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Duke of Chimney Butte, The

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<SPAN name="Page_289" id="Page_289">[Pg 289]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER XX</h2> <h3>BUSINESS, AND MORE</h3> <br /> <p>"You stand out like an Indian water monument up here," she said reprovingly, as she came scrambling up, taking the hand that he hastened forward to offer and boost her over the last sharp face of crumbling shale.</p> <p>"I expect Hargus could pick me off from below there anywhere, but I didn't think of that," he said.</p> <p>"It wouldn't be above him," seriously, discounting the light way in which he spoke of it; "he's done things just as cowardly, and so have others you've met."</p> <p>"I haven't got much opinion of the valor of men who hunt in packs, Vesta. Some of them might be skulking around, glad to take a shot at us. Don't you think we'd better go down?"</p> <p>"We can sit over there and be off the sky-line. It's always the safe thing to do around here."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_290" id="Page_290">[Pg 290]</SPAN></span>She indicated a point where an inequality in the hill would be above their heads sitting, and there they composed themselves&mdash;the sheltering swell of hilltop at their backs.</p> <p>"It's not a very complimentary reflection on a civilized community that one has to take such a precaution, but it's necessary, Duke."</p> <p>"It's enough to make you want to leave it, Vesta. It's bad enough to have to dodge danger in a city, but out here, with all this lonesomeness around you, it's worse."</p> <p>"Do you feel it lonesome here?" She asked it with a curious soft slowness, a speculative detachment, as if she only half thought of what she said.</p> <p>"I'm never lonesome where I can see the sun rise and set. There's a lot of company in cattle, more than in any amount of people you don't know."</p> <p>"I find it the same way, Duke. I never was so lonesome as when I was away from here at school."</p> <p>"Everybody feels that way about home, I guess. But I thought maybe you'd like it better away among people like yourself."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_291" id="Page_291">[Pg 291]</SPAN></span>"No. If it wasn't for this endless straining and watching, quarreling and contending, I wouldn't change this for any place in the world. On nights like this, when it whispers in a thousand inaudible voices, and beckons and holds one close, I feel that I never can go away. There's a call in it that is so subtle and tender, so full of sympathy, that I answer it with tears."</p> <p>"I wish things could be cleared up so you could live here in peace and enjoy it, but I don't know how it's going to come out. It looks to me like I've made it worse."</p> <p>"It was wrong of me to draw you into it, Duke; I should have let you go your way."</p> <p>"There's no regrets on my side, Vesta. I guess it was planned for me to come this far and stop."</p> <p>"They'll never rest till they've drawn you into a quarrel that will give them an excuse for killing you, Duke. They're doubly sure to do it since you got away from them that night. I shouldn't have stopped you; I should have let you go on that day."</p> <p>"I had to stop somewhere, Vesta," he <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_292" id="Page_292">[Pg 292]</SPAN></span>laughed. "Anyway, I've found here what I started out to find. This was the end of my road."</p> <p>"What you started to find, Duke?"</p> <p>"A man-sized job, I guess." He laughed again, but with a colorless artificiality, sweating over the habit of solitude that leads a man into thinking aloud.</p> <p>"You've found it, all right, Duke, and you're filling it. That's some satisfaction to you, I know. But it's a man-using job, a life-wasting job," she said sadly.</p> <p>"I've only got myself to blame for anything that's happened to me here, Vesta. It's not the fault of the job."</p> <p>"Well, if you'll stay with me till I sell the cattle, Duke, I'll think of you as the next best friend I ever had."</p> <p>"I've got no intention of leaving you, Vesta."</p> <p>"Thank you, Duke."</p> <p>Lambert sat turning over in his mind something that he wanted to say to her, but which he could not yet shape to his tongue. She was looking in the direction of the light that he had <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_293" id="Page_293">[Pg 293]</SPAN></span>been watching, a gleam of which showed faintly now and then, as if between moving boughs.</p> <p>"I don't like the notion of your leaving this country whipped, Vesta," he said, coming to it at last.</p> <p>"I don't like to leave it whipped, Duke."