Wayland Receives A Warning





Distance is no barrier to gossip. It amazed young Norcross to observe how

minutely the ranchers of the valley followed one another's most intimate

domestic affairs. Not merely was each man in full possession of the color

and number of every calf in his neighbor's herd, it seemed that nothing

could happen in the most remote cabin and remain concealed. Any event

which broke the monotony of their life loomed large, and in all matters

of courtship curiosity was something more than keen, it was remorseless.



Living miles apart, and riding the roads but seldom, these lonely gossips

tore to tatters every scrap of rumor. No citizen came or went without

being studied, characterized, accounted for, and every woman was

scrutinized as closely as a stray horse, and if there was within her, the

slightest wayward impulse some lawless centaur came to know it, to exult

over it, to make test of it. Her every word, her minutest expression of a

natural coquetry was enlarged upon as a sign of weakness, of yielding.

Every personable female was the focus of a natural desire, intensified by

lonely brooding on the part of the men.



It was soon apparent to the Eastern observer that the entire male

population for thirty miles around not only knew McFarlane's girl; but

that every unmarried man--and some who were both husbands and

fathers--kept a deeply interested eye upon her daily motion, and certain

shameless ones openly boasted among their fellows of their intention to

win her favor, while the shy ones reveled in secret exultation over every

chance meeting with her. She was the topic of every lumber-camp, and the

shining lure of every dance to which the ranch hands often rode over long

and lonely trails.



Part of this intense interest was due, naturally, to the scarcity of

desirable women, but a larger part was called out by Berea's frank

freedom of manner. Her ready camaraderie was taken for carelessness, and

the candid grip of her hand was often misunderstood; and yet most of the

men respected her, and some feared her. After her avowed choice of

Clifford Belden they all kept aloof, for he was hot-tempered and

formidably swift to avenge an insult.



At the end of a week Norcross found himself restless and discontented

with the Meekers. He was tired of fishing, tired of the old man's endless

arguments, and tired of the obscene cow-hands. The men around the mill

did not interest him, and their Saturday night spree at the saloon

disgusted him. The one person who piqued his curiosity was Landon, the

ranger who was stationed not far away, and who could be seen occasionally

riding by on a handsome black horse. There was something in his bearing,

in his neat and serviceable drab uniform, which attracted the

convalescent, and on Sunday morning he decided to venture a call,

although Frank Meeker had said the ranger was a "grouch."



His cabin, a neat log structure, stood just above the road on a huge

natural terrace of grassy boulders, and the flag which fluttered from a

tall staff before it could be seen for several miles--the bright sign of

federal control, the symbol of law and order, just as the saloon and the

mill were signs of lawless vice and destructive greed. Around the door

flowers bloomed and kittens played; while at the door of the dive broken

bottles, swarms of flies, and heaps of refuse menaced every corner, and

the mill immured itself in its own debris like a foul beast.



It was strangely moving to come upon this flower-like place and this

garden in the wilderness. A spring, which crept from the high wall back

of "the station" (as these ranger headquarters are called), gave its

delicious water into several winding ditches, trickled musically down the

other side of the terrace in little life-giving cascades, and so finally,

reunited in a single current, fell away into the creek. It was plain that

loving care, and much of it, had been given to this tiny system of

irrigation.



The cabin's interior pleased Wayland almost as much as the garden. It was

built of pine logs neatly matched and hewed on one side. There were but

two rooms--one which served as sleeping-chamber and office, and one which

was at once kitchen and dining-room. In the larger room a quaint

fireplace with a flat arch, a bunk, a table supporting a typewriter, and

several shelves full of books made up the furnishing. On the walls hung a

rifle, a revolver in its belt, a couple of uniforms, and a yellow oilskin

raincoat.



The ranger, spurred and belted, with his cuffs turned back, was pounding

the typewriter when Wayland appeared at the open door; but he rose with

grave courtesy. "Come in," he said, and his voice had a pleasant

inflection.



