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The Gathering Storm








From: Hidden Gold

On the north bank of the river, from which it derived its name, the town
of Crawling Water lay sprawled out in the shape of an irregular horn.
Its original settlers had been men of large ideas, and having had plenty
of space at their disposal, they had used it lavishly. The streets,
bordered by dusty, weather-beaten, frame buildings, were as wide as
those of a large city; indeed, in area, the town could compete with many
a metropolis; but there the resemblance ended. Crawling Water was not
fated to become a big city. The fact that the nearest railroad point was
at Sheridan, forty miles away, did away with any ambitions that Crawling
Water might have had to be more than a neighborhood center.

The mixed population was composed of cattlemen, sheep men, cow punchers
and herders, with a sprinkling of gamblers and other riff-raff. Rough,
uncouth, full-blooded men, they were, for the most part; hard working;
decisive in their likes and dislikes; fearing neither God nor man, they
met Life as they found it and faced Death with a laugh. They were the
last of a fast disappearing type, picturesque, but lacking in many of
the attributes which differentiate mankind from the beasts.

Hardly more than a village, Crawling Water was yet a town, and the seat
of such machinery of government as had been established, and
accordingly, Gordon Wade had ridden directly thither after his far from
satisfactory interview with Oscar Jensen. After he had stabled his horse
and seen it fed, he started up the street in the direction of Moran's
office. He was resolved to find out where the agent stood on the sheep
question without any unnecessary delay. Save for a few dogs, sleeping in
the blaze of the noon-day sun, which hung overhead like a ball of fire,
the town seemed deserted.

When Wade entered the office, Moran was seated at his desk, chewing on a
cigar, above which his closely cropped reddish mustache bristled. Like
Senator Rexhill, he was a man of girth and bulk, but his ape-like body
was endowed with a strength which not even his gross life had been able
to wreck, and he was always muscularly fit. Except for the miner's hip
boots, which he wore, he was rather handsomely dressed, and would have
been called tastefully so in the betting ring of a metropolitan
race-track, where his diamond scarf-pin and ring would have been
admired.

"Hello!" he boomed as Wade entered. "Have a cigar." He pushed a box of
an excellent brand toward his visitor and waved him to a chair. His
greeting was noisy rather than cordial.

Wade declined both the chair and the cigar.

"I dropped in to find out why you told Jensen to run his sheep in on my
range," he began bluntly.

"Let me see--" The agent very deliberately lifted a large, white hand
and took the cigar out of his mouth. "Just what range is that?"

"The upper valley range which I have under lease."

"Which you have under lease?" Moran affected sarcastic surprise. "I
wasn't aware that you had any legal right to that part of the valley.
It's government land, ain't it?"

"You seem to have forgotten that you once tried to buy the lease from
me." The rancher bared his teeth in a grim smile. "We'll not quibble
over that, however. We've got our legal rights, all of us; but we're a
long distance from the courts here. What I want to know in plain English
is, will you order Jensen to trail those sheep? Now, wait a moment!"

Moran subsided with a show of tolerance he did not feel.

"Think well before you answer," Wade went on. "I'm not here to threaten
you, but there are desperate men in this valley who will take matters
into their own hands, if this business is not stopped. There's plenty of
grass on the other side of the mountains and your sheep are welcome to
it. Why don't you make use of it?"

"Why should I? The sheep have a right to be where they are and there
they'll stay until I get ready to move 'em. You cattlemen think you own
this country, but when it comes to the show down, you're a bunch of
bluffers. Now, Wade, I made you an offer once,--I'll admit it, and I'll
make it again for the last time. Sell me your homestead and lease rights
at the price I offered you--ten thousand dollars, and get out smiling.
There isn't room for the two of us in the valley."

"Ten thousand for the homestead and the lease combined!" Wade laughed
mirthlessly. "You're crazy, man. Why, you offered me that much for the
lease alone a few weeks ago."

