AND I says to that roach-maned bronc, 'I wa'n't never raised a pet,' I says, 'nor did I learn my feeding manners from a young ladies' board school; which I'm not pernickity about the grub a cow outfit hands me. But nails in the beans!' I says. 'I sure would admire,' I th'ows in when he begins to get his bristles up, 'for to look at you through the sights of a Winchester some fine day when the grave grass is growing green.' Which—you hear me talking, Original—it was as true a remark as I ever tied loose from. For that cook just naturally mingled that horseshoe nail with my beans, reckoning as how I'd swallow it whole and get all tore up inside me."
A brief flash of flame cut the mask of the speaker's face out of the dark—just a blur of cheekbones and heavy-ended mustache. When the red point of his cigarette was glowing, the defender of a fastidious taste resumed the burden of his feud with the cook of the Bar Y O outfit—a tale interminable, rich in potentialities of sudden death; type narrative it was, of that day when the historians of a new and unlimned empire wrote with their trigger fingers and every man's life was his to barter away on terms of a second's decision. The boy called Original listened with due deference, not daring to allow the quaver of excitement to betray him in his sympathetic duckings and interjections of approval. Romance, the full, strong tide of it which swept him exultant through days and nights of the Great Range, flushing with the hot light of heroism the careless scapegraces, his companions—Romance culled from every such story of crisp adventure, of arrogant bravery, recited by the riders of the Powder River trail. But its enjoyment was a secret vice with the boy, to be concealed from the eyes of real men. Shinnery Luke here, Original's partner in the second watch over the herd, and met on the rounds for these delicious moments of epic recital—Shinnery Luke would blow through that eagle beak of his and laugh Original off the Wyoming range if he could know what was passing under the six-and-a-quarter hand-me-down hat whose rim just showed in the cigarette glow, if he could know the wonderful games Romance played for Original Bill Blunt, cow-puncher.
"But I will say for this Bar Y O cook, he stuck up for his principles," Shinnery Luke was admitting, judiciously, at the end of fifteen minutes' unchecked flow. "When Ole Man Driscoll, our trail boss, laid in a case of Abe-Lincum-brand canned peaches at Ogallala, which had Honest Abe's picture print on all the cans, this short-horn, being the true rebel he was—the same being one of Quantrell's hell-hounds—pitched the whole case in the fire. And we, who got the explosion, was picking peaches out of our hair and whiskers all the way to Forty Islands crossing. He sure was on the prod, and— Look out! there's another of them fork-ed lightning flashes! Better ride down the flank, Original, and sing a little song to them yearlin' brutes down there. Much more of this fireworks business and the whole congregation's going to rise up and quit the church."
They parted, Luke to ride down the far side of the bed-ground. Original following along the edge of the dark blot on his flank, to meet and cross his partner a mile below, where the "drag" end of the recumbent herd of three thousand beeves lay nearest the camp. The twain guarded the herd between them; by their ceaseless patrol about the edge of the great sprawling mass of life—a core of half-tamed, inchoate life in the body of the dark. They soothed the panicky nerves of the beasts in their charge, reassured the instinct of fear which is never blotted by sleep. Their two-hour watch was one of four into which the night of the trail-herd by custom was divided; upon them rested for that time responsibility for property valued in the tens of thousands; the hazard of an instant's play of terror over the deep-breathing herd was theirs to meet alone.
