Read CHAPTER VII - WHICH DEALS WITH THE MATTER OF DRINK of The Night Riders A Romance of Early Montana , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

Although the murder of Manson Orr caused a wide-spread outcry, it ended at that in so far as the inhabitants of the district were concerned.  There were one or two individuals who pondered deeply on the matter, and went quietly about a careful investigation, and of these Tresler was the most prominent.  He found excuse to visit the scene of the outrage; he took interest in the half-breed settlement six miles out from Mosquito Bend.  He hunted among the foot-hills, even into the obscurer confines of the mountains; and these doings of his were the result of much thought, and the work of much time and ingenuity; for everything had to be done without raising the suspicion of anybody on the ranch, or for that matter, off it.  Being a “green” hand helped him.  It was really astonishing how easily an intelligent man like Tresler could get lost; and yet such was the deplorable fact.  Even Arizona’s opinion of him sank to zero, while Jake found a wide scope for his sneering brutality.

As the days lengthened out into a week, and then a fortnight passed and nothing more was heard of Red Mask, the whole matter began to pass out of mind, and gradually became relegated to the lore of the country.  It was added to the already long list of barroom stories, to be narrated, with embellishments, by such men as Slum or the worthy Forks carpenter.

The only thing that stuck in people’s minds, and that only because it added fuel to an already deep, abiding, personal hatred, was the story of Julian Marbolt’s treatment of young Archie Orr, and his refusal to inaugurate a vigilance party.  The blind man’s name, always one to rouse the roughest side of men’s tongues, was now cursed more bitterly than ever.

And during these days the bunkhouse at Mosquito Bend seethed with revolt.  But though this was so, underneath all their most bitter reflections the men were not without a faint hope of seeing the career of these desperadoes cut short; and this hope sprang from the knowledge of the coming of the sheriff to Forks.  The faith of Arizona and the older hands in the official capacity for dealing with these people was a frail thing, but the younger set were less sceptical.

And at last Julian Marbolt’s tardy invitation to Fyles was despatched.  Tresler had watched and waited for the sending of that letter; he had hoped to be the bearer of it himself.  It would have given him the opportunity of making this Fyles’s acquaintance, which was a matter he desired to accomplish as soon as possible, without drawing public attention to the fact.  But in this he was disappointed, for Jake sent Nelson.  Nor did he know of the little man’s going until he saw him astride of his buckskin “shag-an-appy,” with the letter safely bestowed in his wallet.

This was not the only disappointment he experienced during that fortnight.  He saw little or nothing of Diane.  To Tresler, at least, their meeting at the ford was something more than a recollection.  Every tone of the girl’s voice, every look, every word she had spoken remained with him, as these things will at the dawn of love.  Many times he tried to see her, but failed.  Then he learned the meaning of their separation.  One day Joe brought him a note from Diane, in which she told him how Black Anton had returned to her father and poured into his only too willing ears a wilfully garbled story of their meeting at the ford.  She told him of her father’s anger, and how he had forbidden her to leave the house unattended by at least one of his two police Anton and Jake.  This letter made its recipient furious, but it also started a secret correspondence between them, Joe Nelson proving himself perfectly willing to act as go-between.  And this correspondence was infinitely pleasant to Tresler.  He treasured Diane’s letters with a jealous care, making no attempt to disguise the truth from himself.  He knew that he was falling hopelessly in love had fallen hopelessly in love.

This was the position when the evening of the day came on which the rancher’s invitation to Fyles had been despatched.  The supper hash had been devoured by healthy men with healthy appetites.  Work was practically over, there was nothing more to be done but feed, water, and bed down the horses.  And Joe Nelson had not yet returned from Forks; he was at least five hours overdue.

Arizona, practically recovered from his wound, was carefully soaping his saddle, and generally preparing his accoutrements for return to full work on the morrow.  He had grown particularly sour and irritable with being kept so long out of the saddle.  His volcanic temper had become even more than usually uncertain.

His convalescence threw him a good deal into Tresler’s company, and a sort of uncertain friendship had sprung up between them.  Arizona at first tolerated him, protested scathingly at his failures in the craft, and ended by liking him; while the other cordially appreciated the open, boisterous honesty of the cowpuncher.  He was equally ready to do a kindly action, or smite the man hip and thigh who chanced to run foul of him.  Tresler often told him that his nationality was a mistake, that instead of being an American he should have been born in Ireland.

Just now the prospect of once more getting to work had put Arizona in high good temper, and he took his comrades’ rough chaff good-naturedly, giving as good as he got, and often a little better.

Jacob Smith had been watching him for some time, and a thoughtful grin had quietly taken possession of his features.

