Chapter XIX
Beaudry Blows a Smoke Wreath

ROYAL BEAUDRY carried about with him in his work on the Lazy Double D persistent memories of the sloe-eyed gypsy who had recently played so large a part in his life. Men of imagination fall in love, not with a woman, but with the mystery they make of her. The young cattleman was not yet a lover, but a rumor of the future began to murmur in his ears. Beulah Rutherford was on the surface very simple and direct, but his thoughts were occupied with the soul of her. What was the girl like whose actions functioned in courage and independence and harsh hostility?

Life had imposed on her a hard finish. But it was impossible for Roy to believe that this slender, tawny child of the wind and the sun could at heart be bitter and suspicious. He had seen the sweet look of her dark-lashed eyes turned in troubled appeal upon her father. There had been one hour when he had looked into her face and found it radiant, all light and response and ecstasy. The emotion that had pulsed through her then had given the lie to the sullen silence upon which she fell back as a defense. If the gods were good to her some day, the red flower of passion would bloom on her cheeks and the mists that dulled her spirit would melt in the warm sunshine of love.

So the dreamer wove the web of his fancy about her, and the mystery that was Beulah Rutherford lay near his thoughts when he walked or rode or ate or talked.

Nor did it lessen his interest in her that he felt she despised him. The flash of her scornful eyes still stung him. He was beyond caring whether she thought him a spy. He knew that the facts justified him in his attempt to save Dingwell. But he writhed that she should believe him a coward. It came too close home. And since the affray in the arcade, no doubt she set him down, too, as a drunken rowdy.

He made the usual vain valorous resolutions of youth to show her his heroic quality. These served at least one good purpose. If he could not control his fears, he could govern his actions. Roy forced himself by sheer will power to ride alone into Battle Butte once a week. Without hurry he went about his business up and down Mission Street.

The town watched him and commented. "Got sand in his craw, young Beaudry has," was the common verdict. Men wondered what would happen when he met Charlton and Meldrum. Most of them would have backed John Beaudry's son both in their hopes and in their opinion of the result.

Into saloons and gambling-houses word was carried, and from there to the hillmen of the park by industrious peddlers of trouble, that the young cattleman from the Lazy Double D could be found by his enemies heeled for business whenever they wanted him.

Charlton kept morosely to the park. If he had had nothing to consider except his own inclination, he would have slapped the saddle upon a cowpony and ridden in to Battle Butte at once. But Beulah had laid an interdict upon him. For a year he had been trying to persuade her to marry him, and he knew that he must say good-bye to his hopes if he fought with his enemy.

It was fear that kept Meldrum at home. He had been a killer, but the men he had killed had been taken at advantage. It was one thing to shoot this Beaudry cub down from ambush. It was another to meet him in the open. Moreover, he knew the Rutherfords. The owner of the horse ranch had laid the law down to him. No chance shot from the chaparral was to cut down Dingwell's partner.

The ex-convict listened to the whispers of Tighe. He brooded over them, but he did not act on them. His alcohol-dulled brain told him that he had reached the limit of public sufferance. One more killing by him, and he would pay the penalty at the hands of the law. When he took his revenge, it must be done so secretly that no evidence could connect him with the crime. He must, too, have an alibi acceptable to Hal Rutherford.

Meldrum carried with him to Battle Butte, on his first trip after the arcade affair, a fixed determination to avoid Beaudry. In case he met him, he would pass without speaking.

But all of Meldrum's resolutions were apt to become modified by subsequent inhibitions. In company with one or two cronies he made a tour of the saloons of the town. At each of them he said, "Have another," and followed his own advice to show good faith.

On one of these voyages from port to port the bad man from Chicito Cañon sighted a tall, lean-flanked, long-legged brown man. He was crossing the street so that the party came face to face with him at the apex of a right angle. The tanned stranger in corduroys, hickory shirt, and pinched-in hat of the range rider was Royal Beaudry. It was with a start of surprise that Meldrum recognized him. His enemy was no longer a "pink-ear." There was that in his stride, his garb, and the steady look of his eye which told of a growing confidence and competence. He looked like a horseman of the plains, fit for any emergency that might confront him.

Taken at advantage by the suddenness of the meeting, Meldrum gave ground with a muttered oath. The young cattleman nodded to the trio and kept on his way. None of the others knew that his heart was hammering a tattoo against his ribs or that queer little chills chased each other down his spine.

Chet Fox ventured a sly dig at the ex-convict. "Looks a right healthy sick man, Dan."

"Who said he was sick?" growled Meldrum.

"Did n't you-all say he was good as dead?"

"A man can change his mind, Chet, can't he?" jeered Hart.

The blotched face of the bad man grew purple. "That 'll be about enough from both of you. But I 'll say this: when I get ready to settle with Mr. Beaudry you can order his coffin."

Nevertheless, Meldrum had the humiliating sense that he had failed to live up to his reputation as a killer. He had promised Battle Butte to give it something to talk about, but he had not meant to let the whisper pass that he was a four-flusher. His natural recourse was to further libations. These made for a sullen, ingrowing rage as the day grew older.

More than one well-meaning citizen carried to Roy the superfluous warning that Meldrum was in town and drinking hard. The young man thanked them quietly without comment. His reticence gave the impression of strength.

