The Three Bar girl sat looking from the window of her own room, theliving room of the ranch house, one end of which was curtained off toserve as sleeping quarters. The rattle of pots and pans came from thebig room in the rear which was used by Waddles as a kitchen and dininghall for the hands. The new man was still prowling about the place,inspecting every detail, and she wondered if he could tell her anythingwhich would prove of benefit in her fight to stop the shrinkage of theThree Bar herds and help her to face the drastic changes that werereshaping the policies of the range country.
The Three Bar home range was one of many similar isolated spots wherethe inhabitants held out for a continuance of the old order of things.All through the West, from the Mexican border to the Canadian line, ascore of bitter feuds were in progress, the principles involveddiffering widely according to conditions and locality. There wereexisting laws,--and certain clans that denied the justice of each one,holding out against its enforcement and making laws of their own. Insome spots the paramount issue was over the relative grazing rights ofcows and sheep, fanning a flame of hatred between those whoseoccupations were in any way concerned with these rival interests. Inothers the stockmen ignored the homestead laws which proclaimed thatsettlers could file their rights on land. As always before, wherevermen resorted to lawlessness to protect their fancied rights, theestablished order of things had broken down, all laws disregardedinstead of the single one originally involved.
In many communities these clashes between rival interests had furnishedopportunity for rustlers to build up in power and practically take therange. Each clan was outside the law in some one particular and socould not have recourse to it against those who violated it in someother respect; could not appear against neighbors in one matter lesttheir friends do likewise against themselves in another.
This attitude had enabled the wild bunch to saddle themselves oncertain communities and ply their trade without restraint. Rustlinghad come to be a recognized occupation to be reckoned with; theidentity of the thieves was often known, and they visited from ranch toranch, whose owners possibly were honest themselves but had friendsamong the outlaws for whom the latch-string was always out. Therustlers' toll was in the nature of a tribute levied against everybrand and the various outfits expected certain losses from this source.It was good business to recoup these losses at another's expense andthus neighbor preyed on neighbor. Big outfits fought to crush otherswho would start up in a small way, and between periods of defendingtheir own interests against the rustlers they hired them to harry theirsmaller competitors from the range; clover for outlaws where allfactions, by mutual assent, played their own hands without recourse tothe law. It was a case of dog eat dog and the slogan ran: "Catch yourcalves in a basket or some other thief will put his iron on them first."
It was to this pass that the Three Bar home range had come in the lastfive years. As Billie Warren watched the new hand moving slowly towardthe bunk house she pondered over what manner of man this could be whohad played a single-handed game in the hills for almost a year. Was heleagued with the wild bunch, with the law, or was he merely aneccentric who might have some special knowledge that would help hersave the Three Bar from extinction?
The stranger picked up his bed roll and disappeared through thebunk-house door as she watched him.
The lean man who had first greeted him jerked a thumb toward anunoccupied bunk.
"Pay roll?" he inquired; then, as the new man nodded, "I'm mostgenerally referred to as Lanky," he offered tentatively. "Evans is therest of it."
The stranger hesitated appreciably; then:
"Harris will do all right for me--Cal for every day," he returned andintroductions had been effected. It was up to each man to use his ownindividual method of making his name known to the newcomer as occasionarose.
There had been much speculation about the brand worn by the two horses.The hands were a drifting lot, gathered from almost as many points asthere were men present, but none of them knew the brand.
A dark, thin-faced man with a slender black mustache was the first tovoice a query, not from the fact that his curiosity was large--it wasperhaps less than that of any other man in the room--but for the reasonthat he chose to satisfy it at once. Morrow's personality was cold andbleak, inviting no close friendships or intimacies; uncommunicative toa degree that had impressed itself on his companions of the last fewdays and they looked up, mildly surprised at his abrupt interrogation.
"Box L," he commented. "Where does that brand run?"
"Southwest Kansas and Oklahoma," the stranger answered.
"Squatter country," Morrow said. "Every third section under fence."
Harris sat looking through the door at the valley spread out below andafter a moment he answered the thrust as if he had been long preparedfor it.
