The Happy Family (B M Bower)/"Wolf! Wolf!"
Andy Green, of the Flying U, loped over the grassy level and hummed a tune as he rode. The sun shone just warm enough to make a man feel that the world was good enough for him, and the wind was just a lazy, whispering element to keep the air from growing absolutely still and stagnant. There was blue sky with white, fluffy bits of cloud like torn cotton drifting as lazily as the wind, and there were meadow-larks singing and swaying, and slow-moving range cattle with their calves midway to weaning time. Not often may one ride leisurely afar on so perfect a day, and while Andy was a sunny-natured fellow at all times, on such a day he owned not a care.
A mile farther, and he rode over a low shoulder of the butte he was passing, ambled down the long slope on the far side, crossed another rounded hill, followed down a dry creek-bed at the foot of it, sought with his eye for a practicable crossing and went headlong down a steep, twenty-foot bank; rattled the loose rocks in the dry, narrow channel and went forging up a bank steeper than the first, with creaking saddle-leather and grunting horse, and struck again easy going.
"She slipped on me," he murmured easily, meaning the saddle. "I'm riding on your tail, just about; but I guess we can stand it the rest uh the why, all right." If he had not been so lazy and self-satisfied he would have stopped right there and reset the saddle. But if he had, he might have missed something which he liked to live over o' nights.
He went up a gentle rise, riding slowly because of the saddle, passed over the ridge and went down another short slope. At the foot of the slope, cuddled against another hill, stood a low, sod-roofed cabin with rusty stove-pipe rising aslant from one corner. This was the spot he had been aiming for, and he neared it slowly.
It was like a dozen other log cabins tucked away here and there among the foothills of the Bear Paws. It had an air of rakish hominess, as if it would be a fine, snuggy place in winter, when the snow and the wind swept the barren land around. In the summer, it stood open-doored and open-windowed, with all the litter of bachelor belongings scattered about or hanging from pegs on the wall outside. There was a faint trail of smoke from the rusty pipe, and it brought a grunt of satisfaction from Andy.
"He's home, all right. And if he don't throw together some uh them sour-dough biscuits uh his, there'll be something happen! Hope the bean-pot's full. G'wan, yuh lazy old skate." He slapped the rein-ends lightly down the flanks of his horse and went at a trot around the end of the cabin. And there he was so utterly taken by surprise that he almost pulled his mount into a sitting posture.
A young woman was stooping before the open door, and she was pouring something from a white earthen bowl into a battered tin pan. Two waggle-tailed lambs—a black one and a white—were standing on their knees in their absorption, and were noisily drinking of the stuff as fast as it came within reach.
Andy had half a minute in which to gaze before the young woman looked up, said "Oh!" in a breathless sort of way and retreated to the doorstep, where she stood regarding him inquiringly.
Andy, feeling his face go unreasonably red, lifted his hat. He knew that she was waiting for him to speak, but he could not well say any of the things he thought, and blurted out an utterly idiotic question.
"What are yuh feeding 'em?"
The girl looked down at the bowl in her hands and laughed a little.
"Rolled oats," she answered, "boiled very thin and with condensed cream added to taste. Good morning." She seemed about to disappear, and that brought Andy to his senses. He was not, as a rule, a bashful young man.
"Good morning. Is—er—Mr. Johnson at home?" He came near saying "Take-Notice," but caught himself in time. Take-Notice Johnson was what men called the man whom Andy had ridden over to see upon a more or less trivial matter.
"He isn't, but he will be back—if you care to wait." She spoke with a certain preciseness which might be natural or artificial, and she stood in the doorway with no symptoms of immediate disappearance.
Andy slid over a bit in the saddle, readjusted his hat so that its brim would shield his eyes from the sunlight, and prepared to be friendly. "Oh, I'll wait," he said easily. "I've got all the time there is. Would you mind if I smoked a cigarette?"
"Indeed, I was wishing you would," she told him, with surprising frankness. "I've so longed to see a dashing young cowboy roll a cigarette with deft, white fingers."
