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At The Lazy D Ranch








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

Helen Messiter was a young woman very much alive, which implies that she
was given to emotions; and as her machine skimmed over the ground to
the Lazy D she had them to spare. For from the first this young man had
taken her eye, and it had come upon her with a distinct shock that he
was the notorious scoundrel who was terrorizing the countryside. She
told herself almost passionately that she would never have believed it
if he had not said so himself. She knew quite well that the coldness
that had clutched her heart when he gave his name had had nothing to do
with fear. There had been chagrin, disappointment, but nothing in the
least like the terror she might have expected. The simple truth was that
he had seemed so much a man that it had hurt her to find him also a wild
beast.

Deep in her heart she resented the conviction forced upon her. Reckless
he undoubtedly was, at odds with the law surely, but it was hard to
admit that attractive personality to be the mask of fiendish cruelty
and sinister malice. And yet--the facts spoke for themselves. He had not
even attempted a denial. Still there was a mystery about him, else how
was it possible for two so distinct personalities to dwell together in
the same body.

She hated him with all her lusty young will; not only for what he was,
but also for what she had been disappointed in not finding him after her
first instinctive liking. Yet it was with an odd little thrill that
she ran down again into the coulee where her prosaic life had found its
first real adventure. He might be all they said, but nothing could wipe
out the facts that she had offered her life to save his, and that he
had lent her his body as a living shield for one exhilarating moment of
danger.

As she reached the hill summit beyond the coulee, Helen Messiter
was aware that a rider in ungainly chaps of white wool was rapidly
approaching. He dipped down into the next depression without seeing her;
and when they came face to face at the top of the rise the result was
instantaneous. His pony did an animated two-step not on the programme.
It took one glance at the diabolical machine, and went up on its hind
legs, preliminary to giving an elaborate exhibition of pitching. The
rider indulged in vivid profanity and plied his quirt vigorously. But
the bronco, with the fear of this unknown evil on its soul, varied its
bucking so effectively that the puncher astride its hurricane deck was
forced, in the language of his kind, to "take the dust."

His red head sailed through the air and landed in the white sand at
the girl's feet. For a moment he sat in the road and gazed with chagrin
after the vanishing heels of his mount. Then his wrathful eyes came
round to the owner of the machine that had caused the eruption. His
mouth had opened to give adequate expression to his feelings, when he
discovered anew the forgotten fact that he was dealing with a woman.
His jaw hung open for an instant in amaze; and when he remembered the
unedited vocabulary he had turned loose on the world a flood of purple
swept his tanned face.

She wanted to laugh, but wisely refrained. "I'm very sorry," was what
she said.

He stared in silence as he slowly picked himself from the ground. His
red hair rose like the quills of a porcupine above a face that had the
appearance of being unfinished. Neither nose nor mouth nor chin seemed
to be quite definite enough.

She choked down her gayety and offered renewed apologies.

"I was going for a doc," he explained, by way of opening his share of
the conversation.

"Then perhaps you had better jump in with me and ride back to the Lazy
D. I suppose that's where you came from?"

He scratched his vivid head helplessly. "Yes, ma'am."

"Then jump in."

"I was going to Bear Creek, ma'am," he added dubiously.

"How far is it?"

"'Bout twenty-five miles, and then some."

"You don't expect to walk, do you?"

"No; I allowed--"

"I'll take you back to the ranch, where you can get another horse."

"I reckon, ma'am, I'd ruther walk."

"Nonsense! Why?"

"I ain't used to them gas wagons."

"It's quite safe. There is nothing to be afraid of."

Reluctantly he got in beside her, as happy as a calf in a branding pen.

"Are you the lady that sashaid off with Ned Bannister?" he asked
presently, after he had had time to smother successively some of his
fear, wonder and delight at their smooth, swift progress.

"Yes. Why?"

"The boys allow you hadn't oughter have done it." Then, to place the
responsibility properly on shoulders broader than his own, he added:
"That's what Judd says."

"And who is Judd?"

