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INTO THE ENEMY'S COUNTRY
A man lay on the top of Flat Rock, stretched at supple ease. By his side was a carbine; in his hand a pair of field glasses. These last had been trained upon Twin Star Ranch for some time, but were now focused upon a pair of approaching riders. At the edge of the young willow grove the two dismounted and came forward leisurely.
"Looks like the mountains are coming to Mahomet this trip," the watcher told himself.
One figure was that of a girl--a brown, light-stepping nymph, upon whom the checkered sunlight filtered through the leaves. The other was a finely built man, strong as an ox, but with the sap of youth still in his blood and the spring of it in his step, in spite of his nearly twoscore years. He stopped at the foot of Flat Rock, and turned to his companion.
"I've been wondering why you went riding with me yesterday and again to-day, Miss Phyllis. I reckon I've hit on the reason."
"I like to ride."
"Yes, but I expect you don't like to ride with me so awful much."
"Yet you see I do," answered the girl with her swift, shy smile.
"And the reason is that you know I would be riding, anyway. You don't want any of your people from the hills to use me as a mark. With you along, they couldn't do it."
"My people don't shoot from ambush," she told him hotly. It was easy to send her gallant spirit out in quick defense of her kindred.
He looked at his arm, still resting in a sling, and smiled significantly.
She colored. "That was an impulse," she told him.
"And you're guarding me from any more family impulses like it." He grinned. "Not that it flatters me so much, either. I've got a notion tucked in the back of my head that you're watching me like a hen does her one chick, for their sake and not for mine. Right guess, I'll bet a dollar. How about it, Miss Sanderson?"
"Yes," she admitted. "At least, most for them."
"You'd like to call the chase off for the sake of the hunters, and not for the sake of the coyote."
"I wish you wouldn't throw that word up to me. I oughtn't to have said that. Please!"
"All right--I won't. It isn't your saying it, but thinking it, that hurts."
"I don't think it."
"You think I'm entirely to blame in this trouble with your people. Don't dodge. You know you think I'm a bully."
"I think you're very arbitrary," she replied, flushing.
"Same thing, I reckon. Maybe I am. Did you ever hear my side of the story?"
"No. I'll listen, if you will tell me."
Weaver shook his head. "No--I guess that wouldn't be playing fair. You're on the other side of the fence. That's where you belong. Come to that, I'm no white-winged angel, anyhow. All that's said of me--most of it, at least--I sure enough deserve."
"I wonder," she mused, smiling at him.
Scarcely a week before, she had been so immature that even callow Tom Dixon had seemed experienced beside her. Now she was a young woman in bloom, instinctively sure of herself, even without experience to guide her. Though he had never said so, she knew quite well that this berserk of the plains had begun to love her with all the strength of his untamed heart. She would have been less than human had it not pleased her, even though, at the same time, it terrified her.
Buck swept his hand around the horizon. "Ask anybody. They'll all give me the same certificate of character. And I reckon they ain't so far out, either," he added grimly.
"Perhaps they are all right, and yet all wrong too."
He looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe they don't see the other side of you" said Phyllis gently.
"How do you know there's another side?"
"I don't know how, but I do."
"I reckon it must be a right puny one."
"It has a good deal to fight against, hasn't it?"
"You're right it has. There's a devil in me that gets up on its hind legs and strangles what little good it finds. But it certainly beats me how you know so much that goes on inside a sweep like me."
"You forget. I'm not very good myself. You know my temper runs away with me, too."
"You blessed lamb!" she heard him say under his breath; and the way he said it made the exclamation half a groan.
For her naive confession emphasized the gulf between them. Yet it pleased him mightily that she linked herself with him as a fellow wrongdoer.
"I suppose you've been wondering why your people have made no attempt to rescue you," he said presently; for he saw her eyes were turned toward the hills beyond which lay her home.
"I'm glad they haven't, because it must have made trouble; but I am surprised," she confessed.
"They have tried it--twice," he told her. "First time was Saturday morning, just before daylight. We trapped them as they were coming through the Box Caņon. I knew they would come down that way, because it was the nearest; so I was ready for them."
"And what happened?" Her dilated eyes were like those of a stricken doe.
"Nothing that time. I let them see I had them caught. They couldn't go forward or back. They laid down their arms, and took the back trail. There was no other way to escape being massacred."
"And the second time?"
Buck hesitated. "There was shooting that time. It was last night. My riders outnumbered them and had cover. We drove them back."
"Anybody hurt?" cried Phyllis.
"One of them fell. But he got up and ran limping to his horse, I figured he wasn't hurt badly."
"Was he--could you tell--" She leaned against the rock wall for support.
