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The Dance At Fraser's








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

"Heard tell yet of the dance over to Fraser's?"

He was a young man of a brick red countenance and he wore loosely round
his neck the best polka dot silk handkerchief that could be bought in
Gimlet Butte, also such gala attire as was usually reserved only for
events of importance. Sitting his horse carelessly in the plainsman's
indolent fashion, he asked his question of McWilliams in front of the
Lazy D bunkhouse.

"Nope. When does the shindig come off?"

"Friday night. Big thing. Y'u want to be there. All y'u lads."

"Mebbe some of us will ride over."

He of the polka dot kerchief did not appear quite satisfied. His glance
wandered toward the house, as it had been doing occasionally since the
moment of his arrival.

"Y'u bet this dance is ace high, Mac. Fancy costumes and masks. Y'u can
rent the costumes over to Slauson's for three per. Texas, he's going to
call the dances. Music from Gimlet Butte. Y'u want to get it tucked away
in your thinker that this dance ain't on the order of culls. No, sirree,
it's cornfed."

"Glad to hear of it. I'll cipher out somehow to be there, Slim."

Slim's glance took in the ranchhouse again. He had ridden twenty-three
miles out of his way to catch a glimpse of the newly arrived mistress of
the Lazy D, the report of whose good looks and adventures had traveled
hand in hand through many canons even to the heart of the Tetons. It had
been on Skunk Creek that he had heard of her three days before, and now
he had come to verify the tongue of rumor, to see her quite casually, of
course, and do his own appraising. It began to look as if he were going
to have to ride off without a glimpse of her.

He nodded toward the house, turning a shade more purple than his native
choleric hue. "Y'u want to bring your boss with y'u, Mac. We been
hearing a right smart lot about her and the boys would admire to
have her present. It's going to be strictly according to Hoyle--no
rough-house plays go, y'understand."

"I'll speak to her about it." Mac's deep amusement did not reach the
surface. He was quite well aware that Slim was playing for time and that
he was too bashful to plump out the desire that was in him. "Great the
way cows are jumpin', ain't it?"

"Sure. Well, I'll be movin' along to Slauson's. I just drapped in on my
way. Thought mebbe y'u hadn't heard tell of the dance."

"Much obliged. Was it for old man Slauson y'u dug up all them togs,
Slim? He'll ce'tainly admire to see y'u in that silk tablecloth y'u got
round your neck."

Slim's purple deepened again. "Y'u go to grass, Mac. I don't aim to ask
y'u to be my valley yet awhile."

"C'rect. I was just wondering do all the Triangle Bar boys ride the
range so handsome?"

"Don't y'u worry about the Triangle Bar boys," advised the embarrassed
Slim, gathering up his bridle reins.

With one more reluctant glance in the direction of the house he rode
away. When he reached the corral he looked back again. His gaze showed
him the boyish foreman doubled up with laughter; also the sweep of a
white skirt descending from the piazza.

"Now, ain't that hoodooed luck?" the aggrieved rider of the Triangle Bar
outfit demanded of himself, "I made my getaway about three shakes too
soon, by gum!"

Her foreman was in the throes of mirth when Helen Messiter reached him.

"Include me in the joke," she suggested.

"Oh, I was just thinkin'," he explained inadequately.

"Does it always take you that way?"

"About these boys that drop in so frequent on business these days. Funny
how fond they're getting of the Lazy D. There was that stock detective
happened in yesterday to show how anxious he was about your cows. Then
the two Willow Creek riders that wanted a job punching for y'u, not to
mention mention the Shoshone miner and the storekeeper from Gimlet Butte
and Soapy Sothern and--"

"Still I don't quite see the joke."

"It ain't any joke with them. Serious business, ma'am."

"What happened to start you on this line?"

"The lad riding down the road on that piebald pinto. He come twenty
miles out of his way, plumb dressed for a wedding, all to give me an
invite to a dance at Fraser's. Y'u would call that real thoughtful of
him, I expect."

