Chaffee of Roaring Horse (Musaicum Vintage Western) - Ernest Haycox - E-Book

Chaffee of Roaring Horse (Musaicum Vintage Western) E-Book

Ernest Haycox

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Beschreibung

Jim Chaffee is forced to leave the property that lays on the bank of the creek in his beloved Roaring Horse after three years of mismanaging his business affairs and going bankrupt. Chaffee leaves Roaring Horse ready to do whatever it takes to make a living and keep his head above water. He takes himself through numerous trials and tribulations endangering his life in the course of events, but he is prepared even for more, only to be able to go back to his beloved Roaring Horse at the end.

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Ernest Haycox

Chaffee of Roaring Horse (Musaicum Vintage Western)

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- Advanced Digital Solutions & High-Quality eBook Formatting -
2021 OK Publishing
EAN 4064066380106

Table of Contents

I. Jim Chaffee Takes a Loss
II. A Secret Meeting
III. A Duel of the Arena
IV. The Storm Breaks
V. Jim Gets a Job
VI. Fences Down
VII. Fang and Perfume
VIII. The Tide Goes Out
IX. Disaster
X. Voice of the Pack
XI. The Attack on the Jail
XII. The Jaws of Roaring Horse
XIII. Surrender
XIV. The Beginning of a Tragedy
XV. Turbulence
XVI. The Shadow of Catastrophe
XVII. Jim Chaffee Rides Back
XVIII. The Gods Stand Aside

I. JIM CHAFFEE TAKES A LOSS

Table of Contents

When Jim Chaffee walked out of his homestead for the last time in three long years of struggle, it was with his senses sharpened to the pleasantness of the place he was losing. The cabin sat on the south bank of a small creek that crossed the desert diagonally from the white and hooded peaks of Roaring Horse range to the dark, dismally deep slash of Roaring Horse Canyon. Cottonwoods bunched about the log house, the lodgepole corrals, the pole-and-shake barn. The morning's sun, brilliant but without warmth, streamed through the apertures of the trees; the sparkle of frost was to be seen here and there in the shadowed crevices of the creek bank. Standing so, Jim Chaffee could look up along the course of the creek and through the lane of trees to see the distant bench fold and hoist itself some thousands of feet until it met the sheer and glittering glacial spires of the range. A solitary white cloud floated across the serene blue; the broad, yellowing cottonwood leaves bellied gently down around him, and there was the definite threat of winter in the sharp air, reminding Jim of the nights he had spent beside a glowing stove, listening to the blizzard howl around the stout eaves, dreaming his dreams. He could never step inside the cabin again; those three years had gone for nothing.

Before closing the door he ranged the room with a last wistful glance, a last reluctant appraisal of those household gods with which he had lived for so long a time. Everything was neat and clean on this eventful morning; the dishes were washed and stacked in the cupboard, the floor swept, the fire drawn. Nothing was out of place, nothing removed excepting one small article, a bright blue-patterned mush bowl that he carried under an arm. Even the bed was made up. All this he studied, as well as the pictures tacked to the walls—pictures cut from old magazines—and the odds and ends of furniture that he had so laboriously created. He looked at these things gravely, regretfully, and then closed the door, turned the lock, and dropped the key in his pocket. As the lock clicked his lips pressed together and his face settled; from the moment of discovery Jim Chaffee had liked the location above all others. Within its area he felt contented, somehow controlled by the conviction that he had struck roots into the very soil. Nor had he ever gone away from it without turning restless and wishing soon to be back. Three years of himself was in the place; a part of his heart was there.

His horse stood saddled and waiting. Jim swung up and turned out along the trail. A hundred yards away he stopped to look for the last time. The cabin was half hidden in the creek's depression, a faint wisp of smoke spiraled from the chimney; he had seen this picture a thousand times, yet to-day it affected him strangely. For to-day at noon his notes fell due and he hadn't as much as a solid dollar to pay on them. Real property and chattels belonged after that hour to the bank, and he became what he had been in the beginning, an errant cow-puncher with a horse beneath him and the sky above. Nothing more. Three severe winters and a falling market had wiped him out.

He looked to the peaks and shook his head. They stood out too clearly, they seemed too close; and around the tips was a faint, contorted wisp of a cloud that inevitably augured the fourth successive hard winter. He lifted his gun from the holster, fired a single shot, and whirled about, galloping rapidly away.

"By the Lord I hate to go!"

For a moment rebellion and bitterness made a bleak battleground of his cheeks; then the expression was gone. It couldn't last long, for he had seen disaster coming many months before and had braced himself for this final scene. It wasn't hard to lose money or labor, but he knew he would never again find a piece of land lying watered and sheltered and snug like the piece he was leaving. Even if he did find it he wouldn't feel the same somehow.

