"I want that there lot!" he said, roughly. "It's the best lot in the place. You kin take somethin' else."
Sue Belle rose to her feet. Her hat had fallen off in the wild ride and her black hair floated over her shoulders. Excitement had put a light in her eyes, color in her cheeks. She looked handsome, almost young again, – altogether beautiful. The man was right. She could see that she had succeeded in getting the best lot in the city. As she stood up the man stared at her wonderingly. He was a cowboy, – fringed trousers, bearskin chaparejos, loose shirt, broad hat, Mexican spurs, and all.
"Good God!" he shouted. "It's a woman!"
"Yes, I am a woman," answered Sue Belle, desperately.
"Well, I'm d – d!" he burst out.
"You've ordered me away from the lot, but – " she went on, heedless of his interruption.
"Well, gimme a kiss, sis, an' you kin stay on it," said the man, with a hideous leer.
Sue Belle looked around desperately. She was practically alone on the prairie save for this man and the other one, now about a mile distant. The station and land-office were too far away for her to summon assistance from them. She was absolutely helpless, entirely in this man's power.
"Will you let me alone if I do?" she asked, at last.
"Oh, come, now, you're too pretty to be left alone, my dear," said the man, coming closer.
Resisting the impulse to shriek, she faced him hatchet in hand. With swift feminine instinct she comprehended him in a glance. He was just an ordinary kind of a cowboy, bad when his bad side was uppermost, but capable of all sorts of nobility and self-sacrifice if his good side could be reached. She thought swiftly then, – she had to. She made up her mind to appeal to him.
"Wait," she said; "don't come nearer until I speak to you. You're right, I am a woman. I have a husband and two children. We had a little fortune which we put into a farm in Cimarron County five years ago. Through a succession of misfortunes we've lost every dollar. We have nothing except a team and this horse. We came down here to try to get something for our children. Yesterday my husband fell and broke his arm. He was going to ride in here. He could not do it. I had to make the run in place of him. I left him alone, back there on the edge of the strip, with his broken arm. With the last ten dollars we had on earth I bought these boots and employed a negro boy whom I never saw before to bring my little children after me. I want this lot. I won it fairly. It's the best lot in the town. But you are a man; you are stronger than I. You may – " she flushed painfully, "kiss me if you must, – if you will give me your word of honor that after that you will leave me this lot. You understand that I – I – only submit to it – for the sake of the children and for my poor husband."
Her eyes were full of tears now, as she clasped her hands, looked at him appealingly, and waited with burning face, trembling lips, and heaving bosom.
"Ma'am," said the cowboy, his face also flushing under his tan, as he took off his sombrero, "I don't want no kiss. Leastways, I don't take no kiss under these circumstances. You kin have that there lot. I jist rode in yere fer the fun of the thing. I don't want no lot nohow. What'd I do with it? Sell it fer booze. You beat me on the square, though if it had been five miles farther I'd a beat you. Them Kentucky hosses – I 'low he's a Kentucky hoss? – ain't no good fer long-distance runnin' side this flea-bitten bronc. I don't want no lot noways. You stay right here on that there lot, an' fer fear less'n somebody might come along an' try to make you give it up, I'll stay with you with my gun handy."
"Thank you and God bless you," said Sue Belle, gratefully, looking at him with swimming eyes.
Then she put her head down on Kentucky's saddle, where the horse stood cropping the short grass, threw her arm around his neck, and sobbed as if her heart would break. The cowboy surveyed her in astonishment and terror; but, before he could say anything, the second man came racing up.
"Well, you two young fellows have the best lots in the place, I suppose. I'll have to take what's left," said the newcomer, cheerfully. "Great Jupiter! what's that fellow crying about?"
"'Taint a feller," said the cowboy, "it's a female, a woman."
"A woman!" exclaimed the other. "Say, you cowboy," with an ugly look on his face, "have you been making a woman cry?"
"I reckon I hev," answered the cowboy, nonchalantly.
"You infernal – " exclaimed the man, stepping toward him.
"Oh!" cried Sue Belle, raising her head, "he didn't. I'm crying for joy!"
As he caught sight of her the man bowed instantly toward her with the grace of a gentleman who recognized under any accident of clothes a lady.
"My husband is ill," said Sue Belle, swiftly divining another friend, one of another class, too; "he broke his arm yesterday, and I had to take our horse and ride here for him and the two little children, and this gentleman – "
"Lord!" said the cowboy, "I ain't no gent. I'm a cow-puncher."
"This gentleman came after me and promised to protect me from everybody. And that is why I cried."
