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Duke of Chimney Butte, The

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<SPAN name="Page_146" id="Page_146">[Pg 146]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER XI</h2> <h3>ALARMS AND EXCURSIONS</h3> <br /> <p>The news quickly ran over the country that Vesta Philbrook had hired the notorious Duke of Chimney Butte and his gun-slinging side partner to ride fence. What had happened to Nick Hargus and his boy, Tom, seemed to prove that they were men of the old school, quite a different type from any who had been employed on that ranch previously.</p> <p>Lambert was troubled to learn that his notoriety had run ahead of him, increasing as it spread. It was said that his encounter with Jim Wilder was only one of his milder exploits; that he was a grim and bloody man from Oklahoma who had marked his miles with tombstones as he traveled.</p> <p>His first business on taking charge of the Philbrook ranch had been to do a piece of fence-cutting on his own account opposite Nick Hargus' ranch, through which he had ridden and <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_147" id="Page_147">[Pg 147]</SPAN></span>driven home thirty head of cattle lately stolen by that enterprising citizen from Vesta Philbrook's herd. This act of open-handed restoration, carried out in broad daylight alone, and in the face of Hargus, his large family of sons, and the skulking refugees from the law who chanced to be hiding there at the time, added greatly to the Duke's fame.</p> <p>It did not serve as a recommendation among the neighbors who had preyed so long and notoriously on the Philbrook herd, and no doubt nothing would have been said about it by Hargus to even the most intimate of his ruffianly associates. But Taterleg and old Ananias took great pains to spread the story in Glendora, where it passed along, with additions as it moved. Hargus explained that the cattle were strays which had broken out.</p> <p>While this reputation of the Duke was highly gratifying to Taterleg, who found his own glory increased thereby, it was extremely distasteful to Lambert, who had no means of preventing its spread or opportunity of correcting its falsity. He knew himself to be an inoffensive, rather backward and timid man, or at least this was <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_148" id="Page_148">[Pg 148]</SPAN></span>his own measure of himself. That fight with Jim Wilder always had been a cloud over his spirits, although his conscience was clear. It had sobered him and made him feel old, as Vesta Philbrook had said fighting made a person feel. He could understand her better, perhaps, than one whom violence had passed undisturbed.</p> <p>There was nothing farther from his desire than strife and turmoil, gun-slinging and a fearful notoriety. But there he was, set up against his will, against his record, as a man to whom it was wise to give the road. That was a dangerous distinction, as he well understood, for a time would come, even opportunities would be created, when he would be called upon to defend it. That was the discomfort of a fighting name. It was a continual liability, bound sooner or later to draw upon a man to the full extent of his resources.</p> <p>This reputation lost nothing in the result of his first meeting with Berry Kerr, the rancher who wore his beard like a banker and passed for a gentleman in that country, where a gentleman was defined, at that time, as a man who didn't <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_149" id="Page_149">[Pg 149]</SPAN></span>swear. This meeting took place on the south line of the fence on a day when Lambert had been on the ranch a little more than a week.</p> <p>Kerr was out looking for strays, he said, although he seemed to overlook the joke that he made in neglecting to state from whose herd. Lambert gave him the benefit of the doubt and construed him to mean his own. He rode up to the fence, affable as a man who never had an evil intention in his life, and made inquiry concerning Lambert's connection with the ranch, making a pretense of not having heard that Vesta had hired new men.</p> <p>"Well, she needs a couple of good men that will stand by her steady," he said, with all the generosity of one who had her interests close to his heart. "She's a good girl, and she's been havin' a hard time of it. But if you want to do her the biggest favor that a man ever did do under circumstances of similar nature, persuade her to tear this fence out, all around, and throw the range open like it used to be. Then all this fool quarreling and shooting will stop, and everybody in here will be on good terms again. That's the best way out of it for her, <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_150" id="Page_150">[Pg 150]</SPAN></span>and it will be the best way out of it for you if you intend to stay here and run this ranch."</p> <p>While Kerr's manner seemed to be patriarchal and kindly advisory, there was a certain hardness beneath his words, a certain coldness in his eyes which made his proposal nothing short of a threat. It made all the resentful indignation which Lambert had mastered and chained down in himself rise up and bristle. He took it as a personal affront, as a threat against his own safety, and the answer that he gave to it was quick and to the point.</p> <p>"There'll never be a yard of this fence torn down on my advice, Mr. Kerr," he said. "You people around here will have to learn to give it a good deal more respect from now on than you have in the past. I'm going to teach this crowd around here to take off their hats when they come to a fence."