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An Invitation Given And Accepted








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

And already she had met him. Not only met him, but saved him from the
just vengeance about to fall upon him. She had not yet seen her own
ranch, had not spoken to a single one of her employees, for it had
been a part of her plan to drop in unexpected and examine the situation
before her foreman had a chance to put his best foot forward. So she
had started alone from Gimlet Butte that morning in her machine, and had
come almost in sight of the Lazy D ranch houses when the battle in the
coulee invited her to take a hand.

She had acted on generous impulse, and the unforeseen result had been to
save this desperado from justice. But the worst of it was that she could
not find it in her heart to regret it. Granted that he was a villain,
double-dyed and beyond hope, yet he was the home of such courage, such
virility, that her unconsenting admiration went out in spite of herself.
He was, at any rate, a MAN, square-jawed, resolute, implacable. In the
sinuous trail of his life might lie arson, robbery, murder, but he still
held to that dynamic spark of self-respect that is akin to the divine.
Nor was it possible to believe that those unblinking gray eyes, with
the capability of a latent sadness of despair in them, expressed a soul
entirely without nobility. He had a certain gallant ease, a certain
attractive candor, that did not consist with villainy unadulterated.

It was characteristic even of her impulsiveness that Helen Messiter
curbed the swift condemnation that leaped to her lips when she knew
that the man sitting beside her was the notorious bandit of the Shoshone
fastnesses. She was not in the least afraid. A sure instinct told her he
was not the kind of a man of whom a woman need have fear so long as
her own anchor held fast. In good time she meant to let him have
her unvarnished opinion of him, but she did not mean it to be an
unconsidered one. Wherefore she drove the machine forward toward the
camelbacked peak he had indicated, her eyes straight before her, a frown
corrugating her forehead.

For him, having made his dramatic announcement, he seemed content for
the present with silence. He leaned back in the car and appreciated her
with a coolness that just missed impudence. Certainly her appearance
proclaimed her very much worth while. To dwell on the long lines of her
supple young body, the exquisite throat and chin curve, was a pleasure
with a thrill to it. As a physical creation, a mere innocent young
animal, he thought her perfect; attuned to a fine harmony of grace
and color. But it was the animating vitality of her, the lightness of
motion, the fire and sparkle of expression that gave her the captivating
charm she possessed.

They were two miles nearer the camel-backed peak before he broke the
silence.

"Beats a bronco for getting over the ground. Think I'll have to get
one," he mused aloud.

"With the money you took from the Ayr bank?" she flashed.

"I might drive off some of your cows and sell them," he countered,
promptly. "About how much will they hold me up for a machine like this?"

"This is only a runabout. You can get one for twelve or fourteen hundred
dollars of anybody's money."

"Of yours?" he laughed.

"I haven't that much with me. If you'll come over and hold up the ranch
perhaps we might raise it among us," she jeered.

His mirth was genuine. "But right now I couldn't get more than how much
off y'u?"

"Sixty-three dollars is all I have with me, and I couldn't give you
more--NOT EVEN IF YOU PUT RED HOT IRONS BETWEEN MY FINGERS." She gave it
to him straight, her blue eyes fixed steadily on him.

Yet she was not prepared for the effect of her words. The last thing she
had expected was to see the blood wash out of his bronzed face, to see
his sensitive nostrils twitch with pain. He made her feel as if she had
insulted him, as if she had been needlessly cruel. And because of it she
hardened her heart. Why should she spare him the mention of it? He had
not hesitated at the shameless deed itself. Why should she shrink before
that wounded look that leaped to his fine eyes in that flash of time
before he hardened them to steel?

"You did it--didn't you?" she demanded.

"That's what they say." His gaze met her defiantly.

"And it is true, isn't it?"

"Oh, anything is true of a man that herds sheep," he returned, bitterly.

"If that is true it would not be possible for you to understand how much
I despise you."

"Thank you," he retorted, ironically.

