A Night Raid at Eagle River
A NIGHT RAID AT EAGLE RIVER
THE post-office at Eagle River was so small that McCoy and his herders always spoke of the official within as "the Badger," saying that he must surely back into his den for lack of room to turn round. His presentment at the arched loophole in his stockade was formidable. His head was large, his brow high and seamed, his beard long and tangled, and the look of his hazel-gray eyes remote with cold abstraction. "He's not a man to monkey with," said McCoy when the boys complained that the old seed had put up a sign, "NO SPITTING IN THIS OFFICE." "I'd advise you to act accordingly. I reckon he's boss of that thing while he's in there. He's a Populist, but he's regularly appointed by the President, and I don't see that we 're in any position to presume to spit if he objects. No, there ain't a thing to do but get up a petition and have him removed—and I won't agree to sign it when you do."
Eagle River was only a cattle-yard station, a shipping-point for the mighty spread of rolling hills which make up the Bear Valley Range to the north and the Grampa to the south. Aside from the post-office, it possessed two saloons, a store, a boarding-house or two, and a low, brown station-house. That was all, except during the autumn, when there was nearly always an outfit of cow-boys camped about the corrals, loading cattle or waiting for cars.
On the day when this story opens, McCoy had packed away his last steer, and being about to take the train for Kansas City, called his foreman aside.
"See here, Roy, seems to me the boys are extra boozed already. It's up to you to pull right out for the ranch."
"That's what I'm going to try to do," answered Roy. "We 'll camp at the head of Jack Rabbit to-night."
"Good idea. Get 'em out of town before dark—every mother's son of 'em. I 'll be back on Saturday."
Roy Pierce was a dependable young fellow, and honestly meant to carry out the orders of his boss; but there was so little in way of diversion in Eagle, the boys had to get drunk in order to punctuate a paragraph in their life. There was not a disengaged woman in the burg, and bad whisky was merely a sad substitute for romance. Therefore the settlers who chanced to meet this bunch of herders in the outskirts of Eagle River that night walked wide of them, for they gave out the sounds of battle.
They could all ride like Cossacks, notwithstanding their dizzy heads, and though they waved about in their saddles like men of rubber, their faithful feet clung to their stirrups like those of a bat to its perch. In camp they scuffled, argued, ran foot-races, and howled derisive epithets at the cook, who was getting supper with drunken gravity, using pepper and salt with lavish hand.
Into the midst of this hullabaloo, Roy, the cow-boss, rode, white with rage and quite sober.
"I 'll kill that old son of a gun one of these days," said he to Henry Ring.
"That postmaster. If he was n't a United States officer, I'd do it now."
"What's the matter? Would n't he shuffle the mail fer you?"
"Never lifted a finger. 'Nothing' he barked out at me. Did n't even look up till I let loose on him."
"What did he do then?"
"Poked an old Civil War pistol out of the window, and told me to hike."
"Which you did?"
"Which I did, after passing him a few compliments. 'Lay down your badge,' I says, 'come out o' your den, and I 'll pepper you so full of holes that your hide won't hold blue-joint hay.' And I 'll do it too, the old hound!"
"But you got out," persisted Ring, maliciously.
"I got out, but I tell you right now he's got something coming to him. No mail-sifter of a little two-for-a-cent town like Eagle is goin' to put it all over me that way and not repent of it. I 've figured out a scheme to get even with him, and you have got to help."
This staggered Henry, who began to side-step and limp. "Count me out on that," said he. "The old skunk treated me just about the same way. I don't blame you; a feller sure has a right to have his postmaster make a bluff at shuffling the deck. But, after all—"
However, in the end the boss won his most trusted fellows to his plan, for he was a youth of power, and besides they had all been roiled by the grizzled, crusty old official, and were quite ready to take a hand in his punishment.
Roy developed his plot. "We 'll pull out of camp about midnight, and ride round to the east, sneak in, and surround the old man's shack, shouting and yelling and raising Cain. He 'll come out of his hole to order us off, and I 'll rope him before he knows where he's at; then we 'll toy with him for a few minutes,—long enough to learn him a lesson in politeness,—and let him go."
No one in the gang seemed to see anything specially humorous in this method of inculcating urbanity of manner, and at last five of them agreed to stand their share of the riot, although Henry Ring muttered something about the man's being old and not looking very strong.
"He's strong enough to wave a two-foot gun," retorted Roy, and so silenced all objection.
