Beelingo.com

English Audio Books

Duke of Chimney Butte, The

SPONSORED LINKS
<SPAN name="Page_238" id="Page_238">[Pg 238]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER XVI</h2> <h3>WHETSTONE COMES HOME</h3> <br /> <p>Lambert saw the fire leaping around him, but felt no sting of its touch, keyed as he was in that swift moment of adjustment. From a man as dead he was transformed in a breath back to a living, panting, hoping, struggling being, strong in the tenacious purpose of life. He leaned over his horse's neck, shouting encouragement, speaking endearments to it as to a woman in travail.</p> <p>There was silence on the bank behind him. Amazement over the leap that had carried Whetstone across the place which they had designed for the grave of both man and horse, held the four scoundrels breathless for a spell. Fascinated by the heroic animal's fight to draw himself clear of the fire which wrapped his hinder quarters, they forgot to shoot.</p> <p>A heave, a lurching struggle, a groan as if his heart burst in the terrific strain, and Whetstone <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_239" id="Page_239">[Pg 239]</SPAN></span>lunged up the bank, staggered from his knees, snorted the smoke out of his nostrils, gathered his feet under him, and was away like a bullet. The sound of shots broke from the bank across the fiery crevasse; bullets came so close to Lambert that he lay flat against his horse's neck.</p> <p>As the gallant creature ran, sensible of his responsibilities for his master's life, it seemed, Lambert spoke to him encouragingly, proud of the tremendous thing that he had done. There was no sound of pursuit, but the shooting had stopped. Lambert knew they would follow as quickly as they could ride round the field of fire.</p> <p>After going to this length, they could not allow him to escape. There would have been nothing to explain to any living man with him and all trace of him obliterated in the fire, but with him alive and fleeing, saved by the winged leap of his splendid horse, they would be called to answer, man by man.</p> <p>Whetstone did not appear to be badly hurt. He was stretching away like a hare, shaping his course toward the ranch as true as a pigeon. If they overtook him they would have to ride <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_240" id="Page_240">[Pg 240]</SPAN></span>harder than they ever rode in their profitless lives before.</p> <p>Lambert estimated the distance between the place where they had trapped him and the fire as fifteen miles. It must be nine or ten miles across to the Philbrook ranch, in the straightest line that a horse could follow, and from that point many miles more to the ranchhouse and release from his stifling ropes. The fence would be no security against his pursuing enemies, but it would look like the boundary of hope.</p> <p>Whether they lost so much time in getting around the fire that they missed him, or whether they gave it up after a trial of speed against Whetstone, Lambert never knew. He supposed that their belief was that neither man nor horse would live to come into the sight of men again. However it fell, they did not approach within hearing if they followed, and were not in sight as dawn broke and broadened into day.</p> <p>Whetstone made the fence without slackening his speed. There Lambert checked him with a word and looked back for his enemies. Finding that they were not near, he proceeded along the fence at easier gait, holding the animal's <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_241" id="Page_241">[Pg 241]</SPAN></span>strength for the final heat, if they should make a sudden appearance. Somewhere along that miserable ride, after daylight had broken and the pieced wire that Grace Kerr had cut had been passed, Lambert fell unconscious across the horn of his saddle from the drain of blood from his wounds and the unendurable pain of his bonds.</p> <p>In this manner the horse came bearing him home at sunrise. Taterleg was away on his beat, not uneasy over Lambert's absence. It was the exception for him to spend a night in the bunkhouse in that summer weather. So old Whetstone, jaded, scorched, bloody from his own and his master's wounds, was obliged to stand at the gate and whinny for help when he arrived.</p> <p>It was hours afterward that the fence rider opened his eyes and saw Vesta Philbrook, and closed them again, believing it was a delirium of his pain. Then Taterleg spoke on the other side of the bed, and he knew that he had come through his perils into gentle hands.</p> <p>"How're you feelin', old sport?" Taterleg inquired with anxious tenderness.