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A FRIEND IN NEED
"And so," Val finished, rather apathetically, pushing back the fallen lock of hair, "it has come to that. I can't remain here and keep any shred of self-respect. All my life I've been taught to believe divorce a terrible thing--a crime, almost; now I think it is sometimes a crime not to be divorced. For months I have been coming slowly to a decision, so this is really not as sudden as it may seem to you. It is humiliating to be compelled to borrow money--but I would much rather ask you than any of my own people. My pride is going to suffer enough when I meet them, as it is; I can't let them know just how miserable and sordid a failure--"
Arline gave an inarticulate snort, bent her scrawny body nearly double, and reached frankly into her stocking. She fumbled there a moment and straightened triumphantly, grasping a flat, buckskin bag.
"I'd feel like shakin' you if you went to anybody else but me," she declared, untying the bag. "I know what men is--Lord knows I see enough of 'em and their meanness--and if I can help a woman outa the clutches of one, I'm tickled to death to git the chancet. I ain't sayin' they're all of 'em bad--I c'n afford to give the devil his due and still say that men is the limit. The good ones is so durn scarce it ain't one woman in fifty lucky enough to git one. All I blame you for is stayin' with him as long as you have. I'd of quit long ago; I was beginnin' to think you never would come to your senses. But you had to fight that thing out for yourself; every woman has to.
"I'm glad you've woke up to the fact that Man Fleetwood didn't git a deed to you, body and soul, when he married you; you've been actin' as if you thought he had. And I'm glad you've got sense enough to pull outa the game when you know the best you can expect is the worst of it. There ain't no hope for Man Fleetwood; I seen that when he went back to drinkin' again after you was burnt out. I did think that would steady him down, but he ain't the kind that braces up when trouble hits him--he's the sort that stays down ruther than go to the trouble of gittin' up. He's hopeless now as a rotten egg, and has been for the last year. Here; you take the hull works, and if you need more, I can easy git it for you by sendin' in to the bank."
"Oh, but this is too much!" Val protested when she had counted the money. "You're so good--but really and truly, I won't need half--"
Arline pushed away the proffered money impatiently. "How'n time are you goin' to tell how much you'll need? Lemme tell you, Val Peyson--I ain't goin' to call you by his name no more, the dirty cur!--I've been packin' that money in my stockin' for six months, jest so'st to have it handy when you wanted it. Divorces cost more'n marriage licenses, as you'll find out when you git started. And--"
"You--why, the idea!" Val pursed her lips with something like her old spirit. "How could you know I'd need to borrow money? I didn't know it myself, even. I--"
"Well, I c'n see through a wall when there's a knothole in it," paraphrased Arline calmly. "You may not know it, but you've been gittin' your back-East notions knocked outa you pretty fast the last year or so. It was all a question of what kinda stuff you was made of underneath. You c'n put a polish on most anything, so I couldn't tell, right at first, what there was to you. But you're all right--I've seen that a long time back; and so I knowed durn well you'd be wantin' money to pull loose with. It takes money, though I know it ain't polite to say much about real dollars 'n' cents. You'll likely use every cent of that before you're through with the deal--and remember, there's a lot more growin' on the same bush, if you need it. It's only waitin' to be picked."
Val stared, found her eyes blurring so that she could not see, and with a sudden, impulsive movement leaned over and put her arms around Arline, unkempt, scrawny, and wholly unlovely though she was.
"Arline, you're an angel of goodness!" she cried brokenly. "You're the best friend I ever had in my life--I've had many who petted me and flattered me--but you--you do things! I'm ashamed--because I haven't loved you every minute since I first saw you. I judged you--I mean--oh, you're pure, shining gold inside, instead of--"
"Oh, git out!" Arline was compelled to gulp twice before she could say even that much. "I don't shine nowhere--inside er out. I know that well enough. I never had no chancet to shine. It's always been wore off with hard knocks. But I like shiny folks all right--when they're fine clear through, and--"
"Arline--dear, I do love you. I always shall. I--"
Arline loosened her clasp and jumped up precipitately.