As soon as the camp was quiet. Pierce rose, and touching his marauders into activity, saddled and rode away as stealthily as the leader of a band of Indian scouts. He made straightway over the divide to the east, then turned, and crossing the river, entered the town from the south, in order to deceive any chance observer.
Just below the station, in a little gully, he halted his war-party and issued final orders. "Now I 'll ride ahead and locate myself right near the back door; then when I strike a light you fellows come in and swirl round the shack like a gust o' hell. The old devil will come out the back door to see what's doin', and I 'll jerk him endwise before he can touch trigger. I won't hurt him any more than he needs. Now, don't stir till I'm in position."
Silently, swiftly, his pony shuffled along the sandy road and over the railway-crossing. The town was soundless and unlighted, save for a dim glow in the telegraph office, and the air was keen and crisp with frost. As he approached the Badger's shack. Pierce detected a gleam of light beneath the curtain of the side windows. "If he's awake, so much the better," he thought, but his nerves thrilled as he softly entered the shadow.
Suddenly the pony trod upon something which made a prodigious crash. The door opened, a tall young girl appeared in a wide flare of yellow light which ran out upon the grass like a golden carpet. With eager, anxious voice she called out: "Is that you. Doctor?"
The raider stiffened in his saddle with surprise. His first impulse was to set spurs to his horse and vanish. His next was to tear off his disguise and wait, for the voice was sweeter than any he had ever heard, and the girl's form a vision of beauty.
Alarmed at his silence, she again called out: "Who are you? What do you want?"
"A neighbor, Miss," he answered, dismounting and stepping into the light. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
At this moment hell seemed to have let loose the wildest of its warriors. With shrill whoopings, with flare of popping guns, Roy's faithful herders came swirling round the cabin, intent to do their duty—frenzied with delight of it.
Horrified, furious at this breach of discipline. Pierce ran to meet them, waving his hat and raising the wild yell, "Whoo-ee!" with which he was wont to head off and turn a bunch of steers. "Stop it! Get out!" he shouted, as he succeeded in reaching the ears of one or two of the raiders. "It's all off—there's a girl here. Somebody sick! Skeedoo!"
The shooting and the tumult died away. The horsemen vanished as swiftly, as abruptly, as they came, leaving their leader in panting, breathless possession of the field. He was sober enough now, and repentant, too.
Slowly he returned to the door of the shack with vague intent to apologize. Something very sudden and very terrible must have fallen upon the postmaster.
After some hesitation he knocked timidly on the door.
"Have they gone?" the girl asked.
"Yes; I 've scared 'em away. They did n't mean no harm, I reckon. I want to know, can't I be of some kind of use?"
The door opened cautiously, and the girl again appeared. She was very pale, and held a pistol in her hand, but her voice was calm. "You 're very good," she said, "and I'm much obliged. Who are you?"
"I am Roy Pierce, foreman for McCoy, a cattleman north of here."
"Was it really a band of Indians?"
"Naw. Only a bunch of cow-punchers on a bat."
"You mean cow-boys?"
"That's what. It's their little way of havin' fun. I reckon they did n't know you was here. I did n't. Who's sick?"
"You mean the postmaster?"
"When was he took?"
"Last night. They telegraphed me about six o'clock. I did n't get here till this morning—I mean yesterday morning."
"What's the ail of him?"
"A stroke, I'm afraid. He can't talk, and he 's stiff as a stake. Oh, I wish the doctor would come!"
Her anxiety was moving. "I 'll try to find him for you."
"I wish you would."
"You are n't all alone?"
"Yes; Mrs. Gilfoyle had to go home to her baby. She said she 'd come back, but she has n't."
Roy's heart swept a wide arc as he stood looking into the pale, awed, lovely face of the girl.
"I 'll bring help," he said, and vanished into the darkness, shivering with a sense of guilt. "The poor old cuss! Probably he was sick the very minute I was bully-ragging him."
The local doctor had gone down the valley on a serious case, and would not be back till morning, his wife said, thereupon Roy wired to Clay wall, the county seat, for another physician. He also secured the aid of Mrs. James, the landlady of the Palace Hotel, and hastened back to the relief of the girl, whom he found walking the floor of the little kitchen, tremulous with dread. "I'm afraid he's dying," she said. "His teeth are set, and he's unconscious."