"No--I didn't know him. He was a young fellow. But you may be sure he wasn't hit mortally. I know, because I shot him myself."
"You!" She drew back in a sudden sick horror of him.
"Why not?" he answered doggedly. "They were shooting at me--aiming to kill, too. I shot low on purpose, when I might have killed him."
"Oh, I must go home--I must go home!" she moaned.
"I've got the sheriff's orders to hold you pending an investigation. What harm does it do you to stay here a while?" he asked doggedly.
"Don't you see? When my father hears of it he will be furious. I made Phil promise not to tell him. But he'll hear when he comes back. And then--there will be trouble. He'll drag me from you, or he'll die trying. He's that kind of man."
A pebble rolled down the face of the wall against which she leaned. Weaver looked up quickly--to find himself covered by a carbine.
"Hands up, seh! No--don't reach for a gun."
"So it's you, Mr. Keller! Homesteading up there, I presume?"
"In a way of speaking. You remember I asked you a question."
"And I told you to go to Halifax."
"Well, I came back to answer the question myself. You're going to turn the young lady loose."
"If you say so." Weaver's voice carried an inflection of sarcasm.
"That's what I say. Miss Sanderson, will you kindly unbuckle that belt and round up the weapons of war? Good enough! I'll drift down that way now myself."
Keller lowered himself from Flat Rock, keeping his prisoner covered as carefully as he could the while. But, though Keller came down the steep bluff with infinite pains, the rough going offered a chance of escape to one so reckless as Weaver, of which he made not the least attempt to avail himself. Instead, he smiled cynically and waited with his hand in the air, as bidden. Keller, coming forward with both eyes on his prisoner, slipped on a loose boulder that rolled beneath his foot, stumbled, and fell, almost at the feet of the cattleman. He got up as swiftly as a cat. Weaver and his derisive grin were in exactly the same position.
Keller lowered his carbine instantly. This plainly was no case for the coercion of arms.
"We'll cut out the gun play," he said. "Better rest the hand that's reaching for the sky. I expect hostilities are over."
"You certainly had me scared stiff," Weaver mocked.
From the first roll of the pebble that had announced the presence of a third party, Phyl had experienced surprise after surprise. She had expected to see one of the Seven Mile boys or her brother instead of Keller--had looked with a quaking heart for the cattleman to fling back the swift challenge of a bullet. His tame surrender had amazed her, especially when Keller's fall had given him a chance to seize the carbine. His drawling, sarcastic badinage pointed to the same conclusion. Evidently he had no desire to resist. Behind this must be some purpose which she could not fathom.
"Elected yourself chaperon of the young lady, have you, Mr. Keller?" Buck asked pleasantly.
The young man smiled at the girl before he answered. "You've been losing too much time on the job, Mr. Weaver. Subject to her approval, I got a notion I'd take her back home."
"Best place for her," assented Weaver promptly. "I've been thinking for a day or two that she ought to get back to those school kids of hers. But I'm going to take her there myself."
"Yourself!" Phyllis spoke up in quick surprise.
"Why not?" The cattleman smiled.
"Do you mean with your band of thugs?"
"No, ma'am. You and I will be enough."
The suggestion was of a piece with his usual audacity. The girl knew that he would be quite capable of riding with her into the hills, where he had a score of bitter, passionate enemies, and of affronting them, if the notion should come into his head, even in their stronghold. Within twenty-four hours he had shot one of them; yet he would go among them with his jaunty, mocking smile and that hateful confidence of his.
"You would not be safe. They might kill you."
"Would that gratify you?"
"Yes!" she cried passionately.
He bowed. "Anything to give pleasure to a lady."
"No--you can't go! I won't go with you. I wouldn't be responsible for what might happen."
"What might happen--another family impulse?"
"You know as well as I do--after what you've done. And there's bad blood between you already. Besides, you are so reckless, so intemperate in what you say and do."
"All right. If you won't go with me, I'll go alone," he said.
She appealed to Keller to support her, but the latter shook his head.
"No use. A wilful man must have his way. If he says he's going, I reckon he'll go. But whyfor should I be euchred out of my ride. Let me go along to keep the peace."
Her eyes thanked him. "If you are sure you can spare the time."
"Don't incommode yourself, if you're in a hurry. We won't miss you." Weaver's cold stare more than hinted that three would be a crowd.
The younger man ignored him cheerfully. "Time to burn, Miss Sanderson."
"You don't want to let that spring plowing suffer," the cattleman suggested ironically.
"That's so. Glad you mentioned it. I'll try to pick up some one to do it at the store," returned the optimist.
"Seems to me there are a pair of us, Mr. Keller, who may not be welcome at Seven Mile. Last time you were down there, weren't you the guest of some willing lads who were arranging a little party for you?"
