Read CHAPTER XIX - HOT UPON THE TRAIL of The Night Riders A Romance of Early Montana , free online book, by Ridgwell Cullum, on ReadCentral.com.

The most welcome thing that had happened to the men on the ranch for many a long day was Tresler’s return to the bunkhouse.  He was hailed with acclamation.  Though he had found it hard to part with Diane under the doubtful circumstances, there was some compensation, certainly gratification, in the whole-hearted welcome of his rough comrades.  It was not the effusion they displayed, but the deliberateness of their reception of him, that indexed their true feelings.  Teddy Jinks refused to serve out the supper hash until Tresler had all he required.  Lew Cawley washed out a plate for him, as a special favor; and Raw Harris, pessimist as he was, and who had a way of displaying the fact in all the little every-day matters of life, cleaned and sharpened a knife for him by prodding it up to the hilt in the hard-beaten earth, and cleaned the prongs of a fork with the edge of his buckskin shirt.  But he could not thus outrage his principles without excusing himself, which he did, to the effect that he guessed “invalid fellers need onusual feedin’.”  Jacob Smith, whose habit it was to take his evening meals seated at the foot of the upright log which served as part of the door casing, and which contact with his broad, buckskin-covered shoulders had polished till it shone resplendently, renounced his coveted position in the invalid’s favor.  Tresler was a guest of honor, for whom, on this one occasion at least, nothing was too good.  And in this position Arizona supported him, cursing the flies that fell into his friend’s pannikin of tea, and hooking them out with the point of his hash-besmeared knife as he sat on his log beside him.  Joe, too, had come down specially to share the meal, but he, being a member of the household, was very small fry at the bunkhouse.

And Tresler delighted in the kindness thus showered on him.  The freedom from the sick-room did him good; the air was good to breathe, the plain, wholesome food was good; but most of all those bronzed, tough faces around him seemed to put new life and vigor into his enfeebled frame.  He realized that it was high time that he was at work again.

And there was lots for him to hear.  Every man among them had something to add to the general hash of events, and in their usual way proceeded to ladle it out without regard for audience, contradicting, interrupting, cursing, until the unfortunate man who was the butt of their remarks found himself almost overpowered by the babel.

At length Arizona drew them up with one of his sudden “yanks.”

“Say,” he cried, his eyes glaring fiercely and embracing the whole party with a great, comprehensive roll, “you fellers is like a crowd o’ coyotes around a bone.  I ’lows Tresler ain’t an a’mighty deal better’n a bone about now, but his lugs ain’t deef.  Y’re jest a gorl-darned lot o’ oneddicated hoboes.”

Which attack had the effect of reducing the pandemonium, but in no way suppressing the ardent spirits of the party.  It acted as a challenge, which Jacob Smith promptly took up.

“Say, boys,” he cried, “we’re goin’ to git eddication from Arizona!”

His remark was followed by a derisive roar of laughter at Arizona’s expense.  But the moment it had subsided the derided one shot out his retort.

“Guess ther’s things and critturs down our country we don’t never figger to eddicate them’s hogs.”

Fer the reason which they knows more’n you,” returned Jacob, in no way worried by the personality.

The boys considered the point achieved by Jacob, and another laugh at Arizona’s expense went up.  He had stumped the cowpuncher, who now entered the fight with wonderfully good-natured zest.

“Say,” he observed, “I ain’t had a heap to do wi’ your folks, Jacob, but I’m guessin’ ef you’re talkin’ Gospel, things don’t run in your fam’ly.”

“Call him a hog right out, Arizona,” put in Raw, lazily.

“I ain’t callin’ Jacob no hog; et ’ud be a nasty trick on the hog,” observed the ready-tongued man.

“Hallo, Jacob!” cried Lew, as the laugh turned on the other man this time.

But Arizona resented the interference, and rounded on him promptly.

“Say, you passon feller, I ain’t heerd tell as it’s the ways o’ your country to butt in an’ boost folk on to a scrap.  It’s gener’ly sed you’re mostly ready to do the scrappin’.”

“Which means?” Lew grinned in his large way.

