Lure of the Dim Trails, The


When the excitement of the outrage had been pushed aside by the insistent routine of everyday living, Thurston found himself thrust from the fascination of range life and into the monotony of invalidism, and he was anything but resigned. To be sure, he was well cared for at the Stevens ranch, where Park and the boys had taken him that day, and Mrs. Stevens mothered him as he could not remember being mothered before.

Hank Graves rode over nearly every day to sit beside the bed and curse the Wagner gang back to their great-great-grandfathers and down to more than the third generation yet unborn, and to tell him the news. On the second visit he started to give him the details of Bob's funeral; but Thurston would not listen, and told him so plainly.

"All right then, Bud, I won't talk about it. But we sure done the right thing by the boy; had the best preacher in Shellanne out, and flowers till further notice: a cross uh carnations, and the boys sent up to Minot and had a spur made uh—oh, well, all right; I'll shut up about it, I know how yuh feel, Bud; it broke us all up to have him go that way. He sure was a white boy, if ever there was one, and—ahem!"

"I'd give a thousand dollars, hard coin, to get my hands on them Wagners. It would uh been all off with them, sure, if the boys had run acrost 'em. I'd uh let 'em stay out and hunt a while longer, only old Lauman'll get 'em, all right, and we're late as it is with the calf roundup. Lauman'll run 'em down—and by the Lord! I'll hire Bowman myself and ship him out from Helena to help prosecute 'em. They're dead men if he takes the case against 'em, Bud, and I'll get him, sure—and to hell with the cost of it! They'll swing for what they done to you and Bob, if it takes every hoof I own."

Thurston told him he hoped they would be caught and—yes, hanged; though he had never before advocated capital punishment.

But when he thought of Bob, the care-naught, whole-souled fellow.

He tried not to think of him, for thinking unmanned him. He had the softest of hearts where his friends were concerned, and there were times when he felt that he could with relish officiate at the Wagners' execution.

He fought against remembrance of that day; and for sake of diversion he took to studying a large, pastel portrait of Mona which hung against the wall opposite his bed. It was rather badly; done, and at first, when he saw it, he laughed at the thought that even the great, still plains of the range land cannot protect one against the ubiquitous picture agent. In the parlor, he supposed there would be crayon pictures of grandmothers and aunts-further evidence of the agent's glibness.

He was glad that it was Mona who smiled down at him instead of a grand-mother or an aunt. For Mona did smile, and in spite of the cheap crudity the smile was roguish, with little dimply creases at the corners of the mouth, and not at all unpleasant. If the girl would only look like that in real life, he told himself, a fellow would probably get to liking her. He supposed she thought him a greater coward than ever now, just because he hadn't got killed. If he had, he would be a hero now, like Bob. Well, Bob was a hero; the way he had jumped up and begun shooting required courage of the suicidal sort. He had stood up and shot, also and had succeeded only in being ridiculous; he hoped nobody had told Mona about his hitting that steer. When he could walk again he would learn to shoot, so that the range stock wouldn't suffer from his marksmanship.

After a week of seeing only Mrs. Stevens or sympathetic men acquaintances, he began to wonder why Mona stayed so persistently away. Then one morning she came in to take his breakfast things out. She did not, however, stay a second longer than was absolutely necessary, and she was perfectly composed and said good morning in her most impersonal tone. At least Thurston hoped she had no tone more impersonal than that. He decided that she had really beautiful eyes and hair; after she had gone he looked up at the picture, told himself that it did not begin to do her justice, and sighed a bit. He was very dull, and even her companionship, he thought, would be pleasant if only she would come down off her pedestal and be humanly sociable.

When he wrote a story about a fellow being laid up in the same house with a girl—a girl with big, blue-gray eyes and ripply brown hair—he would have the girl treat the fellow at least decently. She would read poetry to him and bring him flowers, and do ever so many nice things that would make him hate to get well. He decided that he would write just that kind of story; he would idealize it, of course, and have the fellow in love with the girl; you have to, in stories. In real life it doesn't necessarily follow that, because a fellow admires a girl's hair and eyes, and wants to be on friendly terms, he is in love with her. For example, he emphatically was not in love with Mona Stevens. He only wanted her to be decently civil and to stop holding a foolish grudge against him for not standing up and letting himself be shot full of holes because she commanded it.

