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Cass Fendrick Makes A Call







Part of: LUCK
From: Crooked Trails And Straight

Kate was in her rose garden superintending the stable boy as he loosened
the dirt around the roots of some of the bushes. She had returned to the
Circle C for a day or two to give some directions in the absence of her
father. Buck and the other riders came to her for orders and took them
without contempt. She knew the cattle business, and they knew she knew it.
To a man they were proud of her, of her spirit, her energy, and her good
looks.

This rose garden was one evidence of her enterprise. No ranch in the
county could show such a riot of bloom as the Circle C. The American
Beauty, the Duchess, the La France bowed gracefully to neighbors of a
dozen other choice varieties. Kate had brought this glimpse of Eden into
the desert. She knew her catalogues by heart and she had the loving
instinct that teaches all gardeners much about growing things.

The rider who cantered up to the fence, seeing her in her well-hung
corduroy skirt, her close-fitting blouse, and the broad-rimmed straw hat
that shielded her dark head from the sun, appreciated the fitness of her
surroundings. She too was a flower of the desert, delicately fashioned,
yet vital with the bloom of health.

At the clatter of hoofs she looked up from the bush she was trimming and
at once rose to her feet. With the change in position she showed slim and
tall, straight as a young poplar. Beneath their long lashes her eyes grew
dark and hard. For the man who had drawn to a halt was Cass Fendrick.

From the pocket of his shirt he drew a crumpled piece of stained linen.

"I've brought back your handkerchief, Miss Cullison."

"What have you done with my father?"

He nodded toward the Mexican boy and Kate dismissed the lad. When he had
gone she asked her question again in exactly the same words.

"If we're going to discuss your father you had better get your quirt
again," the sheepman suggested, touching a scar on his face.

A flush swept over her cheeks, but she held her voice quiet and even.
"Where is Father? What have you done with him?"

He swung from the horse and threw the rein to the ground. Then, sauntering
to the gate, he let himself in.

"You've surely got a nice posy garden here. Didn't know there was one like
it in all sunbaked Arizona."

She stood rigid. Her unfaltering eyes, sloe-black in the pale face, never
lifted from him.

"There's only one thing you can talk to me about Where have you hidden my
father?"

"I've heard folks say he did himself all the hiding that was done."

"You know that isn't true. That convict and you have hidden him somewhere.
We have evidence enough to convict you both."

"Imagination, most of it, I expect." He was inspecting the roses and
inhaling their bloom.

"Fact enough to send you to the penitentiary."

"I ought to be scared. This is a La France, ain't it?"

"I want you to tell me what you have done with my father."

He laughed a little and looked at her with eyes that narrowed like those
of a cat basking in the sun. He had something the look of the larger
members of the cat family--the soft long tread, the compact rippling
muscles of a tame panther, and with these the threat that always lies
behind its sleepy wariness.

"You're a young lady of one idea. No use arguing with you, I reckon."

"Not the least use. I've talked with Mrs. Wylie."

He raised his eyebrows. "Do I know the lady?"

"She will know you. That is more to the point."

"Did she say she knew me?" he purred.

"She will say it in court--if it ever comes to that."

"Just what will she say, if you please."

Kate told him in four sentences with a stinging directness that was the
outstanding note of her, that and a fine self-forgetful courage.

"Is that all? Comes to this then, that she says I heard her scream, ran
in, and saved your father's life. Is that a penitentiary offense? I don't
say it oughtn't to be, but is it?"

"You helped the villain take his body into the cellar. You plotted with
him to hold Father a prisoner there."

"Says that, does she--that she overheard us plotting?"

"Of course she did not overhear what you said. You took good care of that.
But she knew you were conspiring."

"Just naturally knew it without overhearing," he derided. "And of course
if I was in a plot I must have been Johnny-on-the-spot a good deal of the
time. Hung round there a-plenty, I expect?"

