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Ben blair


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Title:BenBlair
TheStoryofaPlainsman
Author:WillLillibridge
ReleaseDate:February24,2006[EBook#17844]
Language:English

***STARTOFTHISPROJECTGUTENBERGEBOOKBENBLAIR***

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BenBlair
TheStoryofaPlainsman
by


WillLillibridge

Authorof"WheretheTrailDivides,"etc.


A.L.BurtCompany,Publishers
NewYork

COPYRIGHTBY
A.C.MCCLURG&CO.
A.D.1905
EnteredatStationers'Hall,London
Allrightsreserved

PublishedOctober21,1905
SecondEditionOctober28,1905
ThirdEditionNovember29,1905
FourthEditionDecember9,1905
FifthEditionDecember14,1905
SixthEditionFebruary28,1907

ToMyWife


[Illustration:Florencetouchedhisarm."Ben,"shepleaded,"Ben,forgiveme.
I'vehurtyou.Ican'tsayIloveyou."Page114.]
Florencetouchedhisarm."Ben,"shepleaded,"Ben,forgiveme.I'vehurtyou.Ican'tsayIloveyou."Page
114.


Contents
I. InRudeBorderLand
II. Desolation
III. TheBoxRRanch
IV. Ben'sNewHome
V. TheExotics
VI. TheSoilandtheSeed
VII. TheSanityoftheWild
VIII. TheGlitteroftheUnknown


IX. ARiffleofPrairie
X. TheDominantAnimal
XI. Love'sAvowal
XII. ADeferredReckoning
XIII. AShotintheDark
XIV. TheInexorableTrail
XV. IntheGripoftheLaw
XVI. TheQuickandtheDead
XVII. GlitterandTinsel
XVIII. PainterandPicture
XIX. AVisitorfromthePlains
XX. ClubConfidences
XXI. LoveinConflict
XXII. TwoFriendsHaveItOut
XXIII. TheBack-Fire
XIV. TheUpperandtheNetherMillstones
XV. OfWhatAvail?
XVI. Love'sSurrender

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318


BENBLAIR


CHAPTERI
INRUDEBORDER-LAND
Eveninacommunitywhereunsavoryreputationsweretherule,MickKennedy's
saloon was of evil repute. In a land new and wild, his establishment was the
wildest,partookmostoftheunsubdued,unevolvedcharacterofitssurroundings.
There, as irresistibly as gravitation calls the falling apple, came from afar and
near—mainly from afar—the malcontent, the restless, the reckless, seeking—
instinctivelygregarious—the crowd,the excitementofthegreen-coveredtable,
thetemporaryoblivionfollowingthegulpingoffieryredliquor.
Great splendid animals were the men who gathered there; hairy, powerful,
strong-voicedfromcombatwithprairiewindandfrontierdistance;devoidofa
superfluousounceofflesh,theirtrousers,uniformlybaggyattheknees,bearing
mutetestimonytothemanyhoursspentinthesaddle;thebareunprotectedskin
of their hands and faces speaking likewise of constant contact with sun and
storm.
By the broad glow of daylight the place was anything but inviting. The heavy
bar,madeofcottonwood,hadnomoreelegancethantherudesodshantyofthe
pioneer.Thewornroundcloth-toppedtables,importedatextravagantcostfrom
the East, were covered with splashes of grease and liquor; and the few flymarked pictures on the walls were coarsely suggestive. Scattered among them
haphazard, in one instance through a lithographic print, were round holes as
large as a spike-head, through which, by closely applying the eye, one could
view the world without. When the place was new, similar openings had been
carefully refilled with a whittled stick of wood, but the practice had been
discontinued;itwastoomuchtrouble,andalsouselessfromthefrequencywith
which new holes were made. Besides, although accepted with unconcern by
habitués of the place, they were a source of never-ending interest to the
"tenderfeet"whooccasionallyappearedfromnowhereanddisappearedwhence
theyhadcome.
Butatnightallwasdifferent.Encirclingtheroomwithgleamingpointsoflight
were a multitude of blazing candles, home-made from tallow of prairie cattle.
Theirradiance,almostasstrongasdaylight,butradicallydifferent,softenedall