As the boy Original lolled in his saddle to the sleepy pacing of Nigger Boy, his nearest friend and confidant of the black hours of night-herd, he caught on the light wind blowing over the bedded cattle the sound of Shinnery Luke's singing. Snatches of the brave saga of Sam Bass and his outlaw crew came to him from the farther dark; the wavering tenor, now lusty, now softened to a whisper, blended with the sighings and murmurings of the sleeping beasts. The lad's quick imagination kindled to the lure of the song and the night. That was not Shinnery Luke singing over yonder; not from human throat came that minor quaver. No; It was singing to Original, even as It sometimes whispered and sighed on the wind of the night watches, yearning to find speech which Original could understand. Often It was a cool finger laid against his cheek; occasionally It was the low, murmurous voice of a river; at times It spoke from a cluster of quaking aspens in broad day; but usually the night suited best Its purpose to be heard and understood by Original. The farther the Hashknife herd penetrated into the raw and broken Wyoming country, leaving far behind Nebraska's rolling hills the towns of men, the stronger Its voice and presence. It was the wilderness. It lighted the stars at night and sent dust pillars spider-legging by day from one steel-bound butte to another a hundred miles off. Of all the cow-punchers with the Hashknife outfit, only Original knew It. He treasured this mysterious fellowship as the one great secret of his fifteen years of life—treasured it jealously, lest others discover his secret and laugh at him. Because he could be in Its presence he loved the task of the night watches.
Lightning speared down through the sooty dark, closer now and stronger. A hoarse grunt near at hand, a movement on the fringe of the herd, and Nigger Boy instantly turned in to skirt with careful hoofs the line of bodies. "Get down there, you muley steer!" Original piped. "Don't you go for to lead off anything just because Ole Man It up there is a-stomping out his camp-fire and the sparks is flying." He threaded in and out on the fringe of the herd, calling, cajoling, bantering. The dim thicket of horns was in agitation; a muttering and complaining of coughing bellows swept out to the unseen far edge of the bed-ground. Original began to sing to the nervous cattle—the cowman's ready resource for quieting incipient panic.
"Ole Ben Bolt was a blamed good boss;
He'd go to spark the gals on a sore-backed hoss.
Ole Ben Bolt was a fine old man,
An' you knowed there's whisky wherever he'd land."
A large drop of rain smacked on Original's bridle hand. Nigger Boy, wise little horse, stepped swiftly away from the nearest bodies to be clear of them. The boy sang on, albeit excitement presaging the impending event clutched at his throat. Lightning came again, blue and dazzling, and the herd was up. In an instant, the winking of an eye, three thousand steers were on their feet and charging blindly through the dark after their fear-maddened leaders. The stampede was on.
Noise of their hoofs was engulfing. Their bellowing was a higher roar above the thunder of their passage. Smaller sounds of clashing horns and colliding bodies were audible only by contrast. All this welter of noise and action in the void of darkness, with nothing tangible but the shaking earth—and even that unseen. At the instant of panic Nigger Boy had whirled about without command and stretched himself, barrel low to the ground, for the race to the head of the herd. Original, flat against the horse's neck, was whispering excited snatches into back-turned ears: "We got to turn 'em, ole Nigger Boy—turn 'em—turn 'em! Shinnery Luke's a-comin' up t'other side; but we'll give him the point—you an' me, ole Nigger Boy; we'll turn 'em."
Blindly, madly into the blackness sped the little horse, the crouching figure in the saddle one with him. When the lightning flashed it revealed, right at the left stirrup leather, a horrid chimera of eyes—and horns like a moving thicket of skeleton brush. Original clamped his knees tighter for saving hold while his hands went back and under the cantle to fumble the knots binding his slicker there. The stiff garment became loosed, came away in his right hand, and was carried trailing, against the moment for its use.
"We're gettin' to the point. Nigger Boy!" Original shrilled. "Ole Luke hasn't begun to turn 'em, so we must 'a' beaten him to the lead! Now—now, crowd 'em. Nigger Boy; crowd 'em! Yip—yip—yip! Turn, you damn'd dogies! Over, you yearlin' idjits!" Original, now racing neck and neck
with the leaders of the stampede, urged his little horse in so close to the plunging mass that hot breath was on his leg and the smell of panic in his nostrils. His slicker he used as a flail, bringing it down with wide, overhead strokes into the faces of the foremost steers. As he flailed he shrieked bitter curses, knowing not what nor why he screamed at the insensate mass. He felt a yielding of the close-packed bodies. In the darkness some sense of the cow-puncher's art told him he was turning the leaders. Old Shinnery Luke, somewhere off there on the far flank, would feel the pressure, know that Original was turning 'em, and swing out to catch the drift and turn it still closer in on itself. Together they could change the stampede into a "mill," with the silly thousands racing in a circle, and so save days of labor for the rest of the outfit in rounding up a scattered herd over a ten-mile front. Yes, Shinnery Luke and he could do this—with luck.
