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Murder








From: Hidden Gold

"How do you think you'd like to live in Crawling Water?"

Wade looked whimsically at Helen, as she picked her way with the grace
of a kitten through the dust of the main street. Carefully though she
walked, her shoes and the bottom of her skirt were covered with dust,
and gray with it.

"I shouldn't like it," she said, with a little moue. "I don't see why
you stay here. You aren't going to always, are you?"

"I reckon it's likely."

"Not--for always?" She had stopped and was looking up into his face with
delicious dismay. "That would be awful."

"Most of my friends, and all of my business interests are here. Besides,
I have a kind of pride in growing up with this country. Back in the
East, things have been settled for so long that a man's only a cog in a
machine. Out here, a fellow has a sense of ownership, even in the hills.
I think it's because he gets closer to the soil, until he comes to love
it and to be almost a part of it."

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed the girl. "That sounds fine, but the reality isn't
up to my anticipation of it."

Wade laughed in his hearty way.

"That's only because you haven't been here long enough, Helen."

"There are things that are splendid about the West," she generously
admitted. "Its vastness and wholesomeness, and especially its men. I'm
sure that's why I first liked you, Gordon, because you were
different--not like the general run of young men in the East."

"Oh, there are lots of good men East, too."

"Not so very many. At least, I have seen very few who were at all worth
while. There's one, Maxwell Frayne, who has been plaguing me for months;
but I don't care for him--much." She was closely watching him as she
spoke, and she smiled when he started.

"You'd better not."

"But if I really thought you meant to stay here all the time, I'm sure
I'd love him devotedly. Now"--she eyed him mischievously--"I think this
would be a nice place to call home, don't you know, just for fun, and
then spend most of the time in New York and London. See that man staring
at me!"

"How, staring at you?"

Wade turned and looked in the direction she indicated, surprised at the
suggestion that she was being annoyed in Crawling Water, where chivalry
to women ran high.

"Oh, he didn't mean anything, I daresay."

"They're friends of mine, and curious, perhaps." He referred to a group
of cattlemen across the street, who did seem to be staring and talking,
with some indecision in their attitude. "I wonder if anything can have
happened? Oh, I guess not. Well, what would I do in London?"

"I didn't say anything about you being in London, did I?"

"Well, it's safe to say that where you were, I'd want to be, at any
rate. Haven't I made two trips to Chicago for no real reason except to
see you?" he demanded, fast slipping into the thralldom of her
fascination.

She viewed him through half-closed eyes, knowing that the pose has
always allured him.

"Don't you think you'd be kept busy looking after me?" she playfully
asked. "Seriously, I hate an idle man, but I don't know what you'd find
to do there. What a question. You'd have to have investments that would
take you over every year or two."

"Now you're trying to make a city man of me," he said, half in jest.
"Besides,"--a dogged note crept into his voice--"I'd have the right to
expect something of you, wouldn't I?"

"Not the right, but the privilege," she answered softly.

"This is where the Purnells live." He turned her into the pathway to the
door. "This is what I'd like, a neat little home like this, with a
couple of kiddies and some dogs. Then I could spend my out-door time at
the ranch."

Before Helen could reply to this, Mrs. Purnell appeared on the threshold
to welcome them, but to Wade's surprise, she told them that Dorothy was
not there.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," said Helen, with intense relief.

"I don't know where she went either," the mother went on. "She was out
for a few minutes soon after you left, Gordon. Then she came back and
called out something to me, but I didn't catch what she said. Before I
knew what she was doing she had saddled her pony and ridden off. But
come right in. I don't think she'll be gone long."

They entered and Helen, graciously choosing to overlook the fact that
this was evidently Wade's second visit there within a very short time,
sought to impress him with her tactfulness to Mrs. Purnell. She would
have been amazed could she have guessed that she was actually arousing
him to resentment. He felt, somehow, that she was patronizing their
hostess, who was a woman of refinement, even if she lacked the
artificiality of manner that Helen affected. He was sincerely glad when
the visit came to an end.

"You must come again," said Mrs. Purnell, in a spirit of friendliness.

"So glad to have met you," Helen replied. "I hope to have the pleasure
of meeting your daughter, too, before we leave Crawling Water."

"They're splendid women, both of them," Wade remarked, as they walked
back toward the center of the town.

"Oh, yes," Helen agreed, without much spirit. "Nice, comfortable home
people, I suppose."