surrounding objects. The prairie dust, penetrating with the wind, spread itself
everywhere. The reflection from cheap glassware, carefully polished, made it
appearofcostlymake;the sawdustofthefloorseemeda downycovering; the
crudeheavychairs,animitationoftheartisticfurnitureofourfathers.Eventhe
face of bartender Mick, with its stiff unshaven red beard and its single eye,—
mercilessasanelectricheadlight,—itsbroadflamingscarleadingdownfromthe
blanksocketofitsmate,becamelessrepulsiveunderthesoftenedlight.
WiththecomingofFallfrosts,thepremonitionofWinter,thefrequentersofthe
place gathered earlier, remained later, emptied more of the showily labelled
bottles behind the bar, and augmented when possible their well-established
reputation for recklessness. About the soiled tables the fringe of bleared faces
andkeenhawk-likeeyeswasmorecloselydrawn.Thedullrattleofpoker-chips
lasted longer, frequently far into the night, and even after the tardy light of
morninghadcometotherescueofthesputteringstumpsinthecandlesticks.
Onsuchamorning,earlyinNovember,daylightbroadeneduponacharacteristic
scene. Only one table was in use, and around it sat four men. One by one the
other players had cashed out and left the game. One of them was snoring in a
corner,hisheadrestinguponthesawdust.Anotherleanedheavilyuponthebar,a
half-drained glass before him. Even the four at the table were not as upon the
nightbefore.Thehandswhichheldthegreasycardsandtoyedwiththestacksof
chipsweresteady,buttheheadscontrollingthemwavereduncertainly;andthe
hawkeyeswerebloodshot.
A man with a full beard, roughly trimmed into the travesty of a Vandyke, was
dealing.He tossedoutthecards,carefullyincliningtheirfacesdownward,and
returnedtheremainderofthepacksoftlytothetable.
"Pass,damnit!"growledthemanattheleft.
"Pass,"camefromthenextman.
"Pass,"echoedthelastofthequartette.
Fivebluechipsdroppedinarowuponthecloth.
"Iopenit."
Thedealertookupthepacklovingly.
"Cards?"


Themanattheleft,tall,gaunt,ill-kempt,flickedthepasteboardsinhishandto
thefloorandgroundthembeneathhisheavyboots.
"Givemefive."
ThepointoftheVandykebeardwasaimedstraightpastthespeaker.
"Cards?"repeatedthedealer.
"Five!Can'tyouhear?"
Themanbracedagainstthebarlookedaroundwithinterest.InthemaskofMick
Kennedy the single eye closed almost imperceptibly. Slowly the face of the
dealerturned.
"Icanhearyouprettywellwhenyoucashintothegame.Youalreadyoweme
fortyblues,Blair."
Thelongfigurestiffened,thefacewentpale.
"You—mean—you—"thetonguewasverythick."Youcutmeout?"
Foramomenttherewassilence;thenoncemorethebeardpointedtotheplayer
nextbeyond.
"Cards?"forthethirdtime.
Fivechipsrangedinarowbesidetheirpredecessors.
"Three."
Ahand,almostthehandofagentleman,wentinstinctivelytothegauntthroatof
theignoredgamblerandjerkedatthecloseflannelshirt;thenwithoutawordthe
owner got unsteadily to his feet and followed an irregular trail toward the
interestedspectatoratthebar.
"Haveadrinkwithme,pard,"saidthegambler,asheregardedtheimmovable
Mick."Twowhiskeys,there!"
Kennedy did not stir, and for five seconds Blair blinked his dulled eyes in
wordless surprise; then his fist came down upon the cottonwood board with a
mightycrash.
"Wakeupthere,Mick!"heroared."I'mspeakingtoyou!Acoupleof'ryes'for


thegentlemanhereandmyself."
Anotherpause,momentarybuteffective.
"Iheardyou."Thebarkeeperspokequietlybutwithouttheslightestchangeof
expression, even of the eye. "I heard you, but I'm not dealing out drinks to
deadbeats.Payup,andI'llbegladtoserveyou."
Swift as thought Blair's hand went to his hip, and the rattle of poker-chips
sympathetically ceased. A second, and a big revolver was trained fair at the
dispenserofliquors.
"Curseyou,MickKennedy!"mutteredachokingvoice,"whenIorderdrinksI
wantdrinks.Digupthere,andbelively!"
Themanbythespeaker'sside,surprisedoutofhisintoxication,edgedawaytoa
discreet distance; but even yet the Irishman made no move. Only the single
headlightshiftedinitssocketuntilitlookedunblinkinglyintotheblazingeyes
ofthegambler.
"TomBlair,"commandedanevenvoice,"TomBlair,youwhiteliveredbully,put
upthatgun!"
Slowly,veryslowly,thespeakerturned,—allbuttheterrible Cyclopeaneye,—
andmovedforwarduntilhisbodyleaneduponthebar,hisfaceprotrudingover
it.
"Putupthatgun,Itellyou!"Asmilealmostfiendishbrokeoverthefurrowsof
theruggedface."Youwouldn'tdastshoot,unlessperhapsitwasawoman,you
coward!"
For a fraction of a minute there was silence, while over the visage of the
challengedthereflashed,faded,recurredtheexpressionwepaygooddollarsto
watchplayinguponthefeaturesofanaccomplishedactor;thentheyellowstreak
beneath the bravado showed, and the menacing hand dropped to the holster at
the hip. Once again Kennedy, who seldom made a mistake, had sized his man
correctly.
"What do I owe you altogether, Mick?" asked a changed and subdued voice.
"Makeitaseasyasyoucan."
Kennedyrelaxedintohisloungingposition.


