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The King Of The Big Horn Country








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

Two months before this time Helen Messiter had been serenely teaching a
second grade at Kalamazoo, Michigan, notwithstanding the earnest efforts
of several youths of that city to induce her to retire to domesticity
"What's the use of being a schoolmarm?" had been the burden of their
plaint. "Any spinster can teach kids C-A-T, Cat, but only one in
several thousand can be the prettiest bride in Kalamazoo." None of them,
however, had been able to drive the point sufficiently home, and it
is probable that she would have continued to devote herself to Young
America if an uncle she had never seen had not died without a will and
left her a ranch in Wyoming yclept the Lazy D.

When her lawyer proposed to put the ranch on the market Miss Helen had a
word to say.

"I think not. I'll go out and see it first, anyhow," she said.

"But really, my dear young lady, it isn't at all necessary. Fact is,
I've already had an offer of a hundred thousand dollars for it. Now, I
should judge that a fair price."

"Very likely," his client interrupted, quietly. "But, you see, I don't
care to sell."

"Then what in the world are you going to do with it?"

"Run it."

"But, my dear Miss Messiter, it isn't an automobile or any other kind of
toy. You must remember that it takes a business head and a great deal of
experience to make such an investment pay. I really think--"

"My school ends on the fourteenth of June. I'll get a substitute for the
last two months. I shall start for Wyoming on the eighteenth of April."

The man of law gasped, explained the difficulties again carefully as to
a child, found that he was wasting his breath, and wisely gave it up.

Miss Messiter had started on the eighteenth of April, as she had
announced. When she reached Gimlet Butte, the nearest railroad point
to the Lazy D, she found a group of curious, weatherbeaten individuals
gathered round a machine foreign to their experience. It was on a flat
car, and the general opinion ran the gamut from a newfangled sewing
machine to a thresher. Into this guessing contest came its owner with
so brisk and businesslike an energy that inside of two hours she was
testing it up and down the wide street of Gimlet Butte, to the wonder
and delight of an audience to which each one of the eleven saloons of
the city had contributed its admiring quota.

Meanwhile the young woman attended strictly to business. She had
disappeared for half an hour with a suit case into the Elk House;
and when she returned in a short-skirted corduroy suit, leggings and
wide-brimmed gray Stetson hat, all Gimlet Butte took an absorbing
interest in the details of this delightful adventure that had happened
to the town. The population was out en masse to watch her slip down
the road on a trial trip.

Presently "Soapy" Sothern, drifting in on his buckskin from the Hoodoo
Peak country, where for private reasons of his own he had been for the
past month a sojourner, reported that he had seen the prettiest sight
in the State climbing under a gasoline bronc with a monkey-wrench in
her hand. Where? Right over the hill on the edge of town. The immediate
stampede for the cow ponies was averted by a warning chug-chug that
sounded down the road, followed by the appearance of a flashing whir
that made the ponies dance on their hind legs.

"The gasoline bronc lady sure makes a hit with me," announced "Texas,"
gravely. "I allow I'll rustle a job with the Lazy D outfit."

"She ce'tainly rides herd on that machine like a champeen," admitted
Soapy. "I reckon I'll drift over to the Lazy D with you to look after
yore remains, Tex, when the lightning hits you."

Miss Messiter swung the automobile round in a swift circle, came to an
abrupt halt in front of the hotel, and alighted without delay. As she
passed in through the half score of admirers she had won, her dark eyes
swept smilingly over assembled Cattleland. She had already met most of
them at the launching of the machine from the flat car, and had directed
their perspiring energies as they labored to follow her orders. Now she
nodded a recognition with a little ripple of gay laughter.

"I'm delighted to be able to contribute to the entertainment of Gimlet
Butte," she said, as she swept in. For this young woman was possessed
of Western adaptation. It gave her no conscientious qualms to exchange
conversation fraternal with these genial savages.

The Elk House did not rejoice in a private dining room, and competition
strenuous ensued as to who should have the pleasure of sitting beside
the guest of honor. To avoid ill feeling, the matter was determined by
a game of freeze-out, in which Texas and a mature gentleman named,
from his complexion, "Beet" Collins, were the lucky victors. Texas
immediately repaired to the general store, where he purchased a new
scarlet bandanna for the occasion; also a cake of soap with which to
rout the alkali dust that had filtered into every pore of his hands and
face from a long ride across the desert.

Came supper and Texas simultaneously, the cow-puncher's face scrubbed
to an apple shine. At the last moment Collins defaulted, his nerve
completely gone. Since, however, he was a thrifty soul, he sold his
place to Soapy for ten dollars, and proceeded to invest the proceeds in
an immediate drunk.

During the first ten minutes of supper Miss Messiter did not appear, and
the two guardians who flanked her chair solicitously were the object of
much badinage.

