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A Party Call








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

The mistress of the Lazy D, just through with her morning visit to the
hospital in the bunkhouse, stopped to read the gaudy poster tacked to
the wall. It was embellished with the drawing of a placid rider astride
the embodiment of fury incarnate, under which was the legend: "Stick to
Your Saddle."

BIG FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION AT GIMLET BUTTE. ROPING AND BRONCO
BUSTING CONTESTS FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD AND BIG PRIZES,
Including $1,000 for the Best Rider and the Same for Best Roper. Cow
Pony Races, Ladies' Races and Ladies' Riding Contest, Fireworks, AND
FREE BARBECUE!!!! EVERYBODY COME AND TURN YOUR WOLF LOOSE.

A sudden thud of pounding hoofs, a snatch of ragtime, and her foreman
swept up in a cloud of white dust. His pony came from a gallop to an
instant halt, and simultaneously Mac landed beside her, one hand holding
the wide-brimmed hat he had snatched off in his descent, the other
hitched by a casual thumb to the belt of his chaps.

She laughed. "You really did it very well."

Mac blushed. He was still young enough to take pride in his picturesque
regalia, to prefer the dramatic way of doing a commonplace thing. But,
though he liked this girl's trick of laughing at him with a perfectly
grave face out of those dark, long-lashed eyes, he would have liked
it better if sometimes they had given back the applause he thought his
little tricks merited.

"Sho! That's foolishness," he deprecated.

"I suppose they got you to sit for this picture;" and she indicated the
poster with a wave of her hand.

"That ain't a real picture," he explained, and when she smiled added,
"as of course y'u know. No hawss ever pitched that way--and the saddle
ain't right. Fact is, it's all wrong."

"How did it come here? It wasn't here last night."

"I reckon Denver brought it from Slauson's. He was ridin' that country
yesterday, and as the boys was out of smokin' he come home that way."

"I suppose you'll all go?"

"I reckon."

"And you'll ride?"

"I aim to sit in."

"At the roping, too?"

"No, m'm. I ain't so much with the rope. It takes a Mexican to snake a
rope."

"Then I'll be able to borrow only a thousand dollars from you to help
buy that bunch of young cows we were speaking about," she mocked.

"Only a thousand," he grinned. "And it ain't a cinch I'll win. There are
three or four straightup riders on this range. A fellow come from the
Hole-in-the-Wall and won out last year."

"And where were you?"

"Oh, I took second prize," he explained, with obvious indifference.

"Well, you had better get first this year. We'll have to show them the
Lazy D hasn't gone to sleep."

"Sure thing," he agreed.

"Has that buyer from Cheyenne turned up yet?" she asked, reverting to
business.

"Not yet. Do y'u want I should make the cut soon as he comes?"

"Don't you think his price is a little low--twenty dollars from brand
up?"

"It's a scrub bunch. We want to get rid of them, anyway. But you're the
doctor," he concluded slangily.

She thought a moment. "We'll let him have them, but don't make the cut
till I come back. I'm going to ride over to the Twin Buttes."

His admiring eyes followed her as she went toward the pony that was
waiting saddled with the rein thrown to the ground. She carried her
slim, lithe figure with a grace, a lightness, that few women could have
rivaled. When she had swung to the saddle, she half-turned in her seat
to call an order to the foreman.

"I think, Mac, you had better run up those horses from Eagle Creek. Have
Denver and Missou look after them."

"Sure, ma'am," he said aloud; and to himself: "She's ce'tainly a
thoroughbred. Does everything well she tackles. I never saw anything
like it. I'm a Chink if she doesn't run this ranch like she had been
at it forty years. Same thing with her gasoline bronc. That pinto, too.
He's got a bad eye for fair, but she makes him eat out of her hand. I
reckon the pinto is like the rest of us--clean mashed." He put his arms
on the corral fence and grew introspective. "Blamed if I know what it is
about her. 'Course she's a winner on looks, but that ain't it alone. I
guess it's on account of her being such a game little gentleman. When
she turns that smile loose on a fellow--well, there's sure sunshine in
the air. And game--why, Ned Bannister ain't gamer himself."