"I'm interrupting."



"Nothing serious, just a letter. There's no hurry. I'm always glad of an

excuse to rest from this job." He was at once keenly interested in his

visitor, for he perceived in him the gentleman and, of course, the

alien.



Wayland, with something of the feeling of a civilian reporting to an

officer, explained his presence in the neighborhood.



"I've heard of you," responded the ranger, "and I've been hoping you'd

look in on me. The Supervisor's daughter has just written me to look

after you. She said you were not very well."



Again Wayland protested that he was not a consumptive, only a student who

needed mountain air; but he added: "It is very kind of Miss McFarlane to

think of me."



"Oh, she thinks of everybody," the young fellow declared. "She's one of

the most unselfish creatures in the world."



Something in the music of this speech, and something in the look of the

ranger's eyes, caused Wayland to wonder if here were not still another of

Berrie's subjects. He became certain of it as the young officer went on,

with pleasing frankness, and it was not long before he had conveyed to

Wayland his cause for sadness. "She's engaged to a man that is not her

equal. In a certain sense no man is her equal; but Belden is a pretty

hard type, and I believe, although I can't prove it, that he is part

owner of the saloon over there."



"How does that saloon happen to be here?"



"It's on patented land--a so-called 'placer claim'--experts have reported

against it. McFarlane has protested against it, but nothing is done. The

mill is also on deeded land, and together they are a plague spot. I'm

their enemy, and they know it; and they've threatened to burn me out. Of

course they won't do that, but they're ready to play any kind of trick on

me."



"I can well believe that, for I am getting my share of practical jokes at

Meeker's."



"They're not a bad lot over there--only just rowdy. I suppose they're

initiating you," said Landon.



"I didn't come out here to be a cowboy," responded Norcross. "But Frank

Meeker seems to be anxious to show me all the good old cowboy courtesies.

On Monday he slipped a burr under my horse's saddle, and I came near to

having my neck broken. Then he or some one else concealed a frog in my

bed, and fouled my hair-brushes. In fact, I go to sleep each night in

expectation of some new attack; but the air and the riding are doing me a

great deal of good, and so I stay."



"Come and bunk with me," urged Landon. "I'll be glad to have you. I get

terribly lonesome here sometimes, although I'm supposed to have the best

station in the forest. Bring your outfit and stay as long as you like."



This offer touched Norcross deeply. "That's very kind of you; but I guess

I'll stick it out. I hate to let those hoodlums drive me out."



"All right, but come and see me often. I get so blue some days I wonder

what's the use of it all. There's one fatal condition about this ranger

business--it's a solitary job, it cuts out marriage for most of us. Many

of the stations are fifteen or twenty miles from a post-office; then,

too, the lines of promotion are few. I guess I'll have to get out,

although I like the work. Come in any time and take a snack with me."



Thereafter Wayland spent nearly every day with the ranger, either in his

cabin or riding the trail, and during these hours confidence grew until

at last Landon confessed that his unrest arose from his rejection by

Berrie.



"She was not to blame. She's so kind and free with every one, I thought I

had a chance. I was conceited enough to feel sorry for the other fellows,

and now I can't even feel sorry for myself. I'm just dazed and hanging to

the ropes. She was mighty gentle about it--you know how sunny her face

is--well, she just got grave and kind o' faint-voiced, and said--Oh, you

know what she said! She let me know there was another man. I didn't ask

her who, and when I found out, I lost my grip entirely. At first I

thought I'd resign and get out of the country; but I couldn't do it--I

can't yet. The chance of seeing her--of hearing from her once in a

while--she never writes except on business for her father; but--you'll

laugh--I can't see her signature without a tremor." He smiled, but his

eyes were desperately sad. "I ought to resign, because I can't do my work

as well as I ought to. As I ride the trail I'm thinking of her. I sit

here half the night writing imaginary letters to her. And when I see her,

and she takes my hand in hers--you know what a hand she has--my mind goes

blank. Oh, I'm crazy! I admit it. I didn't know such a thing could happen

to me; but it has."



