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The White Feather








From: The Fighting Edge

At the appointed time Bob sneaked back to the hotel. He hung around the
lobby for a minute or two, drifted into the saloon and gambling annex,
and presently found himself hanging over the bar because he did not know
what else to do with himself.

Was he to go to the room after June and bring her to supper? Or was he to
wait until she came out? He wished he knew.

Mollie caught sight of him and put a flea in his ear. "What d' you think
you're doing here, young fellow, me lad? Get outa this den of iniquity
an' hustle back to the room where the little lady is waitin' for you.
Hear me?" she snorted.

A minute later Bob was knocking timidly on the door of room 9. A small
voice told him to come in. He opened the door.

June shyly met the eyes of her husband. "Mrs. Gillespie said maybe you'd
want to wash up before supper."

"I reckon that'd be a good idee," he said, shifting from one foot to the
other.

Did she expect him to wash here? Or what?

June poured water into the basin and found a towel.

Not for a five-dollar bill would Bob have removed his coat, though there
had never been a time in his young life when he would have welcomed more
a greenback. He did not intend to be indelicate while alone with a young
woman in a bedroom. The very thought of it made him scarlet to the roots
of his red hair.

After he had scrubbed himself till his face was like a shining apple,
June lent him a comb. She stole a furtive look at him while he was
standing before the small cracked mirror. For better or worse he was her
man. She had to make the best of him. A sense of proprietorship that was
almost pride glowed faintly in her. He was a nice boy, even if he was so
thin and red and freckled. Bob would be good to her. She was sure of
that.

"Mrs. Gillespie said she reckoned she could fix you up a job to help the
cook," the bride said.

"You mean--to-night or for good?"

"Right along, she said."

Bob did not welcome the suggestion. There was an imperative urge within
him to get away from Bear Cat before Jake Houck arrived. There was no use
dodging it. He was afraid of the fellow's vengeance. This was a country
where men used firearms freely. The big man from Brown's Park might shoot
him down at sight.

"I don't reckon we'd better stay here," he answered uneasily. "In a
bigger town I can get a better job likely."

"But we haven't money enough to go on the stage, have we?"

"If there was a bull team going out mebbe I could work my way."

"W-e-ll." She considered this dubiously. "If we stayed here Mrs.
Gillespie would let me wash dishes an' all. She said she'd give me two
dollars a week an' my board. Tha's a lot of money, Bob."

He looked out of the window. "I don't want trouble with Jake Houck.
It--it would worry you."

"Yes, but--" June did not quite know how to say what was in her mind. She
had an instinctive feeling that the way to meet trouble was to face it
unafraid and not to run away from it. "I don't reckon we'd better show
Jake we're scared of him--now. O' course he'll be mad at first, but he's
got no right to be. Jes' 'cause he kep' a-pesterin' me don't give him no
claim on me."

"No, but you know what he is an' how he acts."

"I'll go where you want to go. I jes' thought, seein' how good to us Mrs.
Gillespie has been, that maybe--"

"Well, we'll talk it over after supper," Bob said. "I'm for lighting out
myself. To Laramie or Cheyenne, say."

As they had not eaten since breakfast they were a pair of hungry young
animals. They did full justice to the steak, French frys, mince pie, and
coffee Mrs. Gillespie had promised.

They hung for a moment awkwardly outside the dining-room. Both of them
were looking for an excuse to avoid returning to their room yet.

"Like to look the town over?" Bob asked.

June accepted eagerly.

They walked up the single business street and looked in the windows. The
young husband bought his bride a paper sack of chocolates and they ate
them as they strolled. Somehow they did not feel half as shy of each
other in the open as when shut up together between the walls of a
bedroom.

Dusk was beginning to fall. It veiled the crude and callow aspects of the
frontier town and filled the hollows of the surrounding hills with a soft
violet haze.

Bob's eyes met the dark orbs of June. Between them some communication
flashed. For the first time a queer emotion clutched at the boy's heart.
An intoxicating thrill pulsed through his veins. She was his wife, this
shy girl so flushed and tender.

