Jess Tighe Spins a Web
THEN you left Denver, did you?" asked Charlton suavely.
Roy laughed. "Yes, then I left Denver and went to college and shouted, 'Rah, rah, rah, Cornell.' In time I became a man and put away childish things. Can I sell you a windmill, Mr. Charlton, warranted to raise more water with less air pressure than any other in the market?"
"Been selling windmills long?" the rancher asked casually.
It was his ninth question in fifteen minutes. Beaudry knew that he was being cross-examined and his study of law had taught him that he had better stick to the truth so far as possible. He turned to Miss Rutherford.
"Your friend is bawling me out," he gayly pretended to whisper. "I never sold a windmill in my life. But I'm on my uppers. I 've got a good proposition. This country needs the Dynamo Aermotor and I need the money. So I took the agency. I have learned a fifteen minutes' spiel. It gives seven reasons why Mr. Charlton will miss half the joy of life until he buys a Dynamo. Do you think he is a good prospect, Miss Rutherford?"
"Dad has been talking windmill," she said. "Sell him one."
"So has Jess Tighe," Charlton added. He turned to Jeff Rutherford. "Couldn't you take Mr. Street over to see Jess to-morrow morning?"
Jeff started promptly to decline, but as his friend's eyes met his he changed his mind. "I guess I could, maybe."
"I don't want to trouble you, Mr. Rutherford," objected Roy.
Something in the manner of Charlton annoyed Beulah. This young man was her guest. She did not see any reason why Brad should bombard him with questions.
"If Jeff is too busy I 'll take you myself," she told Beaudry.
"Oh, Jeff won't be too busy. He can take a half-day off," put in his father.
When Charlton left, Beulah followed him as far as the porch.
"Do you think Mr. Street is a horse-thief that you ask him so many questions?" she demanded indignantly.
He looked straight at her. "I don't know what he is, Beulah, but I'm going to find out."
"Is n't it possible that he is what he says he is?"
"Sure it's possible, but I don't believe it."
"Of course, I know you like to think the worst of a man, but when you meet him in my house I 'll thank you to treat him properly. I vouch for him."
"You never met him before this afternoon."
"That's my business. It ought to be enough for you that he is my guest."
Charlton filled in the ellipsis. "If it is n't I can stay away, can't I? Well, I'm not going to quarrel with you, Beulah. Good-night."
As soon as he was out of sight of the ranch, Charlton turned the head of his horse, not toward his own place, but toward that of Jess Tighe.
Dr. Spindler drove up while Beulah was still on the porch. He examined the bruised ankle, dressed it, and pronounced that all it needed was a rest. No bones were broken, but the ligaments were strained. For several days she must give up riding and walking.
The ankle pained a good deal during the night, so that its owner slept intermittently. By morning she was no longer suffering, but was far too restless to stay in the house.
"I'm going to drive Mr. Street over to the Tighe place in the buggy," she announced at breakfast.
Her brothers exchanged glances.
"Think you'd better go so far with your bad ankle, honey?" Hal Rutherford, senior, asked.
"It does n't make any difference, dad, so long as I don't put my weight on it."
She had her way, as she usually did. One of the boys hitched up and brought the team to the front of the house. Beaudry took the seat beside Beulah.
The girl gathered up the reins, nodded good-bye to her father, and drove off.
It was such a day as comes not more than a dozen times a season even in New Mexico. The pure light from the blue sky and the pine-combed air from the hills were like wine to their young blood. Once when the road climbed a hilltop the long saw-toothed range lifted before them, but mostly they could not see beyond the bastioned ramparts that hemmed in the park or the nearer wooded gulches that ran down from them.
Beulah had brought her camera. They took pictures of each other. They gathered wild flowers. They talked as eagerly as children. Somehow the bars were down between them. The girl had lost the manner of sullen resentment that had impressed him yesterday. She was gay and happy and vivid. Wild roses bloomed in her cheeks. For this young man belonged to the great world outside in which she was so interested. Other topics than horses and cattle and drinking-bouts were the themes of his talk. He had been to theaters and read books and visited large cities. His coming had enriched life for her.
The trail took them past a grove of young aspens which blocked the mouth of a small cañon by the thickness of the growth.
"Do you see any way in?" Beulah asked her companion.
"No. The trees are like a wall. There is not an open foot by which one could enter."
"Is n't there?" She laughed. "There's a way in just the same. You see that big rock over to the left. A trail drops down into the aspens back of it. A man lives in the gulch, an ex-convict. His name is Dan Meldrum."