"Judd, he's the foreman of the Lazy D."

Below them appeared the corrals and houses of a ranch nestling in a
little valley flanked by hills.

"This yere's the Lazy D," announced the youth, with pride, and in the
spirit of friendliness suggested a caution. "Judd, he's some peppery.
You wanter smooth him down some, seeing as he's riled up to-day."

A flicker of steel came into the blue eyes. "Indeed! Well, here we are."

"If it ain't Reddy, AND the lady with the flying machine," murmured a
freckled youth named McWilliams, emerging from the bunkhouse with a pan
of water which had been used to bathe the wound of one of the punctured
combatants.

"What's that?" snapped a voice from within; and immediately its owner
appeared in the doorway and bored with narrowed black eyes the young
woman in the machine.

"Who are you?" he demanded, brusquely.

"Your target," she answered, quietly. "Would you like to take another
shot at me?"

The freckled lad broke out into a gurgle of laughter, at which the
black, swarthy man beside him wheeled round in a rage. "What you
cacklin' at, Mac?" he demanded, in a low voice.

"Oh, the things I notice," returned that youth jauntily, meeting the
other's anger without the flicker of an eyelid.

"It ain't healthy to be so noticin'," insinuated the other.

"Y'u don't say," came the prompt, sarcastic retort. "If you're such a
darned good judge of health, y'u better be attending to some of your
patients." He jerked a casual thumb over his shoulder toward the bunks
on which lay the wounded men.

"I shouldn't wonder but what there might be another patient for me to
attend to," snarled the foreman.

"That so? Well, turn your wolf loose when y'u get to feelin' real
devilish," jeered the undismayed one, strolling forward to assist Miss
Messiter to alight.

The mistress of the Lazy D had been aware of the byplay, but she had
caught neither the words nor their import. She took the offered brown
hand smilingly, for here again she looked into the frank eyes of the
West, unafraid and steady. She judged him not more than twenty-two,
but the school where he had learned of life had held open and strenuous
session every day since he could remember.

"Glad to meet y'u, ma'am," he assured her, in the current phrase of the
semi-arid lands.

"I'm sure I am glad to meet YOU," she answered, heartily. "Can you tell
me where is the foreman of the Lazy D?"

He introduced with a smile the swarthy man in the doorway. "This is him
ma'am--Mr. Judd Morgan."

Now it happened that Mr. Judd Morgan was simmering with suppressed
spleen.

"All I've got to say is that you had no business mixing up in that
shootin' affair back there. Perhaps you don't know that the man you
saved is Ned Bannister, the outlaw," was his surly greeting.

"Oh, yes, I know that."

"Then what d'ye mean--Who are you, anyway?" His insolent eyes coasted
malevolently over her.

"Helen Messiter is my name."

It was ludicrous to see the change that came over the man. He had been
prepared to bully her; and with a word she had pricked the bubble of his
arrogance. He swallowed his anger and got a mechanical smile in working
order.

"Glad to see you here, Miss Messiter," he said, his sinister gaze
attempting to meet hers frankly "I been looking for you every day."

"But y'u managed to surprise him, after all ma'am," chuckled Mac.

"Where's yo' hawss, Reddy?" inquired a tall young man, who had appeared
silently in the doorway of the bunkhouse.

Reddy pinked violently. "I had an accident, Denver," he explained. "This
lady yere she--"

"Scooped y'u right off yore hawss. Y'u don't say," sympathized Mac so
breathlessly that even Reddy joined in the chorus of laughter that went
up at his expense.

The young woman thought to make it easy for him, and suggested an
explanation.

"His horse isn't used to automobiles, and so when it met this one--"

"I got off," interposed Reddy hastily, displaying a complexion like a
boiled beet.

"He got off," Mac explained gravely to the increasing audience.

Denver nodded with an imperturbable face. "He got off."