"Thirty-fivedollars.We'llcallitthirty.You'vebeensettingthemuptoeverybody
hereforaweekonyourface."
"Can'tyougivemejustalittlemorecredit,Mick?"Anexpressionmeanttobea
smile formed upon the haggard face. "Just for old time's sake? You know I've
alwaysbeenagoodcustomerofyours,Kennedy."
"Notacent."
"ButI'vegottohaveliquor!"Onehand,ill-kept,butlongoffingersandrefined
ofshape,steadiedthespeaker."Ican'tgetalongwithoutit!"
"Sellsomething,then,andpayup."
Themanthoughtamomentandshookhishead.
"Ihaven'tanythingtosell;youknowthat.It'sthewrongtimeoftheyear."He
paused,andthetravestyofasmilereappeared."NextWinter—"
"You'vegotahorseoutside."
ForaninstantBlair'sgauntfacedarkenedattheinsult;hegrewalmostdignified;
butthedrinkcursehadtoostrongagripuponhimandtheodorofwhiskeywas
intheair.
"Yes,I'veagoodhorse,"hesaidslowly."What'llyougiveforhim?"
"Seventydollars."
"He'sagoodhorse,worthahundred."
"I'm glad of that, but I'm not dealing in horses. I make the offer just to oblige
you.Besides,asyousaid,it'sanoffseason."
"Youwon'tgivememore?"
"No."
Blairlookedimpotentlyabouttheroom,buthisformercompanionshadreturned
to their game. Filling in the silence, the dull clatter of chips mingled with the
drunkensnoresofthemanonthefloor.
"Verywell,givemeforty,"hesaidatlast.
"Youaccept,doyou?"


"Yes."
"Allright."
Blairwaitedamoment."Aren'tyougoingtogivemewhat'scoming?"heasked.
Slowlythesingleeyefixedhimasbefore.
"Ididn'tknowyouhadanythingcoming."
"Why,youjustsaidfortydollars!"
TherewasnorelentinginKennedy'sface.
"You owe that gentleman over there at the table for forty blues. I'll settle with
him."
Instinctively, as before, Blair's thin hand went to his throat, clutching at the
coarseflannel.Hesawhewasbeaten.
"Well,givemeadrink,anyway!"
SilentlyMicktookabigflaskfromtheshelfandsetitwithadecanteruponthe
bar.Fillingtheglass,Blairdraineditatagulp,refilledanddrainedit—andthen
again.
"Alittledroptotakealongwithme,"hewhined.
Kennedyselectedapintbottle,filleditfromthebigflask,andsilentlyproffered
itovertheboard.
Blairtooktheextendedfavor,glancedoncemoreabouttheroom,andstumbled
toward the exit. Mick busied himself wiping the soiled bar with a towel, if
possible, even more filthy. At the threshold, his hand upon the knob, Blair
paused,stiffened,grewlividintheface.
"MaySatanblisteryourscoundrelsouls,allofyou!"hecursed.
Notamanwithinsoundofhisvoicegavesignthathehadheard,astheopened
doorreturnedtoitscasingwithacrash.


CHAPTERII
DESOLATION
Ten miles out on the prairies,—not lands plane as a table, as they are usually
pictured,butrollingliketheseawithwavesoftremendousamplitude—stooda
roughshack,calledbycourtesyahouse.Likemanyamorepretentiousdomicile,
it was of composite construction, although consisting of but one room. At the
base was the native prairie sod, piled tier upon tier. Above this the
superstructure, like the bar of Mick Kennedy's resort, was of warping
cottonwood.Builtoutfromthissingleroomandformingapartofitwaswhat
thedesignerhadcalledawoodshed;butasnotreethesizeofaman'swristwas
withintenmiles,orarailroadwithinfifty,thetermwasmanifestlyamisnomer.
Wood in any form it had never contained; instead, it was filled with that
providentialfuelofthefrontiersman,foundsuperabundantlyupontheranges,—
buffalochips.
Fromthemainroomtherewasanotherandmuchsmalleropeningintothesod
foundation,andbelowit,—adog-kennel.Slightlyapartfromtheshackstooda
twinstructureevenlessassuming,itswallsandroofbeingwhollybuiltofsod.It
was likewise without partition, and was used as a barn. Hard by was a corral
covering perhaps two acres, enclosed with a barbed-wire fence. These three
excrescencesuponthefaceofnaturecomprisedthe"improvements"ofthe"Big
BRanch."
Withinthehousethefurnishingsaccordedwiththeirsurroundings.Twofolding
bunks,similarinconceptiontotheupperberthsofaPullmancar,werebuiltend
to end against the wall; when they were raised to give room, four supports
dangled beneath like paralyzed arms. A home-made table, suggesting those
scatteredaboutcountrypicnicgrounds,afewcheapchairs,arowofchestsand
cupboardsvariouslyremodelledfromacommonfoundationofdry-goodsboxes,
and a stove, ingeniously evolved out of the cylinder and head of a portable
engine,comprisedthefurniture.
The morning sunlight which dimmed the candles of Mick Kennedy's saloon
driftedthroughthesinglehigh-setwindowoftheBigBRanch-house,revealing
thereaverydifferentscene.Frombeneaththequiltsinoneofthefoldingbunks


