Chapter 7. Rowdy in a Tough Place.
 

Rowdy, with nice calculation, met Miss Conroy just as she had left the school-house, and noted with much satisfaction that she was riding alone. Miss Conroy, if she had been at all observant, must have seen the light of some fixed purpose shining in his eyes; for Rowdy was resolved to make her a partner in his dreams of matters domestic. And, of a truth, his easy assurance was the thinnest of cloaks to hide his inner agitation.

"The round-up just got in yesterday afternoon," he told her, as he swung into the trail beside her. "We're going to start out again to-morrow, so this is about the only chance I'll have to see you for a while."

"I knew the round-up must be in," said Miss Conroy calmly. "I heard that you were in Camas a night or two ago."

Inwardly, Rowdy dodged. "We camped close to Camas," he conceded guardedly. "A lot of us fellows rode into town."

"Yes, so Harry told me," she said. "He came over to see me yesterday. He is going to leave--has already, in fact. He has had a fine position offered him by the Indian agent at Belknap. The agent used to be a friend of father's." She looked at Rowdy sidelong, and then went straight at what was in the minds of both.

"I'm sorry to hear, Mr. Vaughan, that you are on bad terms with Harry. What was the trouble?" She turned her head and smiled at him--but the smile did not bring his lips to answer; it was unpleasantly like the way Harry smiled when he had some deviltry in mind.

Rowdy scented trouble and parried. "Men can't always get along agreeably together."

"And you disagree with a man rather emphatically, I should judge. Harry said you knocked him down." Politeness ruled her voice, but cheeks and eyes were aflame.

"I did. And of course he told you how he took a shot at me from a dark corner, outside." Rowdy's eyes, it would seem, had kindled from the fire in hers.

"No, he didn't--but I--you struck him first."

"Hitting a man with your fist is one thing," said Rowdy with decision. "Shooting at him from ambush is another."

"Harry shouldn't have done that," she admitted with dignity. "But why wouldn't you take a drink with him? Not that I approve of drinking--I wish Harry wouldn't do such things--but he said it was an insult the way you refused."

"Jessie--"

"Miss Conroy, please."

"Jessie"--he repeated the name stubbornly--"I think we'd better drop that subject. You don't understand the case; and, anyway, I didn't come here to discuss Harry. Our trouble is long standing, and if I insulted him you ought to know I had a reason. I never came whining to you about him, and it don't speak well for him that he hot-footed over to you with his version. I suppose he'd heard about me--er--going to see you, and wanted to queer me. I hope you'll take my word for it, Jessie, that I've never harmed him; all the trouble he's made for himself, one way and another.

"But what I came over for to-day concerns just you and me. I wanted to tell you that--to ask you if you'll marry me. I might put it more artistic, Jessie, but that's what I mean, and--I mean all the things I'd like to say and can't." He stopped and smiled at her, wistfully whimsical. "I've been three weeks getting my feelings into proper words, little girl, and coming over here I had a speech thought out that sure done justice to my subject. But all I can remember of it is just that--that I want you for always."

Miss Conroy looked away from him, but he could see a deeper tint of red in her cheek. It seemed a long time before she said anything. Then: "But you've forgotten about Harry. He's my brother, and he'd be--er--you wouldn't want him related-- to you."

"Harry! Well, I pass him up. I've got a pretty long account against him; but I'll cross it off. It won't be hard to do--for you. I've thought of all that; and a man can forgive a whole lot in the brother of the woman he loves." He leaned toward her and added honestly: "I can't promise you I'll ever get to like him, Jessie; but I'll keep my hands off him, and I'll treat him civil; and when you consider all he's done, that's quite a large-sized contract."

Miss Conroy became much interested in the ears of her horse.

"The only thing to decide is whether you like me enough. If you do, we'll sure be happy. Never mind Harry."

"You're very generous," she flared, "telling me to never mind Harry. And Harry's my own brother, and the only near relative I've got. I know he's--impulsive, and quick-tempered, perhaps. But he needs me all the more. Do you think I'll turn against him, even for you?"

