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Kent Burnett, bearing over his arm a coat newly pressed in the Delmonico restaurant, dodged in at the back door of the saloon, threw the coat down upon the tousled bed, and pushed back his hat with a gesture of relief at an onerous duty well performed.
"I had one hell of a time," he announced plaintively, "and that Chink will likely try to poison me if I eat over there, after this--but I got her ironed, all right. Get into it, Man, and chase yourself over there to the hotel. Got a clean collar? That one's all-over coffee."
Fleetwood stifled a groan, reached into a trousers pocket, and brought up a dollar. "Get me one at the store, will you, Kent? Fifteen and a half--and a tie, if they've got any that's decent. And hurry! Such a triple-three-star fool as I am ought to be taken out and shot."
He went on cursing himself audibly and bitterly, even after Kent had hurried out. He was sober now--was Manley Fleetwood--sober and self-condemnatory and penitent. His head ached splittingly; his eyes were heavy-lidded and bloodshot, and his hands trembled so that he could scarcely button his coat. But he was sober. He did not even carry the odor of whisky upon his breath or his person; for Kent had been very thoughtful and very thorough. He had compelled his patient to crunch and swallow many nauseous tablets of "whisky killer," and he had sprinkled his clothes liberally with Jockey Club; Fleetwood, therefore, while he emanated odors in plenty, carried about him none of the aroma properly belonging to intoxication.
In ten minutes Kent was back, with a celluloid collar and two ties of questionable taste. Manley just glanced at them, waved them away with gloomy finality, and swore.
"They're just about the limit, and that's no dream," sympathized Kent, "but they're clean, and they don't look like they'd been slept in for a month. You've got to put 'em on--by George, I sized up the layout in both those imitation stores, and I drew the highest in the deck. And for the Lord's sake, get a move on. Here, I'll button it for you."
Behind Fleetwood's back, when collar and tie were in place, Kent grinned and lowered an eyelid at Jim, who put his head in from the saloon to see how far the sobering had progressed.
"You look fine!" he encouraged heartily. "That green-and-blue tie's just what you need to set you off. And the collar sure is shiny and nice--your girl will be plumb dazzled. She won't see anything wrong--believe me. Now, run along and get married. Here, you better sneak out the back way; if she happened to be looking out, she'd likely wonder what you were doing, coming out of a saloon. Duck out past the coal shed and cut into the street by Brinberg's. Tell her you're sick--got a sick headache. Your looks'll swear it's the truth. Hike!" He opened the door and pushed Fleetwood out, watched him out of sight around the corner of Brinberg's store, and turned back into the close-smelling little room.
"Do you know," he remarked to Jim, "I never thought of it before, but I've been playing a low-down trick on that poor girl. I kinda wish now I'd put her next, and given her a chance to draw outa the game if she wanted to. It's stacking the deck on her, if you ask me!" He pushed his hat back upon his head, gave his shoulders a twist of dissatisfaction, and told Jim to dig up some Eastern beer; drank it meditatively, and set down the glass with some force.
"Yes, sir," he said disgustedly, "darn my fool soul, I stacked the deck on that girl--and she looked to be real nice. Kinda innocent and trusting, like she hasn't found out yet how rotten mean men critters can be." He took the bottle and poured himself another glass. "She's sure due to wise up a lot," he added grimly.
"You bet your sweet life!" Jim agreed, and then he reconsidered. "Still, I dunno; Man ain't so worse. He ain't what you can call a real booze fighter. This here's what I'd call an accidental jag; got it in the exuberance of the joyful moment when he knew his girl was coming. He'll likely straighten up and be all right. He--" Jim broke off there and looked to see who had opened the door.
"Hello, Polly," he greeted carelessly.
The man came forward, grinning skinnily. Polycarp Jenks was the outrageous name of him. He was under the average height, and he was lean to the point of emaciation. His mouth was absolutely curveless--a straight gash across his face; a gash which simply stopped short without any tapering or any turn at the corners, when it had reached as far as was decent. His nose was also straight and high, and owned no perceptible slope; indeed, it seemed merely a pendant attached to his forehead, and its upper termination was indefinite, except that somewhere between his eyebrows one felt impelled to consider it forehead rather than nose. His eyes also were rather long and narrow, like buttonholes cut to match the mouth. When he grinned his face appeared to break up into splinters.
