The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 9
The Man on the Bed
BEULAH RUTHERFORD found it impossible to resume a relation of friendliness toward her guest. By nature she was elemental and direct. A few months earlier she had become the teacher of the Big Creek school, but until that time life had never disciplined her to repress the impulses of her heart. As a child she had been a fierce, wild little creature full of savage affections and generosities. She still retained more feminine ferocity than social usage permits her sex. It was not in her to welcome an enemy with smiles while she hated him in her soul. The best she could do was to hold herself to a brusque civility whenever she met Beaudry.
As for that young man, he was in a most unhappy frame of mind. He writhed at the false position in which he found himself. It was bad enough to forfeit the good opinion of this primitive young hill beauty, but it was worse to know that in a measure he deserved it. He saw, too, that serious consequences were likely to follow her discovery, and he waited with nerves on the jump for the explosion.
None came. When he dragged himself to dinner, Beulah was stiff as a ramrod, but he could note no difference in the manner of the rest. Was it possible she had not told her father? He did not think this likely, and his heart was in panic all through the meal.
Though he went to his room early, he spent a sleepless night full of apprehension. What were the Rutherfords waiting for? He was convinced that something sinister lay behind their silence.
After breakfast the ranchman rode away. Jeff and Slim Sanders jogged off on their cowponies to mend a broken bit of fence. Hal sat on the porch replacing with rivets the torn strap of a stirrup.
Beaudry could stand it no longer. He found his hostess digging around the roots of some rosebushes in her small garden. Curtly she declined his offer to take the spade. For a minute he watched her uneasily before he blurted out his intention of going.
"I'll move up to the other end of the park and talk windmill to the ranchers there, Miss Rutherford. You've been awfully good to me, but I won't impose myself on your hospitality any longer," he said.
He had dreaded to make the announcement for fear of precipitating a crisis, but the young woman made no protest. Without a word of comment she walked beside him to the house.
"Hal, will you get Mr. Street's horse?" she asked her brother. "He is leaving this morning."
Young Rutherford's eyes narrowed. It was plain that he had been caught by surprise and did not know what to do.
"Where you going?" he asked.
"What do you care where he is going? Get the horse—or I will," she ordered imperiously.
"I'm going to board at one of the ranches farther up the park," explained Roy.
"Better wait till dad comes home," suggested Hal.
"No, I 'll go now." Royal Beaudry spoke with the obstinacy of a timid man who was afraid to postpone the decision.
"No hurry, is there?" The black eyes of Rutherford fixed him steadily.
His sister broke in impatiently. "Can't he go when he wants to, Hal? Get Mr. Street's horse." She whirled on Beaudry scornfully. "That is what you call yourself, is n't it—Street?"
The unhappy youth murmured "Yes."
"Let him get his own horse if he wants to hit the trail in such a hurry," growled Hal sulkily.
Beulah walked straight to the stable. Awkwardly Beaudry followed her after a moment or two. The girl was leading his horse from the stall.
"I 'll saddle him, Miss Rutherford," he demurred, the blanket in his hand.
She looked at him a moment, dropped the bridle, and turned stiffly away. He understood perfectly that she had been going to saddle the horse to justify the surface hospitality of the Rutherfords to a man they despised.
Hal was still on the porch when Roy rode up, but Beulah was nowhere in sight. The young hillman did not look up from the rivet he was driving. Beaudry swung to the ground and came forward.
"I'm leaving now. I should like to tell Miss Rutherford how much I'm in her debt for taking a stranger in so kindly," he faltered.
"I reckon you took her in just as much as she did you, Mr. Spy." Rutherford glowered at him menacingly. "I'd advise you to straddle that horse and git."
Roy controlled his agitation except for a slight trembling of the fingers that grasped the mane of his cowpony. "You 've used a word that is n't fair. I did n't come here to harm any of your people. If I could explain to Miss Rutherford—"
She stood in the doorway, darkly contemptuous. Fire flashed in her eyes, but the voice of the girl was coldly insolent.