"Git out!" she repeated bashfully. "If you git me to cryin', Val Peyson, I'll wish you was in Halifax. You go to bed, 'n' go to sleep, er I'll--" She almost ran from the room. Outside, she stopped in a darkened corner of the hallway and stood for some minutes with her checked gingham apron pressed tightly over her face, and several times she sniffed audibly. When she finally returned to the kitchen her nose was pink, her eyelids were pink, and she was extremely petulant when she caught Minnie eying her curiously.
Val had refused to eat any supper, and, beyond telling Arline that she had decided to leave Manley and return to her mother in Fern Hill, she had not explained anything very clearly--her colorless face, for instance, nor her tightly swathed throat, nor the very noticeable bruise upon her temple.
Arline had not asked a single question. Now, however, she spent some time fixing a tray with the daintiest food she knew and could procure, and took it upstairs with a certain diffidence in her manner and a rare tenderness in her faded, worldly-wise eyes.
"You got to eat, you know," she reminded Val gently. "You're bucking up ag'inst the hardest part of the trail, and grub's a necessity. Take it like you would medicine--unless your throat's too sore. I see you got it all tied up."
Val raised her hands in a swift alarm and clasped her throat as if she feared Arline would remove the bandages.
"Oh, it's not sore--that is, it is sore--I mean not very much," she stammered betrayingly.
Arline set down the tray upon the dresser and faced Val grimly.
"I never asked you any questions, did I?" she demanded. "But you act for all the world as if--do you want me to give a guess about that tied-up neck, and that black'n'blue lump on your forehead? I never asked any questions--I didn't need to. Man Fleetwood's been maulin' you abound. I was kinda afraid he'd git to that point some day when he got mad enough; he's just the brand to beat up a woman. But if it took a beatin' to bring you to the quitting point, I'm glad he done it. Only," she added darkly, "he better keep outa my reach; I'm jest in the humor to claw him up some if I should git close enough. And if I happened to forget I'm a lady, I'd sure bawl him out, and the bigger crowd heard me the better. Now, you eat this--and don't get the idee you can cover up any meanness of Man Fleetwood's; not from me, anyhow. I know men better'n you do; you couldn't tell me nothing about 'em that would su'prise me the least bit. I'm only thankful he didn't murder you in cold blood. Are you going to eat?"
"Not if you keep on reminding me of such h-horrid things," wailed Val, and sobbed into her pillow. "It's bad enough to--to have him ch-choke me without having you t-talk about it all the time!"
"Now, honey, don't you waste no tears on a brute like him--he ain't w-worth it!" Arline was on her bony knees beside the bed, crying with sympathy and self-reproach.
So, in truly feminine fashion, the two wept their way back to the solid ground of everyday living. Before they reached that desirable state of composure, however, Val told her everything--within certain limits set not by caution, but rather by her woman's instinct. She did not, for instance, say much about Kent, though she regretted openly that Polycarp knew so much about it.
"Hope never needed no newspaper so long as Polycarp lives here," Arline grumbled when Val was sitting up again and trying to eat Arline's toast, and jelly made of buffalo berries, and sipping the tea which had gone cold. "But if I can round him up in time, I'll try and git him to keep his mouth shet. I'll scare the liver outa him some way. But if he caught onto that calf deal--" She shook her head doubtfully. "The worst of it is, Fred's in town, and he's always pumpin' Polycarp dry, jest to find out all that's goin' on. You go to bed, and I'll see if I can find out whether they're together. If they are--but you needn't to worry none. I reckon I'm a match for the both of 'em. Why, I'd dope their coffee and send 'em both to sleep till Man got outa the country, if I had to!"
She stood with her hands upon her angular hips and glared at Val.