In the afternoons, Mrs. Stevens would sit beside him and knit things and talk to him in a pleasantly garrulous fashion, and he would lie and listen to her—and to Mona, singing somewhere. Mona sang very well, he thought; he wondered if she had ever had any training. Also, he wished he dared ask her not to sing that song about "She's only a bird in a gilded cage." It brought back too vividly the nights when he and Bob stood guard under the quiet stars.

And then one day he hobbled out into the dining-room and ate dinner with the family. Since he sat opposite Mona she was obliged to look at him occasionally, whether she would or no. Thurston had a strain of obstinacy in his nature, and when he decided that Mona should not only look at him, but should talk to him as well, he set himself diligently to attain that end. He was not the man to sit down supinely and let a girl calmly ignore him; so Mona presently found herself talking to him with some degree of cordiality; and what is more to the point, listening to him when he talked. It is probable that Thurston never had tried so hard in his life to win a girl's attention.

It was while he was still hobbling with a cane and taxing his imagination daily to invent excuses for remaining, that Lauman, the sheriff, rode up to the door with a deputy and asked shelter for themselves and the two Wagners, who glowered sullenly down from their weary horses. When they had been safely disposed in Thurston's bedroom, with one of the ranch hands detailed to guard them, Lauman and his man gave themselves up to the joy of a good meal. Their own cooking, they said, got mighty tame especially when they hadn't much to cook and dared not have a fire.

They had come upon the outlaws by mere accident, and it is hard telling which was the most surprised. But Lauman was, perhaps, the quickest man with a gun in Valley County, else he would not have been serving his fourth term as sheriff. He got the drop and kept it while his deputy did the rest. It had been a hard chase, he said, and a long one if you counted time instead of miles. But he had them now, harmless as rattlers with their fangs fresh drawn. He wanted to get them to Glasgow before people got to hear of their capture; he thought they wouldn't be any too safe if the boys knew he had them.

If he had known that the Lazy Eight roundup had just pulled in to the home ranch that afternoon, and that Dick Farney, one of the Stevens men, had slipped out to the corral and saddled his swiftest horse, it is quite possible that Lauman would not have lingered so long over his supper, or drank his third cup of coffee—with real cream in it—with so great a relish. And if he had known that the Circle Bar boys were camped just three miles away within hailing distance of the Lazy Eight trail, he would doubtless have postponed his after-supper smoke.

He was sitting, revolver in hand, watching the Wagners give a practical demonstration of the extent of their appetites, when Thurston limped in from the porch, his eyes darker than usual. "There are a lot of riders coming, Mr. Lauman," he announced quietly. "It sounds like a whole roundup. I thought you ought to know."

The prisoners went white, and put down knife and fork. If they had never feared before, plainly they were afraid then.

Lauman's face did not in the least change. "Put the hand-cuffs on, Waller," he said. "If you've got a room that ain't easy to get at from the outside, Mrs. Stevens, I guess I'll have to ask yuh for the use of it."

Mrs. Stevens had lived long in Valley County, and had learned how to meet emergencies. "Put 'em right down cellar," she invited briskly. "There's just the trap-door into it, and the windows ain't big enough for a cat to go through. Mona, get a candle for Mr. Lauman." She turned to hurry the girl, and found Mona at her elbow with a light.

"That's the kind uh woman I like to have around," Lauman chuckled. "Come on, boys; hustle down there if yuh want to see Glasgow again."

Trembling, all their dare-devil courage sapped from them by the menace of Thurston's words, they stumbled down the steep stairs, and the darkness swallowed them. Lauman beckoned to his deputy.