appearedthefacesofawomanandalittleboy.Attheopeningofthedog-kennel
theheadofamottledyellow-and-whitemongreldogprojectedintotheroom,the
sensitive muzzle pointing directly at the occupied bunk. The eyes of woman,
child,andbeastwereopenandmovedrestlesslyabout.
"Mamma," and the small boy wriggled beneath the clothes, "Mamma, I'm
hungry."
The white face of the woman turned away, more pallid than before. An
unfamiliarobserverwouldhavebeenatalosstoguesstheageoftheowner.In
thathaggard,non-committalcountenancetherewasnothingtoindicatewhether
shewastwenty-fiveorforty.
"Itisearlyyet,son.Gotosleep."
Theboyclosedhiseyesdutifully,andforperhapsfiveminutestherewassilence;
thentheblueorbsopenedwiderthanbefore.
"Mamma,Ican'tgotosleep.I'mhungry!"
"Never mind, Benjamin. The horses, the rabbits, the birds,—all get hungry
sometimes." A hacking cough interrupted her words. "Snuggle close up to me,
littleson,andkeepwarm."
"But,mamma,Iwantsomethingtoeat.Won'tyougetitforme?"
"Ican't,son."
Hewaitedamoment."Won'tyouletmehelpmyself,then,mamma?"
Theeyesofthemothermoistened.
"Mamma,"thechildrepeated,gentlyshakinghismother'sshoulder,"won'tyou
letmehelpmyself?"
"There'snothingforyoutoeat,sonny,nothingatall."
Thebluechild-eyeswidened;theseriouslittlefacepuckered.
"Whyain'tthereanythingtoeat,mamma?"
"Becausethereisn't,bubby."
Thereasoningwasconclusive,andthechildaccepteditwithoutfurtherparley;


butsoonanotherinterrogationtookforminhisactivebrain.
"It'scold,mamma,"heannounced."Aren'tyougoingtobuildafire?"
Againthemothercoughed,andaflushofredappeareduponhercheeks.
"No,"sheansweredwithasigh.
"Whynot,mamma?"
Therewasnottheslightesttraceofirritationintheansweringvoice,althoughit
wasclearlyanefforttospeak.
"Ican'tgetupthismorning,littleone."
Mysteriesweremultiplying,butthesmallBenjaminwasequaltotheoccasion.
Withaspringhewasoutofbed,andinanothermomentwassteppinggingerly
uponthecoldbarefloor.
"I'mgoingtobuildafireforyou,mamma,"heannounced.
Thehomelymongrelwhinedawelcometothelittlelad'sappearance,andwith
his tail beat a friendly tattoo upon the kennel floor; but the woman spoke no
word. With impassive face she watched the shivering little figure as it hurried
into its clothes, and then, with celerity born of experience, went about the
making of a fire. Suddenly a hitherto unthought-of possibility flashed into the
boy'smind,andleavinghisworkhecamebacktothebunk.
"Areyousick,mamma?"heasked.
Instantlythewoman'sfacesoftened.
"Yes,laddie,"sheansweredgently.
Carefullyasanurse,thesmallprotectorreplacedthecoverathismother'sback,
wherehisexithadleftagap;thenreturnedtohiswork.
"Youmusthaveitwarmhere,"hesaid.
Notuntilthefireintheoldcylindermakeshiftwasburningmerrilydidhereturn
tohispatient;then,standingstraightbeforeher,helookeddownwithanairof
childishdignitythatwouldhavebeencomicalhaditbeenlesspathetic.
"Areyouverysick,mamma?"hesaidatlast,hesitatingly.