McWilliams had climbed lazily to the top board of the fence. He was an
energetic youth, but he liked to do his thinking at his ease. Now, as
his gaze still followed its lodestar, he suddenly slipped from his seat
and ran forward, pulling the revolver from its scabbard as he ran. Into
his eyes had crept a tense alertness, the shining watchfulness of the
tiger ready for its spring.

The cause of the change in the foreman of the Lazy D was a simple one,
and on its face innocent enough. It was merely that a stranger had swung
in casually at the gate of the short stable lane, and was due to
meet Miss Messiter in about ten seconds. So far good enough. A dozen
travelers dropped in every day, but this particular one happened to be
Ned Bannister.

From the stable door a shot rang out. Bannister ducked and shouted
genially: "Try again."

But Helen Messiter whirled her pony as on a half-dollar, and charged
down on the stable.

"Who fired that shot?" she demanded, her eyes blazing.

The horse-wrangler showed embarrassment. He had found time only to lean
the rifle against the wall.

"I reckon I did, ma'am. Y'u see--"

"Did you get my orders about this feud?" she interrupted crisply.

"Yes, ma'am, but--"

"Then you may call for your time. When I give my men orders I expect
them to obey."

"I wouldn't 'a' shot if I'd knowed y'u was so near him. Y'u was behind
that summer kitchen," he explained lamely.

"You only expect to obey orders when I'm in sight. Is that it?" she
asked hotly, and without waiting for an answer delivered her ultimatum.
"Well, I won't have it. I run this ranch as long as I am its owner. Do
you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am. I hadn't ought to have did it, but when I seen Bannister it
come over me I owed him a pill for the one he sent me last week down in
the coulee. So I up and grabbed the rifle and let him have it."

"Then you may up and grab your trunk for Medicine Hill. Shorty will
drive you tomorrow."

When she returned to her unexpected guest, Helen found him in
conversation with McWilliams. The latter's gun had found again its
holster, but his brown, graceful hand hovered close to its butt.

"Seems like a long time since the Lazy D has been honored by a visit
from Mr. Bannister," he was saying, with gentle irony.

"That's right. So I have come to make up for lost time," came
Bannister's quiet retort.

Miss Messiter did not know much about Wyoming human nature in the raw,
but she had learned enough to be sure that the soft courtesy of these
two youths covered a stark courage that might leap to life any moment.
Wherefore she interposed.

"We'll be pleased to show you over the place, Mr. Bannister. As it
happens, we are close to the hospital. Shall we begin there?"

Her cool, silken defiance earned a smile from the visitor. "All your
cases doing well, ma'am?"

"It's very kind of you to ask. I suppose you take an interest because
they are YOUR cases, too, in a way of speaking?"

"Mine? Indeed!"

"Yes. If it were not for you I'm afraid our hospital would be empty."

"It must be right pleasant to be nursed by Miss Messiter. I reckon the
boys are grateful to me for scattering my lead so promiscuous."

"I heard one say he would like to lam your haid tenderly," murmured
McWilliams.

"With a two-by-four, I suppose," laughed Bannister.

"Shouldn't wonder. But, looking y'u over casual, it occurs to me
he might get sick of his job befo' he turned y'u loose," McWilliams
admitted, with a glance of admiration at the clean power showing in the
other's supple lines.

Nor could either the foreman or his mistress deny the tribute of their
respect to the bravado of this scamp who sat so jauntily his seat
regardless of what the next moment might bring forth. Three wounded men
were about the place, all presumably quite willing to get a clean
shot at him in the open. One of them had taken his chance already, and
missed. Their visitor had no warrant for knowing that a second might not
any instant try his luck with better success. Yet he looked every inch
the man on horseback, no whit disturbed, not the least conscious of
any danger. Tall, spare, broad shouldered, this berry-brown young man,
crowned with close-cropped curls, sat at the gates of the enemy very
much at his insolent case.

"I came over to pay my party call," he explained.

"It really wasn't necessary. A run in the machine is not a formal
function."

"Maybe not in Kalamazoo."

"I thought perhaps you had come to get my purse and the sixty-three
dollars," she derided.

"No, ma'am; nor yet to get that bunch of cows I was going to rustle from
you to buy an auto. I came to ask you to go riding with me."