"A man," he murmured, "nourishes a picture a long while and gets sort of attached to it. No other picture will do. Not even if it's made identic. Well, we're free. Now what?"

He studied the question over the even miles of desert. Studied it with a somber leisure, sitting slack in the saddle and ever now and anon sweeping the horizons with long, closed-lidded surveys. He made a splendid picture as he swayed to the dun beast's progress—a tall man built in that mold so deceptive to the casual eye. He seemed to have no particular claim to physical strength. His shoulders were broad yet rather sharp at the points, and his chest was long and fairly flat; on this frame his clothes hung loosely and so concealed the springs of his power, which were muscles that lay banded along arm and shoulder like woven wire. A stiff-brimmed Stetson slanted the shadows over a face lean almost to the point of gauntness. It was bronzed by the sun and without furrows or wrinkles to mark the labor he had put behind him. His chin was cleft, his mouth was wide, but his lips were thin, and constantly under the guard of his will. Deep within protecting wells his eyes were apt to remain fixed on some distant point for long intervals of time; and from the expression in them it was evident they had the power to draw the rest of his face into a mask or to fill it with buoyancy and humor.

"The answer," he said to himself after the homestead faded in the distance, "is sort of plain. A man can win or he can lose. I lost. But a man can always try again. I guess I'll muster up some cash and buy me a set of traps. There's a piece of country away up on the bench by Thirty-four Pass. By gosh, we ain't had time to take in this sight for quite a spell."

Horse and rider had reached a fence. Five feet beyond the fence the desert dropped into the black and profound gorge of the Roaring Horse. It was not wide, this gorge. Fifty yards would have covered the entire width. But except at nooning the sun never touched the buried water. And the sound of its booming, turbulent progress was all but lost in the depths. Jim Chaffee got down and crawled through the fence, advancing to the edge of the rim. He had no particular reason for doing this, but there was something about the Roaring Horse that always struck a responsive chord in his nature. The same lure lay in the distant peaks, or in the soft smell of sage carrying across the desert, or in the sight of a fire gleaming like a crimson bomb over the plain at night. So he stood watching the river boiling away its terrific temper far below. Presently he was asaddle and riding off.

"That gives me a thought," he mused. "I'll be buckin' old lady fortune again. I'll be tryin' to make a go of somethin' else. But why not take a little vacation? Why not lay in the sun like a snake and soak up a heap of laziness? I've been countin' the pennies till I ain't hardly a white man any more. I've been worryin' and schemin' and muckin' till I'm all shriveled up inside like a last year's potato. I ain't had a drink, I ain't gambled, I ain't danced, I ain't grinned—since when? Good gravy, I dunno how long. Why too long, anyhow. I'm the original old man from the hills. Nobody knows me any more; nobody remembers what I used to be. I'm in the habit of talkin' to myself; I can see a sort of glassy look in my eyes when I shave. If that keeps up I'll bite somebody and be put in the dog pound. It's time to relax."

He traveled faster, aiming away from the rim of the canyon. He had a chore to perform before hustling into town; he had to see Miz Satterlee at the Stirrup S and give back the blue mush bowl. Once upon a time she had sent it to him filled with homemade fudge. So he drawled soberly at the dun horse and left the miles behind him. All this was Stirrup S soil—Satterlee range. The sun swung up, the air was racy with autumn decay; and he laid his course by a remote windmill. Once upon a time he had been a Stirrup S rider and mighty proud of it. Maybe he'd tackle it again, alter he had taken his justly earned rest. Thinking thus he at last came to the sprawling home quarters of the ranch, threaded a series of collars, skirted the enormous bunkhouse—Stirrup S was a large outfit—and drew rein before the porch of the big house. Miz Satterlee rocked herself thereon, as she had been doing for thirty years. She looked up at him, smiling briskly.

Miz Satterlee was a character in the land—a small and sprightly woman with snapping black eyes and a head of hair that even now showed no gray. She spoke with a terrific frankness when the spirit moved her, and her charities were numberless. It was a mark of Dad Satterlee's character that Miz Satterlee had publicly said her husband was smart enough to be governor. She was smart enough to be governor herself, and she knew a good man when she saw one—even if it was her own husband.

"Hello, Jim. When were you away from your ranch last?"

"Couple-three months I guess, Miz Satterlee," drawled Jim, hooking a leg over his saddle horn.

"I bet you're down to bacon rind and bran biscuits. Most men are foolish like that."

He bent over and laid the mush bowl on the porch. "I'm returnin' it with thanks," said he. "I won't be eatin' out of it for some time."

She bit a thread and raked him with a birdlike glance. "Times a little bit hard up your way, Jim?"

