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A Secret Kept








From: The Light Of Western Stars

Because of that singular reply Madeline found faith to go farther with
the cowboy. But at the moment she really did not think about what he
had said. Any answer to her would have served if it had been kind. His
silence had augmented her nervousness, compelling her to voice her fear.
Still, even if he had not replied at all she would have gone on with
him. She shuddered at the idea of returning to the station, where she
believed there had been murder; she could hardly have forced herself to
go back to those dim lights in the street; she did not want to wander
around alone in the dark.

And as she walked on into the windy darkness, much relieved that he had
answered as he had, reflecting that he had yet to prove his words true,
she began to grasp the deeper significance of them. There was a revival
of pride that made her feel that she ought to scorn to think at all
about such a man. But Madeline Hammond discovered that thought was
involuntary, that there were feelings in her never dreamed of before
this night.

Presently Madeline's guide turned off the walk and rapped at a door of a
low-roofed house.

"Hullo--who's there?" a deep voice answered.

"Gene Stewart," said the cowboy. "Call Florence--quick!"


Thump of footsteps followed, a tap on a door, and voices. Madeline heard
a woman exclaim: "Gene! here when there's a dance in town! Something
wrong out on the range." A light flared up and shone bright through a
window. In another moment there came a patter of soft steps, and the
door opened to disclose a woman holding a lamp.

"Gene! Al's not--"

"Al is all right," interrupted the cowboy.

Madeline had two sensations then--one of wonder at the note of alarm
and love in the woman's voice, and the other of unutterable relief to be
safe with a friend of her brother's.

"It's Al's sister--came on to-night's train," the cowboy was saying. "I
happened to be at the station, and I've fetched her up to you."

Madeline came forward out of the shadow.

"Not--not really Majesty Hammond!" exclaimed Florence Kingsley. She
nearly dropped the lamp, and she looked and looked, astounded beyond
belief.

"Yes, I am really she," replied Madeline. "My train was late, and for
some reason Alfred did not meet me. Mr.--Mr. Stewart saw fit to bring me
to you instead of taking me to a hotel."

"Oh, I'm so glad to meet you," replied Florence, warmly. "Do come in.
I'm so surprised, I forget my manners. Why, Al never mentioned your
coming."

"He surely could not have received my messages," said Madeline, as she
entered.

The cowboy, who came in with her satchel, had to stoop to enter the
door, and, once in, he seemed to fill the room. Florence set the lamp
down upon the table. Madeline saw a young woman with a smiling, friendly
face, and a profusion of fair hair hanging down over her dressing-gown.

"Oh, but Al will be glad!" cried Florence. "Why, you are white as a
sheet. You must be tired. What a long wait you had at the station! I
heard the train come in hours ago as I was going to bed. That station
is lonely at night. If I had known you were coming! Indeed, you are very
pale. Are you ill?"

"No. Only I am very tired. Traveling so far by rail is harder than I
imagined. I did have rather a long wait after arriving at the station,
but I can't say that it was lonely."

Florence Kingsley searched Madeline's face with keen eyes, and then
took a long, significant look at the silent Stewart. With that she
deliberately and quietly closed a door leading into another room.

"Miss Hammond, what has happened?" She had lowered her voice.

"I do not wish to recall all that has happened," replied Madeline.
"I shall tell Alfred, however, that I would rather have met a hostile
Apache than a cowboy."

"Please don't tell Al that!" cried Florence. Then she grasped Stewart
and pulled him close to the light. "Gene, you're drunk!"

"I was pretty drunk," he replied, hanging his head.

"Oh, what have you done?"

"Now, see here, Flo, I only--"

"I don't want to know. I'd tell it. Gene, aren't you ever going to learn
decency? Aren't you ever going to stop drinking? You'll lose all your
friends. Stillwell has stuck to you. Al's been your best friend. Molly
and I have pleaded with you, and now you've gone and done--God knows
what!"

"What do women want to wear veils for?" he growled. "I'd have known her
but for that veil."