"I am dying, little son." She spoke calmly and impersonally, without even a
quickeningofthebreath.Thethinhand,lyingonthetatteredcover,didnotstir.
"Mamma!"theold-manfaceoftheboytightened,as,bendingoverthebed,he
pressedhiswarmcheekagainsthers,nowgrowingcoldandwhite.
At the mouth of the kennel two bright eyes were watching curiously. Their
owner wriggled the tip of his muzzle inquiringly, but the action brought no
response. Then the muzzle went into the air, and a whine, long-drawn and
insistent,brokethesilence.
Theboyrose.Therewasnotatraceofmoistureinhiseyes,buttheuncannily
aged face seemed older than before. He went over to a peg where his clothes
werehangingandtookdownthefrayedgarmentthatansweredasanovercoat.
Fromthebunktherecameanothercough,quicklymuffled;buthedidnotturn.
Cap followed coat, mittens cap; then, suddenly remembering, he turned to the
stoveandscatteredfreshchipsupontheglowingembers.
"Good-bye,mamma,"saidtheboy.
Themotherhadbeenwatchinghim,althoughshegavenosign."Whereareyou
going,sonny?"sheasked.
"Totown,mamma.Someoneoughttoknowyou'resick."
Therewasamoment'spause,whereinthemongrelwhinedimpatiently.
"Aren'tyougoingtokissmefirst,Benjamin?"
Thelittleladretracedhissteps,until,bendingover,hislipstouchedthoseofhis
mother. As he did so, the hand which had lain upon the coverlet shifted to his
armdetainingly.
"Howwereyouthinkingofgoing,son?"
A look of surprise crept into the boy's blue eyes. A question like this, with its
obviousanswer,wasunusualfromhismatter-of-factmother.Heglancedather
gravely.
"I'mgoingafoot,mamma."
"It'stenmilestotown,Benjamin."
"ButyouandIwalkeditoncetogether.Don'tyouremember?"


AnexpressiontheladdidnotunderstandflashedoverthewhitefaceofJennie
Blair. Well she remembered that other occasion, one of many like the present,
whensheandthelittleladhadgoneincompanytothesettlementofwhichMick
Kennedy'splace was apart,insearchofsomeonewhomaftertenhours'delay
they had succeeded in bringing home,—the remnant and vestige of what was
onceaman.
"Yes,Iknowwedid,Bennie."
Theboywaitedamomentlonger,thenstraightenedhimself.
"IthinkI'dbetterbestartingnow."
But instead of loosening its hold, the hand upon the boy's shoulder tightened.
Theeyesofthetwomet.
"You'renotgoing,sonny.I'mgladyouthoughtofit,butIcan'tletyougo."
Againtherewassilenceforsolongthatthewaitingdog,impatientofthedelay,
whinedinsoftprotest.
"Whynot,mamma?"
"Because,Benjamin,it'stoolatenow.Besides,therewouldn'tbeapersonthere
whowouldcomeouttohelpme."
Theboy'slookofperplexityreturned.
"Notiftheyknewyouwereverysick,mamma?"
"NotiftheyknewIwasdying,myson."
Theboytookoffhat,mittens,andcoat,andreturnedthemtotheirplaces.Never
inhisshortlifehadhequestionedastatementofhismother's,andsuchheresy
did not occur to him now. Coming back to the bunk, he laid his cheek
caressinglybesidehers.
"IsthereanythingIcandoforyou,mamma?"hewhispered.
"Nothingbutwhatyouaredoingnow,laddie."
Tiredofstanding,themongreldroppedwithinhistracksflatuponhisbelly,and,
hisheadrestinguponhisfore-paws,laywatchingintently.


When the door of Mick Kennedy's saloon closed with an emphasis that shook
theverywalls,itshutoutabeingmoreferocious,moreevil,thananybeastof
thejungle.Forthetime,Blair'salcohol-saturatedbrainevolvedbutonechainof
thought, was capable of but one emotion—hate. Every object in the universe,
from its Creator to himself, fell under the ban. The language of hate iscurses;
and as he moved out over the prairie there dripped from his lips continuously,
monotonously,atrickling,blightingstreamofmalediction.Swaying,stumbling,
unconscious of his physical motions, instinct kept him upon the trail; a
Providence,sometimeskindesttothoseleastworthy,preservedhimfrominjury.
HalfwayouthemetasolitaryIndianastrideafaded-lookingmustang,andthe
current of his wrath was temporarily diverted by a surly "How!" Even this
measure of friendliness was regretted when the big revolver came out of the
rancher'sholsterlikeaflash,and,headlowontheneckofthemustang,heelsin
the little beast's ribs, the aborigine retreated with a yell, amid a shower of illaimedbullets.Longafterthefigureontheponyhadpassedoutofrange,Blair
stoodpullingatthetriggeroftheemptyrepeaterandcursinglouderthanbefore
becauseitwouldnot"pop."
Two hours later, when it was past noon, an uncertain hand lifted the wooden
latchoftheBigBRanch-housedoor,and,heraldedbyaninrushofcoldoutside
air,TomBlair,masteranddictator,enteredhisdomain.Thepassageoftime,the
physicalexercise,andtheprairieair,hadsomewhatclearedhisbrain.Justwithin
the room, he paused and looked about him with surprise. With premonition of
impending trouble, the mongrel bristled the yellow hair of his neck, and,
retreatingtothemouthofhiskennel,stoodguard;butotherwisethescenewasto
adetailasithadbeeninthemorning.Thewomanlaypassivewithinthebunk.
Thechildbyherside,holdingherhand,didnotturn.Theveryatmosphereofthe
place tingled with an ominous quiet,—a silence such as one who has lived
throughacycloneconnectsinstinctivelywithawhirlingoncomingblackfunnel.
The new-comer was first to make a move. Walking over to the centre of the
room,hestoppedandlookeduponhissubjects.
"Well, of all the infernally lazy people I ever saw!" he commented, "you beat
them, Jennie! Get up and cook something to eat; it's way after noon, and I'm
hungry."