He was intensely proud of his name, and his pleasure was almost pathetic when one pronounced it without curtailment in his presence. His skinniness was also a matter of pride. And when you realize that he was an indefatigable gossip, and seemed always to be riding at large, gathering or imparting trivial news, you should know fairly well Polycarp Jenks.
"I see Man Fleetwood's might' near sober enough to git married," Polycarp began, coming up to the two and leaning a sharp elbow upon the bar beside Kent. "By granny, gitting married'd sober anybody! Dinner time he was so drunk he couldn't find his mouth. I met him up here a little ways just now, and he was so sober he remembered to pay me that ten I lent him t' other day--he-he! Open up a bottle of pop, James.
"His girl's been might' near crying her eyes out, 'cause he didn't show up. Mis' Hawley says she looked like she was due at a funeral 'stid of a weddin'. 'Clined to be stuck up, accordin' to Mis' Hawley--shied at hearin' about Walt--he-he! I'll bet there ain't been a transient to that hotel in the last five year, man or woman, that ain't had to hear about Walt and the shotgun--Pop's all right on a hot day, you bet!
"She's got two trunks and a fiddle over to the depot--don't see how 'n the world Man's going to git 'em out to the ranch; they're might' near as big as claim shacks, both of 'em. Time she gits 'em into Man's shack she'll have to go outside every time she wants to turn around--he-he! By granny--two trunks, to one woman! Have some pop, Kenneth, on me.
"The boys are talkin' about a shivaree t'-night. On the quiet, y' know. Some of 'em's workin' on a horse fiddle now, over in the lumber yard. Wanted me to play a coal-oil can, but I dunno. I'm gittin' a leetle old for sech doings. Keeps you up nights too much. Man had any sense, he'd marry and pull outa town. 'Bout fifteen or twenty in the bunch, and a string of cans and irons to reach clean across the street. By granny, I'm going to plug m' ears good with cotton when it comes off--he-he! 'Nother bottle of pop, James."
"Who's running the show, Polycarp?" Kent asked, accepting the glass of soda because he disliked to offend. "Funny I didn't hear about it."
Polycarp twisted his slit of a mouth knowingly, and closed one slit of an eye to assist the facial elucidation.
"Ain't funny--not when I tell you Fred De Garmo's handing out the invites, and he sure aims to have plenty of excitement--he-he! Betcher Manley won't be able to set on the wagon seat an' hold the lines t'-morrow--not if he comes out when he's called and does the thing proper--he-he! An' if he don't show up, they aim to jest about pull the old shebang down over his ears. Hope'll think it's the day of judgment, sure--he-he! Reckon I might's well git in on the fun--they won't be no sleepin' within ten mile of the place, nohow, and a feller always sees the joke better when he's lendin' a hand. Too bad you an' Fred's on the outs, Kenneth."
"Oh, I don't know--it suits me fine," Kent declared easily, setting down his glass with a sigh of relief; he hated "pop."
"What's it all about, anyway?" quizzed Polycarp, hungering for the details which had thus far been denied him. "De Garmo sees red whenever anybody mentions your name, Kenneth--but I never did hear no particulars."
"No?" Kent was turning toward the door. "Well, you see, Fred claims he can holler louder than I can, and I say he can't." He opened the door and calmly departed, leaving Polycarp looking exceedingly foolish and a bit angry.
Straight to the hotel, without any pretense at disguising his destination, marched Kent. He went into the office--which was really a saloon--invited Hawley to drink with him, and then wondered audibly if he could beg some pie from Mrs. Hawley.
"Supper'll be ready in a few minutes," Hawley informed him, glancing up at the round, dust-covered clock screwed to the wall.