"And you wouldn't have insulted her. But you would the next girl who
came along. Gene, you are hopeless. Now, you get out of here and don't
ever come back."

"Flo!" he entreated.

"I mean it."

"I reckon then I'll come back to-morrow and take my medicine," he
replied.

"Don't you dare!" she cried.

Stewart went out and closed the door.

"Miss Hammond, you--you don't know how this hurts me," said Florence.
"What you must think of us! It's so unlucky that you should have had
this happen right at first. Now, maybe you won't have the heart to
stay. Oh, I've known more than one Eastern girl to go home without ever
learning what we really are cut here. Miss Hammond, Gene Stewart is a
fiend when he's drunk. All the same I know, whatever he did, he meant no
shame to you. Come now, don't think about it again to-night." She took
up the lamp and led Madeline into a little room. "This is out West,"
she went on, smiling, as she indicated the few furnishings; "but you can
rest. You're perfectly safe. Won't you let me help you undress--can't I
do anything for you?"

"You are very kind, thank you, but I can manage," replied Madeline.

"Well, then, good night. The sooner I go the sooner you'll rest. Just
forget what happened and think how fine a surprise you're to give your
brother to-morrow."

With that she slipped out and softly shut the door.

As Madeline laid her watch on the bureau she noticed that the time was
past two o'clock. It seemed long since she had gotten off the train.
When she had turned out the lamp and crept wearily into bed she knew
what it was to be utterly spent. She was too tired to move a finger. But
her brain whirled.

She had at first no control over it, and a thousand thronging sensations
came and went and recurred with little logical relation. There were
the roar of the train; the feeling of being lost; the sound of pounding
hoofs; a picture of her brother's face as she had last seen it five
years before; a long, dim line of lights; the jingle of silver spurs;
night, wind, darkness, stars. Then the gloomy station, the shadowy
blanketed Mexican, the empty room, the dim lights across the square, the
tramp of the dancers and vacant laughs and discordant music, the door
flung wide and the entrance of the cowboy. She did not recall how he
had looked or what he had done. And the next instant she saw him cool,
smiling, devilish--saw him in violence; the next his bigness, his
apparel, his physical being were vague as outlines in a dream. The white
face of the padre flashed along in the train of thought, and it brought
the same dull, half-blind, indefinable state of mind subsequent to that
last nerve-breaking pistol-shot. That passed, and then clear and vivid
rose memories of the rest that had happened--strange voices betraying
fury of men, a deadened report, a moan of mortal pain, a woman's
poignant cry. And Madeline saw the girl's great tragic eyes and the
wild flight of the big horse into the blackness, and the dark, stalking
figure of the silent cowboy, and the white stars that seemed to look
down remorselessly.

This tide of memory rolled over Madeline again and again, and gradually
lost its power and faded. All distress left her, and she felt herself
drifting. How black the room was--as black with her eyes open as it was
when they were shut! And the silence--it was like a cloak. There was
absolutely no sound. She was in another world from that which she knew.
She thought of this fair-haired Florence and of Alfred; and, wondering
about them, she dropped to sleep.

When she awakened the room was bright with sunlight. A cool wind blowing
across the bed caused her to put her hands under the blanket. She was
lazily and dreamily contemplating the mud walls of this little room when
she remembered where she was and how she had come there.

How great a shock she had been subjected to was manifest in a sensation
of disgust that overwhelmed her. She even shut her eyes to try and blot
out the recollection. She felt that she had been contaminated.

Presently Madeline Hammond again awoke to the fact she had learned the
preceding night--that there were emotions to which she had heretofore
been a stranger. She did not try to analyze them, but she exercised her
self-control to such good purpose that by the time she had dressed she
was outwardly her usual self. She scarcely remembered when she had found
it necessary to control her emotions. There had been no trouble, no
excitement, no unpleasantness in her life. It had been ordered for
her--tranquil, luxurious, brilliant, varied, yet always the same.

She was not surprised to find the hour late, and was going to make
inquiry about her brother when a voice arrested her. She recognized Miss
Kingsley's voice addressing some one outside, and it had a sharpness she
had not noted before.