“Wal, it mostly means let’s hear from you fust hand.”

“It’s not much use hearing from me on the subject of hogs.  They aren’t great on ’em in my country.  Besides, you seem quite at home with ’em.”

Arizona sprang to his feet, and, walking over to the hulking form of the parson’s son, held his hand out.

“Shake,” he said, with a grin that drew his parchment-like skin into fierce wrinkles; “we live in the same shack.”

Lew laughed with the rest, and when it died down observed

“Look here, Arizona, when you get talking ‘hog’ you stand alone.  The whole Northwest bows to you on that subject.  Now go and sit down like a peaceable citizen, and remember that a man who is such a master in the craft of hog-raising, who has lived with ’em, bred ’em, fed on ’em, and whose mental vision is bounded by ’em, has no right to down inoffensive, untutored souls like ourselves.  It isn’t generous.”

Arizona stood.  He looked at the man; then he glanced at each face around him and noted the smiles.  One hand went up to his long, black hair and he scratched his head, while his wild eyes settled themselves on Tresler’s broadly grinning features.  Suddenly he walked back to his seat, took up his dish of hash and continued his supper, making a final remark as he ate.

“Langwidge?  Gee!  I pass.”

And during the rest of the meal “hog” found no place.  They discussed the topic of the day threadbare.  The night-riders filled their thoughts to the exclusion of all else, and Tresler learned the details of their recent exploits, and the opinion of each man on the outrages.  Even Teddy Jinks, youthful and only “slushy” as he was, was listened to, so absorbed were these men in their cattle world.

“It’s my belief,” that reedy youth said, with profound finality, “they’re working fer a bust up.  I’d gamble one o’ Arizona’s hogs to a junk o’ sow-belly ther’ ain’t no more of them rustlers around come the fall.  Things is hot, an’ they’re goin’ to hit the trail, takin’ all they ken get right now.”

It was good to be listening to the rough talk of these fellows again.  So good that Tresler prolonged this, his first meal with them after such a long absence, to the last possible minute.  Then he reluctantly filled his pipe, put away his plate and pannikin, and strolled over to the barn in company with Arizona.  He went to inspect his mare; he was fond and justly proud of her.  With all her vagaries of temper she was a wonderful beast.  Arizona had told him how she had brought both of them into the ranch from Willow Bluff on that memorable night.

“Guess it’s a real pity that sheriff feller hadn’t got her when he hit Red Mask’s trail,” observed Arizona, while he watched Tresler gently pass his hands over each leg in turn.  “Clean, eh?” he asked presently.

“Yes.  The limbs of a race-horse.  Has she been ridden while I’ve been sick?”

“Nope; she’s jest stood guzzlin’ oats.”

“I shall have a time when I get into the saddle again.”

They moved out and stood at the door in full view of the house.  The evening was drawing in.  The sun was on the horizon, and the purple night shades were rising out over the eastern sky.

“Arizona,” Tresler said a little later, “I’ve got an unpleasant task before me.  I’ve just seen Marbolt pass the window of his den.  I want a few words with him.  I think I’ll go now.”

“’Bout the leddy?” inquired the cowpuncher.

“You’ve struck it.”

“Wal, git right along.  I’d sooner it wus you than me, I guess.  Howsum, I’ll set right hyar.  Mebbe I’ll be handy ef you’re wantin’ me.”

Tresler laughed.  “Oh, it’s all right,” he said.  “I’m not dealing with Jake.”

“Nope,” replied the other, settling himself on a saddle-tree.  Then, after a thoughtful pause, “which is regret’ble.”

Tresler walked away in the direction of the house.  He was weak, and did the journey slowly.  Nor did he feel comfortable.  However, he was doing what he knew to be right, and, as he ruefully reminded himself, it was seldom pleasant to do one’s duty.  His object was simply a matter of form, but one which omitted would give Marbolt reason for saying things.  Besides, in justice to Danny and himself he must ask her father’s consent to their engagement.  And as he thought of the uselessness of it he laughed bitterly to himself.  Did not the rancher know?  And had he not fully explained his views on the matter?

