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Playing For Time








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

"They've got 'em. Caught them on Dry Creek, just below Green Forks."

Helen Messiter, just finishing her breakfast at the hotel preparatory to
leaving in her machine for the ranch, laid down her knife and fork and
looked with dilated eyes at Denver, who had broken in with the news.

"Are you sure?" The color had washed from her face and left her very
white, but she fronted the situation quietly without hysterics or fuss
of any kind.

"Yes, ma'am. They're bringing them in now to jail. Watch out and y'u'll
see them pass here in a few minutes. Seems that Bannister's wound opened
up on him and he couldn't go any farther. Course Mac wouldn't leave
him. Sheriff Burns and his posse dropped in on them and had them covered
before Mac could chirp."

"You are sure this man--this desperado Bannister--will do nothing till
night?"

"Not the way I figure it. He'll have the jail watched all day. But he's
got to work the town up to a lynching. I expect the bars will be free
for all to-day. By night the worst part of this town will be ready for
anything. The rest of the citizens are going to sit down and do nothing
just because it is Bannister."

"But it isn't Bannister--not the Bannister they think it is."

He shook his head. "No use, ma'am. I've talked till my throat aches, but
it don't do a mite of good. Nobody believes a word of what I say. Y'u
see, we ain't got any proof."

"Proof! We have enough, God knows! didn't this villain--this outlaw that
calls himself Jack Holloway--attack and try to murder him?"

"That's what we believe, but the report out is that one of us punchers
shot him up for crossing the dead-line."

"Didn't this fellow hold up the ranch and try to take Ned Bannister away
with him?"

"Yes, ma'am. But that doesn't look good to most people. They say he had
his friends come to take him away so y'u wouldn't hold him and let us
boys get him. This cousin business is a fairy tale the way they size it
up. How come this cousin to let him go if he held up the ranch to put
the sick man out of business? No, miss. This country has made up its
mind that your friend is the original Ned Bannister. My opinion is that
nothing on earth can save him."

"I don't want your opinion. I'm going to save him, I tell you; and you
are going to help. Are his friends nothing but a bunch of quitters?" she
cried, with sparkling eyes.

"I didn't know I was such a great friend of his," answered the cowboy
sulkily.

"You're a friend of Jim McWilliams, aren't you? Are you going to sneak
away and let these curs hang him?"

Denver flushed. "Y'u're dead right, Miss Helen. I guess I'll see it out
with you. What's the orders?"

"I want you to help me organize a defense. Get all Mac's friends stirred
up to make a fight for him. Bring as many of them in to see me during
the day as you can. If you see any of the rest of the Lazy D boys send
them in to me for instructions. Report yourself every hour to me. And
make sure that at least three of your friends that you can trust are
hanging round the jail all day so as to be ready in case any attempt is
made to storm it before dark."

"I'll see to it." Denver hung on his heel a moment before leaving. "It's
only square to tell y'u, Miss Helen, that this means war here tonight.
These streets are going to run with blood if we try to save them."

"I'm taking that responsibility," she told him curtly; but a moment
later she added gently: "I have a plan, my friend, that may stop this
outrage yet. But you must do your best for me." She smiled sadly at him.
"You're my foreman, to-day, you know."

"I'm going to do my level best, y'u may tie to that," he told her
earnestly.

"I know you will." And their fingers touched for an instant.

Through a window the girl could see a crowd pouring down the street
toward the hotel. She flew up the stairs and out upon the second-story
piazza that looked down upon the road.

From her point of vantage she easily picked them out--the two unarmed
men riding with their hands tied behind their backs, encircled by a
dozen riders armed to the teeth. Bannister's hat had apparently fallen
off farther down the street, for the man beside him was dusting it. The
wounded prisoner looked about him without fear, but it was plain he was
near the limit of endurance. He was pale as a sheet, and his fair curls
clung moistly to his damp forehead.

McWilliams caught sight of her first, and she could see him turn and
say a word to his comrade. Bannister looked up, caught sight of her, and
smiled. That smile, so pale and wan, went to her heart like a knife. But
the message of her eyes was hope. They told the prisoners silently to be
of good cheer, that at least they were not deserted to their fate.