"I expect he is n't troubled much with visitors."
"No. He lives alone. I don't like him. I wish he would move away. He does n't do the park any good."
A man was sitting on the porch of the Tighe place as they drove up. Beside him lay a pair of crutches.
"That is Jess," the girl told Beaudry. "Don't mind if he is gruff or bad-tempered. He is soured."
But evidently this was not the morning for Tighe to be gruff. He came to meet them on his crutches, a smile on his yellow, sapless face. That smile seemed to Roy more deadly than anger. It did not warm the cold, malignant eyes nor light the mordant face with pleasure. Only the lips and mouth responded mechanically to it.
"Glad to see you, Miss Beulah. Come in."
He opened the gate and they entered. Presently Beaudry, his blood beating fast, found himself shaking hands with Tighe. The man had an odd trick of looking at one always from partly hooded eyes and at an angle.
"Mr. Street is selling windmills," explained Miss Rutherford. "Brad Charlton said you were talking of buying one, so here is your chance."
"Yes, I been thinking of it." Tighe's voice was suave. "What is your proposition, Mr. Street?"
Roy talked the Dynamo Aermotor for fifteen minutes. There was something about the still look of this man that put him into a cold sweat.
It was all he could do to concentrate his attention on the patter of a salesman, but he would not let his mind wander from the single track upon which he was projecting it. He knew he was being watched closely. To make a mistake might be fatal.
"Sounds good. I 'll look your literature over, Mr. Street. I suppose you 'll be in the park a few days?"
"Then you can come and see me again. I can't come to you so easy, Mr.—er—"
"Street," suggested Beulah.
"That's right—Street. Well, you see I'm kinder tied down." He indicated his crutches with a little lift of one hand. "Maybe Miss Beulah will bring you again."
"Suits me fine if she will," Beaudry agreed promptly.
The half-hooded eyes of the cripple slid to the girl and back again to Roy. He had a way of dry-washing the backs of his hands like Uriah Heep.
"Fine. You 'll stay to dinner, now, of course. That's good. That's good. Young folks don't know how it pleasures an old man to meet up with them sometimes." His low voice was as smooth as oil.
Beaudry conceived a horror of the man. The veiled sneer behind the smile on the sapless face, the hooded hawk eyes, the almost servile deference, held a sinister threat that chilled the spine of his guest. The young man thought of him as of a repulsive spider spinning a web of trouble that radiated from this porch all over the Big Creek country.
"Been taking pictures of each other, I reckon. Fine. Fine. Now, I wonder, Miss Beulah, if you'd do an old man a favor. This porch is my home, as you might say, seeing as how I'm sorter held down here. I'd kinder like a picture of it to hang up, providing it ain't asking too much of you."
"Of course not. I 'll take it now," answered the girl.
"That's right good of you. I 'll jest sit here and be talking to Mr. Street, as you might say. Would n't that make a good picture—kinder liven up the porch if we 're on it?"
Roy felt a sudden impulse to protest, but he dared not yield to it. What was it this man wanted of the picture? Why had he baited a trap to get a picture of him without Beulah Rutherford knowing that he particularly wanted it? While the girl took the photograph, his mind was racing for Tighe's reason.
"I 'll send you a copy as soon as I print it, Mr. Tighe," promised Beulah.
"I 'll sure set a heap of store by it, Miss Beulah. … If you don't mind helping me set the table, we 'll leave Mr. Street this old newspaper for a few minutes whilst we fix up a snack. You 'll excuse us, Mr. Street? That's good."
Beulah went into the house the same gay and light-hearted comrade of Beaudry that she had been all morning. When he was called in to dinner, he saw at once that Tighe had laid his spell upon her. She was again the sullen, resentful girl of yesterday. Suspicion filmed her eyes. The eager light of faith in him that had quickened them while she listened for his answers to her naïve questions about the great world was blotted out completely.
She sat through dinner in cold silence. Tighe kept the ball of conversation rolling and Beaudry tried to play up to him. They talked of stock, crops, and politics. Occasionally the host diverted the talk to outside topics. He asked the young man politely how he liked the park, whether he intended to stay long, how long he had lived in New Mexico, and other casual questions.
Roy was glad when dinner was over. He drew a long breath of relief when they had turned their backs upon the ranch. But his spirits did not register normal even in the spring sunshine of the hills. For the dark eyes that met his were clouded with doubt and resentment.