The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 8

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Chapter VIII
Beulah Asks Questions

A SLIM wiry youth in high-heeled boots came out of the house with Brad Charlton just as the buggy stopped at the porch of the horse ranch. He nodded to Beulah.

"’Lo, sis."

"My brother Ned—Mr. Street." The girl introduced them a little sulkily.

Ned Rutherford offered Roy a coffee-brown hand and looked at him with frank curiosity. He had just been hearing a lot about this good-looking stranger who had dropped into the park.

"See Jess Tighe? What did he say about the windmill?" asked Charlton.

"Wanted to think it over," answered Beaudry.

Beulah had drawn her brother to one side, but as Roy talked with Charlton he heard what the other two said, though each spoke in a low voice.

"Where you going, Ned?" the sister asked.

"Oh, huntin' strays."

"Home to-night?"

"Reckon not."

"What deviltry are you and Brad up to now? This will be the third night you 've been away—and before that it was Jeff."

"S-sh!" Ned flashed a warning look in the direction of her guest.

But Beulah was angry. Tighe had warned her to be careful what she told Street. She distrusted the cripple profoundly. Half the evil that went on in the park was plotted by him. There had been a lot of furtive whispering about the house for a week or more. Her instinct told her that there was in the air some discreditable secret. More than once she had wondered whether her people had been the express company robbers for whom a reward was out. She tried to dismiss the suspicion from her mind, for the fear of it was like a leaden weight at her heart. But many little things contributed to the dread. Rutherford had sent her just at that time to spend the week at Battle Butte. Had it been to get her out of the way? She remembered that her father had made to her no explanation of that scene in which she and Dave Dingwell had played the leading parts. There had been many journeyings back and forth on the part of the boys and Charlton and her uncle, Buck Rutherford. They had a way of getting off into a corner of the corral and talking low for hours at a time. And now Street had come into the tangle. Were they watching him for fear he might be a detective?

Her resentment against him and them boiled over into swift wrath. "You 're a fine lot—all of you. I'd like to wash my hands clean of the whole outfit." She turned on her heel and strode limping to the house.

Ned laughed as he swung to the back of one of the two broncos waiting with drooped heads before the porch. He admired this frank, forthright sister who blazed so handsomely into rage. He would have fought for her, even though he pretended to make a joke of her.

"Boots sure goes some. You see what you may be letting yourself in for, Brad," he scoffed good-naturedly.

Charlton answered with cool aplomb. "Don't you worry about me, Ned. I travel at a good lick myself. She 'll break to double harness fine."

Without touching the stirrup this knight of the chaparreras flung himself into the saddle, the rowels of his spurs whirring as he vaulted. It was a spectacular but perfect mount. The horse was off instantly at a canter.

Roy could not deny the fellow admiration, even though he despised him for what he had just said. It was impossible for him to be contemptuous of Charlton. The man was too virile, too game for that. In the telling Western phrase, he would go through. Whatever he did was done competently.

Yet there was something detestable in the way he had referred to Beulah Rutherford. In the first place, Roy believed it to be a pure assumption that he was going to marry her. Then, too, he had spoken of this high-spirited girl as if she were a colt to be broken and he the man to wield the whip. Her rebellion against fate meant nothing more to him than a tantrum to be curbed. He did not in the least divine the spiritual unrest back of her explosion.

Beaudry shrugged his shoulders. He was lucky for once. It had been the place of Ned Rutherford to rebuke Charlton for his slighting remark. A stranger had not the least right to interfere while the brother of the girl was present. Roy did not pursue the point any further. He did not want to debate with himself whether he had the pluck to throw down the gauntlet to this fighting vaquero if the call had come to him.

As he walked into the house and up to his room, his mind was busy with another problem. Where had Ned Rutherford been for three nights and his brother Jeff before that? Why had Beulah flared into unexpected anger? He, too, had glimpsed furtive whisperings. Even a fool would have understood that he was not a welcome guest at the horse ranch, and that his presence was tolerated only because here the boys could keep an eye on him. He was under surveillance. That was plain. He had started out for a little walk before breakfast and Jeff joined him from nowhere in particular to stroll along. What was it the Huerfano Park settlers were trying to hide from him? His mind jumped promptly to the answer. Dave Dingwell, of course.

Meanwhile Miss Rutherford lay weeping in the next room face down upon the bed. She rarely indulged in tears. It had not happened before since she was seventeen. But now she sobbed into a pillow, softly, so that nobody might hear. Why must she spend her life in such surroundings? If the books she read told the truth, the world was full of gentle, kindly people who lived within the law and respected each other's rights. Why was it in her horoscope to be an outcast? Why must she look at everybody with bitterness and push friendship from her lest it turn to poison at her touch? For one hour she had found joy in comradeship with this stranger. Then Tighe had whispered it that he was probably a spy. She had returned home only to have her doubts about her own family stirred to life again. Were there no good, honest folk in the world at all?

She washed her telltale eyes and ventured downstairs to look after supper. The Mexican cook was already peeling the potatoes. She gave him directions about the meal and went out to the garden to get some radishes and lettuce. On the way she had to pass the corral. Her brother Hal, Slim Sanders, and Cherokee Street were roping and branding some calves. The guest of the house had hung his coat and hat on a fence-post to keep them from getting soiled, but the hat had fallen into the dust.