She gayly sparkled. "A real ranch dance--the kind you have been telling
me about. Are Ida and I invited?"

"Invited? Slim hinted at a lynching if I came without y'u."

She laughed softly, merry eyes flashing swiftly at him. "How gallant you
Westerners are, even though you do turn it into burlesque."

His young laugh echoed hers. "Burlesque nothing. My life wouldn't be
worth a thing if I went alone. Honest, I wouldn't dare."

"Since the ranch can't afford to lose its foreman Ida and I will go
along," she promised. "That is, if it is considered proper here."

"Proper. Good gracious, ma'am! Every lady for thirty miles round will be
there, from six months old to eighty odd years. It wouldn't be PROPER to
stay at home."

The foreman drove her to Fraser's in a surrey with Ida Henderson and one
of the Lazy D punchers on the back seat. The drive was over twenty-five
miles, but in that silent starry night every mile was a delight. Part of
the way led through a beautiful canon, along the rocky mountain road of
which the young man guided the rig with unerring skill. Beyond the gorge
the country debouched into a grassy park that fell away from their feet
for miles. It was in this basin that the Fraser ranch lay.

The strains of the fiddle and the thumping of feet could be heard as
they drove up. Already the rooms seemed to be pretty well filled, as
Helen noticed when they entered. Three sets were on the floor for a
quadrille and the house shook with the energy of the dancers. On benches
against the walls were seated the spectators, and on one of them stood
Texas calling the dance.

"Alemane left. Right hand t'yer pardner and grand right and left.
Ev-v-rybody swing," chanted the caller.

A dozen rough young fellows were clustered near the front door,
apparently afraid to venture farther lest their escape be cut off.
Through these McWilliams pushed a way for his charges, the cowboys
falling back respectfully at once when they discovered the presence of
Miss Messiter.

In the bedroom where she left her wraps the mistress of the Lazy D found
a dozen or more infants and several of their mothers. In the kitchen
were still other women and babies, some of the former very old and of
the latter very young. A few of the babies were asleep, but most of them
were still very much alive to this scene of unwonted hilarity in their
young lives.

As soon as she emerged into the general publicity of the dancing room
her foreman pounced upon Helen and led her to a place in the head set
that was making up. The floor was rough, the music jerky and uncertain,
the quadrilling an exhibition of joyous and awkward abandon; but its
picturesque lack of convention appealed to the girl from Michigan. It
rather startled her to be swung so vigorously, but a glance about the
room showed that these humorous-eyed Westerners were merely living up to
the duty of the hour as they understood it.

At the close of the quadrille Helen found herself being introduced
to "Mr. Robins," alias Slim, who drew one of his feet back in an
embarrassed bow.

"I enjoy to meet y'u, ma'am," he assured her, and supplemented this with
a request for the next dance, after which he fell into silence that was
painful in its intensity.

Nearly all the dances were squares, as few of those present understood
the intricacies of the waltz and two-step. Hence it happened that the
proficient McWilliams secured three round dances with his mistress.

It was during the lunch of sandwiches, cake and coffee that Helen
perceived an addition to the company. The affair had been advertised
a costume ball, but most of those present had construed this very
liberally. She herself, to be sure, had come as Mary Queen of Scots,
Mac was arrayed in the scarlet tunic and tight-fitting breeches of the
Northwest Mounted Police, and perhaps eight or ten others had made
some attempt at representing some one other than they were. She now saw
another, apparently a new arrival, standing in the doorway negligently.
A glance told her that he was made up for a road agent and that his
revolvers and mask were a part of the necessary costuming.

Slowly his gaze circled the room and came round to her. His eyes were
hard as diamonds and as flashing, so that the impact of their meeting
looks seemed to shock her physically. He was a tall man, swarthy of
hue, and he carried himself with a light ease that looked silken strong.
Something in the bearing was familiar yet not quite familiar either. It
seemed to suggest a resemblance to somebody she knew. And in the next
thought she knew that the somebody was Ned Bannister.