"Oh, so so. Guess we're all in the same boat this year."

She spoke with an admirably offhand air. "I was telling Dad last night he ought to get you to do the wood haulin this fall. Somebody's got to do it and you know how high spirited these young hands of ours get when anybody mentions manual labor. Haul wood—it'd insult 'em."

For no reason at all he grinned, and it changed his looks so completely that even Miz Satterlee marked the transformation. It took five years from his face and added a quality of good-humored handsomeness. "Don't worry none about me, Miz Satterlee. I locked my door a little while back. I'm deliverin' the key to Josiah Craib at the bank. Whats left out of the wreck you see on the humble person before you."

"Jim Chaffee! Busted? Why, you darn fool, didn't Dad Satterlee make it a point to say he was behind you any time?"

"A keg without a bottom ain't much of a keg at all," said he.

"Fiddlesticks! Men are darn fools. Always were, always will be. Satterlee's the only one I ever met that wasn't." She abandoned her sewing and rocked vigorously. "Now what are you aimin' to do?"

"Not sure."

"I know!" decided Miz Satterlee. "You go put yourself back in circulation awhile. Play some cards, drink some. Not too much, but some. Go back to some of that devilment you used to worry the county with. Let the girls see you again, Chaffee. They'll fall head over heels to invite you around to eat, and you'll get some decent cookin' for a spell. You need it—pulled down terrible. Maybe some of them won't mind bein kissed a couple times. Scandalous advice, but it'll make you feel a heap better."

"Sage words," murmured Jim Chaffee. "All except the kissin' part of it. I'm pretty bashful, Miz Satterlee. Who'll I start with?"

"Go 'long, don't you try to fool me. Start with the girl you kissed last."

"She's married," said Jim cheerfully.

"Whoever she is," countered Miz Satterlee with promptness, "you could of married her first. Bashful! Don't tell me that. I know your reputation. There's six or seven girls who'd have been tickled to death to've kept house over on your place. You made a mistake, Chaffee, in not takin one of them. Any one. You wouldn't be broke now if you had."

"I wouldn't ask any girl to work that hard," said he, not so cheerfully. And the shadow of his long battle settled in his eyes for a little while.

"What's a woman for, Chaffee? You're just as foolish as the rest of the men. You all seem to want some frilly little picture of a female. You get one with a good sound head and a good sound body, and then make her pay for her keep."

He changed the subject. "Where's Dad?"

"In town. He's to be judge of the rodeo to-morrow. Went early to arrange things. That's what he said, but I know Satterlee. You'll prob'ly find him in the Gusher playin' poker."

"Ain't you afraid of him gamblin' like that?" drawled Jim, smiling again.

"Why should I be?" parried Miz Satterlee. "He always wins."

Chaffee gathered the reins. "Imagine me forgettin it's rodeo time. I'm the original old man from the hills. I reckon I'll have to introduce myself all over again. So long, Miz Satterlee."

The mistress of the Stirrup S watched him canter through the yard, her bright eyes raised against the sun. And she sighed. "Chaffee don't know how good lookin' he is," she opined to herself. "Well, it's nice to be humble about yourself, but it ain't nice to be downright dumb about it. They'll be some girls sprucin' up their caps from now on, I vow."

The rodeo in Roaring Horse town explained the empty Stirrup S yard. Everybody would be crowding the county seat, primed for the morrow's excitement. Jim Chaffee grew eager to be among old friends again as he paced down the broad and hard- beaten trail. Left and right lay the leagues of Stirrup S range. In the foreground browsed a scattering of Dad Satterlee's white- face cows—feeder stuff drawn in to weather the winter. The trail was the same, all down its winding length; far off was the outline of Melotte's Circle Open A home quarters; the twin pines still guarded the bridge by Chickman's creek; Roaring Horse town threatened the southern reaches, sharp building points breaking the sky. And about three of the afternoon he entered the place, stabled his horse, and set forth toward the bank to wind up the last sorry details of his bankrupt homestead; and feeling a great deal like Rip Van Winkle coming back to a different world.

He had called himself a stranger. Yet twenty times or more in the short interval between bank and stable he was called by his name and stopped to swap gossip. He was struck resoundingly on the back; he was hauled about and threatened with violence if he refused to enter and tip up a convivial glass; he was called the sort of names that are not carelessly passed around except among fine friends. The gravity left his lean face, and a sparkle invaded his deep eyes. Down by the Gusher's front he bumped into a solid delegation of Stirrup S hands, all old-time cronies, and they closed about him hilariously. One shrill, united yip split the street.

"Hi—look at this lean slab o' bacon!"

"Don't talk to that damn' nester. It's him what's been butcherin' our beef!"