The audacity of it took her breath. Of all the outrageous things she had
ever heard, this was the cream. An acknowledged outlaw, engaged in feud
with her retainers over that deadly question of the run of the range,
he had sauntered over to the ranch where lived a dozen of his enemies,
three of them still scarred with his bullets, merely to ask her to go
riding with him. The magnificence of his bravado almost obliterated its
impudence. Of course she would not think of going. The idea! But her
eyes glowed with appreciation of his courage, not the less because the
consciousness of it was so conspicuously absent from his manner.

"I think not, Mr. Bannister" and her face almost imperceptibly
stiffened. "I don't go riding with strangers, nor with men who shoot
my boys. And I'll give you a piece of advice, sir. That is, to burn
the wind back to your home. Otherwise I won't answer for your life. My
punchers don't love you, and I don't know how long I can keep them from
you. You're not wanted here any more than you were at the dance the
other evening."

McWilliams nodded. "That's right. Y'u better roll your trail, seh; and
if y'u take my advice, you'll throw gravel lively. I seen two of the
boys cutting acrost that pasture five minutes ago. They looked as if
they might be haided to cut y'u off, and I allow it may be their night
to howl. Miss Messiter don't want to be responsible for y'u getting lead
poisoning."

"Indeed!" Their visitor looked politely interested. "This solicitude for
me is very touching. I observe that both of you are carefully blocking
me from the bunkhouse in order to prevent another practice-shot. If I
can't persuade you to join me in a ride, Miss Messiter, I reckon I'll
go while I'm still unpunctured." He bowed, and gathered the reins for
departure.

"One moment! Mr. McWilliams and I are going with you," the girl
announced.

"Changed your mind? Think you'll take a little pasear, after all?"

"I don't want to be responsible for your killing. We'll see you safe off
the place," she answered curtly.

The foreman fell in on one side of Bannister, his mistress on the other.
They rode in close formation, to lessen the chance of an ambuscade.
Bannister alone chatted at his debonair ease, ignoring the
responsibility they felt for his safety.

"I got my ride, after all," he presently chuckled. "To be sure, I wasn't
expecting Mr. McWilliams to chaperon us. But that's an added pleasure."

"Would it be an added pleasure to get bumped off to kingdom come?"
drawled the foreman, giving a reluctant admiration to his aplomb.

"Thinking of those willing boys of yours again, are you?" laughed
Bannister. "They're ce'tainly a heap prevalent with their hardware, but
their hunting don't seem to bring home any meat."

"By the way, how IS your ankle, Mr. Bannister? I forgot to ask." This
shot from the young woman.

He enjoyed it with internal mirth. "They did happen on the target that
time," he admitted. "Oh, it's getting along fine, but I aim to do most
of my walking on horseback for a while."

They swept past the first dangerous grove of cottonwoods in safety, and
rounded the boundary fence corner.

"They're in that bunch of pines over there," said the foreman, after a
single sweep of his eyes in that direction.

"Yes, I see they are. You oughtn't to let your boys wear red bandannas
when they go gunning, Miss Messiter. It's an awful careless habit."

Helen herself could see no sign of life in the group of pines, but she
knew their keen, trained eyes had found what hers could not. Riding with
one or another of her cowboys, she had often noticed how infallibly they
could read the country for miles around. A scattered patch on a distant
hillside, though it might be a half-hour's ride from them, told them a
great deal more than seemed possible. To her the dark spots sifted on
that slope meant scrub underbrush, if there was any meaning at all in
them. But her riders could tell not only whether they were alive, but
could differentiate between sheep and cattle. Indeed, McWilliams could
nearly always tell whether they were HER cattle or not. He was unable to
explain to her how he did it. By a sort of instinct, she supposed.

The pines were negotiated in safety, and on the part of the men with a
carelessness she could not understand. For after they had passed
there was a spot between her shoulder-blades that seemed to tingle in
expectation of a possible bullet boring its way through. But she would
have died rather than let them know how she felt.

Perhaps Bannister understood, however, for he remarked casually: "I
wouldn't be ambling past so leisurely if I was riding alone. It makes
a heap of difference who your company is, too. Those punchers wouldn't
take a chance at me now for a million dollars."

"No, they're some haidstrong, but they ain't plumb locoed," agreed Mac.

Fifteen minutes later Helen drew up at the line corner. "We'll part
company here, Mr. Bannister. I don't think there is any more danger from
my men."