"Keep your feet on the ground, little boss," Original pleaded in low tones. "Jest stay top side up until ole Luke catches this point; 'cause if you fetches a prairie-dog hole right now, you an' me goes to glory."
Slowly horse and boy crowded the stampede leaders out of their course—Nigger Boy squealing and biting at heaving flanks, Original whipping his slicker down into the mass of horned heads. Now they were directly in the path of ten thousand hammering hoofs, where a fall would have meant quick obliteration for horse and rider equally. Now back to the flank to urge and crowd a thundering wall of maddened flesh over in the changed direction. The boy performed this strategy with veteran skill; under all the heat of the exacting moment ran clear, cool purpose. He exulted in the opportunity to turn the stampede single-handed; he. Original Bill Blunt, the kid of the Hashknife outfit, was breaking the run right up at the roaring front of three thousand crazy steers.
"Yip—yip—yip! Split yourselves, you loco longhorns! Original Bill's got his war-paint on, an' he'll ride you—ride you!
Suddenly, from over to the left in the direction of the turned point, came the bang-bang-bang! of a six-shooter and thin stabs of flame through the felt blackness. Shinnery Luke was telling Original he'd gained the front and was taking the point. The boy dropped a quick hand to his holster and whipped out his gun—that dilapidated, loose-pinned old Allen he'd swapped his new hat for back in Dodge. Down went the barrel viciously near the starting eyes by the stirrup-leather, and bang-bang-bang! the shots answered.
Somewhere very near at hand a splitting crash, the ping-ping of wire stressed. "Fence!" the boy gasped, and at that instant Nigger Boy left the earth, all-fours, in a plunging somersault. Little points of fire spit and crackled behind Original's eyes; something below his rain-plastered shirt gave away, and he dropped, dropped to horrible depths.
Roaring, as of the herd in full stampede, filled many years. But somehow this great noise was filed to a point, sharp as the tip of a skinning-knife—a point which moved forward over a great distance to stab the ears, and then withdrew. Away off, this point was but a whisper, and red like the tip of a cigarette against the dark everywhere about; then, as it came whizzing back for another stab, it blazed white hot. The noise burned when it struck. At the end of the tenth year something began to ride herd on this knife-noise which swung and stabbed, swung and stabbed—that something a coolness which always turned the white, blazing point just when it was ready to sear. Yes, it was a coolness and it seemed a hand—a great, cool hand. For two years more Original struggled to break the bonds about his own hands—green rawhide they were, and tough—so that he might feel this saving hand. At last he succeeded in freeing one, though the other was dead and useless. Very slowly he lifted questing fingers, groped and clasped that something which warded pain from him. "Sure, it's a hand," Original sighed. "Yes, sonny," came a woman's voice; "my hand." So he opened his eyes. It was day.
Her face was very close above his, and he studied it curiously. Original had seen very few women in his life; not one could he remember who didn't wear a sunbonnet. This woman wore none. Her eyes were a sage gray, and large and deep; little crow-tracks lay about their corners, but did not make them old. Her cheeks were round and wind-burnt to roughness. The mouth was smiling, so of course Original could not know just what sort of a mouth it was. But her hair— there was a funny thing; it was yellow as a new saddle except right in the middle, where a broad streak of gray slashed through to lose itself in the high knot piled atop her head. The boy's eyes rested longest on that gray brand, but came back eventually to the eyes, which still searched his.
"You—you run this outfit, ma'am?" he asked, vaguely.
"You're at my ranch. Mister—Mister—"
"Blunt—Bill Blunt, of the original Blunt fambly down in Deaf Smith County in the Panhandle," he supplied, with a stiffening of pride in his voice. He thought he'd caught the word "sonny" back there in the dark, but the "Mister" atoned for that error.