"Sir," said the second man, extending his hand, "I beg your pardon for my suspicions. You are a gentleman."
"Nobody never called me one before," growled the cowboy, much embarrassed, shaking the proffered hand awkwardly but heartily. "I don't care fer no lot myself an' I'm goin' to hold this lot next to hern fer the little kids."
"Well, that's just about what I came for, too. I'm a student, a senior at Columbia College, New York, madam," he said, turning to Sue Belle, "out here for the summer to look after some of my father's Kansas property. I thought I'd run down here just for the fun of it. You said you had two children, did you not?"
"Allow me. I will hold the lot on the other side of you for the other one. So you see, with this gentleman and myself, you will be surrounded and protected by the east and the west."
Before the afternoon was half gone all the lots in Newlands had been appropriated, lumber had been brought in, portable houses and tents erected, saloons opened, a daily paper started, and the young Bishop of Oklahoma was on the ground organizing a church; the place was actually assuming the appearance of a city even in so short a time. The story of Sue Belle's ride had been told everywhere by her gallant flankers, and by common consent the focus of activity for the city of Newlands was centred about those three lots. The happy, grateful woman could have sold them a hundred times at an increasing price had she chosen to do so.
Late in the afternoon Joe came up with the wagon and the children. He had been faithful to his trust. Sue Belle was very much frightened when she learned that her husband had secured a claim. She knew he would endeavor to hold it, and she feared extremely for him lying ill and alone on the prairie. Leaving the children in the care of some of the women who had followed their husbands on the trail, with the promise of the whole town that her three lots would be held inviolate for her, accompanied by her two faithful, self-constituted guardians, she mounted the refreshed Kentucky again and rode back to her husband, lying alone, half delirious, in his shed on the prairie, clinging desperately to his quarter section.
Thus the tide changed at last and now came flooding in with fortune.
"I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."The Bible
There were but two women in the camp, Martie was one of them, and Martie was the cause of it. The statement that it was on account of her they quarrelled, and it was through the quarrel the terrible state of affairs was brought about, cannot be denied.
Martie and her mother – her mother was the other woman in the camp, and, except that she had been responsible for Martie years before, she didn't particularly count – had come to the rough little mining settlement with Martie's father, a mining engineer, who represented certain speculative holdings in the East which needed personal attention.
Before they arrived the camp had been a fairly peaceable one: the boys got drunk just about so often, once in a while there was a shooting affair, but Medicine Dog was as orderly a camp as might have been found in Colorado, until Martie came. It was a serpent, I believe, that introduced the trouble in the Garden of Eden. I wonder what the wild beasts thought of the advent of Eve. At any rate, Martie first reformed and then disorganized Medicine Dog.
Following her arrival there was an ebullition of "boiled shirts," – come by express in response to telegraphic communications with Denver, the first evidence of the reform. This was followed by the influx of a lone Chinaman, imported for the reboiling of the said shirts, his life, liberty, and the peaceful pursuit of his vocation over the tubs being guaranteed him by the camp, the second evidence of the reform. There was a consequent amelioration of manners, proportioned to the prevalence of shirt bosom, too. "Boiled shirts" – I use the language of the camp – are the beginning of that civilization of which "plug hats" are the end. Medicine Dog never got that far, except in its dreams; even Martie was not quite equal to promoting the "plug hat."
The saloon, too, felt the good – or evil, according to the point of view – effect of Martie's presence, and the wonderful part of it was that Big Sam, who dispensed liquor, profanity, and on occasions, if necessary, bullets from his "Colt's 45," from behind the bar, bore the situation philosophically. He was as much under Martie's sway as anybody else. That was the last evidence of the reform. And when a preacher – a wandering missionary – came along, Big Sam cheerfully, if temporarily, suspended business one Sunday morning and they had services in the saloon, the preacher on the counter to conduct them, and Martie on a table where they could all see her, with a portable organ to lead the singing.
That was the only time Martie's presence graced the saloon. The effect of her presence there was lasting. The boys could hardly swallow their whiskey during that or the next day.
"It tastes as if it had sugar in it," said Dan Casey, mournfully, subtly referring to the sweetening effect of Martie's visit. When it came to choosing between Martie and whiskey, the difficulties of the situation were enough to appall the stoutest heart in Medicine Dog.
Casey signified his change of heart in the matter of clothing by trimming his beard – there was no barber in the camp yet – and by adding a green tie to his shirt, and when MacBurns appeared with a yellow silk streamer across his bestarched bosom, Casey took it as a direct reflection upon his religious and political views, and for a time Medicine Dog threatened to resume its pristine liveliness.