Thewomansaidnothing,buttheboyslidtohisfeet,facingtheintruder.
"Mamma'ssickandcan'tgetup,"heexplainedasimpersonallyastoastranger.
"Besides,thereisn'tanythingtocook.Shesaidso."
Theman'sbrowcontractedintoafrown.
"Speak when you're spoken to, young upstart!" he snapped. "Out with you,
Jennie!Idon'twanttobemonkeyedwithto-day!"
Hehunguphiscoatandcap,andloosenedhisbeltahole;butnooneelseinthe
roommoved.
"Didn'tyouhearme?"heasked,lookingwarninglytowardthebunk.
"Yes,"shereplied.
Autocrat under his own roof, the man paused in surprise. Never before had a
commandherebeendisobeyed.Hecouldscarcelybelievehisownsenses.
"Youknowwhattodo,then,"hesaidsharply.
Forthefirsttimeatouchofcolorcameintothewoman'scheeks,andcatching
theman'seyesshelookedintothemunfalteringly.
"SincewhendidIbecomeyourslave,TomBlair?"sheaskedslowly.
The words were a challenge, the tone was that of some wild thing, wounded,
cornered,staringdeathintheface,butdefianttotheend."Sincewhendidyou
becomemyowner,bodyandsoul?"
Any sportsman, any being with a fragment of admiration for even animal
courage,wouldhaveheldaloofthen.Itremainedforthisman,bredamidhigh
civilization,whohadspentyearswithincollegehalls,tostriketheprostrate.As
inthefrontiersaloon,sonowhishandwentinvoluntarilytohisthroat,clutched
atthebindingcollaruntilthebuttonflew;then,asbefore,hisfacewentwhite.
"Sincewhen!"heblazed,"sincewhen!Iadmireyournervetoaskthatquestion
ofme!Sincesixyearsago,whenyoufirstbeganlivingwithme.Sincetheday
whenyouandtheboy,—andnotapreacherwithinahundredmiles—"Words,a
floodofwords,wereuponhislips;butsuddenlyhestopped.Despitethealcohol
stillinhisbrain,despitetheefforthemadetocontinue,thegazeofthewoman
compelledsilence.


"You dare recall that memory, Tom Blair?" The words came more slowly than
before, and with an intensity that burned them into the hearer's memory. "You
dare,knowingwhatIgaveupforyoursake!"Theeyesblazedafresh,thedark
headwasraisedonthepillows."Youknowthatmysonstandslistening,andyet
youdarethrowmycomingtoyouinmyface?"
Whitetothelipswentthescarredvisageoftheman,butthemadnesswasupon
him.
"I dare?" To his own ears the voice sounded unnatural. "I dare? To be sure I
dare!Youcametomeofyourownfree-will.Youwerenotachild!"Hisvoice
rose and the flush returned to his face. "You knew the price and accepted it
deliberately,—deliberately,Isay!"
Withoutasound,thefigureintheroughbunkquiveredandstiffened;thehand
upon the coverlet was clenched until the nails grew white, then it relaxed.
Slowly,veryslowly,theeyelidsclosedasthoughinsleep.
Impassivebutintentlistener,aninstinctnowsenttheboyBenjaminbacktohis
post.
"Mamma,"hesaidgently."Mamma!"
Therewasnoanswer,norevenaresponsivepressureofthehand.
"Mamma!"herepeatedmoreloudly."Mamma!Mamma!"
Stillnoanswer,onlythelimppassivity.Thensuddenly,althoughneverbeforein
his short life had the little lad looked upon death, he recognized it now. His
mamma, his playmate, his teacher, was like this; she would not speak to him,
wouldnotanswerhim;shewouldneverspeaktohimorsmileuponhimagain!
Like a thunderclap came the realization of this. Then another thought swiftly
followed.Thisman,—onewhohadsaidthingsthathurther,thatbroughtthered
spotstohercheeks,—thismanwastoblame.Notintheleastdidheunderstand
themeaningofwhathehadjustheard.Nohumanbeinghadsuggestedtohim
that Blair was the cause of his mother's death; but as surely as he would
remembertheirwordsaslongashelived,sosurelydidherecognizetheman's
guilt.Suddenly,aspowderrespondstothespark,theresurgedthroughhistiny
body a terrible animal hate for this man, and, scarcely realizing the action, he
rushedathim.
"She'sdeadandyoukilledher!"hescreamed."Mamma'sdead,dead!"andthe