"Did I? I'd forgotten it. Anyway, it's a fair offer. The land is still
owned by Uncle Sam, you know. You haven't proved up on your claims, and
you never will if I can help it. We are spending lots of money here, and
the government will see that our interests are protected. You cattlemen
can't hog the whole of Crawling Water Valley. Times have changed. Well,
what do you say?"

The ranchman dismissed the proposition with a gesture, but did not
immediately speak. Silently, the two big men faced each other, their
glances crossing like rapiers: the cattleman like a statue in bronze in
the fixed rigidity of his attitude, but with an expression that showed
him one dangerous to trifle with; the agent affecting that half tolerant
amusement which one may feel toward an enemy unworthy of one's prowess.
Wade presently broke the silence.

"Moran, you may be a big man in the East, but you're not big enough for
the job you've tackled here. I've held my friends back as long as I
can--longer than I thought I could--and when they break loose, this
valley will be a little hell, perhaps a shambles. Men are going to be
killed, and I have a feeling that you are going to be one of them.
Against that time, once more, I warn you. Tell Jensen to trail his
sheep!"

Swinging on his heel, the ranchman left the office, paying no attention
to the ironical "Good night," which Moran called after him.

In the street, Wade chanced upon a neighboring cattle owner, Lem
Trowbridge of the Circle Heart outfit, who fell into step with him.

"Gordon, how long are we going to stand for this thing, eh? Say, do you
know what some are saying about you? Now, I'm your friend, and I'm
telling you straight that you've gone far enough with this pacifist
stuff."

"They say I'm afraid, I suppose?" Wade stopped and faced Trowbridge.
"Have they said that to you?"

"To me? Say, what the ---- kind of a friend do you take me for?"
Trowbridge flamed up like a match. "No, they haven't said just that,
Gordon; but they're hinting, and I don't like it."

"Well, if you hear it direct, send the man on to me with it," said Wade,
his lips compressing ominously. "I'm about through, Lem, not quite, but
pretty nearly. I've told Moran to have Jensen trail those sheep, and if
he doesn't...."

Trowbridge nodded and smiled, as they paused at a street corner--one of
the few that Crawling Water possessed.

"That's the idea, Gordon. We'll all be the readier for the waiting.
Well, I'll not go any farther with you." He winked with elaborate
precision and looked in the direction of a snug little cottage, with
flower boxes in the windows, a biscuit toss away. "She's home. I saw her
leave the store yonder a little while ago."

Wade blushed like a boy and looked foolish.

"I don't get into town so very often," he began lamely, when Trowbridge
slapped him heartily on the back.

"You don't need to make any excuses to me, old man," he said, moving
off. "That little woman has put Crawling Water on edge with admiration.
You're not the only one--or, maybe, you are."

Secretly eager though Wade was to reach the cottage, the nearer he
approached it, the slower he walked, fuming at himself for his sudden
spinelessness. Although no ladies' man, he had never been woman wary
until lately, and this of itself was a sign, the significance of which
he was far from realizing. When he was with Dorothy Purnell, he almost
forgot her sex in the easy companionability of their relationship; when
away from her, he thought no more of her than he might of some man
friend; but the approach had become a matter of embarrassing difficulty
with him. There had even been occasions when he had walked past the
cottage and ridden home without seeing her, trying speciously to
convince himself that such had all along been his intention.

Something of the sort might have happened now had she not hailed him
from the open doorway.

"Whither bound, stranger?" she smilingly demanded, in her low, rich
contralto. "Better come in where it's cool. Mother'll be glad to see
you, and I--shan't mind."

She had come to Crawling Water for the restorative effect of the bracing
mountain air upon the health of her mother, who was threatened with
nervous invalidism, following the death of Mr. Purnell, two years
before. The town called them Easterners because their home was as far
East as Michigan, but they had never been city dwellers, as Dorothy's
fresh complexion and lithe, alert figure bore witness.