</p> <p>"That's the way they'll look at it if you go."</p> <p>Silence again, both watching the far-distant, twinkling light.</p> <p>"I laid out the job for myself of bringing these outlaws around here up to your fence with their hats in their hands, and I hate to give it up before I've made good on my word."</p> <p>"Let it go, Duke; it isn't worth the fight."</p> <p>"A man's word is either good for all he intends it to be, or worth no more than the lowest scoundrel's, Vesta. If I don't put up works to equal what I've promised, I'll have to sneak out of this country between two suns."</p> <p>"I threw off too much on the shoulders of a willing and gallant stranger," she sighed. "Let it go, Duke; I've made up my mind to sell out and leave."</p> <p>He made no immediate return to this declaration, but after a while he said:</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_294" id="Page_294">[Pg 294]</SPAN></span>"This will be a mighty bleak spot with the house abandoned and dark on winter nights and no stock around the barns."</p> <p>"Yes, Duke."</p> <p>"There's no place so lonesome as one where somebody's lived, and put his hopes and ambitions into it, and gone away and left it empty. I can hear the winter wind cuttin' around the house down yonder, mournin' like a widow woman in the night."</p> <p>A sob broke from her, a sudden, sharp, struggling expression of her sorrow for the desolation that he pictured in his simple words. She bent her head into her hands and cried. Lambert was sorry for the pain that he had unwittingly stirred in her breast, but glad in a glowing tenderness to see that she had this human strain so near the surface that it could be touched by a sentiment so common, and yet so precious, as the love of home. He laid his hand on her head, stroking her soft, wavy hair.</p> <p>"Never mind, Vesta," he petted, as if comforting a child. "Maybe we can fix things up here so there'll be somebody to take care of it. Never mind&mdash;don't you grieve and cry."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_295" id="Page_295">[Pg 295]</SPAN></span>"It's home&mdash;the only home I ever knew. There's no place in the world that can be to me what it has been, and is."</p> <p>"That's so, that's so. I remember, I know. The wind don't blow as soft, the sun don't shine as bright, anywhere else as it does at home. It's been a good while since I had one, and it wasn't much to see, but I've got the recollection of it by me always&mdash;I can see every log in the walls."</p> <p>He felt her shiver with the sobs she struggled to repress as his hand rested on her hair. His heart went out to her in a surge of tenderness when he thought of all she had staked in that land&mdash;her youth and the promise of life&mdash;of all she had seen planned in hope, built in expectation, and all that lay buried now on the bleak mesa marked by two white stones.</p> <p>And he caressed her with gentle hand, looking away the while at the spark of light that came and went, came and went, as if through blowing leaves. So it flashed and fell, flashed and fell, like a slow, slow pulse, and died out, as a spark in tinder dies, leaving the far night blank.</p> <p>Vesta sat up, pushed her hair back from her <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_296" id="Page_296">[Pg 296]</SPAN></span>forehead, her white hand lingering there. He touched it, pressed it comfortingly.</p> <p>"But I'll have to go," she said, calm in voice, "to end this trouble and strife."</p> <p>"I've been wondering, since I'm kind of pledged to clean things up here, whether you'd consider a business proposal from me in regard to taking charge of the ranch for you while you're gone, Vesta."</p> <p>She looked up with a quick start of eagerness.</p> <p>"You mean I oughtn't sell the cattle, Duke?"</p> <p>"Yes, I think you ought to clean them out. The bulk of them are in as high condition as they'll ever be, and the market's better right now that it's been in years."</p> <p>"Well, what sort of a proposal were you going to make, Duke?"</p> <p>"Sheep."</p> <p>"Father used to consider turning around to sheep. The country would come to it, he said."</p> <p>"Coming to it more and more every day. The sheep business is the big future thing in here. Inside of five years everybody will be in <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_297" id="Page_297">[Pg 297]</SPAN></span>the sheep business, and that will mean the end of these rustler camps that go under the name of cattle ranches."</p> <p>"I'm willing to consider sheep, Duke. Go ahead with the plan."