"I don't want supper--I want pie," Kent retorted, and opened a door which led into the hallway. He went down the narrow passage to another door, opened it without ceremony, and was assailed by the odor of many things--the odor which spoke plainly of supper, or some other assortment of food. No one was in sight, so he entered the dining room boldly, stepped to another door, tapped very lightly upon it, and went in. By this somewhat roundabout method he invaded the parlor.
Manley Fleetwood was lying upon an extremely uncomfortable couch, of the kind which is called a sofa. He had a lace-edged handkerchief folded upon his brow, and upon his face was an expression of conscious unworthiness which struck Kent as being extremely humorous. He grinned understandingly and Manley flushed--also understandingly. Valeria hastily released Manley's hand and looked very prim and a bit haughty, as she regarded the intruder from the red plush chair, pulled close to the couch.
"Mr. Fleetwood's head is very bad yet," she informed Kent coldly. "I really do not think he ought to see--anybody."
Kent tapped his hat gently against his leg and faced her unflinchingly, quite unconscious of the fact that she regarded him as a dissolute, drunken cowboy with whom Manley ought not to associate.
"That's too bad." His eyes failed to drop guiltily before hers, but continued to regard her calmly. "I'm only going to stay a minute. I came to tell you that there's a scheme to raise--to 'shivaree' you two, tonight. I thought you might want to pull out, along about dark."
Manley looked up at him inquiringly with the eye which was not covered by the lace-edged handkerchief. Valeria seemed startled, just at first. Then she gave Kent a little shock of surprise.
"I have read about such things. A charivari, even out here in this uncivilized section of the country, can hardly be dangerous. I really do not think we care to run away, thank you." Her lip curled unmistakably. "Mr. Fleetwood is suffering from a sick headache. He needs rest--not a cowardly night ride."
Naturally Kent admired the spirit she showed, in spite of that eloquent lip, the scorn of which seemed aimed directly at him. But he still faced her steadily.
"Sure. But if I had a headache--like that--I'd certainly burn the earth getting outa town to-night. Shivarees"--he stuck stubbornly to his own way of saying it--"are bad for the head. They aren't what you could call silent--not out here in this uncivilized section of the country. They're plumb--" He hesitated for just a fraction of a second, and his resentment of her tone melted into a twinkle of the eyes. "They've got fifty coal-oil cans strung with irons on a rope, and there'll be about ninety-five six-shooters popping, and eight or ten horse-fiddles, and they'll all be yelling to beat four of a kind. They're going," he said quite gravely, "to play the full orchestra. And I don't believe," he added ironically, "it's going to help Mr. Fleetwood's head any."
Valeria looked at him doubtingly with steady, amber-colored eyes before she turned solicitously to readjust the lace-edged handkerchief. Kent seized the opportunity to stare fixedly at Fleetwood and jerk his head meaningly backward, but when, warned by Manley's changing expression, she glanced suspiciously over her shoulder, Kent was standing quietly by the door with his hat in his hand, gazing absently at Walt in his gilt-edged frame upon the gilt easel, and waiting, evidently, for their decision.
"I shall tell them that Mr. Fleetwood is sick--that he has a horrible headache, and mustn't be disturbed."
Kent forgot himself so far as to cough slightly behind his hand. Valeria's eyes sparkled.
"Even out here," she went on cuttingly, "there must be some men who are gentlemen!"
Kent refrained from looking at her, but the blood crept darkly into his tanned cheeks. Evidently she "had it in for him," but he could not see why. He wondered swiftly if she blamed him for Manley's condition.
Fleetwood suddenly sat up, spilling the handkerchief to the floor. When Valeria essayed to push him back he put her hand gently away. He rose and came over to Kent.
"Is this straight goods?" he demanded. "Why don't you stop it?"
"Fred De Garmo's running this show. My influence wouldn't go as far--"
Fleetwood turned to the girl, and his manner was masterful. "I'm going out with Kent--oh, Val, this is Mr. Burnett. Kent, Miss Peyson. I forgot you two aren't acquainted."
From Valeria's manner, they were in no danger of becoming friends. Her acknowledgment was barely perceptible. Kent bowed stiffly.