He had touched on the weak spot of Mrs. Wylie's testimony. The man who had
saved Cullison's life, after a long talk with Blackwell, had gone out of
the Jack of Hearts and had not returned so far as she knew. For her former
husband had sent her on an errand just before the prisoner was taken away
and she did not know who had helped him.

Kate was silent.

"How would this do for an explanation?" he suggested lazily. "We'll say
just for the sake of argument that Mrs. Wylie's story is true, that I did
save your father's life. We'll put it that I did help carry him downstairs
where it was cooler and that I did have a long talk with the fellow
Blackwell. What would I be talking to him about, if I wasn't reading the
riot act to him? Ain't it likely too that he would be sorry for what he
did while he was angry at your father for butting in as he was having
trouble with his wife? And after he had said he was sorry why shouldn't I
hit the road out of there? There's no love lost between me and Luck
Cullison. I wasn't under any obligations to wrap him up in cotton and
bring him back this side up with care to his anxious friends. If he chose
later to take a hike out of town on p.d.q. hurry up business I ain't to
blame. And I reckon you'll find a jury will agree with me."

She had to admit to herself that he made out a plausible case. Not that
she believed it for a moment. But very likely a jury would. As for his
subsequent silence that could be explained by his desire not to mix
himself in the affairs of one with whom he was upon unfriendly terms. The
irrefutable fact that he had saved the life of Cullison would go a long
way as presumptive proof of his innocence.

"I see you are wearing your gray hat again? What have you done with the
brown one?"

She had flashed the question at him so unexpectedly that he was startled,
but the wary mask fell again over the sardonic face.

"You take a right friendly interest in my hats, seems to me."

"I know this much. Father took your hat by mistake from the club. You
bought a brown one half an hour later. You used Father's to manufacture
evidence against him. If it isn't true that he is your prisoner how does
it come that you have your gray hat again? You must have taken it from
him."

He laughed uneasily. She had guessed the exact truth.

"In Arizona there are about forty thousand gray hats like this. Do you
figure you can identify this one, Miss Cullison? And suppose your fairy
tale of the Jack of Hearts is true, couldn't I have swapped hats again
while he lay there unconscious?"

She brushed his explanation aside with a woman's superb indifference to
logic.

"You can talk of course. I don't care. It is all lies--lies. You have
kidnapped Father and are holding him somewhere. Don't you dare to hurt
him. If you should--Oh, if you should--you will wish you had never been
born." The fierceness of her passion beat upon him like sudden summer
hail.

He laughed slowly, well pleased. A lazy smoldering admiration shone in his
half shuttered eyes.

"So you're going to take it out of me, are you?"

A creature of moods, there came over her now a swift change. Every feature
of her, the tense pose, the manner of defiant courage, softened
indescribably. She was no longer an enemy bent on his destruction but a
girl pleading for the father she loved.

"Why do you do it? You are a man. You want to fight fair. Tell me he is
well. Tell me you will set him free."

He forgot for the moment that he was a man with the toils of the law
closing upon him, forgot that his success and even his liberty were at
stake. He saw only a girl with the hunger of love in her wistful eyes, and
knew that it lay in his power to bring back the laughter and the light
into them.

"Suppose I can't fight fair any longer. Suppose I've let myself get
trapped and it isn't up to me but to somebody else."

"How do you mean?"

"Up to your father, say."

"My father?"

"Yes. How could I turn him loose when the first thing he did would be to
swear out a warrant for my arrest?"

"But he wouldn't--not if you freed him."

He laughed harshly. "I thought you knew him. He's hard as nails."

She recognized the justice of this appraisal. "But he is generous too. He
stands by his friends."

"I'm not his friend, not so you could notice it." He laughed again,
bitterly. "Not that it matters. Of course I was just putting a case.
Nothing to it really."

He was hedging because he thought he had gone too far, but she appeared
not to notice it. Her eyes had the faraway look of one who communes with
herself.

"If I could only see him and have a talk with him."

"What good would that do?" he pretended to scoff.

But he watched her closely nevertheless.

"I think I could get him to do as I ask. He nearly always does." Her gaze
went swiftly back to him. "Let me talk with him. There's a reason why he
ought to be free now, one that would appeal to him."