"The boys said you were Original Bill when they brought you here last night," the woman commented. "I supposed—"
"That's only the trail brand they put onto me, ma'am. My folks is the original—"
"Yes, yes, I understand." Her eyes were smiling, too, now. "But you mustn't talk overmuch just now. Just rest."
In her voice was some soothing quality which seemed to Original to be as cool as that hand which had fended for him—cool and sort of healing. But he pushed back the weight of drowsiness long enough to put the question, "Me, I got throwed bad, then?"
"Part of your herd hit my fence—just a little fence I put around my hay lot"—this apologetically and defensively against the cow-puncher's hatred of the fence-builder—"and you took up your claim right then and there."
"Just you drift off to sleep—Mister Blunt. Your little hoss 's gorging himself with oats out in my corral this minute, sound as a bell."
Original sighed once and gave himself up. The woman rose from the bunk, smoothed the buffalo-robe under the tilted chin, and stood looking down into the lad's face. A small, delicately shaped face it was; the hands on the curly robe were small; his body was undersized and appealingly boyish. One of her hands went out to push back with a touch maternal a raven's wing of long hair that had fallen over his brow. A "black Texan" he was; the woman knew the breed. "Mister Bill Blunt," she whispered, and the corners of her smiling mouth drooped ever so little—"of the original Blunt family." A quick lift of the shoulders, as if in deprecation of thoughts having no right of place in her heart, and she went to the far end of the long, log-walled room to prepare against the necessity of the day's business.
A pail of water with a dipper she set handy to the bunk where Original lay; bread and meat on a tin plate she placed on a stool drawn close. When she had pulled on heavy, high-heeled boots and settled over her curiously streaked head a broad-brimmed felt she turned at the door for a last look at the small face above the buffalo-robe. She tiptoed across the dirt floor on sudden impulse, stood looking down for an instant, then leaned and brought her lips close to the freckled cheek. Some savage repression stayed her before her lips touched; hot blood coursed her cheeks. She hurried away, took down a saddle from its peg, and went out to the corral. Her buckskin saddled, the woman mounted and rode swiftly out toward the scored and wrinkled battlements of Pumpkin Butte, graven deep against the blue of the new day. On one of the strings of her saddle hung a running iron—that handy ring of metal for informal and hasty branding which, in the heyday of the "rustlers," or cattle-thieves, came to be a distinguishing mark of the profession—often fatal evidence.
It was in the half-dark of early evening, with the sun's fading torch set over the Big Horns, that she returned. When she let down the bars of the corral she saw a little huddle of shadow propped in a corner formed of the cottonwood logs; Nigger Boy was standing over it, nuzzling with strange whickerings.
"I—I went and petered out," Original muttered, shamefacedly. "I couldn't go for to th'ow my saddle over Nigger Boy nohow. This shoulder—"
Without a word she stooped and put strong arms about him. The boy pushed feebly against her shoulder as she lifted him and carried him into the house to lay him in the bunk. Then, with instinctive thought of protection for mortification in a boy's heart, she left him in the shadows and went out to unsaddle her horse and feed the two beasts.
Original watched her, later, as she moved about in the candle glow at the far end of the long room, preparing supper. The light on her yellow hair threw a golden haze down on her face. He wondered if it were a pretty face, but he had no standards to judge by. How old she might be—but there again lack of acquaintance with women left him groping. His one sure sense was of her gentleness, her goodness. He believed that his mother must have been very like this woman, with a soft touch of hands and a way of understanding. She brought him his plate and sat, with hers on her knees, beside him. The boy's first question she answered with a reassuring smile. No, the Hashknife outfit hadn't deserted him; she'd met two of the boys up the trail just that afternoon—this was a kindly lie—and they'd told her the herd was making to range on the Powder River, just fifteen miles north. She guessed Original knew that already; but maybe he didn't know they were so close to the Powder when the stampede came. This intelligence seemed to satisfy the boy. With a conscious, professional air, as one cowpuncher to another, he began to extol the fine qualities of the Hashknife outfit; to narrate incidents of the long, six-months' drive up from the Rio Grande—the bogging down of sixty head in the Washita, the hold-up of ten beeves exacted by hostile Cheyennes in the Cherokee Strip. Always as he talked the deep, sage-gray eyes were upon him, encouraging. The candle stood some distance away on a shelf, but the eyes seemed to have a light of their own. Original found it so easy to talk to this woman; with the riders of the herd he played only a listening part.