Her chestnut hair, piled in a silken crown on her shapely head, shaded a
face that made those who saw it for the first time, catch their breath
in instant admiration. Her radiance was of a glorious, compelling, and
wholly distinct type, as refreshing as some view of green mountains from
out a gloomy canyon. She had eyes, blue in repose, but shading to violet
tints when aglow with vivacity; her nose was not perfect, because a
trifle tip-tilted, but her face gained character through the defect; her
very red lips held most delicious allurement in their slightly full
curves. Her hands and feet were small enough to pay tribute to her birth
and breeding, but not so small as to be doll-like. She wore a simple,
white dress, freshly laundered, which made her look cool and inviting.

"You won't mind? Now that's good of you, and no mistake." Wade shook
hands with her, slowly relinquishing her cool palm. "How is Mrs.
Purnell? Better?"

"Oh, yes, I think so. You're better, aren't you, mother?" she asked, as
they entered the cozy little living-room, where the temperature was in
pleasant contrast to the outer heat. "The air up here does you good,
doesn't it?"

Mrs. Purnell, a dispirited little person, admitted that she felt very
well indeed, and seemed cheered at the sight of Wade, who greeted her
deferentially but with easy geniality. She liked him for his
wholesomeness, and she frequently declared that he was worth all the
doctors in the country because of the impression of health and optimism
which he bore with him. But she was aware that Dorothy liked him, too,
and so presently made an excuse to leave the two young people together.

"Now, you may tell me all about what's worrying you," the girl said,
seating herself across from Wade. "Something is. You can't keep the
signs from me."

"Good girl!" His voice held a suggestion of tenderness, as he rolled and
lighted a cigarette, in the home-like privilege which they allowed him
there. "That's your way, always. No matter who's in trouble, you are
ready to hasten to the rescue."

"Oh--," she deprecatingly began, with a trace of violet showing in her
eyes, which meant a great deal more than words.

"No wonder every man in the valley considers himself your own, especial
knight."

"I thought perhaps I could help you," she said briskly, to cover her
sentimental moment. "But that was foolish of me, too, wasn't it? The
idea of any one helping you."

"I'm likely to need all my friends soon, Dorothy," Wade answered
soberly. "I came in to-day to see Race Moran. There's a big band of
sheep on our upper range, and Jensen, who has charge of them, admitted
to me this morning that Moran is behind him."

"Goodness, more sheep! Wherever do they come from?"

"I don't know where they come from, but they can't stay where they are
unless I go out of business, that's certain." In a few words, he
explained to her the significance of the movement, and told her of his
talk with Moran. "I've no use for the man," he concluded, "and if it
comes to a showdown between us, he need expect no sympathy. I've held
back as long as I can. I understand better than he does what the crack
of the first rifle will lead to."

"You have not liked him since you found that he took that snapshot of
me," she said whimsically. "I didn't mind, but I can't imagine what he
wanted it for."

Wade's face darkened.

"It was a confounded impertinence, whatever he wanted with it. But my
dislike of him goes farther back than that."

"What are you going to do?" she asked, resting her chin in her hand, and
looking him straight in the eyes, as she always did to those with whom
she talked.

"It largely depends on him. Santry--you know how hot-headed he is--would
run the herders away by force and kill off the sheep. As a last resort,
of course, we may have to do something like that, but I want to win this
fight without open violence if we can. A faction war, in the end, would
be likely to ruin us all."

"You must be careful," the girl declared earnestly. "Moran is not going
to be an easy man to handle. He seems to have plenty of money, and they
say here in town that he stands in with the government; that he has some
sort of 'pull.' He's clever, I think. He'll trick you if he can."

"I'm sure of that, Dorothy, but we're not going to let him. If only...!
Say, do you know something else that is being said in this town?
Something that they're saying about me?"

"Something nice?" her tone was archly inquiring.

He leaned forward and lightly rested his hand on her knee, just as he
might have done with a man friend, and she took as little notice of it.
His fingers were trembling a little under the stress of the emotion he
felt.

"They're saying, those who don't like me, I guess, that I'm afraid of
Moran and his crowd; afraid of a lot of sheep herders. No, of course, my
friends don't believe it," he hastened to add when she started to
interrupt. "But it's not doing me any good, especially now that public
feeling is running so high."

