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It was the middle of the next forenoon when Manley came riding home, sullen from drink and a losing game of poker, which had kept him all night at the table, and at sunrise sent him forth in the mood which meets a grievance more than half-way. He did not stop at the house, though he saw Val through the open door; he did not trouble to speak to her, even, but rode on to the stable, stopping at the corral to look over the fence at the calves, still bawling sporadically between half-hearted nibblings at the hay which Polycarp had thrown in to them.
Just at first he did not notice anything wrong, but soon a vague disquiet seized him, and he frowned thoughtfully at the little group. Something puzzled him; but his brain, fogged with whisky and loss of sleep, and the reaction from hours of concentration upon the game, could not quite grasp the thing that troubled him. In a moment, however, he gave an inarticulate bellow, wheeled about, and rode back to the house. He threw himself from the horse almost before it stopped, and rushed into the kitchen. Val, ironing one of her ruffled white aprons, looked up quickly, turned rather pale, and then stiffened perceptibly for the conflict that was coming.
"There's only four calves in the corral--and I brought in five. Where's the other one?" He came up and stood quite close to her--so close that Val took a step backward. He did not speak loud, but there was something in his tone, in his look, that drove the little remaining color from her face.
"Manley," she said, with a catch of the breath, "why did you do that horrible thing? What devil possessed you? I--"
"I asked you 'where is that other calf'? Where is it? There's only four. I brought in five." His very calmness was terrifying.
Val threw back her head, and her eyes were--as they frequently became in moments of stress--yellow, inscrutable, like the eyes of a lion in a cage.
"Yes, you brought in five. One of the five, at least, you--stole. You put your brand, Manley Fleetwood, on a calf that did not belong to you; it belonged to the Wishbone, and you know it. I have learned many disagreeable things about you, Manley, in the past two years; yesterday morning I learned that you were a thief. Ah-h--I despise you! Stealing from the very men who helped you--the men to whom you owe nothing but gratitude and--and friendship! Have you no manhood whatever? Besides being weak and shiftless, are you a criminal as well? How can you be so utterly lacking in--in common decency, even?" She eyed him as she would look at some strange monster in a museum about which she was rather curious.
"I asked you where that other calf is--and you'd better tell me!" It was the tone which goes well with a knife thrust or a blow. But the contempt in Val's face did not change.
"Well, you'll have to hunt for it if you want it. The cow--a Wishbone cow, mind you!--came and claimed it; I let her have it. No stolen goods can remain on this ranch with my knowledge, Manley Fleetwood. Please remember--"
"Oh, you turned it out, did you? You turned it out?" He had her by the throat, shaking her as a puppy shakes a purloined shoe. "I could--kill you for that!"
"Manley! Ah-h-h--" It was not pleasant--that gurgling cry, as she straggled to get free.
He had the look of a maniac as he pressed his fingers into her throat and glared down into her purpling face.
With a sudden impulse he cast her limp form violently from him. She struck against a chair, fell from that to the floor, and lay a huddled heap, her crisp, ruffled skirt just giving a glimpse of tiny, half-worn slippers, her yellow hair fallen loose and hiding her face.
He stared down at her, but he felt no remorse--she had jeopardized his liberty, his standing among men. A cold horror caught him when he thought of the calf turned loose on the range, his brand on its ribs. He rushed in a panic from the kitchen, flung himself into the saddle, and went off across the coulee, whipping both sides of his horse. She had not told him--indeed, he had not asked her--which way the cow had gone, but instinctively he rode to the west, the direction from which he had driven the calves. One thought possessed him utterly; he must find that calf.
So he rode here and there, doubling and turning to search every feeding herd he glimpsed, fearing to face the possibility of failure and its inevitable consequence.