"You go with 'em, Waller," he ordered. "If anybody but me offers to lift this trap, shoot. Don't yuh take any chances. Blow out that candle soon as you're located."

It was then that fifty riders clattered into the yard and up to the front door, grouping in a way that left no exit unseen. Thurston, standing in the doorway, knew them almost to a man. Lazy Eight boys, they were; men who night after night had spread their blankets under the tent-roof with him and with Bob MacGregor; Bob, who lay silently out on the hill back of the home ranch-house, waiting for the last, great round-up. They glanced at him in mute greeting and dismounted without a word. With them mingled the Circle Bar boys, as silent and grim as their fellows. Lauman came up and peered into the dusk; Thurston observed that he carried his Winchester unobtrusively in one hand.

"Why, hello, boys," he greeted cheerfully. But for the rifle you never would have guessed he knew their errand.

"Hello, Lauman," answered Park, matching him for cheerfulness. Then:

"We rode over to hang them Wagners." Lauman grinned. "I hate to disappoint yuh, Park, but I've kinda set my heart on doing that little job myself. I'm the one that caught 'em, and if you'd followed my trail the last month you'd say I earned the privilege."

"Maybe so," Park admitted pleasantly, "but we've got a little personal matter to settle up with those jaspers. Bob MacGregor was one of us, yuh remember."

"I'll hang 'em just as dead as you can," Lauman argued.

"But yuh won't do it so quick," Park lashed back. "They're spoiling the air every breath they draw. We want 'em, and I guess that pretty near settles it."

"Not by a damn sight it don't! I've never had a man took away from me yet, boys, and I've been your sheriff a good many years. You hike right back to camp; yuh can't have 'em."

Thurston could scarcely realize the deadliness of their purpose. He knew them for kind-hearted, laughter-loving young fellows, who would give their last dollar to a friend. He could not believe that they would resort to violence now. Besides, this was not his idea of a mob; he had fancied they would howl threats and wave bludgeons, as they did in stories. Mobs always "howled and seethed with passion" at one's doors; they did not stand about and talk quietly as though the subject was trivial and did not greatly concern them.

But the men were pressing closer, and their very calmness, had he known it, was ominous. Lauman shifted his rifle ready for instant aim.

"Boys, look here," he began more gravely, "I can't say I blame yuh, looking at it from your view-point. If you'd caught these men when yuh was out hunting 'em, you could uh strung 'em up—and I'd likely uh had business somewhere else about that time. But yuh didn't catch 'em; yuh give up the chase and left 'em to me. And yuh got to remember that I'm the one that brought 'em in. They're in my care. I'm sworn to protect 'em and turn 'em over to the law—and it ain't a question uh whether they deserve it or not. That's what I'm paid for, and I expect to go right ahead according to orders and hang 'em by law. You can't have 'em—unless yuh lay me out first, and I don't reckon any of yuh would go that far."

"There's never been a man hung by law in this county yet," a voice cried angrily and impatiently.

"That ain't saying there never will be," Lauman flung back. "Don't yuh worry, they'll get all that's coming to them, all right."

"How about the time yuh had 'em in your rotten old jail, and let 'em get out and run loose around the country, killing off white men?" drawled another-a Circle-Bar man.

"Now boys."

A hand—the hand of him who had stood guard over the Wagners in the bedroom during supper—reached out through the doorway and caught his rifle arm. Taken unawares from behind, he whirled and then went down under the weight of men used to "wrassling" calves. Even old Lauman was no match for them, and presently he found himself stretched upon the porch with three Lazy Eight boys sitting on his person; which, being inclined to portliness, he found very uncomfortable.

Moved by an impulse he had no name for, Thurston snatched the sheriff's revolver from its scabbard. As the heap squirmed pantingly upon the porch he stepped into the doorway to avoid being tripped, which was the wisest move he could have made, for it put him in the shadow—and there were men of the Circle Bar whose trigger-finger would not have hesitated, just then, had he been in plain sight and had they known his purpose.