Without knowing what to say in way of comfort, the herder passed on into the little office, where the postmaster lay on a low couch with face upturned, in rigid, inflexible pose, his hands clenched, his mouth foam-lined. Roy, unused to sickness and death, experienced both pity and awe as he looked down upon the prostrate form of the man he had expected to punish. And yet these emotions were rendered vague and slight by the burning admiration which the niece had excited in his susceptible and chivalrous heart.
She was tall and very fair, with a face that seemed plain in repose, but which bewitched him when she smiled. Her erect and powerful body was glowing with health, and her lips and eyes were deliciously young and sweet. Her anxious expression passed away as Roy confidently assured her that these seizures were seldom fatal. He did n't know a thing about it, but his tone was convincing. "I knew a man once who had these fits four or five times a year. Did n't seem to hurt him a bit. One funny thing—he never had 'em while in the saddle. They 'most always come on just after a heavy meal. I reckon the old man must of over-et."
Mrs. James came in soon,—all too soon to please him,—but he reported to her his message to Claywall. "A doctor will be down on 'the Cannonball' about five o'clock," he added.
"That's very kind and thoughtful of you," said the girl. Then she explained to Mrs. James that Mr. Pierce had just driven off a horrid band of cow-boys who were attacking the town.
The landlady snorted with contempt. "I'm so used to boozy cow-boys howlin' round, I don't bat an eye when they shoot up the street. They 're all a lot of cheap skates, any way. You want to swat 'em with the mop if they come round; that's the way I do."
Roy was nettled by her tone, for he was now very anxious to pose as a valorous defender of the innocent; but agreed with her that "the boys were just having a little 'whizz' as they started home; they did n't mean no harm."
"Ought I to sit in there?" the girl asked the woman, with a glance toward the inner room.
"No; I don't think you can do any good. I 'll just keep an eye on him, and let you know if they 's any change."
The girl apologized for the looks of the kitchen. "Poor uncle has been so feeble lately he could n't keep things in order, and I have n't had any chance since I came. If you don't mind, I 'll rid things up now; it 'll keep my mind occupied."
"Good idea!" exclaimed Roy. "I 'll help."
He had been in a good many exciting mix-ups with steers, bears, cayuses, sheriffs' posses, and Indians, but this was easily the most stirring and amazing hour of his life. While his pony slowly slid away up the hill to feed, he, with flapping gun and rattling spurs swept, polished, and lifted things for Lida—that was her name—Lida Converse. "My folks live in Colorado Springs," she explained in answer to his questions. "My mother is not very well, and father is East, so I had to come. Uncle Dan was pretty bad when I got here, only not like he is now. This fit came on after the doctor went away at nine."
"I'm glad your father was East," declared the raider, who was unable to hold to a serious view of the matter, now that he was in the midst of a charming and intimate conversation. "Just think—if he had 'a' come, I 'd never have seen you!"
She faced him in surprise and disapproval of his boldness. "You 're pretty swift, are n't you?" she said cuttingly.
"A feller's got to be in this country," he replied jauntily.
She was prepared to be angry with him, but his candid, humorous, admiring gaze disarmed her. "You 've been very nice," she said, "and I feel very grateful; but I guess you better not say any more such things to me—to-night."
"You must n't forget I chased off them redskins."
"You said they were cow-boys."
"Of course I did; I wanted to calm your mind."
She was a little puzzled by his bluffing.
"I don't believe there are any Indians over here."
"Well, if they were cow-boys, they were a fierce lot."
She considered. "I 've told you I feel grateful; what more can I do?"
"A good deal; but, as you say, that 'll go over till to-morrow. Did I tell you that I had a bunch of cattle of my own?"
"I don't remember of it."
"Well, I have. I'm not one of these crazy cow-boys who blows in all his wad on faro and drink—not on your life! I 've got some ready chink stacked away in a Claywall bank. Want to see my bank-book?"
She answered curtly. "Please take that kettle of slop out and empty it. And what time did you say the express was due?"
Roy was absorbed, ecstatic. He virtually forgot all the rest of the world. His herders could ride to the north pole, his pony might starve, the Cannonball Express go over the cliff, the postmaster die, so long as he was left in service to this princess. "Lord A'mighty! was n't I in luck?" he repeated to himself. "Suppose I'd a roped her instead of the old man!"
When he returned from listening for the train, he found her washing her hands at the end of her task, and the room in such order as it had never known before. The sight of her standing there, flushed and very womanly, rolling down her sleeves, was more than the young fellow could silently observe.