His hand caught hers and gave it a little comforting pressure. It was his
first love gesture and it warmed her like wine.

"You're right good to me," she murmured.

She was grateful for so little. All her life she had been starved for
love and friendship just as he had. Bob resolved to give them to her in a
flood. A great tide of sympathy flowed out from him to her. He would be
good to her. He wished she knew now how well he meant to look after her.
But he could not tell her. A queer shame tied his tongue.

From a blacksmith shop a man stepped.

"Say, fellow, can I see you a minute?" he asked.

It was Dud Hollister. He drew Bob back into the smithy.

"Big guy in town lookin' for you. He's tankin' up. You heeled?"

Bob felt as though his heart had been drenched with ice water. Houck was
here then. Already.

"No, I--I don't carry a gun," he replied, weakly.

"Here's mine. Shoots just a mite high, but she's a good old friend." Dud
pressed a six-shooter on Dillon.

The boy took it reluctantly. The blood in his veins ran cold. "I dunno. I
reckon mebbe I better not. If I talked to him, don't you think--?"

"Talk, hell! He's out for blood, that guy is. He's made his brags right
over the bar at Dolan's what all he's gonna do to you. I'm no gunman,
understand. But a fellow's got to look out for number one. I'd let him
have it soon as I seen him. Right off the reel."

"Would you?"

"Surest thing you know. He's a bad actor, that fellow is."

"If I went to the marshal--"

Dud's eye held derision. "What good'd that do? Simp ain't gonna draw
cards till after some one's been gunned. He don't claim to be no
mind-reader, Simp don't."

"I'm not lookin' for trouble," Bob began to explain.

"Fellow, it's lookin' for you," cut in Dud. "You hold that gun right
under yore coat, an' when you meet up with Mr. Hook or whoever he is,
don't you wait to ask 'What for?' Go to fannin'."

Bob rejoined June. His lips were bloodless. He felt a queer weakness in
the knees.

"What did he want?" asked June.

"Houck's here--lookin' for me," the wretched boy explained.

"What's that you've got under yore coat?" she demanded quickly.

"It's a--a gun. He made me take it. Said Houck was tellin' how he'd--do
for me."

The fear-filled eyes of the boy met the stricken ones of his bride. She
knew now what she had before suspected and would not let herself
believe.

If it was possible she must help him to avoid a meeting with Houck. She
could not have him shamed. Her savage young pride would not permit the
girl to mate with one who proved himself a coward at a crisis of his
life. It was necessary to her self-respect that she save his.

"We'd better go back to the hotel," she said. "You can stay in our room,
and I'll send for Jake an' talk with him downstairs."

"I don't reckon I'd better do that," Bob protested feebly. "He
might--hurt you. No tellin'."

June ignored this. "Did you hear whether Dad's with him?" she asked.

"No."

"Where is Jake?"

"He was at Dolan's drinking when that Dud Hollister seen him."

"I'll have him come right away--before he's had too much. Dad says he
used to be mean when he was drinkin'."

The hotel was in the same block as Dolan's, a hundred feet beyond it.
They were passing the saloon when the door was pushed open and a man came
out. At sight of them he gave a triumphant whoop.

"Got ya!" he cried.

The look on his face daunted Bob. The boy felt the courage dry up within
him. Mouth and throat parched. He tried to speak and found he could not.

June took up the gage, instantly, defiantly. "You've got nothing to do
with us, Jake Houck. We're married."

The news had reached him. He looked at her blackly. "Married or single,
you're mine, girl, an' you're going with me."

"My husband will have a word to say about that," June boasted bravely.

Houck looked at his rival, and a sinister, mocking smile creased the hard
face. "I'm plumb scared of him," he jeered.

"We g-got a right to get married, Mr. Houck," Bob said, teeth chattering.
"You hadn't ought to make us trouble."

"Speaks up right brave, don't he?"

"He's as brave as you are, Jake Houck, even if he ain't a bully," the
bride flamed.