"Excuse me, ma'am," he once interrupted himself, "but I don't know your name."
"They call me"—then, with swift emendation—"You can call me just Eliza."
"You call me plain Original," he was quick to answer. "'Mister' sounds sort of highfalutin' and like a court o' law."
"What does your mother call you, Original?" she asked, her voice a little hushed.
"I disremember exactly; I think it was William, though. You see, Miss Eliza, she's been dead—"
"Oh! Yes, yes, I understand. And you've been—alone a long time?"
"Since I was eight, yes, ma'am. My father, he went first—in the war. My brother Henry's got his old rim-fire musket yet. Henry he moved us all out to Deaf Smith County along of a bunch of hawgs, and I began to ride the mail when I was eleven." Original stopped in abrupt confusion, realizing that this giving of confidences was perhaps an unmanly thing. He had never done it before, yet that very spirit of easy frankness which had made the dropping of the "mister" comfortable urged that he continue. Something in her eyes, so like the mother light back in dim memory, urged, too. Here was not one to laugh at him, one against whom to guard secrets. She was a woman, and—different. "And then when my brother Henry wanted me to work for him I ran away. Guess I reckoned working for kin wasn't honest; they wouldn't grind you so hard as reg'lar hired help. So I took to punchin' bulls on a freight-team 'longside Con Presley, which he was a fightin' wildcat, but good to me, and afterwards he's a train-robber. Then—"
The woman sat, chin in hand, and heard the story of a waif in the Big Country—one growing wild and free as a young cougar in the high places. She read, too, the clean heart of a boy revealed unconsciously in the narrative of brutal episodes—a pistol fight with the smoke of murder swirling about the boy's head, man-hunts in which he had joined with all the primal lust of the chase. Why was it, she asked herself, angrily, and with a touch of horror as if against profanation—why was it that down in the depths of her some strange pain of yearning was stirred—just as when she was tempted to kiss the unconscious cheek and desisted. Those old days, when she had lived cleanly, when her arms had held a son—oh, why wouldn't those memories stay buried! To-morrow he would go out to the range, this clean boy, and he would hear—
"Tell me, Original"—she tried to keep her voice flat and drained of feeling—"in all these years you've been ranging 'round alone did you ever feel something—somebody near you?"
The boy looked sharply up at her, his brows puckered suspiciously. "Did you?" he parried by way of feeling her out.
She slowly nodded. For a long minute he searched her face as if keen to find the first flicker of ridicule, but her eyes reassured him.
"Well, that's mighty funny," he admitted. "I reckoned I was the only plumb idjit—begging your parding, Miss Eliza, ma'am—to have such notions."
"Tell me what it is—what do you feel?" she gently urged.
"Well, if you won't laugh at me—that being my reg'lar secret. I've never told nobody 'longside of you. But in the Big Country there's some one who sort of reg'lates things—fixes up the stars at night and makes the piny woods to mourn when the night winds blow, and asks the coyotes to howl when there's nobody to howl at. Sometimes this here some one's so near and strong you can hear him talking to you; sometimes he's far away as the ocean. I don't reckon to know much about him, though. It's more feeling than plumb knowing."
"What do you call that some one, Original?"
"Not much of anything, Miss Eliza. I call him It, which it don't seem like to be a decent enough word at all."
"I call Him God," she put in, simply.
"Oh, but God's different," the boy denied. "He's the Methody parson's friend, and He never comes close enough for a rough man like me to tie onto." This was said with a conscious air of sophistication that pleaded for the frank of genuineness.