"Yes," he said. "And that's what all range country will come to in afew more years; farm what they can and graze what they can't--and thesooner the better for all concerned." He waved an arm down the valley."Good alfalfa dirt going to waste down there--overrun with sage andonly growing enough grass to keep ten cows to the quarter. If that wasripped up and seeded to hay it would grow enough to winter fivethousand head."
This remark led to the old debate that was never-ending in the cowcountry, breaking out afresh in every bunk house and exhaustivelyrediscussed. There were men there who had viewed both ends of thegame,--had seen the foremost outfits in other parts tearing up the sageand putting in hay for winter feed and had seen that this way was good.
Evans regarded Harris curiously as he deliberately provoked theargument, then sat back and listened to the various ideas of the othersas the discussion became heated and general. It occurred to Evans thatHarris was classifying the men by their views, and when the argumentlagged the lean man grinned and gave it fresh impetus.
"It's a settled fact that the outfits that have put in hay are betteroff," he said. "But there's a dozen localities like this, a dozenlittle civil wars going on right now where the inhabitants are somulish that they lay their ears and fight their own interests byupholding a flea-bit prejudice that was good for twenty years ago butis a dead issue to-day."
"And why is it dead to-day?" Morrow demanded. "And not as good as italways was?"
"Only a hundred or so different reasons," Evans returned indifferently."Then beef-tops brought ten dollars a head and they're worth threetimes that now; then you bought a brand on the hoof, come as they run,for round five dollars straight through, exclusive of calves; now it'sbased at ten on the round-up tally. In those days a man could betterafford to let part of his cows winter-kill than to raise feed to winterthe whole of them through--among other things. These days he can't."
"And have your water holes fenced," Morrow said. "As soon as you letthe first squatter light."
"The government has prohibited fencing water holes necessary to theadjacent range," Harris cut in. "If that valley was mine I'd have putit in hay this long time back."
"But it wasn't yours," Morrow pointed out.
"No; but it is now, or at least a part of it is," Harris said. "Ipicked up that school section that lays across the valley and filed ona home quarter that butts up against the rims." He sat gazingindifferently out the door as if unconscious of the dead silence thatfollowed his remark. More men had drifted in till nearly a dozen weregathered in the room.
"Good cow country," Harris agreed. "And it stands to reason it couldbe made better with a little help."
"Whenever you start helping a country with fence and plow you ruin itfor cows," Morrow stated. "I know!"
"It always loomed up in the light of a good move to me," the newcomerreturned. "One of us has likely read his signs wrong."
"There's some signs round here you better read," Morrow said. "Theywere posted for such a
"It appears like I'd maybe made a bad selection then. I'm sorry aboutthat," Harris deprecated in a negligent tone that belied his words."It's hard to tell just how it will pan out."
"Not so very hard--if you can read," the dark man contradicted.
The newcomer's gaze returned from down the valley and settled onMorrow's face.
"Do you run a brand of your own--so's you'd stand to lose a dollar ifevery foot of range was fenced?" he inquired.
"What are you trying to get at now?" Morrow demanded.
"Nothing much--now; I've already got," Harris said. "A man's interestlays on the side where his finances are most concerned."
"What do you mean by that?" Morrow insisted.
"You're good at predicting--maybe you're an expert at guessing too,"Harris returned. And suddenly Evans laughed as if something had justoccurred to him.
Morrow glanced at him without turning his head, then fell silent, hisexpression unchanged.
A chunky youngster stood in the door and bent an approving gaze on thebig pinto as he swung out across the pasture lot. The boy's face wassmall and quizzical, a shaggy mop of tawny hair hanging so low upon hisforehead that his mild blue eyes peered forth from under the fringe ofit and gave him the air of a surprised terrier, which effect had gainedhim the title of Bangs.
"I bet the little paint-horse could make a man swing and rattle to setup in his middle, once he started to act up," he said.
"Calico wouldn't know how to start," Harris said. "A horse, inside hislimitations, is what his breaker makes him. I never favored the ideaof breaking a horse to fight you every time you climb him. My horsesare gentle-broke."
"But you have to be able to top off just any kind of a horse," Bangsobjected.
"That don't hinder a man from gentling his own string," Harris returned.
Bangs turned his surprised eyes on Harris and regarded him intently asif striving to fathom a viewpoint that was entirely new to him.
"Why, it don't, for a fact," he said at last. "Only I just neverhappened to think of it like that before."