Andy, glancing at her startled, spilled much tobacco down the front of him, stopped to brush it away and let the lazy breeze snatch the tiny oblong of paper from between his unwatchful fingers. Of course, she was joshing him, he thought uneasily, as he separated the leaves of his cigarette book by blowing gently upon them, and singled out another paper. "Are yuh so new to the country that it's anything of a treat?" he asked guardedly.
"Yes, I'm new. I'm what you people call a pilgrim. Don't you do it with one hand? I thought—oh, yes! You hold the reins between your firm, white teeth while you roll—"
"Lady, I never travelled with no show," Andy protested mildly and untruthfully. Was she just joshing? Or didn't she know any better? She looked sober as anything, but somehow her eyes kind of—
"You see, I know some things about you. Those are chaps." (Heavens! She called them the way they are spelled, without the soft sound of s!) "That you're wearing for—trousers" (Andy blushed modestly. He was not wearing them "for trousers".), "and you've got jingling rowels at your heels, and those are taps—"
"You're going to be shy a yard or two of calico if that black lamb-critter has his say-so," Andy cut in remorselessly, and hastily made and lighted his cigarette while she was rescuing her blue calico skirt from the jaws of the black lamb and puckering her eyebrows over the chewed place. When her attention was once more given to him, he was smoking as unobtrusively as possible, and he was gazing at her with a good deal of speculative admiration. He looked hastily down at the lambs. "Mary had two little lambs," he murmured inanely.
"They're not mine," she informed him, taking him seriously—or seeming to do so. Andy had some trouble deciding just how much of her was sincere. "They were here when I came, and I can't take them back with me, so there's no use in claiming them. They'd be such a nuisance on the train—"
"I reckon they would," Andy agreed, "if yuh had far to go."
"Well, you can't call San Jose close," she observed, meditatively. "It takes four days to come."
"You're a long way from home. Does it—are yuh homesick, ever?" Andy was playing for information without asking directly how long she intended to stay—a question which had suddenly seemed quite important. Also, why was she stopping here with Take-Notice Johnson, away off from everybody?
"Seeing I've only been here four days, the novelty hasn't worn off yet," she replied. "But it does seem more like four weeks; and how I'll ever stand two months of it, not ever seeing a soul but father—"
Andy looked reproachful, and also glad. Didn't she consider him a soul? And Take-Notice was her dad! To be sure, Take-Notice had never mentioned having a daughter, but then, in the range-land, men don't go around yawping their personal affairs.
Before Take-Notice returned, Andy felt that he had accomplished much. He had learned that the young woman's name really was Mary, and that she was a stenographer in a real-estate office in San Jose, where her mother lived; that the confinement of office-work had threatened her with pulmonary tuberculosis (Andy failed, at the moment, to recognize the disease which had once threatened him also, and wondered vaguely) and that the doctor had advised her coming to Montana for a couple of months; that she had written to her father (it seemed queer to have anyone speak of old Take-Notice as "father") and that he had told her to "come a-running."
She told Andy that she had not seen her father for five years (Andy knew that Take-Notice had disappeared for a whole winter, about that long ago, and that no one had discovered where he went) because he and her mother were "not congenial."
He had dismounted, at her invitation, and had gone clanking to the doorstep and sat down—giving a furtive kick now and then at the black lamb, which developed a fondness for the leathern fringe on his chaps—and had eaten an orange which she had brought in her trunk all the way from San Jose, and which she had picked from a tree which stood by her mother's front gate. He had nibbled a ripe olive—eating it with what Andy himself would term "long teeth"—and had tried hard not to show how vile he found it. He had inspected two star-fishes which she had found last Fourth-of-July at Monterey and had dried; and had crumpled a withered leaf of bay in his hands and had smelled and nearly sneezed his head off; and had cracked and eaten four walnuts—also gathered from her mother's yard—and three almonds from the same source, and had stared admiringly at a note-book filled with funny marks which she called shorthand.
Between-whiles Andy had told her his name and the name of the outfit he worked for; had explained what he meant by "outfit," and had drawn a large U in the dirt to show her what a Flying U was, and had wanted to murder the black lamb which kept getting in his way and trying to eat the stick Andy used for a pencil; had confessed that he did sometimes play cards for money, as do the cowboys in Western stories, but assured her that he had never killed off any of his friends during any little disagreement. He had owned to drinking a glass of whisky now and then, but declared that it was only for snake bite and did not happen oftener than once in six months or so. Yes, he had often had rattlers in his bed, but not to hurt. This is where he began to inspect the star-fishes, and so turned the conversation safely back to California and himself away from the temptation to revel in fiction.