The cat with the white spots on its sides--Val called her Mary Arabella, for some whimsical reason--came into the kitchen, looked inquiringly at the huddled figure upon the floor, gave a faint mew, and went slowly up, purring and arching her back; she snuffed a moment at Val's hair, then settled herself in the hollow of Val's arm, and curled down for a nap. The sun, sliding up to midday, shone straight in upon them through the open door.
Polycarp Jenks, riding that way in obedience to some obscure impulse, lifted his hand to give his customary tap-tap before he walked in; saw Val lying there, and almost fell headlong into the room in his haste and perturbation. It looked very much as if he had at last stumbled upon the horrible tragedy which was his one daydream. To be an eyewitness of a murder, and to be able to tell the tale afterward with minute, horrifying detail--that, to Polycarp, would make life really worth living. He shuffled over to Val, pushed aside the mass of yellow hair, turned her head so that he could look into her face, saw at once the bruised marks upon her throat, and stood up very straight.
"Foul play has been done here!" he exclaimed melodramatically, eying the cat sternly. "Murder--that's what it is, by granny--a foul murder!"
The victim of the foul murder stirred slightly. Polycarp started and bent over her again, somewhat disconcerted, perhaps, but more humanly anxious.
"Mis' Fleetwood--Mis' Fleetwood! You hurt? It's Polycarp Jenks talkin' to you!" He hesitated, pushed the cat away, lifted Val with some difficulty, and carried her into the front room and deposited her on the couch. Then he hurried after some water.
"Come might' nigh bein' a murder, by granny--from the marks on 'er neck--come might' nigh, all right!"
He sprinkled water lavishly upon her face, bethought him of a possible whisky flask in the haystack, and ran every step of the way there and back. He found a discarded bottle with a very little left in it, and forced the liquor down her throat.
"That'll fetch ye if anything will--he-he!" he mumbled, tittering from sheer excitement. Beyond a very natural desire to do what he could for her, he was extremely anxious to bring her to her senses, so that he could hear what had happened, and how it had happened.
"Betche Man got jealous of her'n Kenneth--by granny, I betche that's how it come about--hey? Feelin' better, Mis' Fleetwood?"
Val had opened her eyes and was looking at him rather stupidly. There was a bruise upon her head, as well as upon her throat. She had been stunned, and her wits came back slowly. When she recognized Polycarp, she tried ineffectually to sit up.
"I--he--is--he--gone?" Her voice was husky, her speech labored.
"Man, you mean? He's gone, yes. Don't you be afeared--not whilst I'm here, by granny! How came it he done this to ye?"
Val was still staring at him bewilderedly. Polycarp repeated his question three times before the blank look left her eyes.
"I--turned the calf--out--the cow--came and--claimed it--Manley--" She lifted her hand as if it were very, very heavy, and fumbled at her throat. "Manley--when I told him--he was a--thief--" She dropped her hand wearily to her side and closed her eyes, as if the sight of Polycarp's face, so close to hers and so insatiably curious and eager and cunning, was more than she could bear.
"Go away," she commanded, after a minute or two. "I'm--all right. It's nothing. I fell. It was--the heat. Thank you--so much--" She opened her eyes and saw him there still. She looked at him gravely, speculatively. She waved her hand toward the bedroom. "Get me my hand glass--in there on the dresser," she said.
When he had tiptoed in and got it for her, she lifted it up slowly, with both hands, until she could see her throat. There were distinct, telltale marks upon the tender flesh--unmistakable finger prints. She shivered and dropped the glass to the floor. But she stared steadily up at Polycarp, and after a moment she spoke with a certain fierceness.
"Polycarp Jenks, don't ever tell--about those marks. I--I don't want any one to know. When--after a while--I want to think first--perhaps you can help me. Go away now--not away from the ranch, but--let me think. I'm all right--or I will be. Please go."
Polycarp recognized that tone, however it might be hoarsened by bruised muscles and the shock of what she had suffered. He recognized also that look in her eyes; he had always obeyed that look and that tone--he obeyed them now, though with visible reluctance. He sat down in the kitchen to wait, and while he waited he chewed tobacco incessantly, and ruminated upon the mystery which lay behind the few words Val had first spoken, before she realized just what it was she was saying.
