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The Two Cousins








From: A Story Of The Outdoor West

The sheepman lay at his ease, the strong supple lines of him stretched
lazily on the lounge. Helen was sitting beside him in an easy chair, and
he watched the play of her face in the lamplight as she read from "The
Little White Bird." She was very good to see, so vitally alive and full
of a sweet charm that half revealed and half concealed her personality.
The imagination with which she threw herself into a discussion of the
child fancies portrayed by the Scotch writer captured his fancy. It
delighted him to tempt her into discussions that told him by suggestion
something of what she thought and was.

They were in animated debate when the door opened to admit somebody
else. He had stepped in so quietly that he stood there a little while
without being observed, smiling down at them with triumphant malice
behind the mask he wore. Perhaps it was the black visor that was
responsible for the Mephisto effect, since it hid all the face but the
leering eyes. These, narrowed to slits, swept the room and came back to
its occupants. He was a tall man and well-knit, dressed incongruously in
up-to-date riding breeches and boots, in combination with the usual gray
shirt, knotted kerchief and wide-brimmed felt hat of the horseman of the
plains. The dust of the desert lay thick on him, without in the least
obscuring a certain ribald elegance, a distinction of wickedness
that rested upon him as his due. To this result his debonair manner
contributed, though it carried with it no suggestion of weakness. To the
girl who looked up and found him there he looked indescribably sinister.

She half rose to her feet, dilated eyes fixed on him.

"Good evenin'. I came to make sure y'u got safe home, Miss Messiter," he
said.

The eyes of the two men clashed, the sheepman's stern and unyielding,
his cousin's lit with the devil of triumph. But out of the faces of both
men looked the inevitable conflict, the declaration of war that never
ends till death.

"I've been a heap anxious about y'u--couldn't sleep for worrying. So I
saddled up and rode in to find out if y'u were all right and to inquire
how Cousin Ned was getting along."

The sheepman, not deigning to move an inch from his position, looked in
silence his steady contempt.

"This conversation sounds a whole lot like a monologue up to date," he
continued. "Now, maybe y'u don't know y'u have the honor of entertaining
the King of the Bighorn." The man's brown hand brushed the mask from his
eyes and he bowed with mocking deference. "Miss Messiter, allow me to
introduce myself again--Ned Bannister, train robber, rustler, kidnapper
and general bad man. But I ain't told y'u the worst yet. I'm cousin to a
sheepherder' and that's the lowest thing that walks."

He limped forward a few steps and sat down. "Thank you, I believe I will
stay a while since y'u both ask me so urgent. It isn't often I meet with
a welcome so hearty and straight from the heart."

It was not hard to see how the likeness between them contributed to
the mistake that had been current concerning them. Side by side, no
man could have mistaken one for the other. The color of their eyes,
the shade of hair, even the cut of their features, were different. But
beneath all distinctions in detail ran a family resemblance not to be
denied. This man looked like his cousin, the sheepman, as the latter
might have done if all his life he had given a free rein to evil
passions.

The height, the build, the elastic tread of each, made further
contributions to this effect of similarity.

"What are you doing here?" They were the first words spoken by the man
on the lounge and they rang with a curt challenge.

"Come to inquire after the health of my dear cousin," came the prompt
silken answer.

"You villain!"

"My dear cousin, y'u speak with such conviction that y'u almost persuade
me. But of course if I'm a villain I've got to live up to my reputation.
Haven't I, Miss Messiter?"

"Wouldn't it be better to live it down?" she asked with a quietness
that belied her terror. For there had been in his manner a threat,
not against her but against the man whom her heart acknowledged as her
lover.

He laughed. "Y'u're still hoping to make a Sunday school superintendent
out of me, I see. Y'u haven't forgot all your schoolmarm ways yet, but
I'll teach y'u to forget them."

The other cousin watched him with a cool, quiet glance that never
wavered. The outlaw was heavily armed, but his weapons were sheathed,
and, though there was a wary glitter behind the vindictive exultation
in his eyes, his capable hands betrayed no knowledge of the existence of
his revolvers. It was, he knew, to be a moral victory, if one at all.