littledoubledfistsstruckattheman'slegsagainandagain.
Oblivioustotheonslaught,TomBlairstrodeovertothebunk.
"Jennie,"hesaid,notunkindly,"Jennie,what'sthematter?"
Againtherewasnoresponse,andashadeofawecreptintotheman'svoice.
"Jennie!Jennie!Answerme!"Ahandfelluponthewoman'sshoulderandshook
it,firstgently,thenroughly."Answerme,Isay!"
Withthemotion,theheadofthedeadshifteduponthepillowandturnedtoward
theman,andinvoluntarilyheloosenedhisgrasp.Hehadnoteatenfortwentyfourhours,andinsuddenweaknesshemadehiswaytooneoftheroughchairs,
andsatdown,hisfaceburiedinhishands.
Behind him the boy Benjamin, his sudden hot passion over, stood watching
intently,—hisfacealmostuncannyinitslackofchildishness.
For a time there was absolute silence, the hush of a death-chamber; then of a
suddentheboywasconsciousthatthemanwaslookingathiminawayhehad
never looked before. Deep down below our consciousness, far beneath the
veneerofcivilization,thereisaninstinct,relicofthevigilantsavagedays,that
warnsusofpersonaldanger.Bythisinstincttheladnowinterpretedtheother's
gaze, and knew that it meant ill for him. For some reason which he could not
understand,thisman,thisbiganimal,washismortalenemy;and,inthemanner
ofsmalleranimals,hebegantoconsideranavenueofescape.
"Ben,"spoketheman,"comehere!"
TomBlairwassobernow,andworealookofdeterminationuponhisfacethat
fewhadeverseentherebefore;buttohissurprisetheboydidnotrespond.He
waitedamoment,andthensaidsharply:
"Ben,I'mspeakingtoyou.Comehereatonce!"
For answer there was a tightening of the lad's blue eyes and an added
watchfulnessintheincongruouslylongchildishfigure;butthatwasall.
Another lagging minute passed, wherein the two regarded each other steadily.
Theman'seyesdroppedfirst.
"You little devil!" he muttered, and the passion began showing in his voice. "I


believeyouknewwhatIwasthinkingallthetime!Anyway,you'llknownow.
YousaidawhileagothatIwastoblameforyourmotherbeing—assheis.You're
liable to say that again." A horror greater than sudden passion was in the
deliberateexplanationandintheslowwayherosetohisfeet."I'mgoingtofix
yousoyoucan'tsayitagain,youold-manimp!"
Then a peculiar thing happened. Instead of running away, the boy took a step
forward,andthemanpaused,scarcelybelievinghiseyes.Anotherstepforward,
andyetanother,camethediminutivefigure,untilalmostwithintheaggressor's
reach; then suddenly, quick as a cat, it veered, dropped upon all fours to the
floor,andheadfirst,scramblinglikearabbit,disappearedintotheopenmouthof
thedog-kennel.
Too late the man saw the trick, and curses came to his lips,—curses fit for a
fiend,fitfortheirresponsiblebeinghewas.Hehimselfhadbuiltthatkennel.It
extendedinacurveeightfeetintothesolidsodfoundation,andtogetatthespot
wheretheboynowlayhewouldhavetoteardownthehouseitself.Thetemper
whichhadmadethemanwhathenowwas,adrunkardandfugitiveinafrontier
country,tookpossessionofhimwholly,andwithitcameamadman'scunning;
for at a sudden thought he stopped, and the cursing tongue was silent. Five
minuteslaterhelefttheplace,closingthedoorcarefullybehindhim;butbefore
that time a red jet of flame, like the ravenous tongue of a famished beast, was
lapping at a hastily assembled pile of tinder-dry furniture in one corner of the
shanty.