"I sure would do that, very thing--for you," she reiterated solemnly, "I don't purtend I'd do it for Man--but I would for you. But it's likely Kent has fixed things up so they can't git nothing on Man if they try. He would if he said he would; that there's one feller that's on the square. You go to bed now, whilst I go on a still hunt of my own. I'll come and tell you if there's anything to tell."
It was easy enough to make the promise, but keeping it was so difficult that she yielded to the temptation of going to bed and letting Val sleep in peace; which she could not have done if she had known that Polycarp Jenks and Fred De Garmo left town on horseback within an hour after Polycarp had entered it, and that they told no man their errand.
Over behind Brinberg's store, Polycarp had told Fred all he knew, all he suspected, and all he believed would come to pass. "Strictly on the quiet," of course--he reminded Fred of that, over and over, because he had promised Mrs. Fleetwood that he would not mention it.
"But, by granny," he apologized, "I didn't like the idee of keepin' a thing like that from you; it would kinda look as if I was standin' in on the deal, which I ain't. Nobody can't accuse me of rustlin', no matter what else I might do; you know that, Fred."
"Sure, I know you're honest, anyway," Fred responded quite sincerely.
"Well, I considered it my duty to tell you. I've kinda had my suspicions all fall, that there was somethin' scaly goin' on at Cold Spring. Looked to me like Man had too blamed many calves missed by spring round-up--for the size of his herd. I dunno, of course, jest where he gits 'em--you'll have to find that out. But he's brung twelve er fourteen to the ranch, two er three at a time. And what she said when she first come to--told me right out, by granny, 'at Man choked her because she called 'im a thief, and somethin' about a cow comin' an' claimin' her calf, and her turnin' it out. That oughta be might' nigh all the evidence you need, Fred, if you find it. She don't know she said it, but she wouldn't of told it, by granny, if it wasn't so--now would she?"
"And you say all this happened to-day?" Fred pondered for a minute. "That's queer, because I almost caught a fellow last night doing some funny work on a calf. A Wishbone cow it was, and her calf fresh burned--a barred-out brand, by thunder! If it was to-day, I'd, say Man found it and blotched the brand. I wish now I'd hazed them over to the Double Diamond and corralled 'em, like I had a mind to. But we can find them, easy enough. But that was last night, and you say this big setting came off to-day; you sure, Polly?"
"'Course I'm sure." Polycarp waggled his head solemnly. He was enjoying himself to the limit. He was the man on the inside, giving out information of the greatest importance, and an officer of the law was hanging anxiously upon his words. He spoke slowly, giving weight to every word. "I rode up to the house--Man's house--somewhere close to noon, an' there she was, layin' on the kitchen floor. Didn't know nothin', an' had the marks of somebody's fingers on 'er throat; the rest of her neck's so white they showed up, by granny, like--like--" Polycarp never could think of a simile. He always expectorated in such an emergency, and left his sentence unfinished. He did so now, and Fred cut in unfeelingly.
"Never mind that--you've gone over it half a dozen times. You say it was to-day, at noon, or thereabouts. Man must have done it when he found out she'd turned the calf loose--he wouldn't unless he was pretty mad, and scared. He isn't cold-blooded enough to wait till he'd barred out the brand, and then go home and choke his wife. He didn't know about the calf till to-day, that's a cinch." He studied the matter with an air of grave importance.
"Polycarp," he said abruptly, "I'm going to need you. We've got to find that bunch of cattle--it ought to be easy enough, and haze 'em down into Man's field where his bunch of calves are--see? Any calf that's been weaned in the last three weeks will be pretty likely to claim its mother; and if he's got any calves branded that claim cows with some other brand--well--" He threw out his hands in a comprehensive gesture. "That's the quickest way I know to get him," he said. "I want a witness along, and some help. And you," he eyed Polycarp keenly, "ain't safe running around town loose. All your brains seem to leak out your mouth. So you come along with me."
