes wish a few of you lads had canine sense.”
Roady's unfinished face crinkled to a grin. “Like as not we'd put across good stuff, too, if you'd get Miss Zapeta to rehearse us the same way she does them dumb animals, with a little whip and heaps of cuddles.”
Keating grunted. He did not believe in spoiling his actors with undue praise. But Roady was gratefully aware by the fatness of his pay envelope that the producer was satisfied with his work. The cow-puncher had been graduated from the extra list to a regular place in the company. Since his rescue of Dorothy Trefoyle from the insurrecto chief Pasqual, McCarty had become a different kind of a joke. The story had got into the Eastern papers and the agent of a rival company had traveled a thousand miles to make the bowlegged and freckled-faced rider an offer. The fact was that Roady's very simplicity—the naturalness with which his face registered bewilderment, surprise, delight and other primal emotions—added to his value. Theater patrons began to look for his appearance. The very sight of him on the stage was enough to send a smile rippling from seat to seat. There was something irresistibly comic about his awkward embarrassment.
Roady took no credit to himself for his little success. In his craving for affection he was like a big Newfoundland puppy. He was glad when Keating was pleased and he was happy because the Lunar people liked him, from the great Bruce Fenwick to little Kittie Collins, only daughter of the Scotch property man. Sometimes they laughed at him, but there was always kindness behind their mirth.
For this reason he was the more perplexed at Raleigh's manner toward him. The “heavy” treated him as if he were an inanimate thing without feelings. He jeered at his ungainly walk, made spiteful fun of his acting, and in general used him as the butt of his ill-natured wit. Roady supposed he must have done something to offend the man. It did not occur to him that Harold Raleigh was by nature the kind of bully that always tramples upon the live creature unable to resent injustice effectively.
“Why don't you beat his head off?” Nora McCorkle asked him one day after Raleigh had been baiting him for the general entertainment.
Roady's chin dropped in surprise. The young woman was wrinkling her pretty nose at Hero's ugly one as she flung the unexpected question at him. He took off his disreputable hat and scratched the brindle thatch beneath.
“Why, I dunno, Miss Nora. I don' reckon he aims to be mean. O' course I ain't lookin' for trouble with no one.”
She tilted her Leghorn hat and flashed a derisive smile up at him. “Any old time he don't mean to be mean. Some men you have to whang decency into with a buggy whip. Don't you, Hero, old sport?”
Hero bared his jaws in a wide grin. He knew a better way than a buggy whip.
Roady, unused to the sinuous ways of women, could not understand why Jocoste let Raleigh hang around her if she did not like him. The man was her devoted cavalier. He tried to make friends with Mustapha and even with Hero, who always drew back and showed his strong teeth with an ominous growl, whereas the bulldog would let McCarty roughhouse him all he pleased.
The cowpuncher found himself discussing the matter with Kittie Collins one day when he had stopped at the house to tell her that her father would not be home to lunch and would like some sent to the studio. The subject had come up naturally because Raleigh was leaving the house just as Roady arrived.
The “heavy” was the least bit in the world put out at sight of the bandy-legged rider, but he carried it off with badinage.
“Hello, Buttinski, what breeze blew you here?” he wanted to know as he passed down the walk to the street.
Kittie explained his presence with a little blush. “Mr. Raleigh wanted to see Father about some properties for his big hacienda set.”
She was a round little lassie of seventeen, all curves and dimples, about as worldly wise as a kitten. It was easy to bring the color flooding to her pretty face. In its suggestion of exquisite youth her shy smile was charming.
“He might a-known Neil would be in the property room and not here. Say, Miss Kittie, what about him and Miss Nora?”
Kittie had a quiet and cloistered spirit of mischief in her when she was not subdued by bashfulness. This was one of her expansive moments. Nobody was ever in awe of Roady.
“Dad and Miss McCorkle?” she sparkled innocently, brushing back a coquettish lock of hair that had escaped.