</p> <p>Kerr was a slender, dry man, the native meanness of his crafty face largely masked by his beard, which was beginning to show streaks of gray in its brown. He was wearing a coat that day, although it was hot, and had no weapon in sight. He sat looking Lambert <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_151" id="Page_151">[Pg 151]</SPAN></span>straight in the eyes for a moment upon the delivery of this bill of intentions, his brows drawn a bit, a cast of concentrated hardness in his gray-blue eyes.</p> <p>"I'm afraid you've bit off more than you can chew, much less swallow, young man," he said. With that he rode away, knowing that he had failed in what he probably had some hope of accomplishing in his sly and unworthy way.</p> <p>Things went along quietly after that for a few weeks. Hargus did not attempt any retaliatory move; on the side of Kerr's ranch all was quiet. The Iowa boy, under Taterleg's tutelage, was developing into a trustworthy and capable hand, the cattle were fattening in the grassy valleys. All counted, it was the most peaceful spell that Philbrook's ranch ever had known, and the tranquility was reflected in the owner, and her house, and all within its walls.</p> <p>Lambert did not see much of Vesta in those first weeks of his employment, for he lived afield, close beside the fences which he guarded as his own honor. Taterleg had a great pride in the matter also. He cruised up and down his section with a long-range rifle across his saddle, <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_152" id="Page_152">[Pg 152]</SPAN></span>putting in more hours sometimes, he said, than there were in a day. Taterleg knew very well that slinking eyes were watching him from the covert of the sage-gray hills. Unceasing vigilance was the price of reputation in that place, and Taterleg was jealous of his.</p> <p>Lambert was beginning to grow restless under the urge of his spirit to continue his journey westward in quest of the girl who had left her favor in his hand. The romance of it, the improbability of ever finding her along the thousand miles between him and the sea, among the multitudes of women in the cities and hamlets along the way, appealed to him with a compelling lure.</p> <p>He had considered many schemes for getting trace of her, among the most favored being that of finding the brakeman who stood on the end of the train that day among those who watched him ride and overtake it, and learning from him to what point her ticket read. That was the simplest plan. But he knew that conductors and brakemen changed every few hundred miles, and that this plan might not lead to anything in the end. But it was too simple to put <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_153" id="Page_153">[Pg 153]</SPAN></span>by without trying; when he set out again this would be his first care.</p> <p>He smiled sometimes as he rode his lonely beat inside the fence and recalled the thrill that had animated him with the certainty that Vesta Philbrook would turn out to be <i>the</i> girl, <i>his</i> girl. The disappointment had been so keen that he had almost disliked Vesta that first day. She was a fine girl, modest and unaffected, honest as the middle of the day, but there was no appeal but the appeal of the weak to the strong from her to him. They were drawn into a common sympathy of determination; he had paused there to help her because she was outmatched, fighting a brave battle against unscrupulous forces. He was taking pay from her, and there could not be admitted any thought of romance under such conditions.</p> <p>But the girl whose challenge he had accepted at Misery that day was to be considered in a different light. There was a pledge between them, a bond. He believed that she was expecting him out there somewhere, waiting for him to come. Often he would halt on a hilltop and look away into the west, playing with a <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_154" id="Page_154">[Pg 154]</SPAN></span>thousand fancies as to whom she might be, and where.</p> <p>He was riding in one of these dreams one mid-afternoon of a hot day about six weeks after taking charge of affairs on the ranch, thinking that he would tell Vesta in a day or two that he must go. Taterleg might stay with her, other men could be hired if she would look about her. He wanted to get out of the business anyway; there was no offering for a man in it without capital. So he was thinking, his head bent, as he rode up a long slope of grassy hill. At the top he stopped to blow old Whetstone a little, turning in the saddle, running his eyes casually along the fence.</p> <p>He started, his dreams gone from him like a covey of frightened quail. The fence was cut. For a hundred yards or more along the hilltop it was cut at every post, making it impossible to piece.</p> <p>Lambert could not have felt his resentment burn any hotter if it had been his own fence. It was a fence under his charge; the defiance was directed at him. He rode along to see if any cattle had escaped, and drew his breath <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_155" id="Page_155">[Pg 155]</SPAN></span>again with relief when he found that none had passed.</p> <p>There was the track of but one horse; the fence-cutter had been alone, probably not more than an hour ahead of him. The job finished, he had gone boldly in the direction of Kerr's ranch, on whose side the depredation had been committed. Lambert followed the trail some distance. It led on toward Kerr's ranch, defiance in its very boldness. Kerr himself must have done that job.</p> <p>One man had little chance of stopping such assaults, now they had begun, on a front of twenty miles. But Lambert vowed that if he ever did have the good fortune to come up on one of these sneaks while he was at work, he'd fill his hide so full of lead they'd have to get a derrick to load him into a wagon.