“Soapin’ yer saddle,” he observed at last, as the lean man happened to look up and see the grinning face in the doorway of the bunkhouse.  “Guess saddles do git kind o’ slippery when you ain’t slung a leg over one fer a whiles.  Say, best soap the knees o’ yer pants too, Arizona.  Mebbe y’ll sit tighter.”

“Wal,” retorted Arizona, bending to his work again, “I do allow ther’s more savee in that tip than most gener’ly slobbers off’n your tongue.  I’ll kind o’ turn it over some.”

Jacob’s grin broadened.  “Guess I should.  Your plug ain’t been saddled sence you wus sent sick.  Soft soap ain’t gener’ly in your line; makes me laff to see you handlin’ it.”

“That’s so,” observed the other, imperturbably.  “I ’lows it has its uses.  ‘Tain’t bad fer washin’.  Guess you ain’t tried it any?”

At that moment Raw Harris came across from the barn.  He lounged over to an upturned box and sat down.

“Any o’ you fellers seen Joe Nelson along yet?” he asked as he leisurely filled his pipe.

“Five hours overdue,” said Tresler, who was cleaning out the chambers of his revolver.

“Joe ain’t likely to git back this night,” observed Arizona.  “He’s a terror when he gits alongside a saloon.  Guess he’s drank out one ranch of his own down Texas way.  He’s the all-firedest bag o’ tricks I’ve ever see.  Soft as a babby is Joe.  Honest?  Wal, I’d smile.  Joe’s that honest he’d give up his socks ef the old sheep came along an’ claimed the wool.  Him an’ me’s worked together ‘fore.  He’s gittin’ kind o’ old, an’ ain’t as handy as he used to be.  Say, he never told you ’bout that temperator feller, Tresler, did he?”

Tresler shook his head, and paused in his work to relight his pipe.

“It kind o’ minds me to tell you sence we’re talkin’ o’ Joe.  It likely shows my meanin’ when I sez he’s that soft an’ honest, an’ yet crazy fer drink.  You see, it wus this a-ways.  I wus kind o’ foreman o’ the ‘U bar U’s’ in Canada, an’ Joe wus punchin’ cows then.  The boys wus sheer grit; good hands, mind you, but sudden-like.”

Arizona ceased plastering the soap on his saddle and stood erect.  His gaunt figure looked leaner than ever, but his face was alight with interest in the story he was about to narrate, and his great wild eyes were shining with a look that suggested a sort of fierce amusement.  Teddy Jinks lounged into view and stood propped against an angle of the building.

“Git on,” said Lew, between the puffs at his pipe.

Arizona shot a quick, disdainful glance at the powerful figure of the parson’s progeny, and went on in his own peculiar fashion fashion

“Wal, it so happened that the records o’ the ‘U bar U’s’ kind o’ got noised abroad some, as they say in the gospel.  Them coyotes as reckoned they wus smart ‘lowed as even the cattle found a shortage o’ liquid by reason of an onnatural thirst on that ranch.  Howsum, mebbe ther’ wus reason.  Old Joe, he wus the daddy o’ the lot.  Jim Marlin used to say as Joe most gener’ly used a black lead when he writ his letters; didn’t fancy wastin’ ink.  Mebbe that’s kind o’ zaggerated, but I guess he wus the next thing to a fact’ry o’ blottin’ paper, sure.

“Wal, I reckon some bald-faced galoot got yappin’, leastways there wus a temperance outfit come right along an’ lay hold o’ the boss.  Say, flannel-mouthed orators!  I guess that feller could roll out more juicy notions on the subject o’ drink in five minutes than a high-pressure locomotive could blow off steam through a five-inch leak in ha’f a year.  He wus an eddication in langwidge, sir, sech as ’ud per-suade a wall-eyed mule to do what he didn’t want, and wa’n’t goin’ to do anyways.