"How could a man eat fat Stirrup S beef and still be so peaked around the gills?"

"Well, mebbe he's been eatin' mutton, then."

Jim Chaffee built himself a cigarette and grinned at the pack. "Boys," said he when a lull arrived, "take the advice of one that's a father to you all. Never stray far from a steady pay check. Honor your parents, cherish the little red schoolhouse, speak respectfully of all our great institutions—and don't try to run a jack-rabbit ranch like me."

"Feel poor?" demanded one of the party.

"No, I'm too dumb to feel poor," drawled Jim. "I'm froze out. I'll be back toppin' horses for the outfit when I get rested up. Where's Mack Moran?"

"Somewhere lookin' for a scrap. You know Mack. Hes been a- mournin' yore absence, Jim. Yuh know how he mourns, don't yuh? It makes him so weak he's got to have a brass rail to rest his foot on and a bar to lean his elbows against."

"He'll mourn my presence," said Jim, grinning with anticipation.

"Goin' to ride in the rodeo, Jim?"

"Forgot how."

A terrific clamor met this. Then a woman's voice, clear and musical and slightly amused, said: "If you please, gentlemen." Stirrup S, to a man, moved convulsively off the sidewalk. Jim Chaffee, wedged in the center of the group, looked over the shoulder of a friend to see a vision passing by. Her face was half hidden under a gay and wide-brimmed hat of the period; but her hazel eyes met him for a moment with a kind of curiosity in them, seeming to ask him: "What kind of a man are you that all these punchers should make so much noise about you?" The next moment she was gone, and he saw the flash of her dress down by the entrance of the hotel. Something happened then and there to Jim Chaffee. He muttered, "I've got to go, boys. Let me out of this stampede."

"Theodorik Perrine's in town, Jim. He's ridin' to-morrow."

They had all been rollicking and easy humored. Now they were very sober, watching Chaffee with the close inspection that a friend is alone able to give another friend. Jim Chaffee's attention centered on the speaker. His lids drooped.

"That's interestin'. Maybe I will ride. Now I've got to hustle off to the bank. See you later."

He shouldered through and walked past the hotel. The girl was at that moment climbing the lobby stairs. One quick sidewise glance told him that. Going on, he entered the bank and tried to maintain a cheerfulness of countenance he was by no means feeling. Mark Eagle, the teller, raised a full-blooded Umatilla Indian face to Jim and spoke pleasantly. "Hello, Jim. I saw Mack Moran two-three minutes ago on the street. He was wondering if you'd come in."

"I'd better find him before he tears something apart," replied Jim Chaffee. "You're puttin' on fat, Mark. Better take some time out hunting. Craib in his office?"

Mark Eagle ducked his round cheeks. Chaffee walked to a far door and opened it without knocking. Josiah Craib sat stooped over a plain pine desk, his finger trailing along a small map; he looked up with the air of a man about to speak disapproval. But that changed when he saw his visitor.

Jim said, "Hello, Craib, I'm surrenderin' the last legal relic o' my ranch. Here's your key and God bless you. I'm busted."

Craib's bald and bony head glistened under a patch of light slanting through a high side window. "Shut the door, Jim. I'm sorry. Sit down."

"Why be sorry?" countered Jim, throwing the key on Craib's desk. "A banker can't afford to be sorry, can he?"

"I would like to give you another year—" began Craib. But Jim Chaffee broke bluntly into the other's talk.

"I'd be just as poor next year as this one. It takes three seasons to get a herd started. I banked on that. I lost. It would take me another three to get back where I began. I can't do it. There's another tough winter hidin' up behind the peaks."

Craib seemed a clumsy figure for his profession. His lank legs were too high for the space beneath the table; his spare chest towered above it. Everything about him was bony—fists and cheeks and nose. He owned a narrow, overlong face, across which the skin lay tight, holding his features in a kind of cast. And because of this physical peculiarity he was an enigma in Roaring Horse county after twenty years' residence. Sometimes, he as strode along the street with his chin tucked against his chest and his clothes flapping on the awkward frame, it appeared as if he was a man smothered beneath solemn thoughts. From season to season there was not a shade of variance in the set expression; he talked very little, he had no friends and no family. The country made up strange and contradictory stories about him—he was as hard as flint, he was just; he was fabulously rich, he was poor and on the verge of bankruptcy; he was credited with a scheming, brilliant brain that lusted after power in the county, and at the same breath people spoke of him as nothing more than a dull and plodding man who never rose above the pettiness of penny shaving. Nobody fathomed him, and now as he faced Jim Chaffee there was nothing on his parchment face to indicate what he felt about the former's misfortune.

"I would like to give you another year," he repeated, as if not hearing Jim. "But unfortunately I am not in a position to do so. This has been a bad season. I cannot afford to hold paper. I've got to take yours over, Jim, and realize on it."