But Beaudry felt far from easy in mind. A good deal of water had flowed under the Big Creek bridge since the time when he had looked under the bed at nights for burglars. He had schooled himself not to yield to the impulses of his rabbit heart, but the unexpected clatter of hoofs still set his pulses a-flutter. Why had fate snatched so gentle a youth from his law desk and flung him into such turbid waters to sink or swim? All he had asked was peace—friends, books, a quiet life. By some ironic quirk be found himself in scenes of battle and turmoil. As the son of John Beaudry he was expected to show an unflawed nerve, whereas his eager desire was to run away and hide.

He resisted the first panicky incitement to fly back to the Lazy Double D, and went doggedly about the business that had brought him to Battle Butte. Roy had come to meet a cattle-buyer from Denver and the man had wired that he would be in on the next train. Meanwhile Beaudry had to see the blacksmith, the feed-store manager, the station agent, and several others.

This kept him so busy that he reached the Station only just in time to meet the incoming train. He introduced himself to the buyer, captured his suitcase, and turned to lead the way to the rig.

Meldrum lurched forward to intercept him. "Shus' a moment."

Roy went white. He knew the crisis was upon him. The right hand of the hillman was hidden under the breast of his coat. Even the cattle-buyer from Denver knew what was in that hand and edged toward the train. For this ruffian was plainly working himself into a rage sufficient to launch murder.

"Yore father railroaded me to the penitentiary—cooked up test'mony against me. You bust me with a club when I was n't looking. Here's where I git even. See?"

The imminence of tragedy had swept the space about them empty of people. Roy knew with a sinking heart that it was between him and the hillman to settle this alone. He had been caught with the suitcase in his right hand, so that he was practically trapped unarmed. Before he could draw his revolver, Meldrum would be pumping lead.

Two months ago under similar circumstances terror had paralyzed Roy's thinking power. Now his brain functioned in spite of his fear. He was shaken to the center of his being, but he was not in panic. Immediately he set himself to play the poor cards he found in his hand.

"Liar!" Beaudry heard a chill voice say and knew it was his own. "Liar on both counts! My father sent you up because you were a thief. I beat your head off because you are a bully. Listen!" Roy shot the last word out in crescendo to forestall the result of a convulsive movement of the hand beneath his enemy's coat. "Listen, if you want to live the day out, you yellow coyote!"

Beaudry had scored his first point—to gain time for his argument to get home to the sodden brain. Dave Dingwell had told him that most men were afraid of something, though some hid it better than others; and he had added that Dan Meldrum had the murderer's dread lest vengeance overtake him unexpectedly. Roy knew now that his partner had spoken the true word. At that last stinging sentence, alarm had jumped to the blear eyes of the former convict.

"Whadjamean?" demanded Meldrum thickly, the menace of horrible things in his voice.

"Mean? Why, this. You came here to kill me, but you have n't the nerve to do it. You 've reached the end of your rope, Dan Meldrum. You 're a killer, but you 'll never kill again. Murder me, and the law would hang you high as Haman—if it ever got a chance."

The provisional clause came out with a little pause between each word to stress the meaning. The drunken man caught at it to spur his rage.

"Hmp! Mean you 're man enough to beat the law to it?"

Beaudry managed to get out a derisive laugh. "Oh, no! Not when I have a suitcase in my right hand and you have the drop on me. I can't help myself—and twenty men see it."

"Think they 'll help you?" Meldrum swept his hand toward the frightened loungers and railroad officials. His revolver was out in the open now. He let its barrel waver in a semi-circle of defiance.

"No. They won't help me, but they 'll hang you. There's no hole where you can hide that they won't find you. Before night you 'll be swinging underneath the big live-oak on the plaza. That's a prophecy for you to swallow, you four-flushing bully."

It went home like an arrow. The furtive eyes of the killer slid sideways to question this public which had scattered so promptly to save itself. Would the mob turn on him later and destroy him?

Young Beaudry's voice flowed on. "Even if you reached the hills, you would be doomed. Tighe can't save you—and he would n't try. Rutherford would wash his hands of you. They 'll drag you back from your hole."

The prediction rang a bell in Meldrum's craven soul. Again he sought reassurance from those about him and found none. In their place he knew that he would revenge himself for present humiliation by cruelty later. He was checkmated.

It was an odd psychological effect of Beaudry's hollow defiance that confidence flowed in upon him as that of Meldrum ebbed. The chill drench of fear had lifted from his heart. It came to him that his enemy lacked the courage to kill. Safety lay in acting upon this assumption.

He raised his left hand and brushed the barrel of the revolver aside contemptuously, then turned and walked along the platform to the building. At the door he stopped, to lean faintly against the jamb, still without turning. Meldrum might shoot at any moment. It depended on how drunk he was, how clearly he could vision the future, how greatly his prophecy had impressed him. Cold chills ran up and down the spinal column of the young cattleman. His senses were reeling.

To cover his weakness Roy drew tobacco from his coat-pocket and rolled a cigarette with trembling fingers. He flashed a match. A moment later an insolent smoke wreath rose into the air and floated back toward Meldrum. Roy passed through the waiting-room to the street beyond.

Young Beaudry knew that the cigarette episode had been the weak bluff of one whose strength had suddenly deserted him. He had snatched at it to cover his weakness. But to the score or more who saw that spiral of smoke dissolving jauntily into air, no such thought was possible. The filmy wreath represented the acme of dare-devil recklessness, the final proof of gameness in John Beaudry's son. He had turned his back on a drunken killer crazy for revenge and mocked the fellow at the risk of his life.

Presently Roy and the cattle-buyer were bowling down the street behind Dingwell's fast young four-year-olds. The Denver man did not know that his host was as weak from the reaction of the strain as a child stricken with fear.