"I suppose it's being alone so much," Wayland started to argue, but the

other would not have it so.



"No, it's the girl herself. She's not only beautiful in body, she's all

sweetness and sincerity in mind. There isn't a petty thing about her. And

her happy smile--do you know, I have times when I resent that smile? How

can she be so happy without me? That's crazy, too, but I think it,

sometimes. Then I think of the time when she will not smile--when that

brute Belden will begin to treat her as he does his sisters--then I get

murderous."



As Wayland listened to this outpouring he wondered at the intensity of

the forester's passion. He marveled, too, at Berrie's choice, for there

was something fine and high in Landon's worship. A college man with a

mining engineer's training, he should go high in the service. "He made

the mistake of being too precipitate as a lover," concluded Wayland. "His

forthright courtship repelled her."



Meanwhile his own troubles increased. Frank's dislike had grown to an

impish vindictiveness, and if the old man Meeker had any knowledge of his

son's deviltries, he gave no sign. Mrs. Meeker, however, openly reproved

the scamp.



"You ought to be ashamed of worrying a sick man," she protested,

indignantly.



"He ain't so sick as all that; and, besides, he needs the starch taken

out of him," was the boy's pitiless answer.



"I don't know why I stay," Wayland wrote to Berea. "I'm disgusted with

the men up here--they're all tiresome except Landon--but I hate to slink

away, and besides, the country is glorious. I'd like to come down and see

you this week. May I do so? Please send word that I may."



She did not reply, and wondering whether she had received his letter or

not, he mounted his horse one beautiful morning and rode away up the

trail with a sense of elation, of eager joy, with intent to call upon her

at the ranch as he went by.



Hardly had he vanished among the pines when Clifford Belden rode in from

his ranch on Hat Creek, and called at Meeker's for his mail.



Frank Meeker was in the office, and as he both feared and disliked this

big contemptuous young cattleman, he set to work to make him jealous.



"You want to watch this one-lung boarder of ours," he warned, with a

grin. "He's been writing to Berrie, and he's just gone down to see her.

His highfalutin ways, and his fine white hands, have put her on the

slant."



Belden fixed a pair of cold, gray-blue eyes on his tormentor, and said:

"You be careful of your tongue or I'll put you on the slant."



"I'm her own cousin," retorted Frank. "I reckon I can say what I please

about her. I don't want that dude Easterner to cut you out. She guided

him over here, and gave him her slicker to keep him dry, and I can see

she's terribly taken with him. She's headstrong as a mule, once she gets

started, and if she takes a notion to Norcross it's all up with you."



"I'm not worrying," retorted Belden.



"You'd better be. I was down there the other day, and it 'peared like she

couldn't talk of anything else but Mister Norcross, Mister Norcross, till

I was sick of his name."



An hour later Belden left the mill and set off up the trail behind

Norcross, his face fallen into stern lines. Frank writhed in delight.

"There goes Cliff, hot under the collar, chasing Norcross. If he finds

out that Berrie is interested in him, he'll just about wring that dude's

neck."



Meanwhile Wayland was riding through the pass with lightening heart, his

thought dwelling on the girl at the end of his journey. Aside from Landon

and Nash, she was the one soul in all this mountain world in whom he took

the slightest interest. Her pity still hurt him, but he hoped to show her

such change of color, such gain in horsemanship, that she could no longer

consider him an invalid. His mind kept so closely to these interior

matters that he hardly saw the path, but his horse led him safely back

with precise knowledge and eager haste.