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_242" id="Page_242">[Pg 242]</SPAN></span>Lambert turned his head toward the voice and grinned a little, in the teeth-baring, hard-pulling way of a man who has withstood a great deal more than the human body and mind ever were designed to undergo. He thought he spoke to Taterleg; the words shaped on his tongue, his throat moved. But there was such a roaring in his ears, like the sound of a train crossing a trestle, that he could not hear his own voice.</p> <p>"Sure," said Taterleg, hopefully, "you're all right, ain't you, old sport?"</p> <p>"Fine," said Lambert, hearing his voice small and dry, strange as the voice of a man to him unknown.</p> <p>Vesta put her arm under his head, lifted him a little, gave him a swallow of water. It helped, or something helped. Perhaps it was the sympathetic tenderness of her good, honest eyes. He paid her with another little grin, which hurt her more to see than him to give, wrenched even though it was from the bottom of his soul.</p> <p>"How's old Whetstone?" he asked, his voice coming clearer.</p> <p>"He's all right," she told him.</p> <p>"His tail's burnt off of him, mostly, and he's <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_243" id="Page_243">[Pg 243]</SPAN></span>cut in the hams in a couple of places, but he ain't hurt any, as I can see," Taterleg said, with more truth than diplomacy.</p> <p>Lambert struggled to his elbow, the consciousness of what seemed his ingratitude to this dumb savior of his life smiting him with shame.</p> <p>"I must go and attend to him," he said.</p> <p>Vesta and Taterleg laid hands on him at once.</p> <p>"You'll bust them stitches I took in your back if you don't keep still, young feller," Taterleg warned. "Whetstone ain't as bad off as you, nor half as bad."</p> <p>Lambert noticed then that his hands were wrapped in wet towels.</p> <p>"Burned?" he inquired, lifting his eyes to Vesta's face.</p> <p>"No, just swollen and inflamed. They'll be all right in a little while."</p> <p>"I blundered into their hands like a blind kitten," said he, reproachfully.</p> <p>"They'll eat lead for it!" said Taterleg.</p> <p>"It was Kerr and that gang," Lambert explained, not wanting to leave any doubt behind if he should have to go.</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_244" id="Page_244">[Pg 244]</SPAN></span>"You can tell us after a while," she said, with compassionate tenderness.</p> <p>"Sure," said Taterleg, cheerfully, "you lay back there and take it easy. I'll keep my eye on things."</p> <p>That evening, when the pain had eased out of his head, Lambert told Vesta what he had gone through, sparing nothing of the curiosity that had led him, like a calf, into their hands. He passed briefly over their attempt to herd him into the fire, except to give Whetstone the hero's part, as he so well deserved.</p> <p>Vesta sat beside him, hearing him to the end of the brief recital that he made of it in silence, her face white, her figure erect. When he finished she laid her hand on his forehead, as if in tribute to the manhood that had borne him through such inhuman torture, and the loyalty that had been the cause of its visitation. Then she went to the window, where she stood a long time looking over the sad sweep of broken country, the fringe of twilight on it in somber shadow.</p> <p>It was not so dark when she returned to her place at his bedside, but he could see that she <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_245" id="Page_245">[Pg 245]</SPAN></span>had been weeping in the silent pain that rises like a poison distillation from the heart.</p> <p>"It draws the best into it and breaks them," she said in great bitterness, speaking as to herself. "It isn't worth the price!"</p> <p>"Never mind it, Vesta," he soothed, putting out his hand. She took it between her own, and held it, and a great comfort came to him in her touch.</p> <p>"I'm going to sell the cattle as fast as I can move them, and give it up, Duke," she said, calling him by that name with the easy unconsciousness of a familiar habit, although she never had addressed him so before.</p> <p>"You're not going away from here whipped, Vesta," he said with a firmness that gave new hope and courage to her sad heart. "I'll be out of this in a day or two, then we'll see about it&mdash;about several things. You're not going to leave this country whipped; neither am I."</p> <p>She sat in meditation, her face to the window, presenting the soft turn of her cheek and chin to Lambert's view. She was too fine and good for that country, he thought, too good for the best that it ever could offer or give, no <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_246" id="Page_246">[Pg 246]</SPAN></span>matter how generously the future might atone for the hardships of the past. It would be better for her to leave it, he wanted her to leave it, but not with her handsome head bowed in defeat.