"May the Lord have mercy on you," drawled Jim. "I don't know how you'll get anything out of it. There she lies, idle and profitless."

"I have a man who is buying it," said Craib in the selfsame, even, expressionless tone.

That stirred Jim's curiosity. "Now who's foolish?"

"I'm bound not to say," replied Craib.

Jim got up, smiling. "The man must be ashamed of his lack o' discretion. All right, Craib. Sorry I've been a poor customer. But I'll be tryin' again somewhere and sometime. After I get a rest." He opened the door and looked out, wistfulness clouding his eyes. "By George, I hate to lose that little place. Won't ever find another like it."

Craib rose, knocking back the chair by the force of his unwieldy legs. "Can't loan you any of the bank's money, Jim," he said, "but if a personal loan of a hundred dollars will help any I'll be glad to let you have it. No note, no security."

It was so unusual a proposal, coming from Craib, that Jim Chaffee was plainly astonished. "Well, that's handsome of you, Craib. Maybe I'll take the offer. Let you know later."

"All right," grunted Craib, busy again with his map.

Jim left the office, nodding at Mark Eagle. The teller's eyes followed the rangy cow-puncher all the way to the street. And long after, Mark Eagle tapped his counter with an idle pen, squinting at some remote vision.

Within twenty paces Jim Chaffee confronted three entirely dissimilar gentlemen whom he knew very well. Mack Moran, Dad Satterlee, and William Wells Woolfridge, who owned an outfit adjoining Satterlee, broke through the crowd. Mack Moran threw a hand over his face at sight of Jim and appeared to stagger from the shock of it. "Oh, look at the stranger from the brush! Mama, there's that face again!" He came forward, Irish countenance split from ear to ear. "How, Jim!"

"You're drunk."

"I ain't drunk," was Moran's severe retort. "I ain't even intoxicated. Been lookin' all over hell's half acre—?"

Satterlee, a stout old fellow with iron-crusted hair rumbled an abrupt question. "When did you get in?" Woolfridge contented himself with a bare nod and found something else to interest him. Jim shook hands with his old boss and before he could answer the question Satterlee shot another at him. "Enterin' the buckin' to- morrow?"

"Shore he is," chimed Mack Moran. "And there goes yore hundred dollars first money."

"I don't know," said Jim. "Ain't rode for an awful long while, Dad."

"Get in it," urged Satterlee. "Theodorik Perrine's ridin'."

All three of them watched Jim with considerable gravity. He reached for his tobacco, quite thoughtful. "I have heard the name before," he murmured. "Maybe I'll ride." Satterlee grunted and moved on with Woolfridge. But Mack Moran had, as he said, found the answer to a maiden's prayer and placed a great hand through Jim Chaffee's arm.

"We'll settle this right now. Yore ridin'." He took off his hat and rubbed a tangle of fire-red hair; he looked up to Jim for he was a short and wiry bundle of dynamite, this Mack Moran—and chuckled to himself. "I been like a chicken minus a head all day. By golly, I'm glad to see yore homely mug. Let's do somethin', let's drink somethin', let's rip up a few boards."

Jim stopped, attracted by a fresh sign painted on an adjacent building front: "Roaring Horse Irrigation and Reclamation Corporation." He pointed at it.

"How long's that been there? What is it?"

"I dunno. Some new fangled outfit come in here a few weeks back. They's a dude in charge that calls himself secretary. In plain words, a pen pusher. What's behind it I ain't able to state. They been buyin' land and doin' a good business at that. Tough year. Small folks are sellin'. What does the aforesaid corporation want with land that ain't worth four bits an acre? I dunno. Here's where you sign up."

He led Jim into a hardware store, where all the contestants applied for places in the next day's rodeo. Jim signed. But when then gentleman in charge asked for the customary ten dollars he stared rather blankly at Mack. "I forgot that. Ain't got ten dollars."

"I have," said Moran, and peeled the sum from his pocket. He slapped it down. "And I'll state I'll bring a hundred iron men back with it to-morrow night."

The gentleman behind the counter accepted the ten but not the comment. He looked curiously toward Chaffee. "Theodorik Perrine's ridin'."

"The name," replied Jim, "is not altogether strange to me."

The partners went out. Mack suggested it was time to humor the inner man, and they started through the crowd, bound for the restaurant. "Jim," was Mack's abrupt question, "have you seen Theodorik yet this aft'noon?"

"Ain't had that pleasure for a great many months."

"Well, he's ornerier than ever. If you could cross a skunk, a grizzly, and a snake you'd have a combination half as mean as Theodorik. Most men stop growin' when they get of age. Theodorik just keeps gettin' bigger and meaner."