Mac introduced Miss Messiter to such of her employees as were on hand.
"Shake hands with Miss Messiter, Missou," was the formula, the name
alone varying to suit the embarrassed gentlemen in leathers. Each of
them in turn presented a huge hand, in which her little one disappeared
for the time, and was sawed up and down in the air like a pump-handle.
Yet if she was amused she did not show it; and her pleasure at meeting
the simple, elemental products of the plains outweighed a great deal her
sense of the ludicrous.

"How are your patients getting along?" she presently asked of her
foreman.

"I reckon all right. I sent Reddy for a doc, but--"

"He got off," murmured Mac pensively.

"I'll go rope another hawss," put in the man who had got off.

"Get a jump on you, then. Miss Messiter, would you like to look over the
place?"

"Not now. I want to see the men that were hurt. Perhaps I can help them.
Once I took a few weeks in nursing."

"Bully for you, ma'am," whooped Mac. "I've a notion those boys are
sufferin' for a woman to put the diamond-hitch on them bandages."

"Bring that suit-case in," she commanded Denver, in the gentlest voice
he had ever heard, after she had made a hasty inspection of the first
wounded man.

From the suit-case she took a little leather medicine-case, the kind
that can be bought already prepared for use. It held among other things
a roll of medicated cotton, some antiseptic tablets, and a little steel
instrument for probing.

"Some warm water, please; and have some boiling on the range," were her
next commands.

Mac flew to execute them.

It was a pleasure to see her work, so deftly the skillful hands
accomplished what her brain told them. In admiring awe the punchers
stood awkwardly around while she washed and dressed the hurts. Two of
the bullets had gone through the fleshy part of the arm and left clean
wounds. In the case of the third man she had to probe for the lead, but
fortunately found it with little difficulty. Meanwhile she soothed the
victim with gentle womanly sympathy.

"I know it hurts a good deal. Just a minute and I'll be through."

His hands clutched tightly the edges of his bunk. "That's all right,
doc. You attend to roping that pill and I'll endure the grief."

A long sigh of relief went up from the assembled cowboys when she drew
the bullet out.

The sinewy hands fastened on the wooden bunk relaxed suddenly.

"'Frisco's daid," gasped the cook, who bore the title of Wun Hop for
no reason except that he was an Irishman in a place formerly held by a
Chinese.

"He has only fainted," she said quietly, and continued with the
antiseptic dressing.

When it was all over, the big, tanned men gathered at the entrance to
the calf corral and expanded in admiration of their new boss.

"She's a pure for fair. She grades up any old way yuh take her to
the best corn-fed article on the market," pronounced Denver, with
enthusiasm.

"I got to ride the boundary," sighed Missou. "I kinder hate to go right
now."

"Here, too," acquiesced another. "I got a round-up on Wind Creek to cut
out them two-year-olds. If 'twas my say-so, I'd order Mac on that job."

"Right kind of y'u. Seems to me"--Mac's sarcastic eye trailed around to
include all those who had been singing her praises--"the new queen of
this hacienda won't have no trouble at all picking a prince consort when
she gets round to it. Here's Wun Hop, not what y'u might call anxious,
but ce'tainly willing. Then Denver's some in the turtle-dove business,
according to that hash-slinger in Cheyenne. Missou might be induced to
accept if it was offered him proper; and I allow Jim ain't turned the
color of Redtop's hair jest for instance. I don't want to leave out
'Frisco and the other boys carrying Bannister's pills--"

"Nor McWilliams. I'd admire to include him," murmured Denver.

That sunburned, nonchalant youth laughed musically. "Sure thing. I'd
hate to be left out. The only difference is--"

"Well?"

His roving eye circled blandly round. "I stand about one show in a
million. Y'u roughnecks are dead ones already."

With which cold comfort he sauntered away to join Miss Messiter and
the foreman, who now appeared together at the door of the ranchhouse,
prepared to make a tour of the buildings and the immediate corrals.

"Isn't there a woman on the place?" she was asking Morgan.

"No'm, there ain't. Henderson's daughter would come and stay with y'u a
while I reckon."