All of which took time, so that Take-Notice came before they quite felt a longing for his presence; and though the sun shone straight in the cabin door and so proved that it was full noon, there was no fire left in the stove and nothing in sight that was eatable save another ripe olive—which Andy had politely declined—and two more almonds and an orange.
A stenographer, with a fluffy pompadour that dipped distractingly at one side, and a gold watch suspended around the neck like a locket, and with sleeves that came no farther than the elbow and heels higher than any riding boot Andy ever owned in his life, and with teeth that were very white and showed a glint of gold here and there, and eyes that looked at one with insincere gravity, and fingers with nails that shone—fingers that pinched red lips together meditatively—a stenographer who has all these entrancing attributes, Andy discovered, may yet lack those housewifely accomplishments that make a man dream of a little home for two. So far as Andy could see, her knowledge of cookery extended no farther than rolled oat porridge for the two lambs.
Take-Notice it was who whittled shavings and started the fire without any comment upon the hour or his appetite; who went to the spring and brought water, half-filled the enameled teakettle which had large, bare patches where the enamel had been chipped off in the stress of baching, and sliced the bacon and mixed the "sour-dough" biscuits. To be sure, he had done those things for years and thought nothing of it; Andy, also, had done those things, many's the time, and had thought nothing of it, either. But to do them while a young woman sits calmly by and makes no offer of help, but talks of many things, unconscious even of her world-old, feminine duties and privileges, that struck Andy with a cold breath of disillusionment.
He watched her unobtrusively while she talked. She never once seemed to feel that cooking belonged to woman, and as far as he could see Take-Notice did not feel so either. So Andy mentally adjusted himself to the novelty and joyed in her presence.
To show how successful was his mental adjustment, it is necessary merely to state one fact: Where he had intended to stop an hour or so, he stayed the afternoon; ate supper there and rode home at sundown, his mind a jumble of sunny Californian days where one may gather star-fishes and oranges, bay leaves and ripe olives at will, and of black and white lambs which always obtrude themselves at the wrong moment and break off little, intimate confidences about life in a real-estate office, perhaps; and of polished finger-nails that never dip themselves in dishwater—Andy had come to believe that it would be neither right or just to expect them to do so common a thing.
The season was what the range calls "between roundups," so that Andy went straight to the ranch and found the Happy Family in or around the bunk-house, peacefully enjoying their before-bedtime smoke. Andy, among other positive faults and virtues, did not lack a certain degree of guile. Men there were at the Flying U who would ride in haste if they guessed that a pompadoured young woman from California was at the end of the trail, and Andy, knowing well the reputation he bore among them, set that reputation at work to keep the trail empty of all riders save himself. When someone asked him idly what had kept him so long, he gazed around at them with his big, innocent gray eyes.
"Why, I was just getting acquainted with the new girl," he answered simply and truthfully.
Truth being something which the Happy Family was unaccustomed to from the lips of Andy Green, they sniffed scornfully.
"What girl?" demanded Irish bluntly.
"Why, Take-Notice's girl. His young lady daughter that is visiting him. She's mighty nice, and she's got style about her, and she was feeding two lambs. Her name," he added softly, "is Mary."
Since no one had ever heard that Take-Notice had a daughter, the Happy Family could not be blamed for doubting Andy. They did doubt, profanely and volubly.
"Say, did any of you fellows ever eat a ripe olive?" Andy broke in, when he could make himself heard. "Well," he explained mildly, when came another rift of silence in the storm-cloud of words, "When yuh ride over there, she'll likely give yuh one to try; but yuh take my advice and pass it up. I went up against one, and I ain't got the taste out uh my mouth yet. It's sure fierce."
More words, from which Andy gathered that they did not believe anything he said; that he was wasting time and breath, and that his imagination was weak and his lies idiotic. He'd better not let Take-Notice hear how he was taking his name in vain and giving him a daughter—and so on.