"Be interestin' to see him again," drawled Jim. His head snapped upward, and he gripped Mack Moran's arm so tightly that the latter jumped. "Walk slow," breathed Jim fiercely. "Walk slow like you was just wastin' time."

"Yeah, but—"

"Shut up!"

William Wells Woolfridge came toward them; beside him walked the girl Jim had seen earlier in the afternoon. She had a parasol raised against the late afternoon's sun, and her white chin was tipped toward the man. She was talking gayly, while her free hand made graceful gestures that seemed to flow into her words and add life to them. Chaffee, venturing one direct glance, saw the robust freedom about her and the assured carriage she owned. Every piece of clothing and every step stamped her as belonging to a world remote from this dusty old cattle town. He muttered a word to Mack. The latter, puzzled by the sudden change in his friend, blurted out an impatient phrase loud enough to wake the dead. "Don't mumble thataway. What was it yuh tried to say?" The girl walked by, head erect and attention straight to the front. She hadn't seen Jim Chaffee. At least that was the impression he gathered.

"Who is that girl?" he demanded, far removed from ordinary calm.

"Great guns, don't bite me in the neck," grumbled Mack. "Her name's Gay Thatcher. She's from the territorial capital, takin' in our rodeo as a sorter pilgrim."

"A bright spot in this gay street," murmured Jim. "A thoroughbred. Gay. Ain't that a pretty name, Mack? Ain't it pretty now?" He turned to his partner, glowering. "Any relation to that coyote Woolfridge? The son-of-a-gun looked like he owned her. Any relation?"

"How do I know?" protested Mack. "Don't think so. She come with a party of society folks on the special stage caravan. Town's full of them. La-de-da ladies and slick-eared gents. They's to be a grand ball at the Gusher tomorrow night. Woolfridge is the high card dude around these parts with them people. You and me is only rough, rude cow persons. But Woolfridge ain't only a common rancher, my boy. He's got connections in genteel families down-territory. He's rich, he uses lots of big words, and he knows the difference atween pie fork and meat fork. I heard somebody say that. What is said difference, Jim? Since when has a fellow got to use two forks to eat his vittals? Hell, I ain't used any, and it don't seem to impair my appetite none."

"Gay—by George, that's a pretty name. Mack, I've got to meet her."

"Ha!" snorted Mack, and considered that a sufficient answer. He started to pull Jim into the crowded restaurant. Josiah Craib's gaunt frame stepped around the pair. The banker had his hands clasped tightly behind him, and his long face bent forward like that of some droopy vulture. He drew Jim's attention by a slight jerk of his shoulders.

"About that personal offer, Jim. I spoke a little prematurely. I will have to withdraw the offer. Sorry."

"That's all right," said Jim soberly. "I don't—" But Craib was gone, plowing a straight furrow through the multitude.

"He's crooked as a snake's shadder," grumbled Mack. "What's he talkin' about?"

"Nothing," replied Jim. "I've got to meet her, Mack." They passed into the restaurant.

Jim Chaffee thought she hadn't seen him. But she had clearly discovered the excitement simmering in his eyes as she passed by. And he would have been immensely interested if he had known that later in the night she stood by the window of her hotel room and looked across the street to where he stood. The Melotte family was in town; Lily Melotte and a pair of other girls had cornered Jim in front of Tilton's dry-goods store. His hat was off, and he was smiling at the group in a manner that for the moment made him quite gracefully gallant. Lily Melotte touched his arm with a certain air of possession, and at that Gay Thatcher drew away from the window and lifted her sturdy shoulders.

"They tell me he is a lady's man," said she to herself. "It would seem so. Yet I have never seen a finer face. He carries himself so surely—and still without swagger. I wonder if he will try to meet me again?"

With that feminine question she crossed to the table and began to write a letter to the governor of the territory. It was not a social letter; it was one of sober business with the words sounding strangely like those of an equal to an equal. Gay Thatcher was in Roaring Horse ostensibly to attend the rodeo; in reality her presence was for the purpose of finding certain things about certain people. Dress, manner, and beauty might be feminine, but beneath her dark and quite lustrous hair was a sharp mind and a store of experience surpassing that of many a man. Gay Thatcher was a free lance.

II. A SECRET MEETING

Table of Contents

William Wells Woolfridge was not an impressive man in the open air; in fact he was apt to take on a neutral coloring when surrounded by neighbors. It required four walls and a little furniture to draw him out. With a desk in front of him and a few sheets of business to trap his attention, he slowly acquired a distinct personality and threw off an atmosphere of authority that his subordinates were quick to sense and even more quick to obey. There is no autocrat like the man who feels himself lacking in outward command.