"What is it about--the crowd?" Nora asked of her mistress as the latter
was returning to the head of the stairs.

In as few words as she could Helen told her, repressing sharply the
tears the girl began to shed. "This is not the time to weep--not yet.
We must save them. You can do your part. Mr. Bannister is wounded. Get
a doctor over the telephone and see that he attends him at the prison.
Don't leave the 'phone until you have got one to promise to go
immediately."

"Yes, miss. Is there anything else?"

"Ask the doctor to call you up from the prison and tell you how Mr.
Bannister is. Make it plain to him that he is to give up his other
practice, if necessary, and is to keep us informed through the day about
his patient's condition. I will be responsible for his bill."

Helen herself hurried to the telegraph office at the depot. She wrote
out a long dispatch and handed it to the operator. "Send this at once
please."

He was one of those supercilious young idiots that make the most of such
small power as ever drifts down to them. Taking the message, he tossed
it on the table. "I'll send it when I get time."

"You'll send it now."

"What--what's that?"

Her steady eyes caught and held his shifting ones. "I say you are going
to send it now--this very minute."

"I guess not. The line's busy," he bluffed.

"If you don't begin sending that message this minute I'll make it my
business to see that you lose your position," she told him calmly.

He snatched up the paper from the place where he had tossed it. "Oh,
well, if it's so darned important," he-conceded ungraciously.

She stood quietly above him while he sent the telegram, even though he
contrived to make every moment of her stay an unvoiced insult. Her
wire was to the wife of the Governor of the State. They had been close
friends at school, and the latter had been urging Helen to pay a visit
to Cheyenne. The message she sent was as follows:

Battle imminent between outlaws and cattlemen here. Bloodshed certain
to-night. My foreman last night killed in self-defense a desperado.
Bannister's gang, in league with town authorities, mean to lynch him
and one of my other friends after dark this evening. Sheriff will do
nothing. Can your husband send soldiers immediately? Wire answer.

The operator looked up sullenly after his fingers had finished the last
tap. "Well?"

"Just one thing more," Helen told him. "You understand the rules of the
company about secrecy. Nobody you knows I am sending this message. If by
any chance it should leak out, I shall know through whom. If you want to
hold your position, you will keep quiet."

"I know my business," he growled. Nevertheless, she had spoken in
season, for he had had it in his mind to give a tip where he knew
it would be understood to hasten the jail delivery and accompanying
lynching.

When she returned to the hotel? Helen found Missou waiting for her.
She immediately sent him back to the office, and told him to wait there
until the answer was received. "I'll send one of the boys up to relieve
you so that you may come with the telegram as soon as it arrives. I
want the operator watched all day. Oh, here's Jim Henson! Denver has
explained the situation to you, I presume. I want you to go up to the
telegraph office and stay there all day. Go to lunch with the operator
when he goes. Don't let him talk privately to anybody, not even for a
few seconds. I don't want you to seem to have him under guard before
outsiders, but let him know it very plainly. He is not to mention a wire
I sent or the answer to it--not to anybody, Jim. Is that plain?"

"Y'u bet! He's a clam, all right, till the order is countermanded." And
the young man departed with a cheerful grin that assured Helen she had
nothing to fear from official leaks.

Nora, from answering a telephone call, came to report to the general
in charge. "The doctor says that he has looked after Mr. Bannister, and
there is no immediate danger. If he keeps quiet for a few days he ought
to do well. Mr. McWilliams sent a message by him to say that we aren't
to worry about him. He said he would--would--rope a heap of cows on the
Lazy D yet."

Nora, bursting into tears, flung herself into Helen's arms. "They are
going to kill him. I know they are, and--and 'twas only yesterday,
ma'am, I told him not to--to get gay, the poor boy. When he tried
to--to--" She broke down and sobbed.

Her mistress smiled in spite of herself, though she was bitterly aware
that even Nora's grief was only superficially ludicrous.

"We're going to save him, Nora, if we can. There's hope while there's
life. You see, Mac himself is full of courage. HE hasn't given up. We
must keep up our courage, too."