"Say, did yuh ever see a star-fish? Funniest thing yuh ever saw, all pimply, and pink, and with five points to 'em. She's got two. When yuh go over, you ask her to let yuh see 'em." Andy was in bed, then, and he spoke through the dusk toward the voices. What those voices had just then been saying seemed to have absolutely no effect upon him.
"Oh, dry up!" Irish commanded impatiently. "Nobody's thinking uh riding over there, yuh chump. What kind of easy marks do yuh think we are?"
Andy laughed audibly in his corner next the window. "Say, you fellows do amuse me a lot. By gracious, I'll bet five dollars some of yuh take the trail over there, soon or late. I—I'll bet five dollars to one that yuh do! The bet to hold good for—well, say six weeks. But yuh better not take me up, boys—especially Irish, that ain't got a girl at present. Yes, or any of yuh, by gracious! It'll be a case for breach-uh-promise for any one uh yuh. Say, she's a bird! Got goldy hair, and a dimple in her chin and eyes that'd make a man—"
With much reviling they accepted the wager, and after that Andy went peacefully to sleep, quite satisfied for the time with the effect produced by his absolute truthfulness; it did not matter much, he told himself complacently, what a man's reputation might be, so long as he recognized its possibilities and shaped his actions properly.
It is true that when he returned from Dry Lake, not many days after, with a package containing four new ties and a large, lustrous silk handkerchief of the proper, creamy tint, the Happy Family seemed to waver a bit. When he took to shaving every other day, and became extremely fastidious about his finger-nails and his boots and the knot in his tie, and when he polished the rowels of his spurs with Patsy's scouring brick (which Patsy never used) and was careful to dent his hat-crown into four mathematically correct dimples before ever he would ride away from the ranch, the Happy Family looked thoughtful and discussed him privately in low tones.
But when Andy smilingly assured them that he was going over to call on Take-Notice's girl, and asked them if they wouldn't like to come along and be introduced, and taste a ripe olive, and look at the star-fishes, and smell a crumpled leaf of bay, they backed figuratively from the wiles of him and asserted more or less emphatically he couldn't work them. Then Andy would grin and ride gaily away, and Flying U Coulee would see him no more for several hours. It was mere good fortune—from Andy's viewpoint—that duty did not immediately call the Happy Family, singly or as a whole, to ride across the hills toward the cabin of Take-Notice Johnson. Without a legitimate excuse, he felt sure of their absence from the place, and he also counted optimistically upon their refusing to ask any one whom they might meet, if Take-Notice Johnson had a daughter visiting him.
Four weeks do not take much space in a calendar, nor much time to live; yet in the four that came just after Andy's discovery, he accomplished much, even in his own modest reckoning. He had taught the girl to watch for his coming and to stand pensively in the door with many good-bye messages when he said he must hit the trail. He had formed definite plans for the future and had promised her quite seriously that he would cut out gambling, and never touch liquor in any form—unless the snake was a very big one and sunk his fangs in a vital spot, in which dire contingency Mary absolved him from his vow. He had learned the funny marks that meant his name and hers in shorthand and had watched with inner satisfaction her efforts to learn how to fry canned corn in bacon grease, and to mix sour-dough biscuits that were neither yellow with too much soda nor distressfully "soggy" with too little, and had sat a whole, blissful afternoon in his shirtsleeves, while Mary bent her blond pompadour domestically over his coat, sewing in the sleeve-linings that are prone to come loose and torment a man. To go back to the first statement, which includes all these things and much more, Andy had, in those four weeks, accomplished much.
But a girl may not live forever in that lonely land with only Andy Green to discover her presence, and the rumors which at first buzzed unheeded in the ears of the Happy Family, stung them at last to the point of investigation; so that on a Sunday—the last Sunday before the Flying U wagons took again to the trailless range-land, Irish and Jack Bates rode surreptitiously up the coulee half an hour after Andy, blithe in his fancied security, had galloped that way to spend a long half-day with Mary. If he discovered them they would lose a dollar each—but if they discovered a girl such as Andy had pictured, they felt that it would be a dollar well lost.
In the range-land many strange things may happen. Irish and Jack pulled up short when, off to their right, in a particularly, lonely part of that country, broken into seamed coulees and deep-scarred hills, they heard a faint halloo. With spurs pricking deep and frequent they hurried to the spot; looked down a grassy swale and saw Andy lying full length upon the ground in rather a peculiar pose, while his horse fed calmly a rein-length away.