Roady shouted gleefully and beat his shapeless hat upon his shiny leathers. “Come again. Set 'em up on the other alley. No, not Neil, but Raleigh and Made-moisel.”
Her quick eyes flew to his. “Well, what about them?”
“Anybody can see he's clean mashed on her—hangs around all the time—walks to the studio with her, takes a pasear home with her at night. But what about her? Why-for does she go riding with him if she don't like him?”
“So you think Mr. Raleigh is—fond of her?”
“Sure he is. Never looks at another woman when she's around.”
“And she—doesn't care for him?” A tide of pink had flushed the winsome young face.
“Say, now you're sure askin' questions I can't answer. Course he's old, but—”
“He's not old at all,” she interrupted indignantly. “A man ought to be older than a woman when they—” She left her sentence unfinished and substituted a faint and embarrassed “Oughtn't he?”
“Blamed if I know, Miss Kittie.” Roady rumpled his mop of tawny rebellious hair. “I'm no chaperoon. Ask Miss Trefoyle. She's engaged and orter know.”
Others besides McCarty were puzzled at Mademoiselle Jocoste's seeming complaisance at the attentions of Harold Raleigh.
“What are you pulling off on us, Nora?” Keating asked one evening when she was waiting to go riding with the “heavy.” “Don't tell me you like that tailor's model. The old rooster hasn't hypnotized you, has he?”
“Mebbe I like him and mebbe I don't,” answered the young woman with composure. “Mebbe he won't let me alone. Mebbe he needs a good hard jolt where it'll do most good. Say, have you seen him shining around that little Collins girl?”
“No, but you can't surprise me. Raleigh's a cradle snatcher, or I'm a rotten guesser.”
Raleigh sauntered out of the hotel in faultless riding getup. Airily he twirled a crop with the manner of a matinee idol on parade. If he was fencing with encroaching age no man ever concealed the fact with more insouciance.
“Not late, am I, Nora?” he asked jauntily.
The actor did not see the look on her face at the use of her Christian name because she happened to be turned towards Keating. The young woman would not have minded if Sam had called her Nora. It was one of the privileges of a fifteen-year-old friendship. But Raleigh was distinctly another proposition.
“Enter the world-renowned Arabian steed Mustapha, stolen when a colt from Sheik Ali Ben Mohaza and trained by the famous daughter of Ilderim, Mademoiselle Zapeta Jocoste,” quoted the director, blandly, from a Falls Brothers circular.
Roady had just brought the horses from the stable. Mustapha was black with white stockings, a beautiful silky mane, and a tail that just missed touching the ground. Nora put her cheek against his soft sensitive nose and whispered love words to him.
“My beauty! My darling! You're an Arabian all right, Musta, if you were foaled in Arabia, Missouri. Sam Keating's green with jealousy. We'll just lift him another ten a week for that, won't we, honey?”
“Help! Help!” cried the director with a grin.
“We're all jealous when you scatter your kisses so generously on Mustapha,” contributed Raleigh, fatuously, with his matinee bow.
Miss McCorkle said nothing. She was busy arranging the saddle cinch to suit her, so that her cavalier missed the gleam in her dark eyes. The heavy coils of black hair told no stories.
Keating watched them out of sight and with a little sigh lit a cigar. For two years he had been wondering whether it would do him any good to ask her to marry him.
“I don't reckon it would get me anything. She's a headliner on the big time, and I'm—well, I'm just plain old Sam Keating. Nix on the romance stuff. I'd sure get in Dutch if I made a pass like that. I'd ought to can the fool notion.” His face presently relaxed to a smile. “It takes an artist to get on to her play. Wonder what in Mexico her little game is. She's sure a pippin. It's a cinch that four-flusher gets his a-plenty. Suits me fine. Mr. Harold Raleigh ain't just popular with Sam Keating. Always trying to crab the scene when he's on with Bruce—always grabbing the stage and eating up footage when he's close to the camera. Me, I never did love a grandstander.”