"I hope the old man 'll be a long time getting well," he said abruptly.
"That's a nice thing to say! What do you mean by such a cruel wish?"
"I see my finish when you go away. No more lonely ranch-life for me."
"If you start in on that talk again I will not speak to you," she declared, and she meant it.
"All right, I 'll shut up; but I want to tell you I'm a trailer for keeps, and you can't lose me, no matter where you go. From this time on I forget everything in the world but you."
With a look of resolute reproof she rose and joined Mrs. James in the inner room, leaving Roy cowed and a good deal alarmed. "I reckon I'm a little too swift," he admitted; "but, oh, my soul! she's a peach!"
When the train whistled, Lida came out again. "Will you please go to meet the doctor?" she asked with no trace of resentment in her manner.
"Sure thing; I was just about starting," he replied instantly.
While he was gone, she asked Mrs. James if she knew the young man, and was much pleased to find that the sharp-tongued landlady had only good words to say of Roy Pierce. "He's no ordinary cow-boy," she explained. "If he makes up to you, you need n't shy."
"Who said he was making up to me? I never saw him before."
"I want to know! Well, anybody could see with half an eye that he was naturally rustlin' round you. I thought you'd known each other for years."
This brought tears of mortification to the girl's eyes. "I did n't mean to be taken that way. Of course I could n't help being grateful, after all he'd done; but I think it's a shame to be so misunderstood. It's mean and low-down of him—and poor uncle so sick."
"Now, don't make a hill out of an ant-heap," said the old woman, vigorously. "No harm's done. You 're a mighty slick girl, and these boys don't see many like you out here in the sage-brush and piñons. Facts are, you 're kind o' upsettin' to a feller like Roy. You make him kind o' drunk-like. He don't mean to be sassy."
"Well, I wish you'd tell him not to do anything more for me. I don't want to get any deeper in debt to him."
The Claywall physician came in to the little room as silently as a Piute. He was a plump, dark little man of impassive mien, but seemed to know his business. He drove the girl out of the room, but drafted Mrs. James and Roy into service. "It's merely a case of indigestion," said he; "but it's plenty serious enough. You see the distended stomach pressing against the heart—"
The girl, sitting in the kitchen and hearing the swift and vigorous movement within, experienced a revulsion to the awe and terror of the midnight. For the second time in her life death had come very close to her, but in this case her terror was shot through with the ruddy sympathy of a handsome, picturesque young cavalier. She could not be really angry with him, though she was genuinely shocked by his reckless disregard of the proprieties; for he came at such a dark and lonely and helpless hour, and his prompt and fearless action in silencing those dreadful cow-boys was heroic. Therefore, when the doctor sent Roy out to say that her uncle would live, a part of her relief and joy shone upon the young rancher, who was correspondingly exalted.
"Now you must let me hang round till he gets well," he said, forgetful of all other duties.
"That reminds me. You 'll need some breakfast," she said hurriedly; "for here comes the sun." And as she spoke, the light of the morning streamed like a golden river into the little room.
"It's me to the wood-pile, then," cried Roy, and his smile was of a piece with the sunshine on the wall.
Beside the fallen monarch of the wood the lifting saplings bud and intertwine. So over the stern old postmaster these young people re-enacted the most primitive drama in the world. Indifferent to the jeers of his fellows, Roy devoted himself to the service of "The Badger's Niece," and was still in town when McCoy returned from "the East"; that is to say, from Kansas City.
Lida had ceased to protest against the cow-boy's attendance and his love-making for the good reason that her protests were unavailing. He declined to take offense, and he would not remain silent. A part of his devotion was due, of course, to his sense of guilt, and yet this was only a small part. True, he had sent warnings and dire threats to silence his band of marauders; but he did not feel keenly enough about their possible tale-bearing to carry his warnings in person. "I can't spare the time," he argued, knowing that Lida would be going home in a few days, and that his world would then be blank.
"I lose too much of you," he said to her once; "I can't afford to have you out of my sight a minute."
She had grown accustomed to such speeches as these, and seldom replied to them, except to order the speaker about with ever-increasing tyranny. "You 're so anxious to work," she remarked, "I 'll let you do a-plenty. You 'll get sick o' me soon."
"Sick of you! Lord heavens! what 'll I do when you leave!"
"You 'll go back to your ranch. A fine foreman you must be, fooling round here like a tramp. What does your boss think?"