"Please send for her at once, then, and ask her to come to-day."

"All right. I'll send one of the boys right away."

"How did y'u leave 'Frisco, ma'am?" asked Mac, by way of including
himself easily.

"He's resting quietly. Unless blood-poisoning sets in they ought all to
do well."

"It's right lucky for them y'u happened along. This is the hawss corral,
ma'am," explained the young man just as Morgan opened his thin lips to
tell her.

Judd contrived to get rid of him promptly. "Slap on a saddle, Mac, and
run up the remuda so Miss Messiter can see the hawsses for herself," he
ordered.

"Mebbe she'd rather ride down and look at the bunch," suggested the
capable McWilliams.

As it chanced, she did prefer to ride down the pasture and look over
the place from on horseback. She was in love with her ranch already.
Its spacious distances, the thousands of cattle and the horses, these
picturesque retainers who served her even to the shedding of an enemy's
blood; they all struck an answering echo in her gallant young heart
that nothing in Kalamazoo had been able to stir. She bubbled over with
enthusiasm, the while Morgan covertly sneered and McWilliams warmed to
the untamed youth in her.

"What about this man Bannister?" she flung out suddenly, after they had
cantered back to the house when the remuda had been inspected.

Her abrupt question brought again the short, tense silence she had
become used to expect.

"He runs sheep about twenty or thirty miles southwest of here,"
explained McWilliams, in a carefully casual tone.

"So everybody tells me, but it seems to me he spills a good deal of lead
on my men," she answered impatiently. "What's the trouble?"

"Last week he crossed the dead-line with a bunch of five thousand
sheep."

"Who draws this dead-line?"

"The cattlemen got together and drew it. Your uncle was one of those
that marked it off, ma'am."

"And Bannister crossed it?"

"Yes, ma'am. Yesterday 'Frisco come on him and one of his herders with
a big bunch of them less than fifteen miles from here. He didn't know it
was Bannister, and took a pot-shot at him. 'Course Bannister came back
at him, and he got Frisco in the laig."

"Didn't know it was Bannister? What difference WOULD that make?" she
said impatiently.

Mac laughed. "What difference would it make, Judd?"

Morgan scowled, and the young man answered his own question. "We don't
any of us go out of our way more'n a mile to cross Bannister's trail,"
he drawled.

"Do you wear this for an ornament? Are you upholstered with hardware to
catch the eyes of some girl?" she asked, touching with the end of her
whip the revolver in the holster strapped to his chaps.

His serene, gay smile flashed at her. "Are y'u ordering me to go out and
get Ned Bannister's scalp?"

"No, I am not," she explained promptly. "What I am trying to discover is
why you all seem to be afraid of one man. He is only a man, isn't he?"

A veil of ice seemed to fall over the boyish face and leave it chiseled
marble. His unspeaking eyes rested on the swarthy foreman as he
answered:

"I don't know what he is, ma'am. He may be one man, or he may be a
hundred. What's more, I ain't particularly suffering to find out. Fact
is, I haven't lost any Bannisters."

The girl became aware that her foreman was looking at her with a wary
silent vigilance sinister in its intensity.

"In short, you're like the rest of the people in this section. You're
afraid."

"Now y'u're shoutin', Miss Messiter. I sure am when it comes to shootin'
off my mouth about Bannister."

"And you, Mr. Morgan?"

It struck her that the young puncher waited with a curious interest for
the answer of the foreman.

"Did it look like I was afraid this mawnin', ma'am?" he asked, with
narrowed eyes.

"No, you all seemed brave enough then, when you had him eight to one."

"I wasn't there," hastily put in McWilliams. "I don't go gunning for my
man without giving him a show."

"I do," retorted Morgan cruelly. "I'd go if we was fifty to one. We'd
'a' got him, too, if it hadn't been for Miss Messiter. 'Twas a chance we
ain't likely to get again for a year."

"It wasn't your fault you didn't kill him, Mr. Morgan," she said,
looking hard at him. "You may be interested to know that your last shot
missed him only about six inches, and me about four."