Roady was in the property room sewing a broken stirrup leather. It was growing almost too dark to see when there came to him the sound of voices from the scene dock. One of them at least was angry and excited. The speakers were evidently approaching.
The cowpuncher was seated behind a canvas wall on the floor. He rose at once to announce his presence, but Neil Collins went on as if he had not been there.
“I don't care who hears me, Mr. Raleigh. You'll keep away from my house. Understand? I'll not have ye hanging around Kittie. I'm a plain man, and I call a spade a spade.” The Scotch burr was plain in his voice, as it always was whenever he felt excited.
Raleigh carried himself with an assumption of dignity. “No use screaming, Mr. Collins. I can hear you plainly enough. As for being courteous to Miss Kittie when we happen to meet—”
The property man rode roughly through his sentence. “That's not what I'm saying. Keep away from my house. Let the girl alone. I'll not have her come under the influence of your damned glib tongue.”
The actor shrugged. He was more annoyed than he cared to admit. It offended his vanity to have the turn called on him before even Roady.
“My dear man, this isn't melodrama. Please don't rant, even if you have to talk tommyrot. I haven't done your daughter any harm. I've tried to be kind to the child—”
“Then give over being kind. She'll get along ver-ry well without it, Mr. Raleigh. Now, what is it you want—a vaquero's suit?”
“Yes. I want one with all the fancy trimmings a Spanish cabellero would have—if you can let me have it without a lecture,” the “heavy” replied tartly.
It was the third evening after this that Roady was lounging in front of the studio smoking one of his rare cigarettes. Through the soft violet night he saw a figure approaching. That light swift tread, at once graceful and energetic, was announcement enough of its owner's identity. The cowpuncher admired tremendously the vigor of spirit that found expression in so slim and supple a body.
“Come, Roady! I want you,” called a feminine voice from the road.
He slid from the fence instantly. “Yes'm, Miss Nora.”
She cut straight across to the trail which led to what was known as Big Rock, a sentinel boulder rising from among the pines at the summit of a hill back of the studio. The bulldog Hero padded softly behind them.
Roady asked no questions. It was enough that Nora McCorkle needed him. He was there to obey orders.
Presently she spoke abruptly. “Neil Collins went to old-town to-night to get some costumes.”
“He was allowin' to-day we'd need some more for that hacienda set,” McCarty responded simply.
She said nothing more. Roady did not understand what she meant, but he recognized in her manner something hard and steely that was new to his knowledge of her. He sensed that she was going directly on a mission of importance.
Some inkling of what it was came to him a few minutes later as they moved through the grove of pines. A man and a woman stood silhouetted on Big Rock. She was in his arms and he was kissing her ardently.
At sound of the footsteps the lovers fell apart hurriedly. An uneven voice called down the trail, “Who is it?”
“You'll be glad to know it isn't Neil Collins, Mr. Raleigh,” answered Nora with quiet contempt.
The actor laughed. There was both relief and uncertainty in his forced mirth. “Is it you, Nora?”
“That's the name my friends call me, Mr. Raleigh,” came her quick pointed reply. “Others usually say Mademoiselle Jocoste or Miss McCorkle. You may take your choice.”
“Oh, well! If you want to be on your dignity! Kittie and I were just going. We'll not intrude on you longer.”
“One moment! I want a few words with you alone. Roady, will you see Kittie down the trail? I'll be along in a few minutes.”
“I don't know about that,” blustered the “heavy.” He was uneasy in his mind. There was a peculiar giitter about Nora's eyes which he did not fancy, but he could not yield to her dominance without a word of protest.
“I do. Kittie, you will do as I say.”
The girl had shrunk back into the shadow cast by the rock spur which jutted up. Now she moved forward silently. She was frightened and at the same time sullen.