"Don't know and don't care. Don't care what anybody thinks—but you. You 're my only landmark these days. You 're my sun, moon, and stars, that's what you are. I set my watch by you."
"You 're crazy!" she answered with laughter.
"Sure thing! Locoed, we call it out here. You 've got me locoed—you 're my pink poison blossom. There ain't any feed that interests me but you. I'm lonesome as a snake-bit cow when I can't see you."
"Say, do you know Uncle Dan begins to notice you. He asked me to-day what you were hanging round here for, and who you were."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him you were McCoy's hired man just helping me take care of him."
"That's a lie. I'm your hired man. I'm takin' care of you—willing to work for a kiss a day."
"You 'll not get even that."
"I'm not getting it—yet."
"You 'll never get it."
"Don't be too sure of that. My life-work is collectin' my dues. I 've got 'em all set down. You owe me a dozen for extra jobs, and a good hug for overtime."
She smiled derisively, and turned the current. "The meals you eat are all of a dollar a day."
"They 're worth a bushel of diamonds—when you cook 'em. But let me ask you something—is your old dad as fierce as Uncle Dan?"
She nodded. "You bet he is! He's crusty as old crust. Don't you go up against my daddy with any little bank-book. It's got to be a fat wad, and, mind you, no cloves on your breath, either. He's crabbed on the drink question; that's why he settled in Colorado Springs. No saloons there, you know."
He considered a moment. "Much obliged. Now, here's something for you. You 're not obliged to hand out soft words and a sweet smile to every dog-gone injun that happens to call for mail. Stop it. Why, you 'll have all the cow-punchers for fifty miles around calling for letters. That bunch that was in here just now was from Steamboat Springs. Their mail don't come here; it comes by way of Wyoming. They were runnin' a bluff. It makes me hot to have such barefaced swindling going on. I won't stand for it."
"Well, you see, I 'm not really deputized to handle the mail, so I must be careful not to make anybody mad—"
"Anybody but me. I don't count."
"Oh, you would n't complain, I know that."
"I would n't, hey? Sure of that? Well, I'm going to start a petition to have myself made postmaster—"
"Better get Uncle Dan out, first," she answered, with a sly smile. "The office won't hold you both."
At the end of a week the old postmaster was able to hobble to the window and sort the mail, but the doctor would not consent to his cooking his own meals. "If you can stay another week," he said to Lida, "I think you'd better do it. He is n't really fit to live alone."
Thereupon she meekly submitted, and continued to keep house in the little kitchen for herself, her uncle, and for Roy, who still came regularly to her table, bringing more than his share of provisions, however. She was a good deal puzzled by the change which had come over him of late. He was less gay, less confident of manner, and he often fell into fits of abstraction.
He was in fact under conviction of sin, and felt the need of confessing to Lida his share in the zealous assault of the cow-boys that night. "It's sure to leak out," he decided, "and I'd better be the first to break the news." But each day found it harder to begin, and only the announcement of her intended departure one morning brought him to the hazard. He was beginning to feel less secure of her, and less indifferent to the gibes of the town-jokers, who found in his enslavement much material for caustic remark. They called him the "tired cow-boy" and the "trusty."
They were all sitting at supper in the kitchen one night when the old postmaster suddenly said to Roy: "Seems to me I remember you. Did I know you before I was sick?" His memory had been affected by his "stroke," and he took up the threads of his immediate past with uncertain fingers.
"I reckon so; leastwise I used to get my mail here," answered Roy, a bit startled.
The old man looked puzzled. "Yes; but it seems a little more special than that. Someway your face is associated with trouble in my mind. Did we have any disagreement?"
After the postmaster returned to his chair in the office, Roy said: "They 're going to throw your uncle out now in a few weeks."
"You don't mean it!"
"Sure thing. He really ain't fit to be here any more. Don't you see how kind o' dazed he is? They 're going to get him out on a doctor's certificate—loss of memory. Now, why don't you get deputized, and act in his place?"
"Goodness sakes! I don't want to live here."
"Where do you want to live—on a ranch?"
"Not on your life! Colorado Springs is good enough for me."
"That's hard lines on Roy. What could I do to earn a living there?"
"You don't have to live there, do you?"
"Home is where you are." She had come to the point where she received such remarks in glassy silence. He looked at her in growing uneasiness, and finally said: "See here, Lida, I 've got something to tell you. You heard the old man kind o' feelin' around in his old haymow of a mind about me? Well, him and me did have a cussin'-out match one day, and he drawed a gun on me, and ordered me out of the office."