They stopped and looked at him, and at each other; rode cautiously to within easy rifle shot and stopped again.
"Ain't yuh getting tired feelings kinda unseasonable in the day?" Jack Bates called out guardedly.
"I—I'm hurt, boys," Andy lifted his head to say, strainedly. "My hoss stepped in a hole, and I wasn't looking for it. I guess—my leg's broke."
Jack snorted. "That so? Sure it ain't your neck, now? Seems to me your head sets kinda crooked. Better feel it and find out, while we go on where we're going." He half turned his horse up the hill again, resenting the impulse which had betrayed him a hand's breadth from the trail.
Andy waited a moment. Then: "On the dead, boys, my leg's broke—like you'd bust a dry stick. Come and see—for yourselves."
"Maybe—" Irish began, uncertainly, in an undertone. Andy's voice had in it a note of pain that was rather convincing.
"Aw, he's just trying to head us off. Didn't I help pack him up that ungodly bluff, last spring, thinking he was going to die before we got him to the top—and him riding off and giving us the horse-laugh to pay for it? You can bite, if yuh want to; I'm going on. I sure savvy Andy Green."
"Come and look," Andy begged from below. "If I'm joshing—"
"You can josh and be darned," finished Jack for him. "I don't pack you up hill more than once, old-timer. We're going to call on your Mary-girl. When yuh get good and refreshed up, you can come and look on at me and Irish acting pretty and getting a stand-in. So-long!"
Irish, looking back over his shoulder, saw Andy raise his head and gaze after them; saw it drop upon his arms just before they went quite over the hill. The sight stuck persistently and unpleasantly in his memory.
"Yuh know, he might be hurt," he began tentatively when they had ridden slowly a hundred yards or so.
"He might. But he ain't. He's up to some game again, and he wouldn't like anything better than to have us ride down there and feel his bones. If you'd been along, that day in the Bad-lands, you'd know the kind of bluff he can put up. Why, we all thought sure he was going to die. He acted that natural we felt like we was packing a corpse at a funeral—and him tickled to death all the while at the load he was throwing! No sir, yuh don't see me swallowing no such dope as that, any more. When he gets tired uh laying there, he'll recover rapid and come on. Don't yuh worry none about Andy Green; why, man, do yuh reckon any horse-critter could break his leg—a rider like him? He knows more ways uh falling off a horse without losing the ashes off his cigarette than most men know how to—how to punish grub! Andy Green couldn't get hurt with a horse! If he could, he'd uh been dead and playing his little harp long ago."
Such an argument was more convincing than the note of pain in the voice of Andy, so that Irish shook off his uneasiness and laughed at the narrow escape he'd had from being made a fool. And speedily they forgot the incident.
It was Take-Notice who made them remember, when they had been an hour or so basking themselves, so to speak, in the smiles of Mary. They had fancied all along that she had a curiously expectant air, and that she went very often to the door to see what the lambs were up to—and always lifted her eyes to the prairie slope down which they had ridden and gazed as long as she dared. They were not dull; they understood quite well what "lamb" it was that held half the mind of her, and they were piqued because of their understanding, and not disposed to further the cause of the absent. Therefore, when Take-Notice asked casually what had become of Andy, Jack Bates moved his feet impatiently, shot a sidelong glance at the girl (who was at that moment standing where she could look out of the window) and laughed unpleasantly.
"Oh, Andy's been took again with an attack uh bluff," he answered lightly. "He gets that way, ever so often, you know. We left him laying in a sunny spot, a few miles back, trying to make somebody think he was hurt, so they'd pack him home and he'd have the laugh on them for all summer."
"Wasn't he hurt?" The girl turned suddenly and her voice told how much it meant to her. But Jack was not sympathetic.
"No, he wasn't hurt. He was just playing off. He got us once, that way, and he's never given up the notion that he could do it again. We may be easy, but—"
"I don't understand," the girl broke in sharply. "Do you mean that he would deliberately try to deceive you into believing he was hurt, when he wasn't?"