Roady and she moved down the trail together. He was close enough to touch her with his outstretched hand, but he knew that they were a hundred miles apart in spirit. Tears of shame and anger blinded her so that she stumbled as she walked.
“Don't you cry, Kittie. He ain't worth it,” the simple fellow said at last. “Don't you now.”
Only her deep ragged sobs answered him.
“Why, he's old enough to be yore paw, most old enough for you to call gran'paw. It ain't right an' fitten for him to—”
“You're all against him—all of you jealous,' she cried with a flare of anger. “Nora McCorkle wants him herself. He told me how she tried to—to get him to—to like her better than me.”
“I don't reckon that's quite c'rect,” the cowpuncher said gently.
An unusual spirit flamed to-night in her gentle bosom. “It's none of your business. Why do you all interfere? Why don't you let me alone?”
His slow mind had no answer ready for that, none at least that might not hurt her feelings and her pride. They fell again into silence, which remained unbroken until Nora joined them half way down the trail. She was alone. Roady guessed that Raleigh had taken another way home.
The puncher knew that this was not the place for him any longer. After a moment of shamed embarrassment he blurted out an “Excuse me,” and fairly fled into the night.
Nora knew the heart of the girl was full of bitter resentment and she attempted no sympathy. When she spoke her voice was cool and businesslike.
“Take it from me that guy will do to let alone, Kittie. Let me wise you to this: when a man of forty-five gets sentimental with a girl of seventeen it's time for her to breeze on her way. That romantic stuff he pulls about a lonely soul misunderstood is phony.”
The sobs were suspended an instant. “I suppose what he needs is the sympathy of a woman about thirty,” Kittie flung back rebelliously.
Miss McCorkle laughed slowly. “He can't get it from any woman of that age. They're on to his curves. He's dangerous only when he's with broilers. Don't worry about me. I've got my eye teeth cut. For ten years, and then some, I've been looking out for Nora. I've got that old geezer's number.”
“He's not old,” retorted Kittie in a voice a little high and sharp. “He's only thirty-six.”
“Told you that, did he?' There was a touch of drawling sarcasm in the cool voice. “He'll never see forty again in this world—nor forty-five. Can you beat it? Playin' himself for a spring chicken because you'll fall for it. It's my notion that he wouldn't stop at any sculduddery with a girl—if she didn't happen to have a husky dad ready to beat him up.”
“I don't believe it. He's a gentleman. Why are you always with him if you think such things?” The high young voice shook. It still carried the suggestion of tears.
“To keep him from being with a little fool who doesn't know that Harold Raleigh won't stand the acid test.” Nora's sharpness underwent temporary eclipse after this thrust. “Honey, you're too sweet and too good and too pretty to let that old reprobate paw you. It's a lead pipe cinch he's been married two or three times and been through the divorce courts.”
“What if he has? He doesn't deny it, does he?”
“He never bragged of it to me,” said Nora grimly. “I daresay he's explained it all to you so he shows up real noble. But you're not the person to be Mrs. Raleigh number three. Or is it four?”
“You're one of those narrow people who think a man must be bad if he's been divorced.”
“I don't say he's bad. What I say is that he's bad for you.”
They had reached the little frame cottage where Kittie Collins kept house for her father. She turned at the gate with her chin lifted haughtily but with her lip quivering.
“Well, I'll just thank you to mind your own business, Mademoiselle Jocoste.”
And with that she ran into the house where she could cry her heart out into the pillows without being disturbed.
Nora met Neil Collins a little way down the street.
“Have you been to see Kittie, Miss Nora?” he asked.
“Yes. We've been taking a walk. She's tired, and I think she's gone to bed.” She laid an impulsive hand upon his arm. “Be gentle with her, Mr. Collins. She's young and tender, you know; and she hasn't any mother.”
There was a yearning wistfulness in his rugged face. “I know. It's the Scotch in me. The lassie thinks I'm hard. God knows, my heart is often woe for her. But—I can't show it. It's not my way.”