Arizona watched Tresler wabbling unsteadily toward the house and applied many mental epithets of an uncomplimentary nature on his “foolheadedness.”  Then he was joined by Joe, who had also observed Tresler’s visit.

The little man waved a hand in the direction of the retreating figure.

“Wher’s he goin’?” he asked.

“Guess it’s ’bout the leddy,” replied Arizona, shortly.

“An’ he wus boosted out ’cause of her,” the other said significantly.  “Kind o’ minds you of one o’ them terriers.”

“Yup.  Or a cow wi’ a ca’f.”

“On’y he don’t make no fuss.  Guess it’s a terrier.”

And Joe accompanied his final decision with an emphatic nod.

Meanwhile the object of their remarks had made his way to the house and stood before the blind arbiter of his fate in the latter’s little office.  The rancher was sitting at his table with his face directed toward the window, and his red eyes staring at the glowing sunset.  And so he remained, in spite of Tresler’s blunt announcement of himself.

“It is necessary for me to see you, Mr. Marbolt,” he said.

And he stood waiting for his answer.  It came, after some moments, in a tone that offered no encouragement, but was more civil than he expected.

“Since you say so, I suppose it is.”

Quite indifferent and certainly undaunted, Tresler proceeded

“You have already been informed how matters stand between your daughter and myself.”

“Yes.”

“I am here, then, to formally ask your consent to our engagement.”

The red eyes moved from their contemplation of the sunset, and their dead, leech-like stare fixed itself upon the undisturbed face of the would-be son-in-law.

“Tresler,” the man said, in a manner that left little to the imagination, “I have only one answer for you.  You have become offensive to me on this ranch, and I shall be glad if you will remove yourself as quickly as possible.  I shall refund you the money you have paid, and your agreement can be torn up.”

“Then you will not consider my proposal?”

“I have already answered you.”

Tresler looked hard at the face before him.  Mask-like as it was, it yet conveyed something of the fierce temper behind it.  He was glad he saw something of it, for he felt more justified in the heat of his own feelings.  The man’s words were a studied insult, and he was not one to submit to insults from anybody.

“I emphatically refuse, then, to remove my offensive person,” he replied, with a great assumption of calmness.  “Furthermore, I will not entertain the return of my premium.  I am here for three years’ instruction, already paid for.  That instruction I demand.  You will understand it is not in your power to have my offensive person removed either legally or forcibly.  The latter especially, since it would cost you far more than you would find it pleasant to pay.”

He expected to witness one of those outbursts of fury such as the blind man had recently displayed toward Jake in his presence.  But nothing of the kind happened.  His manner remained the same.

“I am sorry,” he said, with something almost like a smile.  “You drive me to an alternative, which, if less convenient, is perhaps, on the whole, more satisfactory.  My daughter will have to go.  I was prepared for this, and have already made arrangements for her to visit certain friends this day fortnight, for an indefinite period.  You quite understand, Tresler, you will not see her again.  She will remain away until you leave here.  Of course, in the meantime, should you take it into your head to follow her, you are clear-headed enough to see that your agreement with me would be broken.  Then she would return at once, and the question of force to keep you apart would be entirely in my hands.  Further, I must tell you that while she is away she will be living in an obscure settlement many miles from here, where all letters addressed to her will be opened before she receives them.”

The blind man turned away, indicating that the interview was ended, but Tresler stood his ground, though he fully realized how thoroughly this man had outwitted him.

“At least she will be happier away from here,” he said significantly.

“I don’t know,” retorted the other, with diabolical meaning.

Tresler’s exasperation could no longer be restrained.  “Your conduct is inhuman to thus persecute a helpless girl, your daughter.”

“Ah, my daughter.  Yes?”

But the other gave no heed to the sneer.  “You have no right to stand between us,” he went on angrily.  “You have no reasonable grounds.  I tell you straight I will not submit.  When your daughter is of age I will take her from this home, which is no home to her, from you who have never been a father to her.”

“True,” assented the other, with an aggravating calmness.

“You will have no power to interfere then.  The law ”

“Enough of this nonsense,” the rancher interrupted, with his first sign of impatience.  “You’ll never marry Diane while I live.  Take it from me.  Now get out!”