"Well, it was this way—I think. He was probably sick, and did n't feel a little bit like sorting mail when I asked fer it. He sure was aggravatin', and I cussed him good and plenty. I reckon I had a clove on my tongue that day, and was irritable, and when he lit on to me, I was hot as a hornet, and went away swearing to get square." He braced himself for the plunge. "That was my gang of cow-boys that came hell-roaring around the night I met you. They were under my orders to scare your uncle out of his hole, and I was going to rope him."
"Oh!" she gasped, and drew away from him, "that poor, sick old man!"
He hastened to soften the charge. "Of course I did n't know he was sick, or I would n't 'ave done it. He did n't look sick the day before; besides, I did n't intend to hurt him—much. I was only fixin' for to scare him up for pullin' a gun on me, that was all."
"That's the meanest thing I ever heard of—to think of that old man, helpless, and you and a dozen cow-boys attacking him."
"I tell you I did n't know he was ailin', and there was only six of us."
Her tone hurt as she pointed at him. "And you pretend to be so brave!"
"No, I don't."
"No, I did n't. You said I was brave and kind, but I denied it. I never soberly claimed any credit for driving off that band of outlaws. That's one reason why I 've been sticking so close to business here—I felt kind o' conscience-struck."
Her eyes were ablaze now. "Oh, it is! You 've said a dozen times it was on my account."
"That's right—about eighty per cent, on yours and twenty per cent, on my own account—I mean the old man's."
"The idea!" She rose, her face dark with indignation. "Don't you dare come here another time. I never heard of anything more—more awful. You a rowdy!—I 'll never speak to you again. Go away! I despise you."
Her anger and chagrin were genuine, that he felt. There was nothing playful or mocking in her tone at the moment. She saw him as he was, a reckless, vengeful young ruffian, and as such she hated him.
He got upon his feet slowly, and went out without further word of defense.
The sun did not rise for Roy Pierce on the day which followed her departure. His interest in Eagle River died, and his good resolutions weakened. He went on one long, wild, wilful carouse, and when McCoy rescued him and began to exhort toward a better life, he resigned his job, and went back to the home ranch, where his brothers, Claude and Harry, welcomed him with sarcastic comment as "the returning goat."
He tried to make his peace with them by saying "I'm done with whisky forever."
"Good notion," retorted Claude, who was something of a cynic; "just cut out women and drink, and you 'll be happy."
Roy found it easier to give up drink than to forget Lida. To put away thought of her was like trying to fend the sunlight from his cabin window with his palm. He was entirely and hopelessly enslaved to the memory of her glowing face and smiling eyes. What was there in all his world to console him for the loss of her?
Mrs. Pierce wonderingly persisted in asking what had come over him that he should be so sad and silent, and Claude finally enlightened her. "He's all bent up over a girl—the postmaster's niece—of Eagle River, who had to quit the country to get shut of him."
The mother's heart was full of sympathy, and her desire to comfort her stricken son led to shy references to his "trouble" which made him savage. He went about the ranch so grimly, so spiritlessly, that Claude despairingly remarked: "I wish the Lord that girl had got you. You 're as cheerful to have around as a poisoned hound. Why don't you go down to the Springs and sit on her porch? That's about all you 're good for now."
This was a bull's-eye shot, for Roy's desire by day and his dream by night was to trail her to her home; but the fear of her scornful greeting, the thought of a cutting query as to the meaning of his call, checked him at the very threshold of departure a dozen times.
He had read of love-lorn people in the "Saturday Story-teller," which found its way into the homes of the ranchers, but he had always sworn or laughed at their sufferings as a part of the play. He felt quite differently about these cases now. Love was no longer a theme for jest, an abstraction, a far-off trouble; it had become a hunger more intolerable than any he had ever known, a pain that made all others he had experienced transitory and of no account.
Even Claude admitted the reality of the disease by repeating: "Well, you have got it bad. Your symptoms are about the worst ever. You 're locoed for fair. You 'll be stepping high and wide if you don't watch out."
In some mysterious way the whole valley now shared in a knowledge of the raid on the post-office, as well as in an understanding of Roy's "throw-down" by the postmaster's niece, and the expression of this interest in his affairs at last drove the young rancher to desperation. He decided to leave the State. "I'm going to Nome," he said to his brothers one day.