"Hope I'm not disturbing any happy family circle," he remarked, and,
taking two limping steps forward, he lifted the book from the girl's
unresisting hands. "H'm! Barrie. I don't go much on him. He's too
sissy for me. But I could have guessed the other Ned Bannister would
be reading something like that," he concluded, a flicker of sneering
contempt crossing his face.

"Perhaps y'u'll learn some time to attend to your own business," said
the man on the couch quietly.

Hatred gleamed in the narrowed slits from which the soul of the other
cousin looked down at him. "I'm a philanthropist, and my business is
attending to other people's. They raise sheep, for instance, and I
market them."

The girl hastily interrupted. She had not feared for herself, but she
knew fear for the indomitable man she had nursed back to life. "Won't
you sit down, Mr. Bannister? Since you don't approve our literature,
perhaps we can find some other diversion more to your taste." She smiled
faintly.

The man turned in smiling divination of her purpose, and sat down to
play with her as a cat does with a mouse.

"Thank y'u, Miss Messiter, I believe I will. I called to thank y'u for
your kindness to my cousin as well as to inquire about you. The word
goes that y'u pulled my dear cousin back when death was reaching mighty
strong for him. Of course I feel grateful to y'u. How is he getting
along now?"

"He's doing very well, I think."

"That's ce'tainly good hearing," was his ironical response. "How come he
to get hurt, did y'u say?"

His sleek smile was a thing hateful to see.

"A hound bit me," explained the sheepman.

"Y'u don't say! I reckon y'u oughtn't to have got in its way. Did y'u
kill it?"

"Not yet."

"That was surely a mistake, for it's liable to bite again."

The girl felt a sudden sickness at his honeyed cruelty, but immediately
pulled herself together. For whatever fiendish intention might be in his
mind she meant to frustrate it.

"I hear you are of a musical turn, Mr. Bannister. Won't you play for
us?"

She had by chance found his weak spot. Instantly his eyes lit up. He
stepped across to the piano and began to look over the music, though not
so intently that he forgot to keep under his eye the man on the lounge.

"H'm! Mozart, Grieg, Chopin, Raff, Beethoven. Y'u ce'tainly have the
music here; I wonder if y'u have the musician." He looked her over with
a bold, unscrupulous gaze. "It's an old trick to have classical music on
the rack and ragtime in your soul. Can y'u play these?"

"You will have to be the judge of that," she said.

He selected two of Grieg's songs and invited her to the piano. He knew
instantly that the Norwegian's delicate fancy and lyrical feeling had
found in her no inadequate medium of expression. The peculiar emotional
quality of the song "I Love Thee" seemed to fill the room as she played.
When she swung round on the stool at its conclusion it was to meet a
shining-eyed, musical enthusiast instead of the villain she had left
five minutes earlier.

"Y'u CAN play," was all he said, but the manner of it spoke volumes.

For nearly an hour he kept her at the piano, and when at last he let her
stop playing he seemed a man transformed.

"You have given me a great pleasure, a very great pleasure, Miss
Messiter," he thanked her warmly, his Western idiom sloughed with his
villainy for the moment. "It has been a good many months since I have
heard any decent music. With your permission I shall come again."

Her hesitation was imperceptible. "Surely, if you wish." She felt it
would be worse than idle to deny the permission she might not be able to
refuse.

With perfect grace he bowed, and as he wheeled away met with a little
shock of remembrance the gaze of his cousin. For a long moment their
eyes bored into each other. Neither yielded the beat of an eyelid, but
it was the outlaw that spoke.

"I had forgotten y'u. That's strange, too because it was for y'u I came.
I'm going to take y'u home with me.

"Alive or dead?" asked the other serenely.

"Alive, dear Ned."

"Same old traits cropping out again. There was always something feline
about y'u. I remember when y'u were a boy y'u liked to torment wild
animals y'u had trapped."

"I play with larger game now--and find it more interesting."