"She got one glimpse of that red haid of Tex and the pore lady's took to
the sage," explained Yorky.

"And him scrubbed so shiny fust time since Christmas before the big
blizzard," sighed Doc Rogers.

"Shucks! She ain't scared of no sawed-off, hammered-down runt like
Texas, No, siree! Miss Messiter's on the absent list 'cause she's afraid
she cayn't resist the blandishments of Soapy. Did yo' ever hear about
Soapy and that Caspar hash slinger?"

"Forget it, Slim," advised Soapy, promptly. He had been engaged in lofty
and oblivious conversation with Texas, but he did not intend to allow
reminiscences to get under way just now.

At this opportune juncture arrived the mistress of the "gasoline bronc,"
neatly clad in a simple white lawn with blue trimmings. She looked like
a gleam of sunshine in her fresh, sweet youth; and not even in her own
school room had she ever found herself the focus of a cleaner, more
unstinted admiration. For the outdoors West takes off its hat reverently
to women worthy of respect, especially when they are young and friendly.

Helen Messiter had come to Wyoming because the call of adventure, the
desire for experience outside of rutted convention, were stirring her
warm-blooded youth. She had seen enough of life lived in a parlor, and
when there came knocking at her door a chance to know the big, untamed
outdoors at first hand she had at once embraced it like a lover. She
was eager for her new life, and she set out skillfully to make these
men tell her what she wanted to know. To them, of course, it was an old
story, and whatever of romance it held was unconscious. But since she
wanted to talk of the West they were more than ready to please her.

So she listened, and drew them out with adroit questions when it was
necessary. She made them talk of life on the open range, of rustlers and
those who lived outside the law in the upper Shoshone country, of the
deadly war waging between the cattle and sheep industries.

"Are there any sheep near the Lazy D ranch?" she asked, intensely
interested in Soapy's tale of how cattle and sheep could no more be got
to mix than oil and water.

For an instant nobody answered her question; then Soapy replied, with
what seemed elaborate carelessness:

"Ned Bannister runs a bunch of about twelve thousand not more'n fifteen
or twenty miles from your place."

"And you say they are spoiling the range?"

"They're ce'tainly spoiling it for cows."

"But can't something be done? If my cows were there first I don't see
what right he has to bring his sheep there," the girl frowned.

The assembled company attended strictly to supper. The girl, surprised
at the stillness, looked round. "Well?"

"Now you're shouting, ma'am! That's what we say," enthused Texas,
spurring to the rescue.

"It doesn't much matter what you say. What do you do?" asked Helen,
impatiently. "Do you lie down and let Mr. Bannister and his kind drive
their sheep over you?"

"Do we, Soapy?" grinned Texas. Yet it seemed to her his smile was not
quite carefree.

"I'm not a cowman myself," explained Soapy to the girl. "Nor do I run
sheep. I--"

"Tell Miss Messiter what yore business is, Soapy," advised Yorky from
the end of the table, with a mouthful of biscuit swelling his cheeks.

Soapy crushed the irrepressible Yorky with a look, but that young man
hit back smilingly.

"Soapy, he sells soap, ma'am. He's a sorter city salesman, I reckon."

"I should never have guessed it. Mr. Sothern does not LOOK like
a salesman," said the girl, with a glance at his shrewd, hard,
expressionless face.

"Yes, ma'am, he's a first-class seller of soap, is Mr. Sothern,"
chuckled the cow-puncher, kicking his friends gayly under the table.

"You can see I never sold HIM any, Miss Messiter," came back Soapy,
sorrowfully.

All this was Greek to the young lady from Kalamazoo. How was she to know
that Mr. Sothern had vended his soap in small cubes on street corners,
and that he wrapped bank notes of various denominations in the bars,
which same were retailed to eager customers for the small sum of fifty
cents, after a guarantee that the soap was good? His customers rarely
patronized him twice; and frequently they used bad language because
the soap wrapping was not as valuable as they had expected. This was
manifestly unfair, for Mr. Sothern, who made no claims to philanthropy,
often warned them that the soap should be bought on its merits, and not
with an eye single to the premium that might or might not accompany the
package.

"I started to tell you, ma'am, when that infant interrupted, that
the cowmen don't aim to quit business yet a while. They've drawn a
dead-line, Miss Messiter."

"A dead-line?"

"Yes, ma'am, beyond which no sheep herder is to run his bunch."

"And if he does?" the girl asked, open eyed.

"He don't do it twict, ma'am. Why don't you pass the fritters to Miss
Messiter, Slim?"

"And about this Bannister Who is he?"

Her innocent question seemed to ring a bell for silence; seemed to carry
with it some hidden portent that stopped idle conversation as a striking
clock that marks the hour of an execution.

The smile that had been gay grew grim, and men forgot the subject of
their light, casual talk. It was Sothern that answered her, and
she observed that his voice was grave, his face studiously without
expression.