The woman with the gray brand felt a knot tighten in her throat. One of her hands crept over the buffalo-robe to find and close over the small, hot hand lying there, and in simple sincerity she began to talk of the Creator, His works. She talked not as woman to man—the artless pretensions of Mister Bill Blunt had long since been thrown over—but as mother to son. The wildling, with the raven wing falling over his eyes, found the spirit of the telling sweet as the wonder of the words. Here was memory of that far time when a mother's knee was the gate to vision-land made alive again. She talked, and the candle burned low in its tin sconce. In the end Original of his own thought rose, gathered the spare buffalo-robe in his arms, and walked, a bit unsteadily, out to the dugout shed where sweet hay made the dark odorous. She followed to the cabin door to light him to the haymow, and as he passed her there on the door-step she leaned a little toward him, her heart constricted.
The boy paused for an instant, his eyes meeting hers. Then, "Good night, Miss Eliza."
"Good night, Original," she whispered.
At dawn he was on Nigger Boy, ready to follow the broad trail of the Hashknife herd across country to its grazing-place. He looked down at the yellow head with its strange slash of gray there by his saddle-horn, and very awkwardly he put out his hand. "You've been powerful good to me, Miss Eliza," he murmured, "and I sure would admire to come and see you right soon—that is, if you want me. You—you talk to me so wonderful."
"Come soon, Original." She caught his hand with firm fingers. "And—and what men say on the range—what they say you won't believe." The note of pleading even more than the words and the surprise of the outburst left the boy without an answer. He withdrew his hand, pressed in his knees, and Nigger Boy bounded out to the open.
Original turned at the far corner of the corral to wave his hand; a wave was returned him. Then, west and north toward the far-flung blue of the Big Horns, gem clear through the crystal lens of the morning, he turned his pony. The track of the herd was laid down like a yellow carpet strip over the swelling crests of divides in the distance—a mere worm trail in the immensity of the Big Country. Far out and away stood the carved pillars of grotesque buttes, buttressing the sky. A rowdy wind searched his lungs, filled all his body with vigor mounting to giddiness. Exulting, Original rose in his stirrups and his eyes swept a horizon of a hundred miles. "O God!" he cried. "O God, I know you!"
Truly, as Miss Eliza had said, he found the herd spread out between the valley walls of the Powder—dapple and dun specks against the brown immensity. A noisy welcome greeted him from the wagon. He found himself almost a hero, for he had turned the herd in mid-stampede "and druv clean through a nester's fence."
"Good kid!" roared Shinnery Luke, as he threw an arm over Original's thin shoulder. "But, boys, we hadn't ought 'a' left my podner to be nussed by the Pinto Filley—us hearing what we've heard since, an' him the innocent child what he is." Guffaws following sent the blood to Original's cheeks.
"Which some of the boys from K C home ranch was a-tellin' us," put in another, "she used to wear rings—diming rings—when she was dancing in a honkey-tonk over in Buffalo. But the ring she wears now is tied onto her saddle—a handy ring for to burn out other people's brands with. The same as does her merry companions, the rustlers of the Teapot Spout."
"It's a lie! A damn'd lie!" Original shouted, desperately. The fresh memory of the night before, its wonderful communion, cried in outrage.
Shinnery Luke cast a swift glance of admonition about the circle as he patted the boy's shoulder. "Which goes double with Shinnery Luke so long as you says it. Original," he assured, and that was an end to the ragging.
Original took his accustomed place in the outfit's routine, made easier by the decision of the trail boss to linger awhile on the Powder and fatten up his beeves against delivery to the Crow Agency a hundred miles north. Other great herds to east and west, from Sioux Pass in the Big Horns to the Montana and Dakota lines, shared with the Hashknife the wide bounty of the Big Country. Miles counted by the score were no bar to visiting back and forth between camps. From the cow-punchers of the country, who wintered there with permanent herds, the recent arrivals gleaned gossip of the range—salt tales of impromptu justice following offhand offenses. Most of these stories, and the ones firing quickest Original's imagination, were of the rustlers of the Teapot Spout—that inaccessible cañon on the fringe of the Big Horns whose rock-walled meadows nurtured hundreds of stolen cattle. With their confederates "on the outside" these outlaws preyed at will upon the scattered thousands of the range herds, and with none to hinder. There was vague talk from home ranch to camp of what "the vigilantes" would do in the way of "cleaning up the rustlers," but none knew whence the destroyers would come, nor when.