"Yes, ma'am, but this is the first gentleman friend I ever had hanged,
and--" She broke off, sobbing, leaving the rest as a guess.

Helen filled it out aloud. "And you were going to say that you care more
for him than any of the others. Well, you must stop coquetting and tell
him so when we have saved him."

"Yes, ma'am," agreed Nora, very repentant for the moment of the fact
that it was her nature to play with the hearts of those of the
male persuasion. Immediately she added: "He was THAT kind, ma'am,
tender-hearted."

Helen, whose own heart was breaking, continued to soothe her. "Don't say
WAS, child. You are to be brave, and not think of him that way."

"Yes, ma'am. He told me he was going to buy cows with the thousand
dollars he won yesterday. I knew he meant--"

"Yes, of course. It's a cowboy's way of saying that he means to start
housekeeping. Have you the telegram, Missou?" For that young man was
standing in the doorway.

He handed her the yellow slip. She ripped open the envelope and read:
Company B en route. Railroad connections uncertain Postpone crisis long
as possible. May reach Gimlet Butte by ten-thirty.

Her first thought was of unspeakable relief. The militia was going to
take a hand. The boys in khaki would come marching down the street, and
everything would be all right. But hard on the heels of her instinctive
gladness trod the sober second thought. Ten-thirty at best, and perhaps
later! Would they wait that long, or would they do their cowardly work
as soon as night fell She must contrive to delay them till the train
drew in. She must play for those two lives with all her woman's wit;
must match the outlaw's sinister cunning and fool him into delay. She
knew he would come if she sent for him. But how long could she keep
him? As long as he was amused at her agony, as long as his pleasure in
tormenting her was greater than his impatience to be at his ruffianly
work. Oh, if she ever needed all her power it would be to-night.

Throughout the day she continued to receive hourly reports from Denver,
who always brought with him four or five honest cowpunchers from
up-country to listen to the strange tale she unfolded to them. It was,
of course, in part, the spell of her sweet personality, of that shy
appeal she made to the manhood in them; but of those who came, nearly
all believed, for the time at least, and aligned themselves on her side
in the struggle that was impending. Some of these were swayed from their
allegiance in the course of the day, but a few she knew would remain
true.

Meanwhile, all through the day, the enemy was busily at work. As Denver
had predicted, free liquor was served to all who would drink. The
town and its guests were started on a grand debauch that was to end in
violence that might shock their sober intelligence. Everywhere poisoned
whispers were being flung broadcast against the two men waiting in the
jail for what the night would bring forth.

Dusk fell on a town crazed by bad whiskey and evil report. The deeds of
Bannister were hashed and rehashed at every bar, and nobody related them
with more ironic gusto than the man who called himself Jack Holloway.
There were people in town who knew his real name and character, but of
these the majority were either in alliance with him or dared not voice
their knowledge. Only Miss Messiter and her punchers told the truth, and
their words were blown away like chaff.

From the first moment of darkness Helen had the outlaw leader dogged by
two of her men. Since neither of these were her own riders this was
done without suspicion. At intervals of every quarter of an hour they
reported to her in turn. Bannister was beginning to drink heavily, and
she did not want to cut short his dissipation by a single minute. Yet
she had to make sure of getting his attention before he went too far.

It was close to nine when she sent him a note, not daring to delay a
minute longer. For the reports of her men were all to the same effect,
that the crisis would not now be long postponed. Bannister, or Holloway,
as he chose to call himself, was at the bar with his lieutenants in evil
when the note reached him. He read it with a satisfaction he could not
conceal. So! He had brought her already to her knees. Before he was
through with her she should grovel in the dust before him.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. Do nothing till I return," he ordered,
and went jingling away to the Elk House.

The young woman's anxiety was pitiable, but she repressed it sternly
when she went to meet the man she feared; and never had it been more in
evidence than in this hour of her greatest torture. Blithely she came
forward to meet him, eye challenging eye gayly. No hint of her anguish
escaped into her manner. He read there only coquetry, the eternal sex
conflict, the winsome defiance of a woman hitherto the virgin mistress
of all assaults upon her heart's citadel. It was the last thing he had
expected to see, but it was infinitely more piquant, more intoxicating,
than desperation. She seemed to give the lie to his impression of her
love for his cousin; and that, too, delighted his pride.