"Miss Johnson," Jack replied sorrowfully, "he would. He would lose valuable sleep for a month, studying up the smoothest way to deceive. I guess," he added artfully, and as if the subject was nearly exhausted, "yuh don't know Mr. Green very well."
"I remember hearing about that job he put up on yuh," Take-Notice remarked, not noticing that the girl's lips were opened for speech, "Yuh made a stretcher, didn't yuh, and—"
"No—he told it that way, but he's such a liar he couldn't tell the truth if he wanted to. We found him lying at the bottom of a steep bluff, and he appeared to be about dead. It looked as if he'd slipped and fallen down part way. So we packed water and sloshed in his face, and he kinda come to, and then we packed him up the bluff—and yuh know what the Bad-lands is like, Take-Notice. It was unmerciful hot, too, and we like to died getting him up. At the top we laid him down and worked over him till we got him to open his eyes, and he could talk a little and said maybe he could ride if we could get him on a horse. The—he made us lift him into the saddle—and considering the size of him, it was something of a contract—and then he made as if he couldn't stay on, even. But first we knew he digs in the spurs, yanks off his hat and lets a yell out of him you could hear a mile, and says: 'Much obliged, boys, it was too blamed hot to walk up that hill,' and off he goes."
Take-Notice stretched his legs out before him, pushed his hands deep down in his trousers' pockets, and laughed and laughed. "That was sure one on you," he chuckled. "Andy's a hard case, all right."
But the girl stood before him, a little pale and with her chin high. "Father, how can you think it's funny?" she cried impatiently. "It seems to me—er—I think it's perfectly horrid for a man to act like that. And you say, Mr. Bates, that he's out there now"—she swept a very pretty hand and arm toward the window—"acting the same silly sort of falsehood?"
"I don't know where he is now," Jack answered judicially. "That's what he was doing when we came past."
She went to the door and stood looking vaguely out at nothing in particular, and Irish took the opportunity to kick Jack on the ankle-bone and viciously whisper, "Yuh damned chump!" But Jack smiled serenely. Irish, he reflected, had not been with them that day in the Bad-lands, and so had not the same cause for vengeance. He remembered that Irish had laughed, just as Take-Notice was laughing, when they told him about it; but Jack had never been able to see the joke, and his conscience did not trouble him now.
More they said about Andy Green—he and Take-Notice, with Irish mostly silent and with the girl extremely indignant at times and at others slightly incredulous, but always eager to hear more. More they said, not with malice, perhaps, for they liked Andy Green, but with the spirit of reminiscence strong upon them. Many things that he had said and done they recalled and laughed over—but the girl did not laugh. At sundown, when they rode away, she scribbled a hasty note, put it in an envelope and entrusted it to Irish for immediate delivery to the absent and erring one. Then they rode home, promising each other that they would sure devil Andy to death when they saw him, and wishing that they had ridden long ago to the cabin of Take-Notice. It was not pleasant to know that Andy Green had again fooled them completely.
None at the ranch had seen Andy, and they speculated much upon the nature of the game he was playing. Happy Jack wanted to bet that Andy really had broken his leg—but that was because he had a present grievance against Irish and hated to agree with anything he said. But when they went to bed, the Happy Family had settled unanimously upon the theory that Andy had ridden to Dry Lake, and would come loping serenely down the trail next day.
Irish did not know what time it was when he found himself sitting up in bed listening, but he discovered Pink getting quietly into his clothes. Irish hesitated a moment, and then felt under his pillow for his own garments—long habit had made him put them there—and began to dress. "I guess I'll go along with yuh," he whispered.
"Yuh can if yuh want to," Pink answered ungraciously. "But yuh needn't raise the long howl if—"
"Hold on, boys; my ante's on the table," came guardedly from Weary's bunk, and there was a soft, shuffling sound as of moving blankets; the subdued scrape of boots pulled from under bunks, and the quiet searching for hats and gloves. There was a clank of spur-chains, the faint squeal of a hinge gone rusty, a creak of a loose board, and then the three stood together outside under the star-sprinkle and avoided looking at one another. Without a word they went down the deep-worn path to the big gate, swung it open and headed for the corral where slept their horses.
