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A Wild Cat







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

The Lazy-Y ranch-house, a one-storied building of logs, was built
about three sides of a paved court. In the middle of this court stood
a well with a high rustic top, and about this well on a certain
brilliant July night, a tall man was strolling with his hands behind
his back. It was a night of full moon, sailing high, which poured
whiteness into the court, making its cobbles embedded in the earth
look like milky bubbles and drawing clear-cut shadows of the well-top
and the gables and chimneys of the house. The man slowly circled the
court beginning close to the walls and narrowing till he made a loop
about the well, and then, reversing, worked in widening orbits as far
as the walls again. His wife, looking out at him through one of the
windows, thought that, in the moonlight, followed by his own squat,
active shadow, he looked like a huge spider weaving a web. This effect
was heightened by the fact that he never looked up. He was deep in
some plan to which it was impossible for her not to believe that the
curious pattern of his walk bore some relation.

From the northern wing of the ranch-house, strongly lighted, came a
tumult of sound; music, thumping feet, a man's voice chanting
couplets:

"Oh, you walk right through and you turn around
and swing the girl that finds you,
And you come right back by the same old track
and turn the girl behind you."

Some one was directing a quadrille in native fashion. There was much
laughter, confusion, and applause. None of this noise disturbed the
man. He did not look at the lighted windows. He might really have been
a gigantic insect entirely unrelated to the human creatures so noisily
near at hand.

A man came round the corner of the house, crossed the square, and,
lurching a little, made for the door of the lighted wing. Shortly
after his entrance the sound of music and dancing abruptly stopped.
This stillness gave the spider pause, but he was about to renew his
weaving, when, in the silence, a woman spoke.

"You, Mabel, don't you go home," she said.

She had not spoken loudly, but her voice beat against the walls of the
court as though it could have filled the whole moonlight night with
dangerous beauty. The listener outside lifted his head with a low,
startled exclamation. Suddenly the world was alive with adventure and
alarm.

"Mind your own business, you wild cat," answered a man's raucous
voice. "She's my wife, which is somethin' that your sort knows nothin'
about. Come on, you Mabel. You think that outlaw can keep me from
takin' home my wife, you're betting wrong."

Another silence; then the voice again, a little louder, as though the
speaker had stepped out into the center of the room.

"Mabel is not a-goin' home with you," it said; and the listener
outside threw back his head with the gesture of a man sensitive to
music who listens to some ecstatic melody. "She happens to be stoppin'
here with us to-night. You say that she's your wife, but that don't
mean that she belongs to you, body and soul, Bill Greer--not to you,
who don't possess your own body, or soul. Why, you can't keep your
feet steady, you can't pull your hand away from mine. You can't hold
your tipsy eyes on mine. Do you call that ownin' your own body? And as
fer your soul, it's a hell of rage and dirty feelin's that I'd hate to
burn my eyes by lookin' closely at."

A deep, short, alarming chorus of laughter interrupted the speech. The
speaker evidently had her audience.

"So you don't own anything to-night," went on the extraordinary,
deliberate voice; "surely you don't own Mabel. You can't get a claim
on her, not thataway. She's her own. She belongs to her own self. When
you're fit to take her, why, then come and tell us about it, and if we
judge you're a-tellin' us the truth, mebbe we'll let her go. Till
then--" a pause which was filled with a rapid shuffling of feet. The
door flew open and in its lighted oblong the observer saw a huddled
figure behind which rose a woman's black and shapely head. "Till
then," repeated the deep-toned, ringing voice, "get out!" And the
huddled man came on a staggering run which ended in a backward fall on
the cobbles of the court.

The man who watched trod lightly past him and came to the open door.
Inside, firelight beat on the golden log walls and salmon-colored
timber ceiling; a lamp hanging from a beam threw down a strong,
conflicting arc of white light. A dozen brown-faced, booted young men
stood about, three musicians were ready to take up their interrupted
music, the little fat man who had called out the figures of the
quadrille, stood on a barrel, his arms folded across his paunch. A
fair-haired girl, her face marred by recent tears, drooped near him.
Two of the young men were murmuring reassurances to her; others
surrounded a stout, red-faced girl who was laughing and talking
loudly. The Jew's eyes wandered till they came to the fireplace. There
another woman leaned against the wall.