</p> <p>It didn't matter so much about the fence, so long as they didn't get any of the stock. But stragglers from the main herd would find a big gap like that in a few hours, and the rustlers lying in wait would hurry them away. One such loss as that and he would be a disgraced man in the eyes of Vesta Philbrook, and the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_156" id="Page_156">[Pg 156]</SPAN></span>laughing-stock of the rascals who put it through. He rode in search of the Iowa boy who was with the cattle, his job being to ride among them continually to keep them accustomed to a man on horseback. Luckily he found him before sundown and sent him for wire. Then he stood guard at the cut until the damage was repaired.</p> <p>After that fence-cutting became a regular prank on Kerr's side of the ranch. Watch as he might, Lambert could not prevent the stealthy excursions, the vindictive destruction of the hated barrier. All these breaches were made within a mile on either side of the first cut, sometimes in a single place, again along a stretch, as if the person using the nippers knew when to deliberate and when to hasten.</p> <p>Always there was the trace of but one rider, who never dismounted to cut even the bottom wire. That it was the work of the same person each time Lambert was convinced, for he always rode the same horse, as betrayed by a broken hind hoof.</p> <p>Lambert tried various expedients for trapping this skulker during a period of two weeks. He lay in wait by day and made stealthy <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_157" id="Page_157">[Pg 157]</SPAN></span>excursions by night, all to no avail. Whoever was doing it had some way of keeping informed on his movements with exasperating closeness.</p> <p>The matter of discovering and punishing the culprit devolved on Lambert alone. He could not withdraw Taterleg to help him; the other man could not be spared from the cattle. And now came the crowning insult of all.</p> <p>It was early morning, after an all-night watch along the three miles of fence where the wire-cutter always worked, when Lambert rode to the top of the ridge where the first breach in his line had been made. Below that point, not more than half a mile, he had stopped to boil his breakfast coffee. His first discovery on mounting the ridge was a panel of fence cut, his next a piece of white paper twisted to the end of one of the curling wires.</p> <p>This he disengaged and unfolded. It was a page torn from a medicine memorandum book such as cow-punchers usually carry their time in, and the addresses of friends.</p> <p class="cen"> <span style="margin-left: 1em;"><i>Why don't you come and get me, Mr. Duke?</i></span><br /> </p> <p>This was the message it bore.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_158" id="Page_158">[Pg 158]</SPAN></span>The writing was better, the spelling more exact than the output of the ordinary cow-puncher. Kerr himself, Lambert thought again. He stood with the taunting message in his fingers, looking toward the Kerr ranchhouse, some seven or eight miles to the south, and stood so quite a while, his eyes drawn small as if he looked into the wind.</p> <p>"All right; I'll take you up on that," he said.</p> <p>He rode slowly out through the gap, following the fresh trail. As before, it was made by the horse with the notch in its left hind hoof. It led to a hill three-quarters of a mile beyond the fence. From this point it struck a line for the distant ranchhouse.</p> <p>Lambert did not go beyond the hill. Dismounting, he stood surveying the country about him, struck for the first time by the view that this vantage-point afforded of the domain under his care. Especially the line of fence was plainly marked for a long distance on either side of the little ridge where the last cut had been made. Evidently the skulker concealed himself at this very point and watched his <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_159" id="Page_159">[Pg 159]</SPAN></span>opening, playing entirely safe. That accounted for all the cutting having been done by daylight, as he was sure had been the case.</p> <p>He looked about for trace of where the fellow had lain behind the fringe of sage, but the ground was so hard that it would not take a human footprint. As he looked he formulated a plan of his own. Half a mile or more beyond this hill, in the direction of the Kerr place, a small butte stood, its steep sides grassless, its flat top bare. That would be his watchtower from that day forward until he had his hand on this defiant rascal who had time, in his security, to stop and write a note.</p> <p>That night he scaled the little butte after mending the fence behind him, leaving his horse concealed among the huge blocks of rock at its foot. Next day, and the one following, he passed in the blazing sun, but nobody came to cut the fence. At night he went down, rode his horse to water, turned him to graze, and went back to his perch among the ants and lizards on top of the butte.</p> <p>The third day was cloudy and uneventful; on the fourth, a little before nine, just when the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_160" id="Page_160">[Pg 160]</SPAN></span>sun was squaring off to shrivel him in his skin, Lambert saw somebody coming from the direction of Kerr's ranch.</p> <p>The rider made straight for the hill below Lambert's butte, where he reined up before reaching the top, dismounted and went crawling to the fringe of sage at the farther rim of the bare summit. Lambert waited until the fellow mounted and rode toward the fence, then he slid down the shale, starting Whetstone from his doze.