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Mistress And Maid








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

Now that it was safely concluded, Helen thought the adventure almost
worthwhile for the spontaneous expressions of good will it had drawn
forth from her adherents. Mrs. Winslow and Nora had taken her to
their arms and wept and laughed over her in turn, and in their silent
undemonstrative way she had felt herself hedged in by unusual solicitude
on the part of her riders. It was good--none but she knew how good--to
be back among her own, to bask in a friendliness she could not doubt.
It was best of all to sit opposite Ned Bannister again with no weight on
her heart from the consciousness of his unworthiness.

She could affect to disregard the gray eyes that followed her with
such magnetized content about the living room, but beneath her cool
self-containment she knew the joyous heart in her was strangely buoyant.
He loved her, and she had a right to let herself love him. This was
enough for the present.

"They're so plumb glad to see y'u they can't let y'u alone," laughed
Bannister at the sound of a knock on the door that was about the fifth
in as many minutes.

This time it proved to be Nora, come to find out what her mistress would
like for supper. Helen turned to the invalid.

"What would you like, Mr. Bannister?"

"I should like a porterhouse with mushrooms," he announced promptly.

"You can't have it. You know what the doctor said." Very peremptorily
she smiled this at him.

"He's an old granny, Miss Messiter."

"You may have an egg on toast."

"Make it two," he pleaded. "Excitement's just like caviar to the
appetite, and seeing y'u safe--"

"Very well--two," she conceded.

They ate supper together in a renewal of the pleasant intimacy so
delightful to both. He lay on the lounge, propped up with sofa cushions,
the while he watched her deft fingers butter the toast and prepare his
egg. It was surely worth while to be a convalescent, given so sweet a
comrade for a nurse; and after he had moved over to the table he enjoyed
immensely the gay firmness with which she denied him what was not good
for him.

"I'll bet y'u didn't have supper like this at Robbers' Roost." he told
her, enthusiastically.

"It wasn't so bad, considering everything." She was looking directly at
him as she spoke. "Your cousin is rather a remarkable man in some ways.
He manages to live on the best that can be got in tin-can land."

"Did he tell y'u he was my cousin?" he asked, slowly.

"Yes, and that his name was Ned Bannister, too?"

"Did that explain anything to y'u?"

"It explained a great deal, but it left some things not clear yet."

"For instance?"

"For one thing, the reason why you should bear the odium of his crimes.
I suppose you don't care for him, though I can see how you might in a
way."

"I don't care for him in the least, though I used to when we were
boys. As to letting myself be blamed for his crimes. I did it because
I couldn't help myself. We look more or less alike, and he was cunning
enough to manufacture evidence against me. We were never seen together,
and so very few know that there are two Bannisters. At first I used to
protest, but I gave it up. There wasn't the least use. I could only wait
for him to be captured or killed. In the meantime it didn't make me any
more popular to be a sheepman."

"Weren't you taking a long chance of being killed first? Some one with a
grudge against him might have shot you."

"They haven't yet," he smiled.

"You might at least have told me how it was," she reproached.

"I started to tell y'u that first day, but it looked so much of a fairy
tale to unload that I passed it up."

"Then you ought not to blame me for thinking you what you were not."

"I don't remember blaming y'u. The fact is I thought it awful white of
y'u to do your Christian duty so thorough, me being such a miscreant,"
he drawled.

"You gave me no chance to think well of you."

"But yet y'u did your duty from A to Z."

"We're not talking about my duty," she flashed back. "My point is that
you weren't fair to me. If I thought ill of you how could I help it?"

"I expaict your Kalamazoo conscience is worryin' y'u because y'u
misjudged me."

"It isn't," she denied instantly.

"I ain't of a revengeful disposition. I'll forgive y'u for doing your
duty and saving my life twice," he said, with a smile of whimsical
irony.

"I don't want your forgiveness."

"Well, then for thinking me a 'bad man.'"

"You ought to beg my pardon. I was a friend, at least you say I acted
like one--and you didn't care enough to right yourself with me."

"Maybe I cared too much to risk trying it. I knew there would be proof
some time, and I decided to lie under the suspicion until I could get
it. I see now that wasn't kind or fair to you. I am sorry I didn't tell
y'u all about it. May I tell y'u the story now?"

"If you wish."

It was a long story, but the main points can be told in a paragraph. The
grandfather of the two cousins, General Edward Bannister, had worn the
Confederate gray for four years, and had lost an arm in the service of
the flag with the stars and bars. After the war he returned to his
home in Virginia to find it in ruins, his slaves freed and his fields
mortgaged. He had pulled himself together for another start, and
had practiced law in the little town where his family had lived for
generations. Of his two sons, one was a ne'er-do-well. He was one of
those brilliant fellows of whom much is expected that never develops.
He had a taste for low company, married beneath him, and, after a career
that was a continual mortification and humiliation to his father, was
killed in a drunken brawl under disgraceful circumstances, leaving
behind a son named for the general. The second son of General Bannister
also died young, but not before he had proved his devotion to his father
by an exemplary life. He, too, was married and left an only son, also
named for the old soldier. The boys were about of an age and were well
matched in physical and mental equipment. But the general, who had taken
them both to live with him, soon discovered that their characters were
as dissimilar as the poles. One grandson was frank, generous, open as
the light; the other was of a nature almost degenerate. In fact, each
had inherited the qualities of his father. Tales began to come to the
old general's ears that at first he refused to credit. But eventually
it was made plain to him that one of the boys was a rake of the most
objectionable type.