</p> <p>"There's twice the money in them, and not half the expense. One man can take care of two or three thousand, and you can get sheepherders any day. There can't be any possible objection to them inside your own fence, and you've got range for ten or fifteen thousand. I'd suggest about a thousand to begin with, though."</p> <p>"I'd do it in a minute, Duke&mdash;I'll do it whenever you say the word. Then I could leave Ananias and Myrtle here, and I could come back in the summer for a little while, maybe."</p> <p>She spoke with such eagerness, such appeal of loneliness, that he knew it would break her heart ever to go at all. So there on the hilltop they planned and agreed on the change from cattle to sheep, Lambert to have half the increase, according to the custom, with herder's wages for two years. She would have been more generous in the matter of pay, but that <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_298" id="Page_298">[Pg 298]</SPAN></span>was the basis upon which he had made his plans, and he would admit no change.</p> <p>Vesta was as enthusiastic over it as a child, all eagerness to begin, seeing in the change a promise of the peace for which she had so ardently longed. She appeared to have come suddenly from under a cloud of oppression and to sparkle in the sun of this new hope. It was only when they came to parting at the porch that the ghost of her old trouble came to take its place at her side again.</p> <p>"Has she cut the fence lately over there, Duke?" she asked.</p> <p>"Not since I caught her at it. I don't think she'll do it again."</p> <p>"Did she promise you she wouldn't cut it, Duke?"</p> <p>She did not look at him as she spoke, but stood with her face averted, as if she would avoid prying into his secret too directly. Her voice was low, a note of weary sadness in it that seemed a confession of the uselessness of turning her back upon the strife that she would forget.</p> <p>"No, she didn't promise."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_299" id="Page_299">[Pg 299]</SPAN></span>"If she doesn't cut the fence she'll plan to hurt me in some other way. It isn't in her to be honest; she couldn't be honest if she tried."</p> <p>"I don't like to condemn anybody without a trial, Vesta. Maybe she's changed."</p> <p>"You can't change a rattlesnake. You seem to forget that she's a Kerr."</p> <p>"Even at that, she might be different from the rest."</p> <p>"She never has been. You've had a taste of the Kerr methods, but you're not satisfied yet that they're absolutely base and dishonorable in every thought and deed. You'll find it out to your cost, Duke, if you let that girl lead you. She's a will-o'-the-wisp sent to lure you from the trail."</p> <p>Lambert laughed a bit foolishly, as a man does when the intuition of a woman uncovers the thing that he prided himself was so skilfully concealed that mortal eyes could not find it. Vesta was reading through him like a piece of greased parchment before a lamp.</p> <p>"I guess it will all come out right," he said weakly.</p> <p>"You'll meet Kerr one of these days with <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_300" id="Page_300">[Pg 300]</SPAN></span>your old score between you, and he'll kill you or you'll kill him. She knows it as well as I do. Do you suppose she can be sincere with you and keep this thing covered up in her heart? You seem to have forgotten what she remembers and plots on every minute of her life."</p> <p>"I don't think she knows anything about what happened to me that night, Vesta."</p> <p>"She knows all about it," said Vesta coldly.</p> <p>"I don't know her very well, of course; I've only passed a few words with her," he excused.</p> <p>"And a few notes hung on the fence!" she said, not able to hide her scorn. "She's gone away laughing at you every time."</p> <p>"I thought maybe peace and quiet could be established through her if she could be made to see things in a civilized way."</p> <p>Vesta made no rejoinder at once. She put her foot on the step as if to leave him, withdrew it, faced him gravely.</p> <p>"It's nothing to me, Duke, only I don't want to see her lead you into another fire. Keep your eyes open and your hand close to your gun when you're visiting with her."</p> <p>She left him with that advice, given so <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_301" id="Page_301">[Pg 301]</SPAN></span>gravely and honestly that it amounted to more than a warning. He felt that there was something more for him to say to make his position clear, but could not marshal his words. Vesta entered the house without looking back to where he stood, hat in hand, the moonlight in his fair hair.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
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