</p> <p>Lambert calculated that he was more than a mile from the fence. He wanted to get over there near enough to catch the fellow at work, so there would be full justification for what he intended to do.</p> <p>Whetstone stretched himself to the task, coming out of the broken ground and up the hill from which the fence-cutter had ridden but a few minutes before while the marauder was still a considerable distance from his objective. The man was riding slowly, as if saving his horse for a chance surprise.</p> <p>Lambert cut down the distance between them rapidly, and was not more than three hundred <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_161" id="Page_161">[Pg 161]</SPAN></span>yards behind when the fellow began snipping the wire with a pair of nippers that glittered in the sun.</p> <p>Lambert held his horse back, approaching with little noise. The fence-cutter was rising back to the saddle after cutting the bottom wire of the second panel when he saw that he was trapped.</p> <p>Plainly unnerved by this <i>coup</i> of the despised fence-guard, he sat clutching his reins as if calculating his chance of dashing past the man who blocked his retreat. Lambert slowed down, not more than fifty yards between them, waiting for the first move toward a gun. He wanted as much of the law on his side, even though there was no witness to it, as he could have, for the sake of his conscience and his peace.</p> <p>Just a moment the fence-cutter hesitated, making no movement to pull a gun, then he seemed to decide in a flash that he could not escape the way that he had come. He leaned low over his horse's neck, as if he expected Lambert to begin shooting, rode through the gap that he had cut in the fence, and galloped swiftly into the pasture.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_162" id="Page_162">[Pg 162]</SPAN></span>Lambert followed, sensing the scheme at a glance. The rascal intended to either ride across the pasture, hoping to outrun his pursuer in the three miles of up-and-down country, or turn when he had a safe lead and go back. As the chase led away, it became plain that the plan was to make a run for the farther fence, cut it and get away before Lambert could come up. That arrangement suited Lambert admirably; it would seem to give him all the law on his side that any man could ask.</p> <p>There was a scrubby growth of brush on the hillsides, and tall red willows along the streams, making a covert here and there for a horse. The fleeing man took advantage of every offering of this nature, as if he rode in constant fear of the bullet that he knew was his due. Added to this cunning, he was well mounted, his horse being almost equal in speed to Whetstone, it seemed, at the beginning of the race.</p> <p>Lambert pushed him as hard as he thought wise, conserving his horse for the advantage that he knew he would have while the fence-cutter stopped to make himself an outlet. The <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_163" id="Page_163">[Pg 163]</SPAN></span>fellow rode hard, unsparing of his quirt, jumping his long-legged horse over rocks and across ravines.</p> <p>It was in one of these leaps that Lambert saw something fall from the saddle holster. He found it to be the nippers with which the fence had been cut, lying in the bottom of the deep arroyo. He rode down and recovered the tool, in no hurry now, for he was quite certain that the fence-cutter would not have another. He would discover his loss when he came to the fence, and then, if he was not entirely the coward and sneak that his actions seemed to brand him, he would have recourse to another tool.</p> <p>It did not take them long to finish the three-mile race across the pasture, and it turned out in the end exactly as Lambert thought it would. When the fugitive came within a few rods of the fence he put his hand down to the holster for his nippers, discovering his loss. Then he looked back to see how closely he was pressed, which was very close indeed.</p> <p>Lambert felt that he did not want to be the aggressor, even on his own land, in spite of the determination he had reached for such a <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_164" id="Page_164">[Pg 164]</SPAN></span>contingency as this. He recalled what Vesta had said about the impossibility of securing a conviction for cutting a fence. Surely if a man could not be held responsible for this act in the courts of the country, it would fare hard with one who might kill him in the commission of the outrage. Let him draw first, and then&mdash;&mdash;</p> <p>The fellow rode at the fence as if he intended to try to jump it. His horse balked at the barrier, turned, raced along it, Lambert in close pursuit, coming alongside him as he was reaching to draw his pistol from the holster at his saddle bow. And in that instant, as the fleeing rider bent tugging at the gun which seemed to be strapped in the holster, Lambert saw that it was not a man.</p> <p>A strand of dark hair had fallen from under the white sombrero; it was dropping lower and lower as it uncoiled from its anchorage. Lambert pressed his horse forward a few feet, leaned far over and snatched away the hand that struggled to unbuckle the weapon.</p> <p>She turned on him, her face scarlet in its fury, their horses racing side by side, their stirrups clashing. Distorted as her features were <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_165" id="Page_165">[Pg 165]</SPAN></span>by anger and scorn at the touch of one so despised, Lambert felt his heart leap and fall, and seem to stand still in his bosom. It was not only a girl; it was <i>his</i> girl, the girl of the beckoning hand.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
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