"It is not necessary," she informed him.
Her brother leaned forward a little. His crouched body looked like a coiled spring in its tenseness. "Explain yourself down that road, Mr. Street—pronto," he advised.
Beaudry flashed a startled glance at him, swung to the saddle, and was away at a canter. The look in Rutherford's glittering eyes had sent a flare of fear over him. The impulse of it had lifted him to the back of the horse and out of the danger zone.
But already he was flogging himself with his own contempt. He had given way to panic before a girl who had been brought up to despise a quitter. She herself had nerves as steady as chilled steel. He had seen her clench her strong white little teeth without a murmur through a long afternoon of pain. Gameness was one of the fundamentals of her creed, and he had showed the white feather. It added to his punishment, too, that he worshiped pluck with all the fervor of one who knew he had none. Courage seemed to him the one virtue worth while; cowardice the unpardonable sin. He made no excuses for himself. From his father he inherited the fine tradition of standing up to punishment to a fighting finish. His mother, too, had been a thoroughbred. Yet he was a weakling. His heart pumped water instead of blood whenever the call to action came.
In dejection he rode up the valley, following the same hilly trail he had taken two days before with Miss Rutherford. It took him past the aspen grove at the mouth of the gulch which led to the Meldrum place. Beyond this a few hundred yards he left the main road and went through the chaparral toward a small ranch that nestled close to the timber. Beulah had told him that it belonged to an old German named Rothgerber who had lived there with his wife ever since she could remember.
Rothgerber was a little wrinkled old man with a strong South-German accent. After Beaudry had explained that he wanted board, the rancher called his wife out and the two jabbered away excitedly in their native tongue. The upshot of it was that they agreed to take the windmill agent if he would room in an old bunkhouse about two hundred yards from the main ranch building. This happened to suit Roy exactly and he closed the matter by paying for a week in advance.
The Rothgerbers were simple, unsuspecting people of a garrulous nature. It was easy for Beaudry to pump information from them while he ate supper. They had seen nothing of any stranger in the valley except himself, but they dropped casually the news that the Rutherfords had been going in and out of Chicito Cañon a good deal during the past few days.
"Chicito Cañon. That's a Mexican name, is n't it? Let's see. Just where is this gulch?" asked Beaudry.
The old German pointed out of the window. "There it iss, mein friend. You pass by on the road and there iss no way in—no arroyo, no gulch, no noddings but aspens. But there iss, shust the same, a trail. Through my pasture it leads."
"Anybody live up Chicito? I want everybody in the park to get a chance to buy a Dynamo Aermotor before I leave."
"A man named Meldrum. My advice iss—let him alone."
Rothgerber shook a pudgy forefinger in the air. "Mein friend—listen. You are a stranger in Huerfano Park. Gut. But do not ask questions about those who lif here. Me, I am an honest man. I keep the law. Also I mind my own pusiness. So it iss with many. But there are others—mind, I gif them no names, but—" He shrugged his shoulders and threw out his hands, palm up. "Well, the less said the petter. If I keep my tongue still, I do not talk myself into trouble. Not so, Berta?"
The pippin-cheeked little woman nodded her head sagely.
In the course of the next few days Roy rode to and fro over the park trying to sell his windmill to the ranchers. He secured two orders and the tentative promise of others. But he gained no clue as to the place where Dingwell was hidden. His intuition told him that the trail up Chicito Cañon would lead him to the captive cattleman. Twice he skirted the dark gash of the ravine at the back of the pasture, but each time his heart failed at the plunge into its unknown dangers. The first time he persuaded himself that he had better make the attempt at night, but when he stood on the brink hi the darkness the gulf at his feet looked like a veritable descent into Avernus. If he should be caught down here, his fate would be sealed. What Meldrum and Tighe would do to a spy was not a matter of conjecture. The thought of it brought goose-quills to his flesh and tiny beads of perspiration to his forehead.