"I didn't know who you were," he sullenly defended.

"I see. You only shoot at women when you don't know who they are." She
turned her back on him pointedly and addressed herself to McWilliams.
"You can tell the men working on this ranch that I won't have any more
such attacks on this man Bannister. I don't care what or who he is. I
don't propose to have him murdered by my employees. Let the law take him
and hang him. Do you hear?"

"I ce'tainly do, and the boys will get the word straight," he replied.

"I take it since yuh are giving your orders through Mac, yuh don't need
me any longer for your foreman," bullied Morgan.

"You take it right, sir," came her crisp reply. "McWilliams will be my
foreman from to-day."

The man's face, malignant and wolfish, suddenly lost its mask. That she
would so promptly call his bluff was the last thing he had expected.
"That's all right. I reckon yuh think yuh know your own business, but
I'll put it to yuh straight. Long as yuh live you'll be sorry for this."

And with that he wheeled away.

She turned to her new foreman and found him less radiant than she could
have desired. "I'm right sorry y'u did that. I'm afraid y'u'll make
trouble for yourself," he said quietly.

"Why?"

"I don't know myself just why." He hesitated before adding: "They say
him and Bannister is thicker than they'd ought to be. It's a cinch that
he's in cahoots somehow with that Shoshone bunch of bad men."

"But--why, that's ridiculous. Only this morning he was trying to kill
Bannister himself."

"That's what I don't just savvy. There's a whole lot about that business
I don't get next to. I guess Bannister is at the head of them.
Everybody seems agreed about that. But the whole thing is a tangle of
contradiction to me. I've milled it over a heap in my mind, too."

"What are some of the contradictions?"

"Well, here's one right off the bat, as we used to say back in the
States. Bannister is a great musician, they claim; fine singer, and
all that. Now I happen to know he can't sing any more than a bellowing
yearling."

"How do you know?" she asked, her eyes shining with interest.

"Because I heard him try it. 'Twas one day last summer when I was out
cutting trail of a bunch of strays down by Dead Cow Creek. The day was
hot, and I lay down behind a cottonwood and dropped off to sleep. When
I awakened it didn't take me longer'n an hour to discover what had woke
me. Somebody on the other side of the creek was trying to sing. It was
ce'tainly the limit. Pretty soon he come out of the brush and I seen it
was Bannister."

"You're sure it was Bannister?"

"If seeing is believing, I'm sure."

"And was his singing really so bad?"

"I'd hate ever to hear worse."

"Was he singing when you saw him?"

"No, he'd just quit. He caught sight of my pony grazing, and hunted
cover real prompt."

"Then it might have been another man singing in the thicket."

"It might, but it wasn't. Y'u see, I'd followed him through the bush by
his song, and he showed up the moment I expected him."

"Still there might have been another man there singing."

"One chance in a million," he conceded.

A sudden hope flamed up like tow in her heart. Perhaps, after all, Ned
Bannister was not the leader of the outlaws. Perhaps somebody else was
masquerading in his name, using Bannister's unpopularity as a shield to
cover his iniquities. Still, this was an unlikely hypothesis, she had to
admit. For why should he allow his good name to be dragged in the dust
without any effort to save it? On a sudden impulse the girl confided her
doubt to McWilliams.

"You don't suppose there can be any mistake, do you? Somehow I can't
think him as bad as they say. He looks awfully reckless, but one feels
one could trust his face."

"Same here," agreed the new foreman. "First off when I saw him my think
was, 'I'd like to have that man backing my play when I'm sitting in the
game with Old Man Hard Luck reaching out for my blue chips.'"

"You don't think faces lie, do you?"

"I've seen them that did, but, gen'rally speaking, tongues are a heap
likelier to get tangled with the truth. But I reckon there ain't any
doubt about Bannister. He's known over all this Western country."

The young woman sighed. "I'm afraid you're right."





Next: The Dance At Fraser's

Previous: An Invitation Given And Accepted



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