"But you mustn't mind what they say, Gordon. That's part of the courage
your friends know that you have; to do what you feel to be right, no
matter what is said."

Her cheeks were glowing with indignation, and he appreciatively patted
her hand before sitting erect in his chair again. It was no wonder, he
reflected, in that almost womanless land, that many a cowpuncher rode
the range by night, seeing her image in every star. The thought that
each single man, and many a married one, in Crawling Water, would ride
into the Pit itself to win one of her smiles, had been Wade's comfort,
even when he was thinking of the possibility of bloodshed between the
two hostile factions. But now, in the moment of her sympathy for him, he
felt that he could not be content without some further assurance of her
safety.

"What you say sounds well, Dorothy, but my pride's working on me, too,
now. I can't help it. If my friends, who have been good enough to accept
my leadership so far, should lose their heads and go to it without me, I
might talk afterward until Kingdom come. I'd never convince anybody that
I hadn't funked the thing. You spoke a few minutes ago of helping me.
You can help me a great deal."

Her lovely face instantly blazed with eagerness.

"Can I? How?"

"By promising me that, if it comes to a fight, you and your mother will
come out to my ranch. You'd be safer there. That is, of course, unless
you'd prefer to leave Crawling Water altogether."

"Indeed, I shouldn't prefer to leave Crawling Water at this stage of the
game, and"--she smiled reassuringly--"I'm sure we should be safe enough
right here whatever happened. But, if you'd feel better about it, we
would go to the ranch."

"Thanks. I feel better about it already, more free to show my hand. You
are safe enough here now, of course, and might be clear through to the
finish; but cheap whiskey has led many a fairly good man astray."

"If only there were some peaceable way out of it all." Her eyes became
anxious as she thought of what he might have to face. "Can't you
telegraph to Washington, or something?"

"Washington doesn't know whether Crawling Water is in the United States
or in Timbuctoo," Wade laughed. "If we had some one in authority right
here on the ground we might make him understand, but Mahomet will never
come to these mountains, and they can't go to Mahomet. Why, what's the
matter?"

His question was prompted by the sudden elation with which she had
clapped her hands and sprung to her feet.

"How stupid of me, Gordon, to have forgotten." She stood over him with
shining eyes and eager countenance, as lovely as a Lorelei. "There is an
official of the United States Government here at this very moment."


"Here? In Crawling Water?" he exclaimed in amazement. "Who is he?"

"Senator Rexhill, Gordon." Wade stared almost vacuously at her as she
ran on with her news. "He came in with his daughter last night on the
Sheridan stage. Isn't that glorious? You must go up to see him at once."

"I will, of course," Wade said slowly, trying to catch his mental
balance. "And with pleasure, too. It's been a long time since I last saw
either of them."

"You know them--him?" Dorothy hesitated a little over which pronoun to
use, with the somewhat disturbing reflection that Helen Rexhill was a
most beautiful and distinguished looking girl. "That will make it all
the easier," she added generously.

"Of course, Senator Rexhill has no authority of his own in such a
matter, you know; but if we can get him interested, he may wake up
Washington in our behalf. Only, I don't see what can have brought him to
Crawling Water."

"Do you--do you know the daughter well?" Dorothy asked, with feminine
cogency. "I suppose you met her back East?"

"We've known each other for a number of years." He arose, his face
expressive of the delight he felt at the Rexhills' presence in town. "We
used to be good friends. You'll like her. But it's strange they didn't
tell me of their coming. You'll pardon me if I hurry over to the hotel,
won't you, Dorothy?"

She gently urged him out of the house.

"Of course! Don't waste a moment, and let me know just as soon as you
can what the outcome is. I do hope the Senator can settle all this
trouble."

"I want you to meet them right away," he called, over his shoulder, and
when he looked back for his answer, she nodded brightly.

But as she turned back into the cottage after watching him swing up the
street she was not at all sure that she would like Helen Rexhill.





Next: Treachery

Previous: Jealousy



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