"I'm going to see about this, Val," continued Fleetwood. "Oh, my head's better--a lot better, really. Maybe we'd better leave town--"
"If your head is better, I don't see why we need run away from a lot of silly noise," Valeria interposed, with merciless logic. "They'll think we're awful cowards."
"Well, I'll try and find out--I won't be gone a minute, dear." After that word, spoken before another, he appeared to be in great haste, and pushed Kent rather unceremoniously through the door. In the dining room, Kent diplomatically included the landlady in the conference, by a gesture of much mystery bringing her in from the kitchen, where she had been curiously peeping out at them.
"Got to let her in," he whispered to Manley, "to keep her face closed."
They murmured together for five minutes. Kent seemed to meet with some opposition from Fleetwood--an aftermath of Valeria's objections to flight--and became brutally direct.
"Go ahead--do as you please," he said roughly. "But you know that bunch. You'll have to show up, and you'll have to set 'em up, and--aw, thunder! By morning you'll be plumb laid out. You'll be headed into one of your four-day jags, and you know it. I was thinking of the girl--but if you don't care, I guess it's none of my funeral. Go to it--but darned if I'd want to start my honeymoon out like that!"
Fleetwood weakened, but still he hesitated. "If I didn't show up--" he began hopefully. But Kent wittered him with a look.
"That bunch will be two-thirds full before they start out. If you don't show up, they'll go up and haul you outa bed--hell, Man! You'd likely start in to kill somebody off. Fred De Garmo don't love you much better than he loves me. You know what him and his friends would do then, I should think." He stopped, and seemed to consider briefly a plan, but shook his head over it. "I could round up a bunch and stand 'em off, maybe--but we'd be shooting each other up, first rattle of the box. It's a whole lot easier for you to get outa town."
"I'll tell somebody you got the bridal chamber," hissed Arline, in a very loud whisper. "That's number two, in front. I can keep a light going and pass back 'n' forth once in a while, to look like you're there. That'll fool 'em good. They'll wait till the light's been out quite a while before they start in. You go ahead and git married at seven, jest as you was going to--and if Kent'll have the team ready somewheres, I can easy sneak you out the back way."
"I couldn't get the team out of town without giving the whole deal away," Kent objected. "You'll have to go horseback.".
"Val can't ride," Fleetwood stated, as if that settled the matter.
"Damn it, she's got to ride!" snapped Kent, losing patience. "Unless you want to stay and go on a toot that'll last a week, most likely."
"Val belongs to the W.C.T.U.," shrugged Fleetwood. "She'd never--"
"Well, it's that or have a fight on your hands you maybe can't handle. I don't see any sense in haggling about going, now you know what to expect. But, of course," he added, with some acrimony, "it's your own business. I don't know what the dickens I'm getting all worked up over it for. Suit yourself." He turned toward the door.
"She could ride my Mollie--and I got a sidesaddle hanging up in the coal shed. She could use that, or a stock saddle, either one," planned Mrs. Hawley anxiously. "You better pull out, Man."
"Hold on, Kent! Don't rush off--we'll go," Fleetwood surrendered. "Val won't like it, but I'll explain as well as I can, without--Say! you stay and see us married, won't you? It's at seven, and--"
Kent's fingers curled around the doorknob. "No, thanks. Weddings and funerals are two bunches of trouble I always ride 'way around. Time enough when you've got to be it. Along about nine o'clock you try and get out to the stockyards without letting the whole town see you go, and I'll have the horses there; just beyond the wings, by that pile of ties. You know the place. I'll wait there till ten, and not a minute longer. That'll give you an hour, and you won't need any more time than that if you get down to business. You find out from her what saddle she wants, and you can tell me while I'm eating supper, Mrs. Hawley. I'll 'tend to the rest." He did not wait to hear whether they agreed to the plan, but went moodily down the narrow passage, and entered frowningly the "office." Several men were gathered there, waiting the supper summons. Hawley glanced up from wiping a glass, and grinned.
"Well, did you git the pie?"
"Naw. She said I'd got to wait for mealtime. She plumb chased me out."
Fred De Garmo, sprawled in an armchair and smoking a cigar, lazily fanned the smoke cloud from before his face and looked at Kent attentively.
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