As he reached the McFarlane ranch it seemed deserted of men, but a faint

column of smoke rising from the roof of the kitchen gave evidence of a

cook, and at his knock Berrie came to the door with a boyish word of

frank surprise and pleasure. She was dressed in a blue-and-white calico

gown with the collar turned in and the sleeves rolled up; but she seemed

quite unembarrassed, and her pleasure in his coming quite repaid him for

his long and tiresome ride.



"I've been wondering about you," she said. "I'm mighty glad to see you.

How do you stand it?"



"You got my letter?"



"I did--and I was going to write and tell you to come down, but I've had

some special work to do at the office."



She took the horse's rein from him, and together they started toward

the stables. As she stepped over and around the old hoofs and

meat-bones--which littered the way--without comment, Wayland again

wondered at her apparent failure to realize the disgusting disorder of

the yard. "Why don't she urge the men to clean it up?" he thought.



This action of stabling the horses--a perfectly innocent and natural one

for her--led one of the hands, a coarse-minded sneak, to watch them from

a corral. "I wonder how Cliff would like that?" he evilly remarked.



Berea was frankly pleased to see Wayland, and spoke of the improvement

which had taken place in him. "You're looking fine," she said, as they

were returning to the house. "But how do you get on with the boys?"



"Not very well," he admitted. "They seem to have it in for me. It's a

constant fight."



"How about Frank?"



"He's the worst of them all. He never speaks to me that he doesn't insult

me. I don't know why. I've tried my best to get into his good graces, but

I can't. Your uncle I like, and Mrs. Meeker is very kind; but all the

others seem to be sworn enemies. I don't think I could stand it if it

weren't for Landon. I spend a good deal of time with him."



Her face grew grave. "I reckon you got started wrong," she said at last.

"They'll like you better when you get browned up, and your clothes get

dirty--you're a little too fancy for them just now."



"But you see," he said, "I'm not trying for their admiration. I haven't

the slightest ambition to shine as a cow-puncher, and if those fellows

are fair samples I don't want anybody to mistake me for one."



"Don't let that get around," she smilingly replied. "They'd run you out

if they knew you despised them."



"I've come down here to confer with you," he declared, as they reached

the door. "I don't believe I want any more of their company. What's the

use? As you say, I've started wrong with them, and I don't see any

prospect of getting right; and, besides, I like the rangers better.

Landon thinks I might work into the service. I wonder if I could? It

would give me something to do."



She considered a moment. "We'll think about that. Come into the kitchen.

I'm cook to-day, mother's gone to town."



The kitchen was clean and ample, and the delicious odor of new-made bread

filled it with cheer. As the girl resumed her apron, Wayland settled into

a chair with a sigh of content. "I like this," he said aloud. "There's

nothing cowgirl about you now, you're the Anglo-Saxon housewife. You

might be a Michigan or Connecticut girl at this moment."



Her cheeks were ruddy with the heat, and her eyes intent on her work; but

she caught enough of his meaning to be pleased with it. "Oh, I have to

take a hand at the pots and pans now and then. I can't give all my time

to the service; but I'd like to."



He boldly announced his errand. "I wish you'd take me to board? I'm sure

your cooking would build up my shattered system a good deal quicker than

your aunt's."



She laughed, but shook her head. "You ought to be on the hills riding

hard every day. What you need is the high country and the air of the

pines."



"I'm not feeling any lack of scenery or pine-tree air," he retorted. "I'm

perfectly satisfied right here. Civilized bread and the sight of you will

do me more good than boiled beans and camp bread. I hate to say it, but

the Meeker menu runs largely to beef. Moreover, just seeing you would

help my recovery."



She became self-conscious at this, and he hastened to add:



"Not that I'm really sick. Mrs. Meeker, like yourself, persists in

treating me as if I were. I'm feeling fine--perfectly well, only I'm not

as rugged as I want to be."