Morrow laughed and the boy flushed at the disagreeable ring of it. Thesound was not loud but flat and mirthless, the syllables distinct andevenly spaced. His white even teeth remained tight-closed and showedin flashing contrast to his swarthy face and black mustache. Morrow'sface wore none of the active malignancy that stamps the features ofthose uncontrolled desperadoes who kill in a flare of passion; ratherit seemed that the urge to kill was always with him, had been born withhim, his face drawn and over-lengthened from the inner effort to renderhis homicidal tendencies submissive to his brain, not through desirefor regeneration, for he had none, but as a mere matter of expediency.The set, bleak expression of countenance was but a reflection of hispersonality and his companions had sensed this strained quality withoutbeing able to define it in words.
"You listen to what the squatter man tells you," Morrow said to Bangs."He'll put you right--give you a course in how everything ought to bedone." He rose and went outside.
"That was a real unhumorous laugh," Evans said. "Right from the bottomof his heart."
A raucous bellow sounded from the cookhouse and every man withinearshot rose and moved toward the summons to feed.
"Let's go eat it up," Evans said and left the bunk house with Harris.
"Did you gather all the information you was prospecting for?" he asked.
Harris nodded. "I sorted out one man's number," he said.
"Now if you'd only whispered to me I'd have told you right off," Evanssaid. "It's astonishing how easy it is to pick them if you try."
"Waddles is a right unpresuming sort of a man in most respects," Evansvolunteered as they entered the cookhouse. "But he's downrightegotistical about his culinary accomplishments."
All through the meal the gigantic cook hovered near Billie Warren asshe sat near one end of the long table. It was evident to Harris thatthe big man was self-appointed guardian and counsellor of the Three Barboss. He showed the same fussy solicitude for her welfare that a henwould show for her helpless chicks.
"Praise the grub and have a friend at court," Harris murmured in Evans'ear.
Billie Warren had nearly completed her meal before the men came in.She left the table and went to her own room. When Harris rose to go heslapped the big man on the back.
"I'd work for half pay where you get grub like this," he said. "That'swhat I'd call a real feed."
Waddles beamed and followed him to the door.
"It's a fact that I can set out the best bait you ever throwed a lipover," he confessed. "You're a man of excellent tastes and it's a realpleasure to have you about."
Billie Warren opened the door and motioned to Harris. He went into thebig front room that answered for both living room and sleepingquarters. A fire burned in the rough stone fireplace; tanned pelts,Indian curios and Navajo rugs covered the walls; more rugs and peltslay on the floor. Indian blankets partitioned off one end for hersleeping room.
"You had something to tell me," she observed, after he had remainedsilent for the space of a minute, sitting in the chair she hadindicated and gazing into the fire.
"And I'll have to start it a little different from the way I firstcounted on," he said. "Have any of the boys mentioned my name to you?"
She shook her head and waited for him to go on.
"You won't care much to hear it," he announced. "I'd thought some ofspending two years here under some other name--but perhaps it's betterto come out in the open--don't you think?"
The girl had straightened in her chair and was leaning toward him, herface white and her gray eyes boring straight into the man's. She knewnow who he was,--the man she had more reason to despise than all otherson earth combined. Of the Harris family she knew nothing at all exceptthat her father's lifelong regret had been the fact that thepartnership between himself and his oldest friend, William Harris, hadnever been brought to pass. And this regret had, in the end, led himto try and cement that arrangement in the second generation. Fiveyears before his trail had crossed that of the elder Harris for thefirst time since he had taken over the Three Bar brand; and when hiswill had been read she had known that on the occasion of that visit hisold friend had played upon this sentiment to trick him into making it.On all sides of her she had evidence that men were wolves who preyedupon the interests of others, and there was not a doubt that the fatherof the man before her had preyed upon her interests through thesentiment of her parent; no other possible theory could account for thestrange disposal of his property, the will dated and signed at theexact time of his visit to the Harrises.
The tenseness of her pose was replaced by lethargic indifference andshe relaxed into her chair.
"I've known all the time you would come," she said.
"It's too bad, Billie," he said. "It's tough having me wished on toyou this way."
"Don't play that game with me!" she flared. "Of course you'vedisproved every drop of human decency in advance."