The music struck up, the dancing began again, the two other girls,
quickly provided with partners, began to waltz, the superfluous men
stood up together and went at it with gravity and grace. No one asked
this woman, who stood at ease, watching the dancers, her hands resting
on her hips, her head tilted back against the logs. As he looked at
her, the intruder had a queer little thrill of fright. He remembered
something he had once seen--a tame panther which was to be used in
some moving-picture play. Its confident owner had led it in on a chain
and held it negligently in a corner of the room, waiting for his cue.
The panther had stood there drowsily, its eyes shifting a little,
then, watching people, its inky head had begun to move from side to
side. He remembered the way the loose chain jerked. The animal's eyes
half-closed, it lowered its head, its upper lip began to draw away
from its teeth. All at once it had dropped on its belly. Some one
cried out, "Hold your beast!"

This young woman by the fireplace had just that panther-air of
perilous quietness. She was very haggard, very thin; she wore her
massive, black hair drawn away hideously from brow and temple, and out
of this lean, unshaded face a pair of deep eyes looked drowsily,
dangerously. Her mouth was straightened into an expression of proud
bitterness, her round chin thrust forward; there was a deep, scowling
line that rose from the bridge of her straight, short nose almost to
the roots of her hair. It cut across a splendidly modeled brow. She
was very graceful, if such a bundle of bones might be said to have any
grace. Her pose was arresting. There was a tragic force and attraction
about her.

The man by the door appraised her carefully between his narrowed lids.
He kept in mind the remembered melody of her voice, and, after a few
moments, he strolled across the floor and came up to her.

"Will you dance?" he said.

He had a very charming and subtle smile, a very charming and
sympathetic look. The woman was startled, color rose into her face.
She stared at him.

"I'm not dancing, Mr. Morena," she answered.

"You know my name," smiled Morena; "and I don't know yours. I've been
on Mr. Yarnall's ranch for a month. Why haven't I seen you?"

"Fer not lookin', I suppose." She had given him that one startled
glance, and now she had turned her eyes back to the dancers and wore a
grim, contemptuous air. Her speeches, though they were cut into short,
crisp words, were full of music of a sharp, metallic quality different
from the tone of her other speech, but quite as beautifully expressive.

"May I smoke?" asked Morena. He was still smiling his charming smile
and watching her out of the corners of his eyes.

"I'm not hinderin' you any," said she.

Morena smiled deeper. He took some time making and lighting his
cigarette.

"You don't smoke, yourself?" he asked.

"No."

"Nor dance?"

"No."

"Nor behave prettily to polite young men?"

Again the woman looked at him. "You ain't so awful young, are you?"

He laughed aloud.

"I amuse you, don't I? Well, I'm not always so all-fired funny,"
drawled the creature, lowering her head a little.

"No. I've heard that you're not. You rather run things here, I gather;
got the boys 'plumb-scared'?"

"Did Mr. Yarnall tell you that?"

"Yes. I've just in the last few minutes remembered who you are. You're
Jane. You cook for the 'outfit,' and Yarnall was telling us the other
night how he sent one of the boys out for a cook, the last one, a man,
having been beaten up, and how the boy had brought you back behind him
on his saddle. He said you'd kept order for him ever since, were
better than a foreman. Who was the man you threw out to-night?"

"Perhaps," drawled Jane, "he was just a feller who asked too many
questions?"

Again Morena's smile deepened into his cheeks. He gave way, in the
Jewish fashion so deceptively suggestive of meekness and timidity,
when it is, at its worst, merely pliable insolence, at its best,
pliable determination. "You must pardon me, Miss Jane," he said in his
murmuring, cultivated voice. "You see I've had a great misfortune.
I've never been in your West. I've lived in New York where good
manners haven't time or space to flourish. I hadn't the least
intention of being impertinent. Do you want me to go?"

He moved as if to leave her, and she did not lift a finger to detain
him.

"I'm not carin'. Do as you please," she said with entire indifference.

"Oh," said Morena, looking back at her, "I don't stay where people are
'not carin'.'"

She gave him an extraordinarily intelligent look. "I should say that's
the only place you'd be wantin' to stay in at all--where you're not
exactly urged to come," she said.

Morena flushed and his lids flickered. He was for an instant absurdly
inclined to anger and made two or three steps away. But he came back.

He bowed and spoke as he would have spoken to a great lady, suavely,
deferentially.

"Good-night. I wish I could think that you have enjoyed our talk as
greatly as I have, Miss Jane. I should very much like to be allowed to
repeat it. May I be stupidly personal and tell you that you are very
beautiful?" He bowed, gave her an upward look and went out, finding
his way cleverly among the dancers.

Outside, in the moonlit court, he stood, threw back his head and
laughed, not loudly but consumedly. He was remembering her white face
of mute astonishment. She looked almost as if his compliment had given
her sharp pain.

Morena went laughing to his room in the opposite wing. He wanted to
describe the interview to his wife.





Next: Morena's Wife

Previous: Concerning Marriage



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