CHAPTERIII
THEBOXRRANCH
Mr. Rankin moved back from a well-discussed table, and, the room being
convenientlysmall,tiltedhischairbackagainstthewall.Theprotestingcreakof
theill-gluedjointsunderthestrainofhisponderousfigurewasasignalforall
the diners, and five other men likewise drew away from around the board.
Rankin extracted a match and a stout jack-knife from the miscellaneous
collectionofusefularticlesinhiscapaciouspocket,carefullywhittledthebitof
wood to a point, and picked his teeth deliberately. The five "hands," sunbrowned,unshaven,dissimilarinfaceasindress,waitedinexpectation;butthe
housekeeper,ashapeless,stolid-lookingwoman,wifeoftheforeman,Graham,
went methodically about the work of clearing the table. Rankin watched her a
moment indifferently; then without turning his head, his eyes shifted in their
narrowslitsofsocketsuntiltheyrestedupononeofthecowboys.
"Whattimewasityousawthatsmoke,Grannis?"heasked.
Themanaddressedpausedintheoperationofrollingacigarette.
"'Boutanhourago,Ishouldsay.Iwasjustthinkingofcomingintodinner."
ThelidsmetoverRankin'seyes,thenthenarrowslitopened.
"Itwasintheno'thwestyousay,andseemedtobequiteawayoff?"
Grannisnodded.
"Yes; I couldn't make out any fire, only the smoke, and that didn't last long. I
thoughtatfirstmaybeitwasaprairiefire,andstartedtosee;butitwasgetting
thinnerbeforeI'dgoneamile,soIturnedroundandbythetimeIgotbacktothe
corraltherewasn'tnothingatalltosee."
Twooftheotherhandssolemnlyexchangedawink.
"ThinkyoumusthaveeatentoomanyofMaGraham'spancakesthismorning,
andhadablur over your eyes," commentedone,slyly."Prairiefiresdon't stop
thatsuddenwhenthegrassislikeitisnow."


The portly housewife paused in her work to cast a look of scorn upon the
speaker,butGrannisrushedintothebreach.
"Don't you believe it. There was a fire all right. Somebody stopped it, or it
stoppeditself,that'sall."
Tiltinghischairforwardwithaneffort,Rankingottohisfeet,and,asusual,his
action brought the discussion to an end. The woman returned to her work; the
menputonhatsandcoatspreparatorytogoingoutofdoors.Onlytheproprietor
stoodpassiveamomentabsentlydrawingdownhisvestoverhisportlyfigure.
"Graham,"hesaidatlast,"hitchthemustangstothelightwagon."
"Allright."
"And,Graham—"
Themanaddressedpaused.
"Throwinacoupleofextrablankets."
"Allright."
Outofdoorsthementookuptheconversationwheretheyhadleftoff.
"Youbetterbegintohopetheoldmanfindssomethingthat'sbeenafireupthere,
Grannis," said the joker of the house. "If he don't, you've cooked your goose
proper."
Granniswasanew-comer,andlookedhissurprise.
"Whyso?"heasked.
"You'llfindoutwhy,"retortedtheother."Firehere's'mostasuncommonasrain,
andthebossdon'tlikethemsmokyjokes."
"But I saw smoke, I tell you," reiterated Grannis, defensively; "smoke, dead
sure!"
"Allright,ifyou'recertainsure."
"Marcom knows what he's talking about, Grannis," said Graham. "He tried to
ginger things up a bit when he was new here, like you are; found a litter of
coyotesoneSeptember—thoughttheyweretimberwolves,Iguess,andbraced


upwithhisstorytotheoldman."Thespeakerpausedwithareflectivegrin.
"Well,whathappened?"askedGrannis.
"What happened? The boss sent me dusting about forty miles to get some
hounds.Nearlyspoiledagoodteamtogetbackinsidesixteenhours,and—they
foundoutBillhereinthenextthirtyminutes,thatwasall!"Oncemorethestory
endedinagrin.
"What'dRankinsay?"askedGrannis,withinterest.
"Howaboutit,Bill?"suggestedGraham.
Thebigcowboylookedatriflefoolish.
"Oh,hedidn'tsaymuch;'tain'thisway.Hejustremarked,sortofoff-hand,that
as far as I was concerned the next year had only about four pay-months in it.
Thatwasall."

Whateverisworthdoingatall,isworthdoingatonce.Thiswasthemottoofthe
masteroftheBoxRRanch.Intenminutes'timeRankin'sbigshapelessfigure,
seatedintheoldbuckboard,wasmovingnorthwestatthesteadyjog-trottypical
ofprairietravel,andwhichasthehourspassbyannihilatesdistancesurprisingly.
Simply a fat, an abnormally fat, man, the casual observer would have said. It
remained for those who came in actual contact with him to learn the force
beneath the forbidding exterior,—the relentless bull-dog energy that had made
him dictator of the great ranch, and kept subordinate the restless, roving,
dissolute men-of-fortune he employed,—the deliberate and impartial judgment
whichhadmadehiswordasnearlawasitwaspossibleforanymandatetobe
amongthemotleyinhabitantswithinaradiusoffiftymiles.HadRankinchosen
he could have attained honor, position, power in his native Eastern home. No
barrierbuiltofconventionorofconservatismcouldhavewithstoodhim.Society
reservesherprizeslargelyforthemanofinitiative;and,uncomelyblockashe
was,Rankinwasofthetruetype.Butforsomereason,areasonknowntonone
of his associates, he had chosen to come to the West. Some consideration or
otherhadcausedhimtostopathispresentabode,andhadmadehimapparently
afixtureinthemidstofthisunconqueredcountry.


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