Perhaps it was his face that made him seem negative. It was a smooth and pink face, suggesting freckles. He wore riding breeches and cordovan boots, and all his clothes matched in shade and were scrupulously pressed. His hair ran sleekly into his neck, his hands were like those of a musician; he had the air of eating well, and indeed his ranch kitchen was stocked with victuals the rest of the country never heard of, nor would have eaten if they had. He was thirty-five and seemed younger; he looked like an Easterner, which he once had been; he looked like a business man, which he was; he looked nothing at all like a cattleman, but he owned more acres than Dad Satterlee, hired thirty punchers in season, and sported a very modern ranch house appointed with Filipino boys in white jackets. The rank and file of Roaring Horse never quite got used to him; but they didn't know, either, the extent of his power nor the far-reaching sources of his fortune; his forefathers had done very well in many lines and many places.

About nine o'clock in the evening William Wells Woolfridge entered the hotel and walked as inconspicuously as possible up the stairs, letting himself into a room occupied by two other gentlemen. One was a visitor from down-territory, the other Josiah Craib. After a few preliminary words, preceded by an adequate measure of rye, the gentleman from down-territory, whose name was on the register as T. Q. Bangor, came to the issues.

"Fortunate thing, Woolfridge, that this rodeo gave me an excuse to come up here and see you. The less of fuss the better. Written correspondence won't do at this stage. It may interest you to know that our engineers have given me some rather favorable estimates."

"Good enough," replied Woolfridge. Though a fortune hinged on the statement he took it with urbane calm. "But why not use words that bite a little deeper?"

At this point Craib rose, gaunt body casting a grotesque shadow against the wall. "You don't need me. I'll go back to my office." With a nod to each of them he went out, closing the door softly behind him, and down the street; as he marched through the crowd, hands clasped across his back and his eyes dropped to the sidewalk, there seemed to be a deep and somber fire burning within the man. Once, when he passed into the bank, he looked at the stars above. That was a rare thing for Craib to do.

In the room Bangor proceeded. "Your banker friend gives me an uneasy, insecure feeling. What does the man think about?"

"God knows," said Woolfridge. "It doesn't matter. He's tied to me. Go on."

"I didn't put the specific case before our engineers," explained Bangor. "I made it an arbitrary and theoretical proposition to keep them off the track. Until the big news breaks we want no leaks. But they assure me of this point—to divert enough water from the proposed power dam for irrigation purposes will be all right. It depends on the following factors—that the number of acres to be irrigated does not require more than so many acre-feet of water, that the dam is high enough and the back basin great enough to take care of a set minimum for the generation of electrical current. I have all the figures with me. It checks all right with the reserves we will be carrying when the Roaring Horse project goes through. I'll give you the sheets to run over. But there are a lot of angles to this thing, and I wish you'd talk to me straight out. I want the picture in your head."

Woolfridge pulled a map from his pocket and unfolded it on the bed. It covered the Roaring Horse country between peaks and western alkali wastes, between Roaring Horse canyon and town, and it had been especially drawn by surveyors for Woolfridge. He laid a finger on it. "All you see here is desert grazing land. Intrinsically worth whatever you've got to pay for it. Fifty cents an acre, ten dollars an acre. All as dry as a bone except for drilled wells and two small creeks. The Roaring Horse absorbs everything. At present this land is good for nothing but cattle. Less than eleven inches of rainfall a year on it. That's the first fundamental proposition.

"The second proposition is that this land is astonishingly fertile; it will grow absolutely anything if irrigated. I've tested it. The third proposition is that we have had three bad cattle years with another in prospect and the ranchers discouraged and willing to sell. I have quietly bought a lot of range through my dummy company next door. I will continue to buy until I have an almost solid strip along the canyon within easy irrigating distance. The control will be absolutely mine. I will irrigate it, divide it into small farms, and sell. Ten dollar range land with water on it is worth, in this district, from fifty to a hundred and fifty dollars."

"Yes, but Woolfridge, have you given enough attention to the cost of installing an irrigating system? One unforeseen item can lay you flat on your back."

Woolfridge smiled, still the mild, soft-fleshed man. "Let's check the items of expense. First, the dam. You are building it for a power dam—doesn't cost me a penny. You will charge a nominal sum for the use of the water later, but that falls on the homesteader, not me. Second item is the main ditch. And outside of one small piece of digging, about three hundred yards, that won't cost anything, either. Look on the map here."

He traced a shaded line that started on the upper end of the Roaring Horse canyon and worked parallel to it, though angling away slightly as it traveled. "That's a gully which in prehistoric days was a good-sized creek. Its mouth comes within three hundred yards of the rim, and that piece had somehow been overlain with soil. It travels down grade with the general contour of the country for ten miles, sliding gradually away from the rim. When your dam is built that gully, shoveled out, will tap your basin, take the water and carry it by gravity those ten miles. Soil is hard underneath, no porous sands. And there is my main ditch."