"Best kind in the world."

"Gordon!" Helen laughed good-naturedly, facing him as she walked. "What
in the world has been the matter with you to-day? We usually get on so
well together, and to-day, if I do say it, only my unwillingness to
quarrel has kept us from it."

"Oh, no!" He smiled, too. "Maybe that New York and London business
rubbed me the wrong way; that's all. I have plenty of faults, but I'm
loyal to my friends. I don't like even hints that they aren't the best
friends a man could have."

"Surely, I haven't...."

"Maybe not. Maybe I imagined it. But Crawling Water is a lot more real
than London, to my way of thinking."

"You haven't been to London."

"I'm not likely to go, either," he retorted.

Her red lips curled in a way that seemed to indicate that she thought he
would go. Already, she was planning to get him out of Crawling Water and
beyond the influence of Dorothy Purnell.

As they turned into the main street again, a man leaving a group near
the livery stable, and mounting a horse, rode toward them.

"I wonder what's up now?" Wade muttered, recognizing the horseman as one
of the Trowbridge outfit.

"Mr. Wade. Just a minute." With the grace of a Centaur, the rider swung
his mount in beside them and doffed his hat. "Two of Jensen's herders
have been shot. I thought you ought to know about it."

"What?" The ranch owner's jaw dropped at the news.

"It's true, sir. Word just came in."

"Thanks, Barker." Wade pulled himself together, as the restless pony
raced back to the barn. "I must go, Helen," he went on, turning to the
girl at his side. "There's been fighting--murder, perhaps--out near the
ranch. Santry will need me." He was uneasy lest the old plainsman should
have been concerned in the shooting.

"You'll take me to the hotel?"

"Of course, yes! Would you mind walking a little faster?" They quickened
their pace. "I'm sorry, Helen; but I must hurry to the ranch." Even at
that moment he could not but reflect that there would have been no need
to take Dorothy home. Somehow, the ways of the East seemed to fit less
and less aptly into the life of Crawling Water.

On his way to the livery stable after his horse, Wade did some rapid
thinking. Santry might have been concerned in the shooting, but his
employer thought not. The old fellow had promised to stay at home, and
his word was as good as another man's bond. It was too bad, certainly,
that the thing should have happened just when Senator Rexhill's promised
aid had seemed in a fair way to settle the controversy. Now, the whole
thing was more upset than ever, for Moran and Rexhill could hardly be
blamed if they backed up their own men, especially if the herders had
been blameless, as was probably the case. Yet if the Senator did this,
Wade knew that a bloody little war would be the outcome.

"Where's Trowbridge, Barker?" he asked of the cowpuncher, whom he found
waiting at the stable.

"At the ranch, I think."

Wade nodded. Ten minutes later he was in the saddle and headed for the
mountains, just as dusk began to fall. The cool night air, blowing
against his face as he reached the higher levels, was delightfully
refreshing after the heat of the day. He took off his hat and opened the
neck of his shirt to the breeze, which revived his energies like wine.
He knew that as he felt, so his horse felt, and he was glad, for the
animal would have to make a fast, hard trip. At the crest of the first
hills, before dipping into the valley, he turned for an instant in his
saddle to look backward over his trail toward the twinkling lights of
Crawling Water in the distance below.

He had covered some five miles of his journey, to no other sound than
the occasional note of some bird, when his quick ears caught the thud of
a horse's feet on the trail ahead, with now and then a sharp clatter as
the animal slipped on the stones. Wade slowed his own horse down to a
walk, and eased his Colt in its holster. He expected to meet some
harmless wayfarer, but, under the circumstances, it was just as well to
be prepared for trouble. Soon, however, he smiled to himself, for
whoever rode toward him made too much noise for any but a peaceful
mission. The other horse, too, had been slowed down and the two riders
approached each other with such caution that the rancher finally became
impatient and pressed forward recklessly.

Out of the night the stranger came on, still slowly, until a turn in the
trail brought them face to face.

"Don't shoot!" said a woman's contralto. "I'm a friend."

"Dorothy!" Wade ejaculated, at once recognizing the voice, although he
could not see the girl distinctly in the darkness. "In Heaven's name,
what are you doing out here?"

"Is it you, Gordon?" In her relief, she laughed softly as she pulled her
pony up side of him. "I was a little scared for a second or two. I've
awfully bad news, I'm afraid," she added, immediately serious. "I've
been trying to find you. I went to the hotel and they told me you'd gone
somewhere."