</p> <p>"I think if you were to sift the earth and screen out its meanest, they wouldn't be a match for the people around here," she said. "There wouldn't be a bit of use taking this outrage up with the authorities; Kerr and his gang would say it was a joke, and get away with it, too."</p> <p>"I wouldn't go squealing to the county authorities, Vesta, even if I knew I'd get results. This is something a man has to square for himself. Maybe they intended it for a joke, too, but it was a little rougher than I'm used to."</p> <p>"There's no doubt what their intention was. You can understand my feelings toward them now, Duke; maybe I'll not seem such a savage."</p> <p>"I've got a case with you against them all, Vesta."</p> <p>He made no mental reservation as he spoke; there was no pleading for exception in Grace Kerr's dark eyes that he could grant. Long as he had nestled the romance between them in his breast, long as he had looked into the West <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_247" id="Page_247">[Pg 247]</SPAN></span>and sent his dream out after her, he could not, in this sore hour, forgive her the taint of her blood.</p> <p>He felt that all tenderness in him toward any of her name was dead. It had been a pretty fancy to hold, that thought of finding her, but she was only swamp-fire that had lured him to the door of hell. Still the marvel of his meeting her, the violet scent of his old dream, lingered sweetly with him like the perfume that remains after a beautiful woman whose presence has illuminated a room. So hard does romance die.</p> <p>"I think I'll have to break my word to you and buckle on my gun again for a little while," she said. "Mr. Wilson can't ride the fence alone, capable and willing as he is, and ready to go day and night."</p> <p>"Leave it to him till I'm out again, Vesta; that will only be a day or two&mdash;&mdash;"</p> <p>"A day or two! Three or four weeks, if you do well."</p> <p>"No, not that long, not anything like that long," he denied with certainty. "They didn't hurt me very much."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_248" id="Page_248">[Pg 248]</SPAN></span>"Well, if they didn't hurt you much they damaged you considerably."</p> <p>He grinned over the serious distinction that she made between the words. Then he thought, pleasantly, that Vesta's voice seemed fitted to her lips like the tone of some beautiful instrument. It was even and soft, slow and soothing, as her manner was deliberate and well calculated, her presence a comfort to the eye and the mind alike.</p> <p>An exceptional combination of a girl, he reflected, speculating on what sort of man would marry her. Whoever he was, whatever he might be, he would be only secondary to her all through the compact. That chap would come walking a little way behind her all the time, with a contented eye and a certain pride in his situation. It was a diverting fancy as he lay there in the darkening room, Vesta coming down the years a strong, handsome, proud figure in the foreground, that man just far enough behind her to give the impression as he passed that he belonged to her <i>entourage</i>, but never quite overtaking her.</p> <p>Even so, the world might well envy the man <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_249" id="Page_249">[Pg 249]</SPAN></span>his position. Still, if a man should happen along who could take the lead&mdash;but Vesta wouldn't have him; she wouldn't surrender. It might cost her pain to go her way with her pretty head up, her eyes on the road far beyond, but she would go alone and hide her pain rather than surrender. That would be Vesta Philbrook's way.</p> <p>Myrtle, the negro woman, came in with chicken broth. Vesta made a light for him to sup by, protesting when he would sit up to help himself, the spoon impalpable in his numb fingers, still swollen and purple from the long constriction of his bonds.</p> <p>Next morning Vesta came in arrayed in her riding habit, her sombrero on, as she had appeared the first time he saw her. Only she was so much lovelier now, with the light of friendship and tender concern in her face, that he was gladdened by her presence in the door. It was as of a sudden burst of music, or the voice of someone for whom the heart is sick.</p> <p>He was perfectly fine, he told her, although he was as sore as a burn. In about two days he would be in the saddle again; she didn't <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_250" id="Page_250">[Pg 250]</SPAN></span>need to bother about riding fence, it would be all right, he knew. His declaration didn't carry assurance. He could see that by the changing cast of her face, as sensitive as still water to a breathing wind.