"Mr. Weaver," reproached Phyllis, flushing.
But the reference did not embarrass the nester in the least. He laughed hardily, meeting his rival eye to eye. "The boys did have notions, but I expect maybe they have got over them."
"Nothing like being hopeful. Now I'd back my show against yours every day in the week."
The girl handed his revolver back to Weaver, after first asking a question of the homesteader with her eyes.
"Oh, I get my hardware back, do I?" Buck grinned.
Keller brought his horse round from back of Flat Rock, where it had been picketed. They started at once, cutting across the plain to a flat butte, which thrust itself out from the hills into the valley. Two hours of steady travel brought them to the butte, behind which lay Seven Mile ranch.
At the first glimpse of the roofs shining in the golden sunlight Phyllis gave a cry of delight.
"Home again. I wonder whether Father's here."
"I wonder," echoed Weaver grimly.
"That little fellow riding into the corral is one of my scholars," she told them.
"One of the fourteen that loves you, Miss Going-On-Eighteen. My, there'll be joy in Israel over the lost that is found. I reckon by to-morrow you'll be teaching the young idea how to shoot." He glanced down at his bandaged arm with a malicious grin.
Phyllis looked at him without speaking. It was Keller who made application of the remark.
"There are others here beside her pupils. Some of them are right quick and straight on the shoot, Mr. Weaver. Now you've seen Miss Sanderson home, there's still time to make your getaway without trouble. How about hitting the trail while travelling is good, seh?"
"What's the matter with you taking your own advice, Keller?"
"I don't figure the need is pressing in my case. Different with you."
"I told you I would back my chances against yours. Well, I'm standing pat on that."
"The road will be open to me to-morrow. I wonder will it be open to you then."
"My friend, who elected you guardeen to Buck Weaver?" drawled the big man carelessly.
"I wish you would go," Phyllis pleaded, plainly troubled over his obstinacy.
"Me, I always hated to disoblige a lady," Buck admitted.
"Then go," she cried eagerly.
"But I hate still more to go back on my word. So I'll stay."
There was nothing more to be said. They rode forward to the ranch. 'Rastus, at the stables, raised a shout and broke for the store on the run.
"Hyer's Miss Phyl done come home."
At his call light-stepping dusty men poured from the building like seeds from a squeezed orange. There was a rush for the girl. She was lifted from her saddle and carried in triumph to the porch. Jim Sanderson came running from the cellar in the rear and buried her in his arms.
She broke down and began to cry a little. "Oh, Dad--Dad, I'm so glad to be home."
The old Confederate veteran was close to tears himself.
"Honey, I jes' got back from town. Phil, he done wrong not letting me know. I come pretty nigh giving that boy the bud. Wait till I meet up with Buck Weaver. It's him or me for suah this time."
"No, Dad, no! You must let me explain. I've been quite safe, and it's all over now. Everything is all right."
"Is it?" Sanderson laughed harshly.
"The sheriff telephoned him to keep me, but you see he brought me home."
"Brought you home?" The sheepman's black eyes lifted quickly and met those of his enemy.
"So you're there, Buck Weaver. I reckon you and I will settle accounts."
Phil and Tom Dixon had quietly circled round so as to cut off Weaver's retreat in case he attempted one.
"He's got the rustler with him," Tom Dixon cried quickly.
"Goddlemighty, so he has. We'll make a clean sweep," the Southerner cried, his eyes blazing.
"Then you'll destroy the man who was ready to give his life for mine," his daughter said quietly.
"What's that? How's that, Phyllie?"
"It's a long story. I want you to hear it all. But not here."
Her voice fell. A sudden memory had come to her of one thing at least that she could not tell even to him--the story of that moment when she had lain in the arms of the nester with his heart beating against her breast.
The old man caught her by the shoulder, holding her at arm's length, while the deep eyes under his shaggy, grizzled brows pierced her.
"What have you got to tell me, gyurl? Out with it!"
But on the heels of his imperative demand came reassurance. A tide of color poured into her face, but her eyes met his quietly. They let him understand, more certainly than words, that all was well with his ewe lamb. Putting her gently to one side, he strode toward his enemy.
"What are you doing here, Buck Weaver?"
The cattleman swept the circle of lowering faces, and laughed contemptuously. "A man might think I wasn't welcome if he didn't know better."
"Oh, you're welcome--I reckon nobody on earth is more welcome right now," retorted Sanderson grimly. "We were starting right out after you, seh. But seeing you're here it saves trouble. Better 'light, you and your friend, both."
The declining sun flashed on three weapons that already covered the cattleman. He looked easily from one to another, without the least concern, and swung lightly from his horse.