Slackening of work and discipline, because the herd was on range instead of following trail, favored Original's scheme to fulfil his promise of a visit to Miss Eliza. He fabricated an excuse to ride over to the K C ranch on Red Fork, received the trail boss's permission, and, coming in from herd at four o'clock, changed saddles to Nigger Boy and was off. The fifteen miles back to the cabin of the woman with the yellow hair were each a bead to be told in adoration, so did he glorify this single one in all his years of drifting who had reached out to him an understanding hand for guidance. He topped a rise behind her cabin just as the fiery rim of the sun was biting into the crest of the mountains.
The corral was empty when he rode up to the dooryard, but he unsaddled Nigger Boy and entered the cabin. He was cooking a supper, after the free code of the new land's hospitality, when he heard hoof-beats outside. Original stepped to the door just as Miss Eliza drew rein at the corral bars. Even as she hailed him the woman dropped one gauntleted hand down to cover a small iron ring hanging from a string of her saddle; her gesture was swift, protective. Original noted it, but in the dusk he could not see what she was hiding.
Supper was a gossipy affair, on Original's part at least. He told of his triumphant return to camp, carefully eliding the hurt of the rough jests that had greeted him. As one old in the legend of the country, he spoke glibly of the Teapot Spout gang, and the vengeance that must soon be done by the vigilantes. Eagerness of the hunter fired his recital; he would be one of those silent riders when they went forth to execute justice. Miss Eliza heard him in silence, and when the meal was finished and they seated themselves in the doorway her lips were still mute. Original, sobered by her silence, yet knowing nor the cause of it, looked up to the flower gold of stars and a thought came to him.
"Tell me some more about Him, Miss Eliza, ma'am," he ventured, in an awed voice.
She took one of his hands between hers with a quick, mothering gesture and began to talk, her eyes on the stars. The oneness of all the world with the Fashioner up there; the beauty of good; the joy of a clean heart and an open mind—all this she told in words simple as the heart that heard them. Then, phrase by phrase, Original learned the Lord's Prayer. "For prayer. Original, is the last and most comfortable thing in all the world."
When it was late and the boy stood at the door, bridle over arm, she looked into his face with eyes of clairvoyance. "Remember, Original," she said, very low, "nobody can take from you what I have given; no—never." Then she bent and kissed him.
He was five miles back on the trail to camp when the dark ahead began to pulse strangely. Drawing rein, he listened. Hoof-beats, many and rapid, and drawing nearer. The boy swung off the trail and into a little coulee, whence he could see without being seen. Five horsemen, riding low and swiftly, swept by; they were dim and unsubstantial in the starlight. Something latent lay in this apparition of the night; the dark was spawning a mystery. Back on the trail again, Original pondered this circumstance of the five hurrying riders. Why the dash through the dark—and by five? One would be a messenger, but five—? Where were they bound? K C did not lie in this direction, nor Buffalo. But one ranch lay back there, and that....
Fear throttled him. Flash of conjecture became heavy as fact. He whirled Nigger Boy about and laid him on a bitter gallop over the back trail. As he rode the boy caught his breath in strangled gasps. Vainly he tried to recall the words of that prayer so lately learned, feeling now its great need. He could only lift tear-blinded eyes to the stars and mutter over and over a single invocation, "O God—please!" Little hills rose and fell under Nigger Boy's flying hoofs. Ghosts of the sage fluttered past in steady flight. Now the Little Poison was splashed through, and now the last divide was topped. He came to the corral front, all marked and scored by fresh hoof-prints—to the dooryard.
The cabin door stood open. A broken candle lay on the sill, but there was no light within. Original called. No answer. He rode slowly around the cabin, the corral—then down to the cottonwood thicket by the dry run.
There he found Miss Eliza, hanging from a high limb.