The quarrel was compromised by Martie; for when she artfully caused the news to be circulated that she doted on red or blue ties and could not abide green or yellow ones, Casey and MacBurns discarded the colors of their choice and settled the affair by wearing Martie's.
Martie wore those colors herself. She was the reddest-cheeked, bluest-eyed, and bonniest girl that had ever come across the mountains, so Medicine Dog swore unanimously, at any rate. As occasion served, the various members of the camp maintained Martie's cause with strenuous and generally fatal effect to various gentlemen from other camps who were rashly inclined to question the assertion. Martie would have shone anywhere in the open air, and in womanless Medicine Dog she was a heroine, a queen. That was the beginning of disorganization, too.
The two men hardest hit were Jack Elliott and Dick Sanderson. Elliott was a jolly, happy-go-lucky fellow born in the East, Sanderson a quieter man from the middle West, who complemented his companion admirably. They worked a rich claim together on the mountain side with good results. They were steady-going fellows and both were dead shots with the rifle. They were great-hearted young men, who loved each other with an affection that some men develop under certain circumstances for one another until a woman intervenes. Martie intervened. Both men fell in love with her, and as they were men of education, – being fellow-graduates of the old University of Pennsylvania, – they were not content with the mere blind adoration which the rest of Medicine Dog exhibited. They wanted Martie, and as the days grew longer and they knew her better, they wanted her more and more.
Each man dreamed dreams of a house on the mountain side overlooking the camp with Martie as its mistress and with himself as titular, if not actual, master. There had never been a wedding celebrated in the valley, and they were both united upon the desirability of having one. Each one, however, wanted to be the bridegroom!
Martie recognized the difference between these two men and the rest of the camp, although in no way did they hold themselves aloof from the general society of Medicine Dog – that would not have been tolerated by the rest of the boys. She realized that either of them might legitimately aspire to her hand, for they were in an entirely different category from the rude, humble, faithful adorers like Big Sam and Casey and the boys, and Martie loved one of them.
But Martie was a coquette. It wasn't in a girl of Martie's temperament to be otherwise in a camp with a hundred men in love with her, the only other woman being Martie's mother, and she didn't count when Martie was around. And by degrees that which neither of the men wished, which both of them would fain have avoided, was brought about. There was a dissolution of partnership, a rupture of old associations, a shattering of ancient friendship. As is always the case, where both had loved, they now hated.
I said that they were both good shots with the rifle. That hardly describes their capacities. If the mine had failed, they could have earned a fortune on any vaudeville stage. One of their "stunts" – as the boys called it – was really remarkable. Such was their confidence in each other that when one balanced a little can of whiskey on his head and the other bored a hole through it neatly with his rifle at a distance of sixty yards and upward the spectators hardly knew whether to admire the nerve of the can-holder or that of the marksman the more; although Casey deprecated the performance on account of the liability of the whiskey to go to waste! They shot equally well, and sometimes the one and sometimes the other held the target. It had grown an old story to Medicine Dog, but strangers always wanted to see the feat performed. After the rupture between them they did it no more, of course.
It was Martie who had separated them and it was Martie who brought them together again. Both men paid assiduous court to her, and she positively refused under any circumstances to give either a final answer until they became friends once more and swore to accept her decision without prejudice to that friendship. Martie was a power, and she had her way.
A reconciliation was effected, and the two men went back to work on their joint claim.
Still, Martie hesitated over that decision. Some intuition told her that no promise would avail against the satisfaction on the one hand and the disappointment on the other when she made a choice; but make it she must, and finally, after much hesitation, she announced that she chose Sanderson. His joy could not quite obliterate in her mind the impression caused by Elliott's grief. Elliott was too much of a man, however, to make any open outcry. He believed that if Sanderson had been out of the way he would have been successful, and his belief was probably correct; but the matter had been decided, and he swallowed his disappointment as best he might and bore Sanderson's triumph in silence.
A sporty stranger came to Medicine Dog one day shortly after the engagement was announced, and the conversation in the saloon turned upon the marksmanship of the camp. Medicine Dog prided itself on the ability of Elliott and Sanderson. The stranger was incredulous, and wagers were made and the boys repaired in a body to the Elliott-Sanderson claim and told of the bets. Neither man was anxious for the test, but for the honor of the camp, and because of the disappointment of the boys themselves, they felt that they could not refuse. Each volunteered to hold the can and each urged the other to shoot. Finally they agreed to decide the matter by tossing a coin, – the usual method of settling mooted points.