And somehow, in spite of himself, Tresler found himself outside the house and moving in the direction of the bunkhouse at the most rapid pace his weakness permitted.  But before he reached his destination Jake intercepted him, and he had little doubt in his mind that the man had seen him go to the house and had waited for his return.

“Wal?” he said, drawling out his inquiry, as though the contemplation of the answer he would receive gave him more than ordinary satisfaction.  “Guess blind hulks is a pretty hard man to deal with, eh?  You’re goin’ to quit us?”

Tresler was in no mood for this man’s sneers.  “No,” he said.  “On the contrary, I stay till my time’s out.”

Jake could not conceal his surprise and chagrin.  “You ain’t quittin’?”

“No.”  Tresler really enjoyed his discomfiture.

“An’ you’re goin’ ”

“No.”  A thought suddenly occurred to him.  He could hand something on to this man.  “Miss Marbolt is going to be sent away until such time as I leave this ranch.  Nearly three years, Jake,” he finished up maliciously.

Jake stood thoughtfully contemplating the other’s shrunken figure.  He displayed no feeling, but Tresler knew he had hit him hard.

“An’ she’s goin’, when?” he asked at last.

“This day fortnight.”

“Ah.  This day fortnight.”

After that Jake eyed his rival as though weighing him up in his mind along with other things; then he said quietly

“Guess he’d best have sent her right now.”  And, with this enigmatical remark, he abruptly went back to his shack.

A week saw Tresler in the saddle again.  His recuperative powers were wonderful.  And his strength returned in a manner which filled his comrades with astonishment.  Fresh air and healthy work served as far better tonics than anything the horse-doctor had given him.

And the week, at least to Tresler, was full of portent.  True, the rustlers had been quiet, but the effect of their recent doings was very apparent.  The sheriff was now in constant communication with the ranch.  Fyles visited Julian Marbolt frequently, holding long consultations with him; and a significant fact was that his men made the place a calling station.  He realized that the long arm of the law was seriously at work, and he wondered in what direction the real object lay, for he quite understood that these open movements, in all probability, cloaked the real suspicions.  Both he and Joe were of opinion that the sheriff was acting on some secret information, and they puzzled their heads to fathom the depths of the wily officer’s motives.

Then happened something that Tresler had been expecting for some time.  He had not seen Fyles to speak to since the Willow Bluff incident, and this had caused him some wonder.  Therefore, one day while out on a distant pasture, rounding up a small bunch of yearlings, he was in no way surprised to see the farmer-like figure of the sheriff appear over the brow of a rising ground, and canter his raw-boned horse down toward him.

And that meeting was in the nature of an eye-opener to Tresler.  He learned something of the machinery that was at work; of the system of espionage that was going on over the whole district, and the subtle means of its employment.  He learned, amongst other things, something of what Jake was doing.  How he was in constant touch with a number of half-breeds of the most disreputable type, and that his doings were of the most underground nature.  He also learned that his own personal efforts in conveying warning before Willow Bluff were more than appreciated, and, finally, that Fyles wanted him to further act in concert with him.

Acceding to the officer’s request he was then informed of certain other things for his future guidance.  And when the man had gone, disappearing again over the rising ground, in the same ghostly fashion that he had appeared, he looked after him, and, in reviewing all he had heard, marveled how little he had been told, but what a lot had been suggested, and how devilish smart that farmer-like man, in spite of his recent failures, really was.

And during those days Tresler heard very little from Diane; which little came from Joe Nelson.  Now and again she sent him a grief-stricken note alluding to her departure.  She told him, although Joe had done so already, that her father had brought Anton into the house for the express purpose of preventing any communication with him, Tresler, and to generally keep sentry over her.  She told him much that made his heart bleed for her, and made him spend hours at night writing pages of cheering messages to her.  There was no help for it.  He was powerless to do more than try to console her, and he frequently found himself doubting if the course he had selected was the right one; if he were not aggravating her position by remaining on the ranch.  His reason told him that it was surely best.  If she had to go away, she would, at least, be free of Jake, and, no matter what condition the people to whom she was to be sent, no worse associations than the combination of the blind man and his mate could possibly be found for her anywhere.