"Just so. Miss Messiter, I shall have to borrow a pony from y'u,
unless--" He broke off and turned indifferently to the bandit.

"Yes, I brought a hawss along with me for y'u," replied the other to the
unvoiced question. "I thought maybe y'u might want to ride with us."

"But he can't ride. He couldn't possibly. It would kill him," the girl
broke out.

"I reckon not." The man from the Shoshones glanced at his victim as he
drew on his gauntlets. "He's a heap tougher than y'u think."

"But it will. If he should ride now, why--It would be the same as
murder," she gasped. "You wouldn't make him ride now?"

"Didn't y'u hear him order his hawss, ma'am? He's keen on this ride.
Of course he don't have to go unless he wants to." The man turned his
villainous smile on his cousin, and the latter interpreted it to mean
that if he preferred, the point of attack might be shifted to the girl.
He might go or he might stay. But if he stayed the mistress of the Lazy
D would have to pay for his decision.

"No, I'll ride," he said at once.

Helen Messiter had missed the meaning of that Marconied message that
flashed between them. She set her jaw with decision. "Well, you'll not.
It's perfectly ridiculous. I won't hear of such a thing."

"Y'u seem right welcome. Hadn't y'u better stay, Ned?" murmured the
outlaw, with smiling eyes that mocked.

"Of course he had. He couldn't ride a mile--not half a mile. The idea is
utterly preposterous."

The sheepman got to his feet unsteadily. "I'll do famously."

"I won't have it. Why are you so foolish about going? He said you didn't
need to go. You can't ride any more than a baby could chop down that
pine in the yard."

"I'm a heap stronger than y'u think."

"Yes, you are!" she derided. "It's nothing but obstinacy. Make him
stay," she appealed to the outlaw.

"Am I my cousin's keeper?" he drawled. "I can advise him to stay, but I
can't make him."

"Well, I can. I'm his nurse, and I say he sha'n't stir a foot out of
this house--not a foot."

The wounded man smiled quietly, admiring the splendid energy of her.
"I'm right sorry to leave y'u so unceremoniously."

"You're not going." She wheeled on the outlaw "I don't understand this
at all. But if you want him you can find him here when you come again.
Put him on parole and leave him here. I'll not be a party to murder by
letting him go."

"Y'u think I'm going to murder him?" he smiled.

"I think he cannot stand the riding. It would kill him."

"A haidstrong man is bound to have his way. He seems hell-bent on
riding. All the docs say the outside of a hawss is good for the inside
of a man. Mebbe it'll be the making of him."

"I won't have it. I'll rouse the whole countryside against you. Why
don't you parole him till he is better?"

"All right. We'll leave it that way," announced the man. "I'd hate to
hurt your tender feelings after such a pleasant evening. Let him give
his parole to come to me whenever I send for him, no matter where he
may be, to quit whatever he is doing right that instant, and come on the
jump. If he wants to leave it that way, we'll call it a bargain."

Again the rapier-thrust of their eyes crossed. The sheepman was
satisfied with what he saw in the face of his foe.

"All right. It's a deal," he agreed, and sank weakly back to the couch.

There are men whose looks are a profanation to any good woman. Ned
Bannister, of the Shoshones, was one of them. He looked at his cousin,
and his ribald eyes coasted back to bold scrutiny of this young woman's
charming, buoyant youth. There was Something in his face that sent a
flush of shame coursing through her rich blood. No man had ever looked
at her like that before.

"Take awful good care of him," he sneered, with so plain an implication
of evil that her clean blood boiled. "But I know y'u will, and don't let
him go before he's real strong."

"No," she murmured, hating herself for the flush that bathed her.

He bowed like a Chesterfield, and went out with elastic heels, spurs
clicking.

Helen turned fiercely on her guest. "Why did you make me insist on
your staying? As if I want you here, as if--" She stopped, choking with
anger; presently flamed out, "I hate you," and ran from the room to hide
herself alone with her tears and her shame.





Next: For The World's Championship

Previous: Mistress And Maid



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