Fate appointed Elliott to use the rifle. He seized the weapon and started up the trail to get his distance. In that same moment a grim and ghastly temptation, proportioned in its appeal to the strength of his passion, entered his soul. If he killed Sanderson the field would be free. Martie's affections were not so deeply engaged but that she might be won. The idea whitened his lips and blanched his face and shook his hand, and it occurred at the same moment to Sanderson. He realized, as he walked across the clearing and backed up against a tree, the possibilities of the situation, and his own dark face went as white as that of his companion. But he was game. His emotion was not fear, – at least not fear for himself, – or if it were fear, it was for Elliott. As he prepared to receive the shot he prayed – and he was not a praying man; nobody much at Medicine Dog was in the habit of praying then – that Elliott might be equal to resisting the terrible demand.
As for Elliott, his soul was torn in a perfect tempest. He could see nothing but the fact that there before him was the man who had won the object for which he would have given his soul, that the man was unarmed, that if he shot him no power on earth could ever connect him with the crime of murder, for he could swear that it was an accident. The best of marksmen sometimes make blunders; all do not shoot with the continued accuracy of a William Tell. Satan possessed the man's soul for the moment. Ay, it was the woman who had tempted the man, – so it was in the Garden of Eden, – but this time a woman innocent and unwitting. Poor little Martie! She could not help it, after all.
These thoughts crowded the minds of the two men as they took their stations. Elliott faced Sanderson and slowly raised his rifle. By a violent effort he mastered his trembling as he glanced along the polished barrel and drew the exquisite bead upon the little black spot on the can where he was to send the bullet.
There was something in the air, in the attitude of the two men, in the situation, which suddenly broke upon the consciousness of the onlookers. They shifted uneasily. Finally Big Sam burst out, amid a chorus of approval:
"For God's sake, Elliott, don't shoot! You're not in the mood to-day, old man. We'll willin'ly lose the bet. Give the stranger his money, boys."
It was Sanderson who broke the silence.
"What are you afraid of, Sam?" he cried, taking the can in his hands. "By Heaven, the man doesn't live," he shouted, translating everybody's thought in his impetuosity, "that dare charge my partner with foul play!"
"No, no, of course not," came in expostulation from the crowd of spectators.
"That's right, then," said Sanderson, calmly. "Go ahead, Jack. I'll trust you."
He lifted the can again to his head, folded his arms, and faced his friend, a little smile on his lips.
Once more Elliott lifted his gun, which he had dropped during the conversation. This time his nerves were quite steady. He glanced along the barrel again. Should he send a shot into that smiling face? – his friend's face? A moment would determine. He aimed long and carefully at the target he had selected.
The smile would have died away from Sanderson's face had he not fixed it there with a horrible effort. Elliott again so lingered over his aim that the men once more started to interfere. The tense situation was more than they could bear. What was the matter?
Suddenly the devil that had possessed him released the miner. Elliott's love for man passed his love for woman. He forgot Martie as he faced Sanderson. His courage came back to him and his clearness of vision.
He dropped his rifle, and before any one could stop him, although Sanderson screamed, "For God's sake, Jack, don't do it!" and the men surged toward him, he whipped out his pistol, pointed it at his own breast, pulled the trigger, and fell bleeding from a mortal wound through the right lung.
"Men," he gasped out brokenly, "you're right – I was going to kill – him – on account of – Martie, you know, but – but he trusted me and – I could – not. Yet I'm a murderer – in the – sight of God – and my punishment – is – this. Dick – don't tell Martie."
There was a look of peace on his face as they gathered around him. They drew back a little as Dick Sanderson knelt down and took him in his arms.
"Jack, Jack!" he sobbed, "I knew your temptation, but I knew you wouldn't shoot me, old man. You were braver than I. I don't know what would have happened if the coin had flipped my way. Oh, Jack, I wish to God you had killed me!"
"Now – I'm – forgiven," whispered Elliott, feebly, lifting his hand toward the other, and then he smiled, and then it was all over.
"Gentlemen," said Sanderson, crying like a baby, as he rose to his feet, "he died for me."
"And for Martie," added Casey.
"Yes, and for Martie."
"Stranger," said Big Sam, turning to the man who had made the wager, "the money is yourn. I wish to God we'd never bet!"
"Gentlemen," said the stranger, "I don't take no money from no gents w'ich is won under them circumstances, but if you gents'll come down to the saloon and likker with me – "
"That's handsome of you, stranger, but we don't none of us git no likker in this camp to-day. That there saloon closes in Medicine Dog until arter the funeral of the finest and whitest-hearted gentleman and the best shot that ever lived in this camp," said Big Sam, turning mournfully away.