The man spoke to Fraser, just then passing with a cup of coffee, and
Helen saw the two men approach. The stranger was coming to be formally
introduced.

"Shake hands with Mr. Holloway, Miss Messiter. He's from up in the hill
country and he rode to our frolic. Y'u've got three guesses to figure
out what he's made up as."

"One will be quite enough, I think," she answered coldly.

Fraser departed on his destination with the coffee and the newcomer sat
down on the bench beside her.

"One's enough, is it?" he drawled smilingly.

"Quite, but I'm surprised so few came in costume. Why didn't you? But I
suppose you had your reasons."

"Didn't I? I'm supposed to be a bad man from the hills."

She swept him casually with an indifferent glance. "And isn't that what
you are in real life?"

His sharp scrutiny chiseled into her. "What's that?"

"You won't mind if I forget and call you Mr. Bannister instead of Mr.
Holloway?"

She thought his counterfeit astonishment perfect.

"So I'm Ned Bannister, am I?"

Their eyes clashed.

"Aren't you?"

She felt sure of it, and yet there was a lurking doubt. For there was
in his manner something indescribably more sinister than she had felt
in him on that occasion when she had saved his life. Then a debonair
recklessness had been the outstanding note, but now there was something
ribald and wicked in him.

"Since y'u put it as a question, common politeness demands an answer.
Ned Bannister is my name."

"You are the terror of this country?"

"I shan't be a terror to y'u, ma'am, if I can help it," he smiled.

"But you are the man they call the king?"

"I have that honor."

"HONOR?"

At the sharp scorn of her accent he laughed.

"Do you mean that you are proud of your villainy?" she demanded.

"Y'u've ce'tainly got the teacher habit of asking questions," he replied
with a laugh that was a sneer.

A shadow fell across them and a voice said quietly, "She didn't wait to
ask any when she saved your life down in the coulee back of the Lazy D."

The shadow was Jim McWilliams's, and its owner looked down at the man
beside the girl with steady, hostile eyes.

"Is this your put in, sir?" the other flashed back.

"Yes, seh, it is. The boys don't quite like seeing your hardware so
prominent at a social gathering. In this community guns don't come into
the house at a ranch dance. I'm a committee to mention the subject and
to collect your thirty-eights if y'u agree with us."

"And if I don't agree with you?"

"There's all outdoors ready to receive y'u, seh. It would be a pity to
stay in the one spot where your welcome's wore thin."

"Still I may choose to stay."

"Ce'tainly, but if y'u decide that way y'u better step out on the porch
and talk it over with us where there ain't ladies present."

"Isn't this a costume dance? What's the matter with my guns? I'm an
outlaw, ain't I?"

"I don't know whether y'u are or not, seh. If y'u say y'u are we're
ready to take your word. The guns have to be shucked if y'u stay here.
They might go off accidental and scare the ladies."

The man rose blackly. "I'll remember this. If y'u knew who y'u were
getting so gay with--"

"I can guess, Mr. Holloway, the kind of an outfit y'u freight with, and
I expect I could put a handle to another name for you."

"By God, if y'u dare to say--"

"I don't dare, especially among so many ladies," came McWilliams's
jaunty answer.

The eyes of the two men gripped, after which Holloway swung on his heel
and swaggered defiantly out of the house.

Presently there came the sound of a pony's feet galloping down the
road. It had not yet died away when Texas announced that the supper
intermission was over.

"Pardners for a quadrille. Ladies' choice."

The dance was on again full swing. The fiddlers were tuning up and
couples gathering for a quadrille. Denver came to claim Miss Messiter
for a partner. Apparently even the existence of the vanished Holloway
was forgotten. But Helen remembered it, and pondered over the affair
long after daylight had come and brought with it an end to the
festivities.





Next: A Party Call

Previous: At The Lazy D Ranch



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