"Pious thought," declared Claude. "The climate may freeze this poison out of you. Why, sure go. You 're no good on earth here."
Roy did not tell him or his mother that he intended to go by way of the Springs, in the wish to catch one last glimpse of his loved one before setting out for the far northland. To speak with her was beyond his hope. No, all he expected was a chance glimpse of her in the street, the gleam of her face in the garden.
"Perhaps I may pass her gate at night, and see her at the window."
The town to him was a maze of bewildering complexity and magnificence, and he wandered about for a day in awkward silence, hesitating to inquire the way to the Converse home. He found it at last, a pretty cottage standing on a broad terrace, amid trees and vines vivid with the autumn hues; and if any thought of asking Lida to exchange it for a shack on a ranch still lingered in his mind, it was instantly wiped out by his first glance at the place.
He walked by on the opposite side of the street, and climbed the mesa back of the house to spy upon it from the rear, hoping to detect his loved one walking about under the pear-trees. But she did not appear. After an hour or so he came down and paced back and forth with eyes en the gate, unable to leave the street till his soul was fed by one look at her.
As the sun sank, and the dusk began to come on, he grew a little more reckless of being recognized, and crossing the way, continued to sentinel the gate. He was passing it for the fourth time when Lida came out upon the porch with an older woman. She looked at the stranger curiously, but did not recognize him. She wore a hat, and was plainly about to go for a walk.
Roy knew he ought to hurry away, but he did not. On the contrary, he shamelessly met her, with a solemn, husky-voiced greeting. "Hello, girl! How's Uncle Dan?"
She started back in alarm, then flushed as she recognized him. "How dare you speak to me—like that!"
In this moment, as he looked into her face, his courage began to come back to him. "Why did n't you answer my letters?" he asked, putting her on defense.
"What business had you to write to me? I told you I would not answer."
"No, you did n't; you only said you would n't speak to me again."
"Well, you know what I meant," she replied, with less asperity.
Some way these slight concessions brought back his audacity, his power of defense. "You bet I did; but what difference does that make to a sick man? Oh, I 've had a time! I'm no use to the world since you left. I told you the truth—you 're my sun, moon, and stars, and I 've come down to say it just once more before I pull out for Alaska. I 'm going to quit the State. The whole valley is on to my case of loco, and I'm due at the north pole. I 've come to say good-by. Here's where I take my congee."
She read something desperate in the tone of his voice. "What do you mean? You are n't really leaving?"
"That's what. Here's where I break camp. I can't go on this way. I 've got the worst fever anybody ever had, I reckon. I can't eat or sleep or work, just on account of studying about you. You 've got me goin' in a circle, and if you don't say you forgive me—it's me to the bone-yard, and that's no joke, you 'll find."
She tried to laugh, but something in his worn face, intense eyes, and twitching lips, made her breathing very difficult. "You must n't talk like that. It's just as foolish as can be."
"Well, that don't help me a little bit. You no business to come into my life and tear things up the way you did. I was all right till you came. I liked myself and my neighbors bully; now nothing interests me—but just you—and your opinion of me. You think I was a cowardly coyote putting up that job on your uncle the way I did. Well, I admit it; but I 've been aching to tell you I 've turned into another kind of farmer since then. You 've educated me. Seems like I was a kid; but I 've grown up into a man all of a sudden, and I 'm startin' on a new line of action. I 'm not asking much to-day, just a nice, easy word. It would be a heap of comfort to have you shake hands and say you 're willing to let the past go. Now, that ain't much to you, but it's a whole lot to me. Girl, you 've got to be good to me this time."
She was staring straight ahead of her with breath quickened by the sincere passion in his quivering voice. The manly repentance which burdened his soul reached her heart. After all, it was true: he had been only a reckless, thoughtless boy as he planned that raid on her uncle, and he had been so kind and helpful afterward—and so merry! It was pitiful to see how changed he was, how repentant and sorrowful.
She turned quickly, and with a shy, teary smile thrust her hand toward him. "All right. Let's forget it." Then as he hungrily, impulsively sought to draw her nearer, she laughingly pushed him away. "I don't mean—so much as you think." But the light of forgiveness and something sweeter was in her face as she added: "Won't you come in a minute and see mother and father—and Uncle Dan?"
"I'm wild to see Uncle Dan," he replied with comical inflection, as he followed her slowly up the path.