"Miss Rexhill and I went to call on you."

"You did? If I'd only known. I've been clear out to the ranch."

"Is Santry there?" In his anxiety he forgot momentarily the loneliness
of her long ride. "They say some of Jensen's men have been shot up; and
I'm anxious to find out what Bill knows."

"That's just what I want to tell you. I heard of the shooting before I
left town. Whoa, Gypsy!" She reined up her pony, nervously, for it would
not stand still. Wade seized the animal's bridle and quieted it. "I
don't know if he's there or not," the girl went on. "I couldn't see. The
ranch house is full of men."

"Men? What men?" Wade demanded sharply.

"Race Moran's crowd. They went out to arrest Santry. The Sheriff is with
them. I heard part of it in town, and that's why I tried to find you."
Wade groaned. "I peeped in at a window, and when I could see neither
you nor Santry I slipped away without being seen and took the old trail
back because it was shorter."

"Lord, what a mess!" Wade ground his teeth savagely. "Poor old Bill was
all alone there and they must have surprised him. But I don't see why
Barker didn't mention the posse when he told me of the shooting?"

"He didn't know of it, probably. They left town very quietly. I happened
to be out back of the house and I heard one of them talking as they rode
by."

"Good Lord!" Wade's head drooped. "I told Bill to stay at the ranch, and
he promised me...."

"I don't believe he shot Jensen at all," Dorothy declared, with spirit.
"Yes, it was Jensen himself and one of his herders. Both in the
back--killed."

"Bill Santry never shot any man in the back," Wade declared, in a
relieved tone. "If you're sure of the facts, Santry will come clear all
right."

"It's just a devilish scheme of Moran's, that's all, to put it on you
and Santry. I'm sure it is. He hates you both. Whoa, Gypsy!" She reined
the little mare in again. "No, it's all right, Gordon. I can manage
her," she remonstrated, as he reached for the bridle once more.

"So that's their game, eh? By Heaven, I more than half believe you're
right." His face grew ugly with rage. "Dorothy," he continued grimly,
"thanks are useless. You're a brick, that's all. Do one thing more for
us, will you?"

"Anything," she replied simply, her eyes shining with devotion to him,
but he was too overwrought to read them in the darkness.

"When you get back to town get word to some of the men for me. You may
meet them on the way out, if not they'll be around the barn. Tell them
to meet me at the big pine, on the old trail."

His horse had grown restless and now he allowed it to have its head; he
was moving past her when she clutched his arm.

"Gordon!"

She loved him dearly, too dearly to let him know how well until he
should speak, if he ever did speak; but above them was the starlit sky
and over them hovered the wondrous spirit of the Western night. Her
pulse was beating, too, to the call of danger, and despite the control
which she had over her nerves, she was just a bit hysterical beneath the
surface. She knew that ahead of him was a little army of hostile men,
and already that day two men had been killed. So, tremulously, she held
on to his sleeve, until she stopped him.

"What are you going to do? You can't do anything alone against so many.
They may kill you."

Her sympathy was very sweet to him and he warmly squeezed the little
hand which had held him back.

"Don't you be afraid, little girl," he said tenderly. "I shall not get
hurt if I can help it."

"Wait until the others come, won't you?"

"Surely," he answered readily, touched by the anxiety in her voice. "I'm
going to look around--just as you did--on the quiet. You wouldn't hold
me back, where you went in, now would you?"

"No--!" She smiled a little into his face.

"That's the stuff! Then I'm coming back to the big pine, and you'll send
the boys there. They'll not put Santry in jail if we can prevent them.
They've played their last card to-night. It's war from now on."

"All right, Gordon, I'll go." Her voice was full of courage again; the
moment of weakness had passed. "Remember now, take good care of
yourself."

"You bet," he retorted cheerily, and as her mare moved ahead, he caught
her arm as she had caught his. She went quite limp in her saddle and
swayed toward him, but he merely added: "You're a wonder, Dorothy."

He released her then, and with a wave of her hand she disappeared into
the night. Not until she was beyond recall did he realize that he might
have kissed her; that she had wanted him to kiss her, for the first time
since they had known each other. He sat in abstraction for several
moments before he shook the reins in his hand and his horse sprang
forward.

"I've kissed one girl to-day," he muttered aloud, "and I reckon that's
enough."





Next: The Old Trail

Previous: Treachery



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