Bangor shook his head. "You are a very lucky man, Woolfridge."

Something of the mildness went from Woolfridge. His eyes cooled, the smooth cheeks became distinctly hard. All at once he was a different individual, aggressive and slightly overbearing. "Not lucky, Bangor. I have been studying this five years. One more item—the lateral ditches. They will go in as I sell the ranches. I've got a mechanical digger in mind that will slash them out of the ground in no time at all. There is the cost of it. Advertising will mount up, of course. Buying out the present ranchers will cost. But the whole sum is nothing when compared to what I expect to make. There is a quarter or a half million in this one angle."

"We are the means, therefore, of supplying you with a very nice fortune," said Bangor, not overenthused.

Woolfridge had been watching his man closely, gauging the latter's reactions. The coldness became more pronounced, his speech snapped more crisply, more rapidly. "I expected some such reply, Bangor. I am prepared to meet it. I said I have studied this five years. It depended wholly on somebody building a dam on the Roaring Horse. A power dam with excess water for irrigating purposes. Otherwise it couldn't pay. Your company had to get a site. I called this to your attention—an ideal location from every point of view. Moreover, when you got in trouble with Bi-State Power I saw to it my block of stock was instrumental in giving you a position that was not assailable. I helped you. I expect help in return."

"Your help had definite strings attached," Bangor reminded him. "It still has strings attached."

"I believe in protecting myself," was Woolfridge's quiet answer. "This isn't charity. You will make money from the deal. Not only in water rent but in the development of a whole new region. Personally I've got controlling interest in the bank, in a warehouse, and shortly will also have bought the major store here. All through the dummy corporation. I expect to build up a marketing organization in time. Long after I take my first profit there will be a steady, year by year percentage of the general prosperity coming my way."

"You let nothing past you."

"I have studied it a long time," said Woolfridge. "There is yet one difficult barrier to cross. I have got to buy out Satterlee or the whole thing falls to pieces. His land slices my project in two. The ditch runs across it; and the man would let his fingers be hacked off before he'd see the cattle range split into homesteads. So I have got to take him out of the game."

"From what I saw of him," suggested Bangor, "he looks both prosperous and stubborn."

"Both," agreed Woolfridge. "But all men have a price. Somewhere up the scale I'll find his. Now, we must work quietly and let nothing get out. You don't know how cattle land hates the smell of small farms. They'd block me if they understood. The name of my dummy—they wonder who is behind it—-sounds like a big joke to them. They can't understand how this country will ever get water. Moreover, they don't want it."

"Who is in with you on this deal?" question Bangor.

"Nobody. When I want a thing done I do it myself. I never let another man see my hand if I can help it. And the rewards I keep alone, having well earned them."

In saying that the core of his nature broke through the neutral wrapping and lay exposed. His round cheeks were flushed and hard; there was a slanting, oriental cast to his eyes that defied Bangor's power of analysis. Bangor saw part of Woolfridge's underlying coldness and a part of the man's acquisitive will, but there was still some latent explosive force beyond sight. It was to him an uncomfortable moment. He broke it quickly.

"We should have an answer to our application in Washington. That's only formality. It will go through. And so will our business with the territorial engineer. You had better get your necessary legal business in order as well."

"I am taking care of that," said Woolfridge. Bangor had the disquieting sensation that the man had taken care of a great many things. He knew Woolfridge very well; he knew his approximate wealth and connections. Yet from time to time Woolfridge surprised him by producing still another weapon out of the case. Stock, a friendly official, some secret control.

"Well," went on Bangor, "when you are ready to break the news let me know. I'll hold off until then. By the way, the governor is preparing to lay a series of distinctly radical reforms before the ensuing legislature. I don't like it. But we'll beat them."

"Give the governor my regards," was Woolfridge's ironical comment. "Two years from now I'll send him back to private life."

"How?" was Bangor's startled question.

Woolfridge shrugged his shoulders and motioned to the bottle. The interview was over. They drank in silence, and Woolfridge prepared to leave. By the door he turned for a last word. "See you in the morning. You are sitting with me. It will be very interesting. Watch a man named Jim Chaffee. It will repay you. He has a terrific reputation for ability in these parts." He seemed to thaw and drop back to his inconspicuous role. "By the way, Gay Thatcher is an extraordinarily charming lady. Where is she from?"

"Don't know," said Bangor. "She's been socially up around the capital this fall. Her past seems to be entirely her own business, but she walks through the best doors."

"I should think so," murmured Woolfridge, and let himself out.