“I corralled the boys up in the yard, an’ the feller got good an’ goin’.  He spotted Joe right off; fixed him wi’ his eye an’ focussed him dead centre, an’ talked right at him.  An’ Joe wus iled that iled he couldn’t keep a straight trail fer slippin’.  Say, speakin’ metaphoric, that feller got the drop on pore Joe.  He give him a dose o’ syllables in the pit o’ the stummick that made him curl, then he follered it right up wi’ a couple o’ slugs o’ his choicest, ’fore he could straighten up.  Then he sort o’ picked him up an’ shook him with a power o’ langwidge, an’ sot him down like a spanked kid.  Then he clouted him over both lugs with a shower o’ words wi’ capitals, clumped him over the head wi’ a bunch o’ texts, an’ thrashed him wi’ a fact’ry o’ trac’ papers.  Say, I guess pore Joe wouldn’t ‘a’ rec’nized the flavor o’ whisky from blue pizen when that feller had done; an’ we jest looked on, feelin’ ‘bout as happy as a lot o’ old hens worritin’ to hatch out a batch o’ Easter eggs.  Say, pore Joe wus weepin’ over his sins, an’ I guess we wus all ’most ready to cry.  Then the feller up an’ sez, ‘Fetch out the pernicious sperrit, the nectar o’ the devil, the waters o’ the Styx, the vile filth as robs homes o’ their support, an’ drives whole races to perdition!’ an’ a lot o’ other big talk.  An’, say, we fetched!  Yes, sir, we fetched like a lot o’ silly, skippin’ lambs.  We brought out six bottles o’ the worstest rotgut ever faked in a settlement saloon, an’ handed it over.  After that I guess we wus feelin’ better.  Sez we, feelin’ kind o’ mumsy over the whole racket, it ain’t right, we sez, to harbor no sperrit-soaked, liver-pickled tag of a decent citizen’s life around this layout; an’ so we took Joe Nelson to the river and diluted him.  After that I ’lows we lay low.  I did hear as some o’ the boys said their prayers that night, which goes to show as they wus feelin’ kind o’ thin an’ mean.  Ther’ wa’n’t a feller ther’ but wus dead swore off fer a week.

“Guess it wus most the middle o’ the night when Jim Yard comes to my shack an’ fetched me out.  He told me there wus a racket goin’ on in the settlement.  That temperator wus down ther’ blazin’ drunk an’ shootin’ up the town.  Say, I felt kind o’ hot at that.  Yup, pretty sulphury an’ hot, an’ I went right out, quiet like, and fetched the boys.  Them as had said their prayers wus the first to join me.  Wal, we went along an’ did things with that. Ah, guess Jake’s comin’ this way; likely he wants somethin’.”

Arizona turned abruptly to his saddle again, while all eyes looked over at the approaching foreman.  Jake strode up.  Arizona took no notice of him.  It was his way of showing his dislike for the man.  Jake permitted one glance nor was it a friendly one in his direction, then he went straight over to where Tresler was sitting.

“Get that mare of yours saddled, Tresler,” he said, “and ride into Forks.  You’ll fetch out that skulkin’ coyote, Joe Nelson.  You’ll fetch him out, savee?  Maybe he’s at the saloon sure he’s drunk, anyway.  An’ if he ain’t handed over that letter to the sheriff, you’ll see to it.  Say, you’d best shake him up some; don’t be too easy.”

“I’ll bring him out,” replied Tresler, quietly.

“Hah, kind o’ squeamish,” sneered Jake.

“No.  I’m not knocking drunken men about.  That’s all.”

“Wal, go and bring him out,” snarled the giant.  “I’ll see to the rest.”

Tresler went off to the barn without another word.  His going was almost precipitate, but not from any fear of Jake.  It was himself he feared.  This merciless brute drove him to distraction every time he came into contact with him, and the only way he found it possible to keep the peace with him at all was by avoiding him, by getting out of his way, by shutting him out of mind, whenever it was possible.

In a few minutes he had set out.  His uneasy mare was still only half tamed, and very fresh.  She left the yards peaceably enough, but jibbed at the river ford.  The inevitable thrashing followed, Tresler knowing far too much by now to spare her.  Just for one moment she seemed inclined to submit and behave herself, and take to the water kindly.  Then her native cussedness asserted itself; she shook her head angrily, and caught the bar of the spade-bit in her great, strong teeth, swung round, and, stretching her long ewe neck, headed south across country as hard as she could lay heels to the ground.

Tresler fought her every foot of the way, but it was useless.  The devil possessed her, and she worked her will on him.  By the time he should have reached Forks he was ten miles in the opposite direction.

However, he was not the man to take such a display too kindly, and, having at length regained control, he turned her back and pressed her to make up time.  And it made him smile, as he rode, to feel the swing of the creature’s powerful strides under him.  He could not punish her by asking for pace, and he knew it.  She seemed to revel in a rapid journey, and the extra run taken on her own account only seemed to have warmed her up to even greater efforts.

It was nearly ten o’clock when he drew near Forks; and the moon had only just risen.  The mare was docile enough now, and raced along with her ears pricked and her whole fiery disposition alert.

The trail approached Forks from the west.  That is to say, it took a big bend and entered on the western side.  Already Tresler could see the houses beyond the trees silhouetted in the moonlight, but the nearer approach was bathed in shadow.  The trail came down from a rising ground, cutting its way through the bush, and, passing the lights of the saloon, went on to the market-place.