She had read that victims of the white plague always talk in this

cheerful way about themselves, and she worked on without replying, and

this gave him an excellent opportunity to study her closely. She was

taller than most women and lithely powerful. There was nothing delicate

about her--nothing spirituelle--on the contrary, she was markedly

full-veined, cheerful and humorous, and yet she had responded several

times to an allusive phrase with surprising quickness. She did so now as

he remarked: "Somebody, I think it was Lowell, has said 'Nature is all

very well for a vacation, but a poor substitute for the society of good

men and women.' It's beautiful up at the mill, but I want some one to

enjoy it with, and there is no one to turn to, except Landon, and he's

rather sad and self-absorbed--you know why. If I were here--in the

valley--you and I could ride together now and then, and you could show me

all the trails. Why not let me come here and board? I'm going to ask your

mother, if I may not do so?"



Quite naturally he grew more and more personal. He told her of his

father, the busy director of a lumber company, and of his mother, sickly

and inert.



"She ought never to have married," he said, with darkened brow. "Not one

of her children has even a decent constitution. I'm the most robust of

them all, and I must seem a pretty poor lot to you. However, I wasn't

always like this, and if that young devil, Frank Meeker, hadn't tormented

me out of my sleep, I would have shown you still greater improvement.

Don't you see that it is your duty to let me stay here where I can build

up on your cooking?"



She turned this aside. "Mother don't think much of my cooking. She says I

can handle a brandin'-iron a heap better than I can a rollin'-pin."



"You certainly can ride," he replied, with admiring accent. "I shall

never forget the picture you made that first time I saw you racing to

intercept the stage. Do you know how fine you are physically? You're a

wonder." She uttered some protest, but he went on: "When I think of my

mother and sisters in comparison with you, they seem like caricatures of

women. I know I oughtn't to say such things of my mother--she really is

an exceptional person--but a woman should be something more than mind. My

sisters could no more do what you do than a lame duck can lead a ballet.

I suppose it is because I have had to live with a lot of ailing women all

my life that I feel as I do toward you. I worship your health and

strength. I really do. Your care of me on that trip was very sweet--and

yet it stung."



"I didn't mean to hurt you."



"I know you didn't, and I'm not complaining. I'm only wishing I could

come here and be 'bossed' by you until I could hold my own against any

weather. You make me feel just as I used to do when I went to a circus

and watched the athletes, men and women, file past me in the sawdust.

They seemed like demigods. As I sit here now I have a fierce desire to be

as well, as strong, as full of life as you are. I hate being thin and

timid. You have the physical perfection that queens ought to have."



Her face was flushed with inward heat as she listened to his strange

words, which sprang, she feared, from the heart of a man hopelessly ill;

but she again protested. "It's all right to be able to throw a rope and

ride a mean horse, but you have got something else--something I can never

get. Learning is a thousand times finer than muscle."



"Learning does not compensate for nine-inch shoulders and spindle legs,"

he answered. "But I'm going to get well. Knowing you has given me renewed

desire to be a man. I'm going to ride and rough it, and sleep out of

doors till I can follow you anywhere. You'll be proud of me before the

month is out. But I'm going to cut the Meeker outfit. I won't subject

myself to their vulgarities another day. Why should I? It's false pride

in me to hang on up there any longer."



"Of course you can come here," she said. "Mother will be glad to have

you, although our ranch isn't a bit pretty. Perhaps father will send you

out with one of the rangers as a fire-guard. I'll ask him to-night."



"I wish you would. I like these foresters. What I've seen of them. I

wouldn't mind serving under a man like Landon. He's fine."



Upon this pleasant conference Cliff Belden unexpectedly burst. Pushing

the door open with a slam, he confronted Berrie with dark and angry

face.



"Why, Cliff, where did you come from?" she asked, rising in some

confusion. "I didn't hear you ride up."



"Apparently not," he sneeringly answered. "I reckon you were too much

occupied."