"Before we part there is something I want to say. I hold that a man has
as much right to run sheep on these hills as cows. It's government land,
and neither one of us owns it. It's bound to be a case of the survival
of the fittest. If sheep are hardier and more adapted to the country,
then cows have got to vamos. That's nature, as it looks to me. The
buffalo and the antelope have gone, and I guess cows have got to take
their turn."

Her scornful eyes burned him. "You came to tell me that, did you? Well,
I don't believe a word of it. I'll not yield my rights without a fight.
You may depend on that."

"Here, too," nodded her foreman. "I'm with my boss clear down the line.
And as soon as she lets me turn loose my six-gun, you'll hear it pop,
seh."

"I have not a doubt of it, Mr. McWilliams," returned the sheepman
blithely. "In the meantime I was going to say that though most of my
interests are in sheep instead of cattle--"

"I thought most of your interests were in other people's property,"
interrupted the young woman.

"It goes into sheep ultimately," he smiled. "Now, what I am trying to
get at is this: I'm in debt to you a heap, Miss Messiter, and since I'm
not all yellow cur, I intend to play fair with you. I have ordered my
sheep back across the deadline. You can have this range to yourself for
your cattle. The fight's off so far as we personally are concerned."

A hint of deeper color touched her cheeks. Her manner had been cavalier
at best; for the most part frankly hostile; and all the time the man was
on an errand of good-will. Certainly he had scored at her expense, and
she was ashamed of herself.

"Y'u mean that you're going to respect the deadline? asked Mac in
surprise.

"I didn't say quite that," explained the sheepman. "What I said was
that I meant to keep on my side of it so far as the Lazy D cattle are
concerned. I'll let your range alone."

"But y'u mean to cross it down below where the Bar Double-E cows run?"

Bannister's gay smile touched the sardonic face. "Do you invite the
public to examine your hand when you sit into a game of poker, Mr.
McWilliams?"

"You're dead right. It's none of my business what y'u do so long as
y'u keep off our range," admitted the foreman. "And next time the
conversation happens on Mr. Bannister, I'll put in my little say-so that
he ain't all black."

"That's very good of you, sir," was the other's ironical retort.

The girl's gauntleted hand offered itself impulsively. "We can't be
friends under existing circumstances, Mr. Bannister. But that does not
alter the fact that I owe you an apology. You came as a peace envoy, and
one of my men shot at you. Of course, he did not understand the reason
why you came, but that does not matter. I did not know your reason
myself, and I know I have been very inhospitable."

"Are you shaking hands with Ned Bannister the sheepman or Ned Bannister
the outlaw?" asked the owner of that name, with a queer little smile
that seemed to mock himself.

"With Ned Bannister the gentleman. If there is another side to him I
don't know it personally."

He flushed underneath the tan, but very plainly with pleasure. "Your
opinions are right contrary to Hoyle, ma'am. Aren't you aware that a
sheepman is the lowest thing that walks? Ask Mr. McWilliams."

"I have known stockmen of that opinion, but--"

The foreman's sentence was never finished. From a clump of bushes
a hundred yards away came the crack of a rifle. A bullet sang past,
cutting a line that left on one side of it Bannister, on the other Miss
Messiter and her foreman. Instantly the two men slid from their horses
on the farther side, dragged down the young woman behind the cover
of the broncos, and arranged the three ponies so as to give her the
greatest protection available. Somehow the weapons that garnished them
had leaped to their hands before their feet touched the ground.

"That coyote isn't one of our men. I'll back that opinion high," said
McWilliams promptly.

"Who is he?" the girl whispered.

"That's what we're going to find out pretty soon," returned Bannister
grimly. "Chances are it's me he is trying to gather. Now, I'm going to
make a break for that cottonwood. When I go, you better run up a white
handkerchief and move back from the firing-line. Turn Buck loose when
you leave. He'll stay around and come when I whistle."

He made a run for it, zigzagging through the sage-brush so swiftly as to
offer the least certain mark possible for a sharpshooter. Yet twice the
rifle spoke before he reached the cottonwood.

Meanwhile Mac had fastened the handkerchief of his mistress on the end
of a switch he had picked up and was edging out of range. His tense,
narrowed gaze never left the bush-clump from which the shots were being
pumped, and he was careful during their retreat to remain on the danger
side of the road, in order to cover Helen.