It was a poor sort of consolation with which he bolstered himself, and he spent many miserable hours during those last few days.  Once he had said to Joe, “If I could only see her for a few minutes it might be some measure of comfort to us both.”  But Joe had shaken his gray head.  “It ain’t no use,” he said.  “You can’t take no chances foolin’ wi’ Anton around.  ’Sides, things might be wuss,” he finished up, with a considerable emphasis.

And so Tresler had to be content; ill at ease, chafing, but quite powerless.  In truth the rancher had outwitted him with a vengeance; moreover, what he had said he soon showed that he meant, for Joe brought him the news, two days before the date fixed for departure, that Diane was making her preparations, and had even begun to pack up.

And all this time Jake was very cheerful.  The men on the ranch never remembered an easier time than the foreman was giving them now.  He interfered very little with the work, and, except at the morning muster, they hardly saw anything of him.  Tresler he never came near.  He seemed to have forgotten that he had ever discussed Anton with him.  It may have been that that discussion had only been inspired on the impulse of the moment, or it may have been and Tresler thought this far more likely he had deeper plans.  However, the man, in face of Diane’s departure, was unusually cheerful, and the wise old Joe quickly observed the fact.

For Joe to observe anything of interest was the cue for him to inquire further, and thus he set himself to watch Jake.  And his watching quickly resulted in Tresler’s attention being called to Jake’s movements at night.  Joe found that night after night Jake left the ranch, always on foot, but he left it for hours at a time.  Twice during the last week he did not return until daylight.  All this was more than interesting, but nothing developed to satisfy their curiosity until the last day of Diane’s stay on the ranch.  Then Jake visited her, and, taking her out of the kitchen, had a long confabulation with her in the open.  Joe watched them, but, much to his disgust, had no means of learning the man’s object.  However, there was only one thing for him to do, and he did it without delay:  he hurried down to convey his news to Tresler, who was having supper at the bunkhouse.

Taking him on one side he imparted his tidings hurriedly.  And in conclusion spoke with evident alarm.

“Ther’s suthin’ doin’,” he said, in, for him, quite a condition of excitement.  “I can’t locate it nohow.  But Jake, he’s that queer.  See, he’s jest gone right into his shack.  Ther’s suthin’ doin’, sure.”

“And didn’t you ask her what it was all about?” asked Tresler, catching something of the other’s manner.

“Wal, no.  That is, I guess I mentioned it like, but Miss Dianny wus that flustrated an’ kind o’ angry she jest went right up to her room, an’ I thought best to git around hyar.”

Tresler was thinking hard; and while he thought he stood watching the door where they had both seen Jake disappear.  It occurred to him to go and seek Diane for himself.  Poor girl, she would surely tell him if there were anything wrong.  After all, he had the right to know.  Then he thought of Anton.

“Was Anton ?”

He had turned to Joe, but his remark was cut short.  Jake’s door suddenly opened and the foreman came hurriedly out.  Joe caught his companion by the arm, and they both looked after the giant as he strode away toward the barn.  And they simultaneously became aware of something unsteady in his gait.  Joe was the first to draw attention to it.

“Say, he’s bin drinkin’,” he whispered, in an awed manner.

Tresler nodded.  This was something quite new.  Jake, with all his faults, was not usually given to drink.  On the contrary, he was a particularly sober man.

Tresler swiftly made up his mind.  “I’m going to see what’s up, Joe,” he said.  “Do you see?  He’s making for Marbolt’s stable.”

It was almost dusk.  The men had settled down to their evening’s occupations.  Tresler and Joe were standing alone in the shadow of the bunkhouse wall.  The lamp was lit within the building, and the glow from the window, which was quite near them, darkened the prospect still further.  However, Tresler still could see the foreman, an indistinct shadow in the growing darkness.

Leaving his companion without further remark he hurried after the disappearing man and took up his position near the barn, whence he could both see and hear what might be going forward.

Jake reached the door of the stable and knocked on it in a forceful and peremptory manner.