She tried to laugh away his black mood. "That's right, I was. I'm chief

cook to-day. Come in and sit down. Mother's gone to town, and I'm playing

her part," she explained, ignoring his sullen displeasure. "Cliff, this

is Mr. Norcross, who is visiting Uncle Joe. Mr. Norcross, shake hands

with Mr. Belden." She made this introduction with some awkwardness, for

her lover's failure to even say, "Howdy," informed her that his jealous

heart was aflame, and she went on, quickly: "Mr. Norcross dropped in on

his way to the post-office, and I'm collecting a snack for him."



Recognizing Belden's claims upon the girl, Wayland rose. "I must be

going. It's a long ride over the hill."



"Come again soon," urged Berrie; "father wants to see you."



"Thank you. I will look in very shortly," he replied, and went out with

such dignity as he could command, feeling, however, very much like a dog

that has been kicked over the threshold.



Closing the door behind him, Belden turned upon the girl. "What's that

consumptive 'dogie' doing here? He 'peared to be very much at home with

you--too dern much at home!"



She was prepared for his displeasure, but not for words like these. She

answered, quietly: "He just dropped in on his way to town, and he's not a

dogie!" She resented his tone as well as his words.



"I've heard about you taking him over to Meeker's and lending him your

only slicker," he went on; "but I didn't expect to find him sittin' here

like he owned you and the place. You're taking altogether too much pains

with him. Can't he put his own horse out? Do you have to go to the stable

with him? You never did have any sense about your actions with men.

You've all along been too free of your reputation, and now I'm going to

take care of it for you. I won't have you nursin' this runt any longer!"



She perceived now the full measure of his base rage, and her face grew

pale and set. "You're making a perfect fool of yourself, Cliff," she

said, with portentous calmness.



"Am I?" he asked.



"You sure are, and you'll see it yourself by and by. You've no call to

get wire-edged about Mr. Norcross. He's not very strong. He's just

getting well of a long sickness. I knew a chill would finish him, that's

why I gave him my slicker. It didn't hurt me, and maybe it saved his

life. I'd do it again if necessary."



"Since when did you start a hospital for Eastern tenderfeet?" he sneered;

then his tone changed to one of downright command. "You want to cut this

all out, I tell you! I won't have any more of it! The boys up at the mill

are all talkin' about your interest in this little whelp, and I'm getting

the branding-iron from every one I meet. Sam saw you go into the barn

with that dude, and that would have been all over the country

to-morrow, if I hadn't told him I'd sew his mouth up if he said a word

about it. Of course, I don't think you mean anything by this coddlin'."



"Oh, thank you," she interrupted, with flaming, quick, indignant fury.

"That's mighty nice of you. I went to the barn to show Mr. Norcross where

to stall his horse. I didn't know Sam was here."



He sneered: "No, I bet you didn't."



She fired at this. "Come now! Spit it out! Something nasty is in your

mind. Go on! What have I done? What makes you so hot?"



He began to weaken. "I don't accuse you of anything. I--but I--"



"Yes you do--in your heart you distrust me--you just as much as said

so!"



He was losing his high air of command. "Never mind what I said, Berrie,

I--"



She was blazing now. "But I do mind--I mind a whole lot--I didn't think

it of you," she added, as she realized his cheapness, his coarseness. "I

didn't suppose you could even think such things of me. I don't like

it," she repeated, and her tone hardened, "and I guess you'd better pull

out of here--for good. If you've no more faith in me than that, I want

you to go and never come back."



"You don't mean that!"



"Yes, I do! You've shown this yellow streak before, and I'm tired of it.

This is the limit. I'm done with you."



She stood between tears and benumbing anger now, and he was scared.

"Don't say that, Berrie!" he pleaded, trying to put his arm about her.



"Keep away from me!" She dashed his hands aside. "I hate you. I never

want to see you again!" She ran into her own room and slammed the door

behind her.



Belden stood for a long time with his back against the wall, the heat of

his resentment utterly gone, an empty, aching place in his heart. He

called her twice, but she made no answer, and so, at last, he mounted his

horse and rode away.





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