"So you came back, did you? Well, you don't look very proud of yourself
this mawnin'. Gene Stewart, you look like a coyote."

"Say, Flo if I am a coyote I'm not going to sneak," he said.

"What 'd you come for?" she demanded.

"I said I was coming round to take my medicine."

"Meaning you'll not run from Al Hammond? Gene, your skull is as thick
as an old cow's. Al will never know anything about what you did to his
sister unless you tell him. And if you do that he'll shoot you. She
won't give you away. She's a thoroughbred. Why, she was so white last
night I thought she'd drop at my feet, but she never blinked an eyelash.
I'm a woman, Gene Stewart and if I couldn't feel like Miss Hammond I
know how awful an ordeal she must have had. Why, she's one of the most
beautiful, the most sought after, the most exclusive women in New York
City. There's a crowd of millionaires and lords and dukes after her.
How terrible it'd be for a woman like her to be kissed by a drunken
cowpuncher! I say it--"

"Flo, I never insulted her that way," broke out Stewart.

"It was worse, then?" she queried, sharply.

"I made a bet that I'd marry the first girl who came to town. I was on
the watch and pretty drunk. When she came--well, I got Padre Marcos and
tried to bully her into marrying me."

"Oh, Lord!" Florence gasped. "It's worse than I feared.... Gene, Al will
kill you."

"That'll be a good thing," replied the cowboy, dejectedly.

"Gene Stewart, it certainly would, unless you turn over a new leaf,"
retorted Florence. "But don't be a fool." And here she became
earnest and appealing. "Go away, Gene. Go join the rebels across the
border--you're always threatening that. Anyhow, don't stay here and run
any chance of stirring Al up. He'd kill you just the same as you would
kill another man for insulting your sister. Don't make trouble for Al.
That'd only make sorrow for her, Gene."

The subtle import was not lost upon Madeline. She was distressed because
she could not avoid hearing what was not meant for her ears. She made an
effort not to listen, and it was futile.

"Flo, you can't see this a man's way," he replied, quietly. "I'll stay
and take my medicine."

"Gene, I could sure swear at you or any other pig-head of a cowboy.
Listen. My brother-in-law, Jack, heard something of what I said to you
last night. He doesn't like you. I'm afraid he'll tell Al. For Heaven's
sake, man, go down-town and shut him up and yourself, too."

Then Madeline heard her come into the house and presently rap on the
door and call softly:

"Miss Hammond. Are you awake?"

"Awake and dressed, Miss Kingsley. Come in."

"Oh! You've rested. You look so--so different. I'm sure glad. Come out
now. We'll have breakfast, and then you may expect to meet your brother
any moment."

"Wait, please. I heard you speaking to Mr. Stewart. It was unavoidable.
But I am glad. I must see him. Will you please ask him to come into the
parlor a moment?"

"Yes," replied Florence, quickly; and as she turned at the door she
flashed at Madeline a woman's meaning glance. "Make him keep his mouth
shut!"

Presently there were slow, reluctant steps outside the front door, then
a pause, and the door opened. Stewart stood bareheaded in the
sunlight. Madeline remembered with a kind of shudder the tall form, the
embroidered buckskin vest, the red scarf, the bright leather wristbands,
the wide silver-buckled belt and chaps. Her glance seemed to run
over him swift as lightning. But as she saw his face now she did not
recognize it. The man's presence roused in her a revolt. Yet something
in her, the incomprehensible side of her nature, thrilled in the look of
this splendid dark-faced barbarian.

"Mr. Stewart, will you please come in?" she asked, after that long
pause.

"I reckon not," he said. The hopelessness of his tone meant that he knew
he was not fit to enter a room with her, and did not care or cared too
much.

Madeline went to the door. The man's face was hard, yet it was sad, too.
And it touched her.