Still, the peril had to be faced. He decided to go up the cañon in the early morning before the travel of the day had begun. The night before he made the venture he prepared an alibi by telling Mrs. Rothgerber that he would not come to breakfast, as he wanted to get an early start for his canvassing. The little German woman bustled about and wrapped up for him a cold lunch to eat at his cabin in the morning. She liked this quiet, good-looking young man whose smile was warm for a woman almost old enough to be his grandmother. It was not often she met any one with the charming deference he showed her. Somehow he reminded her of her own Hans, who had died from the kick of a horse ten years since.
Roy slept in broken cat-naps full of fearful dreams, from which he woke in terror under the impression that he was struggling helplessly in the net of a great spider which had the cruel, bloodless face of Tighe. It was three o'clock when he rose and began to dress. He slipped out of the cabin into the wet pasture. His legs were sopping wet from the long grass through which he strode to the edge of the gulch. On a flat boulder he sat shivering in the darkness while he waited for the first gray streaks of light to sift into the dun sky.
In the dim dawn he stumbled uncertainly down the trail into the cañon, the bottom of which was still black as night from a heavy growth of young aspens that shut out the light. There was a fairly well-worn path leading up the gulch, so that he could grope his way forward slowly. His feet moved reluctantly. It seemed to him that his nerves, his brain, and even his muscles were in revolt against the moral compulsion that drove him on. He could feel his heart beating against his ribs. Every sound startled him. The still darkness took him by the throat. Doggedly he fought against the panic impulse to turn and fly.
If he quit now, he told himself, he could never hold his self-respect. He thought of all those who had come into his life in connection with the Big Creek country trouble. His father, his mother, Dave Dingwell, Pat Ryan, Jess Tighe, the whole Rutherford clan, including Beulah! One quality they all had in common, the gameness to see out to a finish anything they undertook. He could not go through life a confessed coward. The idea was intolerably humiliating.
Then, out of the past, came to him a snatch of nonsense verse:
"Li'l ole hawss an' li'l ole cow,
Amblin' along by the ole haymow,
Li'l ole hawss took a bite an' a chew,
'Durned if I don't,' says the ole cow, too."}
So vivid was his impression of the doggerel that for an instant he thought he heard the sing-song of his father's tuneless voice. In sharp, clean-cut pictures his memory reproduced the night John Beaudry had last chanted the lullaby and that other picture of the Homeric fight of one man against a dozen. The foolish words were a bracer to him. He set his teeth and ploughed forward, still with a quaking soul, but with a kind of despairing resolution.
After a mile of stiff going, the gulch opened to a little valley on the right-hand side. On the edge of a pine grove, hardly a stone's throw from where Roy stood, a Mexican jacal looked down into the cañon. The hut was a large one. It was built of upright poles daubed with clay. Sloping poles formed the roof, the chinks of which were waterproofed with grass. A wolf pelt, nailed to the wall, was hanging up to dry.
He knew that this was the home of Meldrum, the ex-convict.
Beaudry followed a bed of boulders that straggled toward the pine grove. It was light enough now, and he had to move with caution so as to take advantage of all the cover he could find. Once in the grove, he crawled from tree to tree. The distance from the nearest pine to the jacal was about thirty feet. A clump of cholla grew thick just outside the window. Roy crouched behind the trunk for several minutes before he could bring himself to take the chance of covering that last ten yards. But every minute it was getting lighter. Every minute increased the likelihood of detection. He crept fearfully to the hut, huddled behind the cactus, and looked into the window.
A heavy-set man, with the muscle-bound shoulders of an ape, was lighting a fire in the stove. At the table, his thumbs hitched in a sagging revolver belt, sat Ned Rutherford. The third person in the room lay stretched at supple ease on a bed to one of the posts of which his right leg was bound. He was reading a newspaper.
