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Duke of Chimney Butte, The

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<SPAN name="Page_320" id="Page_320">[Pg 320]</SPAN></span> <br /> <hr /> <br /> <h2>CHAPTER XXII</h2> <h3>THE WILL-O'-THE-WISP</h3> <br /> <p>The Kerr ranch buildings were more than a mile away from the point where Lambert and the sheriff halted to look down on them. The ranchhouse was a structure of logs from which the bark had been stripped, and which had weathered white as bones. It was long and low, suggesting spaciousness and comfort, and enclosed about by a white picket fence.</p> <p>A winding trace of trees and brushwood marked the course of the stream that ran behind it. On the brink of this little water, where it flashed free of the tangled willows, there was a corral and stables, but no sign of either animal or human life about the place.</p> <p>"He may be out with the cattle," Lambert suggested.</p> <p>"We'll wait for him to come back, if he is. He's sure to be home between now and tomorrow."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_321" id="Page_321">[Pg 321]</SPAN></span>So that was her home, that was the roof that had sheltered her while she grew in her loveliness. The soft call of his romance came whispering to him again. Surely there was no attainder of blood to rise up against her and make her unclean; he would have sworn that moment, if put to the test, that she was innocent of any knowing attempt to involve him to his disgrace. The gate of the world stood open to them to go away from that harsh land and forget all that had gone before, as the gate of his heart was open for all the love that it contained to rush out and embrace her, and purge her of the unfortunate accident of her birth.</p> <p>After this, poor child, she would need a friend, as never before, with only her step-mother, as she had told him, in the world to befriend her. A man's hand, a man's heart&mdash;&mdash;</p> <p>"I'll take the front door," said the sheriff. "You watch the back."</p> <p>Lambert came out of his softening dream, down to the hard facts in the case before him with a jolt. They were within half a mile of the house, approaching it from the front. He saw that it was built in the shape of an L, the base <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_322" id="Page_322">[Pg 322]</SPAN></span>of the letter to the left of them, shutting off a view of the angle.</p> <p>"He may see us in time to duck," the sheriff said, "and you can bank on it he's got a horse saddled around there at the back door. If he comes your way, don't fool with him; let him have it where he lives."</p> <p>They had not closed up half the distance between them and the house when two horsemen rode suddenly round the corner of the L and through the wide gate in the picket fence. Outside the fence they separated with the suddenness of a preconcerted plan, darting away in opposite directions. Each wore a white hat, and from that distance they appeared as much alike in size and bearing as a man and his reflection.</p> <p>The sheriff swore a surprised oath at sight of them, and their cunning plan to confuse and divide the pursuing force.</p> <p>"Which one of 'em's Kerr?" he shouted as he leaned in his saddle, urging his horse on for all that it could do.</p> <p>"I don't know," Lambert returned.</p> <p>"I'll chance this one," said the sheriff, pointing. "Take the other feller."</p> <p><span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_323" id="Page_323">[Pg 323]</SPAN></span>Lambert knew that one of them was Grace Kerr. That he could not tell which, he upbraided himself, not willing that she should be subjected to the indignity of pursuit. It was a clever trick, but the preparation for it and the readiness with which it was put into play seemed to reflect a doubt of her entire innocence in her father's dishonest transactions. Still, it was no more than natural that she should bend every faculty to the assistance of her father in escaping the penalty of his crimes. He would do it himself under like conditions; the unnatural would be the other course.</p> <p>These things he thought as he rode into the setting sun in pursuit of the fugitive designated by the sheriff. Whetstone was fresh and eager after his long rest, in spite of the twelve or fifteen miles which he had covered already between the two ranches. Lambert held him in, doubtful whether he would be able to overtake the fleeing rider before dark with the advantage of distance and a fresh horse that he or she had.</p> <p>If Kerr rode ahead of him, then he must be overtaken before night gave him sanctuary; if Grace, it was only necessary to come close <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_324" id="Page_324">[Pg 324]</SPAN></span>enough to her to make sure, then let her go her way untroubled. He held the distance pretty well between them till sundown, when he felt the time had come to close in and settle the doubt. Whetstone was still mainly in reserve, tireless, deep-winded creature that he was.</p> <p>Lambert leaned over his neck, caressed him, spoke into the ear that tipped watchfully back. They were in fairly smooth country, stretches of thin grasslands and broken barrens, but beyond them, a few miles, the hills rose, treeless and dun, offering refuge for the one who fled. Pursuit there would be difficult by day, impossible by night.