"I shall not tell my brother of your--your rudeness to me," she began.
It was impossible for her to keep the chill out of her voice, to speak
with other than the pride and aloofness of her class. Nevertheless,
despite her loathing, when she had spoken so far it seemed that kindness
and pity followed involuntarily. "I choose to overlook what you did
because you were not wholly accountable, and because there must be no
trouble between Alfred and you. May I rely on you to keep silence and
to seal the lips of that priest? And you know there was a man killed or
injured there last night. I want to forget that dreadful thing. I don't
want it known that I heard--"

"The Greaser didn't die," interrupted Stewart.

"Ah! then that's not so bad, after all. I am glad for the sake of your
friend--the little Mexican girl."

A slow scarlet wave overspread his face, and his shame was painful to
see. That fixed in Madeline's mind a conviction that if he was a heathen
he was not wholly bad. And it made so much difference that she smiled
down at him.

"You will spare me further distress, will you not, please?" His hoarse
reply was incoherent, but she needed only to see his working face to
know his remorse and gratitude.

Madeline went back to her room; and presently Florence came for her, and
directly they were sitting at breakfast. Madeline Hammond's impression
of her brother's friend had to be reconstructed in the morning light.
She felt a wholesome, frank, sweet nature. She liked the slow Southern
drawl. And she was puzzled to know whether Florence Kingsley was pretty
or striking or unusual. She had a youthful glow and flush, the clear
tan of outdoors, a face that lacked the soft curves and lines of Eastern
women, and her eyes were light gray, like crystal, steady, almost
piercing, and her hair was a beautiful bright, waving mass.

Florence's sister was the elder of the two, a stout woman with a strong
face and quiet eyes. It was a simple fare and service they gave to their
guest; but they made no apologies for that. Indeed, Madeline felt
their simplicity to be restful. She was sated with respect, sick of
admiration, tired of adulation; and it was good to see that these
Western women treated her as very likely they would have treated any
other visitor. They were sweet, kind; and what Madeline had at first
thought was a lack of expression or vitality she soon discovered to
be the natural reserve of women who did not live superficial lives.
Florence was breezy and frank, her sister quaint and not given much to
speech. Madeline thought she would like to have these women near her
if she were ill or in trouble. And she reproached herself for a
fastidiousness, a hypercritical sense of refinement that could not help
distinguishing what these women lacked.

"Can you ride?" Florence was asking. "That's what a Westerner always
asks any one from the East. Can you ride like a man--astride, I mean?
Oh, that's fine. You look strong enough to hold a horse. We have some
fine horses out here. I reckon when Al comes we'll go out to Bill
Stillwell's ranch. We'll have to go, whether we want to or not, for when
Bill learns you are here he'll just pack us all off. You'll love old
Bill. His ranch is run down, but the range and the rides up in the
mountains--they are beautiful. We'll hunt and climb, and most of all
we'll ride. I love a horse--I love the wind in my face, and a wide
stretch with the mountains beckoning. You must have the best horse
on the ranges. And that means a scrap between Al and Bill and all
the cowboys. We don't all agree about horses, except in case of Gene
Stewart's iron-gray."

"Does Mr. Stewart own the best horse in the country?" asked Madeline.
Again she had an inexplicable thrill as she remembered the wild flight
of Stewart's big dark steed and rider.

"Yes, and that's all he does own," replied Florence. "Gene can't keep
even a quirt. But he sure loves that horse and calls him--"

At this juncture a sharp knock on the parlor door interrupted the
conversation. Florence's sister went to open it. She returned presently
and said:

"It's Gene. He's been dawdlin' out there on the front porch, and he
knocked to let us know Miss Hammond's brother is comin'."

Florence hurried into the parlor, followed by Madeline. The door stood
open, and disclosed Stewart sitting on the porch steps. From down
the road came a clatter of hoofs. Madeline looked out over Florence's
shoulder and saw a cloud of dust approaching, and in it she
distinguished outlines of horses and riders. A warmth spread over her, a
little tingle of gladness, and the feeling recalled her girlish love for
her brother. What would he be like after long years?

"Gene, has Jack kept his mouth shut?" queried Florence; and again
Madeline was aware of a sharp ring in the girl's voice.