"Get a move on you, Meldrum," young Rutherford said jauntily, with an eye on his prisoner to see how he took it. "I 've got inside information that I need some hot cakes, a few slices of bacon, and a cup of coffee. How about it, Dave? Won't you order breakfast, too?"
The man on the bed shook his head indifferently. "Me, I'm taking the fast cure. I been reading that we all eat too much, anyhow. What's the use of stuffing—gets yore system all clogged up. Now, take Edison—he don't eat but a handful of rice a day."
"That's one handful more than you been eating for the past three days. Better come through with what we want to know. This thing ain't going to get any better for you. A man has got to eat to live."
"I'm trying out another theory. Tell you-all about how it works in a week or so. I reckon after a time I 'll get real hungry, but it don't seem like I could relish any chuck yet." The cattleman fell to perusing his paper once more.
Royal Beaudry had never met his father's friend, Dave Dingwell, but he needed no introduction to this brown-faced man who mocked his guard with such smiling hardihood. They were trying to starve the secret out of him. Already his cheek showed thin and gaunt, dark circles shadowed the eyes. The man, no doubt, was suffering greatly, yet his manner gave no sign of it. He might not be master of his fate; at least, he was very much the captain of his soul. Pat Ryan had described him in a sentence. "One hundred and ninety pounds of divil, and ivery ounce of ivery pound true gold." There could not be another man in the Big Creek country that this description fitted as well as it did this starving, jocund dare-devil on the bed.
The savory odor of bacon and of coffee came through the open window to Beaudry where he crouched in the chaparral. He heard Meldrum's brusque "Come and get it," and the sound of the two men drawing up their chairs to the table.
"What's the use of being obstinate, Dave?" presently asked Rutherford from amid a pleasant chink of tin cups, knives, and forks. "I'd a heap rather treat you like a white man. This 'Pache business does n't make a hit with me. But I'm obeying orders. Anyhow, it's up to you. The chuck-wagon is ready for you whenever you say the word."
"I don't reckon I 'll say it, Ned. Eating is just a habit. One man wants his eggs sunny side up; another is strong for them hard-boiled. But eggs is eggs. When Dan went visitin' at Santa Fé, he likely changed his diet. For two or three days he probably did n't like the grub, then—"
With a raucous curse the former convict swung round on him. A revolver seemed to jump to his hand, but before he could fire, young Rutherford was hanging to his wrist.
"Don't you, Dan. Don't you," warned Ned.
Slowly Meldrum's eyes lost their savage glare. "One o' these days I 'll pump lead into him unless he clamps that mouth of his'n. I won't stand for it." His voice trailed into a string of oaths.
Apparently his host's fury at this reference to his convict days did not disturb in the least the man on the bed. His good-natured drawl grew slightly more pronounced. "Wall yore eyes and wave yore tail all you 've a mind to, Dan. I was certainly some indiscreet reminding you of those days when you was a guest of the Government."
"That's enough," growled Meldrum, slamming his big fist down on the table so that the tinware jumped.
"Sure it's enough. Too much. Howcome I to be so forgetful? If I'd wore a uniform two years for rustling other folks' calves, I reckon I would n't thank a guy—"
But Meldrum had heard all he could stand. He had to do murder or get out. He slammed the coffee-pot down on the floor and bolted out of the open door. His arms whirled in violent gestures as he strode away. An unbroken stream of profanity floated back to mark his anabasis.
Meldrum did not once look round as he went on his explosive way to the gulch, but Roy Beaudry crouched lower behind the cactus until the man had disappeared. Then he crawled back to the grove, slipped through it, and crept to the shelter of the boulder bed.
It would not do for him to return down the cañon during daylight, for fear he might meet one of the Rutherfords coming to relieve Ned. He passed from one boulder to another, always working up toward the wall of the gulch. Behind a big piece of sandstone shaped like a flatiron he lay down and waited for the hours to pass.
It was twilight when he stole down to the trail and began his return journey.