There were many stormy scenes between the general and his grandson, but
the boy continued to go from bad to worse. After a peculiarly flagrant
case, involving the character of a respectable young girl, young Ned
Bannister was forbidden his ancestral home. It had been by means of his
cousin that this last iniquity of his had been unearthed, and the boy
had taken it to his grandfather in hot indignation as the last hope of
protecting the reputation of the injured girl. From that hour the evil
hatred of his cousin, always dormant in the heart, flamed into active
heat. The disowned youth swore to be revenged. A short time later the
general died, leaving what little property he had entirely to the one
grandson. This stirred again the bitter rage of the other. He set fire
to the house that had been willed his cousin, and took a train that
night for Wyoming. By a strange irony of fate they met again in the
West years later, and the enmity between them was renewed, growing every
month more bitter on the part of the one who called himself the King of
the Bighorn Country.

She broke the silence after his story with a gentle "Thank you. I can
understand why you don't like to tell the story."

"I am very glad of the chance to tell it to you," he answered.

"When you were delirious you sometimes begged some one you called Ned
not to break his mother's heart. I thought then you might be speaking to
yourself as ill people do. Of course I see now it was your cousin that
was on your mind."

"When I was out of my head I must have talked a lot of nonsense,"
he suggested, in the voice of a question. "I expect I had opinions I
wouldn't have been scattering around so free if I'd known what I was
saying."

He was hardly prepared for the tide of color that swept her cheeks at
his words nor for the momentary confusion that shuttered the shy eyes
with long lashes cast down.

"Sick folks do talk foolishness, they say," he added, his gaze trained
on her suspiciously.

"Do they?"

"Mrs. Winslow says I did. But when I asked her what it was I said she
only laughed and told me to ask y'u. Well, I'm askin' now."

She became very busy over the teapot. "You talked about the work at your
ranch--sheep dipping and such things."

"Was that all?"

"No, about lots of other things--football and your early life. I don't
see what Mrs. Winslow meant. Will you have some more tea?"

"No, thank y'u. I have finished. Yes, that ce'tainly seems harmless. I
didn't know but I had been telling secrets." Still his unwavering eyes
rested quietly on her.

"Secrets?" She summoned her aplomb to let a question rest lightly in
the face she turned toward him, though she was afraid she met his
eyes hardly long enough for complete innocence "Why, yes, secrets." He
measured looks with her deliberately before he changed the subject, and
he knew again the delightful excitement of victory. "Are y'u going to
read to me this evening?"

She took his opening so eagerly that he smiled, at which her color
mounted again.

"If y'u like. What shall I read?"

"Some more of Barrie's books, if y'u don't mind. When a fellow is weak
as a kitten he sorter takes to things that are about kids."

Nora came in and cleared away the supper things. She was just beginning
to wash them when McWilliams and Denver dropped into the kitchen by
different doors. Each seemed surprised and disappointed at the presence
of the other. Nora gave each of them a smile and a dishcloth.

"Reddy, he's shavin' and Frisco's struggling with a biled shirt--I mean
with a necktie," Denver hastily amended. "They'll be along right soon, I
shouldn't wonder."

"Y'u better go tell the boys Miss Nora don't want her kitchen littered
up with so many of them," suggested his rival.

"Y'u're foreman here. I don't aim to butt into your business, Mac,"
grinned back the other, polishing a tea plate with the towel.

"I want to get some table linen over to Lee Ming to-night," said Nora,
presently.

"Denver, he'll be glad to take it for y'u, Miss Nora. He's real
obliging," offered Mac, generously.

"I've been in the house all day, so I need a walk. I thought perhaps one
of you gentlemen--" Miss Nora looked from one to the other of them with
deep innocence.

"Sure, I'll go along and carry it. Just as Mac says, I'll be real
pleased to go," said Denver, hastily.

Mac felt he had been a trifle precipitate in his assumption that Nora
did not intend to go herself. Lee Ming had established a laundry
some half mile from the ranch, and the way thereto lay through most
picturesque shadow and moonlight. The foreman had conscientious scruples
against letting Denver escort her down such a veritable lovers' lane of
romantic scenery.

"I don't know as y'u ought to go out in the night air with that cold,
Denver. I'd hate a heap to have y'u catch pneumony. It don't seem to me
I'd be justified in allowin' y'u to," said the foreman, anxiously.

"You're THAT thoughtful, Mac. But I expect mebbe a little saunter with
Miss Nora will do my throat good. We'll walk real slow, so's not to wear
out my strength."