"You will sit down?"

Carelessly, almost indolently, she put the question, her raised eyebrows
indicating a chair with perfunctory hospitality. He had not meant to
sit, had expected only to gloat a few minutes over her despair; but
this situation called for more deliberation. He had yet to establish the
mastery his vanity demanded. Therefore he took a chair.

"This is ce'tainly an unexpected honor. Did y'u send for me to explain
some more about that sufficient understanding between us?" he sneered.

It was a great relief to her to see that, though he had been drinking,
as she had heard, he was entirely master of himself. Her efforts might
still be directed to Philip sober.

"I sent for you to congratulate you," she answered, with a smile. "You
are a bigger man than I thought. You have done what you said you would
do, and I presume you can very shortly go out of mourning."

He radiated vanity, seemed to visibly expand "Do y'u go in when I go
out?" he asked brutally.

She laughed lightly. "Hardly. But it does seem as if I'm unlucky in my
foremen. They all seem to have engagements across the divide."

"I'll get y u another."

"Thank you. I was going to ask as much of you. Can you suggest one now?"

"I'm a right good cattle man myself."

"And--can you stay with me a reasonable time?"

He laughed. "I have no engagements across the Styx, ma'am."

"My other foremen thought they were permanent fixtures here, too."

"We're all liable to mistakes."

"Even you, I suppose."

"I'll sign a lease to give y'u possession of my skill for as long as y'u
like."

She settled herself comfortably back in an easy chair, as alluring a
picture of buoyant, radiant youth as he had seen in many a day. "But the
terms. I am afraid I can't offer you as much as you make at your present
occupation."

"I could keep that up as a side-line."

"So you could. But if you use my time for your own profit, you ought to
pay me a royalty on your intake."

His eyes lit with laughter. "I reckon that can be arranged. Any
percentage you think fair It will all be in the family, anyway."

"I think that is one of the things about which we don't agree," she made
answer softly, flashing him the proper look of inviting disdain from
under her silken lashes.

He leaned forward, elbow on the chair-arm and chin in hand. "We'll agree
about it one of these days."

"Think so?" she returned airily.

"I don't think. I know."

Just an eyebeat her gaze met his, with that hint of shy questioning, of
puzzled doubt that showed a growing interest. "I wonder," she murmured,
and recovered herself little laugh.

How she hated her task, and him! She was a singularly honest woman, but
she must play the siren; must allure this scoundrel to forgetfulness,
with a hurried and yet elude the very familiarity her manner invited.
She knew her part, the heartless enticing coquette, compounded half
of passion and half of selfishness. It was a hateful thing to do, this
sacrifice of her personal reticence, of the individual abstraction in
which she wrapped herself as a cloak, in order to hint at a possibility
of some intimacy of feeling between them. She shrank from it with a
repugnance hardly to be overcome, but she held herself with an iron will
and consummate art to the role she had undertaken. Two lives hung on
her success. She must not forget that. She would not let herself forget
that--and one of them that of the man she loved.

So, bravely she played her part, repelling always with a hint of
invitation, denying with the promise in her fascinated eyes of ultimate
surrender to his ardor. In the zest of the pursuit the minutes slipped
away unnoticed. Never had a woman seemed to him more subtly elusive, and
never had he felt more sure of himself. Her charm grew on him, stirred
his pulses to a faster beat. For it was his favorite sport, and this
warm, supple young creature, who was to be the victim of his bow and
arrow, showed herself worthy of his mettle.