"No," replied Stewart.

"Gene! You won't let it come to a fight? Al can be managed. But Jack
hates you and he'll have his friends with him."

"There won't be any fight."

"Use your brains now," added Florence; and then she turned to push
Madeline gently back into the parlor.

Madeline's glow of warmth changed to a blank dismay. Was she to see
her brother act with the violence she now associated with cowboys? The
clatter of hoofs stopped before the door. Looking out, Madeline saw a
bunch of dusty, wiry horses pawing the gravel and tossing lean heads.
Her swift glance ran over the lithe horsemen, trying to pick out the one
who was her brother. But she could not. Her glance, however, caught the
same rough dress and hard aspect that characterized the cowboy Stewart.
Then one rider threw his bridle, leaped from the saddle, and came
bounding up the porch steps. Florence met him at the door.

"Hello, Flo. Where is she?" he called, eagerly. With that he looked over
her shoulder to espy Madeline. He actually jumped at her. She hardly
knew the tall form and the bronzed face, but the warm flash of blue eyes
was familiar. As for him, he had no doubt of his sister, it appeared,
for with broken welcome he threw his arms around her, then held her off
and looked searchingly at her.

"Well, sister," he began, when Florence turned hurriedly from the door
and interrupted him.

"Al, I think you'd better stop the wrangling out there." He stared at
her, appeared suddenly to hear the loud voices from the street, and
then, releasing Madeline, he said:

"By George! I forgot, Flo. There is a little business to see to. Keep my
sister in here, please, and don't be fussed up now."

He went out on the porch and called to his men:

"Shut off your wind, Jack! And you, too, Blaze! I didn't want you
fellows to come here. But as you would come, you've got to shut up. This
is my business."

Whereupon he turned to Stewart, who was sitting on the fence.

"Hello, Stewart!" he said.

It was a greeting; but there was that in the voice which alarmed
Madeline.

Stewart leisurely got up and leisurely advanced to the porch.

"Hello, Hammond!" he drawled.

"Drunk again last night?"

"Well, if you want to know, and if it's any of your mix, yes, I
was-pretty drunk," replied Stewart.

It was a kind of cool speech that showed the cowboy in control of
himself and master of the situation--not an easy speech to follow up
with undue inquisitiveness. There was a short silence.

"Damn it, Stewart," said the speaker, presently, "here's the situation:
It's all over town that you met my sister last night at the station
and--and insulted her. Jack's got it in for you, so have these other
boys. But it's my affair. Understand, I didn't fetch them here. They can
see you square yourself, or else--Gene, you've been on the wrong trail
for some time, drinking and all that. You're going to the bad. But Bill
thinks, and I think, you're still a man. We never knew you to lie. Now
what have you to say for yourself?"

"Nobody is insinuating that I am a liar?" drawled Stewart.

"No."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that. You see, Al, I was pretty drunk last
night, but not drunk enough to forget the least thing I did. I told Pat
Hawe so this morning when he was curious. And that's polite for me to
be to Pat. Well, I found Miss Hammond waiting alone at the station. She
wore a veil, but I knew she was a lady, of course. I imagine, now that
I think of it, that Miss Hammond found my gallantry rather startling,
and--"

At this point Madeline, answering to unconsidered impulse, eluded
Florence and walked out upon the porch.

Sombreros flashed down and the lean horses jumped.

"Gentlemen," said Madeline, rather breathlessly; and it did not add
to her calmness to feel a hot flush in her cheeks, "I am very new to
Western ways, but I think you are laboring under a mistake, which, in
justice to Mr. Stewart, I want to correct. Indeed, he was rather--rather
abrupt and strange when he came up to me last night; but as I understand
him now, I can attribute that to his gallantry. He was somewhat wild
and sudden and--sentimental in his demand to protect me--and it was not
clear whether he meant his protection for last night or forever; but I
am happy to say be offered me no word that was not honorable. And he saw
me safely here to Miss Kingsley's home."





Next: Sister And Brother

Previous: A Gentleman Of The Range



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