“Then change your way. Cuddle her. Learn to laugh with her. Break up that granite in you and let the love out.”
“I wish I could,” he sighed.
During the summer in Texas the sun rises in the middle of the night. It had been up two or three hours before Nora McCorkle appeared on the hotel porch next morning, buoyant from the setting-up exercises that had preceded her bath. Winter and summer she always rose at six. For one hour from that time Hero and Mustapha were put through the repertoire of tricks that made the trio famous.
To-day Hero was absent. Nora and Mustapha were forced to do without his help. The bulldog was an important factor in the combination. When he barked three times the horse stopped dead in his tracks. If he barked twice Mustapha fell as if he had been shot. There were other “stunts” that the animals did in partnership. Without Hero most of these had to be postponed.
Keating strolled down to the plaza in front of the stables and watched Nora finish the rehearsal, after which they returned to the hotel for breakfast. They were just concluding that meal when Sam bumped into one of the little surprises Nora was always handing him.
“Wonder where Raleigh is. He isn't in his room and he hasn't been to breakfast yet. I wanted him about that hacienda set.”
Nora answered casually. “Mr. Raleigh! Why, I presume he's enjoying the view from Big Rock. I left him there last night.”
The director looked up quickly. “Last night! You don't suppose he's still there, do you?”
“I've an idea maybe he is.” Little imps of mischief danced in her eyes.
“Look here! What have you been up to?” Keating wanted to know.
“Why, Sam!” Her gaze reproached him with mock demureness.
“What would he stay there all night for?”
“Perhaps he prefers to stay there. There's no accounting for tastes. But he may not be there at all. Why don't you send and find out?”
“I will.” Keating called to him a waiter. “Jim, will you ask one of the porters to run up to Big Rock and see if Mr. Raleigh is there?”
“Yes, sah. Right away, sah.”
When the porter returned he found not only Nora and Keating but the rest of the Lunar company on the hotel porch. Miss McCorkle had contrived to keep them for a minute or two before they scattered for the work of the day.
The porter was grinning from ear to ear. Two rows of shining teeth flashed from the surrounding duskiness.
“He's ce'tainly there, boss.”
“What's he doing?”
The colored youth exploded in a loud guffaw. “Doin'? He's a sittin' on a rock. Tha's what he's doin', sah.”
“But—why didn't he come back with you?”
The boy let out another mirthful snort. “He's done homesteaded that rock, Mistah. That there eat-'em-alive bulldog of the lady's won't let him come.”
Nora showed incredulity. “Not Hero?”
“Why didn't you take him by the collar and hold him till Mr. Raleigh got away?”
The porter rolled indignant eyes toward her till the whites showed. “Lady, I ain't no plumb idjit. Who was to hold Mr. Bulldog while I got away?”
“You'll have to go yourself and call the dog off,” Keating suggested.
“Let's all go,” proposed Bruce Fenwick.
He owed Raleigh one for having attempted a flirtation with Dorothy. To see him sitting on a rock under the chaperonage of Hero struck him as being a revenge sufficiently entertaining.
So it happened that fifteen minutes later Raleigh had the pleasure of seeing the entire company witness his discomfiture. Always thinskinned and of a soaring vanity, his chagrin was bitter.
“Why, Mr. Raleigh, has my bad dog kept you here all night?” Nora asked sympathetically as she drew near.
The actor choked over his words. He was furious with shame and anger. He could scarcely keep back the hot tears of rage.
“I'll kill the brute.”
“I don't blame you for wanting to kill him. But I know you'll think better of it. The poor dog must have thought I told him to stay with you. How unfortunate!”
The disheveled “heavy,” looking every one of his forty and three years, flashed one look of hate at her and hurried down the trail. He was boiling with rage, and the worst of it was he could not tell that the dog had been ordered to stay and guard him. The whole company would laugh at him. They would never get over snickering at his humiliation. It was one of those infernal, ghastly jokes a man never could live down. Raleigh had already made up his mind not even to try it.