</p> <p>She was wearing her pistol, and appeared very competent with it on her hip, and very high-bred and above that station of contention and strife. He was troubled not a little at sight of her thus prepared to take up the battles which she had renounced and surrendered into his hands only yesterday. She must have read it in his eyes.</p> <p>"I'm only going to watch the fence and repair it to keep the cattle in if they cut it," she said. "I'll not take the offensive, even if I see her&mdash;them cutting it; I'll only act on the defensive, in any case. I promise you that, Duke."</p> <p>She left him with that promise, before he could commend her on the wisdom of her resolution, or set her right on the matter of Grace Kerr. From the way Vesta spoke, a man would think she believed he had some tender feeling for that wild girl, and the idea of it was so <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_251" id="Page_251">[Pg 251]</SPAN></span>preposterous that he felt his face grow hot.</p> <p>He was uneasy for Vesta that day, in spite of her promise to avoid trouble, and fretted a good deal over his incapacitated state. His shoulder burned where Tom Hargus' knife had scraped the bone, his wounded back was stiff.</p> <p>Without this bodily suffering he would have been miserable, for he had the sweat of his humiliation to wallow in, the black cloud of his contemplated vengeance across his mind in ever-deepening shadow. On his day of reckoning he cogitated long, planning how he was to bring it about. The law would not justify him in going out to seek these men and shooting them down where overtaken. Time and circumstance must be ready to his hand before he could strike and wipe out that disgraceful score.</p> <p>It was not to be believed that they would allow the matter to stand where it was; that was a comforting thought. They would seek occasion to renew the trouble, and push it to their desired conclusion. That was the day to which he looked forward in hot eagerness. Never again would he be taken like a rabbit in a trap. He <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_252" id="Page_252">[Pg 252]</SPAN></span>felt that, to stand clear before the law, he would have to wait for them to push their fight on him, but he vowed they never would find him unprepared, asleep or awake, under roof or under sky.</p> <p>He would get Taterleg to oil up a pair of pistols from among the number around the bunkhouse and leave them with him that night. There was satisfaction in the anticipation of these preparations. Dwelling on them he fell asleep. He woke late in the afternoon, when the sun was yellow on the wall, the shadow of the cottonwood leaves quivering like dragonflies' wings.</p> <p>On the little table beside his bed, near his glass, a bit of white paper lay. He looked at it curiously. It bore writing in ink and marks as of a pin.</p> <p class="cen"> <span style="margin-left: 1em;"><i>Just to say hello, Duke.</i></span><br /> </p> <p>That was the message, unsigned, folded as it had been pinned to the wire. Vesta had brought it and left it there while he slept.</p> <p>He drew himself up with stiff carefulness and read it again, holding it in his fingers then <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_253" id="Page_253">[Pg 253]</SPAN></span>and gazing in abstraction out of the window, through which he could pick up the landscape across the river, missing the brink of the mesa entirely.</p> <p>A softness, as of the rebirth of his old romance, swept him, submerging the bitter thoughts and vengeful plans which had been his but a few hours before, the lees of which were still heavy in him. This little piece of writing proved that Grace was innocent of anything that had befallen him. In the friendly good-will of her heart she thought him, as she doubtless wished him, unharmed and well.</p> <p>There was something in that girl better than her connections would seem to guarantee; she was not intractable, she was not beyond the influence of generosity, nor deaf to the argument of honor. It would be unfair to hold her birth and relationship against her. Nobility had sprung out of baseness many times in the painful history of human progress. If she was vengeful and vindictive, it was what the country had made her. She should not be judged for this in measure harsher than Vesta Philbrook should be judged. The acts of both <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_254" id="Page_254">[Pg 254]</SPAN></span>were controlled by what they believed to be the right.</p> <p>Perhaps, and who knows, and why not? So, a train of dreams starting and blowing from him, like smoke from a censer, perfumed smoke, purging the place of demons which confuse the lines of men's and women's lives and set them counter where they should go in amity, warm hand in warm hand, side by side.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
SPONSORED LINKS