"I guess Bannister's right. He don't want us, whoever he is."

And even as he murmured it, the wind of a bullet lifted his hat from
his head. He picked it up and examined it. The course of the bullet was
marked by a hole in the wide brim, and two more in the side and crown.

"He ce'tainly ventilated it proper. I reckon, ma'am, we'll make a run
for it. Lie low on the pinto's neck, with your haid on the off side.
That's right. Let him out."

A mile and a half farther up the road Mac reined in, and made the
Indian peace-sign. Two dejected figures came over the hill and resolved
themselves into punchers of the Lazy D. Each of them trailed a rifle by
his side.

"You're a fine pair of ring-tailed snorters, ain't y'u?" jeered the
foreman. "Got to get gay and go projectin' round on the shoot after y'u
got your orders to stay hitched. Anything to say for yo'selves?"

If they had it was said very silently.

"Now, Miss Messiter is going to pass it up this time, but from now on
y'u don't go off on any private massacrees while y'u punch at the Lazy
D. Git that? This hyer is the last call for supper in the dining-cah. If
y'u miss it, y'u'll feed at some other chuckhouse." Suddenly the drawl
of his sarcasm vanished. His voice carried the ring of peremptory
command. "Jim, y'u go back to the ranch with Miss Messiter, AND KEEP
YOUR EYES OPEN. Missou, I need y'u. We're going back. I reckon y'u
better hang on to the stirrup, for we got to travel some. Adios,
senorita!"

He was off at a slow lope on the road he had just come, the other man
running beside the horse. Presently he stopped, as if the arrangement
were not satisfactory; and the second man swung behind him on the pony.
Later, when she turned in her saddle, she saw that they had left the
road and were cutting across the plain, as if to take the sharpshooter
in the rear.

Her troubled thoughts stayed with her even after she had reached the
ranch. She was nervously excited, keyed up to a high pitch; for she knew
that out on the desert, within a mile or two of her, men were stalking
each other with life or death in the balance as the price of vigilance,
skill and an unflawed steel nerve. While she herself had been in danger,
she had been mistress of her fear. But now she could do nothing but
wait, after ordering out such reinforcements as she could recruit
without delay; and the inaction told upon her swift, impulsive
temperament. Once, twice, the wind brought to her a faint sound.

She had been pacing the porch, but she stopped, white as a sheet. Behind
those faint explosions might lie a sinister tragedy. Her mind projected
itself into a score of imaginary possibilities. She listened, breathless
in her tensity, but no further echo of that battlefield reached her. The
sun still shone warmly on brown Wyoming. She looked down into a rolling
plain that blurred in the distance from knobs and flat spaces into a
single stretch that included a thousand rises and depressions. That roll
of country teemed with life, but the steady, inexorable sun beat down
on what seemed a shining, primeval waste of space. Yet somewhere in
that space the tragedy was being determined--unless it had been already
enacted.

She wanted to scream. The very stillness mocked her. So, too, did the
clicking windmill, with its monotonous regularity. Her pony still stood
saddled in the yard. She knew that her place was at home, and she fought
down a dozen times the tremendous impulse to mount and fly to the field
of combat.

She looked at her watch. How slowly the minutes dragged! It could not
be only five minutes since she had looked last time. Again she fell to
pacing the long west porch, and interrupted herself a dozen times to
stop and listen.

"I can bear it no longer," she told herself at last, and in another
moment was in the saddle plying her pinto with the quirt.

But before she reached the first cottonwoods she saw them coming. Her
glasses swept the distant group, and with a shiver she made out the
dreadful truth. They were coming slowly, carrying something between
them. The girl did not need to be told that the object they were
bringing home was their dead or wounded.

A figure on horseback detached itself from the huddle of men and
galloped towards her. He was coming to break the news. But who was the
victim? Bannister or McWilliams she felt sure, by reason of the sinking
heart in her; and then it came home that she would be hard hit if it
were either.

The approaching rider began to take distinct form through her glasses.
As he pounded forward she recognized him. It was the man nicknamed
Denver. The wind was blowing strongly from her to him, and while he was
still a hundred yards away she hurled her question.

His answer was lost in the wind sweep, but one word of it she caught.
That word was "Mac."





Next: The Man From The Shoshone Fastnesses

Previous: The Dance At Fraser's



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