He locked himself in his room at the hotel and during the day did not appear at all.
In the cool of the evening Keating and Nora walked to old-town, the Mexican quarter of Paso Robles which had been built early in the Eighteenth Century. Their destination was an old curio shop where all sorts of interesting finds might be purchased at a reasonable figure. They had been the best of friends ever since Keating had picked the child up in San Francisco and taken care of her one bitter night nearly fifteen years before, so they sauntered over the road and took plenty of time to look over the treasures Jesus Mendoza had to show.
On the way home Sam found courage to ask a question that had been on his mind a long time. The young woman drew a breath of relief.
“I thought you'd never come to it, you old goose,” she told him fondly.
It was the surprise of Keating's life. “You don't mean—”
“I mean, Old Slowpoke, that I just wasn't going to ask you if I had to wait forever.” She laughed, a little tremulously.
The interlude that followed would have made a very pretty Scene 24 for one of the Lunar border dramas, but it has no place in this chronicle. Its only relevance lies in the fact that when Nora paid her daily visit to the stables to say good-night to Mustapha the hour of her call was late. The usual time was half-past nine. It was now close to eleven.
Roady was sitting alone on the porch of the hotel when she came flying down the path from the stables.
“Oh Roady—Roady! Mustapha—he's gone.”
McCarty's feet came slowly down from the railing. “Gone where, Miss Nora?”
“I don't know—stolen by some of the insurrectos maybe.”
Out of the darkness came a figure and a voice with the Scotch burr. “That you, Miss Nora? Has my Kittie been with you?”
A suspicion hit Roady full in the face. Not half an hour before he had seen two shadowy riders disappear in the night.
He turned sharply to Collins. “Find out whether Raleigh is in his room or if he has been seen. Don't stir any suspicion.”
The Scotchman went pale to the lips. “God, you think—?”
Nora's hand went out quickly to his arm. “We'll save her yet. She'll not marry that scoundrel. Do as Roady says. Pretend you want to see him about some properties for to-morrow's sets.”
Roady ran for the stables, Nora at his heels. Mustapha and another horse were missing from the stalls. Swiftly the cowpuncher saddled two bronchos.
Neil joined them as he cinched the second saddle.
“He's not in his room. Nobody has seen him for an hour.”
“I have—at least that's my hunch. Two folks rode out o' this yard not half an hour ago. They're likely cuttin' acrost country to catch the 12:45 at Rossiter's Gap. That's my bet, anyhow.” Roady swung to the saddle as he spoke. He had sloughed the lost dog indecision from his face. It had the lean, tense look of a man-hunter.
Nora was already in the saddle. Her eyes had the shining fixity McCarty had seen the evening before.
“Wait. Let me get a horse. When my hands grip his domned neck—” The long fingers of Collins crooked like the claws of a beast of prey.
“I reckon you're needed here, Mr. Collins,” said Roady gently. “Like enough we're on a wild goose chase. Get Keating and watch the depot when 'the midnight express goes through.”
The man and the woman left Collins in the plaza and galloped swiftly out of the town. Hero loped beside the horses with a long, easy stride. The moon was out and there was a plain road to follow. Twice McCarty got down and examined the dust to make sure that the two riders were still ahead of them.
“He's sure heading for Rossiter's Gap. We'll be in luck if we make it in time,” he said as they swung again into a gallop after the second stop.
“Raleigh knows I go and see Mustapha every night between nine and ten. He must have figured I had already been there and that nobody would miss the horse till morning,” Nora guessed.
“Looks like it. Luck broke bad for him that time.”
“Tt wasn't luck. It was—” She interrupted herself to laugh happily. “Roady, the best man in the world asked me to-night to be his wife.”
“That means Sam Keating, doesn't it?” He reached his big hand across to her and for an instant her little one was buried. “Bully for you, and for him too. No wonder he had a grin on his map when he come home.”