"It sure looms up like that on the surface," he admitted ruefully."But I didn't have a hand in cinching you this way."
"You could have proved that by staying away. I wrote you a year agothat I'd donate you a half-interest in the Three Bar at the expirationof the time if you'd only keep off the place. But at the last momentyou couldn't resist having it all. Ten more days and you'd have beentoo late."
The man nodded slowly.
"Too late," he agreed and sat looking into the fire.
She had been almost a son to her father, had ridden the range with him,managed the Three Bar during his sickness; and such was her loyalty tohis memory that not a trace of her bitterness had been directed towardher parent. He had loved the Three Bar and had always believed thatold Bill Harris, its founder, had loved it too. His will hadstipulated that half of his property should go to the younger Harrisunder the condition that the man should make his home on the Three Barfor two out of the first three years after her father's deceas
e. Thewhole of it was to go to him in case she failed to make her own home atthe Three Bar during her co-heir's stay, or in the event of hermarriage to another before the expiration of three years.
"Of course I'm tied here for two years," she said. "Or left penniless.If you can make it unpleasant enough to drive me away--which won't bedifficult--you win."
"I wouldn't count too strong on that," he counseled mildly.
"Maybe I'm sort of tied up myself--in ways you don't suspect," heoffered.
"Very likely!" she returned; "sounds plausible. You might offer tomarry me," she suggested when he failed to answer. "You could gainfull possession at once that way."
He removed his gaze from the fire and looked long at her.
"It will likely come to that," he said.
"I'll put a weapon in your hands," she retorted. "Whenever it doescome to that I'll leave the ranch--so now you know the one sure way towin."
"I hope it won't pan out like that," he said. "I'll bedisappointed--more than I can say."
She rose and stood waiting for him to go.
"Good night, Billie," he said. "I expect maybe things will break allright for us."
She did not answer and he went out. Waddles hailed him in friendlyfashion as he passed through the cookhouse, then wiped his hands andstepped into Billie's quarters. Waddles was a fixture at the ThreeBar; he had ridden for her father until he had his legs smashed up by ahorse and had thereafter reigned as cook. He was confidential adviserand self-appointed guardian of the girl. His mind was still pleasantlyconcerned with the stranger's warm praise of his culinary efforts.
"That new man now, Billie," he remarked. "He's away off ahead of theaverage run. You mark me--he'll be top hand with this outfit in notime at all." Then he observed the girl's expression. "What is it,Pet?" he inquired. "What's a-fretting you?"
"Do you know who he is?" she asked.
Waddles wagged a negative head.
"He's Calvin Harris," she stated.
Instead of the blank dismay which she had expected to see depicted onWaddles's face at this announcement, it seemed to her that the big manwas pleased.
"The hell!" he said. "'Scuse me, Billie. So this here is Cal! Well,well--now what do you think of that?"
"I think that I don't want to stay here alone with him while you're outafter the horses," she returned.
"Wrong idea!" the big man promptly contradicted. "You've got to stickit out for two years, girl. The best thing you can do is to getacquainted; and figure out how to get along the best you can--the pairof you."
"That's probably true," she assented indifferently. "I'll have to facea number of things that are equally unpleasant in the next twoyears--so I might as well start now. He must have praised the food inorder to win you to his side in two minutes flat."
Waddles's face expressed pained reproach.
"Now there it is again!" he said. "You know I'm only on oneside--yours. Old Cal Warren had some definite notion when he framedthis play; so it's likely this young Cal is on your side, too."
"But even more likely not," she stated.
"Why, then I'll have to kill him and put a stop to it," the big manannounced. "But it's noways probable that it will come to that. Let'suse logic. He spoke well of my cooking--like you said--which proveshim a man of some discernment. No way to get around that. Now a manwith his judgment wouldn't suspect for one living second that he couldplay it low-down on you with me roosting close at hand. Putting twoplain facts together it works out right natural and simple that he's onthe square. As easy as that," he finished triumphantly. "So don't youfret. And in case he acts up I'll clamp down on him real sudden," headded by way of further reassurance.
His great paw opened and shut to illustrate his point as he movedtoward the door and the Three Bar girl knew that when Waddles spoke ofclamping down it was no mere figure of speech.