"Big, husky fellows like y'u are awful likely to drop off with pneumony.
I been thinkin' I got some awful good medicine that would be the right
stuff for y'u. It's in the drawer of my wash-stand. Help yourself
liberal and it will surely do y'u good. Y'u'll find it in a bottle."

"I'll bet it's good medicine, Mac. After we get home I'll drop around.
In the washstand, y'u said?"

"I hate to have y'u take such a risk," Mac tried again. "There ain't a
bit of use in y'u exposing yourself so careless. Y'u take a hot footbath
and some of that medicine, Denver, then go right straight to bed, and in
the mo'ning y'u'll be good as new. Honest, y'u won't know yourself."

"Y'u got the best heart, Mac." Nora giggled.

"Since I'm foreman I got to be a mother to y'u boys, ain't I?"

"Y'u're liable to be a grandmother to us if y'u keep on," came back the
young giant.

"Y'u plumb discourage me, Denver," sighed the foreman.

"No, sir! The way I look at it, a fellow's got to take some risk. Now,
y'u cayn't tell some things. I figure I ain't half so likely to catch
pneumony as y'u would be to get heart trouble if y'u went walking with
Miss Nora," returned Denver.

A perfect gravity sat on both their faces during the progress of most of
their repartee.

"If your throat's so bad, Mr. Halliday, I'll put a kerosene rag round
it for you when we get back," Nora said, with a sweet little glance of
sympathy that the foreman did not enjoy.

Denver, otherwise "Mr. Halliday," beamed. "Y'u're real kind, ma'am.
I'll bet that will help it on the outside much as Mac's medicine will
inside."

"What'll y'u do for my heart, ma'am, if it gits bad the way Denver
figures it will?"

"Y'u might try a mustard plaster," she gurgled, with laughter.

For once the debonair foreman's ready tongue had brought him to defeat.
He was about to retire from the field temporarily when Nora herself
offered first aid to the wounded.

"We would like to have you come along with us, Mr. McWilliams. I want
you to come if you can spare the time."

The soft eyes telegraphed an invitation with such a subtle suggestion of
a private understanding that Mac was instantly encouraged to accept.

He knew, of course, that she was playing them against each other and
sitting back to enjoy the result, but he was possessed of the hope
common to youths in his case that he really was on a better footing with
her than the other boys. This opinion, it may be added, was shared by
Denver, Frisco and even Reddy as regards themselves. Which is merely
another way of putting the regrettable fact that this very charming
young woman was given to coquetting with the hearts of her admirers.

"Any time y'u get oneasy about that cough y'u go right on home, Denver.
Don't stay jest out of politeness. We'll never miss y'u, anyhow," the
foreman assured him.

"Thank y'u, Mac. But y'u see I got to stay to keep Miss Nora from
getting bored."

"Was it a phrenologist strung y'u with the notion y'u was a cure for
lonesomeness?"

"Shucks! I don't make no such claims. The only thing is it's a comfort
when you're bored to have company. Miss Nora, she's so polite. But, y'u
see, if I'm along I can take y'u for a walk when y'u get too bad."

They reached the little trail that ran up to Lee Ming's place, and
Denver suggested that Mac run in with the bundle so as to save Nora the
climb.

"I'd like to, honest I would. But since y'u thought of it first I won't
steal the credit of doing Miss Nora a good turn. We'll wait right here
for y'u till y'u come back."

"We'll all go up together," decided Nora, and honors were easy.

In the pleasant moonlight they sauntered back, two of them still engaged
in lively badinage, while the third played chorus with appreciative
little giggles and murmurs of "Oh, Mr. Halliday!" and "You know you're
just flattering me, Mr. McWilliams."

If they had not been so absorbed in their gay foolishness the two men
might not have walked so innocently into the trap waiting for them
at their journey's end. As it was, the first intimation they had of
anything unusual was a stern command to surrender.

"Throw up your hands. Quick, you blank fools!"

A masked man covered them, in each hand a six-shooter, and at his
summons the arms of the cow-punchers went instantly into the air.

Nora gave an involuntary little scream of dismay.

"Y'u don't need to be afraid, lady. Ain't nobody going to hurt you, I
reckon," the masked man growled.

"Sure they won't," Mac reassured her, adding ironically: "This
gun-play business is just neighborly frolic. Liable to happen any day in
Wyoming."

A second masked man stepped up. He, too was garnished with an arsenal.

"What's all this talking about?" he demanded sharply.

"We just been having a little conversation seh?" returned McWilliams,
gently, his vigilant eyes searching through the disguise of the other
"Just been telling the lady that your call is in friendly spirit. No
objections, I suppose?"

The swarthy newcomer, who seemed to be in command, swore sourly.

"Y'u put a knot in your tongue, Mr. Foreman."

"Ce'tainly, if y'u prefer," returned the indomitable McWilliams.

"Shut up or I'll pump lead into you!"

"I'm padlocked, seh."

Nora Darling interrupted the dialogue by quietly fainting. The foreman
caught her as she fell.

"See what y'u done, y'u blamed chump!" he snapped.





Next: The Two Cousins

Previous: A Shepherd Of The Desert



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