Beulah picked up the hat and brushed it. As she dusted with her handkerchief the under side of the rim her eyes fell upon two initials stamped into the sweat pad. The letters were "R.B." The owner of the hat called himself Cherokee Street. Why, then, should he have these other initials printed on the pad? There could be only one answer to that question. He was passing under a name that was not his own.

If so, why? Because he was a spy come to get evidence against her people for the express company.

The eyes of the girl blazed. The man had come to ruin her father, to send her brothers to prison, and he was accepting their hospitality while he moled for facts to convict them. To hear the shout of his gay laughter as a calf upset him in the dust was added fuel to the fire of her anger. If he had looked as villainous as Dave Meldrum, she could have stood it better, but any one would have sworn that he was a clean, decent young fellow just out of college.

She called to him. Roy glanced up and came across the corral. His sleeves were rolled to the elbows and the shirt open at the throat. Flowing muscles rippled under the white skin of his forearms as he vaulted the fence to stand beside her. He had the graceful poise of an athlete and the beautiful, trim figure of youth.

Yet he was a spy. Beulah hardened her heart.

"I found your hat in the dust, Mr. Street." She held it out to him upside down, the leather pad lifted by her finger so that the letters stood out.

The rigor of her eyes was a challenge. For a moment, before he caught sight of the initials, he was puzzled at her stiffness. Then his heart lost a beat and hammered wildly. His brain was in a fog and he could find no words of explanation.

"It is your hat, is n't it, Mr.—Street?"

"Yes." He took it from her, put it on, and gulped "Thanks."

She waited to give him a chance to justify himself, but he could find no answer to the charge that she had fixed upon him. Scornfully she turned from him and went to the house.

Miss Rutherford found her father reading a week-old newspaper.

"I 've got fresher news than that for you, dad," she said. "I can tell you who this man that calls himself Cherokee Street is n't."

Rutherford looked up quickly. "You mean who he is, Boots."

"No, I mean who he is n't. His name is n't Cherokee Street at all."

"How do you know?"

"Because he is wearing a hat with the initials 'R.B.' stamped in it. I gave him a chance to explain and he only stammered and got white. He had n't time to think up a lie that would fit."

"Dad burn it, Jess Tighe is right, then. The man is a spy." The ranchman lit a cigar and narrowed his eyes in thought.

"What is he spying here for?"

"I reckon he's a detective of the express company nosing around about that robbery. Some folks think it was pulled off by a bunch up in the hills somewhere."

"By the Rutherford gang?" she quoted.

He looked at her uneasily. The bitterness in her voice put him on the defensive. "Sho, Boots! That's just a way folks have of talking. We 've got our enemies. Lots of people hate us because we won't let any one run over us."

She stood straight and slender before him, her eyes fixed in his. "Do they say we robbed the express company?"

"They don't say it out loud if they do—not where I can hear them," he answered grimly.

"Did we?" she flung at him.

His smile was forced. The question disturbed him. That had always been her way, even when she was a small child, to fling herself headlong at difficulties. She had never been the kind to be put off with anything less than the truth.

"I did n't. Did you?" he retorted.

"How about the boys—and Uncle Buck—and Brad Charlton?" she demanded.

"Better ask them if you want to know." With a flare of temper he contradicted himself. "No, you'd better mind your own business, girl. Forget your foolishness and 'tend to your knitting."

"I suppose it is n't my business if my kin go to the penitentiary for train robbery."

"They 're not going any such place. If you want to know, I give you my word that none of us Rutherfords have got the gold stolen from the Western Express Company."

"And don't know where it is?"

"Have n't the least idea—not one of us."

She drew a deep breath of relief. More than once her father had kept from her secrets of the family activities, but he had never lied to her.

"Then it does n't matter about this detective. He can find out nothing against us," she reflected aloud.

"I'm not so sure about that. We 've had our troubles and we don't want them aired. There was that shooting scrape Hal got into down at Battle Butte, for instance. Get a little more evidence and the wrong kind of a jury would send him up for it. No, we'll keep an eye on Mr. Cherokee Street, or whatever his name is. Reckon I'll ride over and have a talk with Jess about it."

"Why not tell this man Street that he is not wanted and so be done with it?"

"Because we would n't be done with it. Another man would come in his place. We'll keep him here where we can do a little detective work on him, too."

"I don't like it. The thing is underhanded. I hate the fellow. It's not decent to sit at table with a man who is betraying our hospitality," she cried hotly.

"It won't be for long, honey. Just leave him to us. We'll hang up his pelt to dry before we're through with him."

"You don't mean—?"

"No, nothing like that. But he'll crawl out of the park like a whipped cur with its tail between its legs."

The cook stood in the doorway. "Miss Beulah, do you want that meat done in a pot roast?" he asked.

"Yes. I'll show you." She turned at the door. "By the way, dad, I took a snapshot of Mr. Tighe on his porch. I 'll develop it to-night and you can take it to him in the morning."

"All right. Don't mention to anybody that matter we were discussing. Act like you 've forgotten all about what you found out, Boots."

The girl nodded. "Yes."