"So?" Houck moved a step or two toward Dillon.

The hand under the coat shook as though the boy had a chill.

"What you got there--in yore hand?" demanded Houck.

The revolver came to light.

Houck stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, straddled out his feet, and
laughed derisively. "Allowin' for to kill me, eh?"

"No, sir." The voice was a dry whisper. "I'd like to talk this over
reasonable, Mr. Houck, an' fix it up so's bygones would be bygones. I
ain't lookin' for trouble."

"I sure believe that." Houck turned to June. "It wouldn't be safe for me
to leave you with this desperate character who goes around with a
six-shooter not lookin' for trouble. I'm aimin' to take you with me, like
I said."

Her eyes clashed with his and gave way at last. "You always act like
you're God Almighty," she cried passionately. "Are you hard o' hearing?
I'm married to Bob Dillon here."

"I ain't heard him raise any objections to yore goin'," Houck taunted.
"Tolliver said for me to bring you, an' I'll do it."

June spoke to Bob, her voice trembling. "Tell him where to get off at,"
she begged.

"Mr. Houck, June's my wife. She's made her choice. That ends it," Bob
said unsteadily.

The cold, cruel eyes of the ex-rustler gripped those of Dillon and held
them. "End it, does it? Listen. If you're any kind of a man a-tall you'd
better shoot me right now. I'm gonna take her from you, an' you're goin'
to tell her to go with me. Understand?"

"He'll not tell me any such a thing," June protested. But her heart sank.
She was not sure whether her husband would grovel. If he did--if he
did--

The jeering voice went on taunting its victim. "If I was you I'd use that
gun or I'd crawl into a hole. Ain't you got any spunk a-tall? I'm tellin'
you that June's goin' with me instead o' you, an' that you're goin' to
tell her to go. Tha's the kind of a man she married."

"No, Mr. Houck, I don't reckon--"

Houck moved forward, evenly, without haste, eyes cold as chilled steel
and as unyielding. "Gimme that gun, if you ain't goin' to use it." He
held out a hand.

"Don't, Bob," begged June, in a panic of dismay.

While his heart fluttered with apprehension Bob told himself, over and
over, that he would not hand the revolver to Houck. He was still saying
it when his right arm began to move slowly forward. The weapon passed
from one to the other.

June gave a sobbing sound of shame and despair. She felt like a swimmer
in a swift current when the deep waters are closing over his head.

"Now tell her you ain't good enough for her, that you've got no sand in
yore craw, and she's to go with me," ordered Houck.

"No." Young Dillon's voice came dry from a throat like cotton.

The big man caught Bob's wrist and slowly twisted. The boy gave an
agonized howl of pain. June was white to the lips, but she made no
attempt to interfere. It was too late. Bob must show the stuff that was
in him. He must go through to a fighting finish or he must prove himself
a weakling.

"If you give her up now, you're a yellow dog, Dillon," his tormentor
sneered. "Stick it out. Tell me to go to red-hot blazes."

He took an extra turn on the wrist. Bob writhed and shrieked. Tiny beads
of perspiration stood on his forehead. "You're killin' me!" he screamed.

"Wish you'd gunned me when you had a chance, don't you?" Houck spat at
him. "Too late now. Well, what's it to be?" Again he applied the
torture.

The boy begged, pleaded, then surrendered. "I can't stand it! I'll do
anything you say."

"Well, you know yore li'l' piece. Speak it right up," ordered the
cattleman.

Bob said it, with his eyes on the ground, feeling and looking like a
whipped cur. "You better go with him, June. I--I'm no good." A sob choked
him. He buried his face in his hands.

Houck laughed harshly. "You hear him, June."

In a small dead voice June asked a question. "Do you mean that, Bob--that
I'm to go with him--that you give me up?"

Her husband nodded, without looking up.

No man can sacrifice his mate to save his own hide and still hold her
respect. June looked at him in a nausea of sick scorn. She turned from
him, wasting no more words.

She and Houck vanished into the gathering darkness.





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