"Mr. Bannister, ma'am, is a sheepman."

"So I understood, but--" Her eyes traveled swiftly round the table, and
appraised the sudden sense of responsibility that had fallen on these
reckless, careless frontiersmen. "I am wondering what else he is.
Really, he seems to be the bogey man of Gimlet Butte."

There was another instant silence, and again it was Soapy that lifted
it. "I expaict you'll like Wyoming, Miss Messiter; leastways I hope you
will. There's a right smart of country here." His gaze went out of the
open door to the vast sea of space that swam in the fine sunset light.
"Yes, most folks that ain't plumb spoilt with city ways likes it."

"Sure she'll like it. Y'u want to get a good, easy-riding hawss, Miss
Messiter," advised Slim.

"And a rifle," added Texas, promptly.

It occurred to her that they were all working together to drift the
conversation back to a safe topic. She followed the lead given her,
but she made up her mind to know what it was about her neighbor,
Mr. Bannister, the sheep herder, that needed to be handled with such
wariness and circumspection of speech.

Her chance came half an hour later, when she stood talking to the
landlady on the hotel porch in the mellow twilight that seemed to rest
on the land like a moonlit aura. For the moment they were alone.

"What is it about this man Bannister that makes men afraid to speak of
him?" she demanded, with swift impulse.

Her landlady's startled eyes went alertly round to see that they were
alone. "Hush, child! You mustn't speak of him like that," warned the
older woman.

"Why mustn't I? That's what I want to know."

"Is isn't healthy."

"What do you mean?"

Again that anxious look flashed round in the dusk. "The Bannister outfit
is the worst in the land. Ned Bannister is king of the whole Big Horn
country and beyond that to the Tetons."

"And you mean to tell me that everybody is afraid of him--that men like
Mr. Sothern dare not say their soul is their own?" the newcomer asked,
contemptuously.

"Not so loud, child. He has spies everywhere That's the trouble. You
don't know who is in with him. He's got the whole region terrified."

"Is he so bad?"

"He is a devil. Last year he and his hell riders swept down on Topaz and
killed two bartenders just to see them kick, Ned Bannister said. Folks
allow they knew too much."

"But the law--the Government? Haven't you a sheriff and officers?"

"Bannister has. He elects the sheriff in this county."

"Aren't there more honest people here than villains?"

"Ten times as many, but the trouble is that the honest folks can't trust
each other. You see, if one of them made a mistake and confided in the
wrong man--well, some fine day he would go riding herd and would not
turn up at night. Next week, or next month, maybe, one of his partners
might find a pile of bones in an arroyo.

"Have you ever seen this Bannister?"

"You MUST speak lower when you talk of him, Miss Messiter," the woman
insisted. "Yes, I saw him once; at least I think I did. Mighty few folks
know for sure that they have seen him. He is a mystery, and he travels
under many names and disguises."

"When was it you think you saw him?"

"Two years ago at Ayr. The bank was looted that night and robbed of
thirty thousand dollars. They roused the cashier from his bed and made
him give the combination. He didn't want to, and Ned Bannister"--her
voice sank to a tremulous whisper--"put red-hot running-irons between
his fingers till he weakened. It was a moonlight night--much such a
night as this--and after it was done I peeped through the blind of my
room and saw them ride away. He rode in front of them and sang like an
angel--did it out of daredeviltry to mock the people of the town that
hadn't nerve enough to shoot him. You see, he knew that nobody would
dare hurt him 'count of the revenge of his men."

"What was he like?" the mistress of the Lazy D asked, strangely awed at
this recital of transcendent villainy.

"'Course he was masked, and I didn't see his face. But I'd know him
anywhere. He's a long, slim fellow, built like a mountain lion. You
couldn't look at him and ever forget him. He's one of these graceful,
easy men that go so fur with fool women; one of the kind that half shuts
his dark, devil eyes and masters them without seeming to try."

"So he's a woman killer, too, is he? Any more outstanding
inconsistencies in this versatile Jesse James?"

"He's plumb crazy about music, they say. Has a piano and plays Grigg and
Chopping, and all that classical kind of music. He went clear down to
Denver last year to hear Mrs. Shoeman sing."

Helen smiled, guessing at Schumann-Heink as the singer in question, and
Grieg and Chopin as the composers named. Her interest was incredibly
aroused. She had expected the West and its products to exhilarate her,
but she had not looked to find so finished a Mephisto among its vaunted
"bad men." He was probably overrated; considered a wonder because his
accomplishments outstepped those of the range. But Helen Messiter had
quite determined on one thing. She was going to meet this redoubtable
villain and make up her mind for herself. Already, before she had been
in Wyoming six hours, this emancipated young woman had decided on that.





Next: An Invitation Given And Accepted

Previous: A Desert Meeting



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