“So you see I can't let this little girl spoil her life by marrying Harold Raleigh. I can't. I'm so happy myself that I've got to save her.”
He nodded. “Sure. An' I reckon when we meet up with him I'll have a leetle talk with the gentleman. I'll bet he can rag fine if I play the music. He'll allow the tune is 'Too Much Mustard.'”
Her eyes flashed. “I'd like to be a man myself for just five minutes.”
The lights of the depot at Rossiter's Gap were already visible in the valley beneath them when the cow-puncher saw the vague outline of riders in front.
“We've got a chanct, if he don't git off on that train before we arrive.” He looked at his watch. “If it's on time we've got to git a jump on us.”
Nora leaned down and spoke to the dog. “Stop him, Hero. Bark twice, old fellow.”
The dog was comparatively fresh, for he had ridden a large part of the way across the pommel of his mistress' saddle. He shot down the road straight as an arrow.
“We're gaining,” said Roady presently.
It was true. The shadows in front had taken definite form. They could even make out that one of the riders was a girl. But they could see, too, coming swiftly down the valley toward them, the shining eye of the Limited. Inside of a few minutes the express would stop at the Gap station just long enough to take on passengers.
“It's up to Hero. We can't stop them, but he can if—” She interrupted herself to cry, “See, he's almost abreast of them.”
Then Mustapha stumbled and went down in his tracks. Faintly, an instant later, came back to them a sharp double bark. In the nick of time Hero and the horse had pulled off one of their famous circus tricks.
From Roady's throat rang the range rider's yell of triumph. The pursuers pounded down the hill road and pulled their bronchos to a halt at the scene of the disaster. Mustapha was on his feet again, with Hero in the saddle holding the rein in his teeth according to program. Raleigh sat on one side of the road nursing a sprained ankle. He was whining out curses and groans. Kittie stood beside him. She looked both frightened and relieved at their approach. The first swift glance told Nora that the girl was disillusioned. This groveling creature at her feet was not the hero of her young dreams. The romantic atmosphere he had built up about him with such care had been blown away as by a puff of wind. What Kittie saw now was a selfish, crabbed fop of middle age facing retribution with ashen lips and a heart of water.
Roady swung from the saddle and approached him. From the cow-puncher's wrist hung a quirt. His gray eyes surveyed the actor with a cold menace. Through the Westerner's tanned face an angry, wintry red burned above the cheek bones.
“Don't touch me,” screamed Raleigh. “My leg's broken.”
McCarty stooped and made an examination. “Nothing of the kind,” he announced curtly.
Kittie moved forward a step. “I'm going home with you. I.... I want to go back.” Her voice broke, but she regained control of it. “Roady, you—you're not going to hurt him.”
“I'm going to give him the licking of his life.”
“No——No! I won't have it. Nora!” The girl turned and went straight into the other woman's arms.
Very gently Nora soothed her. All the mother in her was yearning toward the child. The eyes that presently lifted to meet those of Roady were very soft and tender.
“It will have to be as she says, Roady.”
The puncher knew when he was beaten. He pulled Raleigh to his feet. The man took two limping steps and sank down again with a groan.
“Help him to the depot,” advised Nora.
“Yes'm.” Roady assisted the lame man to the saddle.
Raleigh turned as if to speak to Kittie, whose face was buried in Nora's shoulder.
“Don't,” ordered McCarty quickly.
A subdued devil burned out of Raleigh's cowed eyes as he looked at his conqueror. He obeyed. Without a word to Kittie he let the cow-puncher lead him away.
They met Neil Collins wandering on the edge of town, not far from his cottage. The haggard man lifted Kittie from the saddle with a sob of relief and took her in his arms.
“My lamb! My precious wee lamb!” he cried brokenly.
She clung close to him, her white face working with emotion. “Dad.... dad, I didn't know you cared for me..... like this.”
Roady and Nora took the horses and left them alone.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1954, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 68 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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