</p> <p>Whetstone quickened at his master's encouragement, pushing the race hard for the one who led, cutting down the distance so rapidly that it seemed the other must be purposely delaying. Half an hour more of daylight and it would be over.</p> <p>The rider in the lead had driven his or her horse too hard in the beginning, leaving no recovery of wind. Lambert remarked its weariness as it took the next hill, laboring on in short, stiff jumps. At the top the rider held in, as if <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_325" id="Page_325">[Pg 325]</SPAN></span>to let the animal blow. It stood with nose close to the ground, weariness in every line.</p> <p>The sky was bright beyond horse and rider, cut sharply by the line of the hill. Against it the picture stood, black as a shadow, but with an unmistakable pose in the rider that made Lambert's heart jump and grow glad.</p> <p>It was Grace; chance had been kind to him again, leading him in the way his heart would have gone if it had been given the choice. She looked back, turning with a hand on the cantle of her saddle. He waved his hand, to assure her, but she did not seem to read the friendly signal, for she rode on again, disappearing over the hill before he reached the crest.</p> <p>He plunged down after her, not sparing his horse where he should have spared him, urging him on when they struck the level again. There was no thought in him of Whetstone now&mdash;only of Grace.</p> <p>He must overtake her in the quickest possible time, and convince her of his friendly sympathy; he must console and comfort her in this hour of her need. Brave little thing, to draw him off that way, to keep on running into the <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_326" id="Page_326">[Pg 326]</SPAN></span>very edge of night, that wild country ahead of her, for fear he would come close enough to recognize her and turn back to help the sheriff on the true trail. That's what was in her mind; she thought he hadn't recognized her, and was still fleeing to draw him as far away as possible by dark. When he could come within shouting distance of her, he could make his intention plain. To that end he pushed on. Her horse had shown a fresh impulse of speed, carrying her a little farther ahead. They were drawing close to the hills now, with a growth of harsh and thorny brushwood in the low places along the runlets of dry streams.</p> <p>Poor little bird, fleeing from him, luring him on like a trembling quail that flutters before one's feet in the wheat to draw him away from her nest. She didn't know the compassion of his heart, the tenderness in which it strained to her over the intervening space. He forgot all, he forgave all, in the soft pleading of romance which came back to him like a well-loved melody.</p> <p>He fretted that dusk was falling so fast. In the little strips of valley, growing narrower as <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_327" id="Page_327">[Pg 327]</SPAN></span>he proceeded between the abrupt hills, it was so nearly dark already that she appeared only dimly ahead of him, urging her horse on with unsparing hand. It seemed that she must have some objective ahead of her, some refuge which she strained to make, some help that she hoped to summon.</p> <p>He wondered if it might be the cow-camp, and felt a cold indraft on the hot tenderness of his heart for a moment. But, no; it could not be the cow-camp. There was no sign that grazing herds had been there lately. She was running because she was afraid to have him overtake her in the dusk, running to prolong the race until she could elude him in the dark, afraid of him, who loved her so!</p> <p>They were entering the desolation of the hills. On the sides of the thin strip of valley, down which he pursued her, there were great, dark rocks, as big as cottages along a village street. He shouted, calling her name, fearful that he should lose her in this broken country in the fast-deepening night. Although she was not more than two hundred yards ahead of him now, she did not seem to hear. In a moment she <span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_328" id="Page_328">[Pg 328]</SPAN></span>turned the base of a great rock, and there he lost her.</p> <p>The valley split a few rods beyond that point, broadening a little, still set with its fantastic black monuments of splintered rock. It was impossible to see among them in either direction as far as Grace had been in the lead when she passed out of his sight. He pulled up and shouted again, an appeal of tender concern in her name. There was no reply, no sound of her fleeing horse.</p> <p>He leaned to look at the ground for tracks. No trace of her passing on the hard earth with its mangy growth of grass. On a little way, stopping to call her once more. His voice went echoing in that quiet place, but there was no reply.</p> <p>He turned back, thinking she must have gone down the other branch of the valley. Whetstone came to a sudden stop, lifted his head with a jerk, his ears set forward, snorting an alarm. Quick on his action there came a shot, close at hand. Whetstone started with a quivering bound, stumbled to his knees, struggled to rise, then floundered with piteous groans.</p> <br /> <br /> <br /><span class='pagenum'>
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