"Much obliged. Glad to accept your hospitality. But about this young man here--he's not exactly a friend of mine--a mere pick-up acquaintance, in fact. You mustn't accept him on my say-so. Of course, you know I'm all right, but I can't guarantee him," Buck drawled, with magnificent effrontery.
Phyllis spoke up unexpectedly. "I can."
Keller looked at her gratefully. It was not that he cared so much for the certificate of character as for the friendly spirit that prompted it. "That's right kind of you," he nodded.
"We haven't heard yet what you are doing here, Buck Weaver," old Jim Sanderson said, holding the cattleman with a hard and hostile eye. "And after you've explained that, there are a few other things to make clear."
"Such as----" suggested the plainsman.
"Such as keeping my daughter a captive and insulting her while she was in your house," the father retorted promptly.
"I held her captive because it was my right. She admitted shooting me. Would you expect me to turn her loose, and thank her right politely for it? I want to tell you that some folks would be right grateful because I didn't send her to the penitentiary."
"You couldn't send her there. No jury in Arizona would convict--even if she were guilty," Tom Dixon broke out.
"That's a frozen fact about the Arizona jury," the cattleman agreed, with a swift, careless look at the boy. "Just the same, I had a license to hold her. About the insult--well, I've got nothing to say. Nothing except this, that I wouldn't be wearing these decorations"--he touched the scars on his face--"if I didn't agree with you that nobody but a sweep would have done it."
"Everybody unanimous on that point, I reckon," said Jim Yeager promptly.
Phyllis had been speaking to her father in a low voice. The old man listened with no great patience, but finally nodded a concession to her importunity.
"We'll waive the matter of the insult just now. How about that boy you shot up? Looks like you're a fool to come drilling in here, with him still lying there on his bed."
"He took his fighting chance. You ain't kicking because I played out the game the way you-all started to play it? If you are, I'll have to say I might have expected a sheep herder to look at it that way," Weaver retorted insolently.
The old man took a grip on his rising wrath. "No--we're not kicking, any more than you've got a right to kick when we settle accounts with you."
"As we're liable to do right shortly, now we've got you," said Dixon, vindictively.
"All right--go ahead with the indictment," Weaver acquiesced quietly, ignoring the boy.
"Keep still, Tom," Sanderson ordered, and went on with his grievance. "You try to run this valley as if you were God Almighty. By your way of it, a man has to come with hat in hand to ask you if he may take up land here. The United States says we may homestead, but Buck Weaver says we shan't. Uncle Sam says we may lease land to run sheep. Buck Weaver has another notion of it. We're to take orders from him. If we don't he clubs our sheep and drives off our cattle."
"Cattle were here first," retorted Weaver. "The range is overstocked, and they've got a prior right. Nesters in the hills here are making money by rustling Twin Star calves. That's another thing."
"Some of them. You'll not find any rustled calves with the Seven Mile brand on them. And we don't recognize any prior right. We came here legally. We intend to stay. Every time your riders club a bunch of our sheep, we'll even up on Twin Star cattle. You take my daughter captive; I hold you prisoner."
"You'll be in luck if you get away from here with a whole skin," broke out Phil. "You came here to please yourself, but you'll stay to please us."
"So?" Buck smiled urbanely. He was staying because he wanted to, though they never guessed it.
"Unbuckle his gun belt, Tom," ordered the old man.
"Save you the trouble." Weaver unbuckled the belt and tossed it, revolver and all, to Yeager.
"Now, Mr. Weaver, we'll adjourn to the house."
"Anything to oblige."
"What about Mr. Keller?" Phyllis asked, in a low voice, of her father.
The old man's keen, hard eyes surveyed the stranger. "Who is he? What do you know about him?"
As shortly as she could, she told what she knew of Keller, and how he had rescued her from captivity.
Her father strode forward and shook hands with the young man.
"Make yourself at home, seh. We'll be glad to have you stay with us as long as you can. What you have done for my daughter puts us everlastingly in your debt."
"Not worth mentioning. And, to be fair, I think Weaver was going to bring her home, anyhow."
"The way the story reached me, he didn't mention it until you had the drop on him," answered Sanderson dryly.
"That's right," nodded the cattleman ironically, from the porch. "You're the curly-haired hero, Keller, and I'm the red-headed villain of this play. You want to beware of the miscreant, Miss Sanderson, or he'll sure do you a meanness."
Tom Dixon eyed him frostily. "I expect you'll not do her any meanness, Buck Weaver. From now on, you'll go one way and she'll go another. You'll be strangers."
"You don't say!" Buck answered, looking him over derisively, as he passed into the house. "You're crowing loud for your size. And don't you bet heavy on that proposition, my friend."
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