"If them bone-heads don't wake up, nobody'll be any the wiser—and it's a lovely night for a ramble," murmured Weary, consoling himself.
"Well, I couldn't sleep," Irish confessed, half defiantly. "I expect it's just a big josh, but—it won't do any hurt to make sure."
"Yuh all think Andy Green lives to tell lies," snapped Pink, throwing the saddle on his horse with a grunt at the weight of it. The horse flinched away from its impact, and Pink swore at it viciously. "Yuh might uh gone down and made sure, anyhow," he criticised.
"Well, I was going to; but Jack said—" Irish stooped to pick up the latigo and did not finish. "But I can't get over the way his head dropped down on his arms, when we were riding out uh sight. As if—oh, hell! If it was a josh, I'll just about beat the head off him for spoiling my sleep this way. Get your foot off that rein, yuh damned, clumsy bench!" This last to his horse.
They rode slowly away from the ranch and made the greater haste when the sound of their galloping could not reach the dulled ears of those who slept. They did not talk much, and when they did it was to tell one another what great fools they were—but even in the telling they urged their horses to greater speed.
"Well," Pink summed up at last, "if he's hurt, out here, we're doing the right thing; and if he ain't, he won't be there to have the laugh on us; so it's all right either way."
There was black shadow in the grassy swale where they found him. His horse had wandered off and it was only the sure instinct of Irish that led them to the spot where he lay, a blacker shadow in the darkness that a passing cloud had made. Just at first they thought him dead, but when they lifted him he groaned and then spoke.
"It's one on me, this time," he said, and the throat of Irish pinched achingly together at the sound of his voice, which had in it the note of pain he had been trying to forget.
After that he said nothing at all, because he was a senseless weight in their arms.
At daylight Irish was pounding vehemently the door of the White House and calling for the Little Doctor. Andy lay stretched unconscious upon the porch beside him, and down in the bunk-house the Happy Family was rubbing eyes and exclaiming profanely at the story Pink was telling.
"And here," finished Irish a couple of hours later, when he was talking the thing over with the Little Doctor, "here's a note Take-Notice's girl gave me for him. I don't reckon there's any good news in it, so maybe yuh better hold it out on him till he's got over the fever. I guess we queered Andy a lot—but I'll ride over, soon as I can, and fix it up with her and tell her he broke his leg, all right. Maybe," he finished optimistically, "she'll come over to see him."
Irish kept his word, though he delayed until the next day; and the next day it was too late. For the cabin of Take-Notice was closed and empty, and the black lamb and the white were nosing unhappily their over-turned pan of mush, and bleating lonesomely. Irish waited a while and started home again; rode into the trail and met Bert Rogers, who explained:
"Take-Notice was hauling his girl, trunk and all, to the depot," he told Irish. "I met 'em just this side the lane. They aimed to catch the afternoon train, I reckon. She was going home, Take-Notice told me."
So Irish rode thoughtfully back to the ranch and went straight to the White House where Andy lay, meaning to break the news as carefully as he knew how.
Andy was lying in bed looking big-eyed at the ceiling, and in his hand was the note. He turned his head and glanced indifferently at Irish.
"Yuh sure made a good job of it, didn't yuh?" he began calmly, though it was not the calm which meant peace. "I was just about engaged to that girl. If it'll do yuh any good to know how nice and thorough yuh busted everything up for me, read that." He held out the paper, and Irish turned a guilty red when he took it.
"Mr. Green: I have just been greatly entertained with the history of your very peculiar deeds and adventures, and I wish to say that I have discovered myself wholly lacking the sense of humor which is necessary to appreciate you.
"As I am going home to-morrow, this is my only opportunity of letting you know how thoroughly I detest falsehood in any form. Yours truly,
"Mary Edith Johnson."
"Ain't yuh proud?" Andy inquired in a peculiar, tired voice. "Maybe I'm a horrible liar, all right—but I never done anybody a dirty trick like that."
Irish might have said it was Jack Bates who did the mischief, but he did not. "We never knew it was anything serious," he explained contritely. "On the dead, I'm sorry—"
"And that does a damned lot uh good—if she's gone!" Andy cut in, miserably.
"Oh, she's gone, all right. She went to-day," murmured Irish, and went out and shut the door softly behind him.