"I don't understand at all. I don't see how you can be the man they
say you are. Before I met you it was easy to understand. But somehow--I
don't know--you don't LOOK like a villain." She found herself strangely
voicing the deep hope of her heart. It was surely impossible to look at
him and believe him guilty of the things of which, he was accused. And
yet he offered no denial, suggested no defense.

Her troubled eyes went over his thin, sunbaked face with its touch,
of bitterness, and she did not find it possible to dismiss the subject
without giving him a chance to set himself right.

"You can't be as bad as they say. You are not, are you?" she asked,
naively.

"What do y'u think?" he responded, coolly.

She flushed angrily at what she accepted as his insolence. "A man of any
decency would have jumped at the chance to explain."

"But if there is nothing to explain?"

"You are then guilty."

Their eyes met, and neither of them quailed.

"If I pleaded not guilty would y'u believe me?"

She hesitated. "I don't know. How could I when it is known by everybody?
And yet--"

He smiled. "Why should I trouble y'u, then, with explanations? I reckon
we'll let it go at guilty."

"Is that all you can say for yourself?"

He seemed to hang in doubt an instant, then shook his head and refused
the opening.

"I expect if we changed the subject I could say a good deal for y'u," he
drawled. "I never saw anything pluckier than the way y'u flew down from
the mesa and conducted the cutting-out expedition. Y'u sure drilled
through your punchers like a streak of lightning."

"I didn't know who you were," she explained, proudly.

"Would it have made any difference if y'u had?"

Again the angry flush touched her cheeks. "Not a bit. I would have saved
you in order to have you properly hanged later," she cut back promptly.

He shook his head gayly. "I'm ce'tainly going to disappoint y'u some.
Your enterprising punchers may collect me yet, but not alive, I reckon."

"I'll give them strict orders to bring you in alive."

"Did you ever want the moon when y'u was a little kid?" he asked.

"We'll see, Mr. Outlaw Bannister."

He laughed softly, in the quiet, indolent fashion that would have been
pleasant if it had not been at her. "It's right kind of you to take so
much interest in me. I'd most be willing to oblige by letting your boys
rope me to renew this acquaintance, ma'am." Then, "I get out here Miss
Messiter," he added.

She stopped on the instant. Plainly she could not get rid of him too
soon. "Haven't you forgot one thing?" she asked, ironically.

"Yes, ma'am. To thank you proper for what y'u did for me." He limped
gingerly down from the car and stood with his hand on one of the tires.
"I have been trying to think how to say it right; but I guess I'll have
to give it up. All is that if I ever get a chance to even the score--"

She waved his thanks aside impatiently "I didn't mean that. You have
forgotten to take my purse."

His gravity was broken on the instant, and his laughter was certainly
delightfully fresh. "I clean forgot, but I expect I'll drop over to the
ranch for it some day."

"We'll try to make to make you welcome, Mr. Bannister."

"Don't put yourself out at all. I'll take pot-luck when I come."

"How many of you may we expect?" she asked, defiantly.

"Oh, I allow to come alone."

"You'll very likely forget."

"No, ma'am, I don't know so many ladies that I'm liable to such an
oversight.

"I have heard a different story. But if you do remember to come,
and will let us know when you expect to honor the Lazy D, I'll have
messengers sent to meet you."

He perfectly understood her to mean leaden ones, and the humorous gleam
in his eye sparkled in appreciation of her spirit. "I don't want all
that fuss made over me. I reckon I'll drop in unexpected," he said.

She nodded curtly. "Good-bye. Hope your ankle won't trouble you very
much."

"Thank y'u, ma'am. I reckon it won't. Good-bye, Miss Messiter."

Out of the tail of her eye she saw him bowing like an Italian opera
singer, as impudently insouciant, as gracefully graceless as any stage
villain in her memory. Once again she saw him, when her machine swept
round a curve and she could look back without seeming to do so, limping
across through the sage brush toward a little hillock near the road. And
as she looked the bare, curly head was inclined toward her in another
low, mocking bow. He was certainly the gallantest vagabond unhanged.





Next: At The Lazy D Ranch

Previous: The King Of The Big Horn Country



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