This was what he had come for, but now that she had met him half way he
hesitated. If she should not succeed he would be worse off than before. He
could neither hold her a prisoner nor free her to lead the pack of the law
to his hiding place. On the other hand if Cullison thought they intended
to keep her prisoner he would have to compromise. He dared not leave her
in the hands of Lute Blackwell. Fendrick decided to take a chance. At the
worst he could turn them both free and leave for Sonora.

"All right. I'll take you to him. But you'll have to do as I say."

"Yes," she agreed.

"I'm taking you to back my play. I tell you straight that Blackwell would
like nothing better than to put a bullet through your father. But I've got
a hold on the fellow that ties him. He's got to do as I say. But if I'm
not there and it comes to a showdown--if Bucky O'Connor for instance
happens to stumble in--then it's all off with Luck Cullison. Blackwell
won't hesitate a second. He'll kill your father and make a bolt for it.
That's one reason why I'm taking you. I want to pile up witnesses against
the fellow so as to make him go slow. But that's not my main object.
You've got to persuade Luck to come through with an agreement to let go of
that Del Oro homestead and to promise not to prosecute us. He won't do it
to save his own life. He's got to think you come there as my prisoner.
See? He's got to wrestle with the notion that you're in the power of the
damnedest villain that ever went unhung. I mean Blackwell. Let him chew on
that proposition a while and see what he makes of it."

She nodded, white to the lips. "Let us go at once, please. I don't want to
leave Father alone with that man." She called across to the corral.
"Manuel, saddle the pinto for me. Hurry!"

They rode together through the wind-swept sunlit land. From time to time
his lazy glance embraced her, a supple graceful creature at perfect ease
in the saddle. What was it about her that drew the eye so irresistibly?
Prettier girls he had often seen. Her features were irregular, mouth and
nose too large, face a little thin. Her contour lacked the softness, the
allure that in some women was an unconscious invitation to cuddle. Tough
as whipcord she might be, but in her there flowed a life vital and strong;
dwelt a spirit brave and unconquerable. She seemed to him as little subtle
as any woman he had ever met. This directness came no doubt from living so
far from feminine influences. But he had a feeling that if a man once
wakened her to love, the instinct of sex would spring full-grown into
being.

They talked of the interests common to the country, of how the spring
rains had helped the range, of Shorty McCabe's broken leg, of the new
school district that was being formed. Before she knew it Kate was
listening to his defense of himself in the campaign between him and her
father. He found her a partisan beyond chance of conversion. Yet she heard
patiently his justification.

"I didn't make the conditions that are here. I have to accept them. The
government establishes forest reserves on the range. No use ramming my
head against a stone wall. Uncle Sam is bigger than we are. Your father
and his friends got stubborn. I didn't."

"No, you were very wise," she admitted dryly.

"You mean because I adapted myself to the conditions and made the best of
them. Why shouldn't I?" he flushed.

"Father's cattle had run over that range thirty years almost. What right
had you to take it from him?"

"Conditions change. He wouldn't see it. I did. As for the right of
it--well, Luck ain't king of the valley just because he thinks he is."

She began to grow angry. A dull flush burned through the tan of her
cheeks.

"So you bought sheep and brought them in to ruin the range, knowing that
they would cut the feeding ground to pieces, kill the roots of vegetation
with their sharp hoofs, and finally fill the country with little gullies
to carry off the water that ought to sink into the ground."

"Sheep ain't so bad if they are run right."

"It depends where they run. This is no place for them."

"That's what you hear your father say. He's prejudiced."

"And you're not, I suppose."

"I'm more reasonable than he is."

"Yes, you are," she flung back at him irritably.

Open country lay before them. They had come out from a stretch of heavy
underbrush. Catclaw had been snatching at their legs. Cholla had made the
traveling bad for the horses. Now she put her pony to a canter that for
the time ended conversation.





Next: A Compromise

Previous: The Friends Of L C Serve Notice



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