He checked the mare’s impetuosity as he came down the slope.  She was too valuable for him to risk her legs.  With all her vices, he knew there was not a horse on the ranch that could stand beside the Lady Jezebel on the trail.

She propped jerkily as she descended the hill.  Every little rustle of the lank grass startled her, and gave her excuse for frivolity.  Her rider was forced to keep a watchful eye and a close seat.  A shadowy kit fox worried her with its stealthy movements.  It kept pace with her in its silent, ghostly way, now invisible in the long grass, now in full view beside the trail; but always abreast.

Half-way down the trail both horse and rider were startled seriously.  A riderless horse, saddled and bridled, dashed out of the darkness and galloped across them.  Of her own accord Lady Jezebel swung round, and, before Tresler could check her, had set off in hot pursuit.  For once horse and rider were of the same mind, and Tresler bent low in the saddle, ready to grab at the bridle when his mare should overhaul the stranger.

In less than a minute they were abreast of their quarry.  The stranger’s reins were hanging broken from the bit, and Tresler grabbed at them.  Nor could he help a quiet laugh, when, on pulling up, he recognized the buckskin pony and quaint old stock saddle of Joe Nelson.  And he at once became alive to the necessity of his journey.  What, he wondered, had happened to the little choreman?

Leading the captive, he rode back to the trail and pushed on toward the village.  But his adventures were not over yet.  At the bottom of the hill the mare, brought up to a stand, reared and shied violently.  Then she stood trembling like an aspen, seizing every opportunity to edge from the trail, and all the while staring with wild, dilated eyes away out toward the bush on the right front.  Her rider followed the direction of her gaze to ascertain the cause of the trouble.  For some minutes he could distinguish nothing unusual in the darkness.  The moon had not as yet attained much power, and gave him very little assistance; but, realizing the wonderful acuteness of a horse’s vision, he decided that there nevertheless was something to be investigated.  So he dismounted, and adopting the common prairie method of scanning the sky-line, he dropped to the ground.

For some time his search was quite vain, and only the mare’s nervous state encouraged him.  Then at length, low down in the deep shadow of the bush, something caught and held his attention.  Something was moving down there.

He lay quite still, watching intently.  Something of the mare’s nervous excitement gripped him.  The movement was ghostly.  It was only a movement.  There was nothing distinct to be seen, nothing tangible; just a weird, nameless something.  A dozen times he asked himself what it was.  But the darkness always baffled him, and he could find no answer.  He had an impression of great flapping wings such wings as might belong to a giant bat.  The movement was sufficiently regular to suggest this, but the idea carried no conviction.  There, however, his conjectures ended.

At last he sprang up with a sharp ejaculation, and his hand went to his revolver.  The thing, or creature, whatever it was, was coming slowly but steadily toward him.  Had he not been sure of this, the attitude of the horses would have settled the question for him.  Lady Jezebel pulled back in the throes of a wild fear, and the buckskin plunged madly to get free.

He had hardly persuaded them to a temporary calmness, when a mournful cry, rising in a wailing crescendo, split the air and died away abruptly.  And he knew that it came from the advancing “movement.”

And now it left the shadow and drew out into the moonlight.  And the man watching beheld a dark heap distinctly outlined midway toward the bush.  The wings seemed to have folded themselves, or, at least, to have lowered, and were trailing on the ground in the creature’s wake.  Presently the whole thing ceased to move, and sat still like a great loathsome toad a silent, uncanny heap amidst the lank prairie grass.  And somehow he felt glad that it was no longer approaching.

The moments crept by, and the position remained unchanged.  Then slowly, with an air of settled purpose, the creature raised itself on its hind legs, and, swaying and shuffling, continued its advance.  In an instant Tresler’s revolver leapt from its holster, and he was ready to defend himself.  The attitude was familiar to him.  He had read stories of the bears in the Rockies, and they came home to him now as he saw his adversary rear itself to its full height.  His puzzlement was over; he understood now.  He was dealing with a large specimen of the Rocky Mountain grizzly.

Yes, there could be no mistaking the swaying gait, the curious, snorting breathing, the sadly lolling head and slow movements.  He remembered each detail with an exactness which astonished him, and was thrilled with the bristling sensation which assails every hunter when face to face with big game for the first time in his life.

He raised his gun, and took a long, steady aim, measuring the distance with deliberation, and selecting the animal’s breast for his shot.  Then, just as he was about to fire, the brute’s head turned and caught the cold, sharp moonlight full upon its face.  There was a momentary flash of white, and Tresler’s gun was lowered as though it had been struck down.