After a long, long while--so long that even Polycarp's patience was feeling the strain--Val opened the door and stood leaning weakly against the casing. Her throat was swathed in a piece of white silk.
"I wish, Polycarp, you'd get the team and hitch it to the light rig," she said. "I want to go to town, and I don't feel able to drive. Can you take me in? Can you spare the time?"
"Why, certainly, I c'n take you in, Mis' Fleetwood. I was jest thinkn' it wa'n't safe for you out here--"
"It is perfectly safe," Val interrupted chillingly. "I am going because I Want to see Arline Hawley." She raised her hand to the bandage. "I have a sore throat," she stated, staring hard at him. Then, with one of her impulsive changes, she smiled wistfully.
"You'll be my friend, Polycarp, won't you?" she pleaded. "I can trust you, I know, with my--secret. It is a secret--it must be a secret! I'll tell you the truth, Polycarp. It was Manley--he had been drinking again. He--we had a quarrel--about something. He didn't know what he was doing--he didn't mean to hurt me. But I fell--I struck my head; see, there is a great lump there." She pushed back her hair to show him the place. "So it's a secret--just between you and me, Polycarp Jenks!"
"Why, certainly, Mis' Fleetwood; don't you be the least mite oneasy; I'm your friend--I always have been. A feller ain't to be held responsible when he's drinkin'--by granny, that's a fact, he ain't."
"No," Val agreed laconically, "I suppose not. Let us go, then, as soon as we can, please. I'll stay overnight with Mrs. Hawley, and you can bring me back to-morrow, can't you? And you'll remember not to mention--anything, won't you, Polycarp?"
Polycarp stood very straight and dignified.
"I hope, Mis' Fleetwood, you can always depend on Polycarp Jenks," he replied virtuously. "Your secret is safe with me."
Val smiled--somewhat doubtfully, it is true--and let him go. "Maybe it is--I hope so," she sighed, as she turned away to dress for the trip.
All through that long ride to town, Polycarp talked and talked and talked. He made surmises and waited openly to hear them confirmed or denied; he gave her advice; he told her everything he had ever heard about Manley, or had seen or knew from some other source; everything, that is, save what was good. The sums he had lost at poker, or had borrowed; the debts he owed to the merchants; the reputation he had for "talking big and doing little;" the trouble he had had with this man and that man; and what he did not know for a certainty he guessed at, and so kept the subject alive.
True, Val did not speak at all, except when he asked her how she felt. Then she would reply dully, "Pretty well, thank you, Polycarp." Invariably those were the words she used. Whenever he stole a furtive, sidelong glance at her, she was staring straight ahead at the great, undulating prairie with the brown ribbon, which was the trail, thrown carelessly across to the sky line.
Polycarp suspected that she did not see anything--she just stared with her eyes, while her thoughts were somewhere else. He was not even sure that she heard what he was saying. He thought she must be pretty sick, she was so pale, and she had such wide, purple rings under her eyes. Also, he rather resented her desire to keep her trouble a secret; he favored telling everybody, and organizing a party to go out and run Man Fleetwood out of the country, as the very mildest rebuke which the outraged community could give and remain self-respecting. He even fell silent daring the last three or four miles, while he dwelt longingly upon the keen pleasure there would be in leading such an expedition.
"You'll remember, Polycarp, not to speak of this?" Val urged abruptly when he drew up before the Hawley Hotel. "Not a hint, you know until--until I give you permission. You promised."
"Oh, certainly, Mis' Fleetwood. Certainly. Don't you be a mite oneasy." But the tone of Polycarp was dejected in the extreme.
"And please be ready to drive me back in the morning. I should like to be at the ranch by noon, at the latest." With that she left him and went into the hotel.
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