"Well--any time after to-morrer," hedged Polycarp, offended by the implication that he talked too much. "I've got to drive the team home for Mis' Fleetwood to-morrer, I tol' her I would--"
"Well, you won't. You're going to hit the trail with me just as soon as I can find a horse for you to ride. We'll sleep at the Double Diamond, and start from there in the morning. And if I catch you letting a word outa you about this deal, I'll just about have to arrest you for--" He did not quite know what, but the very vagueness of the threat had its effect upon Polycarp.
He went without further argument, though first he went to the Hawley Hotel--with Fred close beside him as a precaution against imprudent gossip--and left word in the office that he would not be able to drive Mrs. Fleetwood home, the next morning, but would be back to take her out the day after that, if she did not mind staying in town. It was that message which Arline deliberately held back from Val until morning.
"You better stay here," she advised then. "Polycarp an' Fred's up to some devilment, that's a cinch; but whatever it is, you're better off right here with me. S'posen you should drive out there and run into Man--what then?"
Val shivered. "I--that's the only thing I can't bear," she admitted, as if the time for proud dignity and reserve had gone by. "If I could be sure I wouldn't need to meet him, I'd rather go alone; really and truly, I would. You know the horses are perfectly safe--I've driven them to town fifty times if I have once. I had to, out there alone so much of the time. I'd rather not have Polycarp spying around. I've got to pack up--there are so many things of no value to--to him, things I brought out here with me. And there are all my manuscripts; I can't leave them lying around, even if they aren't worth anything; especially since they aren't worth anything." She pushed back her hair with a weary movement. "If I could only be sure--if I knew where he is," she sighed.
"I'll lend you my gun," Arline offered in good faith. "If he comes around you and starts any funny business again, you can stand him off, even if you got some delicate feelin's about blowin' his brains out."
"Oh, I couldn't. I'm deadly afraid of guns." Val shuddered.
"Well, then you can't go atone. I'd go with you, if you could git packed up so as to come back to-day. I guess Min could make out to git two meals alone."
"Oh, no. Really and truly, Arline, I'd just as soon go alone. I would rather, dear."
Arline was not accustomed to being called "dear." She surrendered with some confusion and a blush.
"Well, you better wait," she admonished temporizingly. "Something may turn up."
Presently something did turn up. She rushed breathlessly into Val's room and caught her by the arm.
"Now's your chancet, Val," she hissed in a loud whisper. "Man jest now rode into town; he's over in Pop's place--I seen him go in. He's good for the day, sure. I'll have Hank hitch right up, an' you can go down to the stable and start from there, so'st he won't see you. An' I'll keep an eye out, 'n' if he leaves town I won't be fur behind, lemme tell you. He won't, though; there ain't one chancet in a hundred he'll leave that saloon till he's full--an' if he tries t' go then, I'll have somebody lock 'im up in the ice house till you git back. You want to hurry up that packin', an' git in here quick's you can."
She went to the stable with Val, her apron thrown over her head for want of a hat. "When Val was settling herself in the seat, Arline caught at the wheel.
"Say! How'n time you goin' to git your trunks loaded into the wagon?" she cried. "You can't do it alone." Val parsed her lips; she had not thought of that.
"But Polycarp will come, by the time I am ready," she decided. "You couldn't keep him away, Arline; he would be afraid he might miss something, because I suppose ours is the only ranch in the country where the wheels aren't turning smoothly. Polycarp and I can manage."
Hank, grinning under his ragged, brown mustache, handed her the lines. "I've got my orders," he told her briefly. "I'll watch out the trail's kept clear."
"Oh, thank you. I've so many good friends," Val answered, giving him a smile to stir his sluggish blood. "Good-bye, Arline. Don't worry about me, there's a dear. I shall not be back before to-morrow night, probably."
Both Arline and Hank stood where they were and watched her out of sight before they turned back to the sordid tasks which made up their lives.
"She'll make it--she's the proper stuff," Hank remarked, and lighted his pipe. Arline, for a wonder, sighed and said nothing.
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