"Just hold on there, boys," he called, and they could see the glimmer of the gun-barrel. Those of the Lazy Eight laughed at him.

"Aw, put it down, Bud," Park admonished. "That's too dangerous a toy for you to be playing with—and yuh know damn well yuh can't hit anything."

"I killed a steer once," Thurston reminded him meekly, whereat the laugh hushed; for they remembered.

"I know I can't shoot straight," he went on frankly, "but you're taking that much the greater chance. If I have to, I'll cut loose—and there's no telling where the bullets may strike."

"That's right," Park admitted. "Stand still, boys; he's more dangerous than a gun that isn't loaded. What d'yuh want, m'son?"

"I want to talk to you for about five minutes. I've got a game leg, so that I can neither run nor fight, but I hope you'll listen to me. The Wagners can't get away—they're locked up, with a deputy standing over them with a gun; and on top of that they're handcuffed. They're as helpless, boys, as two trapped coyotes." He looked down over the crowd, which shifted uneasily; no one spoke.

"That's what struck me most," he continued. "You know what I thought of Bob, don't you? And I didn't thank them for boring a hole in my leg; it wasn't any kindness of theirs that it didn't land higher—they weren't shooting at me for fun. And I'd have killed them both with a clear conscience, if I could. I tried hard enough. But it was different then; out in the open, where a man had an even break. I don't believe if I had shot as straight as I wanted to that I'd ever have felt a moment's compunction. But now, when they're disarmed and shackled and altogether helpless, I couldn't walk up to them deliberately and kill them could you?

"It could be done, and done easily. You have Lauman where he can't do anything, and I'm not of much account in a fight; so you've really only one deputy sheriff and two women to get the best of. You could drag these men out and hang them in the cottonwoods, and they couldn't raise a hand to defend themselves. We could do it easily—but when it was done and the excitement had passed I'd have a picture in my memory that I'd hate to look at. I'd have an hour in my life that would haunt me. And so would you. You'd hate to look back and think that one time you helped kill a couple of men who couldn't fight back.

"Let the law do it, boys. You don't want them to live, and I don't; nobody does, for they deserve to die. But it isn't for us to play judge and jury and hangman here to-night. Let them get what's coming to them at the hands of the officers you've elected for that purpose. They won't get off. Hank Graves says they will hang if it takes every hoof he owns. He said he would bring Bowman down here to help prosecute them. I don't know Bowman—"

"I do," a voice spoke, somewhere in the darkness. "Lawyer from Helena. Never lost a case."

"I'm glad to hear it, for he's the man that will prosecute. They haven't a ghost of a show to get out of it. Lauman here is responsible for their safe keeping and I guess, now that he knows them better, we needn't be afraid they'll escape again. And it's as Lauman said; he'll hang them quite as dead as you can. He's drawing a salary to do these things, make him earn it. It's a nasty job, boys, and you wouldn't get anything out of it but a nasty memory."

A hand that did not feel like the hand of a man rested for an instant on his arm. Mona brushed by him and stepped out where the rising moon shone on her hair and into her big, blue-gray eyes.

"I wish you all would please go away," she said. "You are making mamma sick. She's got it in her head that you are going to do something awful, and I can't convince her you're not. I told her you wouldn't do anything so sneaking, but she's awfully nervous about it. Won't you please go, right now?"

They looked sheepishly at one another; every man of them feared the ridicule of his neighbor.

"Why, sure we'll go," cried Park, rallying. "We were going anyway in a minute. Tell your mother we were just congratulating Lauman on rounding up these Wagners. Come on, boys. And you, Bud, hurry up and get well again; we miss yuh round the Lazy Eight."

The three who were sitting on Lauman got up, and he gave a sigh of relief. "Say, yuh darned cowpunchers don't have no mercy on an old man's carcass at all," he groaned, in exaggerated self-pity. "Next time yuh want to congratulate me, I wish you'd put it in writing and send it by mail."

A little ripple of laughter went through the crowd. Then they swung up on their horses and galloped away in the moonlight.

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