That "even" may have been a slip, but it heartened Rowdy immensely. "I don't ask you to," he told her gently. "I only want you to not turn against me."

"I do wish you two would be sensible, and stop quarreling." She glanced at him briefly.

"I'm willing to cut it out--I told you that. I can't answer for him, though." Rowdy sighed, wishing Harry Conroy in Australia, or some place equally remote.

Miss Conroy suddenly resolved to be strictly just; and when a young woman sets about being deliberately just, the Lord pity him whom she judges!

"Before I answer you, I must know just what all this is about," she said firmly. "I want to hear both sides; I'm sure Harry wouldn't do anything mean. Do you think he would?"

Rowdy was dissentingly silent.

"Do you really, in your heart, believe that Harry would--knowingly--be guilty of anything mean?" Her eyes plainly told the answer she wanted to hear.

Rowdy looked into them, hesitated, and clung tenaciously to his convictions. "Yes, I do; and I know Harry pretty well, Jessie." His face showed how much he hated to say it.

"I'm afraid you are very prejudiced," she sighed. "But go on; tell me just what you have against Harry. I'm sure it can all be explained away, only I must hear what it is."

Rowdy regarded her, puzzled. How he was to comply he did not know. It would be simply brutal to tell her. He would feel like a hangman. And she believed so in Harry, she wouldn't listen; even if she did, he thought bitterly, she would hate him for destroying her faith. A woman's justice--ah, me!

"Don't you see you're putting me in a mighty hard position, girlie?" he protested. "You're a heap better off not to know. He's your brother. I wish you'd take my word that I'll drop the whole thing right where it is. Harry's had all the best of it, so far; let it stand that way."

Her eyes met his coldly. "Are you afraid to let me judge between you? What did he do? Daren't you tell?"

Rowdy's lids drooped ominously. "If you call that a dare," he said grimly, "I'll tell you, fast enough. I was a friend to him when he needed one mighty bad. I helped him when he was dead broke and out uh work. I kept him going all winter--and to show his gratitude, he gave me the doublecross, in more ways than one. I won't go into details." He decided that he simply could not tell her bluntly that Harry had worked off stolen horses on him, and worse.

"Oh--you won't go into details!" Scorn filled eyes and voice. "Are they so trivial, then? You tell me what you did for Harry--playing Good Samaritan. Harry, let me tell you, has property of his own; I can't see why he should ever be in need of charity. You're like all the rest; you hint things against him--but I believe it's just jealousy. You can't come out honestly and tell me a single instance where he has harmed you, or done anything worse than other high-spirited young men."

"It wouldn't do any good to tell you," he retorted. "You think he's just lacking wings to be an angel. I hope to God you'll always be able to think so! I'm sure I don't want to jar your faith."

"I must say your actions don't bear out your words. You've just been trying to turn me against him."

"I haven't. I've been trying to convince you that I want you, anyway, and Harry needn't come between us."

"In other words, you're willing to overlook my being Harry's sister. I appreciate your generosity, I'm sure." She did not look, however, as if she meant that.

"I didn't mean that."

"Then you won't overlook it? How very unfortunate! Because I can't help the relationship."

"Would you, if you could?" he asked rashly.

"Certainly not!"

"I'm afraid we're getting off the trail," he amended tactfully. "I asked you, a while back, if you'd marry me."

"And I said I must hear both sides of your trouble with Harry, before I could answer."

"What's the use? You'd take his part, anyway."

"Not if I found he was guilty of all you--insinuate. I should be perfectly just." She really believed that.

"Can't you tell me yes or no, anyway? Don't let him come between us."

"I can't help it. We'd never agree, or be happy. He'd keep on coming between us, whether we meant him to or not," she said dispiritedly.

"That's a cinch," Rowdy muttered, thinking of Harry's trouble-breeding talents.

"Then there's no more to be said. Until you and Harry settle your difficulties amicably, or I am convinced that he's in the wrong, we'll just be friends, Mr. Vaughan. Good afternoon." She rode into the Rodway yard, feeling very just and virtuous, no doubt. But she left Rowdy with some rather unpleasant thoughts, and with a sentiment toward her precious brother which was not far from manslaughter.