The clock downstairs struck the half-hour, and Bannister, reminded of
what lay before him outside, made a move to go. Her alert eyes had been
expecting it, and she forestalled him by a change of tactics. Moved
apparently by impulse, she seated herself on the piano-stool, swept the
keys for an instant with her fingers, and plunged into the brilliant
"Carmen" overture. Susceptible as this man was to the influence of
music, he could not fail to be arrested by so perfect an interpretation
of his mood. He stood rooted, was carried back again in imagination to
a great artiste's rendering of that story of fierce passion and aching
desire so brilliantly enacted under the white sunbeat of a country
of cloudless skies. Imperceptibly she drifted into other parts of the
opera. Was it the wild, gypsy seductiveness of Carmen that he felt,
or, rather, this American girl's allurement? From "Love will like a
birdling fly" she slipped into the exquisitely graceful snatches of song
with which Carmen answers the officer's questions. Their rare buoyancy
marched with his mood, and from them she carried him into the song
"Over the hill," that is so perfect and romantic an expression of the
wanderlust.

How long she could have held him she will never know, for at that
inopportune time came blundering one of his men into the room with a
call for his presence to take charge of the situation outside.

"What do y'u want, Bostwick?" he demanded, with curt peremptoriness.

The man whispered in his ear.

"Can't wait any longer, can't they?" snapped his chief. "Y'u tell them
they'll wait till I give the word. Understand?"

He almost flung the man out of the room, but Helen noticed that she had
lost him. His interest was perfunctory, and, though he remained a little
time longer, it was to establish his authority with the men rather than
to listen to her. Twice he looked at his watch within five minutes.

He rose to go. "There is a little piece of business I have to put
through. So I'll have to ask y'u to excuse me. I have had a delightful
hour, and I hate to go." He smiled, and quoted with mock sentimentality:

"The hours I spent with thee, dear heart, Are as a string of pearls to
me; I count them over, every one apart, My rosary! My rosary!"

"Dear me! One certainly lives and learns. How could I have guessed that,
with your reputation, you could afford to indulge in a rosary?" she
mocked.

"Good night." He offered his hand.

"Don't go yet," she coaxed.

He shook his head. "Duty, y'u know."

"Stay only a little longer. Just ten minutes more."

His vanity purred, so softly she stroked it. "Can't. Wish I could. Y'u
hear how noisy things are getting. I've got to take charge. So-long."

She stood close, looking up at him with a face of seductive appeal.

"Don't go yet. Please!"

The triumph of victory mounted to his head. "I'll come back when I've
done what I've got to do."

"No, no. Stay a little longer just a little."

"Not a minute, sweetheart."

He bent to kiss her, and a little clenched fist struck his face.

"Don't you dare!" she cried.

The outraged woman in her, curbed all evening with an iron bit, escaped
from control. Delightedly he laughed. The hot spirit in her pleased him
mightily. He took her little hands and held them in one of his while he
smiled down at her. "I guess that kiss will keep, my girl, till I come
back."

"My God! Are you going to kill your own cousin?"

All her terror, all her detestation and hatred of him, looked haggardly
out of her unmasked face. His narrowed eyes searched her heart, and his
countenance grew every second more sinister,

"Y'u have been fooling me all evening, then?"

"Yes, and hating you every minute of the time."

"Y'u dared?" His face was black with rage.

"You would like to kill me. Why don't you?"

"Because I know a better revenge. I'm going out to take it now. After
your lover is dead, I'll come back and make love to y'u again," he
sneered.

"Never!" She stood before him like a queen in her lissom, brave, defiant
youth. "And as for your cousin, you may kill him, but you can't destroy
his contempt for you. He will die despising you for a coward and a
scoundrel."

It was true, and he knew it. In his heart he cursed her, while he vainly
sought some weapon that would strike home through her impervious armor.

"Y'u love him. I'll remember that when I see him kick," he taunted.

"I make you a present of the information. I love him, and I despise you.
Nothing can change those facts," she retorted whitely.

"Mebbe, but some day y'u'll crawl on your knees to beg my pardon for
having told me so."

"There is your overweening vanity again," she commented.

"I'm going to break y'u, my beauty, so that y'u'll come running when I
snap my fingers."

"We'll see."

"And in the meantime I'll go hang your lover." He bowed ironically,
swung on his jingling heel, and strode out of the room.

She stood there listening to his dying footfalls, then covered her
face with her hands, as if to press back the dreadful vision her mind
conjured.





Next: West Point To The Rescue

Previous: Run To Earth



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